Octave HP700 Preamplifier – PREVIEW

Some of you might freak out that the HP700 features tone controls, but Octave has included those and more in their flagship HP700 Preamplifier.  Like their Phonomodule we reviewed a couple of years ago, the HP700 takes a modular approach, offering a wide variety of phono modules, RCA and XLR input modules and RCA or balanced XLR output modules, allowing you to customize it to your system.

Basically a vacuum tube design, the HP700 utilizes an enormous, external power supply, sophisticated voltage regulation and soft start circuits, with Octave claiming a 20 year life for the tubes. Electrical, mechanical and aesthetic design are beyond reproach, making the HP700 a true destination preamplifier.  A perfect companion for their sublime Jubilee monoblocks. Full review in process.

Octave HP700 Preamplifier



Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier

Though famous for his tube designs, Frank Van Alstine is no slouch with solid state either.  With passive EQ and no coupling capacitors, this American made phonostage offers no frills high performance.  And MC owners take note, AVA can customize the Vision to the loading requirements for your cartridge.  We are currently using this with the legendary Denon 103 and it offers mega performance.

-Jeff Dorgay

Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier



PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

PrimaLuna and I go way back; back before TONEAudio was even a twinkle in my eye back.  The first audio review I wrote for The Absolute Sound happened to be the original EL-34 based ProLogue 1, and was way more exciting than the boring NAD integrated amplifier that Robert Harley was going to have me cover for my first assignment.  I bought that review sample not only because it sounded great, but it was so much fun; reminding me of all the great EL-34 amps I’d owned over the years.  11 years later it’s still in my family, going strong, with merely one set of replacement tubes – a testament to PrimaLuna quality.

It’s been fun watching TONE and PrimaLuna grow over the years, diversifying our products, but keeping the same ethos of offering high performance at a reasonable price, never giving quality a back seat.  PrimaLuna now has a range of four vacuum tube preamplifiers; with the DiaLogue being the top of the range at $3,199.

Where a number of past PrimaLuna preamplifiers relied on the 12AX7 tube, the DiaLogue Premium takes advantage of the 12AU7, six of them – and this has two big benefits.  For those not familiar with the brand, PrimaLuna gear has always been super easy on tubes, so investing in a good set of premium NOS (New Old Stock) tubes has always been solid thinking.  Fortunately, where the best 12AX7s are now pushing $200 – $350 each, equally good 12AU7s will only set you back about $75 each.  And PrimaLuna’s US importer Kevin Deal can hook you up.

You don’t need to invest in NOS tubes if you don’t feel inclined.  The DiaLogue Premium sounds great out of the box.  Tube rolling is only for those who are part curious, part OCD, and can yield different results for those wanting to chase the rabbit.  Most of you will just unbox your DiaLogue Premium and enjoy.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

The biggest advantage of the 12AU7 though, is it’s lower gain.  With so many of todays sources having a four volt output, the 22 -28db of gain that most contemporary line stages provide is just not needed.  You end up with the volume control always being used in the 7:00 to 9:00 position and not only having precious little range of control, but noise can be an issue because the preamp is not running in it’s sweet (and lowest noise) spot.

Less gain, less pain

The DiaLogue Premium, having 10db of gain, gives you plenty of volume control range and is dead quiet throughout.  Using it with my Zu speakers (101db sensitivity) and a pair of 845 SET amplifiers, I had the silky smooth silent treatment, even with my ear right up against the ribbon tweeter.  When substituting the DiaLogue Premium, for the Nagra Jazz preamplifier in an all Nagra system, thanks to the low gain, the PrimaLuna was quieter than the mighty Nagra, costing three times more.

A dual mono design with five inputs and two variable outputs, the DiaLogue Premium should be able to handle anything you can throw at it, except balanced sources. (You can use an adapter if need be)  As a tape enthusiast, I really appreciated the additional, fixed level, buffered tape output to make mix tapes on my trusty Revox.  A home theater pass through is also incorporated, for those needing to make the DiaLogue part of a home theater system.

Running the DiaLogue Premium in our main reference system, displacing the $13,000 ARC REF 5SE preamplifier and the $32,000 Robert Koda K-10 was highly insightful.  While the big bucks preamplifiers revealed more music and more dynamic slam at the extremes, the mighty PrimaLuna was never embarrassed.  Kind of like comparing a Porsche Cayman S to a GT3.

Trying the DiaLogue Premium with about ten different power amplifiers from Simaudio to Burmester again underscored it’s versatility.  Only the Burmester 911 Mk. 3 really needed the volume control cranked all the way to get full output.  (no doubt because we were using balanced adaptors here, all of the other balanced power amplifiers tried had separate, single ended RCA inputs. That lower gain was a real blessing when using vintage power amplifiers like the Conrad Johnson MV-50, which only need about .6 volts to be driven to full output.  FYI, combining this preamplifier with my MV-50 that has had all of the caps upgraded to CJD Teflon was absolutely heavenly, mated with my Quad 57s.

I’ve always found PrimaLuna gear to be a wonderful combination of old and new school design and sonics, yet as you go up the line, the top components in the PrimaLuna line sound more like current vacuum tube electronics, i.e. more linear and neutral, where the entry level pieces sound slightly more vintage.  Much of this is due to the beefy power transformers used, combined with premium Takman resistors, SCR foil capacitors and Swiss sourced, silver plated oxygen free copper wiring throughout.

It’s also worth mentioning that the DiaLogue Premium has no problem driving long runs of interconnect cables.  Comparing the sound between a 20 foot run of AudioQuest (find cable here) and a one meter pair revealed no difference, and no rolling off of the high frequencies, so those that like having their power amplifier down on the floor close to the speakers, with the rest of their components further away on a rack will be pleased.  I had similar luck with cable from Cardas and ALO Audio.

Love that tube

Personally, there is always something special to me about the sound of a preamplifier built around the 12AX7 or 12AU7 tube, they just always seem to paint the sonic picture with a little bit more air and gradation than the 6DJ8/6922 designs do, and feature more sonic gradation between heavy and soft tones than a preamplifier utilitizing the 6H30 tube.  Neither is better or worse, just different.  A Lotus Elise gets around the curves with a little less effort than a Corvette or a Viper.

I noticed this the most when listening to acoustic music of any kind.  Spinning the XRCD of Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat, it was easy to discern the differences in rendition between my vintage ARC SP-11 (6922 design), current REF 5SE (6H30 design) and the Koda K-10. (best solid state I’ve ever encountered)  Morgan’s trumpet has more “blat” and slightly more contrast with the REF 5SE, but the cymbals are dreamier, more palpable, and smoother through the DiaLogue Premium.

Going back to some of George Winston’s solo piano records on the Windham Hill label, the pianos decay is equally enticing through the DiaLogue Premium.  This is a totally musical preamplifier, always getting out of the way of the presentation, so that you don’t focus on the gear.  Not all preamplifiers can do this regardless of price, so this is a home run for the PrimaLuna – and amazing for $3,199.

Each preamplifier brought its own palette to the reproduction, yet the DiaLogue offers an excellent balance, and cohesion to the musical presentation, almost like listening to a full range ESL, rather than a speaker made of woofer, tweeter and midrange.  The DiaLogue provides fatigue free listening at its finest, and made for many 12-hour listening sessions without wanting to ever turn the music down.

While the DiaLogue Premium turns in good performance at the frequency extremes, offering solid, defined and tuneful bass response, combined with extended highs that are never screechy, it’s this coherence and ability to nail instrumental tone and texture that makes it so compelling.

The DiaLogue Premium does what tubes do best, providing a dreamy, three dimensional sense of ambiance, giving the listener a healthy dose of “you are there” realism. Eschewing female vocals, I spent a lot of time listening to Johnny Cash, Elvis and Tom Waits through the DiaLogue Premium and I always came back impressed.  The soundstage painted is huge, in all three dimensions, making my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers disappear in the room, no small feat.

Rounding the bases

The DiaLogue Premium preamplifier offers incredible sound and value for $3,199. If I were building a system in the $20 – $50k range, I can’t imagine needing to spend more than this for a linestage, provided you didn’t absolutely have to have balanced outputs.  The ability to tube roll with ease and modest cost is another big bonus with this preamplifier, allowing the ability to either fine tune the sound, or just play with a different feel.

Best of all in over a decade now, PrimaLuna has not compromised a molecule on build quality.  They are still making gear that feels bank vault solid, encased in a dark blue, high gloss metallic finish that would do an Aston Martin proud. (and a set of cotton gloves to keep fingerprints off of said finish)  Even the shipping cartons are the best in the business, with three layers of heavy cardboard to make sure your purchase arrives without blemish.

Combining all of these small touches and world class sonics, makes for gear that owners don’t want to part with.  Perusing Audiogon or EBay rarely reveals used PrimaLuna gear, and when it does go for sale, it fetches top dollar.  Another home run from PrimaLuna!

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

MSRP:  $3,199




Digital Source dCS Vivaldi Stack
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/Lyra Atlas
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Power Amplifiers PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifiers    Burmester 911 mk. 3   Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Nagra 300B    Pass Xs300    Pass Aleph 5
Cable Cardas Clear
Speakers Dynaudio Eminence Platinum,    Acoustat 2+2, KEF Blade

Rogers PA-1A Phono Preamplifier

Last year, we had a ton of fun listening to the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 integrated amplifier, which combines high-tech design, tubey goodness, and old-school American build quality. And it comes at a price commensurate with its components and performance.

Roger Gibboni’s newest creation is a phonostage that takes his design ethos a step further. While it’s no small feat to produce a great amplifier, the minute signal that a phonostage has to work with is a challenge for any designer. And the Rogers PA-1A exceeds all of my expectations in terms of sound quality and the absence of noise.

Immediately Great

The PA-1A has me pinned to the listening chair from the first track of MoFi’s recent remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko. Insert your favorite adjective here, and maybe add very in front of it. In short, if you don’t need more than one MC phono input, your search ends here. It’s that good—and it’s only $7,400.

Having lived with the $65,000 Indigo Qualia and the $55,000 Vitus phonostages, I admit that you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much money to achieve analog nirvana.  We’ve been through a pile of excellent phonostages from Audio Research, Pass, Simaudio, Naim and Burmester, to name a few. As great as these all have been (and the Burmester, Pass and ARC all offer two inputs, a definite advantage for those with multiple tables or tonearms), the Rogers raises the game for what is possible without taking a second mortgage on your house.

To look at it another way, for the $60K that one of those top-of-the-mountain phonostages will set you back, you can pick your favorite $30K turntable/tonearm combination, a great $10K cartridge and the Rogers for $7,400.  That still leaves a lot of cash left over to add some great records to your collection.

Of course, $7,400 is not pocket change, but for someone taking a run at a state-of-the-art analog front end, this is incredibly reasonable. It’s like getting a tricked-out Porsche GT3 for the price of a Boxster. I knew I was in for something good when discussing the Rogers with Harry Weisfeld of VPI; we share a similar aural aesthetic and Harry knows great analog when he hears it. Plus, we both have a similar amount of respect for the Lyra Atlas cartridge, which we both use as a reference transducer. Bottom line, when Harry is excited about something, my ears perk up.

I was not disappointed in the least when firing up the PA-1A for the first time. The review sample had been burned in for a while at the factory, so I did not notice much of a change in its sonic character during the review period.

Wow, Wow and More Wow

What puts the PA-1A in the world-class neighborhood is the ease with which it paints the sonic landscape. Spinning the new MoFi 45 RPM two-record set of the self-titled Rickie Lee Jones album is spectacular. While a certain amount of kudos go to MoFi for producing the quintessential copy of this classic, playback comes alive through the Rogers and in the space between the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers—themselves masters of pinpoint-imaging performance. This is the quality I noticed most with the Vitus and Qualia stages: the way they allow the music to swell and diminish with such seamless tonal gradation, and the Rogers does the same. It’s analog at its finest.

Moving up tempo to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, I find the level of micro detail revealed to be amazing. The little percussion and synthesizer bits that are slightly obscured via my Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE now float around the speakers, whereas they all lined up on one flat plane before. Anderson’s voice has more body and her quirky vocal inflections are now more pronounced than before, while at the same time the main synthesizer line is firmly locked in place. Fans of pace, rhythm and timing will freak out at the massive picture painted.

Again, the word ease just keeps popping into my consciousness. If you’ve ever had the chance to drive the Z06 and standard versions of Chevrolet’s Corvette, you know what I’m talking about. Both cars effortlessly cruise along at 100 mph and lunge with nearly equal enthusiasm when you put the pedal down, but that extra horsepower offered by the Z06 makes the experience of speed surreal, where the standard car is still working a bit to go from 100 to 150 mph.

No matter how much great tribute bands try to cover Led Zeppelin, they just can’t recreate the nuance, sonic complexity, or the sheer texture with which Jimmy Page plays, even though the correct notes are often hit. This is the final piece of the analog puzzle that the Rogers unequivocally nails. The reverse tracks on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour are sublime, almost dilating in the way they separate from the rest of the mix. The bell in “Penny Lane” is not only correct in terms of timbre, but the width and height information is so stunningly reproduced that it feels like there’s an actual fire truck in the room ringing its bell.

Three Flavors

The PA-A1 uses three tubes per channel, a 6GH8, a 12AX7 and the final gain stage uses either a 12AX7 or 12AU7. Rogers supplies both so you can adjust the gain to your taste. With the 12AU7, the PA-A1 has 58 dB of gain, which will be more than enough for MC cartridges having an output of around 0.5 mV. The 12AX7 provides about 10 dB more gain, but it’s slightly noisier, so it is a tradeoff.

Don’t hang too much on the ultimate gain figures, though; take total system gain into consideration before dismissing 58 dB as “not enough gain.” When using the Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier and the ARC REF 5 SE—which both feature 6 dB gain via the single-ended inputs (the PA-1A is a single-ended design)—I find myself cranking the volume a bit higher than I would normally with the ARC REF Phono 2 SE, but both of these linestages have a very low noise floor. The Burmester and CJ linestages at my disposal have 18 and 21 dB of gain, respectively, so the PA-1A’s 58 dB is enough even with low-output MC cartridges.

However, there is a Goldilocks solution. That second tube can be substituted for the NOS 12AV7, which offers a bit more gain than the 12AU7 and a lower noise floor. “The 12AV7 is a great tube,” says Gibboni, “but I didn’t want to build a product around tubes that are not readily available. I can sell you a pair of 12AV7s for about $90 while my supply lasts.”

All three variations sound good, so those leaning more towards the OCD side of the fence will probably be driven to madness trying to decide on the ultimate choice for that third tube. The 12AU7 proves excellent as a daily driver, and the 12AV7 is very intriguing in my system, offering a touch more top-end extension. The Clearaudio Goldfinger is a perfect partner for the 12AV7, while I prefer the stock 12AU7 with the Lyra Atlas. The slightly forward Lyra Titan i pairs well with the 12AX7’s warmer sound, especially when swapped for a pair of NOS Telefunkens. Crazy good fun I say, but it is nice that analog aficionados can really fine-tune the sound exactly to their liking. Gibboni says you can probably expect that the tubes will last 5,000 to 10,000 hours with this phonostage, so try and settle on something you like, and buy a second set!

Good with MM too

While the PA-1A technically has one input, if you were using a second table with a moving-magnet cartridge, you could plug two tables into the PA-1A—which is exactly what I do. Going vintage with the Thorens TD-124 turntable, SME 3009 tonearm and Ortofon 2M Black provides an excellent alternative to my reference table.

Thanks to front-panel loading and capacitance adjustments, it’s a snap to dial your favorite MM cartridge to your liking. The heavier presentation of the vintage Thorens is a natural for the tubey goodness of the PA-1A. Tracking through a number of the current Blue Note remasters from Music Matters Jazz is wonderful.

Though the Atlas provides a clearer picture, the Thorens/Ortofon combination is warmer, with perhaps even a bit more jump on these jazz classics. Horns have a little more attack and cymbals linger a bit more and have more smokiness—not necessarily correct, but a ton of fun. It’s a great option to have, whether you decide to use that second table as a tone control, or just an option to save wear and tear on your megabucks cartridge.

Very Enthusiastically Suggested

We’re keeping the PA-1A here as a permanent reference component to run through its paces even further. We’ll report back in a year, with a long-term follow-up once we’ve had time to do a little more tube rolling and try some additional cartridges. It should be a great journey.

As high-end audio continues to get higher priced, it is refreshing to find a company that is offering world-class sonics and state-of-the-art build quality at a reasonable price. Every Rogers component is built by hand, lovingly packaged, and even includes a nice card from the person who built it. The Rogers PA-1A is a great reminder that quality manufacturing is not dead in America.  –Jeff Dorgay

Rogers PA-1A Phonostage

MSRP: $7,400



Turntables AVID Acutus REF SP    TriPlanar arm    Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 arm   SME 10   SME V arm
Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger    Lyra Atlas    Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon SPU   Ortofon 2M Black    Dynavector 17D3    Grado Statement 1
Preamplifiers Burmester 011    ARC REF 5 SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

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

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

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


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

Straightforward Setup

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

MSRP: Starting at $1,899


All that Jazz

Nagra tends to make revisions to their product mix slowly, yet when they do it’s usually pretty major.  Their new Jazz preamplifier is the perfect example.

Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier

Some audio components aspire to wow you right out of the box.  They deliver thumping bass with frightening ease and highs so crystalline you wonder what details your previous piece of equipment masked.  Initially, this effect can seem transcendent.  But sometimes it inspires a nagging doubt about whether the gear truly offers the goods or if it has merely duped you with overemphasized frequency responses or other anomalies that have mysteriously captured your attention, only to become distracting or overbearing in the long run.

Other components impress in a different, subtler way—with a certain quiet authority that doesn’t attempt to raise its voice or shout and rant.  Such performance is implicit and doesn’t require the boisterous pomp and circumstance of equipment that has to slap you in the face in order to get your attention.

The Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier falls into the latter camp.  It’s not just quiet; it’s dead silent, even tomb-like.  It’s also amazingly simple to operate.  Just plug in the power cord, push the lone button on the faceplate, adjust a few loading features and you’re ready to go in less than five minutes.  But that’s not the whole story.  After all, hi-fi isn’t about convenience.

Still, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I received the unit.  What would distinguish the MOON 810LP, I wondered?  A number of nifty phonostages have passed through my system over the past year, including the Pass Labs XP-25, and each has had its own set of virtues.  But, of the solid-state units I’ve reviewed, the MOON 810LP possesses an absence of noise that is most enticing.

Entering the Silent Void

The technical prowess exhibited by Sim with this preamp did not surprise me:  The company is on a roll, having produced a series of new products that offer exceptional performance at reasonable prices.  Sure, anyone can achieve superior performance by pumping endless R&D dollars and cost-is-no-object componentry into a piece of equipment.  But is it really worth it?  In the case of the MOON 810LP, Sim has gone to great lengths to create a product that can go head-to-head with those from the likes of Boulder and other manufacturers producing stratospherically priced solid-state units.

Part of the MOON Evolution series, the 810LP boasts switchable capacitance and impedance load settings, which makes fine-tuning the MM or MC cartridge paired with the unit a bit easier.  This preamp also allows users to set the load level at any of 16 steps, from 40 dB up to a whopping 70 dB.  Users mandate these settings by flicking the various small switches located underneath the unit.  For this review, I used the Lyra Atlas cartridge, so I ended up setting the 810LP’s gain at 66 dB, a healthy level by any measure.

The adjustability of these settings, however, is not what accounts for the low noise of the unit, which measures -150 dB at 1 volt of input power, according to Sim.  A portion of the 810LP’s quiet operation can be attributed to its formidable power supply, which offers some 40,000 uF of capacitance and is located within the main chassis but housed in an isolated enclosure made out of satin-coated 14-gauge steel.  Sim mounts the audio circuit board on a five-point gel-based floating suspension.  While the phonostage has balanced circuitry, it can also be run single-ended.  By and large, balanced operation will run quieter than single-ended, but single-ended sometimes can be perceived as possessing a little more punch.

With some preamps, it takes a little time to figure out their sonic trademarks.  There was no such problem with the Sim, once powered up for 24 hours.  As soon as the needle is dropped, it becomes quite apparent that the Sim likes to boogie.  For example, on the recently issued Acoustic Sounds LP of Shelby Lynne’s album Just A Little Lovin’, the dynamism and jet-black backgrounds prove overwhelming.  Was I stacking the deck a little by choosing this album?  Sure.  The production values are awesome—a tribute to Chad Kassem’s indefatigable zeal to produce the best when it comes to LPs.  But the Sim brings a sense of placidity to the table, an unruffled evenness, with each note unhurried, as Lynne’s voice trails off into the ether—and the decays seem to reverberate almost endlessly.  The brush and cymbal work, too, were pellucid. And I, as a result, was transfixed.

Lest TONEAudio readers think I only spun fancy new pressings for this review, please rest assured that I also listened to an old warhorse: Debussy’s “Iberia” captured on a Living Stereo pressing with legendary conductor Fritz Reiner, whose fanatic precision and attention to detail come across beautifully on the LP.  Once again, the MOON 810LP stands out.  This time I was most impressed with the way the low noise floor exposed the inner detail of the orchestra, which would have been submerged when played through a lesser phonostage.

It was as though the aperture of a camera had been adjusted—suddenly there was new clarity.  In a sense, it became easier to listen to the music. The listener needn’t exert such effort, as the music was simply present, without struggling to emerge through a faint haze.  The fog had lifted, as a dealer put it to me years ago when I was listening to an upgraded Linn LP-12 versus an older version.  With the MOON 810LP, there is a lot of fog lifting.

Similarly, on a superb recording of Stephane Grappelli and Barney Kessel from Black Lion Records, the interplay between the violin and guitar is as vivid as I’ve heard it.  The absence of noise helps close the noise-floor gap between CDs and LPs.  Say what you want about digital sound—and I think it’s nuts to dismiss it—one of its strengths is that there is, essentially, no audible noise during playback, which helps endow the musical reproduction with a true sense of realism.  Sure, when you attend a live classical concert, you hear the screeching of chairs, the neighbor next to you reaching for a lozenge, or the snoring of a bored patron—or, at a rock concert, a shouting crowd.  But the one thing you don’t hear is distortion.  When listening to live music, there’s no barrier between you and the sound being produced, just air vibrations traveling toward your ear canal.  Now that ain’t happening in your listening room, no matter how festooned with dampening foam it might be.  The whole shebang—power chords, amplifiers and preamplifiers, cables, loudspeakers—amounts to a barrier between you and the real thing.  But one of the goals of audio reproduction is to move one step further toward the real thing—to reproduce it, if you will—which is what the MOON 810LP does with the utmost simplicity and clarity.

The Benefits of Being a Little Too Quiet

Now, you may ask, what doesn’t the MOON 810LP do?  A comparison with the Ypsilon VPS 100, a transformer-coupled tube-driven phonostage hailing from Greece, proved instructive.  After listening to André Previn’s incredibly pristine 1974 recording of Lieutenant Kijé on an EMI pressing, I switched the input on my Ypsilon preamplifier to the Sim, which revealed a completely different world.  The MOON 810LP acquits itself so admirably that its great strengths are immediately apparent: low noise and a matter-of-fact sense of control.  It has a certain clarity that is difficult to surpass.  On the other hand, it does not offer as much detail, dynamics or ambience as the much pricier Ypsilon.  With the Sim, there simply was not as much air around the instruments, such that the size of the hall in which the recording was taken seemed to shrink.  But the comparison is not really a fair one.  With its separate step-up transformer, the Ypsilon clocks in at around $32,000.  And a solid-state preamplifier, almost by definition, is going to have different sonic traits than one filled with vacuum tubes.

Regardless, at its price of $12,000—which is not inconsiderable, but not at the nosebleed level, either—the Sim offers sensational performance, which proves that that true fidelity can be enjoyed at prices that are steep but not prohibitive.  Already, even before packing it up, I’m feeling a little wistful at the very the thought of parting with the Sim. And, unfortunately, I can’t really justify purchasing another phonostage.  When it’s gone I’ll undoubtedly long for the Sim’s fundamental ability to efface noise, rendering the music in real-time and thus coming closer to the sound of a master tape.

This phonostage will not allow you to take a walk on the wild side. Its mantra is control. It never loses its composure, never becomes shrill, never allows a hint of noise to emerge. It subordinates everything to fidelity to the LP.  My guess is that it measures ruler flat.  I also suspect that, given the care that went into manufacturing the 810LP, it will prove very reliable, which is no small matter.  If you’re looking for a preamp that will impart the music with that eerily magical glow or bump up the mid-bass response, then search elsewhere.  But if you’re searching for a top-notch solid-state unit that is true to the music, then auditioning the Sim is a must.

Additional listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having put the MOON 810LP through its paces before sending it to Jacob, I was highly impressed with this purist design.  Being a car guy, it reminded me of the original Lotus Elise Type 25 Special Editions that were sent to the US intended for club-racing purposes only and that were 500 pounds lighter than the current Elise. In essence, the Type 25 SE eliminated everything that took away from the car’s performance.  The MOON 810LP takes a similar approach to audio reproduction:  It offers only one input, minimal switching (all out of the circuit path) and no remote or fluorescent display to introduce noise or distortion.  While I must admit to enjoying the performance of my ARC REF Phono 2, which also has these features—and found that having to jostle the Sim around to change gain and loading slightly inconvenient—most people aren’t swapping cartridges as often as I do.  Audiophiles that zero in on a single cartridge and table combination will only have to do this on rare occasion when using the Sim.

Many have asked me to make the obvious yet unfair comparison between the $12,000 MOON 810LP and the $60,000 Vitus MPP-201, the latter of which has been one of my reference components for the better part of the year.  Much like Jacob’s experience with the Ypsilon, the Vitus offers extreme levels of performance, with slightly more dynamic slam and even further insight into a recording than the MOON 810LP.

However, the line of diminishing returns is definitely crossed here.  The MOON 810LP got me so close to the MPP with enough money left over to buy a nice pre-owned Lotus Elise that I can’t see why anyone not possessing unlimited funds would go the extra mile for the Vitus.  (It should be noted that I don’t possess unlimited funds; I’m just a little nuts, which helps explains why I drive a Fiat instead of a Lotus.)  Comparing the MOON 810LP with similarly priced phonostages is more realistic and more revealing.  Comparing 24 bit/192khz samples of tracks captured from the Boulder 1008 or the ASR Basis (both roughly $12,000) to those captured from ARC’s REF Phono 2 and Phono 2SE proves that the folks at Simaudio in Montreal have indeed done their homework.

Winning the Quiet Game

There is no clear cut “winner,” if you will, because each of the aforementioned units offers excellent performance and each caters to a different user.  The ARC offers a bit more reach-out-and-touch-it midrange, as you might expect from tubes.  And its two inputs (each user-assignable via remote) lend themselves more to the vinyl enthusiast with more than one turntable and cartridge at his or her disposal.  The Boulder also has two inputs, but it is the least easily adjustable of the group, requiring users to dig out the soldering iron to make changes.  But the Boulder has perhaps the most bass slam of the group, though it is a bit drier through the mid-band than the others.  Keep in mind that much of this can be minimized by choice of cartridge, phono cable and overall system balance.

The MOON 810LP, being the most neutral, will fit in the widest range of systems.  And, as much as I love vacuum tubes, I hate replacing them, especially when this can often bring unexpected results.  The MOON 810LP will sit quietly on your equipment rack and offer analog enjoyment for decades.

It also delivers tonal accuracy as well as tonal contrast, no doubt a result of its nonexistent noise floor.  While we don’t perform measurements here, when comparing the MOON 810LP to the MPP with identical turntable/arm/cartridge setups, our listening panel felt the MOON 810LP was the equal of the Vitus, if not a bit quieter.  There’s an additional socket on the rear panel of the Sim marked “DC Power,” which suggests that Simaudio may have an external power supply in the works.  I can only imagine the jump in performance that would give this preamp.

And, if you are a music lover that does not suffer the need for constant change and is loyal to a single cartridge, the MOON 810LP should be at the top of your list.  It offers class-leading performance and solid build quality.

Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $12,000


Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamplifier

My favorite way to initially experience any audio component is to listen to a record I’ve heard hundreds of times, regardless of fidelity. A recording you intimately know serves you well when trying to get a read on the sound of something new.

Until the K-10 arrived, my system hadn’t undergone any changes for nearly a year. When my chosen LP, an early mono copy of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, hit the turntable, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of sensory input delivered to the auditory part of my brain. It’s similar to going from excellent digital to the most sublime analog experience. Or perhaps, moving from a standard violin to a Stradivarius.

In Japanese, the word “takumi” has a few translations. The one corresponding to the Kanji character imprinted on the preamp’s front panel means “artisan.” I can’t think of a component I’ve reviewed more worthy of the title. More than just richness, or an increase in tonal saturation, the K-10 provides an almost infinite upsurge in resolution. Think of it as such: When increasing the magnification of a photographic image on your computer screen, a point is reached wherein everything is reduced to pixels and falls apart because of the maximum capacity of the screen’s resolution. However, with the K-10, even after months of critical listening, there seems to be no limit as to how far you can peek into a recording.

Similar effects occur with a Japanese pressing of Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle. The horns and vocals breathe with life, with new surprises everywhere on a record to which I’ve been listening for nearly 40 years. Much like the Sonus faber Aidas reviewed this issue, the K-10 takes you somewhere you’ve never been—and that’s exciting.

Simple, Yet Simply Amazing

The cost of this experience? $31,000. Plus the price of a remote. The K-10 does not include one. A purist design, this solid-state preamplifier achieves greatness via extreme refinement, not so-called proprietary this or that. No part of the K-10 receives less than punctilious attention to detail. And although it’s solid-state, nearly everything is wired point to point, with only two tiny internal PCBs. Koda says the latter feature gold placed over thick copper tracks, and one enjoys point-to-point silver wiring.

The audio circuit and power supply are not only separated from each other, they are each built into their own sub-enclosures inside the chassis. The choke power supply is encased in a magnetic vault comprised of 2mm-thick soft iron; the preamplifier circuit is inside a mu-metal case, within a copper compartment and again the whole preamplifier is again encased in a copper chassis. To minimize switching noise, the model only uses two diodes and a zero-feedback discreet voltage regulator.

The attenuator uses exotic, precision carbon composition resistors specifically designed for audio use (Koda stresses that these parts are only used in audio applications). An L-Pad design means there are never more than two resistors in the circuit at any given time. This, compared to that of a ladder design with multiple resistors and solder joints.

Interestingly, the K-10 doesn’t respond to additional tweaks or attempts to further control vibration. It is built like a bank vault. Its robust power supply makes it one of the only components we’ve reviewed that does not really react to upgrades in the power path. (The other is the Naim CD-555.) Swapping power cords proves fruitless, and the K-10 doesn’t sound much different when plugged directly into the wall or a variety of expensive power line conditioners.

Such perfection is not easy to achieve. Every aspect of the K-10 is hand-assembled. Each unit takes about a week to assemble. At almost 60 pounds, it weighs as much as many of the power amplifiers we’ve reviewed. My ARC REF 5SE and Burmester 011 feel lightweight in comparison!

Relax and Listen

Going without a remote control forces you to sit and listen, and realize the benefits of your favorite music. The K-10’s Zen-like tranquility sneaks up slowly, and after becoming fully acclimated to its presentation, I find myself programming sessions by album sides and whole albums—how I used to listen before becoming spoiled with remotes. I love it.

Initial listening—described at the beginning of this review—was conducted via my Linn LP-12 and a Shure V15vmxr. Yeah, the experience was that compelling. I wasn’t ready for how much more information the AVID Acutus Reference/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia brought to the system. It’s like driving a high-powered 12-cylinder car for the first time. The staggering resolution is initially intoxicating and over-stimulating. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo put it best in the inner sleeve of Duty Now For The Future: “Add a third dimension to your 2D world.”

Yet it’s even more.  Everything played through the K-10 possesses extra dimension and resolution; it’s as if music now possesses a fourth dimension. Much as I love great digital reproduction, the K-10 reproduces things in a continuous tone manner, like rotogravure printing or high-speed open-reel tape. The flow of musical notes and space between them bring you even closer to the illusion of feeling you’ve brought performers into your listening room.

Aimee Mann’s voice gently floats between my speakers when listening to “Invisible Ink.” Major space between her vocal pauses and guitar accompany bass that rises up from the floor, folding into the mix. Miniscule environmental sounds on the title track to Lost In Space float like fireflies, buzzing past your head.

If You Need to Rock

Make no mistake, the K-10 has a rock-solid foundation and plays highly dynamic selections with equal ease. Jimi Hendrix’s classic Are You Experienced? comes through in a thunderous manner, his groundbreaking distortion effects more exciting because of the additional resolution. And Van Halen II never sounded better. Yes, distorted rock recordings can even achieve exalted status on a high-performance system.

The ultra-low noise floor always feels like it plays a few db louder, another bonus when playing acoustic music. Guitars, drums, and percussion explode in a way that hasn’t happened before in my system, regardless of amplifier model or type employed. Leading and trailing transients occur with immediacy, possessing no overhang on either end, and abolishing listener fatigue in the process. Music lovers that appreciate string quartets and small-ensemble music will be shocked by the realism.

Really? No Tubes?

Out of respect to Mr. Koda, I did not pop the inner covers to photograph the K-10’s insides. While a few audio buddies insist it’s a vacuum tube preamplifier, this component is in a category by itself. The combination of the K-10 and Burmester 911 mk. 3 or Pass XA200.5 monoblocks is eerily quiet. With the volume control up to the fullest degree, nothing emanates from the speakers, even with my ear solidly against the tweeter.

All this translates into an anchor that extracts the maximum amount of music from your sources and does so inclusively. The K-10 underscores the ideal that a truly fantastic music system sounds wonderful, regardless of the music in your collection. Granted, the most pristine pressings have offer more, but even the most mediocre records on my shelves sound enticing played through a system based around the K-10. There is so much information to discover, you will want to listen to all of your music again.

I have one complaint: a wish for finer gradation in the steps of the attenuator. Every amplifier I tried had a point at the upper range of the control that always felt as if it could use an intermediate step between settings. However, as I adjusted to not having a remote control, I quickly adopted to any gradation shortcomings, which were much easier to deal with on the digital side since the dCS Paganini allowed fine-tuning via its excellent digital volume control.

Ins and Outs

Thanks to more than 10v of maximum output and an extremely low output impedance, (75 ohm balanced, 37 ohm x 2 single-ended RCA), the K-10 works well with every power amplifier at my disposal and has no trouble driving 20-foot interconnects via single-ended or balanced outputs.

Three RCA inputs, and one XLR input are neatly arranged on the rear panel. Two sets of RCA and a true balanced XLR output is also available. I noticed no difference in sound quality between inputs or outputs. Mr. Koda notes that in order for the XLR output to be a true balanced output, this option must be selected with the rear panel switch.

A circuit breaker-protected power switch also resides on the back, and is not lit, again emphasizing the design’s utter simplicity. The owner’s manual suggests the preamplifier not be powered on for extended periods of time. Unlike many other solid-state preamplifiers I have used, it stabilizes from being cold in virtually no time.

What an Experience

The individual parts, the resistors, capacitors, and switches comprising an amplifier, preamplifier, or other component all affect the final sound. And often, active components—primarily solid-state or vacuum tubes—feature a characteristic sound. Reviewers and consumers usually refer to transistors as having a more analytical sound, while tubes are generally characterized as having a warmer, more organic sound.

Rare, however, are components that have so little coloration and lack of a “sound.”  The Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier is the finest example of this trait I’ve experienced. If you can’t bear to live without a remote control, the K-10 is not the best choice for you. If you are prepared to let go of convention and immerse yourself in pure sound, I suspect you will love the K-10 as much as I do.

To be sure I’m not dreaming, Mr. Koda has agreed to grant me a long-term loan on the K-10. I will produce a follow-up review at end of 2013, after the preamp has been used as a reference component with a wider variety of power amplifier and source combinations.

Robert Koda Takumi K-10

MSRP: $31,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas Cartridge   AMG V12    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE    Pass XP-25    Indigo Qualia
Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk.3    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida

Simaudio MOON 850P Evolution Preamplifier

The Simaudio MOON Evolution series 850P has a number of interesting technical elements that make it an amazing preamplifier.  If you happen to be the type of audiophile who is swayed solely by technical expertise and specs, you should mosey down to your MOON dealer to buy an 850P right now.  If you’re the type of audiophile who craves a component that is both completely musical and free from coloration and grain, you should also head down to your dealer, if only to demo the 850P, which I think you will find more than worthy of your equipment rack.  In Brief: the 850P is wondrous.

The argument continues as to whether or not vacuum tubes exceed the performance of transistors in terms of retrieving more information from the source and why.  As the boundaries are pushed on both fronts, the results are equally excellent.  I’ve always liked the wonderful midrange and airiness of vacuum tube preamplifiers—that holographic image they are known to provide.  Many call this a sort of euphonic coloration, and for whatever reason, I enjoy it.  Especially with digital sources, a bit of that tube magic always seems to go a long way.

Lately, at the extreme high end of the price spectrum, I have found that a handful of solid-state preamplifiers provide a magic that I’ve never heard from tubes.  I’ve recently had the good fortune of listening to some excellent (and high-priced) examples from Indigo/Qualia, Burmester and Robert Koda, all of which deliver top-quality sound from a solid-state design.  You can add the Simaudio MOON 850P to that short list of preamps that offer a combination of cleanliness, dynamics, resolution and quietness unsurpassed by their vacuum-tube brethren.

Considering that a fully matched and optimized set of NOS tubes for one of my favorite tube preamplifiers commands about $2,000 these days (with no guarantee on the tubes), I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the 850P will work effortlessly for decades, always plugged into the wall and always ready to go.  And the 850P only draws 27 watts from the line in the process, so there is no eco-guilt associated with leaving it on continuously.

I’m still not ready to abandon the glowing bottle entirely, if for no other reason than the fact that sometimes different is good, if not downright enjoyable.  But for those becoming tired of chasing down NOS vacuum tubes (and I for one am tired of vacuum tubes that now cost more than my first car), the 850P is liberating.  Yet, after a few months with the 850P and the companion 880M power amplifiers that we reviewed recently, I’m convinced that these new MOON pieces belong to an elite group of components that offer their owners a no-holds-barred level of performance.

The two-box, 72-pound 850P is priced at $28,000.  One of the boxes is for the power supply and the other is for the gain, control and switching circuitry.  The two chassis’ are tethered together by three umbilical cords; two 4-pin XLR  cables (for left and right channel DC power) and an 8-pin RJ45 etherCON cable (for data communications). The cost of this level of high performance is concurrent with the price tag; if anything, compared to other units I’ve auditioned costing consistently more, it’s really quite the bargain.  Should you desire blue LEDs on the front panel, rather than the standard red, it can be done for an additional $625.  When we visited the factory, they explained that the blue LED’s are quite a bit more costly than the red ones.

Truth in the Listening

Like every other Simaudio product we’ve auditioned, the 850P needs about four or five days of being continuously powered up before it blooms into its final sound.  With no capacitors in the signal path, it will not require hundreds of hours of break-in time, so you can get down to business straight away.

Serious listening begins with the Rolling Stones live album Brussels Affair (Live 1973), with the classic track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which seems a bit ironic, as the 850P really does offer it all.  Feeling the band spread out on stage in front of me—through the $120k-per-pair Sonus faber Aida speakers, with a pair of 880M monoblocks—I’m instantly immersed in the performance.  With the 850P, I get what I want and what I need: a highly resolving musical performance with an absence of noise and grain.

It goes without saying that the 880Ms are a perfect match for the 850P, and in the context of a mostly MOON system (I use the 810LP phonostage for analog source material and the dCS Vivaldi for digital duties), you’ll forget that you’re listening to a stack of solid-state gear.  As I hinted at in the beginning of this review, the 850P is truly without a sound of its own, and when mated to the other MOON components, it’s dead quiet.  Even when putting my ears directly up to the Aida tweeters, there is no background noise coming through.

Digging Deep

Even an average recording, like Run-DMC’s King of Rock, comes alive through the 850P.  This linestage offers up layer upon layer of texture, with atomic clock-like pace.  The slightly wavering analog synthesizer in “Can You Rock It Like This?” is firmly anchored, while the other keyboard floats in and out of the mix, as Run and DMC assault the soundstage.  Their shouts from the left and right channels echo well into the background.  All of this remains on top of some massive bass beats that go deeper than I’ve experienced before.

On a quest for even more bass, I turn to SBTRKT’s self-titled album, which underlines the sheer drive and control that the 850P can deliver.  When pushed to near-live sound pressure levels, the Aidas feel as if we’ve added a pair of subwoofers to the system, shaking everything in my listening room that isn’t nailed down.  The soundfield now extends well past the speakers, almost seeming to extend past the walls themselves.  A quick dose of heavy rock, care of the Scorpions smash album Love at First Sting, reveals more treasure.  This early digital recording, which is somewhat densely packed, still has it’s digital edge, but is much more open, with depth in all three dimensions.  The two lead guitarists now have plenty of space between them, where on a lesser system they just feel like the same guitar overdubbed.  This is a subtle enhancement, but an exciting one.

It’s these small details, from records that you’ve listened to hundreds of times, that makes the 850P amazing and worth the scratch—if you’ve got the space on your Visa card.  The way the pedal steel gently enters the mix at the beginning of Matthew Sweet’s “You Don’t Love Me” feels like a Navy SEAL rising up out of the water slowly, never drawing attention to himself.  Whether it’s the gentle swish of a brush on a cymbal, the plucking of a violin string or the sound of fingers sliding up the neck of an acoustic guitar, the clarity of the 850P provides subtle insight into any musical performance, going the extra step towards creating the illusion of real music in your listening room.

Revisiting Herb Alpert’s disco classic “Rise,” from the album of the same title, is simply a blast.  Even though the MoFi LP has somewhat of a “smiley faced” EQ curve, the bongos at the beginning of the track explode out of the speakers with tremendous texture, again bringing something new to the sonic picture.

Considering how much more music the 850P illuminates from tracks with average production values, the really great recordings in my collection come alive in a big way.  Solo vocals prove irresistibly silky.  Tone and timbral accuracy are also perfect.  Aficionados of classical and jazz will be floored at the additional amount of information now available.  While this preamplifier does not embellish, fatten or sweeten the sound at all, it maintains tonal richness, with lifelike renderings of acoustic instruments.

If the rest of your system is of equal capability, the MOON 850P will take you to an even higher level.  In addition to Simaudio’s own 880M amplifiers, I pair the 850P with a few other fantastic amplifiers and achieve equally satisfying results: the vacuum-tube-powered Octave Jubilee monoblocks, the solid-state Burmester 911 MK3, the Xs 300 monoblocks from Pass Labs and the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier—all of which prove an equally capable match for this stellar linestage.  If your system isn’t in the stratosphere yet, the 850P is the perfect building block to start down that path.

Under the Bonnet

Those with multiple program sources will love the 850P.  With four single-ended RCA inputs, three fully balanced XLR inputs and a monitor loop (RCA inputs), control flexibility is the name of the game.  But it doesn’t stop there.  With a pair of balanced XLR outputs and another pair of RCA outputs (one fixed and one variable), the 850P can accommodate any combination of multiple power amplifiers, crossovers or powered subwoofers.   Like every MOON product, the foundation of the 850P begins with the power supply.  In this case, its massive, dual mono supply is in a separate box with transformers custom built for this application only, rather than relying on off-the-shelf parts.

In addition to the overbuilt power supply, the 850P also utilizes Simaudio’s M-Octave damping system, which suspends the circuit boards via an eight-point suspension to minimize the amount of internal mechanical vibration and external environmental vibration—and the system works well.  Placing the 850P on an HRS platform proved pointless; there was no change in sonic character.

We rarely use the “B word” here at TONEAudio, but the volume control on the 850P is the best one we’ve encountered from a mechanical and electrical standpoint.  Using the control manually reveals a highly damped feel, and the precision attenuators are so tightly matched that the level increases in .1-dB increments.  Twisting the volume control a bit more vigorously then allows 1-dB changes.  Nice!

Thanks to careful, high-quality component choices, the 850P should provide years if not decades of trouble-free service.  And don’t forget Simaudio’s 10-year warranty.  With so many garage builders, whose total yearly output rarely reaches double digits, it’s nice to know this is a company with years of history to support a product of this caliber.  You can revisit our Simaudio factory tour here, to get a glimpse of what goes into making the MOON components.

Indeed Special

The 850P is a rare product, in the sense that the typical audiophile adjectives don’t really apply.  It doesn’t destroy or annihilate, it just gets out of the way.  And while that may sound simplistic and devoid of fanfare, if you’ve been on a quest for an ultimate preamplifier, you know how tough this is to achieve.  This is a rare component in the way it disappears, revealing nothing but the music carried through it.  Those still wanting the tube sound might not be convinced, but regardless of what your built-in prejudices are, anyone in the market for a destination preamplifier should audition the 850P.  I’ve yet to hear one that reveals more music.

Simaudio MOON Evolution 850P Preamplifier

MSRP: $28,000



Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge    SME V tonearm    Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge
Digital source dCS Vivaldi digital playback system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10 server
Power amplifiers Simaudio MOON 880M monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks    Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks    D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier    Burmester 911 MK3 stereo amplifier
Speakers GamuT S9, Sonus faber Aida    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution   Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories GIK room treatment    Furutech DeStat and DeMag    Audio Desk Systeme RCM

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

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

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

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

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

Direct to the Source

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

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

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

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

Further Listening

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

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

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

The Fine Points

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

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

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

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

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

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

MSRP: Approx. $4,000 (£2,200)



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

Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier

Even the most dedicated analog enthusiast might want a digital option now and then, if for no other reason but convenience.  Should you be a minimalist analogophile craving a line-level input, the Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier will be your dream come true.  While many of the audio world’s famous preamplifiers include a high-performance onboard phonostage, the Statement takes it a step further by including a line-level input along with a world-class phono and linestage.

The Coincident offers a perfect balance of performance, elegance and simplicity that, for $5,999, won’t break the bank.  That would be a great deal for a linestage or phono preamplifier alone, but getting them both on one chassis for this price has to be one of the best audio bargains going.  And those chassis are highly polished stainless, so they will never tarnish or pit, staying beautiful forever. Don’t forget that combining both functions on one chassis eliminates the need for another expensive interconnect and power cord, sweetening the deal even further.

Mega Quality

Every aspect of this preamplifier exudes quality, but it also takes an old-school approach that suggests the people at Coincident truly savor music.  Absent is a microprocessor display or remote control, and you must adjust the volume for each channel individually, because vacuum tubes, by design, require taking things at a bit slower pace—but this is a good thing.

You’ll probably want to get this chrome-plated beauty rocking right away, but should you have the patience, remove the bottom panels from each of the two chassis for the power supply and preamplifier.  The power supply alone weighs 41 pounds, which is more than a lot of power amplifiers we’ve reviewed!  The preamplifier chassis reveals an equally enticing attention to detail, with precision attenuators, Teflon coupling caps, Teflon tube sockets and meticulous point-to-point wiring throughout.  A supplied umbilical cord that is easy to connect couples the two chassis together.

While there is only one line-level input, there are two line-level outputs, so the Statement can be integrated into a system with more than one power amplifier.  Whether your system is multi-amped or utilizes a powered subwoofer, you’ll find this to be a nice touch.

Thanks to its use of four 12AX7 tubes, the Statement should play music until the Earth cools, unlike a few other vacuum-tube designs that rely on exotic NOS tubes.  The new factory-supplied Mullard tubes work incredibly well and for all but the most fanatic tube roller these will be the only tubes you’ll ever need—much like with the current Nagra preamplifiers.  However, should you really have the itch, a set of EAT tubes or custom-matched Telefunkens will extract a few more molecules of music from this high-quality preamplifier—or it may just sound different to you.  I suggest sticking with the factory tubes and calling it a day.  I never find myself wanting to swap tubes other than for mere investigative purposes, but I’m a lazy tube roller, even on a good day

But I did use a wide range of phono cartridges to investigate compatibility with the Statement.  When utilizing a precision-wound transformer that has four loading ranges (available separately for $2,499, for those of you requiring an MC step-up)—with impedance loads of 3 to 10, 11 to 30, 31 to 100 and 101 to 300 ohms—the only high-performance cartridge the Statement was not compatible with was my Grado Statement 1 moving-iron cartridge, which possesses a 0.5 mV output, but still needs to be loaded at 47k ohms.

The sound of the Coincident Statement is unmistakably vacuum tube with step-up transformer: delicate and resolving yet ever so slightly softer in comparison to the best solid-state and hybrid designs.  And it’s worth mentioning that my solid-state reference happens to be the 65-thousand-dollar Indigo Qualia, so the Statement is in damn good company.

Neither is wrong, any more than preferring a Ferrari over an Aston Martin or vice versa, and the sound of your overall system will determine if this is a perfect match for you.  Having listened to countless Coincident demos, it’s more than safe to say that in the context of an all-Coincident system, with the company’s speakers (which are highly resolving, lightening fast and extended), the match is heavenly.  Coincident consistently presents some of the most musically revealing sound out on the show circuit.  Its gear always proves musical, dynamic and highly engaging.

Getting Down to Business

I begin listening with an old classic, Tommy Bolin’s Private Eyes, and the Statement instantly reveals the nuances lurking in the grooves of this average recording.  Even though the drums are highly processed, they have more weight and particularly more decay than I’m used to on this record.  If I had to sum up the Statement in only one word (though I have plenty of other kind words for the Statement), that word would be decay.   This preamplifier does a phenomenal job at reproducing the subtle decay present in analog recordings—much like that feeling you get when playing back a great analog tape.

Examining a Japanese pressing of Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle proves immersive.  Listening to “The 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” through the Statement puts a new perspective on this classic.  Not only does the bass line of this tune emerge from the mix, but the accordion also now permeates the track with it’s own voice and Clarence Clemmons’ signature sax floats in the space between the speakers, where it often loses its pace.  And, of course, there is more rawness and more immediacy to young Springsteen’s voice, along with a few more layers of background vocals that I swore were not there before.

I then switch program material to a more recent vintage, Low’s latest album, The Invisible Way, which the Statement renders forcefully, capturing the dynamics of drummer Mimi Parker’s big kettle drum on “Waiting” in a manner close to that of experiencing the band live.  Iggy Pop’s latest record still sounds dreadful, so the Statement will not create magic where there is none—this isn’t a vintage Mac or Marantz tube preamplifier.

What it does do highly successfully is achieve a near-perfect balance of musical resolution, without being harsh, and tonal contrast that is slightly on the warm side of neutral, yet it is never slow, rolled off or plodding.  This is a pretty tough thing to achieve, even for a five-figure preamplifier, and impossible for a $5,995 unit—until now.

The recent ORG pressing of Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather clearly illustrates the finesse with which the Statement handles the female voice.  Faithfull’s voice, now seasoned by years of abuse, comes alive through the Statement, this time through the Lyra Atlas cartridge, via the AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable with TriPlanar arm.  Moving to my other Acutus Reference SP, utilizing the SME V arm and Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge, I discover that the Statement easily resolves the difference between these two premium cartridges, which possess very different yet equally enthralling characteristics:  The Lyra proves the closest to neutral sounding that I’ve had the pleasure of using, while the Clearaudio is slightly robust and equally exciting.

The Statement is also the perfect anchor for someone at the ground floor of assembling a music system based around a high-quality analog source.  Even if a high-dollar table isn’t in your budget or on your rack now, the Statement has the capability to grow with your needs, no matter how you want to go.  Moving downstream a bit to the VPI Classic 1 and Dynavector 17D3 proves equally satisfying, as does the Rega RP8/Apheta combination.

As with many transformer-based phono setups, the Statement is a particularly good match with the Denon DL-103R and Ortofon SPU cartridges, so even audiophiles on a relatively modest budget will enjoy this one.

True to the owners manual, the Statement needs about 100 hours to sound it’s best, so a couple of weekends and you’re good to go.  That being said, it sounds damn good cold, right out of the box.

Digital if You Must

As part of a minimalist system in room two, fed by the wonderful, four-box dCS Vivaldi digital playback system, the Statement is not outclassed in the least, its tube topology adding a bit of extra depth to digital recordings, even those reproduced via the Vivaldi.  The rest of the system in room two is no slouch either: a pair of Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers ($22k/pair), the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier ($30k, also in this issue) and the SME 10 turntable with SME V arm, sporting a Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation cartridge.

The Bad Plus’ Blunt Object: Live in Tokyo provides one of my favorite acoustic torture tests, with its driving, atonal rhythms, massive drums and thundering piano crescendos, punctuated with applause.  Listening to the trio romp through their version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is a sheer delight, with the drum kit sounding larger than life and all of the delicate piano work reproduced flawlessly.  Another great word for the Statement is texture.  Acoustic instruments sound incredibly natural and lifelike, with an abundance of timbre and tone, in a way that fools you into thinking you are actually hearing the real thing—the true test of any component, and the Statement passes it easily.

Another relatively benign recording that really comes alive through the Statement’s line-level input is the self-titled debut from the Wallflowers.  Granted, the dCS stack does its part extracting as much sound as could possibly be buried in that limited bit stream of a Red Book CD.  Yet, there is much more separation between bandleader Jakob Dylan’s voice and the rest of the band than is normally there, with acoustic guitars fleshed out better, occupying their own distinct space better than before.  There’s no question that the Coincident Statement can hang in the context of a six-figure system comprised of some of the world’s finest components.  Interestingly, it’s easier to confuse young Dylan with a young Springsteen on a lesser system, in terms of texture and vocal styling.  The Statement reveals the difference between these two vocalists with crystal clarity, as it does when comparing Seal to Peter Gabriel—the differences in phrasing between them is now night and day.

Award-Winning Performance

Not only did I purchase the review sample of the Coincident Statement, but we are also awarding it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  This product defines what we’re after for the category: top build quality and performance for which you’d expect to pay a lot more.  I pulled the wool over the eyes (and ears) of a few of my audiophile buddies, who weren’t aware of Coincident, telling them that this preamplifier cost 25 grand—and they all believed me.  I know I promised that I’d use my powers for good instead of evil, but it’s tough to resist with this one.

Bottom line, if you are an analog lover searching for the perfect anchor to a high-performance system, you need look no further than the Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier—and you certainly need not spend any more money.  We suggest this one very enthusiastically.  -Jeff Dorgay

Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,999


Ypsilon VPS 100 Phono Preamplifier

Greece is known for a number of things. It’s the origin of western democracy. It was overtaken by the Romans. It’s constantly feuding with Turkey. It’s got beautiful islands. And most recently, it experienced rioting over its bankruptcy. But stereo equipment? It’s no secret that there are hard-core Greek audiophiles, but the last thing I would ever  associate Greece with is the production of high-end audio gear. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ypsilon electronics, for example, is aiming to become one of the big dogs in the stereo world. It boasts an array of transformer-coupled preamplifiers, phonostages, and amplifiers whose sonic achievements are nearly as staggering as their price, which is to say that both are very high. Based in Athens, the company is headed by technological whiz Demetris Backlavas, as genial a soul as you’ll ever meet in the high-end industry.

Past and Present Transformed

Ypsilon, like its importer Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports—who is based in Parker, Colorado, and who is an indefatigable audiophile—does not do things by half-measures. The fit ‘n finish of its units are impeccable and understated. The most bling you’ll see is a steady blue light that emits from the front panel. But inside is a plethora of whiz-bang technology that represents, in many ways, a unique fusion of past and present.

The $26,000 Ypsilon VPS 100 employs a hefty outboard transformer to step up the tiny phono signal. The external transformer is matched in gain to the cartridge you’re using. The upside is that the match should be perfect; the downside is that you may need more than one transformer if you’re using multiple arms and cartridges. Yet the build quality of the transformers appears to be exemplary.

You may well find yourself using more than one transformer, and if so, you can also use loading plugs with them to change the impedance. Depending on which transformer you’re using, the amount of gain varies. I found the MC-16 to be the most versatile. In theory, lower gain transformers mean fewer windings and purer sound. In addition, Ackerman recommends utilizing the Stage III Concepts Analord Prime phono cable from the transformer to the Ypsilon unit itself. I took his advice and discovered that the Analord Prime offers mesmerizing performance. It is fast, spacious, and refined. Unequivocally recommended.

Zero Capacitors

Inside, the VPS 100  has two Siemens C3g tubes for the gain stage and a 6CA4/EZ81 tube rectifier. Ypsilon’s main claim to fame is that it doesn’t use capacitors in the signal path or anywhere else. Capacitors, you may recall, do two things: store and release energy. A small industry has developed around creating ever-more transparent and fast capacitors that eliminate what sounds like the smearing of music in preamps and amplifiers. But Ypsilon apparently decided to perform an end-run around the capacitor issue. It’s returning to the pre-capacitor age when transformers and lots of chokes did the job. Only Ypsilon’s transformers are made in-house and feature amorphous cores. In other words, they’re supposed to sound superior to any capacitor. Do they? Judging by the performance of the Ypsilon phonostage, the answer is a resounding yes.

Effortless Sound and Performance

Whether the Ypsilon is flatly superior to any phonostage in or above its price class will always be subject to dispute. But the phonostage, to which I’ve listened for nearly six months, possesses some remarkable characteristics. Its most notable trait is its transparency to the source—an ability to project back, up, sideways, down, revealing aspects of LPs that, frankly, had never been previously apparent. It also has an extremely organized sound.

Some of these attributes first came to me while listening to a scintillating LP titled The Black Motion Picture Experience, picked up for a cool $20 at Los Angeles’ Record Surplus, one of the last major purveyors of used vinyl. Featuring cuts such as “Super Fly,” “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Across 110th St.,” it offers a stern test of any stereo system. The Ypsilon passed the exam with flying colors. Perhaps its most striking feature related to the sheer scale it reproduced. The Ypsilon seems to offer another octave of air on top, allowing it to produce a tremendous amount of detail with ease. Soprano voices, choirs in the background, and cymbal strikes all emerged from stunningly black backgrounds. They were also precisely located, no mean feat when you’re talking about a 1970s LP with a large cast of characters and instruments. The Ypsilon was never ruffled.

Similarly, on Richard Betts’ prized Highway Call, the Ypsilon managed to take a recording that can sound slightly compressed and inject it with a dose of air. In that it beautifully separated the drums and guitars and voices from each other, the Ypsilon gave the sense of a live band playing. It provided a much closer connection to the music, allowing that critical part of the brain to turn off and just enjoy the sound.

Moreover, the size of the soundstage can become almost hallucinatory. For all its transparency, which is as good as I’ve ever heard, the Ypsilon doesn’t thin out the sound at all. On the contrary, drum whacks come through with awe-inspiring heft. So do double basses on orchestral recordings, like Stravinsky’s Firebird conducted by Antal Dorati on a legendary Mercury pressing. The union of extreme detail, coupled with massive presence, really has to be heard.

There’s an immediacy to the sound, a lack of restraint, and a sense of a time delay having been removed when the Ypsilon is in my system. The Ypsilon, you could say, sounds unencumbered. It allows the music to float out in an ethereal way. Consider the album Sam Cooke at the Copa, an old mono on RCA Victor. The Ypsilon bestows a real sense of the club in which Cooke sings. And the soul legend’s voice sounds divinely inspired. Almost—dare I say it?—live. Ditto for the Miles Davis recording of “My Funny Valentine” on the Prestige album Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. The extent to which it sounds as though the muted trumpet, plangent and tinny, hovers in the room is remarkable. The Ypsilon appeared to capture every last nuance and shading.

Tales of Brave Ulysses

The most breathtaking sound that I heard with the Ypsilon came courtesy of an Oscar Peterson and Jon Faddis recording on Pablo. Peterson, the heir to Art Tatum, possesses an incredibly virtuosic style. Notes can spray out like a geyser when he tinkles the ivories. On “Lester Leaps In,” the speed and full sound of the piano are simply the best I’ve experienced. The Ypsilon conveyed the piano’s harmonic overtones with astounding fidelity.

These pluses, it must be said, were not immediately apparent. It took months for the phonostage to break in. Some pieces don’t seem to require much run-in time. The Ypsilon is assuredly not one of them. At times I wondered whether its performance would ever pick up. But my guess is that the wire in the transformers just takes eons to burn-in. In fact, I’m not at all sure that the unit has finished its odyssey.

Like the ancient Greek hero Ulysses, it’s taking its sweet time to reach its home destination. But the path that leads to it is sheer bliss. The Ypsilon is as pure as it gets. It is not a good phonostage. It is a superb one. But beware: If you audition the Ypsilon, you will almost surely be unable to part with it.  -Jacob Heilbrunn

Additional Listening:

To fully understand the enthusiasm put forth in this review, it is important to mention that the reference system used to evaluate the VPS 100 is truly staggering, both in capability and the care spent setting it up. On a recent visit to Jacob’s house, I was instantly taken back by the Wilson X-2’s and matching pair of Thor subwoofers. You don’t see that kind of hardware at the average audio society event. While the four Classe CA-600M monoblocks and Messenger Reference Tube preamplifier were indeed impressive, just behind the system—and in an isolated room—sits a Continuum Caliburn with a pair of Cobra arms. One arm is optimized for stereo playback and features the AirTight PC-1 Supreme; the other is outfitted for mono with a Lyra Titan Mono. To put it mildly, there is no weak link in the reproduction chain.

Having listened to most of the cuts referenced in the review here, I concur with all of Jacob’s conclusions. Again, the most impressive aspect of the Ypsilon is the effortlessness of its presentation. The moment the tonearm is lowered onto the record, the concept of listening to a music system disappears from your consciousness, allowing you to enjoy music reproduced without limitation. And that’s truly what high-end audio is all about.  —Jeff Dorgay

Ypsilon VPS 100 Phono Preamplifier

MSRP:  $26,000

US Distribution:  Brian Ackerman


(720) 851-2525


Analog Source Continuum Caliburn w/2 Cobra tonearms    AirTight PC-1 Supreme (Stereo)     Lyra Titan (Mono)
Preamplifier Messenger
Power Amplifier Classe CA-M600 Monos (two more for subwoofers)
Speakers Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 w/Thor Subwoofers    Magnepan 20.1
Cable Jena Labs
Power Isoclean Supreme Focus
Accessories Stage III Concepts Analord Prime Phono Cable

Octave Phono Module Preamplifier

One of the toughest things audio enthusiasts face is knowing when to stop hunting for a different piece of gear. How many times have you planted your feet, determined to stick with your favorite preamplifier du jour, only to fall in love with a new power amplifier that needs XLR inputs where previously, you only had RCAs or vice-versa? Perhaps a second turntable makes sense, but you don’t want to abandon your current phono preamplifier for something different that only has one input. And so it goes.

I’ve always enjoyed Naim’s modular concept of adding a larger power supply to increase a system’s performance, but German manufacturer Octave takes things even further, allowing you the option of choosing your input sources as well as your output choices. And, like Octave’s power amplifiers, there is an external power supply upgrade, which in this case, is a passive device that offers additional capacitance. Old timers may remember this arrangement in the Dynaco Stereo 400 power amplifier.

Many Modules

Octave’s Phono Module and power supply sell for $4,500, but the price does not include any input or output modules. One high-level input module can be switched between XLR or RCA jacks, which makes for an extremely versatile option. You get three different choices exist for the phono inputs. The MM module with RCA inputs offers 38db of gain, with 1k and 47k input impedance, and costs $450. Two (RCA and Balanced ) options exist for the MC modules, offering 58 or 65db (switchable) gain along with a subsonic filter that can be enabled, with a 3db cut at 20hz. Loading is adjustable in 13 steps, from 62 ohms to 1000 ohms.  There is one MM module with 38db of gain, with 1k and 47k loading settings. The aforementioned modules sell for $600 each and are preset with the subsonic filter engaged. Finally, the standard MM and MC modules both feature RCA jacks, but there is also an optional module with a set of balanced XLR inputs that provides the best performance in terms of lowest noise—provided you don’t mind switching to a balanced input cable for your tonearm.

Should you need a high-level input, add a module. While you can only use one input at a time, this $600 board features an XLR and RCA input that’s switchable via a small pushbutton. And, there are three choices for output modules: A standard RCA version is $450 with fixed and variable outputs; two DD (direct drive) modules are designed to drive a power amplifier directly, making the Phono Module a full-function preamplifier. The latter carry an $800 pricetag, and come with a choice of two RCA outputs or one RCA and one XLR.

Take a deep breath and sort your options; these choices make the Phono Module sell for somewhere between $5,400 and $7,500, depending on configuration. Plus, you can always change the setup. For more configuration information, visit this link to the Octave site, with all the specs along with more pictures:


Setup and Configuration

When you’ve made your final module decisions, remove the corresponding blank panels with a Phillips screwdriver and gently insert the modules. To make things user-friendlier, Octave has given the output module one more pin than the input modules so you can’t make a mistake. The pins going into the main circuit board must be tightened down with a jeweler’s (or other very small straight blade) screwdriver. Install the tubes, connect the external power supply, and you are ready to roll. The Octave manual is one of the most concise I’ve had the pleasure of reading, so even a novice audiophile will have no trouble assembling the Phono Module.  And, should you change your mind in the future – the module configuration can be easily changed, that’s the beauty of the Phono Module.

Regardless of your configuration, there will be three tubes on the main circuit board. The ECC88 (6922) is used for the output buffer, an ECC81 (12AT7) makes up the main amplification stage, and an ECC83 (12AX7) is used for the input stage. Octave suggests using “a high quality, low noise” tube for the latter position; the Phono Module came with a set of JJs installed. The DD output module in the review unit also had an ECC88 on board, making for a total of four tubes under the hood.

The Phono Module is a hybrid design that uses high-quality, low-noise Op amps for additional buffering where needed. Designer Andreas Hoffman made the decision to keep the output impedance low, but as a side benefit, the overall noise floor is very low as well. A number of manufacturers have taken this approach to incorporate the tonality of vacuum tubes with the flexibility of solid state. The resulting tonal balance is very neutral—perhaps too much so for vacuum-tube enthusiasts that want an abundance of bloom. If you didn’t know better, you might not even think the Phono Module had tubes inside. The Octave is close to perfection: It doesn’t sound like tubes or solid state, just music, and can be adjusted to your taste.

Thanks to the Octave’s wide range of gain and loading adjustments, I easily optimized my plethora of phono cartridges. After a number of trials, I settled on the Denon 103R with the AVID Volvere SP/Triplanar and the SoundSmith Sussurro Paua with the Rega P9.

Who Says You Can’t Make a Great First Impression?

Listening began with Robert Plant’s current LP, Band of Joy. I was immediately taken by the excellent portrayal of space offered by the Phono Module, which kept Plant’s voice well separated than that of support singer Patti Griffith, without ever causing her to fall into the background of the mix. Even with the budget Denon cartridge, the sound was spacious, with excellent bass control. While planning to jam some classic Plant (via Classic Records’ remasters of the Led Zeppelin catalog), I got sidetracked by the doorbell and our music-loving UPS deliveryman. When he spotted the ORB’s Metallic Spheres LP inside a box he handed me, he felt like parking the brown van and hanging out for a while. We traded Pink Floyd stories for a few minutes and he assured me that the bass on the ORB record was killer. “I don’t even own a CD player,” he proudly said, but I finally convinced him he had to deliver everyone else’s packages or else my neighbors would be torqued at what brown wasn’t doing for them today.

However, such passion made for a good excuse to pass on Zeppelin and spin the ORB. The UPS dude was right: the record does have excellent bass, and the Phono Module did a fantastic job of capturing the impact of the deep, synth bass throughout. No matter what I played, the Phono Module always had plenty of weight on tap.

Stepping up to the SoundSmith Sussurro Paua proved a good combination even if it offered a bit too much of a good thing for my system. There was resolution galore, yet the overall presentation came across as slightly two-dimensional, sounding remotely digital—almost more like a great 24/96 digital recording rather than pure analog. The AVID Acutus Reference SP with Koetsu Urushi Blue was exactly what I was looking for, a combination of high resolution and a small helping of tonal warmth. It made many a classic rock favorite come alive. MoFi’s pressing of Santana exploded with the Koetsu and, as it’s already extremely quiet, the cartridge supplied great dynamic contrast.

Great as a Phono Preamplifier or a Linestage

Thanks to the RCA and XLR outputs, the Phono Module worked well with the amplifiers at my disposal, its neutral character staying true with every power amplifier with which it was mated. It’s also worth noting that it didn’t have any problem driving fairly long (6-meter) interconnects through either the RCA or XLR outputs. And while it achieved more magic with Octave’s MRE 130 monoblock amplifiers (as you might expect), you should be able to smoothly blend the Phono Module with your current power amplifier.

The Power Module represents the best choice for the analog lover with two turntables and only one digital source—or even the analog purist who doesn’t require a high level input and instead wants to go directly to a power amplifier. Initially, I thought its only shortcoming was its inability to allow adjustment of the three phono inputs (ala the Aesthetix Rhea or ARC REF 2 Phono) from the listening chair. But then I concluded that I was just being a lazy American. Extra microprocessor controls would add to the cost and designer Andreas Hofmann feels that this would degrade the sound somewhat.  In retrospect, Octave made the right choice. At its current price, the Phono Module has few—if any—peers. Pushing it towards $10k would invite stiffer competition.

Time to Roll

Excellent as the Phono Module is in stock form, upgrading the tubes brings tremendous sonic benefits regardless of your preference. Variations on the input tube will effect the overall noise floor more than the other tubes (hence Octave’s suggestion at using a very low-noise tube here) and the output tube seems to impact the overall tonal character more than the other two. Ditto if you have the DD module installed, using the Phono Module as a linestage as well. The buffer stage did not make as much difference, but in all fairness, there aren’t many exotic 12AT7s on the market.

Should you prefer a bit warmer, more romantic sound, the NOS route is the way to go. Your favorite Mullard or Telefunken tubes will give the Phono Module more midrange magic but sacrifice high end extension and even a little bit of bass definition.  There’s no free lunch. If you enjoy the character with the stock tubes, but would like more resolution, I suggest the EAT tubes. These are definitely my favorite favorites, offering incredible detail, super low noise, and a big overall sound. If you only feel like buying one $225 tube, replace the input tube—it further drops the noise floor in this already super-quiet preamplifier. A bonus if you have a premium phono cartridge.

The external power supply booster, the only option I didn’t explore, is still in the design phase.  If it performs anything like the Super Black Box on the Octave MR 130 monoblock amplifiers currently in for review, it will take the Phono Module another large step forward in performance.

Superlative Performance

Regardless of your needs, if you have more than one turntable or plan on adding more than one in the near future, making the Octave Phono Module the cornerstone of your system won’t leave you painted in the corner. Its understated exterior design and overbuilt interior assure that it will perform flawlessly as your system changes. Without question, this is definitely a preamplifier with which you can grow for years to come. We are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Octave Phono Module

MSRP:  $5,400 to $7,500 (depending on configuration)

Contact:  www.octave.de (Manufacturer)

www.dynaudiousa.com (US Importer)


Turntables AVID Acutus Reference SP w/SME V    AVID Volvere SP w/Triplanar VII    Rega P9 w/RB 1000"
Cartridges Koetsu Urushi Blue    SoundSmith Sussurro Paua    Shelter 501 II    Denon DL-103R
Power Amplifiers Octave MR130 monoblocks   Burmester 911 mk.3 monoblocks     McIntosh MC 1.2K monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Maxim and Dmitri power conditioners

Conrad Johnson ET3SE Preamplifier

“It just sounds right.” Conrad Johnson’s longtime motto is simple and true. After all, the company counts a loyal following and a 30-plus-year history of producing some of the audio industry’s top amplifiers and preamplifiers. C-J’s ART, ACT 2, and GAT preamplifiers have won almost every award the press bestows, and many of the world’s top audio journalists agree that these preamplifiers are the best in class.  Considering how infrequently we all agree on anything, that is high praise indeed.

Of course, the C-J sound has changed a bit over the years. ART preamplifiers have always had a huge, three-dimensional soundstage with boundless weight to the presentation, while the 6H30 tube-based ACT 2 (my personal reference for many years) is slightly more dynamic and arguably more tonally correct. The current GAT offers the best of both worlds. It has the size and weight of the ART with the speed of the ACT 2, and is a hybrid design, using a composite triode gain stage (via one 6922 tube per channel) and a MOSFET buffer stage.

If you’ve been lucky enough to own or sample the GAT, you know it’s a truly spectacular preamplifier, albeit with a hefty $20k pricetag. The big news is that, for those wanting high performance on a lesser budget, the ET3SE offers much of what C-J learned with the GAT. During a recent factory visit, Lew Johnson showed me the internals of the ET3SE and pointed out all the similarities to the main circuit board of the GAT, which he had on-hand for direct comparison.

“As you can see, there is a lot of shared technology here. The ET3SE is sort of a baby GAT,” he said, with budding enthusiasm. “Here’s what’s really special. The phonostage is essentially the TEA-2SE that you just got done reviewing, and it’s all on one chassis. And, as you can see, we’ve incorporated a healthy dose of our CJD Design Teflon capacitors.” The main differences between the top-of-the-line GAT and ET3SE? The size of the power supply, the complexity of the stepped attenuator controlling the volume level, and the sophistication of the composite triode stage.

In a sense, the ET3SE offers about a quart and a half of the GAT’s sound for less than a quarter of the price. It lists for $4,000 without phonostage and $5,500 with a built-in phonostage. The high-gain version features 54db of gain, and is suggested for cartridges with an output of 1.0mv or less; the low-gain version features 40db of gain and is optimized for cartridges greater than 1.0mv, though most high-output moving coil and moving magnet designs usually fall in the 2.0–5.0mv range, which should be perfect. We reviewed the high-gain model.

It should be noted that non-SE versions are available for $2,500 and $3,350, respectively, but lack the high zoot capacitors. Johnson mentions that while the GAT preamplifier uses 23 massive 2.0uF/350v CJD Design Teflon capacitors (at a retail price of about $250 each), the ET3SE uses a handful of 4.0uF Polypropylene capacitors bypassed by .15uF Teflon capacitors.  This arrangement has the bypass capacitor dominating the sound of the main cap, but “there is no free lunch, the pure Teflon arrangement remains audibly superior.”

If past C-J phono and linestages we’ve heard are any indication, you can expect the non-SE versions to have a somewhat warmer tonal balance with less extension at the frequency extremes; more of the “Classic C-J sound,” if you will. Should you purchase a non-SE model, you can always send it back to the factory for the upgrade, but it will end up costing a few hundred bucks more than the cost of a normal SE model. While I’m spending your money, I highly suggest going all the way and purchasing the SE version. You won’t regret it.

Clean Design

The front panel is free of knobs, utilizes the same round numeric display for volume as past C-J preamplifiers, and comes in any color you like, as long as that happens to be classic C-J champagne anodized aluminum. Like all C-J preamplifiers, the ET3SE is a single-ended design, complete with RCA jacks for inputs and outputs. For 99% of ET3SE owners, this should not present a problem, as the model had no issue driving a 25-foot pair of interconnects without signal degradation. (I’ve had similar luck with my ACT2.)

On top of the splendid aesthetics, the ET3SE is extremely flexible, boasting five high-level inputs as well as the phonostage. It also has a tape loop, or as C-J likes to call it, an “external processor loop.” If you have a tape recorder or outboard equalizer, this is a great way to switch it in and out of the amplification chain when not in use. I employ a Manley Massive Passive studio equalizer when working on restoring my vinyl collection, so this is one of my favorite features. My only complaint? I would love to see a second pair of main outputs for those who use a powered subwoofer.

The only downside to the SE model with all those Teflon capacitors is that it really does take 500 hours to sound its best, just like my ACT 2. But once it’s finally broken-in, the ET3SE opens up and offers a surprising amount of performance for a preamplifier in its given price range. At first glimpse, the ET3SE sounds slightly compressed, with a constricted soundstage. It begins to come out of the fog at about 150 hours, with the presentation making a big jump right around the 300-hour mark before showing further improvement between 300 and 500 hours.

Mix and Match

Most of my listening was spent with the recently upgraded MV-50C1, a unit that last summer went back to the C-J factory to have a full complement of CJD Design Teflon capacitors and similar power supply upgrade. While Johnson pointed out that my “new” MV-50 does not possess the last bit of frequency extension offered by its current tube amplifiers, it’s still damn good, retaining all the magic that the MV-50 had in its day, with a lot more bass grip and high-end clarity that it did when brand new.

I also made it a point to drive a handful of other amplifiers, both tube and solid-state, all with excellent luck. Nelson Pass’ First Watt M3, a single-ended, class-A solid-state design, proved to be an awesome combination with the ET3SE. I’ve been using C-J vacuum-tube preamplifiers with solid-state power amplifiers to great success since the late 70s when I first mated the C-J PV2 with a Threshold 400A, another of Pass’ fine designs. Nothing has changed; it’s still a great pairing.

Because the ET3SE is a model of simplicity, it warms up quickly and uses a basic remote to change functions and volume. The attenuator “clicks,” just like the one on my ACT2; it’s a friendly, familiar sound. The remote is a stripped-down plastic model—cheaper when compared to the billet aluminum remote that higher-end C-J preamplifiers use—but it helps keep the cost more reasonable. If you must have the billet remote, the folks at C-J can sell you one as an accessory.

That Big C-J Sound

Once the break in period was complete and I got down to serious listening, I became amazed at how much this preamplifier is capable of delivering! During casual listening sessions, and when using less than the most pristine software, it was easy to get fooled into thinking I was listening to one of C-J’s top preamplifiers.

The size of the soundstage instantly caught my attention. Left to right, images extended beyond the speakers’ boundaries, and there was an abundance of front-to-back depth as well. Not as much as with the ACT 2, but much more than I expected. And thanks to that ever so slight warmth to the ET3SE’s character, its extra tonal body goes a long way with digital playback, especially on discs that sound less than perfect.

The Motorhead concert set Better Motorhead Than Dead: Live at Hammersmith features a somewhat flat recording of Lemmy Kilmister’s voice. But through the ET3SE, his timbre on signature tracks such as “Love Me Like A Reptile” and “Ace of Spades” had extra presence that was both pleasant and welcome. The ET3SE is just one of those preamplifiers that makes your music collection come alive, especially after it gets an hour or two to fully warm up.

Moreover, the preamplifier’s hybrid design strikes a perfect balance, offering a punchy sound that will have you clamoring to try and define. Whereas some hybrid designs end up representing a compromise, the C-J blends the best of both worlds—extremely quiet, providing healthy tonal contrast, yet powerful and controlled, with weight and accuracy at both ends of the tonal spectrum.

For example, Trey Gunn’s recent I’ll Tell What I Saw features a ProTools-heavy mix, and its massive bass riffs can get muddy in a hurry. Yet the ET3SE sailed right through, keeping the bottom solid and on track, while maintaining the integrity of the powerful percussion. I was equally stunned when enjoying a 24/96 high-resolution copy of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, a fairly dense album that exposes the beginnings of bandleader David Byrne’s obsession with Brazilian rhythms. Again, the ET3SE did an outstanding job of keeping the pace tight and maintaining the dynamic impact.

Phono Fantastic

For audiophiles that long for the good old days when preamplifiers contained a great phonostage, the ET3SE comes up roses, especially if you don’t want a rack full of gear and cables. On analog, I used the Oracle Delphi V/SME 309/Lyra Dorian combination for a majority of my listening. But even when I experimented with cartridges in the $2,500 range, they never made me feel as if the ET3SE’s internal phono stage was outclassed.

To get a read on more budget-conscious cartridges, I tried the Rega P3-24 with a Dynavector 17D3, but the relatively low output (.3mv) pushed the noise floor of the ET3SE’s phono section. The higher output (.6mv) Lyra Dorian proved a better match. Even the additional .1mv of the Shelter 501II offered superior results when compared to the 17D3, which seems to fare better with phonostages offering at least 60db of gain.

One of the most pleasing aspects of a great internal phonostage is that one need not worry about synergy between phonostage and linestage, or the optimum interconnect cable. Given that the TEA2SE outboard phonostage is $4,000, the ET3SE’s level of phono performance is amazing.

Suffice to say, it was easy to get lost listening to records for hours on end with the ETSE3. When used in conjunction with the MV-50, Oracle turntable, and B&W 805Ds that reside in System Three, the C-J caused me to always come away highly impressed at the quality and amount of true high-end sound available at a price that won’t force you to make your kids attend community college.

Extra Credit

Those who can’t stand to listen to anything in its stock form should consider rolling the tubes in the ET3SE. The phonostage uses three 12AX7s and the linestage one 6922. While I was able to get a significant jump in performance by using the EAT tubes reviewed in this issue, three add $775 to the price of the ET3SE, and they burn away, whether or not you are using the phono input. A more cost-effective upgrade can be had from purchasing one premium 6922 tube for the linestage (again, I suggest the EAT tube). As good as the ET3SE is, it goes to 11 if you swap the stock tube for the EAT.

True Value

I am proud to award the Conrad Johnson ET3SE a 2011 Exceptional Value Award. For many audiophiles, this preamplifier will be all you ever require, offering great sound, top build quality, and immense flexibility for $5,500. I defy anyone to find a more musical combination of preamplifier and phonostage for this price.

The Conrad-Johnson ET3SE Preamplifier

MSRP:  $4,000 without phonostage, $5,500 with



Digital source dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server
Analog source Oracle Delphi V/SME 309/Lyra Dorian    Rega P3-24/Shelter 501III
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Octave MR130SE
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D    Verity Finn
Cable AudioQuest SKY
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Duke

NAD PP 3i Phono Preamplifier

Now that it costs about $75 to gas up your car, a $199 phono preamplifier is a real bargain, especially one that digitizes your vinyl collection via the onboard USB connection.. If that isn’t enough, the NAD PP 3i even has a line input so that you can digitize your cassette collection (and 8-tracks). The PP 3i comes with Mac/PC compatible AlpineSoft’s VinylStudio Lite software or it can be downloaded with a quick visit to the NAD website , allowing you to save WAV files of your favorite albums; that’s another review for another day.

The PP 3i is powered by an included 24-volt wall wart and is always on. It only draws a couple of watts from the power line, so those worried about being green can sleep easily, knowing that leaving the PP 3i on 24/7 won’t cause glacial meltdown. Setup is straightforward, with no switches or added ephemera. You just power it up, plug in your turntable, and roll.

Begin Your Vinyl Journey

If you are just dipping your toe into the waters of analog, the PP 3i is a great place to begin building your budget analog front end. The PP 3i has inputs for MM and MC cartridges, surprising given this price. While there are only a handful of budget MC cartridges on the market, the NAD’s match with Denon’s DL-110 ($139) proved amazingly good.

Three budget turntable/cartridge combinations put the PP 3i through its paces: The AudioTechnica AT-LP120 (now discontinued for a new model with a phono preamp/USB link built-in) with Denon DL-110 MC cartridge; the new Rega RP1 turntable with stock Ortofon OM5e MM cartridge; and a freshly refurbished Dual 1219 from Fix My Dual, fitted with a brand-new Grado Red cartridge. A pair of Audio Art IC-3 interconnects ($110) transferred the signal to the Croft pre and power amplifier combination, both played through the latest Klipsch Heresy III loudspeakers.

What Does $199 Get You?

Amazingly, a lot more than I expected.  While we won’t be having a detailed discussion about finesse, air and extension, this little box did a very respectable job at getting the analog essence to the speakers. The onboard phonostage in the Croft preamp was still miles better than the little NAD, so I did what any self-respecting slacker would, and lowered my standards.

Swapping the Croft amp and preamp for a few vintage 70s receivers revealed that the NAD outperformed a couple (the Pioneer SX -424 and 535), was on par with another (Harmon Kardon 330), and fell a bit short of what was on board with the Marantz 2230. Honestly, in the day where four- and even five-figure cartridges are more commonplace than one might think, just the fact that this thing even plays music for $199 is pretty impressive.

Excels With Digital Transfers

While you might get a little bit more soundstage depth with something like the Bellari VP130, it costs more, is a lot noisier, and it won’t digitize your vinyl. Even if you don’t use the PP 3i to play music in the context of a budget hi-fi system, which it does well, its real strength is its ability to capture some of your favorite LPs for enjoyment in your car or on your iPod. So shell out another 30 bucks (or half a tank of gas) for the full version of VinylStudio and get to work.

And this is the real strength of the PP 3i, folks. If you are a true vinyl enthusiast, you will obviously end up going for much more, but ripping a stack of your favorite LPs to your iTunes library couldn’t be easier. VinylStudio makes it painless to chop your tracks up into album format and add metadata. Surprisingly, less-than-audiophile-quality records transferred to iTunes in the Apple Lossless format sounded as good if not a little better than ripping their CD counterparts, at least on a budget system.

The fun didn’t stop there. Digitizing some of my favorite hip-hop treasures from cassette yielded results that were as equally as good as the vinyl rips. Not only is Cash Money’s Where’s the Party At? now available in my iTunes library, I’m revisiting K-Tel’s Super Hits of 75 from my 8-track collection, too. Plug your 8-track deck into the high-level input and connect the PP 3i to your laptop via USB, and you are in business.

You Need It

No matter the degree of your vinyl obsession, I suggest buying the NAD PP 3i. It’s a perfect entry-level phonostage with benefits for the neophyte, and it works well to digitize some of your analog rarities. Plus, it comes in handy should your megabucks phonostage have to make a return to the factory for repairs. Some music is always better than none.  -Jeff Dorgay


Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier

When “Perfect Sound Forever” debuted in 1983 in the form of the CD, I doubt that anyone seriously imagined the LP would still be with us in 2011. The compact disc immediately ignited an analog/digital debate among hardcore audiophiles, and while true believers on each side are still holding tight, it’s the CD, not the LP, whose future remains uncertain. No wonder many analog loving audiophiles continue to upgrade their turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono preamplifiers.

If you happen to be in that group, Red Wine Audio’s luscious new Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier should be on your short list. It’s a fully discrete Class-A FET gain stage/buffered tube output, passive RIAA equalization network, and battery-powered design. And that makes the Ginevra the first tube design I’ve seen that doesn’t work off AC power. That said, it’s not all that tubey, and there’s no overt electronic signature. Indeed, the Ginevra’s sound is totally organic. It has substance and weight, so it sounds like live music.

Intriguing Design and Construction

Red Wine founder Vinnie Rossi favors the 6922 (E88CC) dual-triode vacuum tube, and uses it in most of his designs. If you like to experiment with “tube rolling,” feel free to try some 6DJ8/ECC88, 7308/E188CC, 7DJ8/PCC88, 6N23, 6H23, 6N11 or 6GM8 tubes. Since the Ginevra uses just one tube, it won’t break the bank to keep a few tubes on hand, allowing you to change the sonic flavor when the mood strikes.

Moving-magnet cartridge gain is spec’d at 40dB and loaded with 47k ohms. Moving coil gain, at 60dB, is moderate, so owners of really low-output coils may not have enough juice; Rossi recommends using a step-up transformer if you need more gain. Moving-coil loading options are 75, 82, 90, 100, 350, 500, 1k, and 10k ohms, settable via internal DIP switches, and load sockets for individual resistors are provided for owners that prefer custom loads. While separate connectors for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges are provided, the owner’s manual cautions against connecting both types of cartridges at the same time.

It should be noted that Red Wine doesn’t just pack the Ginevra with a bunch of “D” cells and call it a day. No, the preamp boasts state-of-the-art 25.6-volt “Lithium Iron Phosphate” (LFP) battery technology. These low-impedance battery packs are exclusively manufactured for Red Wine Audio and designed for long life. The battery pack includes a built-in, custom-designed cell management board that balances individual battery cells, both optimizing reliability and battery pack performance. The pack is also user-replaceable, and doesn’t require any soldering to install.

Best of all, the Ginevra completely operates “off-the-grid,” meaning the preamp is electrically decoupled when it runs off the battery supply. A full charge lasts approximately eight hours, but for all-night parties or background music, you can run the Ginevra off the AC power supply. The battery charges whenever you play the preamp with AC power and when you switch off the Ginevra.

The Ginevra’s nicely machined, anodized black front panel is the preamp’s most interesting design feature—it’s a very plain-looking black box. The unit measures a scant 12″ wide, 9″ deep, and 3.5″ high. Sans the separate battery charger, it weighs 8 pounds. Giving a determined nudge to the power button triggers an internal relay that disconnects the charger’s negative and positive AC feeds to the preamp. And the “piezo” switch, with a rated cycle life in the millions, is made in Israel with aircraft-grade aluminum.

Let the Listening Commence

I listened to the Ginevra with a few tubes: the standard JJ Electronic Russian 6922, which possess a sweet demeanor; a similar-sounding Holland-made Amperex 6DJ8; and a significantly more aggressive Sovtek 6922. A $225 EAT ECC88 tube that comes with an attached red anodized heat sink upped the resolution a notch or two over the others, but Rossi’s stock tube is very listenable.

With my VPI Classic turntable and van den Hul Frog low-output moving-coil cartridge at the ready, the Ginevra’s gain definitely proved lower than that of my Whest TWO phono preamp. Still, I never felt like I needed more gain. The Whest is no slouch, but it’s distinctly cooler-sounding and leaves a lot of music on the floor. The Ginevra is grainless, sweet, and beguiling—this preamp is not the sort that dazzles with displays of audiophile “speed,” “detail,” or “resolution.” It’s much more musically honest. Treble is purer, better, and more natural than I’ve heard from most SACD and DVD-A discs. Moreover, the Ginevra is very quiet in battery mode; switching over to AC raises the noise level. Hence, I ran with battery juice most of the time.

The importance of power supply design in phono preamps also can’t be overstated. Rossi’s battery pack delivers pure DC current just perfectly, which is crucially important when amplifying miniscule voltages generated by phono cartridges. Since the preamp automatically decouples from the AC line when operating on battery power, Ginevra owners will never be tempted to buy pricey power cables or power-line conditioners.

With the Ginevra, record surface noise, clicks, and pops are not necessarily lower in level, but they recede into the background more than they did with my Whest. And the Ginevra’s deft portrayals of the quieter parts in music are remarkable in their own right; dynamic shadings and expressive nuance really shine through. In short, music sounds more natural and less like hi-fi. Always a good thing.

I also love the way the Ginevra allowed the sound of Egberto Gismonti’s guitar on his Duas Vozes to radiate in three dimensions. Each pluck and every strum fill the studio space to holographic effect. In addition, Nana Vasconcelos’ evocative vocalizations and palpable percussion accents populated a broad and deep soundstage.

In listening to the Persuasions’ We Came to Play, the Ginevra absolutely nailed the ensemble’s a capella sound. I hung around these guys at a few Chesky recording sessions, so I have a good fix on their individual voices and group vibe. I closed my eyes and the Persuasions simply appeared—voices, foot shuffles, thigh slaps, finger snaps, the entire package. This session record led me to The Intimate Ellington, which starts off with Duke talk/singing “Moon Maiden” and gently playing a celeste keyboard. I’ve spun this LP countless times, and this much I know for sure: Hi-fis rarely get this close to sounding so expressive and downright human.

Making a Tangible Musical Connection

Moving on to more contemporary recordings, like Tom Jones’ all-analog, live-in-the-studio Praise & Blame, put a big smile on my face. Jones is no youngster, but his pipes are in great shape, the bluesy, gospel-infused record is loaded with great tunes. By comparison, the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Revisited sounded cooler, brighter and, well, more modern. Its more upfront nature, sparkly treble, and tighter, more direct-sounding bass stood in sharp contrast to the older, all-analog LPs in my collection. Don’t get me wrong. The Junkies’ record is nice, but the Ginevra’s sweet temperament didn’t smooth over the differences.

Paul Simon’s brand-new So Beautiful or So What is likely a digital recording (the LP comes with a free 96/24 download), but it’s a delight nonetheless. The material is wonderful, and the sound clear and clean, with the musical connection on LP is a wee bit stronger than what I gleaned from the high-resolution file. The Ginevra also lit up the English Beat’s stellar I Just Can’t Stop It LP. The ska revivalists’ beats are as nimble as they come, and the band’s tunes are tops. Bass definition was excellent, tuneful, and rich.

I couldn’t stop putting LPs on the platter. Giorgio Moroder’s dense synthesizer tapestries drifting through the Cat People soundtrack kept me up late at night. The record’s high-frequency shrieks and sputtery flourishes floated high above the rest of the soundstage, and I couldn’t get enough of the throbbing beats and eerie whooshes. All so 1982! Those were the days, before the CD came onto the scene.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

If you’re in the market for a phono preamp that’ll get you closer to the by-the-number sound of the better solid-state alternatives, the Ginevra probably ain’t it. But if you’re like me, you might be in love at first listen. And while the LFP-V is sold factory-direct with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, I can’t imagine many customers ever sending their units back. -Steve Guttenberg

Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $3,000



Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave DAC & Transport    MSB Technology Platinum DAC & Data CD Transport    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 2 and Pass Labs XP-20 preamps    Whest TWO phono preamp   Pass Labs XA100.5 and First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.6    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects and speaker wire     Zu Mission interconnects   speaker cable     Audioquest Sky interconnects

Audio Research PH 6 Phono Preamplifier

As you might guess, a company like Audio Research doesn’t stay at the top of the heap by making willy-nilly model changes just for the sake of cranking out a new box. Upgrades have to be demonstrable.  I’ve had my hands on almost every phono preamplifier in the Audio Research lineup for the past 25 years, including the phonostage in the legendary SP 10 preamplifier. It’s always exciting when something new is under the hood.

The $3,495 PH 6, along with the PH 8, which will be reviewed later this year, is the latest addition to ARC’s award-winning phono preamplifier line. Its price represents a $1,000 increase from the previous PH 5, but considering the improvements in power supply and different topology, offers a completely new design.

While the LP was in serious decline during the late 80s, ARC still included a top- quality phonostage in its preamplifiers. Until then, included phonostages consisted solely of vacuum tubes. In the early 90s, when the LS (linestage) series began production, ARC’s outboard phonostages, beginning with the PH 1 and PH 2, were solid state, but the PH 3 (and later PH 3SE) started down the current path of hybrid design by utilizing low-noise FET transistors for the input stage, coupled to a tube output stage. The benefits of such a design make for a quieter phonostage than one that is all tubes; it also cuts down the tube compliment, boosting long-term reliability.

Tech Basics

Having replaced the PH 5, the PH 6 has a number of significant changes, the most visible being the switch from a tube compliment of four 6922 tubes to a pair of 6H30 tubes–also used in ARC’s REF Phono 2, my current reference phono preamplifier. Though ARC is not making any claims, my experience with the 6H30 in other preamplifiers is that this tube tends to be very robust, so tube life should be fairly long. And since there aren’t a lot of variations on the 6H30 theme, I suggest sticking with the factory-approved tubes.  When replacement time does come (probably around 5,000 hours), a new pair from ARC will only set you back around $100. Consequently, no tube rolling was done during the course of this review.

The rear panel is straightforward, with RCA jacks for input and output; this is a single-ended design, and unlike ARC’s higher-end products that feature fully balanced design.  The PH 6 has only one input and output, and a fixed gain of 58 db, but loading is configurable in steps of 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 47k ohms from either the front panel or handy remote control.  A mono switch is also included for those that boast mono record collections yet lack a mono switch on their linestage. Cosmetics are classic ARC, with the option of a natural or black anodized front panel flanked with massive rack handles and a series of lime green LEDs that indicate function and loading.

Past and Present

ARC’s Dave Gordon recently told me that “while our customers are very loyal, many of them wait two models to upgrade.” After rustling up my PH 3SE from staff member Jerold O’Brien and a PH 5 from a friend, a long weekend listening session revealed the steady upgrades that led to this current model. So, in case you are wondering if it’s time to trade up, here’s the scoop.

The PH 3/PH 3 SE models definitely have more of a vintage sound quality, with a warmer overall tonality, not necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite MC cartridges happens to be the high output (2.5mv) Blackbird from Sumiko. At $1,099 it offers great dynamic range and high resolution for the price point, but when paired with most solid-state phono preamplifiers, it is too forward for my tastes. I’ve never had better phono preamp/cartridge synergy than mating the Blackbird with the PH 3 SE, and the preamplifier’s overall musicality still makes it a great used value.

The PH 5 has a more “modern” sound, with more transparency and dynamic slam, but constitutes a better overall match with cartridges possessing a more neutral to even slightly warm tonal balance. The ARC was amazing with the Grado Master 1 and Shelter 501 II cartridges, and thanks to the loading controls on the front panel, made it easier to experiment with a wider ranges of cartridges than the PH 3 SE, which requires you to solder different loading resistors in place. Remember, 20 years ago we did not have the plethora of cartridges we do today. Who knew?

If you are familiar with either or both of these great phonostages, you might consider the PH 6 the “Goldilocks” of the bunch–it’s just right. Well, it was for me anyway. I really enjoyed the balance it served up, as it possesses even more resolution than the PH 5. Yet it claims a dose of tonal richness that the PH 5 doesn’t have. On many levels, it reminds me of the excellent PH 7 that we reviewed about a year ago, but for a lower price.

Of course, every vacuum tube has somewhat of a “signature sound,” with the 12AX7-based preamplifiers perhaps the most lush, the 6922 somewhat less but still unmistakably “tubey” sounding, and the 6H30 more dynamic and forceful. However, ARC has done a fantastic job at creating a circuit that is tonally gratifying and yet, never sacrifices musicality.

Sound vs. Value

With so many excellent phono preamplifiers in the $1,000-$1,500 range, stepping up to this price range, and the PH 6 in particular, offers significant advantages, the main being resolution and clarity. When listening to live acoustic music in a decent environment, it allows nothing to stand between you and the music. Think of the layers of electronics, wire, and listening room anomalies–all adding their own cloudiness and distortions to the presentation you hear in your listening chair–as if they were thin sheets of semi-transparent fabric. A significant upgrade to your system will sound as if you’ve removed a few sheets of fabric between you and the musical presentation at hand. When comparing the PH 6 to some of my favorite phonostage examples in the $1,500 range, this experience clearly became the case: the music was that much more believable when played through the PH 6.

This effect wasn’t limited to acoustic music. While the PH 6 did a tremendous job with the nuances of Keith Jarrett’s acoustic piano work, listening to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters felt livelier as well. And although many dedicated audiophiles raise an eyebrow at heavier rock music, it represents another torture test that separates mediocre components from the excellent. A wall of Marshall amplifiers is just as tough to capture as the scale of as a symphony orchestra. Both require a level of dynamics and weight, allowing the listener to forget about the system and delve into the music. I found the PH 6 to be as adept at capturing the nuance in the layered guitars of the recent High on Fire album as I did during the loudest bits of Mahler’s F.

Further Listening

After a couple hundred hours of run-in time and experimenting with various cartridges, most of the final listening was done with the Rega P9/RB1000 and the Lyra Dorian, Sumiko Blackbird, and Shelter 501 II. The latter are all about the same price and in line with what I expect someone to pair with a phonostage of this quality. However, the PH 6 has such a high enough level of performance that cartridges costing twice as much will deliver sheer excellence, so you have room to expand your analog capabilities with this preamp should you require it.

Much like the REF Phono 2, I found the hybrid FET/vacuum tube combination without fault, producing a very quiet backdrop for my favorite analog recordings. You’ll have to put your ear right up to the tweeter and crank up the volume way past normal listening levels to hear the most faint sound coming from the PH 6. I guarantee that it’s quieter than the background of any LP you own. Combined with the punchy, dynamic sound of the 6H30 tubes, the music reproduced by the PH 6 features a good level of dynamic contrast and weight. On pristine recordings, you might mistake the PH 6’s sound to be CD quiet. Yet it still has enough analog magic to let you know that you aren’t listening to digital.

A Worthy Successor

The PH 6 is an excellent phono preamplifier, offering excellent sonic performance, build quality, and value. In comparison to other phono preamplifiers, both models costing considerably more and less, its price is spot on. The PH 6 also stood up well when compared to ARC’s top-of-the-line REF Phono 2; the lineage is immediately evident. The only potential limitation of the PH 6 may be related to the 58 db gain figure when combined with a handful of very low-output cartridges below .4mv. However, considering the range of excellent cartridges above that figure, finding something you like should not prove difficult.

When going from regular, to large, to super size (PH 6, PH7, REF Phono 2), the listener will find the tonal qualities to be very similar, each increasing model offering more dynamic range, and more low level detail and increased resolution, along with increased functionality. Taking these points into consideration, it’s easy to see why ARC continues to enjoy such a loyal customer base. So whether you are a new customer or legacy customer waiting to trade up, you will enjoy the PH 6.

– Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research PH 6 Phono Preamplifier

MSRP:  $3,495

Manufacturer contact:  www.audioresearch.com


Analog sources AVID Volvere SP w/Triplanar arm and Zu Denon 103 cartridge    Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm    Lyra Dorian    Sumiko Blackbird   Shelter 501 II cartridges
Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson ACT 2/series 2    Burmester 011
Power Amplifiers Burmester 011    Octave MRE 130 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D    Magnepan 1.6
Cable Shunyata Aurora I/C    Stratos SP
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim line conditioners
Accessories Furutech DeMag    Loricraft PRC 2 record cleaner    MoFi fluids

Conrad Johnson ET5 Preamplifier

Conrad-Johnson exudes stability. The look of its equipment never seems to radically change. The black top, the champagne face, the little silver buttons: All attest to a company that’s not fretting about its looks. Instead, it’s confident. But content and resting easy in the saddle? Not a chance. What’s taking place inside the box, of course, is what counts. And here, Conrad-Johnson makes some big changes. Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, stalwarts of the high-end audio industry, are doing anything but resting upon their laurels. Instead, they seem intent on demonstrating that C-J remains on the cutting edge.

The new ET5 preamplifier offers a case in point. It is the latest expression of C-J’s quest to refine the sound of its product line. Over the past decade, C-J has taken numerous steps to improve its preamplifiers and amplifiers, the heart of the company. It has made occasional forays into producing CD players, but tubed gear is its bread and butter.

Best of Both Worlds

C-J never abandoned the tube, and its traditional house sound has always emphasized musicality—a warm and fairly lush presentation, anything but coarse or grainy. But in recent years, the trend at C-J and elsewhere has leaned toward a more transparent sound. It used to be that musicality came at the expense of transparency, and vice versa. But that’s far from the case today. Very far, in fact. The truth is that improvements in capacitor technology have allowed audio companies to lower the noise floor to levels that might have seemed difficult, if not impossible, a mere decade ago.

After a series of highly regarded (and expensive) ART and ACT preamplifiers, C-J recently broke new ground with its GAT preamplifier, which is loaded with Teflon capacitors. It also employs a circuit design that for gain relies on the venerable 6922 tube. It seems that C-J, for reasons of sound or practicality, abandoned the Russian 6h30 tube that was introduced with much hue and cry, but which is no longer as easily obtained. C-J likes to use a single gain stage and mosfet buffer at the output with the ET5. In theory, using a mosfet is quieter and more reliable than employing a tube. (Although some tube lovers will always swear by the glowing bottle regardless of its position in the circuit.) C-J also makes a big deal about the fact that it doesn’t use electrolytic capacitors anywhere in its preamps—not even in the power supply. It’s a different approach. Electrolytics give you a lot of storage capacity, so they can be useful in power supplies.

That said, few companies disdain them to the extent that C-J does. But C-J feels they degrade the sound, and there’s no doubting that, if possible, electrolytics are best avoided. In addition, the single gain stage in the company’s preamplifiers means that it inverts phase, which, in turn requires reversing the polarity of your speaker cables if you are not using a power amplifier that also inverts phase, as C-J amplifiers do. C-J has always preferred the simplicity of a single-ended design as opposed to the complexity of a fully balanced design. Moreover, all C-J gear is single-ended, which means no doubling of parts, as in a balanced design. C-J’s attitude: Why complicate the gear more than necessary?

Hence, the ET5 is the lineal descendant of the much-extolled GAT. But does it sacrifice too much to be even mentioned in the same breath? Not way. And it weighs in at the much more affordable price of $9,500.

Covering the Bases

The ET5’s winning qualities are immediately apparent. For its price, you deserve transparency, rock-solid imaging, and beauty. The ET5 delivers them all. It does a great job of balancing a somewhat mellow sound with transparency. And that mellowness comes through beautifully on instruments such as flute. Vide, MA Recordings’ stellar CD featuring Diana Baroni playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s flute sonata. This might sound like another fusty, old baroque recording, but believe me, it isn’t. And through the ET5, it truly sounds alive. The ET5 brings to the table a wonderfully rich shower of harmonic overtones. I could practically hear the flute vibrating, every breath that the performer took, all the details that take a performance from the mundane to the sublime. Pure artistry.

Ditto for another of my favorite flute recordings, this one featuring Joshua Smith on a Delos CD. I could practically see Smith’s fingers whizzing up and down the flute as they hit the keypads. The ET5 suffused my room with music, drenched it with harmonics, buzzing sounds, and plangent cellos. The amount of air it produces around instruments? Nothing short of sensational. One easily gets the feeling that the concert stage is right there in front of you.

The ET5’s ability to nail the timbral signature of an instrument equates to another strong point. Many have been the times that I have listened to a recording of multiple trumpets called—what else?—“Baroque Trumpetissimo.” It features an all-star cast, including Raymond Mase and Edward Carroll. These guys can pretty much do anything on the horn, and the ET5 really let me hear how they strut their stuff. Particularly impressive is the facility with which the ET5 allows the initial intonation to come through; that silvery pop signals that a master trumpeter is at work.

Then there is image stability. The ET5 excels at it. With this preamp, you can focus on the performers’ position to your heart’s content. And this particular virtue is probably a product of the preamps’ exceptionally low grain. It simply doesn’t smear the images, but opens up a huge and panoramic soundstage.

The Question of Power

Where does the ET5 come up a little short? That’s easy to answer. It doesn’t pack the punch of its bigger brethren. Preamps retailing for $20K and up—which, believe it or not, has become the routine price for top-drawer models—have more sonic power and impact. My Messenger preamplifier claims more heft and grandeur. But go to the GAT, and you’ll get that as well. Why? The secret, as always, is in the power supply. More capacitance usually means more acoustic thunder. If a preamp is going to navigate complicated passages with aplomb, it needs plenty of dynamic reserves. In audio, you get what you pay for, and sometimes, a little more.

The ET5 unquestionably lands on the “more” side of the equation. This unassuming preamplifier is a quietly devastating piece of equipment, one that may force you to rethink the limits of sonic reproduction, particularly at its price. One of the things that tends to get lost in the audiophile shuffle is that recordings to which many audiophiles listen can feature some pretty amazing playing. However, audiophiles often get distracted by sheer sonic effects as opposed to instrumentalists’ virtuosity.

For my money, the ET5 represents a significant step forward for C-J. Without sacrificing the mellifluous sound that is its trademark, C-J demonstrates that its new products can deliver a transparent sound and more. Anyone looking for a high-end preamp that’s linear, musical, reliable would do well to consider the ET5. It does nothing wrong and pretty much everything right.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having logged experience using C-J’s ACT 2 series 2 preamplifier for a number of years as a reference component, and having spent considerable time with the CT5 and ART series of preamplifiers (series 1, 2 and 3), the ET5 emerges as an entirely different animal. Even when taking the ART preamplifiers into account, my favorite series has always been the ACT 2, because of the combination of tonal accuracy and dynamic contrast it provides.

If you’ve had a chance to experience the GAT, it is truly the pinnacle of C-J preamplifier design—and perhaps the pinnacle of preamplifier design, period. The ET5 comes shockingly close to it for less than half the price and offers a similar tonal rendition. Listeners with world-beater systems will happily belly up for the GAT, if for nothing else than the bragging rights. And, it genuinely is a step above the ET5. But those happy to reside one step down from the true audio maniacs will be equally happy to keep the additional $10,500 in their pocket.

A Quick Comparison

Since I utilized the ET5 in an-all CJ system with a Premier 350 power amplifier and GamuT S9 speakers, it was rather easy to compare the new model to the ACT 2. Of course, there will always be a difference in sound between anything based on the 6922/6DJ8 tube versus the 6H30. The former possesses a slightly softer and warmer sound than the 6H30, which usually offers more authority in the lower end as well as more punch.

The ET5’s hybrid design brings the two preamplifiers closer together in tonal rendition, and offers an even quieter background than the ACT 2—not dramatic, but enough that those enjoying classical and small-ensemble acoustic pieces will definitely take notice. Listening to David Grisman’s Hot Dawg at a realistically live level via the ACT 2 yielded a bit of tube noise in the interludes. There was markedly less of the latter when I played the disc played through the ET5. Advantage, ET5.

Thanks to only one 6922 tube, the ET5 is easier to manipulate than any other vacuum-tube preamplifier going. When you only have to buy one tube, those $300 Telefunkens and $200 Bugle Boys become more interesting. Considering every C-J tube preamplifier I’ve owned since 1978 has been easy on tubes, I’m going to assume the ET5 will continue in that tradition.

While the ET5 sounds just fine with the stock tube, another world awaits you with aftermarket tubes. The EAT ECC88 is quite possibly the best choice since it does not alter the tonality of the preamplifier; it just offers up more dynamic punch and a lower noise floor. After installing the EAT, I went back to the Grisman record and discovered zero tube noise in the background. The EAT tube also threw a bigger soundstage in all three directions and had more bass weight. When listening to the title track from Thievery Corporation’s recent LP, Culture of Fear, the upgraded tube yielded deeper bass beats with more grip.

Swapping the EAT for a rare Telefunken CCa sacrificed some transient speed but gave the midrange an intoxicating opulence, especially with my favorite 60s rock records.  Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? proved a revelation. I now truly was experienced.  Similar sensations came courtesy of Incredible Hog’s “To The Sea,” a track from the band’s self-titled album. It was as if I had x-ray vision and could just see the plate reverb vibrating inside one of the group’s Orange amplifiers.

Lew Johnson and Bill Conrad are primarily classical music guys, yet they may have inadvertently created the world’s most incredible rock n’ roll preamplifier with the ET5/Telefunken combination. And while we don’t recommend using tube swapping as a tone control, it’s nice to know you have the option. (Guitar players have been doing it for years, so why not?) With this being such an easy process, the advantage again goes to the ET5.

In terms of dynamics, the ACT 2 is still the king. Whether I was listening to the Who or Shostakovich, the ET5 didn’t as effortlessly move the big air as did the ACT 2. Via the latter, drum thwacks had more punch and were better defined, both on the leading and trailing edge of the sound.

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Winner

The toughest part of describing expensive audio equipment is the degree of importance one should place upon the gear. To many, the difference between C-J’s best may not be quite as dramatic as it is to those that are somewhat more maniacal. Whether you choose to experiment with the tubes or not, the new ET5 remains an outstanding preamplifier in every aspect. Those well-versed with the C-J of old—with a warmer, more romantic sound—may long for the euphonic coloration those units provide.

Personally, I love the current C-J sound. It offers up almost all of the tonal richness that made the company famous, yet adds the dynamic capabilities of a modern preamplifier. Thanks to the CJD Teflon capacitors and a single tube, the ET5 should last even longer than my PV-1, which is still in service after 33 years. I can only think of about six preamplifiers that outperform the ET5. They all have a price that costs two-to-five times greater, and half of them are C-J designs. If that doesn’t say Exceptional Value Award for 2011, nothing does. Highly recommended.

Conrad-Johnson ET5 Preamplifier

MSRP: $9,500



Analog Source Continuum Caliburn w/2 Cobra tonearms    AirTight PC-1 Supreme (Stereo) Lyra Titan (Mono)
Preamplifier Messenger
Power Amplifier Classe CA-M600 Monos (two more for subwoofers)
Speakers Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 w/Thor Subwoofers    Magnepan 20.1
Cable Jena Labs    Analord Prime Phono Cable
Power Isoclean Supreme Focus    Stage III Concepts

Burmester 088 Preamplifier

Comparing my Burmester 011 preamplifier to the company’s new 088 preamplifier reminded me of two other German high-performance machines I’ve sampled: Audi’s 430hp eight-cylinder R8 and its new 525hp 10-cylinder model. Both cars are outstanding and from the outside, look virtually indistinguishable. Much as you want to convince yourself that 430hp is enough, all it takes is a quick spin around the block and suddenly, you can’t live without the extra performance. The Burmester 088 is equally exciting—the minute you hear it, your perception is similarly altered.

The 088 is the latest edition to Burmester’s Top Line of electronics. While the latter is one level beneath its Reference Line, everyone that doesn’t hold an American Express Black Card can safely consider it reference gear. The $28,995 088 arrives with either a DAC module or a phono preamplifier stage installed. Our review sample came fitted with the DAC, the very same upsampling module fitted to the Reference Line 077 preamplifier. Interestingly, when connected to my MacBook Pro, system settings in the control panel displayed “Burmester 077.”

At first glance, the 088 looks identical to the 011, with the input selector on the left and volume control on the right. The current preamplifier allows more set-up capabilities on the front panel, as well as switching between SPDIF and USB digital inputs. For listeners that don’t need an onboard DAC or phonostage, the 088 can be configured with an additional unbalanced (RCA) high-level input. At press time, pricing was not available for this configuration.

If you’ve never had the Burmester experience, know that the company’s products are electrically and mechanically built to an incredibly high standard. Front panels are machined to a “jewlers finish” and are of the finest quality we’ve ever experienced. Even when photos of Burmester’s metalwork get zoomed to 400% on a 30” Apple Cinema Display, it appears completely smooth. It’s like chrome-plated glass. If you are even the slightest bit obsessive compulsive, chances are you’ll be using the remote to keep the chrome free of fingerprints—even though it’s easy to clean.

Fortunately, the sound is as exquisite as the casework. The new 088 represents a significant step up from the 011 preamplifier it will replace. (For now, the 011 remains in the Burmester lineup but will disappear in the near future.) While the 088 incorporates a number of evolutionary changes, the biggest difference relates to the incorporation of Burmester’s latest X-Amp 2 gain modules. The latter are used in all of the Reference Line components, as well as the 100 Phono Preamplifier that we recently reviewed. Note: These modules are hand-built with matched discrete components throughout; no op amps are used in the amplification chain.

System Compatibilities

While older preamplifiers like the 011 boast a few unbalanced inputs and a pair of unbalanced variable outputs, the 088 is balanced throughout and utilizes XLR inputs and outputs. This may prove inconvenient for some. Unless you have a studio tape recorder, the tape outputs will require an XLR to RCA adaptor, easily sourced from your Burmester dealer.

The XLR pin out is also different on Burmester gear. Almost every other hi-fi manufacturer follows a standard formula in which pin number one is the ground (as it is in pro audio gear), pin two positive, and pin three negative. Burmester is just the opposite, with pin two being negative. If you mate Burmester gear with other manufacturers’ components, doing so requires a special XLR adaptor, custom cables, or switching your speaker leads from positive to negative to make up for the phase difference between components. Intuitively, the 088 has a phase switch on the front panel. So, when using the ARC REF 2 phono preamplifier, a flick of the switch achieved absolute phase throughout the system.

The 088 offers five balanced inputs and, for those wishing to integrate the 088 in a multichannel system, a surround pass through. A single set of variable level XLR outputs is the only shortcoming. Anyone with a powered subwoofer will have to resort to some kind of “Y” adaptor or purchase different speakers. Hopefully, this limitation will be remedied once a mark II version of the 088 becomes available.

Illusion Nears Closer to Reality

Having lived with the 011 preamplifier and 911 Mk.3 power amplifier for the past two years, the combination’s natural sound became burned into my memory. But after the 088 was powered up for two days and fully stabilized, the difference was immediately noticeable—and all for the better. From its entry-level Rondo Line up to the Reference Line, all Burmester gear has a similar tonality. Still, a higher level of performance exists in four specific areas: increased dynamics, added bass weight, lower noise floor, and greater overall resolution.

With the 088 as quiet—if not more so—as the 011, the unit’s increased dynamic impact revealed itself on “Take It So Hard,” the first track off Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos’ Live at the Hollywood Palladium. Decidedly not a record with an audiophile pedigree, the drums are nevertheless miked incredibly well, something I noticed on a recent jaunt in editor Bob Gendron’s car. I also forgot how much fun this record can be. Through the 088, the drums exploded out of my speakers. By comparison, they were noticeably more subdued when I returned to the 011.

Bass detail also stood out from the 011, with the 088 claiming more weight and control. Rock, jazz, and classical music all equally benefited. After queuing up Kanye West’s recent My Twisted Dark Fantasy, the title track’s beats went straight to the gut in a way they never did before. On first listen, even with the 011, West’s album felt fairly dense. Yet the 088 unraveled the layers of texture with fantastic results. This upshot remained consistent with everything auditioned. Moderately dense and compressed recordings sounded more open than I could’ve imagined, and great recordings became sublime.

In projecting an expansive soundstage well beyond the boundaries of the GamuT S9s, the 088 helped the six-foot-tall speakers disappear, as if they were a pair of mini monitors. With such depth, there’s just no need for surround sound! And honestly, there’s no need for vacuum tubes, either.

Burmester’s new preamplifier throws a larger soundstage in all dimensions than any tube preamplifier I’ve tried. If you want enormous, reach-out-and-touch-it sound and do not want to worry about hand-matching expensive NOS tubes, the 088 will painlessly take you there. After living with the 088, it’s tough to believe that it’s “only” Burmester’s Top Line preamplifier, as yet another level of greatness is available in its Reference Line.  (However, moving up requires spending more than double the cost of the 088.)

Resolving low-level detail and texture constitute the most interesting aspects of the 088’s incredible performance. A few of my favorite vocal records instantly brought such traits home. Regardless of playback volume, my system achieved a new level of overall clarity. Digital now sounded almost as grain-free as analog did with the 011. And the analog presentation? Delicious. Spinning Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of Frank Sinatra’s Nice ‘N’ Easy clearly illustrated the 088’s marvelous capability, as it not only succinctly defined the room size, but perfectly reproduced the illusion of height—putting Sinatra front and center with his voice where it would be if he were standing eight feet from my listening position. Such an accomplishment is rarely be achieved when playing music back through electronics, yet the 088/911 combination achieved it with ease.

I’ve never heard Sinatra live, but I have had the privilege of hearing the Fleet Foxes up close and personal. On the 088, the group’s “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” possessed sizeable body and depth. At this point, the illusion neared much closer to reality. Even after full-day listening sessions, the 088 never ceased to amaze, especially with records often as test tracks, regardless of resolution. Even Rhapsody tracks were more palatable to the senses.

A Capable DAC

The 088’s internal DAC is an upsampling 24 bit/192khz design that upsamples all incoming data to 24/192. While some may shy away from this approach on principal, Burmester’s implementation is one of the most transparent I’ve experienced.

Feeding the DAC section with both the Sooloos via SPDIF and a current iMac running Pure Music nearly finished in a dead heat, with a slight nod to the SPDIF input in terms of overall musicality with 16 bit/44.1khz tracks. When I switched to high-resolution files, the USB input fared better.

The Simaudio 750D ($12,000) and Burmester 089 ($28,995), along with the four-box dCS Paganini ($55,900), offered higher performance than the onboard DAC. Nonetheless, the 088’s digital capabilities should be a great addition for anyone getting started with computer audio. It provides performance that’s on par with the best DACs I’ve heard in the $4,000 – $5,000 range. (And remember, there’s no power cord or interconnects to buy.) It could also prove excellent for vinyl listeners that only occasionally listen to digital. Those that listen to analog and digital with equal enthusiasm will be best served with an outboard albeit higher-performance DAC; Burmester’s 089 is the obvious choice.

A Destination, Not a Journey

While the Burmester 088 preamplifier costs nearly a third more than the 011, the model it’s replacing, the unit is definitely worth the price. Sure, $30k is a healthy sum to pay for a single component, but this is a hand-built, high-performance preamplifier with performance equaled by few preamplifiers at any price.

Because it’s massively overbuilt, the 088 should be a destination that you will never leave. To those always in the hunt for the latest thing, be forewarned: Refrain from trading it in before you’ve really had the chance to realize what the 088 can do. Should you be a music lover that wants to cease the tiring practice of upgrading and simply enjoy nirvana for a very long time, the 088 has the potential to become a family heirloom.

Burmester 088 Preamplifier

MSRP: $28,995

www.burmester.de (factory)

www.burmester-northamerica.com (US and Canada)


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP w/SME V and Koetsu Urushi Blue    Audio Research REF 2 Phono    Burmester 100
Digital Source Burmester 089    Simaudio 750D    dCS Paganini (4 box)    Mac Mini   Sooloos Control 15
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 Mk. 3
Speakers Gamut S9
Cable Shunyata Aurora    Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners

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

Conrad Johnson GAT Preamplifier

My journey with Conrad-Johnson preamplifiers goes all the way back to its original PV-1, purchased new in 1979. Over the last 33 years, I’ve tried a number of different preamplifiers, yet the CJ sound remains a favorite.

Loyal TONEAudio readers know that I’ve been using the ACT 2/series two preamplifier for many years as a reference component. Just like that PV-1, the ACT 2 has performed without as much as a burp—along with the company’s Premier 350 power amplifier—for upwards of 20,000 hours. During a recent dinner with Lew Johnson, he and his partner, Bill Conrad, laughed and said, “You’ve probably spent more hours listening to the ACT 2 than we have. And we designed the damn thing.”

The ART 3 hit the scene a few years ago, and while I enjoyed listening to it in a few friends’ systems, I was too content with the ACT 2 to let it go. However, the GAT is another story. When I visited the CJ factory last year, Johnson said, “I think we finally have something you’ll want to trade your ACT 2 in on.”

While CJ has always made all-vacuum-tube preamplifiers, the GAT marches to the beat of a different drum. Produced in an edition of 250 units, each $20,000 GAT has a small, stamped serial-number pad on the back face. It is also the ultimate in simplicity. Only one 6922 vacuum tube is utilized as a gain stage per channel, and a low-noise FET transistor serves as an output gain buffer—an alternate approach from models employing the FET as the input stage. The combination works brilliantly, offering low noise and incredible low-level detail.

Under the Hood

Much has been said about the virtues of the proprietary Teflon CJD capacitors transforming CJ electronics from a slightly warm, mellifluous sound that this writer always finds enticing to a current sound that gives up none of the tonal richness from legacy designs, yet now possess a level of large- and small-scale dynamics—along with a transparency unattainable in previous preamplifiers. As they used to say at Weight Watchers, “All the satisfaction with none of the guilt.”

The GAT is full of the aforementioned large capacitors, strategically placed in all critical functions. Those used in the power supply look like emergency road flares, and account for much of the GAT’s explosive dynamics. The rest of the circuit board reveals premium parts; this isn’t an overpriced pretty box.

However, those massive Teflon capacitors take some time to sound their best.  We have experienced the same trait with every component featuring a number of them in their design. Right out of the box, the GAT sounds a little flat and restricted—almost in a haze. But it’s easy to pick up on the exquisite tonality that makes this preamplifier one of the world’s finest.

The GAT exits the fog once 100 hours pass, and makes a substantial jump in clarity around the 300-hour mark. Should you be a jittery, impatient audiophile, resist the urge to abandon the GAT until you get at least 300 hours on the clock, or you will be sorry. Most of this “break-in” finishes at this point; you’ll know it when you power it up and it just sounds a lot “bigger.” From that point forward, it continues to slightly improve over the next few hundred hours.


The ACT, ART, and GAT all possess their own unique sonic signature, and each appeals to a different listener.  The ACT 2 places you about five rows closer to the musical presentation than the ART 3, yet the latter claims more heft in the lowest register of the frequency spectrum, and possesses more tonal saturation as well. Keep in mind, these are not earth-shattering differences. It’s more like the gradation between high-performance tires on a Porsche or Ferrari, but the preamplifiers do have their own unique flavor.

Regardless of your choice of adjectives, these two models owe as much to the type of tube (four 6H30s in the ACT 2, ten 6922s in the ART) as their inherent circuit design.

Enter the GAT. Imagine an equal mixture of the ART and ACT’s tonality, with greater dynamic ability and a lower noise floor. It’s that basic. The GAT makes for a perfect match for both tubed and solid-state CJ power amplifiers, proving a great dance partner with all the amplifiers at my disposal.

Users Chime In

During the course of the review, a few GAT owners were kind enough to send me their impressions, and we’ve all drawn the same conclusion. Whether previous CJ owners or not, all agree that the price asked for the GAT was “very reasonable” in comparison to other units they auditioned. One user called it a “relative steal.”

The GAT’s high-frequency refinement got the highest marks, with one of our respondents feeling the difference between the GAT and ACT 2 isn’t subtle. “It’s as if CJ has brought back the magic midrange from the Premier 16LS and ART preamplifiers, yet carved away the syrupy part.”

All concurred on the GAT’s superior noise floor and, interestingly, the seven GAT owners/responders all commented on the quality of the stock CJ power cord. One reader sums it up succinctly, stating, “I’ve experimented with a number of power cords, and noticed a marginal improvement. But the stock CJ cord is tough to beat.”

Serves the Music

High-performance audio components are like high-performance automobiles in the sense that they offer overpowering excellence in one area, yet lack in others that are even bested by modestly priced competitors. While the GAT is almost equally good with all aspects of musical reproduction, it is the master at combining high resolution with a complete lack of grain or harshness.

Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 instantly reveals the nuance, texture, and decay the GAT puts at your disposal. Leading and trailing edges of piano notes sound magnificent—almost fragile, not unlike the multicolored light reflection on a soap bubble floating in the air. Acoustic instruments portrayed via the GAT are incredibly realistic.

The GAT also excels in the pace department. The title cut of Frank Sinatra’s Nice and Easy reveals the component’s prowess, as it keeps Sinatra’s vocals out in front of his orchestra while simultaneously painting a Cinemascope-esque soundstage behind him.  At the end of the track, when he snaps his fingers, this bit of fleeting percussion makes it feel as if the man himself is standing about four feet in front of you—unbeatable.

Anja Garbarek’s “Big Mouth” from Smiling and Waving illustrates how the GAT proves equally captivating with female vocals. In this case, Garbarek’s highly over-processed vocals fill my listening room to the point where, at high volume, the doors need to be opened to let some of them out. Yet, at the same time, all of the cool percussion and electronic sounds hover in space. Crowded House’s Woodface offers the same presentation. Even though it’s another studio album full of processing, and an excellent example of “pinpoint imaging,” the GAT bears fruit.

If you are the type of audiophile that loves the latter effect, the GAT will stun you with its massive soundstage and rock-solid imaging—no doubt because of the GAT’s lightning transient speed and freedom from overhang. It stops and starts without going past the mark, providing fatigue-free sound, even after long listening sessions.

Triumph Over Mediocrity

Like any other preamplifier from the top of the mountain, the GAT breezes through pristine audiophile tracks. But those cues aren’t what separate the best from pretty good. As fine as the GAT is with your best recordings, it will endear you with its ability to reveal more music than you thought possible from less-than-heavenly material.

Favorites from Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and Todd Rundgren (A Wizard, A True Star is particularly nasty sounding) move up from the “terrible recording, but I love the music” to the “sounds pretty good” category. The Rundgren record is particularly splendid when played through the GAT: The bass foundation is better than I’ve ever heard it, along with a few more layers.

I can’t stress the importance of these revelations when it comes to an expensive component. It’s imperative that gear that costs as much as a decent car doesn’t limit the user to five audiophile-approved recordings. This alone justifies the price for this reviewer. Grab a GAT before they are gone.

Conrad Johnson GAT Preamplifier

MSRP: $20,000



Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Phonostage Vitus Audio MPP-201
Power Amplifiers Conrad Johnson Premier 350    Pass Labs XA200.5     Burmester 911 mk. 3     Octave Jubilee Monoblocks
Speakers Magnepan 3.7     GamuT S9
Cable Cardas Clear

Manley Labs Chinook Phono Preamplifier

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

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

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

Testing the Water

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

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

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

Swimming Upstream with Ease

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

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

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

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

Hooked on the Chinook

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

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

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

Gone Fishin’ (additional listnening)

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

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

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

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

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

Chinook Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $2,250

Manufacturer: Manley Laboratories, www.manley.com


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

Acurus Returns

The Aragon and Acurus brands were originally owned by Mondial, founded by Paul Rosenberg and Anthony Federici.

Dan D’Agostino, former CEO and Chief Designer of Krell, was involved in the design of the Aragon 4004 amp.  The high performance, but more reasonably priced Acurus A250 debuted in 1993.  In 2001, Klipsch bought the brands intending to offer custom electronics to match their loudspeakers, but a few years later they shifted their strategy away from electronics, sticking with the core speaker lines and mothballing a great brand.

Ted Moore and Rick Santiago, who had been leading electronic design groups at Klipsch, left the company in late 2008 co-founding Indy Audio Labs, LLC.  They bought both brands from Klipsch and began working with a select group of talented engineers to bring the products back to market.  The goal was to keep the great sound of the originals, while updating the look and adding some innovative new features – Aragon models are forthcoming with the “value branded” Acurus amps now available, leading the way.

Built With Pride

The Acurus name stands for “Accuracy from the U.S.”, and Indy Audio Labs is proud that their products are built and assembled in the U.S. The metalwork is done here as well, with much of the chassis work done by a machine shop in Indianapolis that makes precision parts for Indy racecars. The torodial transformers and power supply capacitors are still made by some of Mondial’s original suppliers, and even the circuit board assembly and final construction are done by a local company in southern Indiana.

Overall construction is simple and elegant.  The front panel is black, brushed aluminum featuring a single round power button, with a lighted surround ring.  The rest of the casework is simple but elegant with an intriguing rear panel featuring an off white powder coated finish.  This makes it easier to see connections and labels in lower light conditions typically encountered in home theater racks and listening room AV shelving units, along with being highly durable.

The input connectors are high-conductivity, gold-plated, isolated RCA jacks, and are arranged near their corresponding output connections.  The outputs are discrete, 60-amp gold-plated binding posts with anti-touch protective clear housings.  All posts are color-coded with red and black rings for + and – speaker polarity and, each pair is spaced to accommodate dual banana jacks.  Each pair is also angled to make it easy to feed large speaker cables and relieve strain, even in a tight rack unit.

Highly Compatible

Indy Audio wanted these amps to be an ideal choice for those building a serious surround or home theater too, so all models are THX Ultra 2TM certified.  The full range is fitted with a proprietary new “Network Module” that allows the amplifiers to be Ethernet controlled.  The module features a standard Ethernet jack with a “Network Active” LED, a 3.5mm, 12-volt trigger jack along with an RS-232 port.

The A2002 is a 2-channel amp in a 3 RU enclosure and weighs 29 pounds, with 5 and 7 channel versions available in a 5 RU configuration for multichannel applications. It is biased high enough to operated in Class A at low power, shifting into Class AB at higher levels.  It produces 200 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load, with 300 watts per channel available into 4-ohm loads.

When power is connected, the ring around the power switch lights red, indicating “standby mode.”  When activated by the power switch or any of the other Network Module inputs, the surround turns blue. The faint click of the power relays is the only sound coming from the A2002; it was free of electrical or mechanical noise.  When powering my MartinLogan Summit speakers, which dip to 1 ohm at high frequencies, the heatsinks never rose above lukewarm – even during long bouts of high decibel listening.

Those intent on monitoring operating temperatures more closely can access the amplifier via the Ethernet connection on the rear panel. Typing the amplifiers IP address into your web browser reveals everything you might want to know about the A2002: temperature and protect status of each channels, mute buttons, enabling Ethernet and serial controls and an “about” section on the amplifiers other parameters.  You can even adjust the brightness of the power button!  While this functionality might seem trivial to the two-channel listener, those with large multichannel, remote applications will find this very handy.

A Change for the Better

The first few days were as much burn in time for my ears, as the amplifier.  Having lived with a vintage, Class A power MOSFET amplifier for some time, the A2002 has a different sonic signature that won me over fairly quickly.

Being a recording and live sound engineer, a home stereo system always leaves me longing somewhat for the sound of live drums, often aided by a giant concert sound system.  The increased clarity and punch of the A2002 eliminated the previous upper bass muddiness I was experiencing, allowing the Summits LF trim controls to be boosted slightly.  Now the kick drums in my system had some serious kick.  Snare and toms both had more impact and definition, with cymbal crashes now lifelike and full of character that was not present – possessing more authority on initial attack and decaying much longer into total silence. Very impressive.

I also am a reverb and effects fanatic.  I like well-produced albums with believable sound spaces.  I was hearing drum sets in their respective spaces, well placed and not jumbled with effects of other instruments and vocals.  One example is the HD Tracks version of Bob James Urban Flamingo.  Tracks like “Niles Ahead” feature a simple arrangement, but incredible side stick snare and just the right room sound on the drum kit.  “Bobary Coast” adds more synth and vocals, but the drum sound is still tight and right up front.  Bass always has to compliment the drum sound, and again on “Niles Ahead”, the upright bass that sounded alright before, was now defined, crisp and downright punchy – more like a live performance.

The 96K/24 bit HD version of Spyro Gyra’s In Modern Times album offers a cornucopia of great percussion sounds.  “The River Between” has shakers, snaps, triangles, slide, whistles, little bells, ahs, and gahs.  The fantastically recorded flanged fretless bass and sax duet, nylon string acoustic, electric guitar, piano and synths were almost overwhelming by the increased stage width and depth that the A2002 brought forth.

Another go to reference is the unique sound of Michael Franks voice. “Feathers from an Angel’s Wing” from the Time Together CD opened up in a way I hadn’t heard before.  It was easy to hear fretting on the electric guitar, layers of percussion building throughout the song, a spacious synth pad, and stereo acoustic guitars that were well outside the speakers along with a haunting doubled vocal in the chorus, previously buried in the mix.

I auditioned to many other vocalists, male and female that now sounded much truer to life than before.  The tune that stunned me the most though was the new HD Tracks recording of “Where is the Love” from the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway S/T album.  I’ve been listening to this album since my teen days on cassette in my car and on every combination of gear since then.

Value Indeed

Indy Audio Labs has indeed held up their end, when they say that Acurus is a “value” brand.  At a mere $2,499, I can’t recommend it highly enough to those with a reasonably priced system, where budget still is an object – yet great sound is a priority.  The build is solid, and an exercise in elegant simplicity.  The sound of the A2002 has really put my modest system into a whole new category, making it a lot of fun to listening to both old and new music in my collection all over again.

Additional Listening

Running the A2002 through its paces with a number of different loudspeakers after the photo session proved this amplifier unflappable.  With enough juice to comfortably drive the Magenpan 1.7s, everything else from the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s to the B&W 802D and the new Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE was a great match.

The A2002 was equally preamplifier friendly, working equally well with all of the tube and solid-state units at my disposal.  This amplifier is incredibly neutral and dynamic, performing much better than I expected for the price asked – just as the original models did in the 80s. Both the Aragon and Acurus amplifiers were often referred to as “the working mans Krell” by enthusiasts.

This adds up to an Exceptional Value Award for 2012, and I’m looking forward to hearing the Aragon amplifiers as soon as they are available. – Jeff Dorgay

The Acurus A2002

MSRP:  $2,495

Manufacturer Info:  www.acurusav.com


Analog Source             Technics SL1200/SME 309 arm and Sumiko Blackbird Cartridge

Digital Source              Benchmark DAC1 USB, with MacBook Pro

Preamplifier                Manley Jumbo Shrimp

Phonostage                  EAR 834

Speakers                      Martin-Logan Summit and PMC db1i

Cable                           Tetra, Shunyata, AudioQuest

Power                          Running Springs Haley

Emotiva USP-1 Preamplifier and UPA-1 Amplifiers

In an audiophile world where individual components have five (and sometimes six) figure price tags, the concept of being able to get a preamplifier and a pair of 200-watt mono amplifiers that use discrete circuitry instead of just being Class-D for under $1,200 is refreshing. You may have guessed that such components are manufactured offshore and sold direct to you from the manufacturer; both methods are necessary to keep costs down to this level. However, due to the high praise that greets Emotiva products, it appears that the company makes quality control a main priority.

The USP-1 preamplifier fetches $499 while the 200-watt-per-channel UPA-1 monoblocks cost $349 each. Popping the top on both components reveals beefy power transformers, large capacitor banks, and tidy construction throughout. No massive film capacitors, fancy wire, or mega-expensive binding posts—simply well thought-out components that are consistent with their design goals.

Both pieces also sport no-nonsense features. Each has more than adequate inputs and outputs, along with 5-12v. trigger inputs for remote access, etc. The power amplifiers have two sets of reasonable binding posts while the preamplifier boasts a decent headphone amplifier, internal LF crossover for use with a powered subwoofer of your choice, and a phonostage capable of MM and MC operation.

Subwoofer and HT-Ready

The UPA-1s had more than enough power to drive any of the speakers at my disposal, and the USP-1 preamplifier comes with an adjustable low-pass and high-pass filter for those using smaller satellite speakers that have limited LF capability. This can also prove handy for listeners wanting to use a powered subwoofer with a lower-power tube amplifier with their main speakers. I followed that very scenario with the CJ MV-50C1, which I used to power Polk Audio TL-3s and Paradigm Millennia One speakers (both currently in for review). Rolling off the output at 100Hz and passing that to the CJ relieved the tube amplifier of heavy lifting. I passed the LF information to a MartinLogan Grotto i subwoofer, making for an incredible sub/sat system.

I came away highly impressed at the preamplifier’s versatility. In addition, the USP-1 also offers a pair of bypass outputs for use in a multichannel home theater system. So, if you don’t currently operate in the multichannel realm, you won’t have to eliminate the USP-1 to integrate your two-channel system should you expand at a future date.

Easy Listening

Talk about a quick and easy setup. Using AudioQuest Columbia interconnects, Rocket speaker cable, and a set of Shunyata Venom 3 power cords, I was rolling in about 15 minutes. The rear panels of all three components are well labeled, so you should have no trouble hooking everything up sans the assistance of the well-written manual.

While the out-of-the-box sound was good, the system sounded smoother after being powered up for 24 hours. Once power cycled for 48 hours, the UPA-1 required about an hour for the sound to fully stabilize. As it was barely warm to the touch, I kept the trio powered up at all times to net the best sound. Those feeling slightly more environmentally conscious may want to consider leaving the amplifiers off between listening sessions. The preamplifier only requires 30 watts, so it’s worth leaving on.

Aces the Fundamentals

To stack the deck against the Emotiva combination, I began my listening sessions with the B&W 805Ds. These moderately efficient 2-way speakers are heavenly but highly resolving. The diamond tweeter reveals any inadequacies in equipment that drives them. The 805Ds made such a great match with the Emotiva components that, after experimenting with a few other speaker systems, I kept them in the system for the duration of the review. The UPA-1 amplifiers drove all of the other speakers we hand on hand for our budget gear issue (Issue 38), including the power-hungry Magnepan MMGs.

While not the equal of my reference Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks, the UPA-1s did a respectable job driving the $150,000 GamuT S9s—very impressive for a $700 pair of amplifiers. Playing “Baltasaurus” from D.F.A.’s 4th at a fairly high level, as well as “Euthanasia Waltz” from Brand X’s Livestock, I was instantly struck by the Emotiva’s ability to keep the pace intact while playing complex musical passages at moderately high listening levels. When pushed too hard, the UPA-1’s quickly soundstage collapsed. Still, the volume was quite high, and the GamuTs only have 88db sensitivity. With more efficient speakers, you should be able to rock out to your heart’s content before running out of amplifier power. Those needing brain damage levels would be wise to consider Emotiva’s 500-watt monoblocks.

Taking a Spin

The USP-1 offers an onboard MM and MC phonostage, which is somewhat unbelievable given its price. Remember, these days, $500 will get you a mid-grade power cord at many other places. Doing some quick comparisons with the Rega RP1 turntable and its associated performance pack upgrade yielded great synergy. And as switching to my Cambridge 640P and NAD PP3i revealed, the USP-1’s onboard stage is easily the equivalent (and perhaps slightly more resolving) of these $200 standalone counterparts.

While most vinyl enthusiasts will probably opt for a MM cartridge that stays within the parameters of a budget system, the USP-1’s MC performance ranks above average. The somewhat low output (.25mv) Denon DL-103R proved an excellent match.  There is only one loading option (240 ohms) and gain is fixed (no level specified), but it should work just fine for most available entry-level MC cartridges. Both inputs offered a quiet background and enough dimension that one could still hear a meaningful difference between analog and digital with comparably priced source components.

More Comparisons

My experience with acoustic and vocal music found it fairly well reproduced, yet these are areas where big-bucks gear leaves budget stuff in the dust. Listening to TONEAudio cover girl Keren Ann’s latest record, 101, it became obvious that there were textures and that prized third dimension that the Emotiva gear couldn’t bring to the table. These shortcomings were the combination’s only real limitations and, again, at this price level, tradeoffs are a reality. A PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated will give you more midrange depth and texture, and the Rega Brio-R possesses more resolution, but these amplifiers are 40 and 50 watts per channel, respectively. Obviously, 200-watts-per-channel allows for a much wider range of speaker choices.

Even when using the Klipsch Heresy IIIs, the difference in sound quality between the Emotiva triplets and Simaudio Moon 600i (reviewed last issue) wasn’t subtle; the Moon gear claimed a clarity that the budget separates could not match. But a quick comparison to a $1,200 Yamaha integrated amplifier purchased from Best Buy proved the opposite. The Emotiva gear won out on all levels, providing a much more lifelike perspective of the music than the comparably priced mass-market box.

The UPA-1s always mustered a lot of grunt on the low end as well. The amplifiers admirably captured the weight and texture of the bass lines in “Dragonaut” from Sleep’s Holy Mountain, as well as some of my favorite Snoop Dogg tracks, controlling the woofers in whatever speakers I employed. Such music really demands extra amplifier power, and the UPA-1s did not disappoint.

Musically Engaging

After putting the Emotiva USP-1 and UPA-1 through rigorous listening sessions, I have to admit that the set comprises some of the most musically engaging amplification I’ve heard for around a thousand dollars. And if you aren’t as impressed with it as me, Emotiva offers a 30-day return policy. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Okay, you’ll either love or hate the blue glow, but beyond that, there’s nothing to complain about. This gear offers up neutral tonality, great dynamic range, plenty of power, and an abundance of truly useful features. If I were starting again from the beginning, the USP-1 and UPA-1 would serve as my system’s core. Add your favorite $500-$1,500 pair of speakers, a $500 turntable, a DAC, and you’ve got a system that rocks for a few thousand bucks. (I’m really looking forward to listening to Emotiva’s flagship monoblocks; if the company can turn out a product of this caliber for $350, what they can do for $1,000?)

I can’t stress it enough: This combination does not make a single misstep. Sound quality is excellent, and the pricing is amazing. Ten years ago, Chinese-made audio carried a stigma of poor build quality, shoddy finish, and subpar sound. About eight years ago, PrimaLuna came on the scene and set the gold standard for Chinese manufacturing with its line of vacuum-tube amplifiers. After listening to these components, it’s safe to say that Emotiva is well on the way to doing the same with solid-state electronics.

No, $1,200 won’t get you a $60,000 Burmester amplifier and preamplifier. But what you do get is solid build quality and great sound. Just as I was ready to award the USP-1/UPA-1 combo one of TONEAudio’s Exceptional Value Awards for 2011, a glance at the company’s Web site yielded yet another pleasant surprise in the form of a temporary price drop: The USP-1 currently sells for $399 and the UPA-1 monoblocks for $299. Factor free shipping into the equation, and there’s not a better entry point into high-end audio.

Emotiva USP-1 Preamplifier and UPA-1 Amplifiers

MSRP:  USP-1, $499 (currently $399); UPA-1, $349 each (currently $299)

Manufacturer:  www.emotiva.com


Analog Source            Dual 1219 w/Grado Red cartridge, Rega P3-24 w/Denon DL-103 cartridge

Digital Source                        BelCanto CD2

Speakers            Klipsch Heresy III, Magnepan MMG, Magnepan 1.6, MartinLogan ElectroMotion, B&W 805D, GamuT S9

Cable            AudioQuest Columbia I/Cs, AudioQuest Rocket Speaker Cables, Shunyata Venom 3 power cords

Accessories                        Running Springs Elgar Power Line Conditioner

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:

www.croftacoustics.co.uk (factory)

http://www.bluebirdmusic.com (North American distributor)

Rega Elicit – A top shelf integrated

Elicit openingEd. Note: This review was published in late 2008, but we somehow failed to upload it this spring when the site was overhauled. Our apologies!

Rega has had a string of great products lately, including the improved P3-24 turntable and the stellar Ios phono preamplifier. While I might be accused of being biased toward Roy Gandy and company, it’s pretty hard not to like them when everything they’ve sent our way has been such a home run. Actually, I’m getting more and more biased towards having a great integrated amplifier in your system.

Integrated amplifiers in general have been making a comeback for a while and we’ve had quite a few of them in our paws this year that have been spectacular. The Sim Audio Moon i-7 at $7,000 is one of my favorites and features a beefy 150-watt per channel power amplifier section. The Naim SuperNait at $5,000 is less powerful but has a versatile DAC built in along with a fantastic headphone amplifier stage.

Perhaps you don’t require a built in DAC or a headphone amplifier and you would like to spin some LP’s without having to purchase an outboard phono stage? Enter the Rega Elicit. For $3,000 without a phono stage or $3,200 with your choice of MM or MC card installed, the Elicit could be the amplifier for you. My review sample came with an MM board, as Rega did not yet have the MC boards in stock, so we will do a follow up on the MC board as soon as we receive one.

The Elicit has more than enough inputs to be the center of your HiFi system. If you order yours with the phono board installed, there are five more high level inputs; four on the input selector as well as a tape monitor input. There are three outputs as well; a variable level output marked “preamp output” that you can use with a powered subwoofer or perhaps an additional power amplifier in a biamped setup, a fixed level output marked “record output” for a tape recorder, CD recorder, etc., and an additional fixed output marked “record output link” which is functionally equivalent to the record output. Rega says that the phono preamp is a plug in card and mentions “future options.”

Elicit Rear

The Elicit is rated at 82 watts per channel and while we don’t measure our amplifiers output on a bench, I can say that it played just as loud with the same speakers as the Naim SuperNait (rated at 80 watts per channel), so as long as your speakers have a sensitivity of at least 86db the Elicit will have enough power for your application. I do find the subwoofer output critical for an amplifier at this level, I’ve auditioned too many pricey integrateds that ignore this feature.

This amplifier is continuing in the path that Rega has started down with the Ios phono stage as part of their premium line of components. “This is the best integrated we are capable of making” Roy Gandy told me in a recent phone conversation. “The circuit has actually been around for a while and we’ve been refining it.” If you aren’t familiar with Rega as a company, they do not rush to market with anything, always waiting until a product is built exactly the way they want it. Their website says at the bottom of the page “they are the last major HiFi manufacturer to produce a CD player.”

Peeking inside the Elicit shows the attention to detail, with premium parts everywhere and I’d like to emphasize that there are no Class-D modules or op amps anywhere; the Elicit’s circuitry is all discrete.

Music in five minutes

Even with a turntable, CD player and subwoofer, I was rocking out in no time with the Elicit. The instruction manual is straightforward, as is the remote. As you are lifting the Elicit out of the box, you will notice how beefy it is – there’s a major power supply lurking under the casework. With a similar form factor to the rest of the Rega components, the Elicit will look right at home with a P9 and PSU power supply, an Ios phono stage, or a Rega CD player. The big difference is the openings cut in the left and right sides, revealing some massive heat sinks for the output stages.

The volume control is somewhat recessed in the front panel and is microprocessor controlled, changing volume in +/- 1db steps. Rega claims better than .2db channel balance, which I had no reason to doubt. I liked the row of LED’s that light up around the volume control as you increase the level, as an alternative to a large LED panel with numbers. And yes, those of you that get grumpy about glowing LED’s can dim them from the remote.

Top quality sound

You’ll forget all the specs the minute you fire up the Elicit; this is something special indeed. While I liked what I heard immediately, after a couple of days of continuous play the Elicit opened up even further.

Because I see the Elicit as the core of a very high performance system, I made it a point to use it with quite a few different speakers, including the MartinLogan Spires in for review as well as the 53 thousand dollar Loiminchay Chagalls. Even with the mega Loiminchay’s, which are known for their exceptional resolution of fine detail, the Elicit held it’s own.

The good news is that the Elicit has enough current drive to power the Logans just fine and every other speaker I was able to throw at it. So unless you need concert hall levels or just have tremendously inefficient speakers, the Elicit should be able to drive most speakers with ease. I ended up settling in on the system mentioned in the sidebar, with a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3’s, a Rega Saturn CD player and a Rega P3 turntable with Clearaudio cartridge.

I’m fortunate enough to have a very high performance system to listen to every day and while this system I’ve assembled does not eclipse my six figure reference setup, it does nail the fundamentals so well, that it’s easy to forget that you aren’t listening to a much more expensive system. Listening to music that isn’t terribly demanding on the frequency extremes, like the new James Taylor album, Covers, or perhaps some chamber music will easily fool you into thinking you are listening to something a lot more expensive.

Elicit Detail 1

What fools you into thinking that you are listening to much more expensive gear is the tonality that this amplifier provides. While you won’t confuse the Elicit for a tube amplifier, it does have a drop of warmth to the presentation, sounding closer to the Luxman 590 (All class-A) than say the Moon i-7 or the SuperNait. Listening to my favorite classical discs was very pleasant indeed, with the Elicit having an unmistakable ”rightness” about it.

I briefly added the Luxman D-7 combination player that we have in for review, so that I could listen to the new Analogue Productions SACD release of Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus and it was awesome, showing off the dynamic capabilities of this amplifier. When Sonny blasts away, the Elicit did a fantastic job at capturing the transient attack. I had equally good luck with some of my favorite Mahler and Shostakovich discs. At moderate to loud levels, I always felt like there was enough headroom to enjoy the music without strain.

The Elicit’s performance under torture is also worth mentioning. I spent a few hours working outside the studio and had a good playlist full of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Snow Patrol playing, running the Elicit at full volume for about four hours straight. The heatsinks got a little warm, but not hot to the touch, indicating robust build quality.

At the risk of sounding vague, the Elicit is very musical. While some solid-state amplification, especially at this price point can sound somewhat harsh and fatiguing, this was never the case with the Rega. Towards the end of the review period, I moved it to my desktop system with a pair of Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a’s and MartinLogan Grotto i subwoofer. This system has incredible midrange detail and a very smooth high end along with an uncanny amount of resolution listening nearfield. Anything that is the least bit fatiguing will become torture during 10-hour Photoshop editing sessions.

Having spent the last two weeks of producing the August issue, listening to this combination nonstop, it was always enjoyable, even after 12-hour shifts, playing a very wide variety of music. I’m sure the parts quality and all discrete circuitry had a lot to do with this.

The hidden jewel

I was not prepared for the surprise that I had when I plugged my P3-24 into the Elicit. I have reviewed a number of integrated amplifiers and preamplifiers that charge $500-700 dollars for a plug in phono board that aren’t nearly as well executed as this one is. While I used Rega’s P3-24 with the Clearaudio Maestro Wood at first, I was so impressed with what I heard, I even upped the game, going to my P9 and Grado Statement combination. While this was pushing things beyond the resolution of the onboard phono stage, it still sounded great.
Elicit phono
The internal phono board more than held it’s own when comparing it to a few of the $700 external phono stages I’ve had the opportunity to sample, so for many vinyl lovers, this will be a great place to start. Being solid state, it is extremely quiet with good dynamics and an amazingly open top end for an under $200 upgrade.

Granted the internal phono stage will pale in comparison to Regas Ios (which costs as much as the Elicit), but it’s a great place to start. That being said, using the P9 with the Ios and the Rega Apheta MC cartridge was very impressive indeed. Not a bad way to go for a compact, all analog system!

A great alternative to separates

With integrateds gaining momentum all the time, if you haven’t investigated them in a few years, you will be taken back by just how much performance is now available. The Elicit is the perfect amplifier for someone who wants a high performance music system, regardless of configuration. The fact that you need fewer cords and cables is a big bonus.

Remember, what you get for $3,200 is a preamplifier, a darn good phono preamplifier and a power amplifier all on one chassis. Even buying modest interconnects in an all separates system would be another few hundred dollars and you would require a lot more rack space to get the job done.

It’s also very important to point out that while some of you in the audience might not quite grasp the significance of this $3000 British integrated, Rega has never made an integrated at this price point. They’ve built an amazing reputation on their Brio at $695 and the Mira at $1195, so this is big bucks for Rega. The Elicit offers so much at this price point because Rega builds their products in quantity and everything shares similar casework and packing materials. Unlike some boutique products that penalize the owner for building in small numbers, Rega reaps the rewards for running a tight ship and passes those savings on to their customers.

I defy anyone to put together more performance with a separate power amplifier, preamplifier and phono preamplifier at this price point. I’m happy to say that we are purchasing the review sample to become part of the permanent collection here at TONEAudio.

Elicit Front_silver

The Rega Elicit
MSRP: $2,995


Analog sources Rega P3-24, Rega P9, Rega IOS phono stage

Digital sources Rega Saturn, Luxman D-7i
Speakers Harbeth Compact 7ES -3, MartinLogan Spire, Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a

Cable Furutech Reference III (speaker and interconnect)

Accessories Running Springs Haley with Mongoose power cords, Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Rack