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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Is it right for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arcam MusicBOOST

MSRP: $189 (Manufacturer) (US Distributor)


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

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

Benchmark DAC2 DX

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob JohnsonBuilding upon the successes of their DAC1, Benchmark is not resting on their laurels. The release of the DAC2 series of products extends the capability and sonic performance of the product line with several different versions, offering a wide range of functionality to suit different owners’ needs.

While it might be easy to get confused by so many variations on the DAC2 theme, it’s important to note that all contain an improved digital engine. The primary differences are inputs and outputs, headphone capability and home theater pass-through. Two versions of the DAC2 come equiped with headphone outputs: DAC2 HGC and the DAC2 DX. DAC L and DAC HGC incorporate single-ended analog inputs for use as a preamplifier. The DX model we tested for this review includes an AES/EBU digital input, but no analog inputs.

Like its Benchmark ABH2 Amplifier we just reviewed, the DAC2 comes in a small enclosure with a lot packed inside. Measuring a scant 9.5 inches (249mm) wide, 9.33 inches (237mm) depth and a 1.725 inches (44.5mm) in height, the DAC2 is small enough to place anywhere easily, even on the most crowded audio racks. Plus, at a mere 3 pounds in weight, it’s easy to lift with one hand when placing it – a real joy after helping our publisher crate up the 274-pound Boulder 2160 the other day!

Internal Innovations

Under the hood, digital processing prowess is provided by SABRE DAC chips to decode 32-bit PCM and DSD files. Feeding these converters the best possible signal, Benchmark utilizes its new jitter-reduction technology via their UltraLock2™ system – a dramatic improvement over the original version in the DAC1. Focusing on lowering the noise floor and distortion level, the latest changes prove highly effective. The variable output makes the DAC2 more versatile than a DAC without, and makes it easy to become the cornerstone of a compact, yet high performance system, eliminating the need for a standalone linestage.

The back panel of the DAC2 reveals a plethora of connections fit to this tight space. Inputs include USB, two coaxial digital, and two optical connections. For analog output, the options depend on the DAC2 model chosen. All models have two pairs of single-ended outputs, and one pair of XLR balanced outputs. With the analog input equipped HGC and L models, the DAC2 features a HT pass through too.

You might not earn carbon offset points with your stereo system, but as a tree-hugging Oregonian, I appreciate that the DAC2 only draws half a watt at idle.

Snappy Setup

The DAC2 is extremely easy to set up. My Mac Mini instantly recognizes it, only requiring a few quick tweaks in the Mac OS sound settings to be ready to play music. Benchmark promises the same ease on the Windows side. While we did not have a Windows-based system on hand for testing, Benchmark has worked to make that experience just as seamless. For high resolution playback on Windows, an easily downloadable driver is needed.

Tight real estate on the rear panel is the only issue that has always plagued Benchmark DACs. As such a small unit, with so many input and output choices, the DAC2 rear panel is a bit crowded. If you have thick audio cables be aware that you may find it a bit of a stretch to get them connected. Lastly, those utilizing 24/192 or DSD files via USB will need to hold down the USB button on the remote for three seconds (a one-time setup operation) to engage USB 2.0 mode for the best performance.

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob Johnson

Locked-in listening

When I’m anchored into my listening seat, the beefy aluminum Benchmark remote proves a couch potato’s dream come true. The ability to change inputs, volume, and mute leaves little need to get up.

After several days of burn-in, it’s exciting to give this DAC a chance to sing. From the first listen, DAC2 provides a treat for the senses with a highly resolving, yet forgiving nature. Regardless of music type, DAC2 performs as a sonic chameleon rocking and rolling when it needs to, but is equally at home with the delicate nuances of jazz and classical recordings.

Cat Power’s Jukebox illustrates how the DAC2 picks up every pluck of the guitar, keeping them appropriately separated from the vocals, which reside in a different vertical plane parallel to the first. The resonance and decay of acoustic guitar notes are easily discernible across several other recordings too, like Elliott Smith’s XO – his vocals retaining a smooth, organic quality. While DAC2 may not recreate quite the level of transparency reproduced by more expensive DACs I’ve heard, I really like the voice Benchmark engineered into the DAC2. Overly transparent and revealing equipment can tend toward stridency, sibilance and a wince-factor that takes away from the musical experience.

The DAC2, on the other hand, allows a listener to dissolve into the music and enjoy big, beautiful sound rather than getting bogged down in the minutia. For example, several songs on Portishead’s album Dummy have a glare that draws attention to those sharp edges rather than the rounded musical picture. With the DAC2, those sonic artifacts are not removed, but the entire album is much more listenable.

DAC2 also throws a huge soundstage and mines a lot of ambient detail from high-resolution recordings. The perceived stage width and depth easily exceeds the speaker boundaries in all directions. Also, DAC2 projects a sonic image that reaches from floor to ceiling. Many DACs I’ve heard do a good job of this, but so far, I have not heard one under $2,000 that does it so well.

Hearing Headphones

Rather than tossing a headphone amplifier into the unit as an afterthought, Benchmark took great care in delivering a high quality headphone amplifier in the DAC2. Those considering a Benchmark DAC for headphone listening should consider taking advantage of the company’s special pricing offer which bundles a reduced-cost set of Sennheiser HD-650 headphones with some versions of the DAC2 . Those headphones are among my own favorites, and a reduced-cost package through Benchmark is an added bonus for a DAC2 owner, not to mention a great place to start your headphone journey.

With a set of HD650s on hand, listening begins with the Benchmark-recommended cans. While very resolving, the Sennheisers are a bit to the warm side of neutral. As expected, the quality of the DAC2’s sound proves revelatory with any music being piped out. Especially enjoyable are the ease and naturalness of the sound. Electronica like Phantogram’s “Black Out Days” has plenty of punch and detail, but not at the expense of the bigger sonic picture. As an older recording, guitar on Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign can have some sting, but the DAC2 pulls the best from it.

When I switch to a set of Audeze LCD-X headphones, the DAC2 demonstrates plenty of power to drive them, delivering the bass punch these headphones are capable of producing with the right setup. Sonically, these headphones are like stepping forward several rows in an auditorium, getting up close and personal with every bit of the performance. For me, this action-packed delivery was perhaps too close and personal, and I found myself preferring the Sennheisers for the bulk of my listening. The HD-650s indeed seem a perfect match for this setup, and I can see why Benchmark recommends them.

In the end, excellent

$1,895 is not a small price tag, but in a hobby offering mega-buck DACs, it’s a modest sum for a component of this caliber. The DAC2 is a very easy component to live with sonically and aesthetically. Its versatility takes the value to another level, making me nominate this one for an Exceptional Value Award and give it an enthusiastic recommendation.  -Rob Johnson

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob Johnson

Additional Listening

You have to go back almost seventy issues of TONE to our third issue for our first encounter with Benchmark. The original DAC1 was $995 and garnered our first Exceptional Value Award. It was a class leader then and it remains so today.

Staff member Jerold O’Brien still has his DAC1, so it was enlightening to compare it with the DAC2 alongside. Much like what we found comparing the Nagra PL-P to the current Jazz, the compact exteriors, as well as the overall sound, are very similar. Benchmark gear has always been very neutral, and like Nagra, because they supply so much equipment to the studio world, has little room for embellishment.

The trademark lack of sound that is Benchmark comes through instantly, but stepping up to the DAC2 immediately reveals more music and a deeper insight into recorded material, standard or high resolution. Remember, ten years ago we weren’t even talking about high resolution files, let alone DSD, so moving on to that realm is even more enlightening.

I’ve always loved using Benchmark DACs as a linestage and again, the DAC2 does not disappoint. Auditioning it with everything from a 35 watt per channel PrimaLuna ProLogue 4 up to the mighty Boulder 2160 reveals just how good this component truly is. The DAC2 is perfect for a primarily digital user who wants to put the preamp up on the shelf and run some interconnects to a power amplifier elsewhere in the room – the DAC2 drives long interconnects with ease.

So, ten years later, Benchmark continues to create an awesome DAC in a compact case. I’m guessing I’ll have to arm wrestle Mr. O’Brien for it again. -Jeff Dorgay

Benchmark DAC2 DX

MSRP: $1,895


Digital Sources Mac Mini with jRiver and Roon playback    dCS Debussy
Amplification Burmester 911 mk3
Preamplification Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley, and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks    Coffman Labs Equipment Footers    AudioQuest Jitterbug

Naim Mu-so Tabletop System

Naim Mu-So review by Rob Johnson TONEAudioThe hifi press was abuzz last year over Naim Audio’s massive Statement stack: an amplifier and preamplifier capable of over 700 watts per channel with an equally huge price tag that is in Aston Martin territory. However, being the clever engineers that they are, the folks from Salisbury had something equally compelling and more approachable at the Munich High End show – the Mu-so. Standing alone in the Naim room, the Mu-so was introduced rather quietly, but every time we checked it was mobbed with onlookers.

This elegant tabletop system features a plethora of style cues, with the polished case, clad in sculptured black grille material, a clear acrylic base and a single multifunction control on top. Sure, you can use the app or the remote control, but this begs to be touched and interacted with. The Brits have outdone style leaders Bang & Olufsen this time – the Mu-so is as understatedly elegant as the Bentley Continental that Naim also happens to supply the hifi system for.

Queuing up Florence + the Machine’s latest disc hints at the Mu-so’s capabilities, filling the living room with her sultry, luscious voice in a way that suggests a pair of Quad 57s. Airy and much bigger than the small enclosure suggests. Moving to more rocking faire, a quick playlist of classic Little Feat proves that the Mu-so can rock with the best of them, its 450 watts of power and six bespoke drivers handling the low bass line in “Long Distance Love” with ease. The only remaining question is how you will interface with Mu-so. And perhaps whether to stick with the standard black grille, or swap for the optional Burnt Orange or Deep Blue.

Convenient Controls

The user has several interface options. The four-inch recessed disc on the top left of the unit enables several functions. The outer edge of the wheel is silver in color. The center is an obsidian black touch-screen from which simple, white, lighted controls emerge from the dark. When plugged in, the default view is a simple, lighted power symbol. Once touched, lights around the edge of the circle cycle indicate the status of the power-up process.

Additional controls surface from the darkness when Mu-so is ready to play, giving a user the option of selecting Naim iRadio or an external input. Pushing on either option activates that functionality. When pressing the input button to choose an external source, repeated presses select UPnP, USB/iPod, or Bluetooth inputs. Three lighted sections of light at the top of the wheel activate in turn as the touch screen cycles among the choices.

Depending on the input source, the Mu-so also makes available other touch controls to advance tracks, play, pause and more. It’s nice to see only what’s useable, and not a lot of other control options that have no impact in a given mode. The disc acts like a volume control when twisted to the right or left, and lights around the circumference of the wheel light up corresponding to changes in volume, temporarily commandeering the input lights and others around the edge to indicate the full volume range. All of this is easy to do up close and personal or via the included remote or free iOS and Android apps from Naim.

Naim Mu-So review by Rob Johnson TONEAudio

Simple Setup

Naim offers detailed instructions on every aspect of Mu-so setup in the included manual; for the sake of brevity, this review will hit only the highlights of the process. Even without touching the manual, though, I find it highly intuitive to get the Mu-so up and running. Naim has produced an excellent installation video that you can watch here: .

As a first step, when a location for Mu-so is decided, be sure to head into the iOS or Android app and select whether Mu-so is within 25cm of a rear wall or not. The selection allows the Mu-so to self-optimize sonically for its location and avoid bass loading when too close to a rear wall. After selecting the appropriate toggle, it’s still worth moving the Naim backwards and forwards a bit and do some tuning with your own ears.

With that done, a recessed area on the underside of the unit has three physical connections to make. First, Mu-so’s included power cord must be connected. Secondly an Ethernet socket enables a direct connection to an internet connection, although a wireless connection serves equally well. Finally, an optical input offers a hard-wired connection to complement other wireless streaming options.

The side of the Mu-so enables a few other input options. There’s a standard USB cable connection and a 1/8-inch analog input. Finally, a small, multi-color capable, LED status indicator delivers a dizzying array of information about the unit status and setup process. Depending on the color, and referring to the Mu-so manual, the LED informs the owner about status of internet connection, firmware updates, and other items. Simplicity is a good thing.

When attempting to pair an iPhone with the Mu-so, the first question asked on the iOS app setup screen is the color of the status LED. Clicking on the corresponding toggle, and with only a few additional touches on the iPhone screen, Mu-so and iDevice are fully paired. The process takes only a few seconds, and works seamlessly.

With the needed connections made, Mu-so offers playback via Bluetooth, Spotify, Airplay, internet radio and others. While all the wired and wireless playback options work very well through the Mu-so, much of my testing, a Mac Mini delivered the bits via Airplay. Whether exporting music to the Mu-so using iTunes, jRiver, or Roon, each came through with ease.

Super Sound

As it turns out, this little box packs a lot of surprises. From the get-go, the sonic balance of the Mu-so proves enjoyable. As with other Naim products I’ve heard over the years, the sound is plenty detailed, and a bit to the warmer side making long-term listening sessions fatigue free. Regardless of input choice, the Naim makes the best use of the digital signal.

While soundstaging prowess is inherently limited by a single-box design, the height and width of the sonic wall portrayed by the Mu-so remains surprisingly huge. Because of the perceived size, some guests visiting my home while the Mu-so played between my larger reference speakers made the assumption that the bigger boxes were responsible for playback.

Vocal reproduction is very good as with the rest of the midrange. On tracks like k.d. Lang’s “Tears of Love’s Recall” vocal crescendos lack grain or sting, while portraying the power of the performance.

Strengths and Scrutiny

The Mu-so is a really slick system that is fun to use. At $1,500 there’s a lot of capability and a lot of value packed into a small enclosure. After living with it in my home for some time, and trying it in different rooms which don’t have a quality sound system of their own, the Mu-so proves an addictive piece of kit.

A potential buyer should be aware of some caveats, however. Music fans desiring to approximate the left-to-right, and back-to-front soundstage of a realistic performance will be better served with a full Naim system and speakers.

Mu-so is certainly no slouch in the sound department. I find the sonic balance very enjoyable for long listening sessions. Naim did a great job creating the versatile Mu-so, but there are a few sonic compromises that should be expected from a one-box unit.

Mu-so is designed to fill a room with high quality sound, and equally importantly, offer a plethora of input and digital playback options. If one member of the house prefers streaming music via Bluetooth from an iPhone, another prefers to stream radio over the internet, and another prefers to connect directly via USB from a computer, each person gets exactly what they want given the Mu-so’s extreme flexibility. Also, the Mu-so’s elegant and modern look will fit well into any room without drawing a lot of attention to itself.

If the Mu-so’s strengths appeal to you, do yourself a favor and head to your local Naim dealer to check it out. As a one-box solution from a company with a long-standing history of great gear, that Mu-so does amazing things as expected.  –Rob Johnson

Naim Mu-So review by Rob Johnson TONEAudio

Additional Listening

Much like the iPod, one-box hifi is a rapidly developing area of the hifi world. About six years ago, we were blown away by the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, and there have been a number of challengers, both more and less costly. Naim has chosen to take the high road, going after the stratosphere of the market – with excellent success. My personal favorite has been the now discontinued Meridian F80, which sported a $3,000 price tag.

The Mu-so eclipses my former one-box reference in every way, albeit with a larger footprint. The extra speakers and power really come in handy, and I can’t stress strongly enough that placement with this device is critical to get it to really rock. The wrong EQ settings and casual placement will leave you cold, but set it up properly and spend ten minutes placing it in just the right spot to get enough bass reinforcement, and you will be highly impressed.

I spent a lot of time using the Mu-so as the home theater system in my bedroom, using it to both stream music from Tidal via an iPad and provide movie sound, hardwired, via an Apple TV. In this situation, the Mu-so proved highly impressive, offering up room-filling sound in a 12 x 14 foot room, placed on a dresser, just below a 65-inch TV set.

I must confess a bias in favor of Naim’s timeless design, so I can’t really be objective here. I love the look of the Mu-so and feel that they’ve even outdone Devialet in the control elegance department. That part will be up to you. But for the music and movie lover who doesn’t want a rack of gear, yet still wants high quality sound, Naim’s Mu-so is pretty awesome and worth a trip to your Naim dealer for an audition.  – Jeff Dorgay

Naim Mu-so

MSRP: $1,500

Ryan R-610 Loudspeakers

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob JohnsonRyan Speakers may be a new name to many; however, brothers Trevor and Todd started building speakers in the 1980s under the moniker Ryan Acoustics. Their designs, and the tools to optimize and improve them, have advanced in the new century, but the goal of the company remains the same: to make exceptional speakers at a down-to-earth price – and do it all in the United States from their factory in Riverside, California. They have succeeded brilliantly.

There are three different R-Series speakers with common driver designs optimized for each enclosure. The R610 reviewed here is priced at $2,000 and is a two-way bookshelf model. The R620 and R630 are 2.5- and 3-way floorstanding models, priced at $3,500 and $5,000. Multiple veneer choices are available, including walnut, oak and the clear cherry you see here, as well as custom staining options to fit a wider range of décor. I’d expect this flexibility with a much more bespoke (and expensive) product, so kudos to Ryan for being interior friendly.

These speakers instantly impress with their portrayal of Poe’s voice on “Fly Away” easily rendering reverberation heard in the recording, and simultaneously reveals the highly engaging and delicate quality to her voice. As a minimalist song, an accompanying flute remains layered in the distance behind the singer, and a piano locks in position to one side of the stage. The Ryans place all the elements of the performance slightly behind the plane of the speakers, and together this places the performers several rows down from my imaginary concert seat. Focusing on the forest rather than each individual tree, the overall musical picture is a wonderful one. Through the Ryans, a seat in row “J” is just fine with me.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The team at Ryan believes strongly in the structural rigidity that comes with the traditional box shape, reinforced with internal bracing, damping as they see fit. The cabinets are straightforward and understated (helping to keep the cost down), with the goodies on the inside – reminiscent of another highly successful West Coast speaker manufacturer. Even the felt ring around the tweeter is chosen with care, an attitude permeating this speaker’s design ethos.

Described in the product literature as a “bookshelf” design, the R610 leans towards the larger side of that moniker, measuring 16.73 inches (425mm) in height, 8.86 inches (225mm) in width, and with a depth of 12 inches (305mm) including the grille. They are mighty hefty, too, at 33 pounds (15kg) each. Inside is a 6.5 inch (165mm) Nomex cone woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) cloth dome tweeter. These tweeters are placed to the inside of the enclosure and are intended to be used that way as a mirrored pair. Placing the tweeters to the outside of the stereo pair will diffuse the soundstaging, so be sure to observe the manufacturer’s suggestion when placing the R610s. And plan on investing in a good pair of speaker stands to get the most out of the R610, as this is crucial to getting maximum bass extension. According to the team at Ryan, all their drivers are designed in-house at the facility in Riverside, California.

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Up and running

The R610s are easy to set up; however the best integration in my room is with 26-inch speaker stands, keeping the tweeters close to ear level, so keep that in mind in relation to the height of your listening chair or couch. The manual included with the R610s provides excellent insight to new or experienced audio enthusiasts, so it is worth perusing as you are putting yours into service. They suggest placing the speakers 6–10 feet (1.8–3.0m) apart, at least 1.6 feet (0.5m) from the rear wall, and at least 2.0 feet (0.6m) from the side walls. This proved an excellent starting point, as did the ten degrees of toe-in, though I ultimately found nirvana with slightly more in my room. Again, this will depend on the exact tonal balance you prefer.

While the R610s serve up bass that is tight and tuneful, extreme low bass is lacking. In my larger listening room, roll-off becomes noticeable at about 80Hz. With test tones descending below that frequency, the drop-off becomes even more pronounced. Those who crave deeper, thunderous bass should consider supplementing the R610s with a high quality subwoofer. Or better yet – if budget allows – try one of the larger Ryan speakers which is designed to integrate all the audible frequencies optimally.

Other than inability to create deep bass, the frequency spectrum doesn’t overemphasize any region that creates an obvious imbalance. With a very neutral profile, these speakers work very well with every genre we throw at them. Experimenting with rock, electronica, classical, jazz, blues, and vocal-centric music, all prove enjoyable. It’s easy to get engrossed in the music rather than analyzing it.

Left to right imaging exceeds the speaker boundaries creating a huge soundstage, never drawing attention to the sound broadcast point, but to the music around them. The Afro Cuban All-Stars “A Toda Cuba le Gusta” illustrates this perfectly, defining and separating the musical elements contained with only a slight dithering of the big picture.

Epitomizing high performance for the price

The Ryan R610s peg the price-o-meter. $2,000 is still an investment for most seeking great sound, but well within the reach of those making a great music system a priority. Their modest form factor makes them easy to integrate into any environment and underlines Ryan’s commitment to research and development. Living with the Ryans for some time, they continue to impress. For all they offer at their modest price point, the R610 speakers certainly earn a 2015 TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.  –Rob Johnson

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Additional listening

There’s something awesome about a well-executed pair of 2-way speakers. Much like a first generation Miata on a curvy road, you don’t always need 500 horsepower to have a great time. Going straight to my small (10 x 13 foot) listening room after photos, the R610s are perfection: powered by the Nagra 300i tube amplifier with 20 watts per channel of 300B power, the Ryan speakers are well-served by the delicacy of the Nagra.

Even with something as cloudy and compressed as Todd Rundgren’s classic, Something/Anything, the R610s do an excellent job unraveling the music presented on a large canvas, beautifully disappearing in the room. Yet with an excellent recording, they take the presentation further, throwing a stereo image that extends way beyond the speaker boundaries, with a tonal purity that rivals much more expensive speakers.

Where the KEF LS-50 is more precise in terms of imaging performance, the R610 is more homogenous with additional weight in the lower register. Taking advantage of room gain in my small listening room was a bonus, and I wouldn’t suggest using these speakers in a room much bigger than 11 x 14 feet if you want solid bass response. I must confess a bias towards a well-executed soft dome tweeter, so if you share this preference, the R610 will thrill you. Should you be more in the ribbon or metal tweeter camp, you may find these speakers a little dull. Choices, choices.

Again, these speakers strike a natural chord, and the only thing they lack that the big bucks speakers have more of is ultimate resolution of minute musical details. Unless you are playing them side by side next to a great pair of $30,000 speakers at high volume, you won’t really notice. While most of my listening was done with the 20 watt per channel Nagra amplifier, substituting higher powered amplifiers of the tube and solid state variety worked well – bottom line, the better your components, the more music the Ryans will reveal.

For all of our readers that freak out when we review mega components, the Ryan Audio R610 speakers are as real as it gets. Buy a pair. I’m going to. – Jeff Dorgay

Ryan R610 Loudspeakers

MSRP: $1,999


Analog Source SME Model 10 with Model 10 tonearm    Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Digital Sources Mac Mini with jRiver and Roon playback    dCS Debussy
Amplification Burmester 911 mk3
Preamplification Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley, and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks    Coffman Labs Equipment Footers    AudioQuest Jitterbug

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275 Amplifier – Preview

Wrapped in the same champagne front panel that every CJ component has come since their inception, the MF 2275 is a compact, solid state amplifier. As company founder Lew Johnson assured me at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, “Yes, we make excellent solid-state amplifiers too.”

Rated at 135 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load, the MF 2275 features a no frills approach to delivering great solid-state sound. Those familiar with their other solid-state designs will immediately notice a family resemblance. Newcomers to the world of CJ will immediately be impressed. Rob Johnson’s review coming soon!

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275


Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

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

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

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

Hull and Rigging

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

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

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

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

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

Diving In

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

Starting at $1,800

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Bookshelf Speakers

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

Under the Microscope

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

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


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

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

Testing in Vivo

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

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

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

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

Perpetual Motion

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

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

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

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

Martin Logan Motion 35XT bookshelf speakers

MSRP: $1,200 per pair


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

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

New Zealand’s Plinius Audio has a track record of delivering products that offer great sound for the dollar—and its Inspire 980 certainly offers a lot, especially for $4,450. In addition the power and preamp capabilities of a standard integrated, it also features an onboard MM phonostage and an internal DAC. With all those elements built in, this beauty can serve as a fantastic system hub—just add speakers and sources.

As with other Plinius products, the 980 features simplistic aesthetics, despite a wealth of internal capabilities. The smooth, bead-blasted aluminum faceplate is interrupted only by a volume knob and two buttons to toggle source selection. The 980 comes with a remote, but the $7.99 Plinius Arataki app (available on the iTunes store) makes controlling the unit from your listening chair even easier.

The unit’s dimensions are modest—about 18 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 3 inches tall—though the slender frame is somewhat deceptive when lifting the unit. It weighs in at a surprising 22 pounds, a result of its burly transformer and the breadth of electronics its versatile capabilities require. The unit’s Class A/B amplification section delivers 80 watts per channel into 8 ohms and roughly 100 watts into 4 ohms. While I’m used to a reference amplifier offering much more juice, the 980 has no trouble holding its own. It maintains command of the Sonus faber Olympica III speakers and leaves me not wanting for extra power.

Setup? What Setup?

As one would expect from this four-in-one integrated, the setup process is quick. Just plug in sources and speakers and start listening. Its back panel accommodates a turntable, two optical inputs and two single-ended line-level sources. There’s also a set of XLR inputs for a CD player, plus an Ethernet port and a USB input for networking from computer-based audio sources and DLNA-capable devices. As a nice bonus, the 980 also offers a wireless connection option.

I will note that the RCA inputs for the line-level sources are bit close together, making large-diameter interconnects a tight squeeze. My only other complaint is that my spade-terminated speakers wires present a challenge with these biding posts. The spades I use are actually soldered to the rest of the speaker wire, so they aren’t exactly flexible and so they must be inserted from underneath, as the binding posts are at the very base of the unit’s short frame and have very little clearance. I have to place the 980 at the rear edge of my rack so the cables can dangle downward instead of kinking. Of course, using bare wire or non-soldered banana terminations would not present this problem.

Sonic Notes

After the break-in period, the Plinius sounds neutrally voiced, with little glare, grain, or stridency. Regardless of source or the quality of the recording, I find the sound extremely easy to live with. It does not romanticize music or lean towards euphony. There’s just a slightly forgiving and relaxed quality to the sound, which strikes a delicate balance between warmth and stark realism.

With its internal 24-bit/192-kHz DAC employed, the 980 remains very tuneful. Compared unfairly against more expensive dedicated DACs, it offers a little less ambient detail and refinement; however, it does manage to render even poor recordings in a musical and enjoyable way. To my ears, Norah Jones’s vocals on “Don’t Know Why” were recorded a little hot, meaning that crescendos sometimes have an ear-tingling singe. During CD-quality digital playback, this stridency is somewhat diminished, giving the song a greater sense of musicality.

The 980 has no noticeable roll-off among high frequencies. On Hélène Grimaud’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Sonata No. 2,” key strikes in the upper region have the requisite plink, ring, and ambient decay. With complementary bass prowess, the 980’s portrayal is deep and punchy with a solid grip on speaker drivers, especially on rock tracks like Electric Six’s “Dance Commander.” The Plinius delivers the full energy of this song with little (if any) compromises.

The soundstage portrayed—front-to-back layering, perceived width, and extension beyond the speakers—also proves excellent. Though I listen to Chris Isaak’s “Go Walking Down There” in regular rotation, I find myself startled by the 980’s portrayal of the cymbals panned to the far left and right of the recording; in my listening space, the sound bursts into the room. While the crash, shimmer and decay of the cymbal strikes may not have all the nuanced resolution of a more expensive and dedicated DAC (like the dCS Debussy, for example), what’s there is nicely rendered.

The phonostage section proves to be another really nice addition, given the price tag of the 980. While it’s limited to MM cartridges and has a fixed loading and gain, it is a wonderful feature to have incorporated in such a compact package. With all the experience Plinius has building great phonostages, like its marvelous Koru, there is undoubtedly some trickle-down technology lending the 980 solid analog playback. (See “Additional Listening” for notes on the phonostage performance.)

A Lot to Love

The Inspire 980 costs $4,450, which is not chump change. But given the quality of all the elements within—amp, preamp, DAC and phonostage—it’s actually something of a value-oriented purchase. Yes, you can get greater realism and refinement from more expensive standalone equipment, like Plinius’s own reference-level products. But from a price-performance standpoint, the 980 is a great option. For those who don’t need wired or wireless home networking capability for music retrieval from a networked drive, the Inspire’s little brother, the 880, offers the same functionality and sonics as the 980, but for $3,650.

If you have limited space to dedicate to your hi-fi system or if you simply want to scale down the number of components in you audio arsenal, this all-in-one component offers a lot to love. The 980 is also well suited as a launching point for prospective buyers who might be looking to upgrade to a larger system down the road. Given all of its capability and versatility, I can easily recommend this component—and I’d even put it on my own short list.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Every Plinius product we’ve auditioned has been fantastic, and the 980 continues that tradition.  As Rob is a MC-only guy, I wanted to spend some time listening to the 980 with the Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge, which is currently mounted to the refurbished Thorens TD-125 table (courtesy of Vinyl Nirvana) and revitalized SME 3009 tonearm (courtesy of

As a listener who loves analog as much as digital and as someone about to move to a small space, I will say that the Plinius 980 is a fantastic solution for those wanting to keep sound quality way up and the footprint way down. Streaming music from the Meridian MS200, which is barely the size of a glasses case, and using my turntable makes this a true desktop situation. A 15-foot run of Cardas Clear speaker cable (admittedly worth more than the amplifier) and the Franco Serblin Accordo speakers round out an amazing system in my 11-by-13-foot living room.

Don’t sell yourself short on the MM thing; there are quite a few $600 to $1,000 MM cartridges that, if you aren’t going to drop thousands of bucks on a table, will fit the bill very nicely. I’m partial to the 2M Black, which mates flawlessly with the Plinius. Having spent a lot of time with the massive Plinius Class-A monoblocks, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with the 980. The Accordos perform their best with a lot of current and the 980 delivers the control necessary to really rock these small but mighty speakers.

But most importantly, the phonostage is dead quiet and, like the rest of the amplifier, it does not exaggerate or embellish. The Ortofon 2M has a similar sound, so if that’s your fancy, I can’t suggest this cartridge highly enough. Those wanting a bit more mellow/warm/euphonic sound should consider the Grado Reference Master 1 Moving Iron cartridge. With a 5-mV output and requiring 47K loading, the Grado will add a bit of warmth to your system’s tonality, which is especially useful if your record collection consists of mostly jazz and classic rock.

Whatever your taste, the Plinius Inspire 980 is a fantastic bargain, especially for those utilizing both digital and analog sources. An external DAC and phonostage of this caliber would easily set you back $1,000 each, so it’s like getting an 80-wpc integrated amp thrown in for $2,450—not to mention all that cable you won’t need. Enthusiastically suggested!

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $4,450


Digital Source Mac mini     dCS Debussy
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier

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

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

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

Setting the Benchmark

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

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

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

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

Meeting the Benchmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


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

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

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

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

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

Grace of a figure skater

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

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

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

Warming up

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

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

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

The Decathalon

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

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

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

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

Final score

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

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

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

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

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

Additional Listening

by Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

MSRP: $13,500


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

Balanced Audio Technology VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

The VK-3000SE from Delaware’s Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) is a vacuum-tube linestage and a solid-state amplifier rolled into one. The latter offers 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms and twice that into 4 ohms. For the preamp section, BAT utilizes a pair of Russian 6H30 valves, which are concealed inside the unit. Some refer to these military-grade tubes as “super tubes” for their longevity and durability; they’re also alleged to have a whopping 10,000-hour lifespan. In the unlikely event of a bad tube, BAT stands behind them with a one-year warranty. (The VK-3000SE itself comes with five-year warranty.) The unit weighs in at 50 pounds and the chassis measures 19 by 5.75 by 15.5 inches. It’s priced at $7,995, which is pretty reasonable considering the amp’s broad capabilities.

As you might guess by the company’s name, the VK-3000SE’s internal circuit topology accommodates a fully balanced signal. The back panel offers a combination of three single-ended RCA inputs, two balanced inputs and an RCA tape out. Metal speaker binding posts accommodate many connection options. Keep in mind that the posts are quite close together, so large speaker cables with spade connections like mine require some finagling.

In addition to the standard linestage capability of the preamp section, BAT offers a pre-installed MM/MC phonostage with the associated outboard inputs as a $1,000 upgrade option. Users have an option of a 48 or 55 dB gain, the latter being the default. Load-wise, the phono card is factory set at 47,000 ohms, but it can be adapted for other cartridges as needed. Users can make these changes themselves by removing the unit’s cover and following BAT’s instructions. The standard load works quite well with my cartridge, a Dynavector 17D3, so I didn’t make further adjustments.

Clean Design

The VK-3000SE offers a clean, elegant external design. Our sample unit sports an anodized black finish, but silver is also an option. The hefty, metal remote control has a similar finish. The chassis’ subtle curves give the amp a sleek, modern appearance. To help keep the unit cool, which is especially important given the hot tubes within, BAT utilizes a top panel with small ventilation slits at the outer edges and holes down the center in an hourglass shape.

Once powered up, the amp’s front-panel vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) shows the input choice and volume level. The font is large, blue, and very visible—it’s easy to read from my listening seat 9 feet away. For those who prefer darkness, the remote’s display button will variably dim or turn off the VFD.

A minimal number of small controls on the front panel disguise the versatility within. The visible buttons include power, mute, input, phase, mono and function, the latter of which allows access to an on-screen menu. And of course, there’s a beefy volume knob that goes from 0 to 140. According to Geoff Poore, BAT’s sales manager, the numbering scale represents a 70 db range, in half db increments. He goes on to mention “There are two other volume “scales” that can be used in the 3000SE: “DBM” and  “DBU”.  The unit comes with a more understandable (for consumers) “CNTS” (counts) scale.  Broadcast and recording facilities are more likely to use “DBM” (-70 to 0) or “DBU” (-50 to +20).  One may preset any of these different scales in the set-up with the “function” button while cycling through.  We are very proud of the sophistication and accuracy of the volume control in the 3000.”

When toggling through the input options, you’ll see that the VFD has them listed as CD, tape, aux and so on, though the owner can modify the labels. Relabeling the third input as “iPod” proves very easy. Once programmed in, the amp stores these labels in its memory and remembers them even if it’s powered down and unplugged.

The function button is similarly flexible; pressing it reveals several user-selectable options for the selected input. Users can adjust balance, phase, mono/stereo and display mode, and select fixed, relative and maximum volume to equalize input sources and to avoid an inadvertent sound blast. To exit the menu, just hold the function button for two seconds. Most of this functionality is also accessible via the remote.

Up and Running

Setup for the single-box unit is very straightforward—just connect sources and speakers and you are ready to rock. Pressing the power button puts the VK-3000SE into a muted tube-warm-up mode; after a minute or so, a quiet click indicates the amp is ready. Pressing the button again puts the unit into a low-power standby mode, with the tubes remaining engaged. Holding down the power button for a couple seconds shuts down the unit completely.

Testing both the single-ended and balanced connections with my DAC, I find that they sound similar but have some subtle differences. The XLR connections do offer a bit quieter background, providing a little more sonic detail and nuance, and the presentation is a little more up-front. If you have the option of balanced connections, they are the way to go.

Across the frequency spectrum, VK-3000SE leans a bit to the warmer side of neutral in my system. Pitch Black’s album Rude Mechanicals provides a helpful test. The bass presentation is more relaxed than punchy and the amp has no trouble making very low frequencies known, but they never overwhelm the mix.

Extremely revealing components have a tendency to make the listener wince when playing some female vocal recordings; pleasantly, the VK-3000SE does not. Throughout Sia’s cover of “I Go to Sleep,” vocal crescendos project little stridency, despite their power. Also, as I notice in the cymbal shimmers on other tracks, the amp has a slight tradeoff of sonic realism for a touch of veil, but a degree of euphony in some circumstances is welcome. Balanced connections prove more revealing, so users should experiment with interconnects to find the sonic balance that works best in their system.

The amp’s ability to portray both a vertical and horizontal soundstage is fantastic, regardless of source material. Music extends beyond the speakers to the extreme left and right and from floor to ceiling, though front-to-back layering is not a strong point. The VK-3000SE does make it easy to pick out individual elements of a song, but it’s not a fully convincing reproduction of a live performance when band members are scattered across the front and back of the stage.

Putting the phonostage through its paces, I soon find that there’s a lot to enjoy. Analog and digital sources have similar sonic signatures through this amp, but the phonostage offers a greater sense of ease and naturalness. Vocals, like those on Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush,” move forward in the soundstage, enhancing the VK-3000SE’s front-to-back presentation. Some of that benefit, of course, is due to the analog source, but the quality of the analog reproduction is strong evidence of the effort and quality that BAT put into the unit’s phono card. It would be a challenge to find a single-box phonostage of this quality for the amp’s $1,500 phono add-on. The VK-3000SE demonstrates the synergistic value of an integrated audio solution.

Final Score

While $8,000 is a substantial investment for any piece of audio gear, it’s important to frame this product in the context of what you get for that price. You could spend a lot more money for individual components that deliver greater sonic nuance, layering, and air around each musical element, as well as a more realistic-sounding reproduction of a live concert. Of course, with added components, an owner also needs to consider the cost of extra interconnects and power cords.

The VK-3000SE is both a great preamp and a great power amp, and with the optional (and fantastic) phonostage, it’s a versatile, compact, and great-sounding piece of gear. If each of its elements were sold as individual components, the combined price would certainly be higher than the cost of the single unit, and it would be tricky to find separates that complement each other this well.

Having plenty of power and multiple input options, the VK-3000SE offers a turnkey solution that will mate well with many sources and speaker types. With a five-year warranty backing it, this is a component you’re likely to enjoy for a long time, even as the other gear in your audio arsenal evolves around it.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having been such a big fan of BAT gear over the years, I had to hand the main review over to Rob—partly to share the excitement of the brand (with which he’s had no experience) and to deliver a more impartial review. Firing up the VK-3000SE to perform break-in duties is like putting the keys in a Porsche 911, in the sense that everything is where I remember it and, regardless of vintage, the overall ride is similar—just as the dynamic sound of BAT is like taking an old friend for a test drive.

While BAT has made a name for itself based mostly on the reputation of its fine vacuum-tube gear, the company has always made great solid-state power amplifiers, which have not always received their fair share of (well-deserved) praise. I have always loved the combination of a solid-state power amplifier and a valve preamplifier, so the VK-3000SE is right up my alley.

As much fun as modestly powered tube amplifiers are, 35 watts per channel limits your speaker choices too much, in my opinion. But 150 wpc is just right for all but the most inefficient speakers. Everything at my disposal—from the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades to the 84-dB-per-watt Harbeth Compact 7s—proves a good match for this amplifier, with nothing running out of steam until I crank the volume to beyond brain-damage levels.

A side-by-side comparison to another favorite, the Simaudio MOON 600i, is enlightening. Both amplifiers are similarly priced (though the MOON does not include an onboard phonostage option), yet the MOON is all solid state. Those preferring a slightly more neutral, even a touch punchier sound and who don’t care about the phono might prefer the MOON. Personally, the VK-3000SE has that combination of solid-state grunt and a touch of tubey warmth in an ever-so-slight way that is not veiled, colored or slow.

The 6H30 is a very dynamic and powerful tube, sounding nothing like, say, a 12AX7. And BAT built its reputation around this tube, and the company implements it like no other. Whether you’re blasting AC/DC, Coltrane or Coldplay, this amplifier offers a lot of inner detail and timbral purity in spades.

As good as the onboard phonostage is, choosing it will ultimately be the limiting factor for the hardcore vinyl enthusiast. But again, it’s damn good for a thousand bucks. If you are primarily digital and just dabbling with LPs, it’s fine; grab your favorite $2,500 table/arm/cartridge combo and call it a day. However, if you’re more of an analog lover or plan on serious analog upgrades in the future, order your VK-3000SE without the phonostage and go for BAT’s awesome VK-P6 instead. (We will have that review shortly). You’ll be glad you spent the extra dough. The VK-P5 was a class leader and the P6 promises even more performance for around $3,500.

High-performance integrated amps continue to be popular for the audio and music lover who wants world-class performance without buying a rack full of components. The VK-3000SE is an excellent choice, should that be your cup of tea. This is certainly one I could retire with happily ever after.

VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $7,995 (plus $1,000 for the optional phono section)

Balanced Audio Technology


Digital Sources HP desktop computer with Windows 7    JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 Mk2
Analog Source SME 10 turntable with Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Speakers Piega P-10    Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords   Shunyata Python Alpha power cord
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Morel Octave 6 Limited Floorstanding Speakers

Though I knew little about Morel before this review, after listening to its new Octave 6 Limited floorstanding speakers, the company now has my attention. Based in Israel, Morel builds car speakers, in-walls, and various standalone options, as well as its own drivers.  Morel has been a manufacturer of premier drivers for a number of major speaker companies for some time now, however while all of their drivers share core technologies, the ones utilized in their own systems are built from scratch and customized for that individual speaker.  Everything from crossover to the drivers is done in house, except for cabinetry.

The Octave 6 Limited speaker line, which is among Morel’s mid-tier hi-fi offerings and contains some trickle-down technology from the top speakers (mainly the Fat Lady flagship speaker), includes a bookshelf/stand-mounted model, a limited-edition floorstander with larger woofers and voice coil, finished in either black or white lacquer.

Design and Setup

I put the Octave 6 Limited floorstanders through their paces. They utilize a 1.1-inch soft dome tweeter, a 6-inch midrange unit with a 3-inch voice coil, and a single 9-inch side-firing subwoofer with a giagantic 5.1” voice coil and a hybrid carbon fibre/paper cone. All the drivers are covered with protective lotus grille, utilizing a special pattern to minimize reflections and resonance – a special tool is enclosed to carefully remove these grilles for maximum sonic effect. Though they are disparately placed, the drivers display fantastic sonic cohesion.

The box cabinet is modified with some curved edges and includes a rear port. The forward-firing tweeter is molded to the top and set slightly back to ensure proper time alignment with the midrange driver, which is set into a slight bulge extending from the otherwise straight cabinet. These floorstanders are rather small in stature, measuring 38 inches tall, 13.4 inches wide, and 7.3 inches deep; they weigh about 52 lbs each.

A double set of binding posts allow for bi-amping. For those using standard speaker wire, stamped and gold-plated jumpers connect the binding posts. In testing, I found that a set of Jena Labs jumpers sound better than the stock jumpers. The speakers also come with a set of spikes to couple them to the floor.

The binding post and driver placements remind me of the Audio Physic Virgos, which I had for several years. A new pair of the Virgos cost around $7,000, so I found myself very eager to hear what the $7,000 Morels could accomplish. As much as I loved the Virgos, the Octaves prove themselves a better choice for my taste.

After an hour of scooting the Octaves around my listening room—which is 17 feet deep and 20 feet wide, with a 10.5-foot ceiling—I find the ideal placement to be about 4 feet from the front wall with a slight toe-in, thereby twisting the side-firing woofers slightly toward the rear of the room.

Sound and Performance

My reference speakers, the Piega P-10s, are larger than the Octave and in their day, the Piegas cost twice as much as the Octaves, so it’s not a fair comparison, though the Octaves offer some similarities in terms of sonic signature. They reproduce a little less detail and ambience than the Piegas, though they absolutely hold their own, filling the room with wonderful music. The Octaves create the illusion of sitting a few rows back in an auditorium during a live performance. From that perspective, a bit of lost detail is natural.

Morel says the Octave’s frequency response covers the 20-Hz-to-20-kHz range of human hearing and extends to 22 kHz. The speakers offer a high level of neutrality, more so than the Virgos, which have a slightly warm character. Considering the Octaves modest cabinet size, the amount of low-frequency information they portray is impressive. The upper and mid-bass regions remain tuneful, tight, and well defined. Frequency-sweep tracks verify the speakers can produce very low frequencies, though they roll off below 40 Hz in my room, despite experimentation with speaker placement. The Octaves do work magic, but at some point the rules of physics take over. There’s only so much stomach-tingling oomph that a small enclosure can muster.

The Octaves don’t offer the level of bass tangibility I’m accustomed to with my reference speakers. For example, passages on Pitch Black’s “Ape to Angel” leave me longing for more heft. Still, I remain amazed at what the Octaves can produce, given sufficient amplifier power. The touch of low-bass shyness I experience may not be as apparent in a smaller room.

The Octaves do a great job of high-frequency extension without tipping toward an edge of stridency or etch. They deliver plenty of detail while maintaining the music’s natural sound: accurate male and female vocals; cymbals retain their shimmer; saxophones and clarinets are rendered with appropriate woodiness; and on good acoustic guitar recordings, it’s easy to discern the difference between nylon and metal strings.

Soundstage and Dimensionality

The Octave 6 Limited speakers have the ability to cast sound in all directions, while drawing no particular attention to the physical location of the speakers. Music drifts organically and effortlessly between and beyond the speaker boundaries, immersing the listener in sound. Everyone’s listening space provides different benefits and challenges. In my room, the perceived depth of the soundstage behind the speakers is not quite as dramatic as some speakers I have encountered. However, the left, right, and vertical sonic extension rivals that of some of the best speakers I’ve heard in this space.

The Chesky Records test disc illustrates how far the Octaves can extend a sonic image into the room. One track features David Chesky beating a tom drum while walking around an omnidirectional microphone; another utilizes a surround-sound processor to simulate the same activity. In both cases, the Octaves convincingly create the auditory illusion that Chesky is indeed walking a big circle around my listening space. Though my listening chair is against the back wall of my room, it’s as if David Chesky has somehow walked behind me. Many speakers do a good job approximating this illusion, but the Octaves do a fantastic job.

To Each Their Own

The Morel Octave 6 Limited floorstanders are marvelous speakers, especially considering the value they offer at a $7,000 per pair. Across objective audio metrics and subjective musical preferences, the Octaves excel.

Those with large listening rooms, those who crave every ambient nuance of a performance, or those who prefer bass-heavy rock and electronica may want to seek larger and more expensive speakers that can better deliver those characteristics. Those caveats aside, the capability of the Octaves across the audible spectrum is extremely good for speakers in this price range—and their ability to deliver three-dimensional imaging is indeed rare for this price. If that appeals to you, head to your local Morel dealer for a demo.

Morel Octave 6 Limited Floorstanding Speaker

MSRP: $7,000


Speakers Piega P-10
Digital Source Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC Audio Research CD3 Mk 2    HP Quad Core desktop with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19
Analog Source SME 10 with 10 tonearm    Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Cables Jena Labs interconnects and Twin 15 speaker cable
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Conrad-Johnson MF2550 SE Amplifier

The generally accepted wisdom is that tube amps display a warm sound while solid-state amps offer more punch and control. But those lines are blurring, with great designs in both camps that defy past assumptions—and this is where Conrad-Johnson comes to mind. Compared to the company’s legendary valve-based gear, its MF2550 power amp takes a different approach—namely the fact that it’s solid state. The amp is available as a standard or special-edition (SE) version, the latter of which is priced at $7,800 and includes CJD Teflon hybrid capacitors and precision foil resistors. We did not have the opportunity to test these two versions side by side, but considering the outstanding performance of the SE version, it’s likely that the standard version is no slouch.

The MF2550 is rather nondescript and traditional in its appearance. The black metal chassis, which measures 16.25 inches deep, 19 inches wide, and 6.125 inches tall, features a faceplate made of thick aluminum with gold anodizing and a brushed-matte finish. Among my other black and silver audio components, the amp’s gold color—a signature of CJ—certainly stands out. The only feature interrupting the smooth faceplate is a power button the size of a quarter on the lower right corner. A gentle yellow LED halo illuminates the button when pressed. The only thing distinguishing the special-edition amp from the standard version is a small plate on the back of the unit that notes the serial number and the SE designation.

Connecting the amp could not be easier, with a set of RCA inputs and the requisite speaker binding posts; it takes only two minutes and a little finger strength to get the amp up and running. I appreciate the amp’s five-way metal binding posts, which effortlessly handle a post wrench. The posts easily accommodate two-banana adapters and offer plenty of space to connect spades and even bare-ended wire.

Pushing the gold-colored button to reveal the sonic prowess within, I first wonder if the amp is on, since it is silent. Even the ribbon tweeters in my Piega P-10 speakers do no hiss at the visiting power source.

Hidden Treasure

Much of the amp’s 52-pound weight comes from the hefty power supply fueling 250 watts into 8 ohms, or 500 watts into 4 ohms. On paper, the MF2550’s power output is a dead-ringer for my Mark Levinson reference amp, so it’s exciting to swap in the CJ. There are indeed many similarities between the two amps, as well as a few key differences.

Three-dimensional presentation is a dramatic strength of this amp. Music appears independent of the speakers and audible in all directions. Left-to-right imaging extends the music well beyond the speaker boundaries, with a very convincing central image. The amp also pinpoints other musical elements across the soundstage. Front-to-back layering leaves the vocalist up front, while allowing ambient background sounds to extend beyond the rear wall of my listening space. There’s no perceived vertical limitation either, as the music extends from floor to ceiling. On Lyle Lovett’s song “Church,” from his Joshua Judges Ruth album, the background vocalists are rendered well behind Lovett, who appears front and center. While my reference amp is quite good in its ability to layer musical elements, the CJ exceeds it.

The MF2550 takes command of my speakers with deep, rich and robust bass. Compared with my reference amp, the MF2550’s bass response is not quite as tight and punchy. Rage Against the Machine remains one of my guilty pleasures. The band’s song “Bombtrack” provides a good reference point for bass. Through the CJ, the bass portrayal is not loose or lacking depth, though there’s just a touch less immediacy and excitement compared to my Levinson.

Throughout my listening experience, there’s a very slightly warm tendency to this solid-state amp, which I wasn’t expecting. To be clear, the CJ does not overly romanticize the sound; it’s just a bit more forgiving than I’m used to. There’s a slight gentleness when listening to recordings that usually prove overly revealing. I’m able to turn the volume up higher for an immersive music experience without any hard-edged notes piercing my eardrums. At first, I wonder if some higher frequencies are rolled off, but after testing several frequency sweep tracks, all the highs are there. The CJ’s design just manages to somehow take most sting and vocal sibilance out.

Some live instruments can have an inherent bite. During live performances, it’s never pleasant to be in the blast zone of a trumpet, saxophone, snare drum, or cymbal crash. Nevertheless, that experience is the reality of the music. Through the CJ’s portrayal of music in my own system, while subtle, there’s just a touch less detail and realism. For instance, the sonic decay of the cymbal on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” subsides more quickly than I’m used to. At the same time, the Civil Wars’ “Dust to Dust” on vinyl proves an utterly opulent experience. Minute sonic details aside, it’s easy to find oneself immersed in the emotion and beauty of the song.

I would not call this amp euphonic, but it leans to the side of forgiving musicality, as opposed to pure realism. Is this a bad thing? No. On a sunny day, many folks prefer to tame the glare with sunglasses, right? Similarly, if your system is a bit bright for your taste, or if you just prefer a portrayal that’s a tad relaxed, the MF2550 may provide the balance you’ve been looking for.

The Golden Ticket?

I thoroughly enjoyed the month I spent with the MF2550 SE in my system, as did several of my friends who regularly come over to listen. The MF2550 SE is something I could enjoy happily for a long time. On vocally driven performances, jazz and orchestral pieces, the CJ leaves little to desire. For those who prefer rock music with all its inherent aggression and vigor, the CJ stands more toward the polite end of the spectrum. In all cases, though, the musicality of the performance shines though.

With plenty of power and a non-fatiguing presence, this amp will likely pair well with many speakers and components. It certainly plays nicely with all my test equipment. Given its $7,800 retail price, the amp represents a long-term investment for many audio fans, but many rewards come with it.

Combining great sound with substantial build quality and a three-year warranty on parts and labor, the MF2550 SE could be something that you find at the end of your quest for sonic treasure. If these benefits sound compelling to you, definitely make a run to your local Conrad-Johnson dealer and hear for yourself what this amp can do.  

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

While so many audio enthusiasts think of Conrad-Johnson as a strictly vacuum-tube company, the brand has made some very impressive solid-state amplifiers over the years. The benchmark that comes to my mind is its Premier 350, which served as my reference amplifier for years. So when Lew Johnson told me about the MF2550 SE, this was the immediate comparison floating around in my head. But Johnson was quick to point out that the MF2550 SE is a “completely different amplifier” that would really surprise me.

And surprise it does. Thanks to a bevy of CJD Teflon capacitors, the ones that have been highly influential in the sound of CJ for the last 10 years or so, the MF2550 SE has a thoroughly modern sound. Bringing back my Premier 350, along with CJ’s ACT2 Series 2 preamplifier, makes it easy to compare and contrast the two amps.

Overall, the MF2550 SE has a very dynamic, extended sound. Those of you who remember the company’s early solid-state amplifiers and who did not experience the Premier 350 will be stunned at just how spectacular this new amplifier sounds, especially considering how well CJ is known for vacuum-tube amplifiers. The overall tonality is highly natural, with barely a hint of warmness. It’s not quite as neutral as, say, the top-of-the-line Simaudio Moon amplifiers that we’ve listened to or the Premier 350, but it’s not as warm as my Burmester 911 MK3 or the Pass XA series amplifiers.

Running the MF2550 SE through its paces with a wide range of speakers, including the Focal Maestro Utopia, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, and even my old Acoustat 2+2s, reveals that this amplifier will drive any speakers comfortably, with power to spare. Whether rocking out with AC/DC, or relaxing with a string quartet, this amplifier presents a wide, deep soundstage and a level of nuance and control usually associated with a much more expensive amplifier.

As with the Premier 350, Conrad-Johnson’s MF2550 SE’s simple, elegant, and understated design delivers breathtaking musical performance in a compact package. And, as someone who has owned quite a few CJ products over the last 35 years, I will say that the Champagne-colored faceplate is just fine by me.

MF2550 SE amplifier

MSRP: $7,800


Digital source JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 MK2
Analog source SME 10 turntable     Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Power amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Cables Jena Labs interconnects and Twin 15 speaker cable
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Paradigm Monitor 9 Home Theater Speakers + Anthem MRX 510 A/V Receiver

Paradigm and Anthem both produce quality audio equipment at reasonable prices—Anthem on the component side and Paradigm on the speaker side. The two sister companies (to which MartinLogan is also a sister company) are based in Ontario, Canada, and their complementary product lines allow buyers to piece together a home-theater system with speakers and componentry that pair well together.

Paradigm’s Monitor speaker series are the company’s entry-level models, but they are far from “low end.” The 5.1-channel system in for review includes Monitor 9 floorstanding front speakers ($599 each), Monitor Surround 3 ($399 each) and Center 3 ($599), and a Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer ($849). The floorstanders feature a 1-inch fluid-cooled tweeter, a 5.5-inch midrange driver, and two 5.5-inch woofers. They measure a modest 40 inches tall, nearly 7 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, and they weigh 42 pounds apiece. They are available with black or cherry finishes.

The Monitor Surround 3 and Center 3 pair sonically and visually with the main speakers. On the Center 3, which weighs 28.5, a 6.5-inch woofer flanks either side of the stacked tweeter and 4.5-inch midrange. The surround speakers feature a bi-directional driver configuration, with the drivers facing about 90 degrees apart for maximum sound dispersion. With one speaker in each rear corner of the room, sound envelops the listener. Finally, we have Paradigm’s SUB 10 powered sub. Somehow, “point one” is not an adequate descriptor given the sonic heft of this unit, even though its physical dimensions are deceptively small: roughly 13 x 11 x 13 inches, with a reasonable weight of 30 pounds.

A Beautiful Friendship

Anthem’s MRX 510 receiver proves an ideal match for the Paradigms. While we don’t use its 7.1-channel capability, we certainly make full use of its 100 watts per channel of power for the 5.1-channel system. The MRX 510, which weighs 30 pounds and comes in a subdued black, can be configured for bi-amplification to give more juice to the front speakers if desired. With seven HDMI inputs (plus one on the front), the receiver will allow simultaneous connectivity of just about as many digital sources you can round up. The two HDMI video outputs render a wonderful picture. Other connection options include composite and component video inputs, two coaxial and three optical audio inputs, and five standard RCA audio outputs—but definitely use the HDMI inputs and outputs wherever possible for the best results. The sound and picture will benefit significantly.

The Anthem’s remote is straightforward for movie watching. Combined with the on-screen interface, it’s also quite helpful during the setup process. If you have a little experience, you’ll find the system easy enough to set up without the manual. If this is your first home-theater setup, the manual and step-by-step instructions will be your best friend for the afternoon.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

One of my favorite features of the system is the wireless subwoofer. Older systems require a long wire connecting the digital processor to the sub that is an eyesore at best and a stumbling hazard at worst. It’s nice having the option of placing the sub behind the sofa where it’s out of sight, and where it also offers a tangible rumble to the listening seat.

The receiver also offers built-in room correcting for sound. It comes with a microphone kit so the system can make automatic corrections for the best sound in the listening room, and it comes with a software CD for Windows. But as my Windows 8.1 PC doesn’t have a disc drive, I have to borrow a computer and transfer the software and drivers to a thumb drive. (Or you can just download everything from the Anthem website.) Connecting the microphone to its stand and then to the PC (via the included USB cable) is easy, and a wired connection to the receiver is not necessary if you first connect the receiver to your local network. The setup wizard guides you through the process and, after several microphone placements, the system gets a good picture of room acoustics and optimizes the sound to our 18-foot-deep, 11-foot-wide listening space.

On with the Show

The opening scenes of James Bond films always dazzle the viewer with action sequences, and Quantum of Solace on Blu-ray does not disappoint. The sounds of car chases, machine guns, and explosions complement the visuals wonderfully. The shattering of a windshield during a particularly nasty car collision surprises me with the subtle tinkle of glass raining down on metal and concrete. It’s a level of detail and delicacy that I hadn’t been expecting.

The Talking Heads’ concert video of Stop Making Sense begins with punch despite the striped-down opening track featuring David Byrne’s acoustic-guitar rendition of “Psycho Killer.” While the guitar strums have a high degree of authenticity, it’s the drum machine that makes the biggest impression through this system. Especially with the subwoofer behind the sofa, the synthetic punches are tight, tuneful, and deep—even the sofa cushions resonate with the music. This setup’s bass will never be accused of shyness, but of course, users can adjust the bass response to their liking. During the band’s performance of “Slippery People,” the integration of guitars, percussion, electric bass, background vocals, and synthesized notes never leaves the listener wanting.

When listening to music through the system, you can choose a simpler stereo portrayal or let the Anthem process the two-channel sound into a 5.1 configuration. While non-5.1-mastered source material doesn’t gain a surround effect, a few settings allow the simulation of a concert venue. The full-room feel of music is great for a party. The event host can reduce the volume of music to facilitate conversation among guests, yet make the music audible in all corners of the room. In stereo mode, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Blues at Sunrise retain solid sonic imaging across the width of the perceived stage, with layering in the distance.

While more expensive stereo or home-theater equipment may offer greater realism and detail, the price-to-performance ratio of this whole system is exceptional. The Anthem proves a great complement to the Paradigms, providing plenty of punch and sonic synergy so that no particular frequency range stands out in the mix. The speakers present music well, with good high-frequency extension and without any strident sting, making it easy to settle in for a long listening session.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

While $5,000 is certainly not chump change, in the world of hi-fi that investment often only gets you one stereo component. Alternately, that same money can provide a complete home-theater setup that offers great quality, performance, and value. For those seeking the ultimate in resolution and transparency, a different solution may fit the bill, but it will cost significantly more. For those seeking a single home audio/video solution, this Anthem/Paradigm combo gets you the best of both worlds: a solid two-channel setup and a 5.1 surround-sound system—just add audio and video sources. Plus, with unobtrusive looks and the ability to hide the subwoofer, you’ll forget the system is even in the room so you can get lost in the depths of a movie.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Though I’m not a home-theater aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, the winters here in the Pacific Northwest make for a lot of movie time, so I’ve been wanting to investigate a more turnkey situation for our readers, some of whom keep asking the same question: “I’ve got about five grand to spend for everything. Can I get a killer home-theater system for that much?”

Yes you can. At the numerous tradeshows I’ve attended around the world, Paradigm and Anthem always have the most impressive displays with systems offering performance on a level I’d expect from gear with much, much bigger price tags. The system you see here is no exception. I’d pay $1,600 just for the room-correction portion of the MRX 510, and you get seven channels of amplification and a video processor thrown in! My living room has dreadful sonic properties: hardwood floors, wood-plank ceiling, and a leather couch and chair, along with a big glass coffee table. But 20 minutes of measurements with the ARC (Anthem Room Correction) technology has the whole system rocking with movies and music. Fantastic!

The Paradigm speakers are easy to place, and thanks to the ARC, you don’t have to be quite as fussy as you would without it. And did I mention that this setup moves some major air? Explosions and car chases are awesome, with plenty of heft. But even when watching my favorite episodes of Ren and Stimpy, the little bits of classical music playing in the background still float delicately around the listening space.

As a home-theater neophyte, I appreciate Anthem’s great manual and ease of setup. You probably won’t have to hire the geek squad to hook this baby up, and all of the on-screen menus are very logical, as well. In short, this is the perfect setup for someone wanting great sound on a modest budget. Best of all, because Anthem and Paradigm are sister companies, so you know everything will work well together.

Anthem MRX 510 A/V receiver


Paradigm Monitor 9 floorstanding speakers

$599 each

Monitor Surround 3 S.7 speakers

$399 each

Monitor Center 3 S.7 speakers


Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer


AURALiC Merak Monoblock Amplifiers

China’s AURALiC, a relative newcomer to the hi-fi industry, has stepped into this crowded scene with some quality products, and the company sets a high bar for itself with each new release. Seeing AURALiC’s new MERAK monoblocks (priced at $5,000 per pair) freshly out of their packaging is a bit like seeing a great tuxedo-wearing magician backstage before a much-anticipated performance. It’s easy to admire the polished outward appearance, but as anticipation begin to grow, it becomes clear that something interesting will happen when the curtain rises, leaving one to wonder if the performance will live up to expectations.

Smoke and Mirrors?

In every way, these amps offer substantial build quality and beautiful fit and finish. The sleek, brushed metal exteriors of my test pair sport a matte-silver finish—but the modest exterior does not reveal what’s hidden beneath the handkerchief. These mono monsters offer 400 watts of juice into 4 ohms and half of that into 8 ohms. According to AURALiC, the MERAKS’ capacitors hold enough energy to deliver 16 amps of peak current and 900 watts of power. By comparison, my reference amp—a Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp—pushes 500 watts into 4 ohms. From a power perspective, I never feel that my power-hungry Piega P10 speakers are limited with the Meraks in the chain.

Not a full Class D design, AURALiC refers to the MERAK as a hybrid design using Class-A signal amplification, switching output stage and linear power supply, sounding surprisingly like another very exciting amplifier that graced our cover a couple of years ago. In daily use, these monos never get hot, even when they are powered up for a couple weeks continuously. In addition to the stellar energy efficiency of the MERAKs, their design allows the user to stack them in an audio shelf without worry of overheating. Each amp measures 11 inches wide, 11 inches deep, and 2.75 inches high, so even in a two-tier configuration the amps’ physical footprint remains modest.

By sharp contrast, moving my Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp (which should have come with a coupon for a hernia operation) requires a friend, or a couple post-move aspirin. The MERAKs, which weigh 18.7 pound apiece, are extremely easy to carry by comparison. In fact, I’m able to carry one amp under each arm and still have a spring in my step.

Sleight of Hand

Connecting the amps is as simple as expected. I must give AURALiC kudos for including Cardas CE binding posts with the amps. Clamping a single knob down onto a tough plastic bracket holds my speaker cable’s spade terminations against the posts. And it’s so easy to get a good finger hold on the knob that I don’t need a post wrench (or a kung-fu grip) to get a tight cable connection. I should note that this knob-bracket combo does not accommodate banana cable terminations.

The MERAK s offer only balanced XLR inputs, and so given my single-ended preamp, I choose to enlist the help of some adapters. After contacting AURALiC to see if they have any specific recommendations for or against that approach, I get the thumbs-up for adapters, which do the trick. After testing them with my Levinson to ensue they don’t color or cloud the sound to any significant degree, the adaptors are easy enough to drop in place. Once flicking the rear switch to activate the amp, pressing a small button on the front puts them in and out of standby mode, which a small LED indicates.

Firing up the MERAKs without source material playing, I’m amazed by their silence. If it weren’t for the LED indicator, I’d wonder if they were powered up at all. With the rest of my audio chain shut down, only the ribbon tweeter of my Piegas can reveal any audible hiss—and only when I put my ear against it. I leave the amps on for two weeks straight for both burn-in and stress testing and I never experience anything from my listening position except great music. That’s a disappearing act indeed!

Rabbit from a Hat

Switching designs inherently bring a lot of positive merits. First, their power-to-weight ratio offers very good value for the dollar. They also sip energy (rather than gulping it), which makes them the more environmentally friendly option. These amplifiers have come a long way in the last few years, but I generally find them lacking some of the subtle detail, frequency extension, and sonic emotion I’m accustomed to with class-A or AB designs. But contrary to my assumed impressions, the MERAKs provide some very welcome surprises that challenge my past views in meaningful ways.

During my first listening session, covering about 20 tracks of various music types, several characteristics stand out immediately. The MERAKs do not romanticize the sound, nor do they leave it overly stark and cold. They strike the right balance. They also do a very nice job of creating the ambience and reverberation around the musicians.

Also impressive is the soundstage they throw, which is both wide and tall. There are no perceived boundaries and the sound extends well beyond the speakers. Additionally, they do a very good job of layering instruments in depth. Music reveals itself both in front of and behind the plane of the speakers. Vocals stand out front and the other instruments fall into their proper alignment behind the vocalist. This characteristic is one of the MERAKs strengths and it’s very engaging with all types of music. Few tracks illustrate this better than Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live on vinyl. When delivering the track “Roads,” the MERAKs pull Beth Gibbons’ voice out front such that the illusion of the singer extends into the room and creates an appropriately upfront but unaggressive presentation. There’s no stridency, and vocals retain the engagement they should command. The MERAKs also place the sound of the crowd clapping along well into the background.

Enya’s album Watermark does present two noticeable downsides that my Levinson does not. First, with all the juice that the MERAKs bring, they most definitely take control of the speakers and maintain a tight command, which results in the bass losing a bit of low-frequency punch and definition and the highs losing a bit of sparkle. Secondly (and more subjectively), there’s a reduction in the underlying emotion of the song.

It’s hard to put a finger on this at first, but after listening to several tracks on various albums—both digital and vinyl—I notice a consistent signature to the MERAKs. There’s a slight veil, which results in the reduction of the nuanced detail and delicacy that gives increased realism to good recordings. Of course, this quibble is in comparison to an amplifier priced around $8,000, yet the Meraks run for only $5,000 a pair. At that price difference, I’d expect the Levinson’s performance to exceed the MERAKs’ by a significant margin.


Delivering the disco-y tunes Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, proves to be a joy, with a very nice integration of instrumentation, and the perceived pacing of the music brings a captivating energy to the recording. A remastered Royal Edition recording of Mozart’s symphony No. 36 performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic also illustrates the MERAKs’ prowess with wide dynamic swings.

Pink Martini’s “Omide Zendegani,” and other tracks from Get Happy, similarly reveals an ability to pristinely render more intimate songs with a small combination of vocals and instruments. But, where necessary, the amps are also able to decipher a complex array of instruments across the soundstage.

Take a Bow

As with a great magician, it’s hard not to be impressed with MERAKs’ capabilities and finesse. Of the class-D designs I have experienced so far, these top my list sonically – I’m sure the hybrid design contributes to this sense of ease in a big way. Compared to my favorite class-A and class-AB amps, the MERAKs have only a few tradeoffs, as noted above. At the same time, there is a lot to love—and kudos again to AURALiC for taking switching amplifier design further toward an elusive sonic pinnacle than my past experiences. Even when mated with very revealing and power-hungry speakers, the MERAKs never take the sound into the realm of stridency, and considering their other merits, it’s easy to settle in for a long listening session of great music.

While $5,000 is a significant financial commitment for most people, what you get with these amps represents great value in terms of watt-per-dollar ratio. There are many good amps in this price range, so the MERAKs face some stiff competition—but with oodles of power and very good sonics, these amps are certainly worth your consideration.

Additional Listening

The folks at AURALiC are on a roll.  We’ve had the pleasure of listening to almost their full line now, and they all share an equal level of sonic excellence, build quality and elegant visual understatement.  Best of all, the gear is reasonably priced, over delivering for the prices asked.  This just might be the next big brand in world of hifi, no small achievement.

I concur with Rob on all of his observations, and feel that the MERAKs strike a fantastic balance of timbral and tonal accuracy, major dynamic slam and a complete lack of fatigue.  Putting them through their paces with the KEF Blades, the Focal Maestro Utopias and the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers proved the $5,000 pair of AURALiC amplifiers were not out of place in a six figure system.

However, like every other switching amplifier I’ve had in the listening room, the MERAKs benefit from careful attention to what’s coming from the AC line.  While they offer great sonics just plugged into the wall, a top notch power line conditioner will take them to an even further level of clarity.  And, should you need a bit of warmth in the mix, you can always pair these amplifiers with your favorite vacuum tube preamplifier.

In short, the AURALiC MERAK amplifiers offer tremendous sound for a very reasonable price.  We look forward to see what they will come up with next.  Maybe a 250 watt per channel stereo amplifier in one box?  Hmmm.

MERAK monoblock amplifiers

MSRP: $5,000 per pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    HP 2.5 GHz Quad Core running Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19.0.32
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    Cardas Golden and Golden Reference/Mongoose power cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Coffman Labs equipment footers

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

For audio fans who believe sonic reproduction should be heard but not seen, a large-scale component system just isn’t practical.  Many component systems require significant space and can be obtrusive in a main living area or in a small room. For those individuals, Bel Canto’s e.One series just may be your entrance ticket. The e.One series makes available components of substantial capability but petite form factor.

We had the opportunity to test the C7R. It’s a bit challenging to categorize this unit given its versatile combination of features and functionality. While Bel Canto’s website labels it a “DAC Integrated Amplifier,” the nomenclature proves understated since the unit offers quite a bit more functionality than the name summarizes. If “under-promise and over-deliver” represents the goal of the product name, Bel Canto has set itself up well to exceed user expectations.

Under the big top?

Well, perhaps a better descriptor for the C7R is the “small top.” Unboxing, examining, and reading the manual for this Bel Canto leaves a user with a degree of amazement. Like a multitude of circus clowns cascading forth from a Volkswagen Beetle, the capabilities of the C7R just keep emerging. How could such a small box host such an array of functionality?

The C7R measures a placement-friendly 8.5” (216mm) wide, 12” (305mm) deep, and 3.5” (88mm) high. The entire package weighs in at a mere 13 lbs (6.5 kg).  Inside, the Bel Canto’s amplifier offers 60 watts at 8 ohms, and double that into 4 ohms.

The C7R’s back panel is a marvel of space usage and planning, enabling a generous number of input options. For the digital realm, this Bel Canto packs five digital inputs into the back panel including two SPDIF and two TOSLINK connections supporting 24/192 resolution. Complementing those is a USB input enabling 24/96. All of these signals are converted with its built-in DAC.  An AES/EBU digital input option would be a welcome addition, but it’s not available on the C7R. Perhaps there just wasn’t space for it!

Analog fans will also appreciate how the Bel Canto delivers. The expected RCA input is flanked by an MM phono input. While an MC input is not included as part of the package, it’s still hard to fault the C7R too much considering all the versatility it does offer.  On top of this, somehow, the team at Bel Canto managed to squeeze in an FM tuner with 10 user-chosen presets.

In addition to the rear panel speaker outputs, the Bel Canto features an RCA line output which can be configured to enable home theater bypass capability. As a really nice bonus, C7R includes a quarter-inch headphone output on the front panel.

Three rings? No, just one!

Controls on the unit body are minimalistic. After power is connected, a short boot-up process leaves the C7R ready for action. A single wheel on the right side of the front panel, with a handy indentation for one-finger speed-spinning ease, controls both volume and input selection. An inward push on the wheel center brightens the left-side input selection display, and the subsequent wheel movement glides through the input options making selection a breeze. Another push of the wheel switches to the volume control, and that transition is acknowledged with a brightening of the digital volume readout. For such a small unit I applaud Bel Canto for making the display large enough to read from across the room.

The digital display assigns each input a default abbreviation for easy identification as a user toggles among them, but the C7R does allow the user to create personalized four-letter words – well, perhaps I should say ”abbreviations.”

The need for a large display becomes clear once the user examines and uses the remote control. Like the back panel of the C7R the remote has a well-executed layout which makes many options adjustable from a favorite listening chair. In addition to volume, mute, input selection, phase selection, and digital source controls, there’s an option of FM station scanning and a few extra buttons enabling balance adjustment.

Taming those lions

With so much functionality to choose from, it’s easy to assume the setup process for such an animal bears some sharp claws and pointy teeth. Therein lies the irony of the C7R.  The experience is mostly plug-and-play with intuitive labeling on the back panel.

Connecting a USB computer music server, a digital coax input from a CD player, a line-in from a Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, and a Marantz TT-15 turntable with a Clearaudio Virtuoso MM cartridge, the back gets mighty crowded. With the addition of large, braided Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables, the C7R‘s rear panel transforms in appearance from a few-vined garden to something resembling wild shrubbery.

Impressively, unlike many DACs I’ve experienced, the Bel Canto’s DAC requires no special drivers to install. Once the USB connection is made from the computer to the C7R, Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center recognize it immediately. Once the C7R is selected in JRiver’s playback, music starts without delay.

It took some assistance from the user manual to become familiar with all the setup features and to get everything working. All things considered, though, the learning curve never feels steep. The trickiest elements are saving FM radio presets and custom labeling inputs. Once completed, though, the user isn’t likely to make too many changes. Consider it a tiny amount of pain resulting in a lot of pleasure.

The flying trapeze

Once hooked up and configured the Bel Canto is ready to swing. Starting with the analog output of Light Harmonic DAC connected to the C7R, in my initial impressions of the Bel Canto I noted its smooth, non-fatiguing and refined sonic signature. It would be a mistake to classify it as laid-back, though. The sonic portrayal is one of energy and drive when the music dictates. Even when pushed to maximum volume, C7R shows little strain or stridency.

Pink Martini’s song “Una Notte a Napoli” begins minimally with piano and spoken vocals, later exploding in crescendo adding more vocals, harp, horns, guitar and percussion. The Bel Canto allows all instruments to sing out from the mix, while keeping vocals very present and out front. China Forbes’s vocals render beautifully, preserving the recording’s detail and delicacy.  Compared with my reference, the soundstage width and depth truncated somewhat, and some detail like cymbal decay, or the subtle sound imparted by the recording space, are reduced. But then again the C7R is one-fifth the cost of my amp and preamp combination, demonstrating Bel Canto’s extremely good price–performance ratio.

My Piega P-10s are normally fed 500 watts into 4 ohms, so I reduced my expectations of bass punch, heft, and control with the C7R’s 120 watts swapped in. Even in this system’s context the Bel Canto performs admirably with deep, tuneful, and defined bass. With less power-hungry speakers like NHT Super One bookshelf model on hand the C7R offers quite a bit of punch. Albeit in this case, the Bel Canto reveals all the NHT speakers’ shortcomings. Clearly, the C7R can encourage and enable great sound from high quality loudspeakers and deserves to be paired with them.

Using the Bel Canto’s built-in DAC, the sound remains quite impressive. While 16/44.1 material piped in from a CD player’s coax output portrays some digital glare, better quality digital sources reward the listener. USB sound though the C7R emerges detailed, with a rich and pronounced presence.

When I listen to radio stations at home, it’s usually a digital stream from the computer and not a native FM broadcast. So it’s a lot of fun to fire up the Bel Canto’s tuner and listen to Portland’s KGON and KNRK as a radio station was first intended to be heard. With the included antenna, the C7R has no problems getting a solid lock on FM signals and filling the living room with opulent sound.

As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” started pouring forth from the radio, I ran for the Sennheiser HD-650s to give the C7R headphone output a test drive. The Bel Canto’s sound is very engaging and one I could listen to for many hours with minimal ear fatigue. It’s a fantastic bonus to the C7R’s great all-around package.

Spinning plates

The MM phono stage is another welcome surprise.  Listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged, or Beck’s Sea Change MoFi pressing, the Bel Canto demonstrates its ability to expand the soundstage beyond the speakers. Music retains a non-fatiguing quality with the preservation of detail. The C7R’s sonic rendering provides very good bass and highs, and a very satisfying overall musical experience. Green Day’s “Holiday” shows that the C7R can get up and go when pushed, transmitting the energy of the performers.

In absolute terms, compared with my reference phono stage, the Bel Canto has a few limitations. The overall sound is slightly veiled, and instruments are not separated as well across the soundstage. It just doesn’t sound as close to a live music experience. I need to keep reminding myself that the Bel Canto – of which the phono stage is just one facet – costs $2,995 in total. Especially if you listen to digital sources primarily, the included phono stage is a big bonus for those with a vinyl collection or those about to start one.

You pay for the whole seat, but need only the edge.

Mated with the right set of speakers and a good source, the Bel Canto is a stellar performer, especially from a price–performance point of view. For $2,995 the C7R gets you a high quality amp, linestage, DAC, FM tuner, MM phonostage, and a headphone amp. It’s a phenomenal value. The task of finding all those components, near this quality, for under that price tag would prove exceedingly difficult – if not impossible. On top of that, the C7R wraps everything in an attractive, compact, and user-friendly package. Given all its versatility and fantastic sound, for the price the Bel Canto C7R is easy to recommend.

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Speakers Piega P10    NHT Super One
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier/Phonostage Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 Turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso MM Cartridge
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Professional Mk 3
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650
Headphone Amplifiers ALO Rx Mk 2   Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose Power Cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

PS Audio NuWave DAC

Working as a DJ for hire in the eighties, I was exposed to more than my share of New Wave songs, upturned collars, pastel colors, and hair gel. During those years the early CDs started taking hold. With them came forth the digital music revolution for the consumer, challenging the dominance of beloved records and cassettes. While analog will forever have a place in the hearts of audiophiles, the raw convenience of digitally stored files enables and maintains a solid grip. Digital-Analog Converters (DACs) today bring forth a great deal of musical pleasure from the latest high resolution digital files and also breathe new life into older standard CD-quality 16bit/44.1kHz material.

With all my fond memories of the New Wave era, the NuWave moniker on PS Audio’s latest budget DAC has a lot to live up to. Could it provide the same high level of musical enjoyment I associate with my past?

The Ghost in You

The NuWave carries high quality internals, though it serves as the entry level DAC in PS Audio’s product line. Its big brother, the $3,995 PerfectWave, has handed down one of its strengths – its low-jitter clocking circuitry – to its smaller sibling. The benefit of this capability is pulling from the source the best possible digital stream to be processed. From there it is sent to the analog section which is fueled by a very substantial power supply; then it’s translated into music.

Close to Me

On close inspection, the NuWave is a petite 14” long x 8” wide by 2.5” high. It weighs in at around 12 pounds. Once placed on a shelf the front profile is quite modest. The metal case of the test unit is coated in a matte black finish. Silver is also available from PS Audio. The front panel has aesthetically pleasing curved edges wrapping around to the sides.

Buttons on the front, and the PS Audio logo on the left side, glow blue. With some equipment I’ve experienced, LEDs have the potential to scorch a retina, but not with the NuWave. In this case, the overall appearance is both pleasant and subtle.

The package does not include a remote, which makes sense given the basic in-and-out philosophy of the NuWave’s build. There’s not a lot to adjust or control after a source is selected and a standard or up-sampled signal chosen. One additional LED indicator notes whether the PS Audio has a solid lock on the signal.

I was surprised that no USB cable comes with the NuWave. You’ll definitely want to have that on hand for setup. I found the Cardas Clear USB a good match. PS Audio does include a very basic power cord, but it’s likely one you will want to upgrade later to get the most from the unit.

One Thing Leads to Another

Physically connecting the NuWave to the rest of the audio system proves straightforward. The PS Audio offers three inputs for digital sources including USB, S/PDIF coax and TOSLINK. The USB connection provides the greatest flexibility for high resolution files and will serve most users as the best option for computer-based music. While there is not an AES/EBU digital input on this DAC, the RCA coax input serves well as a secondary input source from CD players and other devices with a stereo digital output.

Despite the small size of the unit, this DAC has both balanced XLR and RCA outputs giving it helpful flexibility in an audio system.

With all cables connected, it’s a simple matter to choose the input source from the front panel selector button. If only one source is connected, the NuWave defaults to it. If multiple sources are connected to the DAC and one is playing, NuWave’s autoscan feature will pick the input receiving a signal.

Once that’s done, the user has another toggle to select one of two modes. “Native” mode creates a straight pipe from the source so a 16 bit/44.1kHz signal remains exactly that.  Another option is 24bit/192Khz up-sample mode. PS Audio recommends that users try both and decide what sounds best to them. Most of my listening took place on the “native” setting.

Work for Love

Once physically connected to sources, the final step is configuring a bit of software. PS Audio claims the NuWave acts in a plug-and-play fashion with a Mac computer, but a bit more human intervention is required for Windows-based systems. First, a driver must be downloaded from PS Audio’s website and saved to the computer. Once that driver is installed, a quick visit to the Windows 7 control panel’s “Sound” settings offers the PS Audio DAC as an output option. A right-click of the mouse gives a user the option to make the NuWave the default recipient of the audio signal.

Once complete, JRiver needs a small adjustment too. Clicking on the Player menu, and selecting “Playback Options,” a window opens which allows the user to make a few more minor changes. The “Playback Device” pull-down menu allows a user to select the NuWave as the default for music output.  On the same window, I selected a larger buffer size than the default setting to encourage and maintain the best streaming quality. Accepting these changes and closing the configuration windows, the only remaining step is selecting what music to enjoy.

In total, the configuration process took no more than five minutes, with most of that time consisting of driver download and installation. PS Audio does a nice job here to make the setup process streamlined for the NuWave DAC owner.

PS Audio suggests leaving the DAC powered on all the time so that it maintains optimal readiness for the best sound.

We Got the Beat

Testing begins with CD-quality source files. In the spirit of this review’s theme, it seems only fair to begin with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” which many consider the first true New Wave song. Given the age of the recording and the CD’s limitations of a 16bit/44.1kHz signal, the right-to-left soundstage exceeds my expectations by extending well beyond the speaker limits. Perceived front-to-back layering is reasonable; however, it’s not the NuWave’s strength. Debbie Harry’s voice is recessed into the mix and when blended with the guitars and drums the result remains largely two-dimensional. This characteristic seems consistent throughout my Redbook CD test tracks.

Rock This Town

Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer and his Orchestra provide a good test for the sonic portrayal of guitars, drums, and horns. His remake of “Rock This Town” offers significantly more polished recording quality than the original, though still limited to CD-quality. The NuWave captures all the energy and excitement of the performance.

The NuWave’s decoding process leaves the music enjoyable and fatigue-free. However this characteristic exists at the expense of some detail. In comparison with other, more expensive DACs on hand, the woodiness in saxophones diminishes. Bass, while quite deep, is not as tight. Similarly, the complex sounds of cymbals are truncated to a significant degree in comparison with the impact, ring and decay I’m used to hearing. Vocals are a bit hot in the mix. But at the NuWave’s $995 price tag, these are relatively minor quibbles considering what you do get. Especially from a price-performance perspective the PS Audio does a mighty good job and has the finesse to hold a listener’s attention through hours of listening.

Dancing With Myself

As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out,” so playback shifted to test higher resolution material. Though the NuWave there’s a huge sonic improvement in virtually every attribute.

For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” on 192kHz throws an impressively huge soundstage, both wide and tall. Vocals remain front and center where they should be, while drums step to the rear. The richness of the guitar on “Dirty Pool” reveals the level of emotion entrapped in the recording.

Similarly, Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” in 192kHz emerges with deep, plucky bass. Well-rendered, sonically convincing drum and tambourine pour forth. Background vocals complement and showcase the emotional undertones in Marley’s voice. This is especially evident during “Redemption Song.” While vocals remain a bit forward, individual strums of the guitar are almost tangible.

NuWave’s rendering of Norah Jones’s “I’ve Got to See You Again” layers vocals, piano, strings and percussion adeptly blended together in a cohesive and compelling sonic experience.

For those who have a lot of high resolution digital content, the NuWave will surprise you with its capability. If you don’t have high resolution content yet, you owe it to yourself to try it!

Make a Circuit With Me

After spending time with several DACs over the last couple months – the Chord Chordette Qute ($1,800), AUARALiC Vega ($3,500) and Light Harmonic DaVinci ($30,000) – some interesting comparisons emerge. Although a native 44.1kHz signal may not be a stellar source, each of these DACs takes what bits it’s given and outputs highly enjoyable, refined sound. At a cost multiple times more than the NuWave, a user should expect more from them.

When listening to high resolution content, the gap does shrink a bit and the NuWave showcases what it’s capable of resolving. It’s a big step up from CD-quality experience. The NuWave won’t unseat the other DACs, but it leaves a listener with a very satisfying musical experience for a small fraction of the price.

In essence, more money buys a user additional capabilities like DSD decoding, variable output, custom filters, and/or a remote. It also enables more natural sounding, three dimensional and nuanced portrayal of the music. In the case of the DaVinvi, opulently so, but at 30 times the price.

Take Me, I’m Yours

Caveats considered, the PS Audio offers a lot of value and does a very good job providing a no-fuss setup and usage experience. It offers all the basic functionality most users need a DAC to do, and the sound is mighty good for a component under a thousand dollars.

The Smiths made famous the New Wave classic song, “How Soon is Now?” How apropos for this review. For those seeking a high quality DAC under $1k, especially those who want to delve further into high resolution digital content, give the PS Audio NuWave DAC a try and you might find it in your home system sooner than you think.

PS Audio NuWave DAC

MSRP: $995


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Mk3 DAC    Genesis Digital Lens    dCS Purcell
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

AURALiC VEGA Digital-Audio Processor

Vega is the name of one of the brightest stars visible from Earth. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a very good chance that you regularly witnesses its vibrant twinkle. Sometimes called the Harp Star, Vega lies in the constellation Lyra, which resembles the harp used by the mythological Greek musician Orpheus. According to legend, nobody could turn away from the music once Orpheus started playing his harp. The Hong Kong–based manufacturer AUARALiC has set the bar sky high for its Vega DAC if the product is going to live up to its lofty name.

Preparing for Launch

Despite all the features under its hood, the Vega has modest dimensions. It measures 11 inches wide, 9 inches deep and 2.6 inches high, and it weighs just 7.5 pounds.

It’s easy to be impressed with the multitude of connection options this DAC offers. They include USB, AES/EBU, S/PDIF Toslink and S/PDIF coax. This array of options not only provides flexibility for use in virtually any audio system but it also helps future proof the Vega. Even if an audio system evolves with varying components, the Vega will always have a home somewhere in the chain.

It’s important to note that the USB input is capable of accommodating PCM 32-bit/384-kHz files, while DSD 64 steams at 2.8224 MHz and DSD 128 streams at 5.6448 MHz. The other inputs are limited to 24-bit/192-kHz files. Perhaps “limited” isn’t really the best descriptor since that resolution is certainly a huge step up from the 16-bit/44.1-kHz quality of standard CDs.

For outputs, the Vega offers both single-ended RCA and balanced connections. As a huge bonus, it also offers a variable output volume. For those who listen to music in the digital realm only, it’s possible to hook the Vega directly to the amp and effectively use it as a preamplifier. For users piecing together a new audio system around the Vega, it’s nice to have the option to get by without a preamp and associated cables, so you can put your hard-earned dollars to work elsewhere in the audio chain.

All Systems Go

While the star Vega is 25 light years away, the AURALiC Vega is a just a few feet away, connected to my computer via USB. I try all of the Vega’s connections, except the Toslink, and find that they each provide very good sound. However, the high-speed USB from my computer proves the best overall option, given its maximum sampling rate and its ability to stream a variety of formats including DSD, lossless and WAV. The stock USB cable that comes packed with the Vega puts forth good sound, but a reasonably priced aftermarket USB cable like the Cardas Clear provides a noticeable improvement.

AURALiC includes a driver disc for computer setup and a detailed set of instructions to get everything configured. Despite the manual, I encounter some trouble getting my computer to recognize the AURALiC. It takes quite a bit of finagling with the Windows 7 sound settings to get the computer to make the connection. I’m sure the experience varies depending on the computer, operating system and type of digital files being transmitted. But after 30 minutes of frustrated troubleshooting with everything connected, the Vega proves itself worth the wait.


As with other AURALiC products, the Vega has a sleek and futuristic appearance. Its front panel sports a single knob and a darkened screen from which all information is conveyed to the user. When the Vega is powered up and connected to a digital source, four amber indicators appear: power, selected input, signal type/bitrate, and volume level, the latter of which displays the numbers large enough so that they can be read from a listening position 10 feet away. When powered down, the Vega goes into standby mode to keep critical elements warm for optimal sound at the next power-up.

While the Vega’s operations menu is accessible by pushing and twisting the knob on the front panel, I find that the remote control is the most effective way to make changes. All the adjustments you’d expect from a remote are there at the ready, but two unique capabilities capture my attention.

The first offers access to four digital filters, which impart slight sonic variances to the analog outputs. If using DSD files, two additional filters appear. AURALiC offers recommendations for the type of music best suited to a particular filter, but I find that trial and error is the best way to determine the preferred setting.

The second noteworthy feature allows adjusting digital clock settings. The Vega defaults to Auto, with Course, Fine and Exact settings also available. The latter two are available on the menu only after the DAC has been warmed up for an hour or so. Experimenting with the higher clock settings on low-jitter signals, I notice a bit more smoothness, imaging depth and detail when using a USB source. Just as the Vega manual warns, when the Vega’s coax input receives a lower-quality jittered signal from my computer’s coax output, the AURALiC is not able to maintain the higher level of precision, which results in some skipping. Once again, the larger USB “pipe” proves itself the best source, so I recommend taking advantage of it.

One of the major technological highlights of the VEGA is its utilization of a Femto master clock, that features an aerospace grade crystal oscillator.  It does take an hour of warm-up time for the clock to fully settle and deliver optimum performance. While the VEGA sounds great upon power up, there is a marked improvement once stable, with soundstaging and imaging performance tightening up.  Because it uses so little power, we suggest leaving the unit powered at all times.

Identical to the Taurus headphone amplifier we reviewed recently, the VEGA uses the same Orfeo Class-A output stage modules.  These are patented by AURALiC and have an impressive open loop distortion figure of less than .001%, allowing the VEGA to output 4 volts RMS at a very low output impedance (4.7 ohms at the RCA output and 50 ohms at the balanced output), giving it the ability to drive any power amplifier to full volume with ease.

Achieving Orbit

All features aside, the Vegas delivers impressive sound.  Like Orpheus’s harp, the Vega proves difficult to turn away from once I start listening. Other than the $20,000 Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, I’ve never wanted to permanently swap out my own digital front end for a piece of review equipment. Other, newer DACs offer some strengths over my pieces of reference gear, but not enough to wholly unseat them.

With setup complete, it seems apropos to test the Vega on some space-themed music, and so I start with Dark Side of the Moon. Any decent stereo equipment reveals the footstep sounds during “On the Run,” which move left and right in the soundstage. However, the sonically perceived front-to-back movement can get buried by some digital equipment. The Vega does a great job digging out those details. Air’s song “Venus” has the ability to throw a very wide soundstage, which the Vega portrays well. Perceived musical boundaries wrap around my listening area, enveloping the space with sound.

Using the Vega in DSD mode, I find that Norah Jones’s song “Lonestar” sounds better than I’ve heard it rendered digitally. The combination of high-resolution format and a great decoder provides some unexpected pleasure. I enjoy listening to the album Come Away With Me, but at a CD-level bitrate, vocal passages can expose some stridency. The AURALiC tames that down, rendering Jones’ voice in a smooth, lifelike and extended manner, and with a significant reduction in that “wince factor.”

When using the JRiver Media Center 19 to send a DSD stream to the Vega, I find it worthwhile to increase JRiver’s buffer settings via the pull-down playback menu. With the smaller default buffer setting, the recording interpreted through the AURALiC has a tendency to skip. Standard CD recordings, like the B52’s “Planet Claire” or Bill Laswell’s “Galactic Zone,” consistently get an audio makeover through the AURALiC. Especially when setting the JRiver software to output a 192-kHz signal, the Vega does a fantastic job coaxing out improved sound from the subterranean bass from Laswell’s guitar.

Willie Nelson’s voice on Stardust proves equally beguiling. Vocal presence remains at the front of the soundstage, extending forward into the room with an almost physical presence. Guitars and percussion retain a similar level of realism and palpability.

Listening to several hours of classical, jazz and blues recordings, I am never disappointed with the Vega. Regardless of the music thrown at it, the Vega consistently excels at bass retrieval and reproduction of high notes, while maintaining a generally neutral sound. In my setup, the Vega never seems to over emphasize any particular frequency. With this blank canvas to work from, the user has the opportunity to use the digital filter and clock settings to slightly tailor the sound to their liking—and experimentation proves a lot of fun.

While the Vega’s sound is not as smooth, refined, nuanced, and three-dimensional as the $20,000 Light Harmonic DaVinci, the AURALiC more than holds its own for its price, delivering great sound for its class. I could live with it happily.

Among the Stars

Can the AURALiC VEGA serve as a northern star in your home audio system? In short, the answer is yes. For all its versatility and raw audio prowess, the Vega is worth serious consideration if the $3,499 price is within your budget. With a future-proof design and variable volume output, the Vega is likely to remain in your audio system for years to come, which makes it a great investment for those who love the convenience and sonics of high-quality digital music. Like Orpheus’ audiences, I suspect that you will find it difficult to turn away from the Vega once you start listening.

VEGA digital-audio processor

MSRP: $3,499


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Mk3 DAC    Genesis Digital Lens    dCS Purcell
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Peachtree Audio deepblue Bluetooth Music System

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Equipment

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

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

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

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

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

Diving In

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Depths

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

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

Hidden Treasure?

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

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

deepblue Bluetooth Music System

MSRP: $399


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

Scottevest Fleece 7.0


Scottevest (aka SeV) produces specialized, tech-enabled clothing laden with the company’s signature pockets.  Its Fleece 7.0, for example, features a remarkable 23 pockets that vary in shape, size and purpose.  With seemingly endless storage, SeV jackets facilitate hands-free functionality for audiophiles and techies wishing to take their favorite portable devices and accessories on the go.

In the Fleece 7.0, a magnetically sealed pocket underneath the left hand-warmer pocket offers a clear, touch-sensitive fabric window inside the jacket to allow control of electronic devices, making it a breeze to navigate songs and playlists without removing the audio source.  While the pocket is sized to accommodate an iPhone, an iPod classic also fits nicely and is easily viewed in the window.

The Fleece 7.0 also includes SeV’s Personal Area Network, which allows the wearer to thread audio and headphone cables within the lining of the coat.  With a little finagling, wires can connect electronic items through and between many of the pockets, ultimately enabling headphone wires to exit the collar for convenient access.  Each side of the collar contains a mini-pocket to store ear buds out of sight when not in use.

Among the Fleece 7.0’s 23 pockets are a few specialized ones.  For instance, there is a soft-lined glasses pocket that includes a built-in, tethered cleaning cloth, which proves handy for cleaning touchscreens.  This pocket also features a map of the jacket to help the wearer navigate any audio accessories potentially lost in the maze of pockets.  There’s even a built-in water-bottle holder to reduce risk of dehydration during long listening sessions while on the go.

Taking into account all this onboard gear, the Fleece 7.0 arranges pockets so that telltale bulges from carried objects are minimized, even eliminated in many cases.  Is that an iPad in your pocket?  Yes, ahem, we’re happy to see this capability.

With devices galore, weight is also a consideration, which SeV addresses with the jacket’s weight-management system.  This design element distributes the jacket’s weight evenly across the wearer’s shoulders so that no one side of the body bears the sole burden of carrying all that gear—a vast improvement compared to carrying a laptop bag or briefcase with a shoulder strap.  While encased in pockets of plastic-and-metal electronics, the wearer may feel bulletproofed, but with this clever design, at least he or she won’t feel encumbered with armor.

If breaking a sweat from a vigorous walk to the pace of the crescendo of Queen’s “Bohemian Rapsody,” wearers will appreciate the fact that the sleeves are removable.  And, as you might have guessed, they can be placed in a back pocket, leaving wearers free to dance in the streets unbridled.

The Scottevest Fleece 7.0 comes in black or red. Load it up and get ready to rock!

Scottevest Fleece 7.0

MSRP: $160

Symbol Audio Tabletop HiFi

Symbol’s new Tabletop HiFi offers a refreshingly attractive alternative to the more traditional form factors of audio equipment.  In essence, the HiFi is a powered music playback system, but the console’s unique nuances make it so much more than that.

The HiFi, which measures 28.75 inches long by 9.5 inches high by 8.5 inches deep, offers an absolutely clean and modern-looking appearance free from visible knobs, controls or indicators.  All the owner sees from a listening position are two 4-inch, full-range drivers set widely apart on the HiFi’s face.  A built-in Class-D amplifier provides 8 watts to the front drivers and 15 watts to the 5.25-inch subwoofer.  Symbol hides the down-firing woofer beneath the cabinet, which has dual rear ports.  With so much hardware crammed into a small space, the HiFi tips the scales at a substantial 30 pounds.

On the rear of the unit, the HiFi offers a master volume knob as well as a separate control for the subwoofer, allowing the owner to tailor the sound to his or her preference.  The rear-facing controls require the user to lean behind the unit to visually locate them, until the placement of the controls becomes familiar, but the volume knob is easy enough to reach over the top of the unit.  The HiFi offers only one input, a 1/8-inch minijack.  If a user intends to switch between multiple sources, a cable splitting adapter or other manual intervention is needed.

When ordering a HiFi, soon-to-be owners have the opportunity to customize the appearance of the face and cabinet.  Options for the front include a walnut or oak finish, or a clean white or gray; cabinet finish options include walnut wood grain or a minimalist black, white or orange.  For families with young children, it’s probably a good idea to go with the protective, poke-proof metal grille option for the drivers.  The grilles match whatever finish you chose for the rest of the unit.  The many custom options allow the HiFi to be either a striking visual element for a room, or a chameleon blending into the background.  Either way, those houseguests who do notice it will find both its aesthetics and its sonics appealing.

Symbol Audio’s HiFi is available for $1,800, regardless of finish choices.  Given the unit’s single-box, single-input design, it’s clear that the Symbol Audio solution is a purist one that’s not trying to complete directly with full-blown component stereo systems.  It’s designed to fill a room with sound from a single source, and do that job very well.  Those audio enthusiasts seeking multiple input options, pinpoint stereo imaging and a broader soundstage may be served better by more traditional stereo equipment.  But for those who prioritize the appearance of a beautiful, stylish and unobtrusive audio system, and who also want good sound to complement it, the HiFi is an elegant solution.

Symbol Audio Tabletop HiFi

MSRP: $1,800

Sonus faber Venere 3.0 Loudspeakers

I always look forward to the arrival of houseguests.  And, as far as visitors go, the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers make a great first impression—even before the music begins.

With these speakers, priced at $3,498 per pair, Sonus faber made some compromises, but did so without losing brand cred.  To achieve the speakers’ reasonable price, Sonus faber moved production offshore to China, in a factory closely resembling its Italian facility.  The 3.0s are the flagship of the Venere series, which abandons the classic Sonus faber look, borrowing instead the lyre-shaped cabinet of the company’s top-of-the-line Aida speakers.  The 3.0s are available with a glossy finish, in either black or white, as well as with a walnut-wood finish for an extra $500 per pair.

After escorting the speakers up to my listening room and unboxing them, I feel under-dressed in my T-shirt.  My review speakers feature white side panels, complemented by a black top and front.  I’m tempted to ask the speakers if they prefer their martinis shaken or stirred—the cocktail party music would soon follow.

You Look Maaaaarvelous!

Sonus faber describes the speaker as having a “lyre shape.”  I describe it as being shaped a bit like a pear when looking at it from above, with the narrow part at the back raised slightly.  The speakers are squared off at the front to create a flat plane for the drivers.  Ultimately, this combination of angles, curves and lines gives them a sculptural aesthetic—or perhaps a look similar to those of the robots in Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” video.  But let’s stick with the former descriptor.

The Veneres are sizeable floorstanders: about 4 feet tall, with enough room to house a silk dome tweeter, a 5-inch midrange driver and two 6-inch bass drivers, plus a rectangular port at the bottom.  The base is made of strong glass with aluminum connectors at the edges, where you affix the tapered, spiked cone feet.  This combination provides a solid anchor for the Veneres, but take note that the spikes are quite sharp at the business end; they will easily pierce carpet or leave noticeable scratches on your wooden floor—or your foot.  Consider yourself warned.

Two sets of binding posts facilitate bi-wiring or bi-amping, and the included jumpers make it easy for those of us with only one set of speaker cables.

Strike a Pose

Eager to see if the speakers’ sonic capabilities match their good looks, I begin the setup process.  The Veneres are fairly easy for one person to move.  I appreciate their 47-pound weight (as does my back) after having lugged my reference Piega P10 speakers out of their usual position, which is where the Veneres’ placement process begins.  After trying to fine-tune their placement in my 17-foot-by-20-foot listening space, I find that the starting point ultimately offers the best acoustics—about 4 feet from the back wall, 2 feet from the side wall, and about 8 feet apart.

After some toe-in experimentation, I determine that the Veneres require only a small amount for best imaging.  Like two polite and conversational party guests, the speakers are not too finicky about where they stand, and their oration inspires active listening.

The Best Of Chesky Classics & Jazz & Audiophile Test Disc offers some helpful tracks for speaker setup, demonstrating the ways in which surround sound can be simulated using a pair of speakers.  In one example, David Chesky walks around an omni-directional microphone tapping on a tom-tom drum.  In another example, the experiment is simulated using digital-processing technology.  When placed well, good speakers can make Chesky and his drum appear to travel a circular path around the listening room.  Very good speakers placed optimally can make it seem as if Mr. Chesky is walking behind the listening position, which is especially noticeable with the digitally processed track.  The Veneres prove very capable of this auditory illusion.

Start the Show!

Once optimized, I’m exciting to fire up the speakers—and am quickly impressed.  It’s clear that Sonus faber put its biggest investment into the Venere 3.0 where the money belongs: the sonics.

First of all, these speakers do a shockingly good job of extending the perceived width of the stage on which the musicians are playing.  Aimee Mann’s “One,” from the soundtrack to P.T. Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, starts very simply, with her voice front and center, which the Veneres render very well.  Later, with the onset of additional instruments, the song explodes out to each side of the soundstage.  The speakers manage to bring those bits of music around the edges of the room into the listening area.  The same is true with larger orchestral pieces, like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos.  These speakers incorporate that broader stereo image seamlessly into my listening space, with sound floating beautifully around the room.

I will say that the front-to-back depth of the speakers’ perceived stage is limited, as one might expect from any speaker in this range.  Live at Luther College, from Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, is a great test for this, as individual audience members shout various requests and comments toward the musicians.  Elements in the distant of the recorded space seem pushed forward toward the plane provided by the Veneres.

While tight and tuneful in the bass registers, the Veneres do not dip below 38 Hz, according to Sonus faber’s specs, which is confirmed by my own test tracks.  Madonna’s “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” offers some very low notes, which are barely audible through the Veneres.  But for most people, especially those living in small spaces or condos, limited low frequency be a desirable characteristic to reduce late-night complaints from sleeping neighbors.  Those seeking very low, foundation-rattling bass punch may find the Veneres a bit light for their tastes.  For most types of music, the bass of the Veneres balances well with the overall mix.

I enjoy Portishead’s “Cowboys,” but the vocal effects in this recording can make Beth Gibbons’ voice quite fatiguing on an overly revealing system.  The song illustrates the Veneres’ extended but forgiving highs.  The speakers let the overall musical experience shine through, as opposed to drawing the listener’s attention to a single, hard vocal edge.

While some more expensive speakers reproduce more nuances, the Veneres tend to take the high road, as if you are sitting further back in the auditorium, where each onstage pick of the guitar, draw of the bow across the cello strings or squeak of the saxophone diminishes sonically over a distance.  For example, Beck’s “Lonesome Tears” features a single triangle strike with an extended ring; some of the immediacy, sparkle and ambient decay is lost with the Veneres’ reproduction, but they still do a mighty good job of it.

Here Come the Papparazzi

It’s obviously nor fair or helpful for you, the reader, to compare the Veneres to my Piega P10s, which start at $9,500.  In absolute terms, the Veneres give up some transparency, realism and detail compared to higher-end speakers.  But for $3,498, the level of balance these speakers offer is stunning.

Sonus faber’s voicing choices for this speaker are well thought out, being more musical than analytical.  The Veneres are well balanced for many types of music, including rock, classical and jazz, as opposed to exceling only at one genre.  They reproduce vocals wonderfully, bringing them to the front instead of recessing them into the mix.  The bottom line is that the price is right and the speakers provide countless hours of listening pleasure.

It’s very exciting to experience wonderful products like these, which can fit realistically into many audiophiles’ budgets.  It’s hard not to give the Venere 3.0 speakers an enthusiastic recommendation.  A few compromises aside, they offer very impressive audio performance.  Combining this with their attractive, modern look and bargain $3,498 price tag makes these a stellar value and very much worth your audition.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

After spending some quality time with Sonus fabers flagship Aida, I found it very intriguing to see just how much of this lineage could be achieved in such a reasonably priced speaker.  All of the style cues suggest that this new speaker has come from the same brain in terms of style.  For those not intimately familiar with the top of the Sonus faber range, you’d be hard pressed to tell the Venere 3.0s were made in a Chinese factory—they are that good.

Instead of trying to make the speaker cover a wider range while sacrificing quality, Sonus faber settled for a bit less ultimate bass weight to help keep the range in top shape.  Unless you are playing Deadmau5 at club levels in a big room, I doubt you will find these speakers lacking.

The Venere not only has a heavy dose of Sonus faber heritage, it is also a nice balance between the warmer, more forgiving SF of old and the resolution that the Aida brings to the table.  The Venere’s 90-dB sensitivity rating makes the speaker an excellent match for just about any amplifier, tube or transistor with more than 25 watts per channel on tap.  Whether I mated the Veneres to the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium power amplifier recently in for review, (35wpc/EL34 tubes) or my vintage Pass Labs Aleph 3 (30wpc/solid-state Class A), I couldn’t find myself ever requiring more power than this within the 13-foot-by-16-foot confines of room two.

This combination of beautiful sound, timeless visual style and high build quality wins the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  These are top performers in their price range.  Those wishing for a wood cabinet can step up to a walnut wood finish for $3,998 per pair.

The Sonus Faber Venere 3.0

MSRP:  $3,498/pair  (gloss white or black)

$3,998/pair (walnut wood) (Factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Penaudio Sinfonietta Loudspeakers

Growing up with a Finnish grandma, the word “sisu” became part of my vocabulary at an early age. According to her, there isn’t a perfect translation into English since the word represents a guiding philosophy — a mindset — rather than one specific thing. Loosely translated, the term embodies qualities of perseverance, determination and resilience.

The Finnish speaker manufacturer Penaudio embraces sisu in their constant efforts to evolve great products into even better ones. New for 2013, Penaudio’s Sinfonietta loudspeaker makes its debut. As you might guess from its name, it’s a direct descendent of their flagship Sinfonia and looks like, well, the bottom half of one.

TONEAudio reviewed several Penaudio speakers over the years and are a perennial staff favorite, yet the Sinfonietta takes the lineage to the next level.

More than a pretty face

Listening to the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ Sinatra at the Sands on vinyl it’s hard not to chuckle at Sinatra’s banter between songs. As he jokingly describes his own childhood appearance to the audience, “I was born a very skinny kid…So skinny my eyes were single file. Between those two and my belly button my old man thought I was a clarinet.”

That album rendered through the Sinfoniettas brought an unexpected moment of irony as I looked at the speakers’ narrow, seven inch front baffle. Below the fluid cooled dome tweeter are two vertically stacked, five inch drivers separated by a few inches. As the Sinfonietta’s single-file “eyes” centered by copper-colored pupils stare back at the listener, the small port on the front is vaguely reminiscent of the navel Sinatra joked about.

A slender “clarinet”, however, the Sinfonietta is not. Looking head-on the speakers disguise the muscle behind their narrow face with a 21-inch cabinet depth. Each speaker sports a 10 inch, paper-coned, side-firing woofer on one side near the bottom. With a depth three times its width each Sinfonietta has a wide base which creates additional stability and facilitates insertion of spikes.

Available in several equally attractive wood finishes, our sample pair showcase the Rowan wood option. Regardless of the finish Penaudio creates a unique look to their speakers as if they were made entirely of many parallel, thin wood sheets. The subtle gradients of the natural wood color provide a beautiful, organic quality to the speaker which is understated, but hard not to admire. The fit and finish on this speaker is well executed and with so many veneer options the Sinfonietta complements a room’s décor rather than dominating it. Beautiful sound may be the primary goal of any speaker design, but equally beautiful looks never hurt!

Dancing with Sinfoniettas

My usual speakers moved aside to accommodate my temporary Rowan wood-veneered roommates, and to provide a starting point for optimal Sinfonietta placement in my 17’D x 20’W x 10.5’H listening area.  After a full hour of scooting the 110-pound Sinfoniettas around the room in an effort to eek every last drop of sonic benefit from them, it’s clear they are not simple to place. I’m also fairly certain the neighbors below my condo will have concern about my mental state given all my apparent pacing back and forth between the speakers and my listening position.

Subtle movements of these speakers prove meaningful sonically and so the investment of time for proper placement is critical for getting the most musical enjoyment from your audio investment. For example, at some locations the bass overpowers my room, but small adjustments of speaker placement bring it back into check.

Ultimately the Sinfoniettas sweet spot is 3.5 feet from the ASC Tube Trapped back wall and about 8 feet apart. This combination offers the reward of an exceptionally wide soundstage – one which extends well beyond the speakers themselves – as well as great bass extension and depth.

Trying many different angles of toe-in requires experimentation too. Starting with the speakers toed at a fairly aggressive angle, crossing in front of the listening position, moving them outward a few degrees at a time helps identify the optimal placement angle. In my case the Sinfoniettas offer the greatest combination of resolution and depth of soundstage with small amount of toe in and their theoretical target well behind my listening seat.

What’s Shakin’?

Penaudio suggests minimum power for the Sinfoniettas to be 50 watts into 8 ohms. Fed 250 watts though, you might be advised to add a seatbelt to your listening chair. The powerful voice of these speakers emerges as a single, cohesive experience despite the many drivers and crossover points which comprise the Sinfonietta’s design.

Other than transparency what first stands out when listening is the Sinfonietta’s bass presence. During songs like Massive Attack’s “Angel” or Bill Laswell & Jah Wobble’s “Subcode” very low bass notes produce a resonant ratting of the glassware in my kitchen cabinets! The Sinfoneittas are easily capable of filling a much larger room than mine with sound. Based on the vibration in my sofa (and my kidneys) while listening, a smaller room might find itself overly-consumed in bass.

Smooth Operator

String instruments like those presented in “Sleep Will Come” by Bliss and the upright bass rendered in Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” are portrayed with deep and woody delicacy.

Sia’s emotive voice on “I Go To Sleep” proves captivating each time I hear it. However, the recording’s vocal crescendos can be a bit overpowering on some equipment where highs go beyond “extended” and into the realm of stridency. Mated with complementary electronics upstream, the Penaudios strike a well-voiced balance by providing non-fatiguing, natural-sounding highs without the often-accompanying side effects.

With the Sinfoniettas, the width of the virtual soundstage and the specific placement of the various instruments and vocals within it are revelatory. Air’s “Venus” and Ray Lamontagne’s “Be Here Now” provide stellar examples of the Sinfonietta’s sound-staging prowess as notes and voices wrap around the listening room.  Lyle Lovett’s “Church” is a challenging image portrayal, given multiple instruments and a choir behind the singer. The Penaudios handle the layering with finesse.

In larger group performances, like Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”, the physical speakers blend seamlessly into the virtual width and depth of the performance in such a way that, with eyes closed, it’s difficult to point out the speakers. Sound seems to emerge from all around the Sinfoniettas including the trumpet nestled in the rear stage behind them.

Other strong suits for the Sinfoniettas include detail and nuance. The gravel in Leonard Cohen’s voice on “Be For Real” is not just audible, but tangible. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rendition of “Little Wing”, the guitar’s strength and delicacy both emerge with aplomb. The speakers also portray fast, realistic sounding percussive strikes followed by gentle decay, regardless of who’s on the drum kit.

Rock On!

One of the Sinfonietta’s greatest strengths reveals itself as ability to rock when compelled to do so. Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” pack ample, visceral punch. Electronica like “Juanita/Kiteless” from Underworld’s Everything, Everything Live proves equally invigorating. At medium-to-higher volumes, the Sinfonietta’s drivers demonstrate their ability to move air – sometimes quickly and forcefully enough to generate a noticeable pop in my ear, even from a distance of 11 feet. I’ve had this experience plenty of times before, but usually only in the presence of live drums.

In my listening space, the Sinfoniettas had the potential to produce the same physical impact with many types of music when played at a moderate volume. Listeners craving this level of tangibility, will find it in spades with the Penaudios. Those preferring a more relaxed, warm, musically-emotive presentation from their loudspeaker could find the Sinfoniettas a bit intense in some systems. As such, room size and upstream equipment synergy are important considerations for the full enjoyment of these speakers. There is no right or wrong answer here. Some people like bourbon, some prefer wine. Both can be excellent.


With the Sinfoniettas, Penaudio creates a speaker which commands, and even demands, active listening. Those seeking an energetic, detailed, and accurate portrayal of music will certainly embrace it through the Sinfoniettas. If my grandma were still alive I think she would agree they bring the sisu of their Finnish heritage to the listening room.

For those in the market for a speaker in the $20,000 range, the beautifully designed Penaudio Sinfoniettas prove worthy of your consideration.

The Penaudio Sinfonietta

MSRP:  $20,000/pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Dynaudio Xeo 3 Wireless Speakers

Dynaudio’s reputation for coaxing great sound from a small cabinet remains intact with the Xeo 3 speakers, which add wireless operation to the mix, as do the floorstanding Xeo 5s.  This is indeed an exciting prospect for those not wanting to deal with a traditional amplifier-preamplifier-DAC setup, or the looming cable mess.  For Dynaudio’s Xeo speakers, the term “wireless” is only slightly misleading, as AC power is still required and you still need to connect a small interface to your computer, but you can kiss interconnects and speaker cables goodbye!

Pre-flight Check

The modestly sized Xeo 3s are 7 inches wide, 10 inches deep and 11 inches tall, and are available in white or black, with either glossy or satin finishes.  The front grilles disguise a 5-inch woofer and 1-inch soft dome tweeter derived from Dynaudio’s Excite X12.  This small size allows for multiple placement options.  Our art director has been using them as near-field desktop speakers for some time now with excellent success.  (I received a Marge Simpson growl as I pried them away from her for this review.)

Those preferring to mount the speakers on stands will have the best results using 24- to 30-inch-tall stands, which will keep the tweeter close to ear height.  The speakers’ rear-firing port does not interfere with operation when close to the wall, so placement on a tabletop or desktop also works well. Dynaudio offers its Stand 3X matching stands (available in gloss black, gloss white, matte black or silver finish), which feature cable management for the Xeo power cord and retails for $350 per pair.  If using the speakers on a tabletop, desktop or shelf, I advise placing something small, soft and squishy beneath the speakers to act a buffer between the woofer and said surface. Dynaudio markets its SF1 speaker foot base for $85 per pair as a solution for such applications.

The Xeos have an MSRP of $1,950, with the wireless transmitter costing an extra $350.  It’s worth noting that operating the speakers does not require interfacing them with your current Wi-Fi setup; they have their own direct 2.4-GHz wireless connection from the transmitter to the speakers.  Plugging the transmitter directly into your computer eliminates the need for the provided power supply, which further minimizes desktop clutter.

While a nearly $2,000 price tag might seem high at first for a pair of compact speakers, the Xeo 3s are each equipped with a pair of 50-watt onboard power amplifiers – one for the woofer and one for the tweeter.   Because the digital amplifiers integrated into the speakers is a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) design, it recalculates the incoming digital signal data in a way that the drivers see the data much like an analog sine wave.  This offers the least amount of signal conversion loss, but does limit the files that can be played to 24 bit/48khz.  Dynaudio’s well-written manual will take you through the full setup in just a few minutes.  I run Windows 7, and my initial trepidation melts away, as the Xeo 3s’ setup requires just a few mouse clicks; our art director concurs that the Mac side is equally trouble free.

Setting a Course

There are a few switches on the back of the speaker boxes with which you will need to familiarize yourself.  The power switch activates the 50-watt built-in amps; once the speakers are on, the remote puts them in low-power standby mode when the speakers are not in use.

The speakers also sport a few other switches, which enable various usage scenarios.  You can designate each speaker as either a right or left channel module in a stereo setup, or you can use them both in mono mode.  When using the Xeos as a main stereo pair, or as rear speakers in a home-theater setup, one left and one right speaker are the obvious choice.  For those wishing to fill a larger space with sound, or those not worried about stereo imaging, the speakers can be set to mono—a cool feature if you need sound reinforcement for a party.

Note that each pair of Xeos has one speaker with a small blue LED light behind the grille, which blinks to acknowledge that the remote signal is active.  While the speakers communicate with each other to preserve the same volume level, there is no volume control on the speakers themselves—so don’t lose the remote!

Multiple pairs of Xeos offer enormous versatility for those wanting sound throughout their listening space.  A second toggle switch on the rear panel of the speakers assigns one of three zones—A, B or C—and each transmitter can be assigned to any of the zones.  All speakers can be set to receive the audio signal from one transmitter and one source, thereby playing the same content on all of them.  Alternately, you can plug different sources into different transmitters (purchased separately) and assign that audio signal to any speaker pair.

These scenarios facilitate, for example, playing computer-based music on one pair of Xeos in a bedroom, while the main room hosts a movie from your DVD or Blu-ray Disc player.  The volume of the Xeo pair in each room can be adjusted independently by their respective remotes.  Again, refer to the well-illustrated manual for setup assistance.

Born to Fly

The Xeo 3s perform beyond what their small size might initially suggest.  The internal amplifiers are well matched to the speakers, optimizing the sound produced and ultimately offering great value.  As with all the other Dynaudio speakers I’ve experienced, the hallmark ease and midrange clarity of the brand is well intact here.  The richness of Anjani’s voice on the title track to her 2006 album, Blue Alert, alongside the delicate and tuneful rendering of piano and saxophone notes, demonstrates just how well the Xeo solution works to create a satisfying musical experience.

Waldeck’s “Slowly” illustrates the Xeo 3’s ability to generate solid, dynamic bass, despite its small enclosure.  Magma’s “Horn Antenna” further reveals the low-frequency capability of these speakers.  Again, table mounting will add a little bit of LF gain and grunt, but at a slight loss of imaging finesse.  The speakers reproduce the other end of the spectrum with equal ease and precision.  The cymbal strikes in Norfolk & Western’s “Letters Opened in the Bar” illustrate a gentle ring and delicate decay.

Further listening with recent Blue Note releases on XRCD confirms the ease with which the Xeo 3s handle acoustic instruments.  The gentle vocal styling present on Jakob Dylan’s first solo effort, Seeing Things, combined with the acoustic guitar on the opening track, “Evil is Alive and Well,” demonstrates the large sound space these speakers can reproduce without losing the delicacy of the track to wireless transmission.

The only restriction to the Xeo system is the 24-bit/48-kHz limit of incoming files; for now, those with major high-resolution music collections will not be able to enjoy full-bandwidth audio with a Xeo system.  The Dynaudio Xeo 3 speakers present great value, fantastic sound and excellent build quality to the music lover who is perhaps not ready to go for a full-blown audiophile system, but who is dissatisfied with the similarly priced wireless offerings from Sonos, B&O and Bose.   In this respect, the Dynaudio Xeo 3 is miles ahead of the competition in terms of its natural delivery and tonal finesse.

Addidional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Of course I had to torture these speakers with some Iron Maiden, Slayer, Van Halen and Zeppelin just to see if they could take it.  And like the Confidence C1 IIs I’ve been using as a reference in room two for a year now, these tiny Danish marvels rock the house—or in this case, my desk.  Using the Xeo 3s on either side of my 30-inch Apple Cinema Display makes me wonder why anyone would ever want a pair of headphones.

The mix is immersive, with the stereo image unfolding between me about a foot in front of my head, as I blast David Lee Roth’s “Ice Cream Man,” and then quickly segue to Maiden’s “Powerslave.”  The small, wireless Dynaudios provide fatigue-free listening during long photo-editing sessions, and underline just how much they have in common with the Confidence series.  This is where you can really reap the benefit of a compact speaker produced by a major speaker company that builds its own drivers, and that possesses extensive research and design capabilities.  The technology trickle down is tough to ignore.

Even if the Xeo 3s don’t turn you into a sound-crazed audiophile right away (but they just might), don’t forget that analog input.  It’s a great way to augment the sound of your television, or perhaps sneak a turntable into the mix.  Plugging the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon table (paired with the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and Lounge MM phonostage) into the Xeo expands my desktop/small-room experience tremendously.  Spinning some of my favorite albums in this space has me forgetting all about the high-res files on my Mac mini.

Everyone on the TONEAudio staff who had a chance to play with the Xeo 3s agrees that they are excellent in every way, from their subtle aesthetics to their ease of setup and use.  We are happy to award them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Dynaudio Xeo 3 Wireless Speakers

MSRP: $1,950 per pair; $350 for the Xeo wireless transmitter; $350 per pair for optional Dynaudio Stand 3X; $85 per pair for optional Dynaudio SF1 speaker foot.



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Chord Electronics Chordette QuteHD DAC

“Open the pod bay door, Hal.” As I unbox the Chord Chordette QuteHD DAC, I cannot help but recall that famous quote from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Cordette is indeed reminiscent of the HAL 9000 computer from the movie, complete with a large, round eye, which offers a view into the internal circuitry.  This window emits a variety of colors from the device’s internal LEDs, and the red glow, which appears when the DAC is converting a 44.1-kHz signal, is eerily HAL-like.  Other colors appear at higher bitrate conversions, and the Chordette is capable of handling a whopping 32-bit/384-kHz signal.


The Chordette measures only 6 inches wide, 3 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, which allows placement on a shelf or next to an existing piece of equipment on your audio rack.  The anodized aluminum exterior has nicely rounded edges and is available in a variety of colors, including blue, black, and silver.  The DAC’s power arrives from a thin-wired wall wart.  For those seeking a minimalist audio solution, the Chordette provides a welcome form factor.

“It can only be attributable to human error.”

Setup proves very straightforward, with the Chordette offering one option for the analog output: a stereo pair of single-ended RCAs.  Users do have the option to connect it to digital sources via USB, optical or coaxial inputs.  It’s important to note that the coax input is in the form of a BNC connector, not the more common RCA variety, so those wishing to connect a source using this input will need the appropriate cable.  BNC connectors are great for their ability to transfer a signal and physically lock onto their receptacles, but I’d like the option to connect both types of coax inputs.  Luckily, I have a Stereovox XV2 digital cable on hand that offers BNC on one end and RCA coax on the other.

Installing the Chordette is simple and seamless, with the packaged CD containing drivers for the USB setup.  Once I place the disc in my PC, connect the USB cable and power up the Chordette, Windows 7 has no problems recognizing the DAC and activating the needed drivers.  Mac users need only go to their control panel and select the Chordette as their digital output device.

The Chordette is a black-box solution, meaning there are no buttons, switches or knobs to control it.  Simply connect your digital sources and the DAC takes care of everything else.  Without an input selector, the Chordette prioritizes incoming signals when multiple inputs are connected simultaneously.  For instance, if coaxial and USB cables are both connected to the unit the default priority is the USB input; optical is the lowest priority.  When I pause the USB source material from the computer, the Chordette begins its search for the next-ranked input source, which in my case is the coax connected to a CD player.  After about 20 seconds, it resumes playing the second source automatically.  For those with a single digital source this could not be simpler.  For those with multiple sources, it’s mostly a matter of stopping any source you don’t want to hear.  Even when unplugging the USB cable in the middle of a song, the DAC makes a quick search and, after a pause, it moves on to the next available connected source.

“I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.”

With the Chordette, joys are many and quibbles are very few.  It creates a supplemental “drive” to the music.  It doesn’t actually speed up a song, but it creates a subtle sense of urgency that pulls in (and holds) the listener.  Attack on guitar plucks and drum beats in Gipsy Kings’ Ritmo de la Noche commands attention, but it never overpowers the big-picture musical experience.  Yet, on smaller-scale solo performances, the Chordette still accentuates delicacy and nuance, making this DAC a great option for all types of music.

The Chordette provides a nicely balanced presentation across all frequencies.  Highs are realistically and enjoyably rendered; mids are smooth and lifelike; and bass presentation is punchy, full and deep.  One small experiential variance from my usual reference, in the form of “Otherwise” by Morcheeba, reveals low bass notes pushing upfront in the virtual stage and competing a bit with the vocals.  Admittedly, I enjoy a little extra heft in some recordings so this aspect will prove a non-issue for many listeners, especially those with smaller speakers.

This DAC also provides a stellar level of detail across all sample rates.  Even a 48-kHz translation demonstrates audible improvement over a standard 44.1-kHz CD.  A CD of the Connecticut Early Music Ensemble performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons puts a shiver down my spine during a few passages—an experience I don’t have too often.  With ribbon tweeters, a small amount of perceivable sharpness emerges at times in lower-resolution digital recordings, which can detract from the musical experience.  But this DAC really draws me into the musicality of a song rather than simply evaluating the equipment producing it.

When I use the Chordette’s coax connection to a CD-quality source, the sound is marvelous.  However, the perceived width of the performance has some limits.  Air’s “Venus” provides a good test for this.  With some other DACs, the musical experience extends well beyond the speakers’ limits and remains there.  The Chordette is reined in a bit and does not exceed the physical speaker boundaries to the same degree.  I do find some improvement in this regard when using the USB connection, or when using a dCS Purcell to upsample to 96 kHz.

What the Chordette creates between the speakers is both dramatic and convincing.  Johnny Cash’s cover of “Danny Boy,” recorded late in career, reveals the age in Cash’s voice.  There’s an emotional undertone in it that transcends the song itself, especially when accompanied by the distant-sounding pipe organ.  For those wanting to experience every nuance up close, in a front-row seat, this DAC enables that experience.  Those who prefer to sit further back at a performance may find the detail a bit much.  But even for those listeners, I expect many will enjoy the change of seat location as the Chordette ushers them toward it.

“Road to Hell: Part I” by Chris Rea sonically simulates a person driving a car down the highway in the rain.  On this track, the Chordette does an incredible job recreating front-to-back depth and layering.  Windshield wipers scrape from side to side, the radio switches between various news stations and many cars drive by in the distance with a whoosh.  The portrayal of these elements though the Chordette is exciting:  The passing cars sound well behind the speakers, with their tires rolling over a wet road; the wiper blades appear ahead of the listener, as though clearing rain from a pane of glass between the speakers (you can hear that the driver needs to buy some new blades); and the simulated radio stations, with news updates panned left and right, have a sound one would expect from old car speakers.

“You guys have really come up with somethin’.”

When asked about its status, the HAL 9000 replied, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  While obviously not conscious, the Chordette QuteHD certainly puts its skills to the fullest possible use in a home audio system.  The team at Chord Electronics has done an outstanding job designing and voicing this amazing little DAC.  It offers flexible input options, a very small footprint and extreme ease of use, as well as adaptability for both low- and high-resolution digital sources.  Combining these attributes with wonderful sound, this DAC proves a marvelous addition to a stereo setup.  For those evaluating DAC options around the Chordette’s $1,700 price range and who enjoy feeling like they are in the front row at a musical performance, the Chordette is a fantastic option.

Chordette QuteHD DAC

MSRP: $1,700

Chord Electronics


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

As I dislodge the packing material from the shipping box containing the Parasound CD 1, it’s easy to have a positive first impression of the flagship of the Halo product line.  I set aside the cardboard and Styrofoam layers to find the player carefully wrapped in a bag of blue velvet.  I can’t help but recall the lyrics that Bobby Vinton made famous:  “She wore blue velvet.”

Physically, the CD player complements the Parasound Halo product series.  As one might expect from name of the collection to which it belongs, the CD 1 sports blue LEDs that cast lighted halos around the buttons flanking the red power indicator in the center of the player’s faceplate.  The CD 1 is built from the ground up to play only Red Book CDs and CD-Rs, plus the standard CD layer on SACDs.  I have to admit that my own digital collection is about 95 percent Red Book CDs, but I prefer to have the ability to play SACDs or DVD-As without needing a second player.

Users have a few options in the unit’s setup menu.  One function worth noting is the “CD eject” option.  The default is to eject a disc when the unit is powered off, but overriding this is a good idea if the player is behind a cabinet door with limited clearance.

The provided Halo remote facilitates access to common features, many of which apply to the CD 1 only, while the others apply to the Halo JC 2 or P 7 preamplifer.  The remote allows users to select a CD track by number, or by the forward or back buttons.  Fast-forward and fast-reverse are also nice touches, should you want to relive a particularly striking musical passage.  The remote also offers a polarity switcher for phase matching as well as a display dimmer.  While the remote has very accessible and practical functionality, it’s very utilitarian and made of a light, somewhat flimsy-feeling plastic.  For a unit of this build quality and price point, I’d prefer to see a more elegant metal remote.

Ours a [CD] I held tightly

Connecting the unit is simple and flexible.  The CD 1 offers both RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs, as well as three digital output options—BNC, coax and optical—for those who might want to use it as a transport.  The Halo’s software takes 20 seconds to load before it’s ready to play a disc.  When the desire for a music fix strikes, this boot-up time feels much longer.

The CD 1 is a slot-loading player, and discs require a fair amount of pushing before the player decides to accept them.  When about an inch of the disc remains outside the player, the CD is sucked in with startling grip and speed.  Once the CD disappears, the player ponders for 10 seconds while evaluating the disc’s contents, and then plays the first track automatically—giving you just enough time to reach the listening chair and catch the first few notes of the song. While it’s pondering, the CD 1 is actually buffering the first 30 seconds of disc data, helping to reduce the error correction associated with a more traditional CD player.  The end result – a less digital, less fatiguing sound.

As I sit down for my first listen, I notice that the display is too small to see any information from my listening position.  This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re familiar with the disc being played, but if you’re not so familiar with the material you might need to use binoculars, or wait for the chorus, to determine which track you are hearing.

Warmer than May Her Tender Sighs

Any quibbles with the user experience quickly fade from mind once this player starts singing.  For analog playback, the Parasound offers a toggled choice of discrete or op-amp analog outputs.  In the discrete setting, the sound is produced from the transistor output stage.  In the op-amp setting, the signal is sent directly from the op-amp output stage.  The different options impart subtle changes to the overall sonic signature.  While the settings are similar, the op-amp setting lends a bit warmer feel, with a slightly more relaxed presentation; the discrete setting offers a bit more perceived detail, but on poor recordings this sonic edge proves more obvious.  Experimentation for your own preference on each disc is encouraged and there is no right answer, so it’s great to have both options.

Music from this player sounds smooth and natural, with all the nuance and subtlety one could hope to coax from a CD.  Bass, mids and highs complement each other wonderfully, and no particular region of the audio spectrum appears to stand out from the others.

I seek out my best CD source material to put the CD 1 though its paces, and Mobile Fidelity recordings prove a great starting point for evaluation.  It’s exciting to experience the player’s portrayal of Beck’s Sea Change on the MoFi disc.  The triangle strike in “Lonesome Tears” offers a beautiful, natural-sounding ring and very long decay rivaling the best I’ve experienced.  Beck’s vocals are equally beguiling as the lyrics and emotion spill from his voice.  The Parasound does a stupendous job of layering front-to-back musical elements, even when they may overlap in the perceived left-to-right stereo image.

During “On the Run,” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (MoFi), it’s easy to pick out a man panting and running from right to left, as well as his 90-degree turn to run away from the microphone, thereby fading into the background.  “Us and Them” offers a similar experience, as gentle echoes pan and spiral around the perceived source of David Gilmour’s vocals in the center.

Madonna’s “Candy Perfume Girl” starts with a synthesized, pinpoint sound bouncing left and right.  The CD 1 manages to put that element in front of the speakers, rather than being recessed between or behind them.  I have not experienced this effect to the same degree with very many pieces of equipment.

“Song for Olabi,” from Quiet Letters by Bliss, combines vocals with drums, shakers, rain sticks, flutes and synthesized notes.   Not only does the CD 1 present these instruments with sound that is surprisingly organic, but it also places them on the stage so that a front-row listener can both hear the instrument and visualize it.  I find myself looking for a musician “behind” the person at the front of the stage holding the shaker.  While many pieces of audio equipment tend to blur and compress sonic elements together into a more two-dimensional space, the CD 1 stitches together all the subtle sonic queues in a recording to extend and separate the musical experience into three dimensions.

On Dirty Martini’s “House on Fire,” the CD 1 renders the glockenspiel with more realism than I have heard in a recording.  Okay, there aren’t a lot of songs in my collection that include glockenspiel, but you get my point; the delicacy and decay of the notes sound both lively and lifelike.

Lower quality CDs, like Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always, proves a little bright-edged, as I’d expect, but the Parasound still manages to encourage the vocals to come closer to the front of the soundstage, instead of being recessed within the mix.  The CD 1 does not sugarcoat the CD experience, but it does make the most of the material provided.

As a transport, this player offers equally stellar experiences.  It manages to chisel out each and every digital bit on the CD before sending it to an outboard DAC.  Several experiments confirm the capability of the DAC within the CD 1, proving itself competitive with my reference digital processing gear in many ways, though the musical presentation is not quite as wide with the CD 1.  I find myself wishing the Parasound included a digital input to allow experimentation with its interpretation of other digital sources, like a computer.  But for those needing only CD functionality, this player is sublime.

In My Heart There’ll Always be…a Memory

At $4,500, the Parasound CD 1 is a significant financial commitment for a device that plays only Red Book CDs.  At the same time, the sonic portrayal of music is every bit as good as many transport plus DAC combinations I’ve heard over the years.  The discrete and op-amp settings provide the ability to do some sonic tailoring to match your system—and being able to switch on the fly is a bit like having two CD players in one.  For those in the market for a dedicated CD player in this price range, the Parasound CD 1 offers exceptional sound and a very rewarding musical experience.

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

MSRP: $4,500



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

IQ Audio M300 Monoblocks

As class-D amplifiers continue to evolve, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to test examples such as IQ Audio’s new monoblock, dubbed the M300. While each M300 is very compact—7.75 inches wide, 7.75 inches deep and a 3.25 inches tall—the amps should not be taken, well, lightly.  Their physical size-to-sonic-punch ratio makes them a bit like the Sugar Ray Leonard of the amp world.  The M300s deliver a hefty 150 watts into 8 ohms, and 300 watts into 4 ohms.  According to IQ’s literature, the M300s can also handle loads in the 2-ohm range.  So at this price point—$1,495 per pair—you get a lot of watts per dollar.

Weighing In

My lower back confirms that the modest dimensions of the M300s make them a cinch to move and integrate into my audio system.  At a mere 7 pounds apiece, the M300s are easily tucked under each arm, leaving me with spring in my step as I move them to the listening area.

A Mark Levinson No. 335 amplifier, which weighs a spine-warping 150 pounds, normally inhabits the lowest shelf in my audio rack.  I prefer not to move this behemoth out of the way for review equipment if I can avoid it—as long as my guest amplifiers have a place that allows them good ventilation and vibration control.  The M300 packs a lot of technology into a small package. The M300 uses a software programmed micro-controller input and buffer stage, and a SMPS power supply that enables the M300 to deliver FTC rated power into both 4 and 8 ohms, i.e. not just peak power.

The tiny size of the M300 offers many placement options that larger amps do not.  In my case, each amp has a temporary residence perching atop a 26-inch-tall bookshelf speaker stand.  These improvised amp pillars present each of the M300s quite nicely as they display the subtle blue LED power-up ring complementing the amps’ matte-black facades.  After a few minutes examining and admiring my sonic visitors, the process of connecting them to the rest of the system begins.

Against the Ropes

The M300s use the manufacturer’s IQ-torque binding posts, which enable easy and solid connections for spade speaker-cable terminations. It’s worth mentioning that these binding posts are similar to the ones used on much more expensive Boulder and Pass amplifiers, and so much easier to work with than those plastic coated ones featured on many amplifiers today. IQ principal Bruce Weisberg mentions that they chose these binding posts for their sonic qualities as much as convenience – a nice touch for a $1,500 pair of amplifiers. Rather than twisting a small 5-way binding post by hand and then tightening it further with a post wrench, I’m able to easily tighten the M300s’ large key-shaped posts without using extra tools.  As I twist the posts, I can’t help but recall some of my favorite childhood wind-up toys.  Gentle ribbing aside, I personally love the choice IQ made with these posts and the firm connection they facilitate.  Once they are cranked down, nothing is coming loose.

However, this connection type may present a problem for some users:  First, there is no accommodation for banana plugs; and second, with such a low amp height, there is little space between the binding posts and the surface the amp rests on.  As a result, thick cables may require mounting to the binding post in a way that leaves the cables pointing outward or upward from the amp, providing the M300 with something of a rooster-tail.  With that in mind, other users may find that speaker stands like mine aren’t such a bad idea.

Accompanying the binding posts on the back panel of each amp are both RCA and balanced inputs, as well as plenty of room for the power cable of your choice and two 12-volt triggers.  Because of their versatility, these amps can evolve with your system as you acquire or replace new components. And the M300 comes with the IQ-kord power cable, which is a 15A power cable featuring hospital grade IEC plugs and EMI / RF isolators.

And for some economic and environmental peace of mind, the M300s have an Energy Star–rated efficiency.  They do not get warm and the power-handling technology that IQ built into them enables them to consume very little power while at idle.

Ring the Bell

The first thing you notice sonically about the M300s is the non-fatiguing way they present music.  Regardless of musical genre, the M300s avoid stridency.  They render jazz, classical, rock, and electronica very well, allowing the listener to sit back and enjoy the musical experience without the “wince factor” that some equipment creates.  I put these amps through the Four Johns test—that is, listening to Cash, Coltrane, Digweed and Philip Sousa—and the music retains the heart of the performances without harsh sonic artifacts.

The M300s bring to life the guitar plucks on “Give My Love to Rose,” from Johnny Cash’s American IV, with delicacy and richness.  While the amps tend to place the vocals into the mix a bit, they do render the song’s emotional content very well, accurately portraying the age and gravelly roughness in Cash’s voice.

They also render John Coltrane’s saxophone with clarity and grace.  Those who have sat near a live saxophone performance know that the sound can have a natural sharpness in some cases.  The M300s manage to reveal the detail of Coltrane’s performance without adding any harshness beyond that already inherent in the recording.  Through the M300s, the jazz legend’s album Blue Train is both engaging and relaxing.

Ready to Rumble

Fans of electronica know that bass punch and depth are necessary to get people out on the dance floor.  IQ claims a frequency response of 5 Hz to 45 kHz for the M300s, plus or minus 3 dB.  As I’m not able to get the dog next door howling at notes beyond the upper range of my hearing, I can’t verify sound above 20 kHz.  I can say with conviction, however, that the bass indeed goes very deep.  In addition to low-frequency test tracks verifying an audible and tangible 20 Hz rumble in my room, John Digweed’s remix of “Warung Beach” illustrates the M300s ability to provide plenty of get-up-and-go.

Recordings of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” conducted by John Philip Sousa offer varying degrees of audio quality, so I cheat a bit on my theme by deferring to recordings by modern conductors.  Here, the M300s do a very nice job of revealing the dynamic contrasts of the various instruments.  Flute notes dance through the air with delicacy; cymbals have a solid crash and a slow decay; and brass instruments are easily identified.  In a recording like this, adequate power is necessary to get the heft of the performance through my speakers—and the M300s do not disappoint.

Facing Heavyweight Contenders

So what’s the downside?  Unfairly comparing the M300s with my $8,000 reference amplifier (over five times the price of the IQ pair) reveals a few shortcomings that seem aptly illustrated with an analogy:

Viewers can appreciate Monet’s lily paintings differently depending on their distance from the canvas.  At 20 feet away, the colors, shapes and scenery are pleasant to experience as a whole.  But when viewed from just a few feet away, the painting’s impressionistic brush strokes reveal a texture and detail not detectable from further away, allowing for a deeper and more nuanced level of appreciation.  Once seeing the painting up close and in person, it’s difficult to appreciate scaled-down images of the same painting in a book, which do not portray the detail that you know is there.

Similarly, the M300’s sonic portrayal places the listener a metaphorical 20 feet from the music, leaving him or her a well-rendered sonic picture, but one that lacks some of the detail that my reference amp provides: organic realism, pinpoint imaging, a three-dimensional soundstage with width and depth, ambiance and front-to-back layering of instruments and vocals, along with a very quiet, black background.

While the M300s do an exceptional job delivering very deep bass, these low-register responses are not as tight, defined or tuneful as those delivered through my reference amp.  Again, these characteristics are something I’d expect from amplifiers at a higher price point.  I do not expect the same level of quality from a pair of monos in the $1,500 price range.

The Verdict

For everything that they do well, the M300s provide great value.  IQ made smart decisions in the designing and voicing of these amps.  They offer durable ease of use, stellar energy efficiency, enjoyable and non-fatiguing portrayal of music, the power needed to drive challenging speaker loads, and a neutral sonic profile that renders all types of music quite well.

At $1,500 per pair, the M300s are certainly worth an audition.  And the great news is that IQ sells direct from its website and stands squarely behind its products with a 30-day audition period for anyone who makes a purchase.  With this risk-free guarantee, why not decide for yourself if the M300s are a good fit for your system?  For this price, I think you’ll find that this pair of amps is a knockout.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Rob has made excellent points, and after some time with these tiny amplifiers, I concur with his assessment.  However, here are a few more points to ponder:

When purchasing a power amplifier in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range, there are always tradeoffs to be made.  And though there are a few integrated amps, like the Naim UnitiQute or the Rega Brio-R, that come across as slightly more palpable—especially through the midband—there’s no substitute for cubic inches (or, in this case, power).

More power on tap gives you more speaker options.  The M300s can drive a pair of Magnepan MMGs or 1.6/1.7s, while the two others either can’t (Naim) or only can to a point (Rega).  Sure, Class D amps, while having come a long way tonally in the last few years, can still sound a little sterile—and there’s nothing like a great tube preamplifier to warm that up a bit.  The IQ 300s actually use selected discrete mosfets in the output stage, another contributor to their musical nature. So I did just that, with the recently rebuilt Conrad-Johnson PV-12 and its full compliment of CJD Teflon capacitors under the hood.  The extra body of an older tube pre like this one goes a long way to bridge the timber gap between the M300s and my Magnepans.  The result sounds fantastic, especially in light of the M300’s price.

IQ Audio M300 Monoblocks

MSRP: $1,495 per pair

IQ Audio Corporation


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels