First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening:

More Power!

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

MSRP: $4,000


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

Zu Soul Superfly

High-end companies like to claim that they create speakers that don’t sound like other audiophile speakers. Usually, such assertions are just talk. But Utah-based Zu Audio breaks almost every rule of speaker design. What’s more, its American-manufactured designs kick ass, and play nice and loud without raising a sweat. And since all Zu models feature a 10.3″ full-range driver that covers bass, mid, and well up into the treble range, they don’t use a complex crossover network. This almost direct-coupled approach yields major sonic dividends in the critical midrange region.

In Zu’s Soul Superfly, the main driver extends slightly beyond 10khz, and is augmented by a supertweeter that uses a Polish-made 1″ composite dome tweeter mounted in a beautifully machined aluminum-flared horn. Most tweeters on two- or three-way designs are crossed over much lower, typically between 1.2—4kHz. Zu’s technique makes for a dramatic difference in the way the speaker puts sound in the room. Boy, does it ever!

Big Brother and Little Brother

The Soul Superfly is a hot-rodded version of the Soul, and the models sport a few key differences. The Soul is internally wired with Zu Mission cables; the Superfly is cabled with Zu’s silver alloy B3. While the Soul uses ERSE Pulse-X audio grade polypropylene capacitors, the Superfly utilizes Mundorf Silver/Oil capacitors inline with the tweeter. The Superfly’s cabinet is internally coated with a layer of QuietCoat Composite paint, with the MDF bonded with a penetrating binder; the Soul is untreated MDF. The Superfly employs a Cardas copper speaker wire clamping connector forged to the internal cable harness; the Soul uses traditional five-way binding posts. The Superfly can be custom ordered in any finish; the Soul is only available in Zu Smooth Matte black.

A Modest-Sized Speaker, Served Best with Tubes

Zu designs are super-efficient, and the Soul Superfly is no different, boasting a very healthy 101dB @ 1 watt spec. So it can rock the house with just a handful of watts. Don’t worry, power handling hasn’t been slighted; this bad boy can handle 300 watts. The Soul Superfly’s 16 ohm impedance favors tube amps, so I used three: the Miniwatt N3 with 3.5 watts per channel; the Jolida FX10 with ten watts per channel; and a Luxman SQ-38u 30-watt integrated. The Superfly’s high impedance also makes for a splendid match with OTL (output transformerless) tube amps from Atma-Sphere, Transcendent Sound, and Futterman. Zu claims that solid-state amps won’t be the best matches with the Soul Superfly, but the company produces a few models that work equally well with solid-state amplification.

As far as space demands are concerned, the Soul Superfly isn’t that big. It measures 38″ high and 12″ square at its base, while the sloping side panels meet at the 9.5″ square top panel. The MDF cabinet feels solid, and the speaker weighs 50 pounds. Build quality is excellent, and the model is available in three standard textured finishes: Chocolate, Cosmic Latte (beige), Cosmic Carbon gray. Zu also offers extraordinary custom-finish options, albeit for a whopping $2,000 extra. The fee is based on 20 extra hours of labor and the cost of expensive paints. But the charge is worth it. That metallic lime green Soul Superfly I spotted at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest? Absolutely stunning.

Class Comparisons

Sonically, the Soul Superfly is tonally rich and solid, and possesses a weight that few other speakers anywhere its price range muster. Credit the 10.3″ driver’s air-moving power, dynamic punch, and near full frequency bandwidth for the gravitas. The sound is not as transparent as Magnepan’s spectacular MG 1.7 panel speaker ($1,995/pair) I reviewed in Issue 30, but the 1.7 can’t match the Soul Superfly’s tonal richness. If you want both—transparency and soul—be prepared to drop more dough.

Zu’s Essence is a larger speaker, and utilizes a ribbon tweeter, making for a more refined-sounding experience. Still, I’m partial to ribbon tweeters. The Essence sounds bigger, with more air, resolution, a deeper soundstage, and more bass definition than that of the Soul Superfly, all for a higher price.  The Essence doesn’t even match the Magnepan’s walk-through transparency, but like the 1.7, Zu’s speakers march to a different beat.

The Soul Superfly’s big attraction? The way it unleashes dynamics. You’d be hard pressed to find another box or panel speaker anywhere near the Soul Superfly’s size or price that touches it. In this sense, the speaker sounds more like a horn speaker, but without the usual horn (cupped-hand) colorations.

Amplifiers As Soul Food

I never thought Philip Glass’ music had a wit of soul until I played it on these speakers. I liked the idea of Glass’ music, but it often sounded cold, mechanical, and uninviting. The Soul Superfly changed my longstanding opinion once I played Glass’ Glasspieces LP. Whoa. The music’s rhythms and grooves had me going, big time. The Soul somehow uncorked more of the music than I’d heard before. This was material that, after all, was once performed by living, breathing players, and it’s the hi-fi’s job to bring them back to life. The Soul did just that.

