dCS Vivaldi Digital Playback System

Spending four days with the Aston Martin DBS a few years ago was an enthralling experience to say the least—and beyond definition to say the most—but a brief time in the company of something outside of your means can often skew your perspective. When I return the silver beauty, a good friend who actually owns an Aston told me, “Yeah, she’s a beauty, but wait until the first oil change: $800. And let’s not even talk about the first major service…” Two years later, said friend ended up buying the Boxster S that I told him to buy in the first place—but that’s another story for another day.

Just like an Aston, Bentley or Ferrari, most mega-bucks hi-fi products have a way of seducing you that standard-issue gear does not. Unfortunately, the review process does not always make it feasible for a manufacturer to leave a six-figure component in someone’s hands for longer than a reasonable honeymoon, and this is why at times these reviews seem overly enthusiastic: The reviewer never gets a chance to move past the honeymoon phase.

So let’s talk about a $110,000 digital player—that’s not a typo. I thought I had lost my mind when I purchased the dCS Paganini four-box system a few years ago (and I felt equally crazy when buying the Naim CD555 a few years before that); yet, after even a few months it was very obvious that the Paganini performed well beyond anything I’d ever experienced. And it just got better the longer I listened to it with an even wider range of music. So how much better could a player costing almost twice as much as the Paganini be? As it turns out, quite a bit better.

A Brief Tech Brief

In the past year, much has been written about the Vivaldi’s technical prowess via Stereophile, The Absolute Sound and others, so if you’re looking for a more geeky perspective (and even if you aren’t), I suggest reading Michael Fremer’s and Robert Harley’s takes on this player. Should you be investing at this level, read everything you can and do some serious listening—one doesn’t want buyer’s remorse on a purchase like this.

Instead of focusing on the technical aspects, we’re going to concentrate more on the Vivaldi experience. What’s it like to truly live with a player like this for a whole year? Is it still exciting? Is it a fling or a long-term love affair?

To make an incredibly long story shorter for those not familiar with dCS, the British manufacturer takes a modular four-box approach to its top digital players, (separating the most critical parts of the playback chain as they see it: a CD/SACD Transport, DAC, system Master Clock, and what they see as the system hub, the Upsampler) with separate sections for the transport (which plays CDs and SACDs), DAC, master clock, and upsampler. This allows the user the ability to build a dCS stack one box at a time, starting with the DAC alone if you so desire, or to eliminate the transport entirely for those not using discs.

Where so many DACs rely on off-the-shelf hardware, the Vivaldi, like all other dCS products, utilize the company’s own “Ring DAC” technology, which is based around field-programmable gate array chips and the proprietary, discrete digital-to-analog converter circuit that runs dCS decoding software and gives the DAC its name. What does that really mean? On one level, it means that when dCS learns something new in the lab, your player can be reprogrammed with the latest software with ease, like having the software in your car’s ECU upgraded for more horsepower. Having gone through a couple of software upgrades with the Paganini, I can tell you that it is an exciting process. Each time, I felt as if I had purchased an entirely new component, with the updates providing a significant performance upgrade at no additional cost. I merely had to insert a disc, upload the data, and voila, I received a much better player than I had before.

Not only does the Vivaldi offer this same functionality, but because the gate array on the new digital main board only uses about 30 percent of its total processing power, there is plenty of room for whatever future upgrades the brainiacs at dCS come up with in the years to come. This future-proof approach goes a long way in terms of consumer confidence when writing a six-figure check.

The Vivaldi is capable of playing all file formats from 16 bit/44 kHz to full DSD, with the option of playing all files natively or upsampling to any higher data rate, as well as upsampling to DSD or DXD. Check the dCS website for all the fine details. Suffice it to say that the Vivaldi will play virtually any music format you throw at it with no issue, and as new formats become commercially relevant, upgrades are a snap.

Inputs, Outputs and Cables

As a four-(unit/box) system, the Vivaldi plays everything but Blu-ray Discs and DVD-A (however my MSB transport connected to the stack allows playback of these formats, giving me a fully functioning digital Death Star). The Vivaldi does play every known digital audio format, including DSD.  John Quick, of dCS North America, brought me a hard drive loaded with DSD files; however, comparing these files to the SACDs in the Vivaldi transport, the optical disc always comes out on top in terms of clarity and a natural presentation. For this reviewer, DSD files continues to be a major non-issue, but the Vivaldi is fully equipped to handle the format.

With a full bevy of every input you can think of, the Vivaldi accepts digital signals from every source imaginable, including iPods, iPhones, and iPads (because the Vivaldi is Apple approved). Even the 320-kbps feed from Spotify sounds amazing—never better, in fact—when played through the dCS stack, especially when upsampled to DSD.

The key to maximum performance is proper setup and connection, and making sure that all three boxes (transport, upsampler and DAC) are all properly set to talk to the master clock. If this is done incorrectly, the clock does not lock all four pieces of the stack together and playback suffers dramatically. On the subject of upsampling, many will argue that imaging and timbre suffer from this approach, but I will tell you that the dCS nails this without any sign of artifacts.

A total of 13 cables are required to connect the Vivaldi stack together, not counting four AC power cables. Like changing the spark-plug wires on a 12-cylinder car, do it one at a time, should you decide to upgrade the complete set of included stock cables (see sidebar). Better yet, have your dCS dealer, who will probably sell you the cables anyway, make a house call.

Are You Experienced?

The Vivaldi is not a plug-and-play device. After getting through the somewhat daunting process of connecting all the boxes together, and getting them all synchronized with the master clock, there are still choices. As all filtering is done via software, you have about six different digital filters to choose from. Like the Paganini, after months of driving myself crazy, I settled on the default settings. Those with ADD/OCD issues will go slightly mad here, because there are so many possible combinations—which leads us to the question of upsampling.

While I rarely hear much difference when upsampling high-resolution files to DSD, 16/44 files (especially MP3 files) benefit tremendously from upsampling, having more air and life overall. There are no instances where I prefer going straight 16/44 all the way through to output.

Should you be using a source like a Meridian digital-music server, which does not offer a word clock input, the proper adjustments will have to be made on the Vivaldi so that the system is not running unlocked, causing effects similar to tape dropout. When using my Meridian server, I go into its menu and disable internal upsampling (which normally yields a 24/88 output) and force it to output CDs at native resolution and let the Vivaldi do the rest.

Serving It Up

Instead of using an external server for delivering digital files, the way to really roll with the Vivaldi is using a NAS drive and the dCS application. You can also access files directly via an external USB drive (or thumb drive) plugged directly into the Vivaldi’s USB port. This provides the clearest, cleanest signal path and a major step up in reproduction quality over any of the servers I have on hand, which makes perfect sense. For my initial review of the Vivaldi, dCS had not fully sorted out the app, but now it is working rather nicely, and in addition to cataloging your music collection, it works as a giant remote control for the DAC and Upsampler, with the ability to control the entire stack in the works in an upcoming software upgrade.

As a music server, the dCS app gets a 7 for convenience (sorry, there still isn’t a server out there that can beat the Meridian for ease of use and speed), but an 11 for sound quality, so take your pick. Personally, I like the simplicity of having it all on one remote, but it is nice to know that if you purchase a Vivaldi, you won’t have to buy or configure an additional streamer—just plug an Ethernet cable into the Upsampler, find your NAS with the App, and roll.

All Digital? Forget the Preamp

While dCS’s digital volume control is excellent in the Paganini, it still sounded more lifelike going from the line-level outputs, with volume control set to its maximum level, to a great linestage. The Vivaldi closes this gap such that, if you are an all-digital music listener, you really don’t need a separate linestage, thanks to the increased low-level linearity of its volume control and the transparency of its output stage.

We put the Vivaldi through its paces with a wide variety of power amplifiers, from the $2,000 VanAlstine Ultravalve all the way up to the $88,000-per-pair Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, which are my current reference. Comparing playback with and without a linestage—including the ARC REF 5SE, Burmester 011 and Robert Koda K-10—we found that, while the Vivaldi doesn’t reveal more music without a linestage in the path, using one does not diminish the presentation either. So if you’re taking the “less-is-more” approach, I’d forget the linestage if you are going all digital. The Vivaldi can be set via its menu to deliver 2-volt or 6-volt output through balanced XLRs or standard RCAs and it will easily drive two systems.

In a Word: Natural

Granted, the price of digital perfection is not cheap, but the dCS Vivaldi achieves it. The Paganini was fantastic, but switching to analog playback via the AVID Acutus Reference SP (with either the Clearaudio Goldfinger or Lyra Atlas cartridges) still stole the day. This always left me thinking, “That’s damn good for digital,” but the Vivaldi offers playback on a completely different level. I don’t love analog any less than I used to, but 12 hour days listening to the Vivaldi instead of a turntable is never a problem. And after myriad comparisons of analog to digital files with various resolutions, not only can I easily live with the Vivaldi, half of the time the Vivaldi reveals more music than analog does in my system.

Listening to some high-resolution files of Neil Young’s Harvest, supplied by Quick, illustrates this succinctly, when compared to the recent Chris Bellman remaster (which is excellent). Young’s acoustic guitar intro is bigger and bolder and has more tonal richness. As the drums and piano enter the track, they have a more distinct space via high-resolution digital, and the sparse bass line and banjo are locked down into their own separate spaces in a way the LP just can’t match. Yet, on Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” via digital and the 45-rpm Classic Records box set, the vinyl takes the lead for all the same reasons, though the full digital recording is still quieter.

Time after time, it’s easy to fool analog-loyal friends by spinning the LP and playing the Vivaldi at the same time, claiming to be playing vinyl. They would all chime in proclaiming analog’s superiority. But when the truth was revealed, they were shocked that they were in fact listening to digital—oh, the horror.

For those with world-class analog front-ends, the digital part of your music collection no longer has to take a back seat to your analog collection. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay the Vivaldi. If you don’t have analog, you don’t need it with this player. I am keeping it as my new reference digital component—and now that I’m 55 years old, it may be my last.

Minor Nits

After a full year, the only complaint I have with the Vivaldi (and the Paganini suffered the same problem) is its human interface. While the new display screens on the Vivaldi are much easier to read, the writing above all of the buttons on the silver-faced units like mine are nearly impossible to read by anyone over 30. If I had to do this again, I would opt for the black version with the white type, only to be able to read the buttons better.

Fortunately, once you get used to the Vivaldi and get it configured the way you want it, you shouldn’t be doing much more in terms of fiddling. And controlling the stack via an iPad and the app does make it much easier.

Line in the Sand

Bottom line: If the office ever burns down, I’ll buy another Vivaldi and forget about rebuilding my record collection. It’s that good. After an entire year of 12- to 16-hour listening sessions daily, I’m still pinching myself over the level of performance this player achieves—and now even more so with the built-in app and server capability.

The dCS Vivaldi becomes more engaging the longer you listen to it and the more of your music collection you can experience with it. It is one of the precious few systems at any price that completely disappears and lets you fully enjoy the music.

Much like an Aston Martin DBS or Ferrari 458, the dCS Vivaldi delivers a level of elegance and performance that is unmatched by lesser players. But unlike with the four-wheeled toys, you can build a Vivaldi system one box at a time. And should you not require a disc spinner, the $68K price of a three-box Vivaldi is almost a steal for the performance it delivers, especially if you are an all-digital listener and can ditch your $10K-to-$40K linestage as part of the upgrade.

If you can afford a dCS Vivaldi, take it for a test drive; you won’t regret it. The most exciting part of adding this player to my reference system is that it remains enthralling after a year of intense listening and it definitely reveals substantially more music than the excellent dCS Paganini that it replaced. This is definitely a long-term love affair, not a fling.

The Vivaldi digital playback system


Transport: $39,999

Upsampler: $19,999

Master Clock: $13,499

DAC: $34,999



Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Cable Nordost Frey 2
Power IsoTek Super Titan

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

REL Gibraltar G-2 Sub-Bass System

A recurring theme in country music and, perhaps, in life is that you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Truer words were never spoken in the world of audiophilia when it comes to reproducing bass.  However, a subwoofer can drive you to madness, much like a high-maintenance romantic interest.  When it’s right, you’re giddy with delight and things couldn’t be better, but when it’s wrong, all you do is focus on said partner’s shortcomings—and, eventually, you both go your separate ways.

Having spent the last 20 years on and off the bus with a wide variety of subwoofers, I can highly recommend the REL G-2 for any number of reasons.  Perhaps this subwoofer’s greatest selling point, however, is that it comes with a remote.  My enthusiasm regarding this feature doesn’t (necessarily) speak to my inability to escape my listening chair’s gravitational pull; it is more to comment that having this wireless device in my hand satiates the nagging voice at the back of my mind that is always just slightly dissatisfied with the subwoofer settings.  The REL G-2 eliminates that stress completely by providing just the right amount of low-frequency (or LF) reinforcement right at your fingertips.

The G-2 is also easy to set up—that is, it’s as easy to set up as a 90-pound anything can be.  Thus, I suggest that even our more-muscular readers enlist help when moving the G-2, because it’s just big and awkwardly shaped enough to be a little tough for one person to lift.  Many users may even decide that incorporating a few of these subs into their system is necessary.  In this case, you should enlist the aid of an installer or, at the very least, a handful of burly buddies.

Sumiko Audio, the importer of REF subwoofers in Berkeley, CA, has a sizeable showcase of three G-1s flanking either side of Sonus faber’s celebrated flagship loudspeakers (dubbed simply “The Sonus faber”).  The audio experience this system provides is understandably impressive.  The LF performance is effortless, all encompassing and seamlessly integrated with the main speakers.  The bass swells up from the performance with an ease that suggests a major paradigm shift in how the lowest musical notes should be handled.

Priced at $3,495, the G-2 is slightly smaller in stature and reach than the larger G-1, priced at $4,495.  The G-2 uses a long-throw 10-inch woofer with a carbon-fiber cone and a 450-watt onboard amplifier, whereas the G-1 uses a 600-watt amplifier to drive its 12-inch woofer.  Down only 6 dB at 18 Hz, the G-2 should provide enough bass grunt for most users, either by itself or as a pair, but it can also be stacked and used as part of an array.

Major Differences

REL manages the lower frequencies differently than other manufacturers—and does so with excellent result.  While the company offers line-level RCA inputs, these should be used only as a last resort.  The supplied Neutrik speakON connector utilizes a high-level connection that goes directly to your power amplifier’s speaker outputs.  The sub’s high impedance does not affect loading of the main speakers, thus allowing the character of your amplifier’s sound to carry forward into the subwoofer.  Consulting the instruction manual and using my preamplifier’s outputs to drive the G-2 still results in decent sound.  When switching power amplifiers, from the Audio Research REF 150 to the Burmester 911 to the Pass Labs Aleph 3, a slight disconnect between main speakers and subwoofer exists.  However, during all of this, the bass reproduction does not change in character, even with these three very different amplifiers via the RCAs.  Moving to the provided speakON input reveals the variations between amplifiers more easily, with a more seamless blend between the main speakers.

Those wanting to use the G-2, or multiple G-2s, in a multichannel system will be happy to find that the sub can accommodate the .1/LFE signal from your processor of choice.  It also has a unique grounding circuit to work with class-D amplifiers or monoblock power amps.  All of this is clearly outlined in the well-written manual.

Though it adds cost and complexity, the G-1 and G-2 both use MOSFET class-AB amplifiers with massive power supplies instead of the class-D amplifiers found in many other subwoofers.  REL claims that its subs to have the fastest crossover filter networks, with a rise time of only 4 milliseconds.  I’m firmly convinced that these features, along with an additional filter with a gentle slope that removes content above 250 Hz, contribute to the level of fine detail that the G-2 offers.

REL prefers corner loading for the G-2, and that’s where I’ve had the best luck with the company’s subs in the past—so why mess with good results?  And this is where that nifty little remote control comes in handy.  As I said, fine-tuning a subwoofer, no matter what brand and by what method you choose, can make your hair fall out.  Like me, I’m sure you have your favorite tracks with deep-bass information that you use to audition any speaker, regardless of whether it has a subwoofer or not.

Now, as much as I dislike Jennifer Warnes’ “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” I’ve always seen various Sumiko employees use this track to optimize speakers to great success, so when in Rome… While this track certainly impressed, even Romans like to party, so I moved on to something with a little more oomph for my review of the G-2.  With the best balance of weight and speed achieved, “Kill Everybody” from electronica master Skrillex blew me out of my listening chair—just like the guy in the Maxell ad from the 1980s.  The G-2 gives new meaning to the term “room lock.” Should Jennifer Warnes or a real-time analyzer not be your cup of tea, a series of test tones (like those from the early Stereophile test discs) simplify the process.  As you go down the frequency range, the transition from main speakers should appear at the same level.  It should also be difficult, if not impossible, to discern the location of the subwoofer when using just your ears.

Controlling this from your listening position dramatically reduces setup time, allowing you to remain planted in the same spot while making quick, small changes without having to psyche yourself out with aural memory tricks.  But best of all, the remote allows you to fine-tune on the fly.  No matter how great the G-2 sounds with your favorite bass track, it needs to be bumped up a touch up for Skynryd’s album Nuthin’ Fancy, and then way back down for the latest Cat Power release, Sun.  The LED indicator at the bottom of the G-2 lets you know the sub’s level, frequency and phase (0 or 180 degrees).  This makes up for the tiny though stylish type on the remote.  If you have kids or inquisitive friends, be sure to use the settings lock feature.

Fortunately, you’re usually never more than a click or two away on the level control and, depending on your main speakers, the crossover frequency can even benefit from a nudge now and then.  This takes the G-2 from merely great to awesome, and the more time you spend with the G-2, you’ll notice a more immersive experience at all listening levels.

Carry That Weight

The G-2 performs well with a wide range of speaker systems; but, in keeping with the REL philosophy of a sub-bass system with the sub augmenting the deepest frequencies, it is not intended to be part of a sub/sat system.  However, it still performs incredibly well throwing said suggestion to the wind, dialing the crossover frequency up to the 50-to-60-Hz range and using it with stand-mount monitors, or even ESLs.

Crossed over at 30 Hz or below, it’s virtually impossible to place the location of G-2 in the room, but it does start to lose a bit of its stealthiness when crossed over at a significantly higher point.  I suggest a pair of G-2’s if you need to operate your system this way for best results.  Fortunately, the G-2 has more than enough speed to keep up with any speaker you pair it with.

As good as the G-2 works with small speakers or panels, a full-range speaker system allows the G-2 to reach its full potential.  Crossover frequency now lowered to 27 Hz (adjustable in 1-Hz increments) the $3,495 G-2 brings the $22,900 Elipsa SE speakers eerily close in sound to that of the $45,000 Sonus faber Stradivaris.  Even my reference GamuT S9s, which are only down 3 dB at 18 Hz, open up with the G-2—and I now find myself dreaming of six of these!

Midrange Augmentation

Properly installed, the G-2 feels practically invisible, as it should, adding low-frequency reinforcement to the main speakers.  And there remains an equal benefit through the mid-band, which REL likes to refer to as “The REL effect.”  You’ll know you have the G-2 set just right when turning it on makes the side walls in your listening room disappear and when even musical selections with minimal low-bass content spread out across the soundstage with a bigger and broader effect than before.

Using the sub in this mode, only bringing up the deepest frequencies, helps convey spatial cues present in the recording space.  Even string quartets or acoustic music with no apparent major LF content open up and breathe, with my listening room feeling much bigger than it is.  I think the fourth dimension is deep bass, and the REL G-2 does it right.

Sampling familiar tunes, the wood block in Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” is now four feet in front of my face, where it was back in line with the speakers when the G-2 level is set back to zero.  Annie Lennox’s background vocals in “No More I Love You’s” appear way off center and down almost at floor level.  One-note bass is a thing of the past with the G-2.  Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass line in Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho,” from her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, comes through with the healthy dose of speed and overtones that made him famous.  Regardless of musical program, having the G-2 in the system is always a benefit.

Don’t Abuse the Power

The REL G-2 works equally well in both of my listening rooms—my main room is 16 feet by 25 feet; my second room is 13 feet by 16 feet—but, like any addictive substance, one has to resist the urge to overindulge.  For the first few days, it was fun to play a lot of Deadmau5, Skrillex and, of course, the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg (who now calls himself Snoop Lion).  Finding new weak spots in my walls, I got used to the G-2 and prudence became more the rule than the exception.

Having auditioned many subwoofers over the years, the REL G-2 is now at the top of my overachievers list and is featured as a TOP TONE component in issue 48.  If you’d like to unlock your system’s full potential, you should audition one—or maybe six!

The REL G-2 Sub-Bass System

MSRP:  $3,495

www.rel.net (Factory)

www.sumikoaudio.net (US importer)


Analog source AMG V-12 turntable    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source dCS Paganini system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk.II
Phonostage Zesto Andros
Speakers Acoustat 1+1    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable AudioQuest Sky IC   AudioQuest
Power Audience aR6-Tss
Accessories GIK room treatments    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    Furutech DeMag and DeStat

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

Is it a futuristic beer keg?  A spare droid from Star Wars?  A water conditioner?  While it does look futuristic, this curious device is available today from your local SoundCast dealer—and it’s one of the most interesting portable music systems we’ve seen.

The OutCast is a single 26-inch tall cylinder with a slight taper in the midsection.  The control panel is located on the top of the device.  It lets users operate an iPod or iPhone, as well as iTunes, Pandora, and Rhapsody.  The easy-grip handle, also on the top, has plenty of room for those with large hands, while the sealed function buttons should be impervious to prying hands and intoxicated neighbors.

Within the casing are four sections.  The uppermost section holds the receiver unit and a 100-watt Class-D amplifier.  The middle section contains four 3-inch drivers aligned in a right-left-right-left pattern that creates a 360-degree stereo output.  The bottom section features a sealed chamber holding the 8-inch IMPP woofer, which, with its down-firing placement, allows for even bass dispersion.  The bottom section has ports for the woofer and ambient blue lights, and also serves as a sturdy base.  The OutCast’s heavy-duty design and external material limits exposure to the elements, while still letting the music be heard.

Setting up the OutCast and installing its rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery takes about five minutes, if you take the 90 seconds required to read the manual.  Both the audio-input jack for non-iPod MP3 players and the power-cord socket are covered by a flexible but tight-sealing rubber gasket.  The OutCast offers three 2.4-gHz channels, which are manually switchable, to prevent interference with other wireless devices.

A Perfect Partner

Placement of the OutCast is key to its performance.  Getting the unit away from anything within at least five or six feet is critical for stereo performance.  Then, once you’ve charged it overnight, you’re ready to rock.

Combining the iCast dock/transmitter (a $100 option) with an iPod Classic, the Outcast fills most backyards with quality-sounding music.  Sell that boom box at your next yard sale, because the Outcast has serious low-end grunt.  Its midrange punchiness combined with omnidirectional ambience redefines outdoor hi-fi.  Blasting Adele’s 21, the OutCast easily carries her vocals to the end of my backyard, yet it wasn’t so loud as to send the neighbors into fits of rage.

The conveniently placed handle makes light work of carrying the 25-pound OutCast around the yard or to a neighbor’s house.  And it’s equally at home indoors as it is outdoors.

Better than a Rock

Unlike those outdoor speakers that look like rocks (but do not rock when called upon), both the OutCast and smaller OutCast Jr. (which starts at $600) deliver the goods, no matter what the volume.  This is an all-purpose portable player with serious capability.  Whether I was playing John Mellencamp or AC/DC, the sound was full and clear.  At a recent outing, a few guests complimented the sound quality and wondered where the wires were—one of the OutCast’s most-noticeable perks.

The device claims a 300-foot range between it and the iCast wireless dock.  It was still playing solidly at the edge of my 200-foot yard, but does drop off somewhat around corners.  For best results, you’ll want to keep it within line of sight.  Like a tuner car from The Fast and the Furious, the OutCast features blue mood lighting to increase its sci-fi feel.

Don’t be surprised if taking the OutCast or Outcast Jr. to your next party makes you the hit of the neighborhood.

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

MSRP: Starting at $900


Blue Aura v30 Blackline Integrated Tube-Amplifier System

With the burgeoning number of adults working from home, the office-audio category has become an industry bright spot.  Filling this space is Blue Aura’s $549 v30 Blackline music system, which satisfies the craving for vacuum tubes and matching speakers, and does so in a space-conscious package.

The handsome, three-piece system looks sharp wherever I place it in my office—I tried both my bookshelf and credenza—but the system’s striking aesthetics never dominate the décor.  Los Angeles–based Blue Aura wraps the speakers and the body of the amp in black faux-leather, and accents the amp with chrome trimmings.

The amp is 10 inches wide, 7.5 inches deep and 5.5 inches tall, and the plated handles on either side of it double nicely as bookends.  Adorning the front panel is a pair of matching chrome knobs—one for adjusting the volume and one for selecting from the three inputs (USB, LINE, and AUX).  Two 6N1 tubes flank the taller 6e2 tube, with its decorative but unnecessary green glowing light filter.  A four-post tube guard with a plexiglass-and-chrome top shelf protects the tubes from inadvertent fingers or the common office mishap.  On the back panel, from left to right, are three inputs (RCA, mini-headphone, and mini-USB B), followed by a mini-headphone output jack, four brass speaker jacks, the power-cord socket and power switch.

The 5.5-inch tall speakers look similar to the Audioengine A2s, with forward-facing slits towards the bottom of each speaker serving as bass ports.  The 3/4-inch tweeter and 3.5-inch paper driver surprised me from the outset with some obvious low-frequency grunt and detail.  With the speakers set on their over-sized-hockey-puck stands and with the bookcase as an additional cabinet, the sexy, sultry vocals of Sade fill my 11-by-10-foot office.  Changing out the included 18-gauge speaker wire for some 12-gauge wire further defineds the speaker’s impressive resolution.

Dishing It Out

Forget the typical tinny computer sound and irritating fake subwoofer output—the v30 avoids that pitfall.  This is a setup I find enjoyable listening to for several hours, which helps me grade papers without becoming restless.  When playing rounded sharp-edged recordings, such as Donald Fagan’s Kamakiriad, the v30 settles down nicely.  I then play some lossless recordings, with my laptop and Audioengine D2 wireless DAC system on my desk and the v30 on the bookcase, and intoxicating sound fills the office.  Even with the speakers just 30 inches apart, the system offers impressive instrument placement.

It’s obvious that the Blue Aura engineers understood that the typical home-office setup limits how far apart speakers can be placed.  The result is a nice, expansive soundstage and subsequent enjoyable listening experience.  Even stepping down to my MacBook’s analog output and running a wire to the v30 yields worthwhile results.

The system excels at reproducing jazz music, and quickly makes Vince Guaraldi’s classic Charlie Brown Christmas a playlist favorite.  The v30’s ability to recreate the individual bass notes in “O Tannenbaum” bests the budget bookshelf speakers that normally occupy my office—and those are more than three times the size of the v30’s speakers.  Guaraldi’s piano matches the glow that the three tubes adds to the keystrokes.  The slight loss in absolute detail is easily made up by the system’s warmth and rich decay.

As the days pass, the v30 becomes the reason to listen to music, the goal being to see what it can handle musically.  While blasting Slayer at house-party levels isn’t realistic, the unit has no problem getting into the 90-plus-dB range before hitting its sonic wall.  It delivers more complex rock with ease.  John Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee, with its multitude of instruments, sounds open and uncongested—a neat trick for such a diminutive setup.

As expected, the v30’s three glowing tubes make the midrange beguiling.  Female vocals and instruments are lush and warm, and void of the syrupy slow quality that creeps into many budget tube systems.  In this price range, the v30 is downright first-rate, especially in the level of clarity it brings to Pink Martini’s “Mar Desconocido,” with its tempo-leading bongos, and to the plucked guitar and xylophone in the next track, “Taya Tan.”

Just For Fun

One Sunday afternoon, I pair the 20-wpc integrated amplifier with the 92-dB-efficient Verity Audio Finns.  The v30 does itself proud here, powering the Finns with confidence.  Though the amplifier section won’t make one forget PrimaLuna’s resolution, particularly in the higher register, it does move some serious air, representing the basics of tone and balance remarkably well.

Even in larger spaces, such as my 13-by-19-foot family room, the v30 delivers open sound.  With the amp and speakers on the rock fireplace hearth with the angled puck speaker stands tilted upward, the room fills with warm holiday sounds.  Even with the sliding door to the kitchen closed, I was still able to enjoy the details emanating from the system.

For those that desire tunes but need focus on work in their office, the musicality of the v30 Blackline make it a top-tier choice for the home office.  Looking to add a source wirelessly? Just add Blue Aura’s WSTxR wireless transmitter/receiver kit for $149.