Early 1970s Columbia LPs tend to sound thin and hard, but that wasn’t the case with Al Kooper’s I Stand Alone when played through the Luxman SQ-38u integrated amp. The record’s strings and brass, bathed in reverb, were a treat, and Kooper’s elastic vocals seemed more humanly present than I’d previously experienced. The Soul Superfly projected a large soundstage, with fairly sharp focus. Not bad for an LP purchased for 99 cents at Princeton Record Exchange.

Switching amps, the Jolida FX10 did a fine job goosing the Soul Superfly into action with the Black Keys’ raunchy blues. The duo’s latest, Brothers, is a low-down romp, with massively distorted guitar and pummeling drums, and is best enjoyed with the volume cranked way up. The FX10 obliged, though the Luxman coaxed even more grunt from the mix. In addition, the Luxman delivered considerably more meat on the bones, but the FX10’s sound was immensely satisfying on its own. Brothers sports the best batch of tunes from any Black Keys album, and the Soul Superfly only increased my love for the record.

The designation of the tubiest-sounding amp in the listening chain fell to the Miniwatt N3, a single-ended design that utilizes a single ECC83 twin-triode tube feeding one EL84 output tube per channel. The N3 delivered a healthy 3.5 watts per channel to the Superflys, and they loved it. Sure, it looked almost comical: A teensy 5.25″ wide and 6″ deep amp next to the Souls. But those 3.5 watts were sweet and clear, with a truly gorgeous midrange and pleasantly full bass. Tone color and dimensionality were absolutely yummy, and textures came through with utmost transparency. The Miniwatt N2 sells for just $378, but I could happily live with it and the Soul Superfly.

As might be expected, the Luxman SQ-38u integrated tube amp (review in the works) proved the best overall mate with the Soul Superfly, yielding more holographic imaging and a very un-hi-fi, yet totally musically convincing sound. Instruments sounded more natural, and after three different amplifiers, I became convinced that the Soul Superfly was designed for tubes. Why? There’s a rightness to the sound that my solid-state amps can’t match. Bass doesn’t go subwoofer deep, but it’s generously proportioned.

The solid-state Pass Labs XA100.5 monoblock amps exerted a profound sense of control over the Soul Superfly, the sort of difference that could be definitely felt when a drummer really whacked his kit. The big solid-state monoblocks offered more slam and dynamic contrast, but the overall tonal balance shifted to the cooler side. While this never appeared mechanical or harsh, it was easier to forget about the gear when I had a tube amplifier in the chain.

Blow Out the Candles

Zu just celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010, and it seems like the company has only begun what will be a long run. The Soul and Soul Superfly are the latest additions to a promising product line and should be perfect fits for those with low-to-moderate-powered tube amplifiers that want something out of the ordinary.

Zu Audio Soul Superfly

MSRP: $2,600 a pair


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp    Parasound JC 1   Miniwatt N3   Jolida FX10    Luxman SQ-38u    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    XLO Signature-3 interconnects, speaker cable and power cords    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Luxman SQ-38u Integrated Amplifier

Sometimes, there’s no substitute for tradition or heritage. Consider: The original Luxman SQ-38 integrated amplifier debuted in 1963 and followed by the SQ-38D in 1965. The SQ-38u is, in fact, the eleventh incarnation of the design, and the new model looks every bit like vintage hi-fi even as its insides reflect modern thinking.

History aside, I was relieved to hear that the SQ-38u sounds like what it is: A vacuum tube integrated amplifier. A lot of contemporary tube gear sounds more or less like solid-state. Not the SQ-38u. And while it’s certainly not the least bit dated or slow sounding, you’d never mistake it for a transistor amp. It’s too holographic, tonally sweet, and pure. But if solid-state sound is what you’re looking for, Luxman offers a tasty selection of SS integrated models from which to choose. The company also offers a matching PD-171 turntable ($6,000) and D-38u CD player ($4,000) for buyers interested in maintaining the retro look.

You Can Look—And Touch

Of course, the appeal of the SQ-38u’s machined front panel—and its cluster of metal knobs and switches—is more than skin deep. Just like the good old days, the controls have a perfect feel. There are eight knobs in all: An A/B speaker selector; Separates On/Off (controls the rear panel preamp output jacks); Input Selector; and a silky-smooth Volume Control; Bass and Treble; Phono Cartridge Gain; and left/right Balance. Three switches—Low Cut (rumble filter), Mono/Stereo, Tape Monitor—are flanked by a headphone jack and mute button. The metal chassis is sheathed in a handsome wood case, and the little remote control simply handles volume and mute.

Connectivity isn’t generous but it’s certainly adequate, and the connectors are comprised of high-quality materials. You get five pairs of RCA inputs: Rec Out/Monitor; Pre-Out/Main-In jacks; and two sets (A & B) of speaker binding posts. The tube complement runs to four EL 34 power tubes, four 12AX7s, and three 12AU7s planted within the 15.7″ wide by 7.7″ high by 12.2″ deep chassis. The SQ-38u weighs a very solid 44 pounds. It’s built!

The all-tube phono section handles moving magnet as well as low- and high-output moving coil cartridges, the latter two options via step-up transformers. Built-in phono preamps are rare on today’s integrated amps, especially tube models, so I was eager to test out the SQ-38u’s vinyl playback abilities. The sound was yummy, and brought out the best on Blondie’s debut LP. I forgot how perfect a fit singer Debbie Harry was in the band, and the record contains the sort of music that’s best enjoyed turned up loud. Everything I love about analog sound was just that much more delicious with the SQ-38u in the system. Tube noise? Commendably low.

Unlike those on most integrated amps, the headphone amp isn’t based on a little op amp. Rather, this bad boy uses the tube output stage that drives your speakers, albeit padded down with just one resistor to play headphones! That’s right: You get the same sound from your headphones as the speakers. Extremely dynamic and very transparent, the SQ-38u’s headphone sound is far and away the best I’ve heard from an integrated amp. The Luxman had no trouble driving difficult models like the Hifiman HE-6 planar magnetic headphones. Suffice it to say that the SQ-38u is completely on par with my $1,050 Woo Audio WA-6SE tube headphone amp.

Tone controls? Wow, it’s been a long time since I last used a high-end product with bass and treble controls, and those on the SQ038u are the same as those on the original 1963 design. Subtle gradations of bass and treble shifts can make less-than-stellar-sounding recordings, like Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town CD, more listenable. I dipped the treble down to eleven o’clock, and the bass up to 1:30. Much better. Once I really got into the music, I realized what I’ve missed from the Boss’ more recent albums: The band doesn’t sound like a band anymore. On Darkness, Springsteen is playing with a band of brothers. The SQ-38u brought out the best of them without highlighting the recording’s harshness.

Better still, when I played an audiophile recording with real spatial depth—as opposed to digital reverberation—the SQ-38u unleashed a fully three-dimensional soundstage. Puente Celeste’s Nama, a CD from MA Recordings, is recorded “live” with no overdubs and on a pair of custom microphones; the sound was palpably alive. The disc ideally captures the sound of musicians playing in real time, listening, and reacting to each other. A pure thrill, as the sound went beyond mere hi-fi.

Moving and Grooving

I initially listened to the SQ-38u with a pair of Zu Soul Superfly speakers (reviewed in Issue 35), which proved a match made in heaven, but later used my Zu Essence speakers. Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit SACD bounded out of the Essence models with rare gusto. The music may have been recorded a half century ago, but it was alive and kicking as if made yesterday.

Inspired, I dug out Rhino Records’ Beg Scream & Shout box set: Six CDs loaded with the very best Motown, Stax, and indie soul, from gems like Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Work Out” to one of my all-time favorite party tunes of the 1960s, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.” This music is all about energy and drive. Could the SQ-38u deliver? In a word, abso-funk-en-lutely! I couldn’t stop jumping around, just like I did when I was a teenager hearing these tunes for the first time. Never once did I think about transparency or palpable imaging.

For the last great live Stones album, 1995’s Stripped, I switched over to Dynaudio’s C1, a more precise-sounding speaker than the Essence. Soundstage focus is also superior, and the SQ-38u surprised me with its weight and gravitas. Quieter, acoustic-based tunes like “Wild Horses,” “Angie,” and “Love in Vain” were reach-out-and-touch vivid, and claimed to-die-for intimacy. Harder-rocking tunes such as “Street Fighting Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” felt, to a certain degree, reigned-in. Power wasn’t the issue. The SQ-38u played loud enough, but dynamics were perceptively scaled down and blunted the Stones’ full-frontal assault.

Shifting gears, on Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, ever-shifting soundscapes and churning atmospheres glide over squeaking, fluttery accents. There’s a lot going on, and the depth of the stage mesmerizes. Solid-state amps produce the textures but suppress the space. The Luxman made the album come alive, offering up an immersive experience, which is how this recording should be experienced.

From tubes, I want romance, and the SQ-38u delivers. I’m not a fan of tube amps that try to go toe-to-toe with solid-state amps in regards of control and razor-flat response. Hence, when I compared the SQ-38u with my Parasound JC-2 preamp and First Watt J-2 (25 watt x 2) amp while listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook’s Night Song, the solid-state versus tube sound contest didn’t produce a clear winner.

The JC-2/J2 unfurled a more precisely focused soundstage, with more taut bass, but the SQ-38u gave me more of Ali Khan’s 300-pound heft. Pardon the cliché, but the tube sound possessed more palpable body and roundness. To be sure, the CD sounded great with both components. It’s just that the SQ-38u shaved off a tiny bit of the CD’s edge. The Luxman sounds less like a hi-fi component, and more like live music; the JC-2/J2 is more tuneful and rhythmically agile.

Gimme Some Truth

Some otherwise fine amps can’t supply the essence of music. They may be transparent, image well, and uncork many a recordings’ full dynamic range, but the sound still misses the mark. Musical truth separates this Luxman from the pack. The SQ-38u zeroes in on the music and satisfies the soul.

Additional Listening:

Regardless of whether you choose its solid-state or vacuum tube models, Luxman seems to have captured the market in terms of providing a warm, somewhat romantic sound. Akin to the company’s L-590A II integrated (reviewed in Issue 13), the SQ-38u is a modern classic, with vintage styling cues and tone controls. There’s even a cool, tiny yellow LED in the volume control that blinks while the amplifier warms up.

While I also had a pleasant experience with the Zu speakers, my little slice of heaven came courtesy of B&W’s 805D speakers. Their highly resolving nature, smoothed ever so slightly by those EL-34 output tubes, made for a delicious presentation. My recently restored JBL-L100s also made for an intriguing albeit more vintage-sounding system.

Caveat: If you are looking for the last word in vacuum tube resolution, look elsewhere. But if you’d like to stop stressing out over what vinyl pressing you need to locate, the SQ-38u is what you want. Its phono stage is killer. All three positions (MM, MC-low, MC-high) work equally well, but the combination of a Rega P9 with Shelter 501 proved irresistible. The Denon 103 comes in a close second.

Granted, a 30-watt-per-channel tube amplifier can’t be everything to everyone; it won’t play heavy rock or major orchestral works at anywhere near realistic volume levels with most speakers. But if you’d like to get off the audiophile roller coaster and just enjoy the majority of your music collection without hassle, I can’t think of a better choice than the SQ-38u. It’s a magic amplifier that offers the perfect blend of tube romance without the layer of murkiness that plagues vintage tube designs. I can see why it has been such a popular model for so many years. Highly recommended.  –Jeff Dorgay

Manufacturer Information

Luxman SQ-38u

MSRP: $6,000 (U.S. importer)


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Preamplifiers Parasound JC 1 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Amplifiers Parasound JC     Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects

MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV

Digital audio doesn’t have a sound, per se. What we describe as digital sound is the sound of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions. There’s not much we can do about the A-to-Ds used when music you love is recorded, mixed, or mastered, but as for the D-to-A conversions, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV sound as good as digital gets.

Many analog lovers are certain that vinyl is more musical while digital devotees claim the zeroes and ones approach is by-the-numbers accurate. Vinyl’s sins are mostly additive: analog has higher levels of distortion, speed variability, and noise issues, but digital somehow loses the juicy richness we associate with the sound of the proverbial real thing. Each camp stakes its claim of sonic superiority and often dismisses the opposite side’s formats as non-musical garbage, and I swear the name-calling has been going on since analog was first converted to digital. That’s not to say there aren’t audiophiles that straddle the analog/digital gap. I include myself in that group.

MSB’s Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV narrow the analog-digital divide, and again remind me of the source’s role in determining the sound of my hi-fi. It really comes down to this: If musical information is “lost” at the source, it can’t ever be regained with better amps or speakers. The old garbage-in, garbage-out credo still stands, and improvements made at the beginning of the chain—the source—are huge.

Being Discrete

The $3,995 Platinum Data CD IV Transport and $17,489 Platinum Signature DAC IV are available in Matte White (a.k.a. silver) or Satin Black; heat sinks on the chassis sides come in silver, black, or blue. The DAC offers an extensive (and at times, bewildering) range of set-up options. Input switching modes, digital filters, and dither options via the remote. The US-made DAC IV is discrete. It doesn’t utilize Burr-Brown or any off-the-shelf chips to convert digital-to-analog, and that’s a really big deal. MSB rolls its own ultra-high resolution, up to 384-kHz/32-bit DAC modules in-house, achieved straight through with no complicated side operations. The DACs use high-precision aerospace grade resistors, specifically selected and matched for use in the Signature DAC. The modules can be upgraded down the road, so a Platinum can become a Signature and a Signaure can become a Diamond.  The front end of the DAC IV series uses the largest  blank SHARC chipsets available containing four digital filters, input receivers and two upsampler  algorithms  all written in-house. It was designed to be field upgradable with firmware downloads for new digital filters, future formats and many other  pre-conversion functions.  Analog and digital sections are completely isolated from each other.

You can configure your Platinum Signature DAC IV with a range of options, including the Signature volume attenuator for $2,295; the Signature USB 2 384 kHz board for $1,395; a remote control power on/off feature for $485; a second analog input for $995; and an integrated iLink (iPod dock) for $1,995.

After inserting a disc, the Transport starts reading and rereading the disc and puts the data in a memory, like a computer-disc transport would. MSB engineers listened to and tested dozens of drives before selecting the one employed in the Data CD IV. This drive performs just one function—it reads the data from the disc and the Data CD IV’s custom-designed electronics control the drive. This approach is what separates its performance from other transports. Jitter is reduced to the point that MSB had to develop its own measurement system to more accurately monitor the readings.

The Transport requires an outboard 12-volt power supply, and MSB offers two options: a small desktop supply ($595) or a MSB Platinum Power Base that comes with a MSB Platinum DAC. The Data CD IV’s performance is the same with either power supply. The Transport has AES-EBU, RCA coaxial, Toslink optical, and MSB’s proprietary Network digital outputs.

The DAC claims the same connectivity options as inputs, plus a 75-ohm BNC digital input an XLR or RCA analog input that passes through the purist volume attenuator, as well as RCA and XLR analog outputs.  Perhaps the highest resolution is available via MSB’s new Pro I2S MSB-Network connection, featuring ground isolation, higher bandwidth and markedly lower jitter.

Visually, the Data CD IV Transport and DAC IV are much prettier than any previous MSB Tech components I’ve seen. The deeply rounded front fascia and low-slung chassis are flanked by gently curved heat sinks. The underside of the chassis’ four corners are stocked with brass pointed feet, and the corresponding top corners are fitted with inserts to accept a stacked MSB component’s pointed feet.

Physically, the Data CD IV feels nice and solid, but the generic plastic disc-loading tray and tiny transport control buttons seem out of place on gear that pushes the state of the art. Granted, they don’t make a whit of difference to the sound, but I’d love to see a machined metal tray for this kind of money. The tray is the primary point of contact with the Transport, and it breaks the high-end spell. The Transport and DAC are also each shipped with a lightweight aluminum-faced remote control. Again, they’re nothing fancy, but the remote works well, and I prefer it to the massive devices that come with some high-end components.

Who Needs Surround?

I’ll quickly concede that higher-than-CD-resolution digital gets closer to analog’s musical nature, but there’s precious little new music coming out on Blu-ray, SACD, DVD-A, or high-resolution download these days. By far, the CD is still the best-sounding widely distributed digital format. I own around 3,000 CDs and buy on average two per week, and I want to hear them at their best. Presto: The MSB components made the little silver discs sound better than ever. So much so I didn’t shed a tear when I discovered the Platinum Data CD IV Transport doesn’t play SACD or DVD-A discs, but spins DVD-ROMs encoded with WAV files with up to 384 kHz sampling rates with 32-bit resolution. If you possess a large SACD/DVD-A collection, check out MSB’s $3,995 Universal Media Transport. (review in process)

Before starting a review of digital gear, I like to exclusively listen to LPs for a few days. The process clears my head. The MSBs acquitted themselves well during the first few plays—not so much that they sounded analog-like, but sounded good. Really good. As I played a stack of CDs, the MSBs connected the dots better than most digital gear I’ve heard.

I spent some time running the Platinum Signature DAC IV straight into my Pass Labs XA100.5 amps, and controlling the volume from the DAC. Sure, this approach is possible with some other DACs, but I’ve never actually preferred this method to using a preamp between DAC and amp. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate the preamp, but too often, dynamics go south and the sound loses too much of its essential mojo. Not this time. Straight-in, the DAC was a smidge more transparent, soundstaging more open, and focus better. Dynamics were better straight-in than with my Parasound JC-2 preamp in the chain. If you don’t have a lot of other analog sources (the DAC can be configured with up to two RCA and XLR analog inputs), you might want to forgo a preamp altogether.  For those already possessing a high quality linestage, the purist attenuator can be switched out completely.

While listening to 176.4 kHz/24-bit hi-res music from Reference Recordings’ HRx Sampler 2011 DVD-ROM disc, the sound was nothing less than astounding. To my ears, high resolution gets you closer to being in the venue as you hear more low-level atmospherics. The illusion of being in a concert hall ranks ahead of what I’ve heard from SACD or DVD-A surround discs. The soundstage on the Reference disc may be strictly two-channel, but it’s so huge, I felt no loss of surround. Uninhibited large-scale dynamics, like the big bass drum that opens Walton’s Crown Imperial finale, just about knocked me over and had me reassessing my Magnepan 3.7 speakers’ dynamic capabilities.

The small- and large-scale dynamics on the disc’s solo piano tracks were, again, the most lifelike I’ve heard at home. The studio-recorded jazz tracks’ more intimate soundstage perspective added a degree of presence that made returning to CD an unpleasant option. So I popped in a 96-kHz/24 DVD-ROM of Paul Simon’s recent So Beautiful or So What album. It’s not an audiophile recording and, compared to the Reference Recordings’ discs, it’s dynamically compressed and processed-sounding. But it’s not bad. It’s also Simon’s best effort in years, and the lovely acoustic guitar picking on the instrumental “Amulet” is awfully pretty.

The MSBs let me hear more low-level (quiet) sounds in my CDs. Reverb, whether natural or added in the mix, seemed newly apparent in recordings I’d heard hundreds of times. It’s always been there, but no digital playback system I’ve had at home boasted the resolution to reveal it. Having worked on a number of Chesky Records sessions, including dozens recorded at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in NYC, I can state for certain that the MSB Transport and DAC resurrected more of the 173-year-old building’s sound than I’ve ever heard from the CDs, SACDs, or DVD-As). The CDs never came close to this level of resolution. And, as you hear more deeply into a recording, soundstage focus and dimensionality are also enhanced.

Reconsidering the Analog-Digital Divide

In the great analog-digital divide, for me, engagement remains analog’s key advantage. I feel more connected and involved with music when listening to analog. And yet, the MSBs are distinctly more analog-like on these emotional fronts. Rhythm and pace are better than what I’ve come to expect. Imaging is another key strength: Instruments and voices project sound—if not in a complete 360-degree, omni-directional pattern, then something close to that experience. Of course, it’s rare to reproduce a combination of direct and reflected sound over a hi-fi system. The fact is that information isn’t found on most close mic’d recordings; the “space” is an effect added in the mix.

You’re much more likely to hear these details with so-called audiophile recordings since they take place in acoustically interesting places as opposed to acoustically dead studios. Howard Levy & Miroslav’s The Old Country CD on MA recordings equated to a full-blown, virtual-reality experience. Engineer Todd Garfinkel records with a pair of B&K mics placed above the musicians. Via the MSBs, his mic technique was crystal clear, the spatial relationships between musicians perfectly rendered. No other digital playback gear came close to revealing this kind of accuracy, including my long-standing reference, the Ayre C-5xe mp SACD/DVD-A player. The latter remains a great machine, but blurs the instruments’ outlines and flattens the soundstage. The MSB duo is a much sharper “lens.”

So it came as something of a shock when the MSB worked its magic on less-than-stellar recordings like Trio Beyond’s live Saudades CD. I’ve always enjoyed Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield’s music, but it’s zippy, fuzzy, and nasty-sounding. Yet the MSB somehow toned down the negatives. My Japanese pressing of Jethro Tull’s Bursting Out is another live recording that was previously too aggressively bright and thin to really enjoy, and yet the MSBs fleshed out the sound. That’s good news, because hearing 1978-era Tull blast through “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Aqualung,” and “Thick as a Brick” is freaking awesome.

Admittedly, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV are expensive, but the best stuff almost always costs. Then again, the components are also about as future-proof as digital gets, so it’s the sort of digital gear in which you can invest for the long haul. The analog-digital divide has never been smaller.

MSB Technology Data CD IV Transport

MSRP: $3,995

MSB Signature DAC IV with Signature Power Base

MSRP: $17,489


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave DAC    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 2 preamp    Pass Labs XP-20    Whest 2.0 phono preamp   Bel Canto REF500S    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6    Magnepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Simaudio MOON 310LP Phono Preamplifier and 320S Power Supply

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

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

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

Surprises on the Inside

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

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

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

Redefines Quiet

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Basics

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

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

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

Turn Me On

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

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

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

Simaudio MOON 310LP and MOON 320S

MSRP: $1,800/$1,400


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

Davone Ray Speakers

Looking at speakers at high-end audio shows often gives one the impression that audiophile speakers are designed to exclusively appeal to audiophiles. I’m a card-carrying audiophile, so sure, I think 73-inch tall, 600+-pound Wilson Alexandria X2 Series 2 speakers in “Fly Yellow” are drop-dead gorgeous. But the average dentist, business executive, or banker would probably think they’re monstrosities. Meaning that, even if they could afford to buy a pair, they wouldn’t consider living with them. Few “civilians” subscribe to high-end speakerdom’s form-follows-function aesthetic.

Which is why I smiled when I spotted the Davone Ray speakers at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. On stands, the speakers didn’t come up to my waist, and their curvy styling, inspired by the iconic Charles Eames chair, stopped me in my tracks. Since the Danish-made Ray stands out in the overcrowded world of rectangular box speakers, I’m guessing non-audiophiles might be intrigued.

Moreover, the sound did not disappoint. MA Recordings’ Todd Garfinkel used a pair to demo his music, and I was totally smitten. The Rays projected a deep and wide soundstage, and the bass was more potent than I’d have expected from such a modestly sized speaker. I returned to listen again and again, so I was curious about how the sound would hold up at home.

Unique Design

Coming in at just 28.5″ high mounted on its stand, the Ray is small in stature. Granted, its modern styling won’t be a great fit with all decors, but its spouse-acceptance factor should be well above that of most full-range audiophile speakers.

The Ray sports a black cloth grille mounted on a plywood frame—something you won’t find on many speakers. Remove the grille, and you’ll see the front baffle is covered with nicely finished real black leather (the rear panel is leather-clad, too). I asked company founder and aeronautical engineer Paul Schenkel about why he opted for genuine leather. He said he prefers natural materials—not for sonic reasons, but for the quality they impart.

The Ray boasts just one (coaxial) driver, and it’s unique to this design. The driver incorporates a 1″ Illuminator silk-dome tweeter that sits in the center of an 8″ Volt woofer. No wonder the Ray produces a more coherent soundstage than speakers with a row of drivers arrayed over their front baffles. I’m sure other high-end speakers utilize a single coaxial driver, but the only one that immediately comes to mind is the Thiel SCS4. I remember being knocked out by the SCS4’s precise imaging, but the Ray is a more full-range design.

The powdercoat-black-finished solid-steel stands are also works of art. Their curves perfectly complement the speakers, and while I first thought the stands looked too spindly to securely support the Davone, there’s almost no give when I nudge the speaker with my finger.

The Ray’s curved, walnut-veneered, sixteen-ply beechwood cabinet is fitted with medium-density fiberboard front and rear baffles. Impedance is listed at 7.5 ohms, yet it gets down to 4.1 ohms at 20kHz. A Cardas speaker-wire clamp accepts spades, bare wire, and, in a pinch, banana plugs. The backside also sports a large bass port, so don’t even think of placing the Ray near a wall. This speaker needs room to breathe.

The Joys of Cooking

The Ray’s even-tempered balance is its prime virtue, but its big-as-life imaging is what kept me grabbing records. Older 1960s recordings, like the live Modern Jazz Quartet works with Jimmy Giuffre, sound wide-open. There’s a lot of “leakage” between mics on these albums, so when you play speakers as time-coherent as the Rays, you feel like you’re in a huge sound space. The solidity/presence of Guiffre’s clarinet, as well as that of the drums, bass, and piano, is nothing less than thrilling. The Rays more completely conjure the recording venue—not so much in the look-at-me, high-resolution sense—but in a manner that relates to the soul of the music and how live instruments actually sound.

These characteristics account for why the Ray’s midrange glories don’t require agonizing analysis. “Homeless,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland CD, elicits goosebumps. The track is almost a capella, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s vocals recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The voices sound strikingly human, an increasing rare quality on contemporary recordings. And on Simon’s  “My Little Town,” from Still Crazy After All These Years, I hear aspects of the mix I’ve never noticed before. Consider the opening solo piano, occupying an actual acoustic space. As acoustic guitar, horns, bass, and drums enter, the tune starts to sound like a standard 1970s multitrack pop recording. Listening over the Rays, you genuinely hear the mix evolve.

By contrast, Leonard Cohen’s Live Songs is a sparsely populated, purely acoustic affair. And Cohen is right there, between the Rays, as live as can be. This illusion is what high-end audio is about. It’s supposed to generate these epiphanies.

Satisfied the Rays can sound sweet, I pulled out the Black Keys’ Attack & Release CD to indulge my blues-rock fantasies. No worries—the Rays can boogie when the urge strikes. But if you live on a steady diet of high-decibel tunes, the speaker will not provide the necessary impact—certainly not like the kind you get from a pair of heavyweight towers.

That said, the Ray easily conveys the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s meaty, big and bouncy rhythms. The swinging ensemble doesn’t have a bass player; instead, the sousaphone’s blatting bass lines provide the music’s pulse. Lesser speakers gloss over such contributions, but the Ray never misses the beat. Indeed, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Mardi Gras in Montreux LP could have been called The Joy of Cooking, New Orleans Style. There’s no Pro Tools messing with the sound, so the music speaks for itself.

Truly Original

Listening over the long term, the Rays constantly surprise me, with every record sounding different from the last—always a good sign. All LPs and CDs are recorded under wildly different circumstances, and the Ray made these facts abundantly clear.

There’s a lot to love about this speaker: Its small stature, unique styling, and the way its single driver presents an unusually transparent view of the music. I just wish more speaker companies were coming up with such truly original designs.

Manufacturer’s Information

Davone Ray

MSRP: $7,500 per pair


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transpost & DAC     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Simaudio 310 LP phono preamp    Bel Canto REF500s amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp    First Watt J2 amp
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects     Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables     Audioquest Sky interconnects

Meitner MA-1 Digital to Analog Converter

Ed Meitner has a new DAC, the MA-1, and it’s a doozy. Over the past 30-odd years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of high-end audio designers, but Meitner remains a special case. Our paths first crossed when I was working at a high-end store, Sound by Singer, in New York City. His mahogany-sheathed preamps and power amps were a good deal smaller than any other period electronics and sounded great with my Snell Type A speakers.

When I recently phoned him to catch up on old times and pepper him with questions about the MA-1, he was just as I remembered: A no-BS kind of guy. Most audio designers pay lip service to their love of music. He doesn’t. Doing so would, in his words, “cloud the judgment,” and, without hesitating, added, “Music is not my business. Sound is my business.”

He’s not lying. Meitner built an automated recording studio console in 1971 and designed 1-bit digital recording systems in the late 70s, a few years before the introduction of the CD. He also designed a fascinating velocity transducer speaker that rivaled the sound of the era’s electrostatics. He was always working on something new and different, like his AT-2 turntable. The platter-less design only supported the label while the grooved portion “floated” in free air. The turntable claimed a uni-pivot arm, and the whole contraption rested on three massive cones. Most high-end engineers stick with one thing or another, but Meitner played with them all.

Discrete and Unique Features

The MA-1 is the first product from Meitner Audio, a new company running parallel to Meitner’s EMM Labs, which continues to offer much more expensive components. EMM DACs all feature discrete converters fabricated from individual resistors, a remarkable feat given that most converters—including many competitors’ more expensive models—use DAC chipsets.

Hence, I assumed the $7,000 MA-1 would be built around a chip. Nope. Meitner steers clear of chips in all his DACs. He designs his own discrete DACs for myriad reasons, not the least of which is not having to worry about whether the chip manufacturer will stop making the part or change the spec.

In addition, most chip-based DACs are current-output devices. Meitner’s discrete 1-bit DACs are voltage-output affairs. He explains that when a DAC outputs current, you have to add a stage to convert current to voltage and add filters. The MA-1 needs no such converters or separate filters. Meitner designs the converter and filter in one, fully balanced stage. When you roll your own, you get exactly what you want.

The unit also features Meitner’s MDAT technology, which is similar to that in an upsampling DAC. Still, the latter can’t reproduce a music transient without digital pre- or post-“ringing.” Meitner’s MDAT doesn’t ring. Maybe that’s why his DACs reduce the digital nature of CD sound. Yes, the MA-1 possesses an unmistakable analog flavor. It’s highly resolved, but relaxed.

While other, more expensive DACs, like the $17,489 MSB Technology Platinum Signature DAC IV (a discrete, chip-free DAC reviewed in these pages last year), are more transparent, the MA-1 makes for a loveable match with music. If the recording is harsh or grating, the MA-1 won’t make it any less nasty. But when the recording is solid, you hear more of the good stuff.

Some credit for the presentation owes to the built-in Meitner Frequency Acquisition System, which instantly acquires the incoming signal, buffers it, and strips out jitter, whether or not the data stream is pure or anything but. From there, the signal runs through the Meitner Digital Audio Translator, which upsamples the zeros and ones to 5.6MHz—double the standard SACD sampling rate.

Visually, the MA-1’s brushed aluminum panel looks clean and simple, with a row of six input selectors and LEDs that indicate sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192-kHz at word lengths up to 24 bits through all six inputs. Around back, you’ll find two Toslink optical, two RCA coax, one AES-EBU XLR, and one USB asynchronous digital input, along with RCA and XLR analog outputs. There’s also a RS-232 port for those with fancy home-automation systems, and another USB port for future software upgrades. The Canadian-made MA-1 comes with a small, credit-card-style remote that only changes inputs.

Easygoing, Analog Warmth

The MA-1 arrived when I was reviewing the Davone Ray speaker, and both had an easygoing character that doesn’t shout “high-resolution”— or, in other terms, a presentation that sounds to me like live, non-amplified music. I did the bulk of listening with my reference Magnepan 3.7 speakers.

The analog warmth of older CDs, like Etta James’ The Definitive Collection, comes through intact. In this sense, the MA-1 succeeds by doing less; it simply lets the music be. Yes, the richness in older recordings is hard to resist. It’s part of the music’s DNA, but not so easy to retrieve. The MA-1 does just that, however. I also compared the MA-1 with a $7,995 Bricasti M1 DAC. There’s not a huge difference, but the Meitner is a wee bit more relaxed, detailed, and transparent.

Great digital gear sounds less digital, meaning there’s less grain, glare, noise, and other assorted digital nasties. Vide: Kinks guitarist Dave Davies recorded a killer live solo show at New York City’s Bottom Line club in 1997, and the resulting CD, Rock Bottom, is a delight. I’ve seen more than a hundred shows at that club, and this disc captures the place’s vibe better than most. With the MA-1, I can close my eyes and feel it. What a trip! I always sat at the tables directly in front of the stage, and the MA-1 nails that close-up perspective.

The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You isn’t their worst-sounding recording, but it’s the band’s last great album. It hangs together better on the MA-1 than I would have thought possible. Where the overdone reverb usually puts me off, with the MA-1, it seamlessly envelops the group and sounds natural.

Playing back high-resolution 176-kHz/24-bit classical and jazz selections from the Reference Recordings HRx Sampler 2011 DVD, the MA-1 dramatically opens the soundstage. Instruments reveal more full-bodied presence when compared to what’s presented on CDs. Moreover, the DVD’s dynamic scale and low-level detailing are more fully developed.

There’s also more inner detail and nuance in the high-resolution version of Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, which makes going back to the CD a letdown. I also have newfound respect for my Pass Labs electronics and Magnepan 3.7 speakers: they’re even better than I thought. Such revelations are signs of greatness in any component, and the MA-1 is no exception to this rule.

Meitner Audio

MSRP: $7,000


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transport & DAC     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Simaudio 310LP phono preamp    Bel Canto REF500s   Pass Labs XA100.5     First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Davone Ray    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects     Audioquest Sky interconnects               Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables