Core Power Ground Zero

Got hum in your system that you just can’t get rid of? Is it driving you nuts? Have you tried power conditioners, cheater plugs, etc.? Still there? Still mad?

Chances are, there’s some residual DC in your power. It happens. For those of you that think “well, I’ve got clean power where I live,” you don’t. Because even if you live in the middle of nowhere, chances are, there’s something in your house dumping RFI or something back into your power line, and it’s causing havoc with your system. This can be of particular annoyance if you love vintage gear or SET amps and high sensitivity speakers.

Yes, yes, and yes. When the folks at Core Power asked us to review the new Ground Zero, I knew I had a handful of problems that could put this device straight to the test. First stop, my vintage Marantz 2220B receiver. This baby is a humasaurus. It’s always fine listening to the radio, but the minute I plug in a turntable or CD player, the hum begins. The only other thing that worked was plugging the receiver into a dedicated Goal Zero (different company) 2000-watt battery supply. And that’s not going to be convenient or cost effective for everyone. We just tried it because it was here and we were at the end of our rope.

As you can see from the picture, the Ground Zero has one outlet, and a 500-watt maximum capacity. Our past experience with all power products is to keep it a little below max capacity so you don’t stress things out and limit dynamics.

Plug the Ground Zero into your outlet, and your device into the Ground Zero. Listen to your system with the volume control all the way down and adjust that control knob on the Ground Zero for minimum hum. Hopefully, it will get you all the way down to no hum. The Core Power folks have some great measurements and graphs demonstrating this performance, and if you’d like, you can see it here:

Seriously, in less time than it will take you to hook up a scope, you’ll be able to hear what the Ground Zero does. If you need more current capacity, Core Power’s Deep Core 1800 may be the droid you need, but if you’re current and device requirements are minimal, the Ground Zero will get you sorted.

Next stop, vintage tube amp. The Dynaco Stereo 70 to be exact. This is another perfect example of an amplifier that’s been lovingly restored, but still has some residual hum going on. When plugged into our Pure Audio Project speakers, or Zu Dirty Weekends, it becomes bothersome. Quickly installing the Ground Zero offers the same fix. A little twist of the control, and the hum is no more.

Finally, the Line Magnetic LM-805IA integrated. This 48 wpc SET is lovely, but even after carefully adjusting the amplifiers’ hum controls for both channels, some hum still remains. Once you know you can dial it out, you want it gone all the time, right? This worked similarly well, however at maximum volume, when the VU meters were peaking, the slightest bit of compression and flattening started to happen. As Line Magnetic does not list current draw anywhere for this amplifier, I suspect at peak power, I was approaching the limit of what the Ground Zero could handle. At modest volumes, it was just fine, and for those of you with 2A3 or 300B amps, it should be all you need. We will have to get a Deep Core in to investigate with a few bigger tube amps.

When operated within its operational limit, the Ground Zero brings no compromise to the musical signal. Like a good doctor, we want power products to do no harm to the audio waveform. Running through a long playlist of both dynamic rock and classical music, along with a number of delicate acoustic pieces, it’s clear that neither dynamics nor tonality are affected by inserting the Ground Zero.

The Ground Zero works as promised, solves the problems it was designed to address, and is reasonably priced. Right now, Underwood HiFi is offering an intro price of $399 – even better. There’s no point in buying exotic four and five figure power conditioning products for an $800 vintage component, or a budget tube amplifier. For that, we are happy to award the Ground Zero one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2021. If you’re having this problem, you need one.

As they say at the end of the classic tune, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” that’s all there is and their ain’t no more.

$599 (intro priced at $399)

Sonus faber Introduces New Aida

Time flies when you’re gorgeous and having fun!

Way back in 2012, we reviewed Sonus faber’s flagship speakers, the Aida and they were breathtaking to say the least. Now, they have just announced an updated version that is even better than the previous model. You can read our past review here:

But to sum it up, we called Aida “the new Italian word for perfection.” These speakers look as beautiful as they sound, and one friend wept when he heard Bob Dylan through them at our place. No kidding!

While the Aida looks the same from the outside, everything inside has been upgraded; crossovers and drivers all take advantage of everything SF has learned in the last six years.

Our North American readers will not be able to experience Aida until the end of 2017, but it will make it’s debut in the Warsaw hifi show this weekend. I envy any of you that will be there to experience it. I may be heading to Italy sooner than later!

The REL 212SE Subwoofer

Actually, two of them.

As REL’s John Hunter will tell you, you need a pair of 212SEs to disappear in your room, and that is the ultimate goal of a sub-bass system, to prove a transparent extension to your main speakers, never drawing attention to themselves. While the uninitiated might opt for small cubes that can be placed a bit more out of the way, Hunter explains it succinctly: “When you hear low-frequency information out in the real world, it doesn’t just come at you from off in the corner, it envelops you from all directions.” Thus, the height factor of the 212SE is equally important to disappear audibly.

After Hunter spends a bit of time optimizing my Focal Sopra no.3s for perfect positioning, blending the 212SEs into the rest of the system takes place quickly. When complete, the subs are impossible to localize, and in addition to the lower register improving dramatically, the entire presentation takes on greater depth, width, and height. The Sopra no.3s and the 212SEs work together as one. Perfectly.

As the music is playing, Hunter says, “Ok, now we’re listening to about $300k worth of gear, right?” Then with a quick flick of two switches and a wry smile, he turns the 212SE’s off and says, “Now we’re listening to $292,000 worth of gear.” The difference is staggering; the soundstage completely collapses. Considering the $8,000 that a pair of 212SEs will set you back, won’t even buy a power cord from some manufacturers, this is amazing. The delta achieved by including the pair of 212SEs in my reference system is more than just a 100% jump, I no longer can listen to the system without them in. Adding a pair of these subwoofers to get this improvement for less than 3% of the total system cost is unbelievable.

It’s not the bass; it’s everywhere

The level of depth that the pair of 212SEs adds to the mix is just as exciting as the low-frequency extension. The delicacy of the opening Fender Rhodes licks in the Springsteen classic “Kitty’s Back,” waft through space between my Focal Sopra no.3s so gently, it sounds better than when I’ve sat ten feet away from one in a club. This stunning realism is the key to the 212s presentation. As it says on the REL website, their goal is to restore midrange warmth and harmonic structure. This deceptively simple goal, nearly impossible to achieve, is a promise that has never been delivered in my listening room until now.

Tracking through myriad cuts deliberately lacking substantial LF content reinforces the initial experience. Whether listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Eddie Mercury, my system has more bloom, more dimensionality. The music comes alive in all dimensions more clearly, with more low-level information present at all volume levels. Enticing as giving the volume control a hearty spin is, it’s still good at low volume.

These subwoofers have been a serious threat to productivity. The experience they’ve added to my primary reference system keeps me glued to the listening chair, at times for hours, at times for the entire day. With so much more musical information available, listening becomes sheer joy again.

It’s almost better than real

Because of the power required, lower frequency extension and detail is usually the first thing to give up the ghost when pushed, followed closely by overall system imaging. Depending on your room, system, and available power, it happens gradually or in a brick wall fashion. For the first time in nearly 40 years, this didn’t happen, no matter how loud the music was. The REL 212SEs offer no trace of distortion, compression or fatigue. Even when hitting nearly 120db peaks in my 16 x 25-foot listening room.

Fun as this is, be careful should you attempt this at home, OSHA says you should not be exposed to music at this high volume level for more than about 10 minutes. Just enough to listen to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” in a way I’ve never experienced it – not even live. Whether you jump off the cliff for a pair of 212SEs or even one of REL’s smallest offerings, the musical force that comes with having a great sub-bass system will make it tough, if not impossible to go back. You can’t unhear it.

Inside the black box

We can go on and on about the tech inside the 212SE, but from the listening chair, it’s all about execution and level to detail. That’s why the 1.6-liter engine in a Kia makes 150 horsepower on a good day, and the 1.6-liter engine in a contemporary F1 car makes almost 900. Make no mistake, REL is the Ferrari F1 of low-frequency reproduction. Full specs are available on the REL site here:

The 212SE looks conventional from a distance, a big black box with woofers in the front. A closer look reveals that the two front-firing 12” continuous cast active drivers are paired to an additional 12” passive cone on both the rear and bottom. The passive cones use the same material as the active drivers, providing sonic consistency. REL claims that the two passive drivers not only add dimension to the bass produced giving the 212SE the equivalent of a pair of 17-inch drivers. Driving each of these woofer arrays is a 1,000-watt amplifier, optimized for its job.

Closer inspection reveals numerous fine details; the finish is exquisite. Not only is it the equivalent of anything I’ve seen on a six-figure pair of Wilson or Magico speakers, but it’s also the equivalent of anything I’ve seen on a Bentley. The gloss black on the review 212s is liquid in appearance, and this reflective quality helps it to physically disappear in the room. Even the complexity of the machined shape in the side handles reveals a level of attention that tells you this is indeed a special product.

For those not familiar with REL, they use a speaker level connection, requiring your main speaker’s run full range, so the signal going to the subs has the same sonic signature of what is going to the mains via your power amplifier. They can be used via line level inputs as well, but whenever I’ve tried this with a REL subwoofer, the results were never quite as good as doing it their way.

Should running a cable be inconvenient, REL subwoofers can also be connected via their Longbow wireless transceiver. The Longbow is a compression-free wireless system, utilizing the same speaker or line level outputs, transmitting wireless information effortlessly. While this option was not taken here, it has been used with other REL products with excellent result.

And the winner is

The combination of dynamics and musicality that a pair of REL 212SEs add to the mix is of such high quality, I had made up my mind after about 10 hours of listening (I was up until about 4 a.m. after Hunter left, the day he installed them) that this would be our product of the year. For my money, this could be TONE’s product of all time.

I’ve had the privilege to own and evaluate thousands of components in the last two decades. Nothing has ever come close to achieving so much at such a modest cost. $8,000 is by no means chump change, but when other companies are asking ten times this for wire, that they claim is a “component level” upgrade, I call shenanigans. If your system doesn’t go to 11 right now, a pair of these will get you there. And if it already does, hang on; you’re still in for a ride you aren’t expecting.

In the end, I’m not sure what freaks me out more, that a pair of REL 212SEs are this good, or knowing that there are two more models above the 212SE.

The REL 212SE Subwoofer

$4,000 each, two used in this review


Analog Source                        Grand Prix Audio Monaco 2.0w/triplanar arm, Lyra Etna

Digital Source                         dCS Rossini DAC and clock

Main Speakers                        Focal Sopra no.3

Preamplifier                             Pass Labs XSPre

Phono                                      Pass Labs XSPhono

Amplifiers                               Pass Labs XS 300 monos, XA200.8 monos

Cable                                       Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Racks                                      Grand Prix Audio Monaco

The Naim Atom!

Time flies when you’re having fun. Ten years into their existence, Naim introduced the original Nait integrated amplifier, which was about the size of a large hardcover novel, and produced about 13 watts per channel. Today they give us the Atom.

A Quick recap

The original Nait offers a built in phonostage, revered to this day and though it has relatively low power, the power supply offers tremendous reserve current, delivering wide dynamic swing. Many audiophiles still prefer the original Nait as their amplifier of choice for a pair of Quad 57s. The cost was 253 pounds, which translated into about 350 dollars in US currency. (approximately 850 dollars in 2017)

The entire Nait range has always been excellent, but Naim has kept up with the wacky world of streaming and computer audio, and on a parallel track has produced some incredible DACs as well as the stunning CD555 CD player, which was my reference for years. It’s safe to say that Naim knows how to build them well,  within a diminutive form factor without sacrificing quality.

In 2009, Naim introduced the Uniti, a full sized box, combining an integrated amplifier and CD player. Cool as this was, the UnitiQute, brought to market a year later proved the game changer, eschewing the CD transport for streaming capability – a technology then in its infancy. Once again, the Salisbury manufacturer showed its willingness to be fashion forward.

The Qute and its next iteration, the Qute 2 were fantastic, but the engineering staff at Naim never rests, bringing us to the Atom you see here. At $2,995 there is no better choice to anchor your music system if you value engineering, aesthetic and functional excellence, yet want all of this in a compact form factor.

If you’ve had a chance to experience Naim’s flagship Statement series, before the first note of music plays, you notice the sculptured heat sinks that wrap around the power amplifier and the massive, weighted and well-lit volume control. Naim has carried this functionality to the MuSo range and it has to be the best-implemented volume control in all of hifi. It powers up with a spectacular light show and glows a pale blue. It’s so enticing to use; you might never use the remote or the app. This is MOMA permanent collection stuff, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these Naim components gets added at some point. The same level of attention to mechanical detail present with the Statement series is lavished on the Atom, giving it a look suggesting a much higher cost.

Getting down to business

Coolness is not worth much without functionality and performance. Queuing up the last Infected Mushroom album and cranking the Focal Sopra no.3 speakers is breathtaking. Thanks to their (91.5db/1 watt) high sensitivity, the 40 watts per channel produced by the Atom is more than enough for all but those needing to blow the windows out of the house. Swapping the Sopras for my vintage Klipsch LaScalas (105db/1 watt) provided the front row concert ticket annoying a few neighbors in the process. Good as the original Nait is/was (and of course, I found a great example, thanks to Mr. O’Brien who keeps everything).

Comparing an original Nait to the Atom side by side is like comparing the original Porsche 911 to a current model; the lineage and house sound are instantly apparent, yet all the additional power and functionality of the Atom is truly welcome. And the new amplifier sounds absolutely lovely driving my current vintage Quad 2812s.

The extra power on tap with the Atom, combined with its robust power supply and discrete design makes for a level of sonic sophistication that so many of the Atom’s competitors lack, succumbing to cutting cost and using chip/op amp based designs. Whether listening to a solo vocal track or a small scale instrumental ensemble, the sheer delicacy that the Atom is capable of comes through loud and clear. When called upon to play louder, more complex music, the Atom is equally adept. Van Halen is just as enjoyable as Infected Mushroom, and in case you aren’t familiar with Naim, they are masters of capturing the pace of whatever music you enjoy.

Setup and connection is easy, thanks to three digital inputs, an analog input, wireless and an HDMI input (Available at an optional cost), so everything from your Walkman to the PS4 can use the Atom as its audio hub. With a lack of rear panel real estate, should you not use Naim’s own speaker cable, bananas are required, there are no binding posts.

Multiple personalities

The Atom substitutes the original Nait’s excellent onboard phonostage, for an incredibly capable DAC section, able to decode files from standard 16/44.1 resolution all the way up to 2x DSD. Everything at my disposal, which runs the gamut, (though most of my library is 16/44.1) is rendered superbly. One of our staffers has the two chassis Naim DAC with PS555 power supply, and again, the lineage is clearly traceable. The overall sound of the Atom is clean, crisp and dynamic, with a lifelike presentation. I have always been a fan of Naim’s digital hardware.

As our first test unit was pre release, but final production, all of the wireless and streaming functionality had not been ready to roll, but we have a new test unit on premise and will reporting back shortly with a full outline of those capabilities.

Those with a turntable will not be left out, as the Atom does have a single analog input. Using it with the new Shinola Runwell turntable, featuring an excellent on board phono preamplifier makes for a perfect match. Stepping up the game to the Audio Research PH9 and Technics SL-1200G with Kiseki Purple Heart underlines just how good this little amplifier performs. It is not out of character, even though this analog front end costs nearly six times what the Atom retails for! Again, the level of pace and tonal contrast is sublime, with the Atom creating a huge sound field in all three dimensions.

In addition to that sexy volume control, Naim has done all of us over 25 years old a major solid by incorporating a display that is large, colorful and contrasty. Even across the room, it is incredibly easy to read, and once you are playing/streaming digital music, the album cover and track information comes to life. This comes in handy when friends are over and wondering what happens to be playing now. Finally, a front panel USB socket allows you and your friends to plug their favorite tunes right in. It doesn’t get more user-friendly than this.

If your emphasis is on functionality and you don’t need a ton of output power, the Atom is a killer choice. You’d spend more than $2,995 just buying power cords and interconnect cables for a preamp, power amp, and headphone amp. Stay tuned for part two, where we concentrate on all of the different options and functions. (manufacturer) (NA distributor)

Issue 85


Old School:

The Adcom GFP-565 Preamp:
Last of the Breed

By Mark Marcantonio


Pro-Ject Speaker Box 5
By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

IsoTek’s Aquarius Power Conditioner
By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

Mini Weinermobile

Twist + Charging Station

Target Record Crate

The 28″ Blackstone Grille

Phillips Hue Lighting System

Louis Vitton iPhone 7 Case

Nintendo NES Classic


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Audiophile Pressings: Elvis Costello, Jeff Beck and Iron Butterfly

Gear Previews

MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 Speakers

Rotel RAP-1580 Surround Sound Receiver

McIntosh MA9000 Integrated Amplifier


COVER STORY: Paradigm’s Persona 9H Loudspeakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Coincident Dynamite Spakers
By Mark Marcantonio

Long Term: The Pass XS Preamplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

Analog Domain M75D Isis Integrated Amplifier
By  Greg Petan

Totem’s Signature One Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Benchmark DAC3 HGC
By Mark Marcantonio

Rega’s Vivacious Brio

The dictionary in my Macintosh defines Brio as “vivacity of style or performance,” but in the case of Rega’s Brio integrated amplifier, it has a vivacity of style and performance. With so many choices these days, it’s tough to sort through it all.

Though England’s Rega Research is best known for their turntables, they have been making a full line of high quality amplifiers (and speakers) for decades. The new Brio you see here is a perfect example of an integrated amplifier with an outstanding on-board phonostage, featuring more than enough power to drive any pair of speakers and a headphone input for personal listening.

This beautiful amplifier will only set you back $995, and it’s small, 8.5”W x 3”H x 13.5”D footprint will fit anywhere, making it a perfect choice for the space challenged music lover. We paired our review sample with the awesome Totem Signature One speakers ($2,650/pair) and Rega’s legendary Planar 3 turntable ($1,145 with Elys 2 cartridge).  While you don’t have to spend that much on a pair of speakers to build a great Brio-centric system, know that it is up to the task.

Around back, there are four analog inputs for any other components you might have, like a digital to audio converter (DAC), CD player, tuner, or even a tape deck. Considering the mighty cassette from the 80s is making a mega comeback, you never know. Taking this a step further, the Brio offers a “record output,” just begging you to make a mix tape, which I did, inspired by a recent screening of Guardians of the Galaxy. Firing up the Nakamichi cassette deck with a fresh tape and a pile of 80s favorites, all rendered by the Rega turntable, this proved to be a fun and engaging experience – something a streaming playlist just doesn’t provide.

If you aren’t going all-Rega, the Brio features a standard MM (moving magnet) phono input, so you can use it with any turntable sporting a moving magnet phono cartridge. We auditioned the super stylish, vertical Pro-Ject turntable as well as the newest offering from EAT, all with excellent results. Rega has always been known for making great phono sections and the Brio is highly capable.

Regardless of what medium you choose to use with your Brio, the sound quality is fantastic, and that’s what makes this little amplifier such a great value. Rega build quality is equally great; we’ve been using a number of their products without fail for decades now. Thanks to a broad dealer network worldwide, in the unfortunate event that your Brio ever needs a bit of help, it’s never far away.

The Brio’s 50 watts per channel is enough to drive most speakers to realistic levels, and more than enough to get most apartment dwellers evicted, so you can look forward to distortion, fatigue free music, regardless of how loud or how long you listen. After initial listening with the Totems, we auditioned the Brio with a number of different speakers, some considerably more expensive and came away highly impressed with the level of refinement that this amplifier delivers. TONEAudio Magazine gave their overall Product of the Year award, judging the $995 Brio-R against other components with six-figure pricetags. A side by side comparison with a friend’s last generation Brio-R proves the new model sonically better in every way.

A bare bones remote helps control the Brio from your listening position, but it is small, so keep it in view or you might lose it. The only other caveat with the Brio is that the speaker outputs on the rear panel are very close together, so if you haven’t bought speaker cables yet, make sure they have banana plugs. Anything with spade lugs will be tough if not impossible to use.

Finally, the headphone section of the Brio is dynamic and powerful as well. Running it through a number of playlists with a wide range of headphones again proves its versatility, making it a great headphone listening station, even if you don’t have speakers yet!

If you need high performance on a tight budget, with a slender form factor, Rega’s Brio integrated amplifiers is one of the best you can buy.

The Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier

$995 (factory) (US Distributor)

Mini Marvels from Pro-Ject!

Many people only know Pro-Ject for their line of high-value turntables, (and we’ve got one of those for you here…) but they produce an entire line of electronics and loudspeakers, along with some very stylish accessories.

Company principal Heinz Lichtenegger puts it perfectly when he says, “I like to make fun components that everyone can afford.” Add stylish to that list of boxes to tick – all Pro-Ject products share a very cool design aesthetic as well.

We’ve been living with an entire Pro-Ject system, consisting of their VT-E turntable ($349), the MaiA CD Player ($399), MaiA Integrated Amplifier ($499), along with the matching Speaker Box 5 mini monitors ($299). For this review, Rob and I concentrate on the components, with a review of the Speaker Box 5 speakers to be published online very soon.

Every Pro-Ject product we’ve used has always been high on performance and simplicity with a minimal footprint. It’s an understatement that Lichtnegger has outdone himself on this recent crop of products! If you are pinched for space, yet crave great sound, this trio is for you. We were all shocked at just how small the MaiA components are.

MaiA Integrated Amplifier: A Marvel of Compact Efficiency

Like the other products in Pro-Ject’s “Box” product like, the MaiA integrated amplifier is designed to pack much functionality into the smallest possible package. Wow did they succeed! Without its wall-wart power supply, the amplifier weighs in at a scant 4 lbs. (1850g). At 8.11 inches (206mm) wide by 1.4 inches (36mm) tall by 6.14 inches (156mm) deep, the MaiA is deceivingly minimalistic. Straightforward and effective controls on the front panel facilitate adjustment of the volume, plus your choice of source components. While nondescript on the outside, things get a lot more interesting when exploring MaiA’s capabilities.

The ins and outs

Any way you choose to connect a music source to this amplifier, there is an input to handle it. In addition to three stereo line inputs, options include USB, Bluetooth, digital optical, and RCA-type digital coaxial. As they say on infomercials, “but wait… there’s more.” An onboard MM phono stage as well as a headphone amplifier with a ¼” input is also included.

Five-way binding posts facilitate connection to loudspeakers using a variety of cable options. However, bananas are an ideal candidate, as these binding posts are relatively close together. With such a small chassis, there is little room for all the connections on the rear panel, so it is nearly impossible to connect spades in such a tiny space without touching each other inadvertently.

The only other connection required is the power cord, supplied by the included wall wart power supply. I suspect there was not enough room left in this small chassis to fit a full-sized 115v power cord socket, much less an internal power supply.

Lots inside

All those inputs lead to some remarkable circuitry within. The internal DAC does not decode DSD files, but it does a solid job with digital files up to a sample rate of 24bit/192kHz – plenty for CD and SACD input or streaming your favorite online music service.

The MaiAs Class D amplification circuitry delivers 25 watts into an eight-ohm speaker load, or 37 watts into four ohms. While featuring a much lower power rating than my usual reference amplifier, the MaiA had no problem driving GamuT RS3i speakers. Back at the TONE studio, we substituted a broad range of different speakers and found the power amplifier section both robust and conservatively rated.

Sonically satisfying

For our testing, we paired the MaiA integrated with the matching CD player in the same product line, as well as other sources on hand. No matter what musical genre you enjoy, the MaiA delivers excellent sound with ample detail. Sonically, the amp is very neutral, a touch to the forgiving side. It provides a high level of realism while avoiding uncomfortable and edgy stridency that emerges from some budget-conscious pieces of gear I have experienced over the years. Bass goes deep and punchy considering its modest power rating. Higher frequencies appear effortlessly, and retain the shimmer and glow desired from favorite recordings.

Soundstaging represents another important strength. The perceived performance expresses with large scale breadth and depth, extending forward of the speakers when a recording dictates it and filling the room with music without any apparent strain. Do not expect this amp to drive massive full range speakers with oomph given its power rating, but as long as you stick to speakers in the 90db/1watt range, it’s all good. Stand mounted speakers, though, are likely to find a very welcome ally. Simply put, it is a great amp. An audio fan cannot expect the world for the MaiA’s price point of about $500 USD, but you easily get a large continent or two!

The MaiA CD: Diminutive Digital

The MaiA CD player matches the integrated amplifier in size and performance, with its front-loading CD slot taking up three-quarters of the player’s width. Without its wall-wart power supply, the CD player weighs in at 2.77 lbs. (1260g). I have owned power cords which weigh more than this player!

Under the hood resides solid engineering and technology. Built around a Burr-Brown (Texas Instruments) DAC chip, this player is meant exclusively for CDs.The DAC handles all files at 24bit/96khz with 8x oversampling, bringing a lot of life to your CD collection. Those wanting to use the MaiA CD player as a transport only can do so via the Toslink output. Utilized in this mode via a 25 foot AudioQuest Toslink cable, we found the MaiA player to provide an interesting solution to those still wanting to play compact discs occasionally. The MaiA player is an excellent transport, via the Audio Research DAC 9, also reviewed in this issue. Even the fussiest audiophile can take advantage of a MaiA player, to play the redbook discs in their collection.

On the right side, the front panel offers a little digital display, the size of a postage stamp, noting track number and play time. On the left is the power button as well as a tiny IR receiver for the remote control. Beneath the disc slot is the expected buttons for track advance, reverse, pause/play and stop/eject. The small remote allows the owner to make these adjustments, plus others. The control allows track or album repeat, random play, and selection of a specific song by typing in the track number. The only remaining choice is black or silver casework. Both are very attractive.

The rear of the player is even more minimalistic. A single pair of RCA analog outs make connections to any amplifier straightforward. If you already have preferred interconnects at home with audiophile grade terminations, be aware there is little space between the terminals. Hose-like interconnects will not fit, so choose accordingly. We’ve had excellent result with the Audience or Cardas cables in this respect, and Pro-Ject even offers a line of their own.

In addition to the compact form factor, this player is a top musical performer. More expensive dedicated CD players can offer more refinement and a greater level of micro-detail retrieval. For the price asked, this mini-marvel will not leave its owner longing for more. Voiced slightly to the warmer side of neutral with robust detail, the MaiA player is very “anti-digital” in its rendition. Soundstaging is excellent with a soundfield that projects left and right beyond the speaker boundaries, and each musical element has a good degree of separation in the perceived distance behind the speakers.

Playing MoFi’s remaster of Beck’s Sea Change, proves immersive. Vocals lock in place up front with ambient cues layered across the soundstage. Bass notes have substantial heft, and highs offer gentle sparkle. Even loudspeakers many times the price of this CD player will find themselves complemented by this marvelous partner. Switching the program between acoustic, solo vocal and even densely packed rock recordings all satisfy.

Vertical Integration – The Pro-Ject VT-E

Up till now, the vertical record players we’ve seen have been little more than mere toys. Leave it to Pro-Ject to come up with a vertical that offers serious performance. As at home on a shelf or table, the VT-E combines Pro-Ject performance in a vertical format with a pre-installed Ortofon OM5 cartridge. You can even wall mount it, and they are available in red, white and black. At $349 each, I’d even consider buying six of them to make wall art! Should you not be integrating the VT-E with an amplifier containing a phono preamplifier, consider the VT-L, which has a built in phonostage and can be connected to a line input.

Everything is set up from the factory, so the only decision is whether to shelf or wall mount. Those that are challenged for space need only about 16 inches of wall space and a little bit of counter space underneath to put a complete Pro-Ject system! Though I admit I love the idea of a VT-L on a pedestal in the middle of the room with a pair of long interconnects to the rest of the system. Again, Pro-Ject is as much art as science. You can even order one in right or left-hand operation. Very diplomatic!

Skeptical as I was about the concept of a vertical table, the VT-E works perfectly. Most of my listening was done with the table wall mounted, so it proved immune to room induced vibrations. Sonically, it reminds me a lot of the Debut Carbon table. Tracking through some favorite current and classics, the Pro-Ject/Ortofon combination is more than capable. Of course, the synergy between it and the MaiA integrated is fantastic, and the aesthetic works well.

For the beginning vinyl enthusiast, the VT-E should prove a worthy companion, providing a musically rewarding experience and a real conversation piece to boot. And because it comes from the factory completely set up, it’s as no fuss as LP playback can be.

Summing up

Considering everything inside these tiny components, you might expect compromise, but none have been made regarding sonics. The Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amplifier and CD Player both combine excellent audio performance and functionality in a pair of very tiny boxes. We are pressed to think of anything offering this level of performance near this price.

Should you have more space, or just want bigger, more powerful components, the MaiA series will probably always have a place in a second room or desktop system. Our publisher is even thinking about a set for his garage system!

Both the Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amp and CD Player more than earns a much-deserved TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award. These would be outstanding components if they were in full sized boxes. Considering they offer it in such compact enclosures is certainly a bonus. Now you have no excuse not to have a great sound system anywhere.

Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amplifier. ($499)

Pro-Ject MaiA CD Player ($399)

Pro-Ject VT-E Turntable ($349) (factory) (US importer)  (for more details)

Issue 84


Old School:

The Klipsch LaScalas – A Work in Progress


Hagerman’s Cornet 3 Phonostage
By Jerold O’Brien

Journeyman Audiophile:

Atoll Electronique IN100se Integrated Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Wino:  It’s in the Can

BMW M Mouse

Ikea PS 2014

Ischia Swim Trunks

Radio Shack Digital Infrared Thermometer

Pantone USB Drives

Porsche Design P 8478 Sunglasses

Visible Vinyl



Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, and Chrissie Dickinson

Jazz & Blues: Craig Taborn, Roscoe Mitchell and More!

By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Audiophile Pressings: Sgt. Pepper’s 50th, Pretenders 1st, and Get the Knaack

Gear Previews

Gold Note Donatello MC Cartridge

Coincident Dynamite Speakers

SVS SB-16 Subwoofer


COVER STORY: The ARC Foundation Series
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson Classic 62 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

McIntosh MP1100 Phonostage
By Jeff Dorgay

Pass Labs XA200.8 Monoblocks
By  Greg Petan

Grand Prix Audio’s Monaco 2.0 Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

Graham Chartwell LS3/5 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Akiko Audio’s Corelli

My now departed Kerry Blue Terrier, Harry was the world’s most stubborn dog. When he didn’t want to budge, there was no moving him. He was “You’re going to sit at that table until you eat those Brussel sprouts or you’re going to bed hungry” stubborn. When it comes to audio tweaks, especially anything the least bit fringy, I’m more stubborn and closed minded than my loyal Irish companion ever was.

I did NOT want to like the Corelli. I didn’t even want to listen to the damn thing. As Robert Neill enthusiastically explained it, my brain was screaming “snake oil.” But I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like, so why not give it a spin, eh? I’m still getting guff over the Furutech De Mag I reviewed, bought, and use on a daily, so get out the lighter fluid, let’s make the flame bigger!

Described as a power conditioner, the Corelli does plug into the AC line, there are no outlets to plug your gear into. Akiko Audio claims that the Corelli is “A pioneering reference power conditioner providing your gear with power in a unique way, without the use of electrical components and active power filtering. It reduces noise without negative side effects such as reduced dynamics or natural quality.” They go on to say, “Internally the Corelli is set up with units made of woven carbon, specifically geared to their task. The neutral, phase and grounding are separately treated. An extra fourth unit is responsible for the harmonization of the internal high frequency radiation field. Moreover, the device is stabilized with black resin to repress unwanted microphonic effects adequately.”

Sounds like mumbo jumbo to me. At this point, I still can’t wrap my brain around a power conditioning product that doesn’t cycle power through itself to the products it is supposedly conditioning power for. I look at the Corelli with the same furrowed brow as the big red bird in Angry Birds.

While my big black dog was very stubborn, he was also very curious. If you hid a cookie somewhere in the room, he would always find it, no matter how diligent you concealed it. So, my terrier like curiosity got the best of me. What the hell, I could always either A: send the damn thing back unimpressed, or B: write that scathing, negative review so many of you have been clamoring for all these years. It didn’t take much listening to realize that C: this wasn’t going to happen.

Getting wiggly

Even though weed is legal here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s not something I indulge in often because it makes me sleepy. What fun is that? However, there is a subtle, a-ha shift in your perception as the funny, leafy stuff starts to take effect. There’s that narrow zone between being unaffected and thinking everything in the world is incredibly funny, where the doors of perception are more than subtly altered. This is the effect of the Corelli, you don’t need to ingest anything to get this effect, and you can drive home safely afterwords. Bonus.

Following the instructions, I did plug the Corelli in nearby the system; straight in to the Torus TOT that currently conditions the power for my system. With one outlet still unused, why not?

Cycling through a series of familiar tracks with the Corelli plugged in, listening began again in earnest. Akiko’s power cord was used, as they claim this makes a huge difference in the presentation. It is a well-built power cord, and in all fairness is only a couple hundred bucks, so I can’t get grumpy about this aspect.

The reference system consists of the new Virtuoso Soltanus ESL speakers that have been here for some time, a PrimaLuna HP Integrated with KT150 tubes, Gryphon’s Kalliope DAC, the new Audio Research PH9 phonostage and the Soulines Kubrick DCX turntable with ZYX cartridge. In short, a highly resolving, yet not crazy money system that I’m very familiar with. The enclosed manual states that the Corelli takes a few weeks to stabilize, yet the biggest change will occur in the first day.

That’s the biggest audio understatement I’ve yet heard. For the first fifteen minutes nothing much seems to happen, though my wife made the comment, “Hey it sounds a little smoother, what did you do.?” Then the trip began. As that Tidal playlist continued, I  swore that everthing was sounding better, more homogenous, less grainy, more natural.

Going back to the LP’s I had listened to earlier, it was a night and day difference. Three areas made a major improvement; pace/timing, upper frequency smoothness and the size of the three dimensional sound field painted by the Virtuosos. For $2,000 with power cord, sign me up.

Trying not to be taken in, I unplugged the Corelli and removed it from the system and things shut back down to pre-conditioning levels. A few game-on, game-off cycles later, combined with torturing a few good audiophile buddies, we’ve all heard the same basic effect. Just like that damn De-Mag.

At the end of the test session, I’m definitely keeping the Corelli around. I still can’t really explain why or how it works, but it does.

Laugh if you must

I’m hoping that because we don’t write about tweaks here on a regular, super expensive cables, or anything else in that arena, that you will consider giving the Akiko Corelli a try in your system. They offer a money back guarantee, so you’ve got nothing to lose. But I’m pretty sure you won’t send it back.

The Akiko Audio Corelli Power Conditioner

$1,995 with power cord (manufacturer) (North America Distributor)

Audio Research GSi75 Integrated Amplifier

It’s been a couple of years now since the Audio Research GS series have been introduced, and both the GS Pre and GS 150 have received multiple awards from magazines around the world (including us).

With its gorgeous, artisan style, the GSi75 shows off a welded chassis, thick front plate and the combination of new and old ARC cues. Some deeply embedded in the way Audio Research used to do things see the GSi75 as anomalous, but ARC’s Dave Gordon sets me straight, “Don’t think about the GSi75 as you do our other components. Yes this is a lifestyle piece, but it is one for someone who truly cares about sound quality.” It only takes about 2 minutes of listening to see he’s spot on.

Streaming Teenage Fanclub’s “Don’t Look Back,” with it’s layered, grungy sound and simple pop hooks gets to the heart of the matter immediately. This combination of DAC, phonostage, headphone amplifier, and 75 watt per channel power amplifier has a very spacious sound. Segueing to “The Journey” from Boston’s Don’t Look Back, the deep bass riff at the end of the track convincingly illustrates this amplifiers ability to move some air.

Having spent the better part of the year listening to the GS Pre and the GS 150, it’s intriguing that the overall voice of the GSi75 feels closer to that of the last generation REF series than the slightly mellower voice of the GS Pre/GS 150 combo. With four KT150 power tubes and a pair of 6H30s, nothing deviates from the current ARC cookbook. The power supply has a capacity of 330 joules instead of the 500 supplying the REF 75, so don’t expect quite the drive of the REF amplifier, even though both are specified to produce 75 watts per channel. At all but brain damage volume levels though, the GSi75 comes very, very close.

What, no XLR’s?

In the effort to keep things tidy, the usual balanced inputs are absent. No doubt because the phonostage and DAC are already on board, it makes sense that the options can be kept easy for other components. Other than a tuner, what else would you connect, except maybe another phonostage or a tape deck? Yet in typical Audio Research fashion there are still three single ended RCA analog inputs, to go with the single phono input.

The phonostage in the GSi75 is a marvel of compactness and again, showcases ARC’s ability to design world class products in either arena; tube or solid-state. Gordon laughs as he says, “We just didn’t have the room inside the chassis for a tube phono.”

Compact as it is, the on-board phono section still features low and high gain settings (45 and 62db) along with the ability to set phono loading at 100, 200, 500, 1000 or 47k ohms. And, it’s adjustable from the remote control. Impressive.

A powerful soul

Dropping the needle down on a fresh copy of Crowded House’s Woodface, the room is immediately filled with the big, broad, engaging soundfield that I’m used to listening to a full compliment of REF components in my larger listening room. The core competencies of ARC still come through brilliantly, with mix of dynamics, speed, transparency and an incredibly natural tonal balance.

Where all but the REF Phono 3 and REF Phono 10 phonostages ($14,000 and $30,000 respectively) offer high and low gain settings, the rest of ARC’s phonostages all have settled on a fixed gain setting of 58db, which is more than adequate for most cartridges and situations, I found the two gain settings helpful, especially with my Dynavector 17D3 and Denon DL-103r cartridges.

The onboard phonostage, is quiet and dynamic. A perfect match for the rest of the amplifier, and putting it to work with a wide variety of phono cartridges from the $100 Shure M97 all the way to the $10,000 Koetsu Jade Platinum, I never found the onboard phono to be limiting, though with the big boy cartridges, there is a slight bit of resolution and ultimate dynamic drive that is better served by the REF Phono 3. However, I suspect that most building a system around the GSi75 are going to be bridging the gap between “really good” and “sky is the limit” systems. In the context of a nice $3,000 – $15,000 turntable/arm/cartridge combo, I doubt you’ll be aching for more phono performance.

At all but maximum volume through inefficient speakers, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the GSi75 from the GS Pre and GS 150 amplifiers. Driving the Focal Sopra no.3s, which have a sensitivity of 92db/1watt, I can’t drive the amplifier into clipping, it plays plenty loud for my needs. It proves equally capable driving the Quad 2812s, which are notoriously tough, because of their heavy capacitive load. The loopy, spacy, electronic vibe of the first Neu! album is a sonic treat, with little sounds bouncing all around my listening room with the Quads, it’s almost like being in a gigantic pair of headphones.

Again, Gordon tells me “the heart of this amplifier is a REF75 circuit – same tubes and transformers with a passive preamp section, that’s why there is no preamp out. The DAC is all new and one of the best we’ve ever done. It’s what formed the heart of the DAC 9.”


Catering heavily to the new music consumer, that DAC allows you to access whatever files you have on hand; 16-bit/44khz all the way up to 2x DSD, so you won’t be left out in the cold. There are a bevy of digital inputs as well; RCA, Toslink and USB all help make the GSi75 the hub of your digital music world. Having the DAC 9 on hand for review, it was easy to compare between the two and the

GSi75 is indeed highly capable. Thanks to Roon, my digital library is a gaggle of files on a 13TB NAS drive, with no particular segregation from low to high resolution. The GSi75 sailed through playlist after playlist, consisting of every resolution possible, without so much as a pause.

Using a Mac Book Pro, dCS Paganini transport, a Meridian/Sooloos MC200 Core and an Aurender A10 allowed checking every input and all worked flawlessly. No matter what you have at your disposal, rest assured the GSi75 can handle it.


If all of this weren’t enough, the GSi75 also has a headphone jack, and again, the solution was done from the ground up. Even this aspect of the GSi75s performance was by no means an afterthought. While this reviewer is not a huge headphone listener, the quality of the sound heard through Audeze LCD-2s and the current Oppo PM-1 phones is top notch.

All but the most maniacal headphone listener will not need an outboard headphone amplifier. The GSi75 has much more sheer drive than is necessary to achieve the volume level you require, and the level of refinement is exceptional. Going through all of my favorite prog and electronica tracks made for an aural playground with the GSi75. Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu was not only a great throwback, but fully illustrated the high level of imaging prowess that placed the people speaking everywhere in the room. Big fun.

The Audeze and Oppo phones are not terribly hard to drive, but the planar magnetic phones seem to deliver a more sophisticated presentation, the better your gear is. Again the GSi75 did not disappoint in any way. Bass was always solid and full of tonal richness, with the high frequencies tight, defined and (for me, anyway) a perfect mix of extension and resolution without ever sounding strident.

Complex yet simple

The $16,000 price tag may stun a few at first, but when you realize what the team at ARC has packed inside the GSi75, and the fact that you don’t have to buy three sets of interconnects and power cords, it’s an amazing bargain – for the right customer. Because everything is inside and there is no preamp out, this is either a piece you will live with forever, or the upgrade bug will sour you. A cursory survey of a few friends with mega ARC systems reveals more than one have bought a GSi75 as the core of their second system, or vacation home system and are thrilled.

Careful inspection of the chassis, and the parts quality inside, it becomes immediately obvious that the GSi75 was built to a standard – with no compromise rather than scaled up from a price point business model. The GSi75 is Audio Research through and through.

The “ears” of Audio Research, Warren Gehl is quick to add that an integrated was part of the product mix with the G Series all along. “We wanted to see how far we could take the G Series with this concept.” It ends up being a fairly dense circuit board when you remove the bottom cover, but again, Gehl backs up their decision to use PCBs instead of point to point wiring, simply saying “We take a very logical perspective to circuit board layout and construction quality. We don’t feel our designs take a back seat sonically to an amplifier that is wired point to point.”

Quantifying the value in the GSi75 is an easy task for someone who’s been living with ARC electronics for nearly as long as they’ve been making them. Perhaps a result of getting a bit older, I’ve experienced a number of friends when listening to a large rack of gear ask the question, “can’t I just get this kind of performance in one box?” And this comment is usually followed with something like, “I want really great sound quality, I just don’t play music as loud as I used to.”

It’s like the dining room of my favorite local hotel. They’ve started offering just a spoonful sized portion of their favorite deserts. This is the essence of the Audio Research GSi75 – it’s a heaping tablespoon of a full REF stack. And for many people, that will be all you need.

The Audio Research GSi75 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $16,000


Analog Source               Brinkmann Bardo Turntable/Koetsu Onyx Platinum Cart

Speakers                         Focal Sopra no. 1, Quad 2812, GamuT RS5i

Cable                               Cardas Clear

The Wyred 4 Sound DAC 2v2 SE

Based in California, E.J. Sarmento founded Wyred 4 Sound in 2007 with a goal of producing stellar audio components at prices within financial reach of many music fans. In the decade since the release of their first amplifier, their product line has grown substantially, now including preamplifiers, music streamers, integrated amplifiers, cables, audio accessories, and more.

Of course, they have also invested significant engineering time honing their digital components like the DAC-2v2 and the DAC-2v2SE (the subject of this review). To commemorate their 10th anniversary this year, a limited production 10thanniversary DAC-2v2SE was also released. Since the beginning, Wyred 4 Sound’s gear is designed and built in the United States, and they sell their products directly to the public from their headquarters. Because their production facility remains onsite as well, in the unlikely event a product should fail, a customer can also work directly with Wyred’s team in California to quickly resolve the issue.

Standard versus Special Edition

As suggested by the name, the DAC-2v2 builds upon the sonics of the previous iteration in many ways. First, the DAC chip upgrades to the ESS Sabre 9028PRO.  The green OLED display is not on the 2v2, it is exclusive to the 2v2SE.

The SE version takes things even further with the ESS flagship Sabre 9038PRO DAC. It also offers several internal component upgrades including Schottky diodes and higher-grade fuses supplementing custom capacitors and Vishay Z-Foil resistors. The SE also features an upgraded Femto-grade clock, offering greater precision, corraling the digital bits into an optimal stream, reducing jitter significantly. It also has a green OLED display, which Wyred says is quieter than the regular blue LED display of the default DAC-2v2.

Hefty build

Weighing in at 14 pounds, the small 8.5″W x 4.125″H x 13.5″D enclosure packs much goodness under the hood, combining minimalist aesthetics, with densely packed internals. A deep grey powder-coated surface provides the DAC with a subtle matte finish (black also available), interrupted only on the sides by angled ventilation holes – a W4S trademark. Two black-anodized accent sections placed on the front panel offer some spice to the edges of an otherwise boxy form factor. Between them, a narrow OLED display is flanked by small “up” and “down” buttons on the sides, and a standby power button underneath. In addition to controlling volume, these buttons double as menu navigation tools during DAC setup. For those who prefer making adjustments from the comfort of their listening seat, an included remote control allows changes on the fly.

The rear panel offers all the digital ins and analog outs one might need. Outputs accommodate both balanced and single ended connections. Input options include USB, Toslink, Coaxial, AES/EBU, and HDMI connections. With all these options at the ready, it is a breeze to connect any digital source to the DAC and get the music up and running. A 12-volt trigger and home theater bypass capability offer additional flexibility in a larger home entertainment setup.

Depending on the source material, the unit’s internals can process 32-bit files up to a sample rate of 384 kHz PCM and native DSD files up to DSD256.

Fine Tuning

The DAC 2v2 series offers a few menu items not available previously, including multiple jitter reduction adjustments. Wyred 4 Sound recommends the lowest possible jitter setting for ideal sonic performance. However, that setting does place an additional performance tax on the component. Wyred suggests trying the lowest setting, and edging up from there among the five remaining increments if needed. Following their suggestions, the lowest setting never introduced any stutter in the system, but the sound did become a bit more relaxed and smooth with the jitter-reducer working its magic.

Another handy feature on both the DAC 2v2 standard and SE DAC versions is the variable output. If connecting the DAC to a preamplifier through RCA or XLR interconnects, the DAC allows the user to override its internal volume controls in favor of letting the preamp take on that role. However, for those who listen to digital music only, the DAC allows the user to connect it directly to an amplifier, using the built-in variable output as the system volume control.

Increasing the flexibility of the DAC, Wyred also builds into the menu options seven different digital filters. The DAC owner can experiment with all the options to determine the one that he or she prefers. For those in doubt, the DAC2v2 manual suggests starting with the “Apodizing fast rolloff, linear phase” option, and the small tweak does offer fantastic sound.

If connecting your DAC to a computer via USB, note that both Mac and Linux-based systems have native support. Plugging the DAC into a Mac Mini offered not a single hiccup. The computer recognized it immediately through the Roon interface, providing music in a few minutes. For those with Windows-based systems, a required driver is available from the Wyred 4 Sound website.

Wyred 4 Sound suggests 200 hours of break in time for the DAC, and with several days under its belt, it certainly demonstrated its prowess. For the majority of our testing, the DAC 2v2SE was connected directly to an amplifier, using the variable volume control feature. Reducing the number of components and interconnects gives this DAC the straightest possible signal path between source and speakers. While the digital filters do offer minor variances to the DAC’s overall sound, the Wyred has a general sound signature at its heart. At first listen, the DAC 2v2SE demonstrates a natural, and relaxed presentation. There’s a slight warmth complementing a high level of detail retrieval. Those seeking a DAC that exposes every bit of detail, including of glare or stridency inherent in a recording, may prefer more stark voicing. However, potential owners wishing for a more analog-like interpretation in their audio system will welcome the 2v2SE’s ability to file down the sharp edges ever so slightly in the name of musicality.

Extensive soundstage portrayal is DAC 2v2SEs top strengths. Musical cues extended to the far left, right and rear of the speakers’ imaging limits give a convincing and layered presentation. Listening to albums like Silent Letters from Bliss, the rich soundstage created by the engineers demonstrates the DAC 2v2SE’s ability to ingest, process and share out the digital bits with aplomb, re-creating the subtle details contained within. Cymbal crashes generate a complexity of audio frequency transmissions, offering a solid approximation as if sitting several rows back in an auditorium at a live concert. Similarly, the woodiness of clarinets and the brassiness of trumpets roll forth as dictated by the quality of a given recording.

Both male and female voices are rendered with a natural quality. In the absence of sharp edges to the sound make the DAC 2v2SE a great friend for long listening sessions. Ear fatigue never enters into the equation, giving the listener a chance to settle into the music for the long haul.

Bass-wise, the 2v2SE maintains a solid grip on bass without mushiness or disappointment in impact. The balance of bass with the rest of the audio spectrum does not tilt in favor of low-frequency information through this DAC. Those with a powerful solid-state amp are likely to find the partnership between the two components a welcome fit. Potential owners with tube amplifiers like the Conrad-Johnson Classic Sixty-Two we had on hand for testing, will be delighted equally. The DAC 2v2SE does not appear to modify the sound of any amp it is mated with, it just gives the amp a chance to sing to its full potential.

Summing strengths

This base DAC-2v2 retails for $2,299, and the even more advanced SE edition in this review retails for $3,799. While we did not have the opportunity to compare-and-contrast the standard edition to the SE version, the SE version performs very well at its price point. This DAC combines excellent build quality, understated modern looks, and a confidence inspiring five-year warranty. Wyred 4 Sound also provides a generous trade-in program to those who own older DACs and wish to upgrade to these latest iterations.

Considering many high-end DACs today cost well over $10k, and the marvelous quality of Wyred’s DAC represents a substantial value. Yes, more money can buy a higher degree of refinement and realism. However, the Wyred delivers a lot of prowess for its price point. Because of the variable output capability, this DAC can also function effectively as a preamplifier. For those listening only to digital music, it is a bit like getting two products for the price of one. Additionally, for those who enjoy fine-tuning their DAC’s sound, the on-screen menu options give owners several ways to tailor sound to their liking. Those small tweaks can help an owner to best match the DAC’s sound to the associated gear around it, but bear in mind that the DAC 2v2SE sounds great even with the factory defaults. The core sound adjusted to the owner’s preferences make this DAC a terrific choice for those who may rotate other gear over time. Some things may come and go, but this DAC can hold its own for years to come.

Further listening

At first, I thought I was listening to the anniversary edition of the DAC 2v2SE and was impressed at that point, but finding out that this was a regular 2v2SE was impressive. While my reference DAC is the dCS Rossini with clock (retailing at nearly $40k), I have been very excited to hear just how far digital has come in the context of the DAC 2v2SE.

Truly engaging sound to an analog lover used to take five figures to achieve. Like the lovely Exogal Comet we reviewed recently, the DAC 2v2SE is another addition to the list of highly musical yet reasonably priced DACs that will make you sit back and take notice. Combining major dynamic punch with lifelike tonality and lack of upper register glare has me questioning if I’d even bother with a turntable with an equivalent price tag to the DAC 2v2SE. Especially considering the ease and availability of digital music options.

As Rob mentions, if you are a music lover that doesn’t want to be committed to vinyl, you can build a phenominal music system for $5,000 – $10,000 using the DAC 2v2SE as your core component. While I used the DAC 2v2SE in the context of the system in room two with the PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP integrated amplifier and a pair of Quad 2812s, it was equally impressive with a vintage Conrad Johnson MV60SE tube power amplifier and the Graham LS5/9 speakers. Adding a few bits of Cardas Iridium interconnect and speaker cable brought the whole system cost to just under $10k. If I lost my job reviewing hifi gear, I could easily live with this system for a long time. I’m happy to award this DAC one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017 and look forward to sampling more offerings from this manufacturer sooner rather than later.

Publishers note:  Just as we are going live with this review, the guys at W4S have let us know that they will be sending an anniversary model by for comparison…  Stay tuned!

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2v2SE

Please Click here to visit the WFS site….

MSRP:  $3,799


Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, SimAudio 780D DAC, Oppo Sonica DAC

Amplification: Conrad-Johnson Classic Sixty-Two

Preamplification: Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers: GamuT RS3i

Cables: Jena Labs

Power: Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose power cords

Accessories: ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand

Cardas Crosslink Interconnect

One of the questions I’m often asked by fans of vintage hifi, is where to find an upgraded interconnect cable that sounds better than standard issue Best Buy/Radio Shack cable, but doesn’t have a four figure price tag.

Just as you can’t fit a pair of 19-inch wheels and low profile tires under the wheel wells of a BMW 2002tii, (if you have, please don’t send me a picture) it’s tough if not impossible to plug todays “audiophile” cables into the tightly packed jacks of a vintage audio component. And some home theater receivers, for that matter.

Cardas Audio solves the problem on both counts. Their Crosslink interconnects come terminated with RCA or XLR plugs and they are assembled with care by the same people that make their Clear cables. While these are very inexpensive cables at $159 for a meter pair, when you see the quality of the connectors and finish, you’d expect to pay a lot more.

The sound is pure Cardas. Ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, but maintaining a great sense of tone. Connecting my Nakamichi 600 system together, using one pair between preamplifier and power amp, with the other between cassette deck and pre, the Crosslink cables reveal a lot more music than the garage sale cables I was using. I had a similar revelation with the Anthem MRX-510 HT receiver in my living room, but that’s another column.

Crosslink is the only cable that Cardas makes available in bulk, so if you need custom lengths for a new or vintage system, help is only a phone call away.

If you’d like to give that vintage system a tune-up, this is our suggestion.

Cardas Crosslink Interconnect


$159/1m pair, other lengths on request

The Audio Physic Step plus

Only because I’ve heard it three times today (in the airport, at Home Depot and lunch) listening to the Audio Physic Step plus speakers begins with the Squeeze classic “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell). Not terribly audiophile-y by anyone’s standards, but it’s got some great harmonies, and you can dance to it.

But seriously, it’s exciting to see what can be coaxed from a small cabinet these days, and the variation on a theme is equally enticing. We had a lovely time with the Step plus’ larger sibling, the Tempo plus a few months ago, and the Step plus is equally good but in a smaller container. For good reason, as the Step plus shares the same 1.75” HHCT III, Ceramic coated Aluminum Hyper-Holographic Cone Tweeter and 5.9” HHCM II, Ceramic coated Aluminum Hyper-Holographic Cone Midrange from the Tempo, sans the latter’s dual 7” woofers. The new plus versions are the latest re-engineered versions of the Step models that have been a favorite world wide for years.

At $2,595/pair in the standard Walnut or Cherry finish or slightly more ($2,795/pair) in the luscious Ebony finish of our review samples, the Step plus speakers look as elegant as they sound. Black and White high gloss are also upgraded finish options. An extra $200 gets you a pair of tempered glass, and metal matching stands, and they provide a sophisticated visual. Though nowhere near as elegant in appearance, my sand filled Sound Anchor stands offer up more bass reinforcement, so take your pick; performance or good looks. Those pairing the Step plus with a subwoofer will have a wider range of stands, as the last few molecules of bass won’t matter.


These little darlings image like crazy – every silly audiophile cliché you know applies. Small monitors are a shoe in for their ability to disappear into a room, offering close to the proverbial point source for sound and the Step plus does an amazing job. Everyone who experienced them walked away with their adjective glands exhausted when discussing just how big these small speakers can play.

This is due to the amazing amount of technology incorporated into the speakers, something pretty much unheard of at this price point. Starting with the cabinet itself, designed to minimize standing waves and other reflections, the Step plus takes advantage of an open cell ceramic foam bracing system. This labyrinth-like cabinet interior soaks up unwanted reflections much more effectively than the standard stuffing you might see in a competitors’ speaker. The sloped front baffle also makes for better time alignment, while maintaining a sleek visual.

According to AP, nearly everything in the plus version of the speaker has been redesigned or updated from the original. The crossover is all new, internal wiring and even the WBT binding posts all contribute to the overall sound. But the biggest part of the performance increase comes from the new third generation Hyper-Holographic driver technology, which takes advantage of a composite aluminum and plastic basket along with active cone dampening on both drivers.

The result is a more natural, lifelike, engaging presentation. There is a liveliness to these speakers that you might even mistake as coming from an ESL, a delicacy not present in small speakers. Whether it was the gentle bowing of a violin or brushes being stroked across a drumhead, the Step plus gets to the heart of the presentation without being harsh or strident.

Even though the spec sheet claims a sensitivity of 87db with one watt, the Step plus proves easy to drive with any amplifier. With a handful of great amps from Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, Nagra, Pass, PrimaLuna, and Simaudio, the Step plus not only turned in outstanding performances with each one, their high degree of resolution revealed the individual personality of these amplifiers with ease. No small feat for a pair of $2,600 loudspeakers. It’s worth mentioning that matching the Step plus speakers with our Product of the Year winning Simaudio ACE makes for an amazing hi-fi system coming in at just under $6,000.

Going back through the Brian Eno Ambient series proves highly entertaining. Granted, these texturally diverse records won’t tell you a thing about tone or timbre, lesser speakers fail to reveal the minute details and spatial cues going on. Ditto for all of the Jean Michel Jarre albums in my collection. For those of you too young to remember any of these, try the soundtrack from Gone Girl, courtesy of none other than Trent Reznor. This is a hauntingly obtuse recording that feels like it was recorded in some highly processed format like Q Sound. The Step plus rendition of this disc in my 13 x 15-foot listening room has me looking for the Dolby Atmos processor and the other nine speakers; it’s that involving. Paul Weller’s new soundtrack from Jawbone is equally tasty for all the same reasons.

Simple set up

The real key to optimizing the Step plus (as in any good loudspeaker) is to get the tweeters right at ear level. Otherwise, you may feel less than pleased.

If they don’t have you in freak out mode, you don’t have them set up right – it’s that simple. If you don’t start with the AP stands, anything about 24 inches in height will get you somewhere from really close to spot on.

As with any other high-quality mini monitor, the ultimate tradeoff will be the spot that maximizes bass performance and minimizes midrange cloudiness. The closer to the wall you go, the more bass, but there reaches a point where it begins to compromise the exquisite imaging capabilities. Move the speakers up and back a few inches at a time, and you’ll know immediately when you hit it. The magic disappears, and it disappears abruptly. A similar effect happens moving the speakers side to side, go a little too far, and your hard earned coherence vanishes.

The woofer is ported, so keep this in mind, should you even think about bookshelf placement, and take note that the speakers only have single binding posts, so there is no need for bi-wiring.

Fear not, start with the speakers about six or seven feet apart and about four feet from the rear walls, and you’re rocking – they sound great right out of the box. Fiddly audiophiles can coax a bit more imaging performance with a few minutes spent fully optimizing speaker position. These are light speakers, so it’s super easy.

At the end of the day, Fun

Running through every genre of music imaginable, the Step plus does not disappoint. Of course, being a small monitor, you can only crank Zeppelin or your favorite EDM tracks so far. At a certain point, physics works against you, and those little woofers can only move so much air. The quality of bass produced is of high quality, and that’s not what mini monitors are all about in the first place. Going back to Weller’s Jawbone soundtrack for “Jawbone Training” reveals a healthy amount of kick and slam along with the passionate cymbal work provided.

The Audio Physic Step plus is about resolution, and this is delivered. These speakers offer a highly resolving look into the music presented without ever being harsh, strident or fatiguing and that is a tough balance to achieve. It’s obvious that the AP slogan “No Loss of Fine Detail” is delivered on in full.

If you want a highly immersive, three-dimensional music experience in a small to modest room, these are the speakers that should be at the top of your list.

The Audio Physic Step plus Speakers

MSRP: $2,599 – $2,799 (finish dependent) (North American Importer)


Analog Source             Technics SL-1200G w/Grado Statement2 cartridge

Phono Preamplifier     Conrad Johnson TEA 1s2

Digital Source              PS Audio DirectStream memory player and DAC

Amplification              PrimaLuna HP Premium (KT 150s installed), Simaudio NEO Ace

Cable                           Tellurium Q Silver Diamond

Power                          Equi=

The Dell XPS 27 Computer

Before we get started, I must confess a few biases. I love Apple products. Been using a Mac since the day after the Super Bowl ads ran in 1984. That’s product loyalty.

I’m not crazy about Windows (but liked XP) but OS is not the religion for me that it is for some; I run Word, Photoshop and an internet browser, so those tools work similarly on either platform. Much as I love my Macs, if you took them away tomorrow, I’d go right to work on a Windows box without much grousing. Lastly, we have a pair of MacBook Pros and a pair of 27” iMac 5k Retina boxes running nearly 24/7 here, so I’m thoroughly familiar with the competitor.

Tactile Excellence

Thanks to the iPhone and iPad, I love, love, love touchscreen computing, and feel that its exclusion on the latest Mac is a major fail. The new Dell XPS 27 sitting on my desk tips the scale at $2,499.99 with 16GB of memory, a 2TB hard drive and a 3.4GHz Intel i7 processor. The iMac Retina, at $1,999.99 features 8GB of memory ($200 to get the extra RAM from Apple, with a max capacity of 32MB) and a smaller 1TB hard drive. Equpping the iMac Retina similarly, puts it at $2,499.00 Just as we can argue the “speed” of processors forever, I’m not making the next Star Wars sequel on my desktop. However, I have been working on some clips for our YouTube channel, and the XPS 27 is a breeze running Adobe Premiere Pro – as well as all the other Adobe apps.

But there is one thing the Cupertino candidate does not have; a touch screen. Be as smug as you want to be, once you have a touch screen computer, you’ll never go back. As Tom Wolfe said, in The Right Stuff; “everything else was just left behind.” And this is from a guy that loves Apple machines. I can’t tell you how many times after using an iPad for any length of time, to go back to the desktop machine, I catch myself poking the screen once or twice. Fess up, you know you’ve done it too.

Rules as a Music Server

Let’s cut to the chase right away; Dell has out Apple’d Apple on this machine. While pricing and speed are similar, the touchscreen makes everything way easier – and way more productive. Running the latest version of ROON and Meridian’s Sooloos Touch PC is absolutely lovely. Yes, you can run ROON on an iPad (and it’s not bad on the big 12-inch iPad) but you need a PC to run the Sooloos app with touch screen functionality. Flipping through nearly 15,000 albums with the aid of a touch screen makes the experience more immersive. I’d buy an XPS 27 just to run my Sooloos, which thanks to the USB output of the Dell, sounds cleaner, less grainy and more dynamic than it ever did with dedicated (i.e. expensive) Meridian hardware.

The same benefit is seen, actually heard, running Roon or Tidal on the iMac side by side with identical WireWorld USB cables to the dCS Rossini DAC and clock, in the context of a six figure hifi system. Hands down the Dell has better, more realistic overall sonic capability.

That B-word

All of this is super cool if you are looking for an elegant, touch screen, free standing desktop machine, but using both as desktop computers, the Dell again has a major advantage. Should you not have a desktop audio system, or great pair of powered speakers handy, you’re going to love the XPS 27. With a built-in sound bar, consisting of four full range drivers, a pair of tweeters and a pair of passive radiators, the XPS 27 just saved you $300 – $500 on a pair of powered monitor speakers for your desk.

Hands down, the Dell XPS 27 delivers the best desktop audio performance I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear from any computer manufacturer. It’s so cool to see a computer company offering such a media rich computer, not throwing sound quality to the curb. Whether you use the XPS 27 as a dedicated office machine, or a home machine, it’s room filling sound quality will make you want to give it prime placement. You won’t need a portable, powered USB or Bluetooth speaker system in your kitchen anymore either.

Starting my listening sessions with Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act,” I’m caught off guard (in a good way) at how transparent the system projects Reed’s voice out through the center of the screen as if he is boring right through my brain. Tracking all the way through Neil Cowley’s “Loud, Louder, Stop,” the smoothness of the cymbals and the delicate rendering of the piano instantly convinces just how lifelike these small speakers and the accompanying amplifier are. The sound produced does not sound like tiny aftermarket speakers at all – this is big, bold, and lifelike sound.

Dell claims solid output to 70hz, which checks out, care of Stereophile’s “Test CD no.1,” but optimizing the desk placement will yield more convincing bass response, thanks to desktop surface gain beefing up the lows. Your favorite prog and EDM tracks will need that sub, but you’ll be surprised at just how far you can crank up the volume cleanly. You’ll never be able to exploit the party potential of the XPS 27 at work until after quitting time. This machine rocks.

Should you want to get all audiophile-y with this, I suggest a small microfiber towel on your desk, just under the soundbar, to minimize the slap effect from the XPS 27 as the sound bounces off the hard surface of your desk. That’s a pretty inexpensive tweek.

The Final Touch

So far, so good. The Dell XPS runs the applications I use a bit snappier than my iMac Retina does, and it has superior sonic abilities. Add in the touch screen and the only thing that wont seal the deal for the most dedicated Apple fans is the inability to run Mac OS. After 30 years, I’m thinking about switching because this machine is that good. The final exclamation point on a phenomenal computer, is the sheer human engineering of this machine beyond the touch screen. As an everyday iMac user, I hate the way you have to struggle every time an SD memory card is inserted. And that power button on the iMac always seems to require fiddling to get it the first time. The XPS 27 puts the power button and SD slot right on the side of the casework, where you can actually use the damn thing. Finally, the articulated base, lends the ability to fold the XPS 27 way down to desk level and let you type or draw on it like a mega iPad. Not sure I’d use this feature, but it suggests possibilities.

We’ve never given a computer one of our Exceptional Value Awards, but the Dell XPS 27 makes so much more sheer sense than an iMac, I’m compelled. Using this machine is pure joy. When was the last time you said that about a computer?

The Audio Research REF 6 Linestage

With a lineage stretching back to 1970 Audio Research, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota has built their reputation on constant, engineering based improvements to their products. Their Reference linestage preamplifier line remains a coveted commodity among ARC enthusiasts, and the Reference 6 linestage preamplifier solidly continues this tradition. Based heavily on what was learned creating the two chassis, Reference 10 flagship, makes for a major jump in performance over the outgoing REF 5/5SE, an award winning linestage in its own right.

More than a pretty face

On the outside, the REF 6 sports some eye-catching changes. ARC’s new chassis design was engineered for two reasons. First, ARC is updating the aesthetic of the Ref line. A clean, modern appearance moves away from the classic, more industrial ARC look. The visual design of the REF 6 comes straight from the desk of Livio Cucuzza and his team, the ones responsible for the trend setting aesthetic of the highly popular G-Series. Tastefully integrating style cues from the past models with a more modern look and better finish work, Audio Research components finally look as good as they sound.

ARC’s team also built in a greater level of structural rigidity intended to “assist in the dissipation of electrical and mechanical interferences.” Immediately evident is the beautifully milled faceplate, available in either an anodized back finish or the natural aluminum finish of our review sample. Substantial handles on the front of the REF 6 pay homage to past models, offering a visual contrast to the otherwise flat front. The handles also offer a practical function when moving and placing the 36.5 lb. (16.6 kg) linestage. With overall dimensions of 19” (48 cm) W x 7.8” (19.8 cm) H x 16.5” (41.9 cm) D, the hefty REF 6 requires a fair amount of real estate on the audio rack.

When placing it, headroom is another important consideration. The tube complement generates a lot of heat and adequate ventilation is necessary for the long-term health of the unit. Under the REF 6’s transparent, vented Lucite hood, the owner can witness the tidy circuitry within. The tube complement consists of six 6H30P dual triodes, plus a single 6550C and a 6H30 regulating the beefy power supply.

Control freak

As part of the newly-adopted aesthetic, an elegant simplicity drives layout of the REF 6 control panel. In addition to the large input selection and volume knobs, six dime-sized buttons manage the rest of the adjustments. Specific buttons control power-up, a choice between mono or stereo playback, phase reversal, and mute. The remaining two buttons, “menu” and “enter” bring to life the REF 6 menu options, and allow the owner to customize his or her preferences for each.

To get the most from the REF 6 tube complement, one menu option allows the user to see the number of hours on the current tubes. According to AR, new 6550WE tubes should serve their owner for about 2,000 hours, and the 6H30 tubes offer roughly twice that life span. When the tubes eventually wear out, ARC offers carefully matched replacement tubes. As there are not a lot of variations on the 6H30 tube, just giving the factory a call is the easiest way to roll. To maximize tube life, owners will delight in another REF 6 feature. The owner can set an automatic preamp shutdown to engage at a one to eight-hour interval. This feature can be disabled if you prefer fully manual control.

The REF 6 also offers the ability to assign a specific input for home theater pass-through in instances where the linestage is part of a larger home theater system. In this scenario, the REF 6’s volume control disengages when that particular source is selected, deferring to the surround sound processor’s volume controls. The ability to assign names to each of the REF 6 inputs also makes it easy to keep inputs straight on more complex systems.

ARC has always offered a very basic, plastic remote. Keeping with the aesthetic of the new design a milled aluminum remote accompanies the REF 6 and REF Phono 3. It’s a nice, but not ostentatious touch that complements the new look, and is roughly the size of the plastic remote of old. Prospective owners should note that the REF 6 sports a 20-amp IEC power socket, so if you are contemplating a power cord upgrade, plan accordingly or find a high quality adaptor, like the one from Shunyata.

Featuring four inputs, each having the option of single ended RCA or balanced XLR connectors makes the REF 6 one of the most versatile linestages going. Two sets of RCA and XLR variable outputs are joined by a fixed level, record out option – handy for those either stepping up to the tape game or digitizing some of their favorite music. 12 volt trigger and RS-232 interfaces are also available for those wanting to tie everything together, or in a custom install situation.

Music to my ears

When the power button is depressed, the REF 6 kicks into a 45-second warm-up mode, bringing the tubes up to temperature slowly, maximizing their lifespan. Mute is engaged automatically during that process, and must be un-muted before music can proceed.

Right out the gate, the REF 6 proves stunning in several ways. The immediately enveloping soundstage has musical elements bursting in all directions, projecting a seemingly limitless picture that defies speaker placement. Airy subtleties reside in the distance above, below, and behind the speakers offering a spooky level of realism, and the REF 6 is one of a very short list of special linestages that renders an incredibly real picture of the recording without crossing the line of being super sized for effect. Listening to Lucinda Williams “Can’t Let Go” places her in my listening room at a correct size, making the presentation that much more believable.

Combined, these characteristics give not only insight into the subtleties engineered into a song, but a sense of the space used to record it. At the same time, the musical picture never seems artificially inflated. Similarly, the organ notes in Johnny Cash’s treatment of “Danny Boy” found on American IV: The Man Comes Around, paint a palpable picture of the cathedral used as the recording location. Cash’s gravelly immediacy, combined with the subtle reverberation in the recording hall has me looking over my shoulder, feeling if I’ve seen a ghost.

In my reference system, the REF 6 provides a very slight degree of warmth to the musical picture alongside its ability to retrieve tiny sonic details from a recording. In my experience enjoying equipment over the years, that balance can be a tenuous one for a product designer to achieve. A convincingly realistic and detailed presentation is desirable, but that sonic goal can sometimes lean toward an overly-lush sound, or be accompanied by etch or stridency. The REF 6 never hints toward either extreme which can detract from the organic sense of the musical presentation. The REF 6 provides a relaxed and natural musical flow emitting from the speakers. It’s easy to get lost in the sanctuary of beloved recordings and forget about everything else.

Bass reproduction represents another strong suit. On tracks like Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days” all the pluck, resonance and rumble the sound engineer captured in the bass guitar track are projected with convincing authority. However, bass in never reproduced in an overly-accentuated, or one-note way. Again, the REF 6 reveals its innate character for organic reproduction. No apparent sonic manipulation colors the window into the music.

Regardless of musical genre, the REF 6 steps up to the challenge. Listening to classical, jazz, rock, electronica, reggae, vocal performances and anything else thrown at the REF 6, it never fails to impress. When speed and agility are demanded by the music, it delivers. Similarly, when delicacy and nuance are dictated by a recording, REF 6 nails that as well. Green Day’s American Idiot projects with all the angst and attitude one could hope from the album. In contrast, chamber music reveals the subtle differences between the various stringed instruments with ease.

Simply put, the REF 6 is among the finest linestages I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in my own listening space – it’s hard to imagine expecting or wanting more from a preamplifier. It would be easy to live with this linestage for the long haul. This caliber of musical prowess doesn’t come cheap, but at $14,000 it’s not crazy money either. Most importantly, the price has only increased $1,000 over that of the outgoing REF 5SE, so that’s major progress.

Additional Listening:  Jeff Dorgay

Being a Midwestern native, I’ve always appreciated the sheer practicality of the folks at Audio Research. Unlike my days of writing about digital cameras, sometimes a year before product is available, ARC rarely puts review gear in to the review stream until they’ve delivered the goods to their loyal customers. Bravo.

Needless to say, TONE staffer Tom Caselli was one of the first guys on the list and had his a few weeks before ours arrived, and he was quick to let us know the good news. “Amazing, way better than the REF 5SE that I traded in.” Other fellow audiophiles I know that are doggedly loyal to the brand echoed the same sentiment, at a higher level of enthusiasm than normal too, so the buzz was building around here.

Having owned the REF 5 and 5SE models and going way back with numerous ARC preamplifiers over the years, the REF 6 is a wider jump up the evolutionary chain than the past few models. As Rob mentions, it draws heavily on what was learned in the development cycle of the REF 10. At some point it may just be time for a head to head comparison…

While many have been asking for said comparison with the GSPre that has been residing here for some time, that’s not a fair fight, as the GSPre includes an excellent phono stage along with a headphone amplifier. Think of the GSPre as offering about 2.5 quarts of what a gallon of the REF 6 does with the other bits thrown in. The REF 6 will more than likely appeal to a different customer a few clicks higher on the audio food chain.

On top of all the sonic improvements, ARC has drastically diminished the time to great sound with their products. They still mention in the owners manual that the REF 6 will take 5-600 hours to sound its best, but unlike past designs, this one sounds fantastic out of the box. Granted, it does improve with time, but the delta is not quite as dramatic as in past models.

Whether you use the REF 6 as a reviewer’s tool or simply to relish your music collection, make no mistake: this is a destination component. There are a few others lurking that have a different sonic flavor, reveal a bit more music, or have a few more bells and whistles, but they will cost a lot more. In terms of sheer musicality, the REF 6 is the one to beat for $13,000.

Whatever they are up to in the lab at ARC is working. The REF 6 retains all the strengths of the outgoing REF 5 series, yet is more extended and dynamic, while adding more soul and musical saturation than the past model. That’s not an easy achievement, and I always wonder how they do it.

Keeping the price at $14,000 is impressive, especially in light of the major sonic and aesthetic improvements. The tough question is “should you trade up?” This depends on you. The REF 5 or 5 SE you currently own is certainly not rubbish by any sense of the word. They are currently fetching about $9,000 on the secondary market, so if you just have to have more juice, you won’t be disappointed. The REF 6 is not an update you have to strain to hear.

These are agonizing questions you ask when staring at the ceiling at 3a.m.. Who would have ever thought 30 years ago that audio engineers in 2016 would be pulling still more performance from triode tubes to increase our musical listening pleasure? That’s pretty cool. For those of you not suffering from trade up anxiety, run don’t walk to your ARC dealer and check it out. This linestage offers so much legacy, performance and long term value, we are happy to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2016. Life is short. Buy one.

The Audio Reseach REF 6

MSRP:  $14,000


Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, dCS Debussy, Synology DiskStation

Amplification: Burmester 911 mk3

Preamplification: Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers: GamuT RS3, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables: Jena Labs

Power: Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose power cords

Accessories: ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand

Oppo’s latest: Sonica

We’ve just received OPPO’s latest creation, the Sonica DAC.

At $799, this looks to be another killer, offering compatibility with all digital formats, streaming and multi-room audio capabilities. Featuring the latest ESS ES9038PRO chip, and synchronous transfer mode, the high precision clock inside the Sonica DAC drives the audio signal, not relying on the clock quality of the computer. The USB DAC input supports PCM up to 768 kHz 32-bit and DSD up to 22.5792 MHz (DSD512).

The Sonica offers variable, line level outputs, so it can be used as a preamplifier, like their award winning HA-1.

For more information, click here:

Syzygy SLF-850 Subwoofer

The dictionary says that Syzygy is pronounced siz-i-jee, with the emphasis on the first syllable. A syzygy is defined as an alignment of three or more celestial objects.

Listening to the heavy bass groove in George Michael’s Older, I couldn’t agree more. My Quad 2815s and a pair of the SLF850 subwoofers are blending perfectly; this is not an easy task for any subwoofer. They don’t even feel as if they are on to begin with until the “mute” button on the handy iPhone app shuts them off. Then, the soundfield produced by the Quads merely collapses. This is subwoofer perfection.

Finished in a textured, matte black 12.5-inch cube, these subwoofers get the job done without drawing attention to themselves and can be used in a downward or front-firing configuration. In my room they prove to work best in the front firing configuration, but I have no pups of the two or four-legged variety to interfere with all things audio. Should you, the down-firing option will be greatly appreciated.

The main man at Syzygy, Paul Egan is by no means a stranger to the world of high-end audio, having spent 13 years at KEF and nearly as many at API, working with Mirage and a few other well-known speaker brands. So, when the time came to create his product, he not only knew what he wanted but where to procure everything. Leveraging his past relationships, he’s been able to pack a lot more into a sub-thousand dollar subwoofer than someone starting at ground zero. Keeping things lean and mean, he’s even eschewed putting grilles on his subs to keep them all business. Discussing the background of his products, Egan makes an excellent point when he says “I’m trying to democratize good sound at a reasonable price.” At $799 each, the SLF850 is a steal.


While there are two other 8-inch subs and a 12-inch in the product mix in addition to the SLF-850 reviewed here with a 10-inch carbon fiber driver, all but the smallest model are acoustic suspension with full wireless capability. While one sub is better than none, if you’re trying to extend the LF response of your speakers, a single sub can take a little more effort to place.

Which is why I enjoy wireless subwoofers so much. No worrying about running long cables to the proper placement. The DSP optimization functionality of the SLF850 takes this a step further, because the EQ makes it easy to place and integrate the woofer. Should you want to use your SLF-850 in a traditional, wired configuration, supplying signal from either your surround sound receiver’s LFE channel or the high level outputs from your preamplifier, that is no problem.

Setup couldn’t be more painless. These compact cubes unpack quickly and Syzygy includes an excellent manual to get you rocking in no time at all. If you are proceeding in wireless mode, the tiny Bluetooth receiver/interface needs to be plugged into a variable line-level output with traditional RCA cables. Once the SLF-850 is placed where you need to put it, download the app on whatever device (iPhone or Android) you possess and run a few processes.

First, the Syzygy Sub app finds and measures your woofer(s), with your smart device about a foot from its output. Then, moving to your listening position and running another sweep adjusts the woofer to your listening environment for optimum bass performance right at the sweet spot with the “Auto EQ” function.

This will get you about 90-95% of the way home and a bit more fine tuning will bring it all to perfection. Depending on the type of main speakers you are using, the Low Pass feature allows adjustment of the crossover from 40 – 150hz.

After everything is adjusted to taste, you can control the output level from your phone, and choose “normal,” “music,” “cinema,” or “night” settings, which are more like a preset bass level control. As I don’t have neighbors close by anymore, I just let the SLF850s rip in normal mode with excellent result, regardless of program material. The mute button helps you fine tune, making it easy to cut the woofer(s) out of the loop. The better you have it all dialed in, the less you notice the woofers, until a deep bass passage – as it should be.

A versatile performer

Though Egan sent me a pair of SLF850s for this review, I started with one, because not everyone will jump off the cliff for a pair right off the bat. Three sets of speakers were used, all presenting different perspectives. My Graham LS5/9 speakers go solidly down to about 40hz, with useable output to 30, making them a good speaker that can be run full range. The KEF LS-50s are strictly a satellite, being a challenge for any subwoofer because it will have to go sufficiently high without coloration to mate well with the little monitors. Lastly, the Quad 2812s are equally tough, but for different reasons; the difference in dispersion characteristics of the ESL panel and a piston woofer (not to mention the lightning speed of the ESL panel) is usually near impossible to get right, where you aren’t hearing speakers here and woofers there. But it can be done.

The short story is that the SLF850, both singly and as a pair mates flawlessly to all three of these combinations. In single woofer mode, the SLF850 was placed just slightly off center of the main speakers (all three) back against the rear wall in front firing mode. Thanks to the fine tuning allowed by the app, there were no issues at all integrating the SLF850 into the system and for the most part, if I were in a smaller space, I could probably get along just fine with one woofer.

Moving to dual woofer mode, the little KEFs worked great with the SLF850s slightly behind and off to the side of the stands. The Grahams a bit further in both directions and with the Quads, I ended up with the woofers fairly far back, almost behind the listening couch. This made for the most seamless integration. Not only did I notice even better integration, but a pair provides wider dynamic range and better low-level linearity as well. The bulk of the listening sessions were with two woofers in place.

You don’t realize you need it till you have it

If you’ve been predisposed to thinking that you don’t need low-frequency extension, prepare to be surprised. Even with the LS5/9s, which I previously thought had plenty of bass in my 11 x 18-foot listening room, came alive with a pair of SLF850s added to the mix.

They certainly made for a lot more fun with my favorite Dubstep and hip-hop tracks as well as the entire Genesis catalog, yet even when playing music that you might not think has a ton of LF content, the soundstage in the room opens up considerably with the woofers in place. Tracking through the classic Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway hit, “Where is the Love?” the pair of SLF850s gives both singers voices more depth and breath. Ditto listening to Miles Davis’ Tutu. Yes, the heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon was pretty rocking too. Again, just hit that mute button to see what you are missing.

The LS-50s took the longest to optimize (about 15 min as opposed to about 5 min with the other two), but again, once the sweet spot was located, things jelled tremendously, and these small but mighty monitors could now light up the room with heavy rock music and play considerably louder too.

Skeptical as I was that these speakers would not be able to keep pace with the Quads, (and Egan assured me that they would) they succeed brilliantly with these pesky panels. The current crop of Quads is much livelier than models past, but they are still Quads. You won’t get much enjoyment out of Metallica without the woofers, yet once in place, hard rock can now be appreciated. Grooving through TIDAL’s “favorite dance tracks of 2016” proved equally entertaining. With some serious bass happening, I’ve been able to enjoy the Quads like never before. Purists be damned.

56 pounds of sheer fun

That is if you take two. But regardless of whether you add one or two of the SLF850s to your system, fine tuned, low-frequency extension is easy and affordable. Thanks to the wireless, DSP configuration and the small form factor, I can’t think of anyone not being able to integrate at least one of these into your listening room. You’ll be glad you did. I’m adding the review samples to my Audiophile Apartment system, so you’ll be seeing and hearing more of them in reviews to come.

Our compliments to Paul Egan and the staff at Syzygy for delivering an outstanding product at a very approachable price; earning them one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for 2017.

The Syzygy SLF850 Subwoofer



Amplification        Esoteric F-07 Integrated, PrimaLuna HP Integrated

Analog Source     Soulines Kubrick Turntable/ZYX 1000 cartridge

Digital Source        Gryphon Kalliope DAC, ELAC DS-101G Server

Speakers        KEF LS-50, Graham LS5/9, Quad 2812

Cable            Cardas Iridium

The Eden Acoustics Tomei System

New experiences and overcoming past prejudices are always one of the most fun parts of my job evaluating hifi components. While I’ve never been a fan of open baffle speakers in the past, Eden Acoustics importer Larry Borden has convinced me that the Tomei system is not only compelling but exceptional in every way.

Taking into account that he and I both share an equal enthusiasm for electrostatic speakers, along with the unique German Physiks speakers (which he also imports), I can see why he is so enthusiastic about this product. He’s quick to point out that this is “the perfect music system for the enthusiast wanting to exit the upgrade treadmill.”

Dealers often generate a fair share of margin from selling ancillary items, such as cables. While many audiophiles love agonizing over component choices as much as a good sommelier does over pairing the right wine with a meal, it’s up to you to decide if the Tomei system delivers you from the agony of endless choices, or deprives you of the same. As a music lover foremost, I’ll take the former.

Eden goes a step further in their approach, claiming their speakers are of a baffle-less design. The artfully designed shape of the Tomei is so small, thanks to the Lucite cutouts, there is no baffle to speak of. It’s almost as if the 6-inch (150mm) woofer and 1-inch (29mm) soft dome tweeter float in mid air. This intriguing design begs to have spotlights blast through them to cast interesting shadows on your listening room walls.

These lovely satellites with integral stands combine with a 13-inch, (340mm) open baffle woofer, DSP processor and five discrete channels of amplification, perfectly matched to said drivers as part of a control unit that also features a built-in, high-performance DAC. You only need to hook it all up and start listening via a USB Class 2 or SPDIF input.  Those preferring to stream wirelessly can do so via Apple’s Air Play or Google’s Chromecast.

Analog enthusiasts are not left out in the cold, with one pair of RCA and one pair of balanced XLR line-level inputs available. However, these inputs are upsampled to 32 bit/768khz signals via an on-board AK5397 ADC, so they are not actual line level analog inputs. Though this might annoy the fussiest vinyl junkies, most analog lovers will not even notice the difference. I had a similar experience with the Devialet integrated amplifiers that we’ve reviewed. With so many listeners turning to streaming audio, whether from their own NAS or a variety of on demand services, I doubt this will be a point of major contention.

Those wanting the complete technical details on the system can click here:

Eden Acoustics even includes all the necessary cables to connect the speakers and subwoofer to the amplifier/Control Unit, terminated with Neutrik connectors. High-performance audio doesn’t get any easier than the Tomei system. All you will need to purchase is your favorite high quality power cord and a USB cable. Easy.

Total cost is $18,000 but you’d be hard pressed to find this much hardware elsewhere for less. And, you’d spend a ton of time getting it all to integrate this splendidly, if at all. There are no compromises in the Tomei system; it looks fantastic, it sounds fantastic, it occupies a minimum amount of space in your environment, and it’s easy to set up. The components all come packed in well-lined and reinforced crates to assure safe transport. Once unboxed, you are about 15 minutes to music. What’s not to love?

The proof is in the listening

We begin listening via the onboard DAC, controlled by an iPad, with a Mac Mini as digital liaison. Working with Roon and TIDAL, it’s easy to navigate through selections of CD and high resolution, with the Tomei’s hardware providing more than enough resolution to easily discern between the two sources. I get the picture as soon as the classic Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald tune “Cheek to Cheek” starts.

The Eden website claims that the Tomei system presents “a big, open, airy sound.” I’d call it an understatement. These speakers disappear in the room better than nearly anything I’ve experienced, and while Borden’s Sanders ESLs are slightly more refined, the Tomei’s just vanish like the best panels you’ve probably experienced. They have way more sock than a panel system. He suggests an equilateral triangle arrangement, and a measuring tape confirms that we have the speakers 112 inches apart, as well as from tweeter to our nose. Borden assures me that the baffle-less design makes these speakers easy to set up in smaller rooms too.

Eliminating Mr. Armstrong from the presentation, Ms. Fitzgerald’s solo performance on “Miss Otis Regrets” is beyond description in typical audiophile clichés. Thanks to Borden’s room (measuring about 22 x 30 feet), listening to the Eden system in the nearfield presents Fitzgerald realistically, both sonically and spatially. It only feels like there is someone standing in front of a microphone in his room. An equally realistic portrait is painted, switching to the dark side, listening to Johnny Cash sing “Delia’s Gone.” Every bit of grit and agony in Cash’s voice cuts right through.

We all know that an excellent performance with a duo or solo vocalist is low hanging fruit, but the Eden system proves equally capable of every type of music directed its way. Classical music comes across as broad, spacious, and uncluttered, with the necessary amount of diffusion to give a convincing sense of an orchestra. Again, while these speakers will perform well in a compact space, a larger room (and in this case, one that is well treated) does help to create the illusion of size.

Good as the Tomei system is, taking the analogue signal from the EMM Labs DAC2x/Merrill Audio Christine linestage, driven by an Aurender music server, through the Control Unit’s A-to-D converter, and back through the amplification chain does provide a step up in sonic performance, so the hard core audiophile with a need for speed can still wring more performance from this already fantastic combination. 95% of those buying the Tomei system will be more than thrilled, but the system made it easy to discern the sound quality available by adding an outboard DAC that is nearly as expensive as the entire system to the mix. Revisiting all of the selections listened to earlier, the EMM DAC offers more refinement, a slightly smoother rendition of high frequencies, and an even larger soundfield in all three dimensions.

Adding an outboard DAC of this caliber nearly doubles the system cost, and while not terribly relevant in the context of the system, it does prove that there is still more performance to be had by these components, should you do want to get crazy with your platinum card.

Superior integration

Sub/sat systems often struggle with woofer integration. The satellites often can’t go down quite far enough, or the woofer can’t quite reach high enough, quickly enough to eliminate the music rendered as coming from three separate boxes. The Eden system offers up the most transparent combination I’ve ever experienced. The dipole woofer lacks an inappreciable amount of ultimate dynamic slam that my JL Audio Fathom possesses, but this is a worthwhile trade for the sheer quality of low-frequency energy produced. Borden points out that a dipole woofer produces fewer room nodes than other types of configurations, due to cancellation in the plane of the woofer. Again, the proof is in the listening.

With amplification tailored to each driver, the crossover points and slopes controlled by the integral DSP, and 1,250 watts of power at your disposal, the Tomei system provides plenty of dynamic range as well. At first glance, you might never glance that these small speakers can play incredibly loud with the ease that they do.

A DSP crossover can be tailored in a much more sophisticated fashion than a standard network consisting of capacitors and coils, making integrating the drivers easier from an acoustic standpoint, as well as an electrical one. With no capacitors and such in the signal path from the amplifiers, the electrical lag and associated phase issues of those components are eliminated as well. The opening bass drum whump in Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Lovin’” hints at the sheer jump factor of which these speakers are capable. The big bass drum in St. Vincent’s “Who” leaves no doubt. Aside from the level of bass energy that the Tomei’s woofer can produce, the quality, texture and sheer resolution of the bass produced are wonderfully lifelike.

Moving out of the audiophile realm, Tosca’s “Me and Yoko Ono” offers equally engaging reproduction of synth bass. Though there is nothing to compare this to regarding real instruments, this track proves that the Tomei system can not only move a lot of air effortlessly, it does a fantastic job at unwinding a densely mixed tune that might be confused as overly compressed on a less revealing system. Gliding through some of Eno’s Ambient series illustrates what a massive sonic field this system can generate. Again, less capable systems tend to reproduce much of this music as flat and two-dimensional, where the Tomei system easily displays all three axes’ for your enjoyment.

This ESL-like acceleration is available at all levels, working just as well at low volume as at brain damaging sound pressure levels. This freedom from electronic clutter makes for a music system that is not only easy to listen to at low to modest volume, but equally immersive. This level of clarity is a feat that some of the world’s finest speakers can’t accomplish to this extent.

Vanquishing more biases

I’ve never been a huge fan of digital amplification, DSP crossovers, or a system that converts everything into a digital signal to process. The Eden system works flawlessly, and if you weren’t aware of what you were listening to, you might not even be able to tell. For me, that’s the ultimate success – the sonic residue that used to be part of listening to digital amplification is not present here, so the Tomei system succeeds on all levels. The Tomei system is something I could live with forever if I stopped reviewing hifi gear and just had to pick a resting place. This is why it received one of my Publisher’s Choice Awards in issue 80.

If you’re a traditional audiophile who loves the chase of mixing and matching components, with a penchant for occasional, if not often change, the Eden Tomei system will probably not hold your interest. But if you truly love music, and would like to stop agonizing over your next move, I can’t suggest this system highly enough no matter what stage of the journey you are on. While I would never recommend you purchase any audio component on sheer aesthetics, those living in more of a design conscious environment will appreciate that exquisite sound and visual style can coexist so well.

The Eden Acoustics Tomei System

MSRP: $18,000 (mfr.) (US Distributor)

The Okki Nokki Record Cleaner

Vinyl lovers spend a lot of money on tonearms, cartridges, and phono stages in the effort to pull the most sound from the record grooves. However, none of these audio components can deliver their maximum performance if the record itself is a limiting factor.

Minute particles in the grooves of dirty records can diminish sonic quality, adding unwanted pops, snaps, and surface noise to the music. Even new, seemingly clean records are hampered by debris left over from the pressing process. Yes, simple record cleaning brushes can help this problem, but if the brush itself is not completely clean, it can introduce new debris – or worse – grind it back into the delicate record grooves. But nothing beats a good wet cleaning for the best possible result.

Based in The Netherlands, and imported by VANA Ltd in the USA, the team at Okki Nokki addresses this ongoing problem with their newly updated RCM-II record cleaning machine. Designed to loosen and suck out any grime present on the record surface, rather than simply re-distributing it, the Okki Nokki simplifies the cleaning process as much as possible.

The Okki Nokki package contains everything needed to start cleaning records within minutes. The main cleaning unit, which holds the platter and vacuum motor, a bottle of cleaning fluid concentrate, vacuum wand, and a cleaning brush. The team at Okki Nokki also includes an instruction booklet and links to an online video to demonstrate proper usage. The recommended clear acrylic dustcover is available separately for $50.00

The 50ml of cleaning concentrate is formulated for dilution into a liter (roughly a quart) of water. I find a pair of narrow-tipped, refillable mustard or ketchup squeeze bottles – like those you might see in a diner — serve very well for fluid dispensing and storage. If you chose to go this route; make sure to label the bottles. I don’t think this solution would be appetizing on French fries.

With fresh cleaning solution at the ready, place a record onto the Okki Nokki platter, clamping it down with the included aluminum record clamp. After flicking on the switch for clockwise rotation, about a tablespoon of cleaning solution should be dribbled onto the record. Applying the record brush against the vinyl surface evenly distributes the cleaning solution, starting the process simultaneously. After about five rotations, switch into counterclockwise motion for a few rotations, offering extra thoroughness in loosening any stray particles.

With the scrubbing process done, it’s time to remove the debris-filled solution from the vinyl surface. Merely switch the record cleaner back into clockwise motion, and turn on the vacuum motor switch. Pushing down lightly onto the vacuum wand, it rotates itself into position against the record surface for maximum effectiveness. Once the wand sucks itself into place, there’s quite a good seal against the record surface and no physical intervention is required – just let the record spin a few times. The combination of the vacuum, and the soft cleaning band on the underside of the wand, remove any loosened particles and leave the record surface completely dry. When turned off, the vacuum motor whir subsides, and the spring-loaded vacuum arm pops up off the record, swinging out of the way on its own.

For those vinyl fans who enjoy buying pre-owned records, or who have a lot of old records in their collection, it’s a good idea to purchase a second Okki Nokki vacuum arm. The wands are easy to swap, plus there’s no sense in rubbing old dirt into new vinyl. Save the “clean” arm for your new records, and keep the “dirtier” arm handy for the big jobs.

If a lot of records are shined up in one sitting, the dirty fluid reservoir inside the Okki Nokki may get full. There’s a tube on the rear of the cleaner that facilitates draining should it become necessary. With occasional record cleaner usage, most of the residual fluid will evaporate on its own.

Listening to records before and after cleaning, I find there’s a reduction in unwanted hiss, snaps, and pops, plus some improvement to the overall musical presentation. The Okki Nokki certainly lives up to its design goals.

At a price of $499, the Okki Nokki isn’t cheap, but considering its robust build quality, and features, it represents a very worthy investment for the vinyl enthusiast. The Okki Nokki can help preserve your record collection, get the best sound from it, and also save some wear and tear on your precious cartridge. After such a great experience with the Okki Nokki, I purchased the sample unit. I have a lot of records to clean!

Custom Cardas!

If you have cable requirements that are slightly off the beaten path, and don’t like the idea of keeping (or losing) multiple adaptors on a regular basis, call the folks at Cardas Audio and get some custom cables made, pronto!

Josh Meredith at Cardas Audio and the team just sent me a pair of Clear Light interconnects to go from XLR to RCA, so that I have a wider range of connectivity with the PrimaLuna HP Integrated that I use as a reference component on my Audiophile Apartment site, and it only took a short while. It’s always better to have a completely positive connection and this is the way to roll. Even those of you with Burmester gear, or others using a non standard pinout, it’s easy to call Team Cardas and get exactly what you need.

Cardas welcomes the opportunity to build custom cables and as Meredith told me, “We definitely want to promote that we can do custom cables. As a general rule, if the connectors exist, we can probably make a cable with them.”

I’ve been using Cardas Cables in my personal and reference systems for over 15 years now with excellent result. Here’s another great reason to purchase their products.

The Questyle CMA600i Headphone Amp/DAC

One of the most exciting things to come out of the headphone revolution is the plethora of desktop headphone amplifiers that either include a high-performance DAC, or a phonostage yet can also be used as a line level preamplifier. These are the coolest boxes in hifi right now, because they are a great bridge to both worlds.

Bruce Ball’s Questyle brand has been lighting up the internet, and the hifi shows now for some time with good reason; their creations sound fantastic, look stunning, are built to an incredibly high standard and won’t break the bank. The CMA600i featured here is a full resolution DAC that can handle anything up to 24/192 PCM files and offer True DSD conversion to DSD 256 as well. That spells future proof in our book.

Great as the high-res capabilities are, the CMA600i’s ability to provide breathtaking sound with standard 16/44.1 files is what makes this small but mighty headphone amplifier an incredible value. Listening to Al DiMeola’s Flesh on Flesh, streamed via TIDAL, all of the nuances of this guitar great come straight through. Though known for his ability to shred like no other on an electric guitar, his light touch on the acoustic guitar on this album is lovely rendered by the CMA600i, played back through my Conrad Johnson MV60SE tube amplifier and a pair of new Quad 2812’s in my living room. This review began using the CMA600i as a linestage/DAC combo first, and it kills everything I throw at it.

Super sleek style

Built in the Foxconn factory (the same people that manufacture iPhones), the CMA600i feels like a much more expensive component than its $1,295 price would suggest. Picking it up for the first time is deceptive, as it looks like it should weigh a lot less. Thanks to top quality parts inside from Wima, Dale, Alps and a big power supply transformer from Plitron, the CMA600i is beefy.

It doesn’t contribute to the sound, but the space gray finish, combined with the carefully machined corners on the casework make for an incredibly fashion forward visual design too. It looks more like something you’d expect from Nagra and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay it. With the power supply in the casework, there is no annoying wall wart to lose or degrade the sound. Again, way more than you’d expect for $1,295.

The layout and operation are straightforward, and from a human engineering standpoint, the CMA600i is highly intuitive and easy to use, even without consulting the manual. Ball has concentrated on bringing you everything you need with nothing you don’t. Around back are USB, coax, and optical digital inputs and they all sound great, plus they give you the option of switching between three digital sources. Great stuff, but adding a solitary analog input so you can plug a turntable in, is sheer genius. Running a pair of interconnects from the $15,000 Audio Research REF 3 Phono again shows just how resolving the CMA600i is. Switching between the Soulines Kubrick DCX (reviewed in issue 80) and the Rega Planar 3, the CMA600i has more than enough capability to illustrate both of these turntables.

If you’re staying in the preamplifier groove, the CMA600i features both RCA and fully balanced XLR outputs, allowing any amplifier to be used. Driving a 20-foot pair of balanced Cardas Clear interconnects to my Pass Xs 300 monoblocks was a breeze. Comparing the 20 foot run to a 3-foot pair showed zero degradation in sound quality, a testament to how robustly this preamplifier is built.

Ok, ok, how about plugging in some cans?

It was so much fun using the CMA600i as a preamplifier, it took a while to get around to headphone listening, but again, there was no disappointment. The current mode amplification does it’s thing and moving from planar phones from Oppo, Audeze and my torture test favorites, the HiFi Man HE-6s, everything I could throw at the CMA600i proves to be effortless.

Listening to the acoustic version of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Stop Lookin Back” the high resolving capability of this headphone amplifier. The attack and decay on the acoustic guitar have plenty of texture, feel and transient attack. Staying in boomer rock mode, the marimbas in Frank Zappa’s “Central Scrutinizer” bounce around my head in a highly psychedelic manner, with Zappa growling in the background, somewhere deep in my cranial cavity. As the late, great Mr. Zappa used to say, “Isn’t this what it’s all about?” The answer is an unquestionable yes.

The sheer current drive (Thanks to the Class A Current Mode Amplifier) of the CMA600i keeps even the most difficult to drive phones in line. There is no wimping out dynamically or at the frequency extremes as can happen with headphone amplifiers that don’t have the power supply to back them up.

Tonally, the CMA600i is very neutral and again is not affected by phones connected. Where something like the Benchmark DAC 1 family tends to be slightly dry, and some of our favorite tube headphone amplifiers can embellish with a bit of extra tonal saturation, the CMA600i plays it straight. Those wanting the more lush sound of a tube amp might be turned off, but again, after extended listening with about 20 different pairs of phones, the neutrality of the CMA600i is a plus. I suspect headphonistas with a broad collection of cans will love it as much as I do.

Those liking strong bass response will not be disappointed, tracking through some EDM and hip hop favorites is convincing. Going way back, Koop’s Sons of Koop through the LCD-2s is stunning.  Even my Koss Pro 4aa’s that I’ve had since college sound phenomenal through the CMA600i – I’ve never heard them handle the lower frequencies with this kind of authority, and I’ve been listening to these babies for a long time. The ability to connect via either of the two ¼-inch, front panel jacks or the 4-pin balanced input, means everyone can join the party.

Digital versatility

A handy switch on the front panel lets you toggle through digital inputs with ease, making it easy to use whatever sources at your disposal. Giving things a go with a Mac Book Pro and the Aurender W10 server both provide excellent results. Listening to nothing but high res tracks via the Aurender quickly validate the additional resolution, switching back and forth between TIDAL and high res versions of the same tracks. The only aspect of the CMA600i I wasn’t able to fully explore was its ability to decode DSD files, as I have a very limited selection of tracks on my server. Suffice to say what I heard was excellent; however, I did spend quite a lot of time with 24/96 and 24/192 files.

Unlike a great number of DAC’s that use the Sabre chip family, Questyle walks to a different beat, taking advantage of the AKM4490 and its “velvet sound” architecture. While we can wax poetic all day long about the nerdy details, it is well implemented in the CMA600i. The Questyle website mentions that it is powered with a +/- 7-volt high voltage power regulator, to ensure high dynamic range. Listening to a wide variety of classical pieces makes it easy to see how well this works in practice. It is also worth mentioning that the CMA600i is fatigue free – long listening sessions are a breeze and digital artifacts, the enemy of hours in the listening chair, just do not exist here.

Whether listening through the phones, or speakers, I was never less than thrilled with just how much music the CMA600i reveals, especially in the company of some much more expensive hardware. Each component of the CMA600i is worth the $1,295 asking price on its own, if not more. Considering it takes up so little rack space, and you’ll save 2-3 times what the CMA600i costs on not needing power and interconnect cables for a DAC, preamp and headphone amplifier makes it one of the best values in high-end audio today. That’s why it has received one of my Publishers Choice Awards in issue 80. The CMA600i is certainly a teacher’s pet, and I’ve purchased the review sample to keep as part of the fleet.

A top performer

In the end, you can find a DAC or preamplifier that reveals more music than the CMA600i, but you’re going to have to spend a lot more money, whether you are making it the cornerstone of a high-performance headphone only system, or using it as the anchor for an incredibly good two channel system. This option makes it just as future proof as the ability to play all the high res formats in my book.

The Questyle CMA600i succeeds brilliantly on every level. It sounds great, is incredibly versatile and is visually elegant to boot. This is as good as it gets, and should you build a system around it; I suspect you will pass this one down to a family member. Well done Mr. Ball!

The Questyle CMA600i Headphone Amplifier/DAC/Preamplifier

MSRP:  $1,299

The Latest From Yumi

A relative newcomer to the audio industry, U.S.-based Kanto opened its doors in January of 2007. After working for larger consumer electronics companies for many years, Kanto’s founders put their design discipline to work developing new products to meet their goal of delivering high-quality products at very reasonable prices. Kanto’s latest speaker product conceived in Canada, the Yumi powered speaker, is building a fan base of its own. After putting the Yumis through their paces, I count myself among Kanto’s recent fans.

In The Eye of the Beholder

Kanto speakers are available in a variety of colors to blend in with any home décor or provide a nice contrasting hue. A prospective owner has the choice of matte black, gray and white finishes. However, I’d highly recommend choosing from one of the beautifully executed gloss finish options including black, white, gray, blue, purple, or red.

Kanto deviates from the standard boxy speaker shape, giving the Yumi’s a modern twist. While the front and back of the speakers are flat as you would expect, all the speaker’s side edges are curved. Rather than having defined sides it’s more like the speaker has a “flow” around it.

Tweeting and woofing are handled by a one-inch silk dome, and a five-inch Kevlar driver, respectively. Despite the small dimensions, these drivers prove themselves serious workhorses. To encourage better bass response, each speaker has a two-inch bass port. With the ability to output frequencies ranging from 60Hz to 20 KHz, the Yumi’s cover the majority of the human hearing spectrum. For those craving full range bass down to 20 Hz, the Yumi’s do include one subwoofer output on the rear.

Lots Under the Hood

Within the modern exterior lies the real magic of the Yumis. In Kanto’s design implementation, one of the two speakers is both the brains and brawn of the pair. It houses the control knob, source switching circuits, and the amplifier. Only this speaker must be attached to a power outlet using a standard electrical cord. Each of these elements requires some additional explanation.

The dual-purpose knob on the front not only controls volume but by pushing in the knob and rotating it, the Yumi toggles through various input options. Owners have a choice of connections for music sources including RCA, 3.5mm, Bluetooth, and optical.

Opposite the knob is a small LED that indicates the speaker’s state and source.  White, blue and amber colors – flashing or solid –  show various states of sources and power readiness. In addition to the various inputs, and a power switch on the rear of the speaker, a built-in USB charger is a convenient addition, making it easy to charge a mobile phone or another audio device while using that device to stream music.

Yumi’s are powered by a 30-Watt Class AB amplifier. Putting that much juice in a little speaker enclosure is a bit like packing a turbo charged V8 engine in a Volkswagen Bug… and it’s awesome! While I admire greatly the energy efficiency and sound quality of modern Class D amp designs used in many powered speakers today, there’s still something about the older-school amplifier circuitry that usually generates, to my ears, a more musically engaging and lifelike experience. The Class AB implementation in the Yumi is no exception. When in standby mode, the Yumi amp sips only half a watt, keeping the circuitry warm and ready for use. While the owner can manually put the Yumi’s into standby mode via the remote, the speakers will do it automatically if no source material is detected for a period.

External dimensions of the speakers are a scant 6.9” W x 8.1” D x 10.6” H (17.4 x 20.5 x 27 cm). The Yumi speaker pair weighs in at about 23 pounds. Of course, the passive speaker makes up only 8.8 pounds (4 Kg) of that heft since the heavy amplifier, power supply, and other technology is packed inside the other speaker enclosure.

All in the Wrist

As if all this isn’t stellar enough, the Yumis come with a plastic remote that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, allowing the owner to control many functions from the comfort of a favorite listening seat. Volume, mute, and source selection are complemented with the ability to control bass and treble. A reset button snaps the sound back to neutral when frequency emphasis isn’t desired. When using a Bluetooth connection, additional buttons control the ability to play, pause, or select the previous or next song.

Sending music from a phone via Bluetooth is incredibly easy, however, in my experience a fair amount of fidelity gets lost with compressed music despite the Yumi’s implementation of the aptX codec created to give Bluetooth better sonics. Using the analog RCA inputs to pipe in music from my reference rig, the Yumis take flight. In every perceivable way, music comes though with a sonic improvement over of the wireless connection. It may be silly to feed the Yumi’s a signal from sources priced much more expensively than the Yumi’s themselves, however, these speakers demonstrate their ability to take great source material and deliver it to the listener in a musically satisfying and very engaging way.

Shocking Sound

These powers speakers deliver impressive sound. Though the Yumi, tracks like “Rotten Apple” by Alice in Chains have a surprising level of texture, emotion and depth which I would normally associate with  larger speakers and more powerful upstream equipment. Similarly, vocal tracks like Cat Power’s “Silver Stallion” reveal the emotion of the performance.

There’s a relaxed naturalness to the Yumis voice. It’s easy to settle into long listening sessions with various music types like electronica, vocals, pop, classical and jazz, never feeling like huge compromises are made. All of the tracks auditioned are delivered with nuance and delicacy beyond the Yumi’s price point. At the same time, there’s a quick-paced liveliness when the music dictates it. These speakers are not one-trick ponies, but chameleons that do well with whatever musical information is thrown at them.

The bass these little babies put out defies expectation. Even a few feet from the rear wall without any bass loading, there’s a good amount of lower frequency heft, and adding a little more is no problem thanks to the tone control options. With any small enclosure, though, there are bass limitations. Those craving heavy and tactile low frequency information can utilize the Yumi’s subwoofer output to augment the monitors.

From a soundstaging perspective, the speakers offer additional surprises. They somehow manage to throw a huge, three dimensional soundstage with ease, as you might expect from a great pair of mini monitors. Musical elements exceed the left and right boundaries of the speaker bodies and there’s a perceived depth of musical cues projected well above and behind the speakers.

The Yumi speakers deserve many accolades. But yes, they do have limitations. Are these tiny speakers going to reproduce spacious orchestral works with the impact, powerful swells and crescendos of a full range floor-standing speaker? Of course not. It’s important to frame perspective here. Let’s just say these Kanto speakers pour forth music, across the frequencies they are capable of reproducing, with ease, grace, and potency.

Given the speaker size and $449 price tag, I can’t criticize something that does so much so well. Some compromises must be decided deliberately by designers in order to satisfy size requirements, manufacturing costs, and future consumer sales. Kanto’s team made took a lot of care to avoid glaring errors that can make modestly priced speakers sound or feel cheap, impeding listening enjoyment. For potential owners living in a small apartment, or who want a set of speakers in a bedroom or den, the Yumis easily offer enough oomph to fill a room with spacious sound. Heck, they did a mighty good job filling my main listening space.

Get ‘Em While They’re Hot!

Right out the gate, these speakers command attention and deliver big, thrilling sound that seems impossible from such an unassuming enclosure. It’s a pleasure to test a product that provides so much quality for a modest price. Over the course of my time with the Yumis, my enthusiasm for them only grows. At the end of the review period, I could not bear to pack up and return these mini marvels, and purchased the demo pair. For all they offer at their price point, we award the Kanto Yumi Speakers a 2016 Exceptional Value Award.

Kanto Yumi Powered Speakers

MSRP: $449


Analog Source: SME Model 10 with SME V and Model 10 tonearms. Dynavector 17D3 and Denon DL-103R cartridges

Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, dCS Debussy

Preamplification: Coffman Labs G1-B

Cables: Jena Labs

Power: Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose power cords

Accessories: ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand

Reimyo DAP 999EX DAC and CDT 777 transport

If you think digital audio is merely bits being decoded and there isn’t any difference between players, you haven’t been listening.

Much like your favorite phono cartridges, all digital players have their own personalities, too. They all take a different approach, and it’s not necessarily better or worse, but it is certainly different – with each manufacturer putting a different emphasis on the part of the player they find the most important. This DAC and transport combination from Reimyo is a perfect example.

With so much emphasis on high resolution digital audio, Reimyo’s Kauzo Kiuchi (the founder of Combak) chooses to optimize his player, in this case, as a separate DAC and transport, for 16 bit/44.1kHz playback, and incorporate his take on fine tuning the combination; two sets of their Combak tuning plugs are included to deliver the digital goods. They also suggest using a bevy of their signal and power cables to achieve the ultimate result.

In the day of DSD and high res files, this may seem like an anachronism to some. But let’s face it, unless you started collecting music three weeks ago, the bulk of your collection is probably redbook files, or even compact discs. Should you be the music lover that really doesn’t care all that much about high resolution audio files, the Reimyo pair could be your destination, at least for the foreseeable future. Back when I traded my Naim CD555 for a dCS stack, I had remarked more than once that I could have lived happily ever after with the CD555 if it had a digital input on the rear panel. But computer audio dragged me down another path.

Un-digital digital

Listening to the ease at which the vibes and violin in the introduction of Elvis Costello’s “This House is Empty Now” are rendered, it’s clear that Kiuchi-san has created a masterpiece for music lovers. Forget everything you think you know about digital if you haven’t heard this player. Years ago it was very hip to have a first generation Play Station to play CDs, because it had a very warm and involving, yet unresolving sound that masked many of digitals errors of omission.

The Reimyo pair gives this same warmth without loss of resolution. I wanted to open the cover and look for vacuum tubes, but photos on the internet reveal that there are none inside. Another review of this player mentions the effect, comparing it to photography, saying that this player lacks the “sharpening” often associated with image processing. As a photographer, I agree with this analysis, but as digital camera sensors have improved with more dynamic range and resolution, that precious little sharpening is not required anymore. And thanks to the 999EX’s approach, it’s not needed here either. For those that remember film, the Reimyo feels much more like Kodachrome than an unsharpened digital image, with a wide tonal scale that seems to fade out almost to infinity that to the uninitiated seems soft. The longer you listen to this combination the more under its spell you fall. You’ll be stunned at just how much musical detail exists in those standard resolution discs of yours.

While both components are excellent on their own, the pair together is where the glamour lies. Using the CDT 777 with Simaudio, dCS and Gryphon DACs all proved excellent, and vice versa using Simaudio and dCS transports with the Reimyo DAC, the combination takes the relaxed analog-like effect to the ultimate level. I’m always great at spending your money, but in this case I highly suggest buying the two as a pair instead of working your way up. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the full complement of Combak cables, so the thought of even more resolution and ease lurking with this pair is indeed compelling.

More music

This player will really shift your paradigm in terms of worrying about high resolution downloads. With so many of these files just being upsampled redbook, it’s tough to know where the rocks in the road lie, and it’s often too late to turn back once you’ve bought a bum album. Anyone having a huge CD collection should really give the Reimyo combination serious consideration as a destination player and call it a day. There was never a time during the review period that I found myself craving the high resolution files lurking on my Aurender W20 server.

Listening to Dave Stewart’s understated masterpiece from the ’90s, Greetings From The Gutter, there was so much subtle spatial information lurking on what has always seemed like a brilliant album that was only mediocre in the recording department, it was a revelation. Even The Monkees’ Then and Now, which has to be the worst sounding CD ever, sounded fantastic with this player. Songs that felt hopelessly compressed to the point of being unlistenable are now palatable.

Which means well-recorded CDs sound brilliant. Tracking through Neil Larsen’s Orbit, mastered by Bernie Grundman, is full of percussive attack, a massive soundstage and weight that feels like a 24/192 recording, as do all of the best sounding CDs in my collection.

Single purpose player

The CDT777 transport links to the Reimyo DAC via a single coaxial output, where the DAC features coax, BNC, AES and optical inputs, so those streaming music will not be left out. Unfortunately, the only input lacking is a USB connection, but with so many good, reasonably priced outboard converters, this will not stop you from using your computer with the Reimyo DAC. Though precious few audiophiles will need the Toslink input, it is incredibly well implemented, should you need to use it, proving that not even the smallest detail is overlooked in the design of the Reimyo DAC. As mentioned, files are kept in their original format without being converted to higher resolution before digital conversion, which is done at a 24 bit/16x rate.

A Phillips CDM-Pro 12 mechanism, with clamp (very similar to the Naim 555…) is used to spin the discs with excellent results. This transport is robustly built and at this point in the game, should outlive you. A very basic remote is offered to control machine functions and switch digital inputs, so the rest is really installing the various Combak bits and getting down to business.

It’s really all about tonality

If you’ve ever been taken under the spell of a great SET amplifier, a well-presented single driver loudspeaker, or the original Quad 57 loudspeaker, these devices all present a “continuous tone” type of musical reproduction, because of the simple signal path, lack of crossover effects and the lack of interaction between multiple drivers or output devices.

There is a certain signal purity that accompanies any of these that is unmistakable and, once you hear it, it will either become your holy grail, or it will not be detailed (a.k.a. “audiophile enough”) for you. Add the Reimyo combination to this list of components that has an all encompassing, musical feel to its presentation. At first blush, you might even find it slightly dull, but the more time you spend listening, the more difficult it is to leave the couch or chair in front of your speakers.

This continuous tone nature really starts to pull you into the music after a few minutes, especially with vocal tracks and acoustic instruments. The piano takes on a new life through the Reimyo, and it’s tough to believe that you are actually experiencing digital music, let alone redbook CD.

Is it for you?

In the day of multiple, high resolution digital formats that change like the wind, there will always be a steady supply of compact discs to play, much like the massive collections of analog records still floating about. Should you be a music lover with a substantial collection of CDs, in search of a better rendition of your library, the Reimyo CDT777 and DAP 999EX will be your grail.

MSRP:  $12,500, transport and $11,500 DAC (manufacturer) (NA distributor)

Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Florian Weber Trio, Julian Lage, Avishal Cohen and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Gear Previews

Audio Research PH-9 Phono, DAC 9 and LS 28


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

ModWright’s First Offering Revisited…

13 years ago, Dan Wright was building his first product, the SWL 9.0, named after his son and I had just begun my career of reviewing audio gear for The Absolute Sound.

I was building my first major system and wasn’t getting quite the sound I wanted. My ARC LS-3 was a bit on the thin side and my CJ PV-12 just a bit too warm for the rest of the components in my reference system (back then: a pair of ARC Classic 120 mono blocks, a pair of Vandersteen 2Ce’s and a Rega P25). Kurt Doslu from Echo Audio suggested a preamp from “the new guy in town,” Dan Wright.

It only took a quick listen to see that the SWL 9.0 was Goldilocks. i.e., it was “just right.” With simple, clean and understated aesthetics and amazing sound for the then $1,999 price, Dan Wright’s first effort was a winner. Had we given out Exceptional Value Awards in our first year or two, this product would certainly have won one.

Thirteen years later, the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition celebrates everything ModWright stands for: great sound, great build quality, and great value. And like a thirteen year old BMW 3-series, the original SWL 9.0s continue to delight audiophiles the world over.

Now that ModWright has broadened their product offerings considerably, the 9.0 SWL, according to Dan is “the perfect way to introduce music lovers to our brand for the first time.” Expect a matching power amplifier somewhere down the road, as Dan Wright is always brainstorming something new…

With the price only going up $900 in 13 years, the new SWL 9.0 has more functionality, better casework and incorporates everything they’ve learned in 13 years of building quality gear. Watch for our review in issue #78.

Click here to go to their website.

A Visit to Simaudio

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about Simaudio is that the entire company has only one person in its service department; he’s not terribly busy – and that’s a good thing.

When I compare Sim’s service guy, Mark Catalfamo, to the famous Maytag repairman, he laughs and points out that two thirds of the “repair” work executed on his test bench is just to confirm the performance of various review units that have been returned from around the world.

“We need to be sure that everything is still up to spec,” he says, “and that there has been no physical damage.”

This confirms that breakdowns with Simaudio gear is a rarity, precisely the reason the company offers a 10-year warranty on all of its products.  You don’t stay in business for thirty-plus years if you’re mired in constant repair issues.  Yet, should the need for service ever occur, the company has a substantial parts inventory on hand.

“We don’t have metal casework parts for all of our oldest models anymore,” says Costa Koulisakis, the company’s VP of Sales and Marketing.  “But we do have electrical parts—resistors, capacitors, transistors, etcetera—on hand to repair or refurbish practically everything we’ve ever made.”

This is something to strongly consider when making a purchase decision.  As additional evidenced, a cursory look at the secondary market reveals few Simaudio components for sale—and when you do find a pre-owned Sim unit, it commands a high price.  We at TONE have a number of Simaudio products in service as staff-member reference components, not to mention friends and family members who have enjoyed long, trouble-free relationships with their gear.  Koulisakis goes on to note that his customers are the same way.  “We tend to get customers for life,” he says.  “When they buy an amplifier, the old one is often moved to another room for a second system.”

Proudly Made in Canada

Simaudio has been in business since 1980 and has been running under the guidance of its current CEO, Jean Poulin, since 1993.  He is responsible for the company’s growth in recent years, having expanded the Sim product line, made major circuitry upgrades and upgraded the casework to the world-class design those components now enjoy.  All of this, he says, has regrettably kept him too busy to play his piano located upstairs at the company’s headquarters, just to the left of the main listening room.  “Once the move is complete I am hoping to find a bit more time to play,” Poulin says with a smile.

Every day, Poulin hangs his hat on the fact that, as more and more of the audio industry’s manufacturing heads to China, every aspect of Simaudio products is realized in Canada, either in the company’s factory or within a very tight radius.  The company has just moved into its current facility, which is just over 45,000 square feet and home to 42 employees.  It is more than just a factory, however:  In addition to all of the component-production facilities, it includes two state-of-the-art listening rooms and a performance space.  Sim has made great effort to keep the building as green as possible, going so far as to grow strawberries on the roof!

As far as audio parts go, the original extrusions that become product faceplates and heat sinks are produced near the Sim factory, but machined to their final forms at the company’s five-axis Haas CNC work center.  Going through the machine shop reveals a second, four-axis machine nearby.  Boards are stuffed only a few blocks away from the Sim facility, with all testing completed on Sim’s factory floor.  The company even takes an artisan approach with its front and rear product panels, which are silk-screened one at a time in an area of the shop dedicated to this process.  And to bust a common audiophile myth, the exquisite casework of a Simaudio product does not constitute a majority of its final price, thanks to having it everything produced in-house.

The design team at Simaudio feels that this high-quality casework adds to the finished product in more ways than one.  The billet-aluminum enclosures minimize vibration, which results in better performance, but there remains a stringent eye on quality and pride of ownership.  Simaudio uses 6063-T5 aluminum, which is not as hard as 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum, but that is superior in appearance, since it can be more finely finished.

Koulisakis is quick to point out that, while the T6 aluminum has a higher tensile strength than the T5 they use, it is actually detrimental to the sound, because the extra stiffness makes it ring much more.  “The T5 aluminum is very stable and provides a surface that is easy to machine, anodize and brush, ” he says, also noting that any Simaudio piece you buy today will maintain its attractive look, without any fading or discoloration.

The Difference is in the Details

The vibe at the Simaudio factory is relaxed, right down to the desk in the reception room, which has been custom-machined to look like the face plates on Sim’s gear, right down to the blue LED in the center—a nice touch.  Many of the company’s employees have been there longer than 15 years, which is another key to product success and low failure rates.

While many of the engineering changes made over the years were to refine sonic performance, others were made in the name of reliability.  The most noticeable of these changes is that Sim now produces its own CD transport for the 650D and 750D DACs.

Upon close inspection, it’s easy to see that a number of parts inside Simaudio components are completely custom-made. Simaudio’s Marketing Manager Lionel Goodfield points out that the output transistors used in the company’s power amplifiers are also custom-made, in batches of 100,000, specifically for Simaudio.  “Once here, we sort and match these transistors to an even tighter tolerance for use in our amplifiers,” he says.  “It adds a few extra steps, but insures quality and product uniformity.”

Power transformers are also custom-made by a small firm nearby, for which Simaudio is the main customer.  “Jean’s background was in power supply and transformer design,” says Goodfield of Sim’s CEO, “so it was easy to design something unique to Simaudio.  Not having to rely on off-the-shelf parts has made it easier for us to achieve the low noise floor of our designs.”

By Music Lovers for Music Lovers

As mentioned earlier, there are two separate listening rooms at the Simaudio HQ: one about 20 feet by 30 feet and one about 20 feet by 15 feet, both of which help the staff simulate how Sim’s products will be used by customers.  With about a dozen speakers queued up in the entryway from Dynaudio, Thiel, MartinLogan, Wilson and others, it is obvious that the company makes every effort to be sure that its products work well with as many different varieties of speakers as it is practical to keep around.

During my visit, the second room was not quite finished, but the main room is most certainly a testament to what great gear can sound like when properly set up.  Here, Sim’s latest 850P Dual-Mono Reference Preamplifier, a pair of its 880M Mono Reference Power Amplifiers, the 810LP phonostage and the 750D DAC/CD Transport were driving a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers.  As a C1 owner, I came away with a new appreciation for not only how much the room contributes to the overall sound of a system, but also how much more sound lurks in a pair of great speakers when premium electronics are supporting them.  The equal level of resolution, tonal purity and ease this system provides again underscores how much care with which Sim builds its components.

This attention to detail is perhaps what best defines Simaudio’s approach to audio-product manufacturing.  The company’s designers, engineers and factory workers make some of the world’s finest-sounding gear.  But it is Simaudio’s attention to the minutest of details—not only in its manufacturing but also in its pursuit of a level of reliability that keeps its products performing at their best long after the sale—that gives the company’s components true heirloom value.  And, after a visit to the factory in Montreal, it is quite apparent that these guys love music, which takes the company’s gear beyond manufacturing.

Coffman Labs G1-A Preamplifier

With the renaissance that vacuum tubes have been undergoing for the last decade or so, it’s more challenging than ever to create a tube preamp that stands out from the pack.

So when engineer, musician, physicist and Portland local Damon Coffman told me he designed a new preamp that’s “amazing,” I was a bit skeptical.  But when I saw Coffman’s creation, the G-1A, upon a recent trip to local gear shop Echo Audio, it was like catnip.  The unique casework caught my eye instantly, where fledgling manufacturers usually fall short—think steampunk meets art deco, fused with some mid-century modern.  The shop’s wry owner, Kurt Doslu, who is usually the one curbing my enthusiasm, showed me the nifty little preamp.

“Kurt, what’s this?” I asked. “Oh, it’s this new preamp that we’re going to be distributing,” he replied. “It’s pretty good, want to take it home and give it a listen?”  And so the adventure began.

The G-1A has an MSRP of $5,495 and, at present, is only available through Echo Audio in Portland.  There will be a total production run of just 500 units and the first 25 have already been pre-sold—impressive for a new product.

A two-box design, with an outboard, tube-rectified power supply, the G-1A is a full-function preamplifier.  It has a phonostage, with moving-coil (via step up transformer) and moving-magnet inputs and a headphone amplifier built in, which is a lot of capability for that price point.  The G-1A features a single-ended design throughout, with premium RCA connectors for the four high-level inputs and two phono inputs, along with two fixed high-level outputs and a tape out, which makes life easier for this tape enthusiast.

Circuit Basics

The G-1A uses six vacuum tubes in the main circuit: two 12AX7s, two 12AU7s and two 5687s, with a 5AR4 in the rectifier position.  The preamp  ships with standard-issue, current-day production tubes, leaving things wide open for tube rolling—but the G-1A was so enjoyable as delivered, I’ll leave tube rolling for a future blog post.

Coffman says that much of the impetus for the design of the G-1A came from revisiting classic tube designs from the 1920s, when “the original concepts in tube audio” were born.  As a result, his preamplifier is a masterpiece of simplicity, even down to the number of screws holding its case together.  Inside, we see a mix of new and classic parts.  Coffman sourced a number of oil and paper capacitors (“NOS KGB items”) and an input selector switch from the aerospace industry.  He also went so far as to hand-select and measure every single component for sound quality and durability.  Yet, even with this bespoke approach, Coffman’s training in the medical-instrumentation field drove him to streamline the manufacturing approach to assure consistency from unit to unit.

A concert violinist with a master’s degree in physics, Coffman made his mark in the medical electronics industry by producing digital stethoscopes.  A hi-fi guy since his early teens, he admits that building this preamplifier was, in many ways, even tougher than building his stethoscopes.  And most importantly, Coffman is a music guy through and through; his wife, daughter and parents are also musicians. So he is constantly asking himself if the sound is natural.  With the G-1A, a result of two years and countless prototypes, Coffman has finally answered that burning question in the affirmative.

Stunning Musicality

Wanda Jackson’s 2011 release The Party Ain’t Over is a dense recording and, as the first album on my long listening list, established that the G-1A has a timbral clarity that is unmistakable.  The upright bass at the beginning of “Rum and Coca Cola” has a loose, resonant, almost unturned quality such that you can actually hear the bass rattle—and the G-1A brings all this detail front and center, capturing every bit of texture available.

Zooming through some audiophile standards proves equally rewarding.  Listening to the Doors and the Grateful Dead in 24/96 was a spectacular experience with this preamp.  The soundstage that the G-1A presents is enveloping, dishing up the magic you usually have to spend five figures to achieve.  This preamplifier produces a stereo image that extends well beyond speaker boundaries on all axis—of course, the better the source material, the better the result.

The true triumph of the G-1A is its effortless reproduction of acoustic instruments.  Acoustic playback is a must considering Coffman’s background.  The tonal accuracy of piano, violin and drums must be experienced to be believed.   The gentle tap of Phil Collins’ drumstick on the snare frame in the title track of Brand X’s album Unorthodox Behaviour was scarily real. That extra dollop of texture the G-1A provides seems to come from nowhere and yet still makes itself known.

The sparse drumming and percussion in this record, with its almost Zappa-like triangle taps and bells at the far corners of the soundstage, show off the immediacy that the G-1A delivers.  No matter how complex the musical passage, there’s always enough headroom to accommodate another instrument in the mix.  This level of dynamic competence at both ends of the scale is rarely found without spending a lot more money.

Not Terribly Tubey

While you won’t mistake the G-1A for a solid-state preamplifier, much like my Audio Research REF5 SE, the Coffman preamp is highly accurate, with that extra bit of airiness suggesting vacuum tubes under the hood (or, in this case, poking out of the top of the hood)—and nothing more.  Where a few of my favorite tube preamplifiers of old injected their share of warmth and often coloration, the G-1A plays it clean all the way.  It is worth noting, however, that this one really needs a good hour to warm up.  At initial power-up, it does sound a bit thinner than some of the other tube preamplifiers we’ve experienced.  But to complement the highly resolving nature of the G-1A, it is equally well represented in the lowest octave.

Because the G-1A offers such a great balance, I did not spend any time tolling tubes in search of a different “tuning.”  I’m sure it would be fun to swap the phonostage tubes, because the 12AX7 allows so many different variations on the theme, but we’ll leave that for another day.  Plus, the tall, spun-aluminum towers that ensconce each of the tubes do not make for easy tube swaps, and perhaps it’s for the best.

At this point, we could call the G-1A a “best buy” without the phonostage and headphone amplifier.  As both of these segments practically warrant full reviews on their own, I will go into greater depth on our Analogaholic and Macro sites.

Full Function Phono and Phones

The G-1A includes inputs for MM and MC cartridges.  While everything in the preamp is so carefully thought out, this vinyl junkie would love to see that as a function addressable from the front panel.  Coffman does thoughtfully include a loading switch for the MM input, giving 47K, 70K and 90K ohms, allowing most of my favorite cartridges to shine.  The Shure and some of the Ortofon MM range have a much more open sound when loaded to 70k than at 47k, so this is a nice touch.

The phonostage is excellent, easily on par with anything I’ve heard in the $2,500 range, including the outstanding Manley Chinook, and the G-1A is head and shoulders above the EAR 834P, which is fairly colored in comparison.  Most impressive is the sheer dynamic drive that the G-1A provides, with the same tonality as the linestage.

Soundstage width and depth are enormous, making the freshly rebuilt Quad 57s in my second listening sound like a pair of stacked Quads.  Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, the level of detail revealed was no less than stunning.  With a diverse combination of acoustic and electronic elements, featuring male and female vocals, this record gives a quick and accurate read on a component’s spatial abilities.

Sampling a wide range of cartridges, including the Denon DL-103R (and the Zu Audio variation), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Ortofon SPU and Clearaudio da Vinci all proved excellent matches with the G-1A.  Unfortunately, the Lyra family of cartridges was not as exciting.  The Atlas, Titan i and Kleos all offered the same result: slightly slow and rolled off, which is likely the result of an obvious impedance mismatch.  There are still a few more on the audition list, so stay tuned for a follow-up on the Analogaholic site.

As this was the first sample from the production line, the headphone stage was not complete at this time, so for now we are concentrating on linestage and phono performance.  A full review of the G-1A’s headphone stage will occur on our website very soon as a follow-up review.

The lack of a remote control proved not to be an issue, especially when moving the G-1A into room two, where the listening chair is directly in front of the main rack, so volume adjustment is easily handled.  Coffman assured me that the output stage of this preamplifier would drive “anything” and, after mixing it up with about eight different power amplifiers and driving 20-foot interconnects, I concur.  Driving a few of my test power amplifiers with one-meter and seven-meter lengths of ALO Audio’s newest premium interconnects reveals no change in sound quality or high-frequency rolloff.

So What Makes This Thing Awesome?

The Coffman G-1A has a unique and striking look and it’s built by a man with a plan.  Some might be surprised by the $5,495 price, but consider this: In the best old-school tradition, the G-1A includes an onboard phonostage (MM and MC) and an onboard headphone amplifier—remember when you could buy a full-function preamplifier with all of this under the hood?

With vinyl still growing in popularity and headphones a full-fledged sub-genre of audio, a preamplifier incorporating these two elements is exciting.  Considering that you won’t have to purchase an outboard phonostage, headphone amplifier or a pair of power cords, the G-1A is fantastic if you value sound quality above everything else. The design is so pure it even lacks a remote control.

Judged strictly as a linestage for $5,495, the Coffman G-1A is at the top of its class.  The fact that it includes an excellent phonostage and headphone amplifier makes it the bargain of the year.  All of the tubes are easily found and those predisposed to tube rolling can tune and tweak until Election Day.   Coffman has plans to expand the lineup, possibly making the phonostage and linestage separate boxes. When I asked him if there might be a companion power amplifier in the works, he smiled that evasive smile that usually means “yes, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”

So with that in mind, we award the Coffman Labs G-1A one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012 and look forward to the company’s future offerings.  Coffman is certainly off to a brilliant start.  I have purchased the review sample, so that it can become an anchor component in room two, and so that we can do a long-term report when a year has passed.

The Coffman Labs G-1A Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,495


Analog Source               AVID Volvere SP turntable/SME V, various cartridges

Digital Source                dCS Paganini stack, Sooloos Control 15, Aurender C10

Power Amplifier             Conrad Johnson MV-50C1

Speakers                       Quad 57

Cable                            ALO Audio, Cardas

Power                           Audience AR-6TS

The Latest Flagship Components From Cambridge Audio

No matter what you own, it’s usually unnerving when a “new model” hits the market.

Especially so with hifi gear. And certainly if you just bought the previous model just before the newest, latest, greatest arrives. I feel your pain.

The most agonizing questions are “Should I trade up?” “Immediately?” “Is what I own now rubbish?” “Is the new thing really better?” Maybe, not necessarily, definitely not, and yes.  As a current Cambridge owner, I’m always impressed with the effortless way their products work.  They are logically designed from an electrical and ergonomic standpoint; while the manuals are well written, you can turn these components on and start listening without reading them.  Best of all, both components share the same remote, allowing those of us a bit more on the OCD side the opportunity to keep one tucked away, looking pristine.

I’m a sucker for understatement, and Cambridge’s US importer, Daniel Jacques is a smart guy.  When discussing the review of the new CD player and integrated, as he was telling me about the new features, decided it would be an excellent idea to send me the past models so I could directly compare them.  “You’ll see for yourself the progress we’ve made on the new units, even though they look almost the same.” He said with a smile. Other than a few more buttons on the CD player, you’d never know the difference.  Not that I condone this kind of behavior, but these are stealthy enough to sneak right in without anyone knowing the wiser. If you get caught, this review will self-destruct.

An audio omen

During the photo shoot, it appears our Canadian friends have given us a gift. Mickey Hart’s At The Edge is in the CD tray of the 851C. Very familiar with this disc, why not start the comparison right here?  Both pairs of Cambridge components were plugged in and powered up for 24 hours before serious listening began.  The third track, “Slow Sailing,” features a thunderous bass line that begins a bit loose, so amplifiers with no grip go to pieces here.  The new amplifier jumped right out in front in a major way, driving the German Physiks Unlimited mk.II speakers (also in for review), with more weight, more grip and more speed in the bass region than the 840A.  This is a gun demo disc to play really loud if you have the juice, because it sounds so tribal, with the drums having a big, bold sound.  Veteran drummer Hart blends in a myriad of exotic percussion instruments, filling the soundstage in all three directions.

The German Physiks speakers are a great place to start, because the proprietary DDD driver is fast, clean and accurate, much like an ESL.  The bottom line is garbage in/garbage out, and most modestly priced amplifiers can’t cut the mustard with these speakers.  With the $30k Burmester 911 and $65k Octave Jubilee monoblocks now taking a back seat, my informal listening associates were all duly impressed with the amount of finesse the 851A brings to the table.  Even more impressive for the MSRP of $1,849, up from the $1,495 commanded by the 840A it replaces)

Power to drive

Almost all listening was done with the German Physiks Unlimited IIs, a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 IIs, the new KEF LS50s and my recently restored Acoustat 1+1s – notoriously tough to drive.  Even with the Acoustats, the 851A breezes through.  It’s no surprise that the two most demanding speakers in the group (the 1+1s and the Unlimiteds) reveal the upgrades to Cambridge’s XD amplifier circuit and increased power supply capacity to the fullest.

Don’t be confused by the moniker:  XD does not denote a class D amplifier under the hood of the 851A. XD refers to “Crossover Displacement,” the way that Cambridge has finely tuned the crossover point of their amplifiers transitioning from Class A at low power to AB at higher power.  The 851A also takes advantage of a massive toroidal power transformer – you’ll notice the weight as you unpack it.

The 840A and 851A both claim a power output of 120 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load and 200 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load – enough for all but the most inefficient speakers.  Either will drive a pair of Magnepan 1.7s to modest level with decent grip, but the newer amplifier does a better job, where the 840A seems to struggle a bit.

This amplifier is well composed at all volumes, yet at modest volumes, where it stays more in Class-A bias, it’s easy to think you are listening to a much more expensive amplifier indeed.

The ins and outs

One of the 851As best features is its plethora of inputs and outputs.  There are five strictly RCA inputs, with input 1 and 2 having the option of balanced XLR or standard RCA inputs. And, for the true analogaholic, a tape monitor loop.  Those using a powered sub woofer or wishing to bi amp are also rewarded with a variable output. (RCA)  Cambridge has also thoughtfully supplied a standard RS-232 port, an extension for the IR remote and their own control bus, so that you can link an all-Cambridge system together.  Two sets of speaker outputs, switchable from the front panel make it easy to increase the flexibility of a system based on the 851A and those with stacked Advents.

Cambridge’s newest version of their “silicon gate” volume control tracks true and features precise volume control in small increments.  They also claim extremely accurate channel balance with this volume control.  Best of all, the front panel includes a bass and treble control.  Purists will freak, but music lovers will love them.  Just like the ones on my Cambridge 740A, they can be switched out when not in use, but work very well, providing only modest adjustment at the extreme ends of the audio spectrum.  These are especially good if you decide to use your 851A to anchor a high quality two-channel system for video playback as I do.

Headphone listeners will be pleased with the onboard headphone amp.  With a wide range of phones from the Grado 60i, all the way up to the LCD-2 (a range of about $100 – $1,000), the internal amp is on par with anything you’ll find externally for a couple hundred bucks.  Not a bad thing to include on the chassis. Those who haven’t partaken the pleasures of the head-fi world will find the 851A a great place to start your journey.

The front panel is well laid out and much like the Porsche 911; the control layout is similar from one generation to the next.  Those encountering the Cambridge marque for the first time will find the 851A and 851C well thought out, and not requiring the remote for most functions.  The large alpha numeric display is easy to read, and you can tailor the display to your inputs, so instead of reading “input 1” and “input 5,” they read “CD player,” “DAC,” or whatever you’d like to label them.

CD Player surprises

While the 840A and 851A have virtually identical specs, their companion disc players are more dramatically different.  They each upsample digital data from the digital inputs and CD drive to 24bit/382khz, the 851C goes further, with its new, ATP2 upsampling, which is said to further reduce jitter over the previous Q5 upsampling system implemented in the 840C.  In addition to a refinement of the prior system, ATP2 offers three distinct digital filter choices:  A Steep roll-off filter, A Linear Phase filter and a Minimum Phase filter, to optimize digital playback better towards your personal taste and software. The 851C has the same price jump ($1,499 to $1,849) I suggest experimenting with the different filter options, but be warned, it can make you a bit mad, trying to figure out which one is the best choice.

Much like the amplifier, the newer 851C offers more refinement, however here we found the major gains more in HF smoothness and low-level detail.  Reproducing acoustic instruments is a strong suit of the 840C, yet the 851C improves this aspect of digital reproduction significantly.  The opening drum rolls on the Pretenders “Private Life,” from their self-titled album have more attack and more immediacy, while the bells in the background linger and decay more delicately.  The oboe is also reproduced with more texture via the newer player, tracking through the Netherland Wind Ensemble’s Greatest Hits.

While quick A/B comparisons reveal the improvement in the new player quickly, perhaps the most dramatic difference happens after listening to one player for about an hour, then making a quick switch to the other.  The soundstage shrinks noticeably going from 851C to the 840C, and when going in the other direction, things definitely have more vitality and immediacy.

As both players can be used as a DAC, high-resolution files again shine brighter on the new model.  A sequence of female vocal tracks in 24/96 and 24/192 formats from Dusty Springfield, Carole King and Bjork all illuminate more resolution on tap.  Interestingly enough, the 851Cs ability to navigate Janis Joplin’s voice on Pearl is the most telling of the new players capability.  Much like a violin being butchered on a budget player, Joplin’s raspy voice translates with more body and ease on the 851C. Both players do a commendable job illustrating the difference between high res files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files, but the 851C makes it clearer.

Whether you consider it the most interesting change or the most useful, the 851C now offers a precise digital volume control and variable outputs.  Three sets of digital inputs, offering a choice of balanced AES/EBU, S/PDIF co-axial and Toslink optical as well as a separate USB input (with a switchable ground lift) makes the 851C the perfect hub for the music lover that has no interest in analog sources, this makes the 851C a killer value. Connect your favorite power amplifier and roll.  Its single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs make it compatible with any amplifier.

We had excellent luck with tube and solid-state examples. The combination of the 851C and the new Prima Luna ProLogue Premium power amplifier with 40 watts per channel of tube power along with the KEF LS50s proves beguiling in a small room, albeit not as powerful as the companion 851A.  Either way, it’s nice to have the option.

For those not wanting a rack full of gear, the 851C had no problem driving a 6 meter length of XLR or RCA cables to a handful of power amplifiers we had on hand.  There were no issues with HF rolloff or output drive.  A simple menu click enables the variable output. And like the 851A, the inputs can be labeled via the remote.

Refinement is the word

If you currently own an 840A and 840C, you still possess some great gear, and depending on the speakers you’ve paired with this combo, you may not feel the urge to make the move to the next models.  However, those taking the plunge will not be disappointed, there is enough of a delta to rediscover your current music collection without guilt.  This is a great pair, offering high performance and enough power to drive almost any speaker with headroom to spare.

For those starting from scratch, the Cambridge Audio 851A and 851C deliver high performance, excellent functionality and understated good looks.  We call that an “exceptional value” and I am happy to award these two components our first Exceptional Value Awards of 2013.

The Cambridge Audio 851A integrated amplifier and 851C Disc Player/DAC/Digital Preamplifier

$1,849 ea. (mfr) (US importer) (Canadian importer)

REVIEW: Creek Audio Wyndsor Phonostage

Is it just me, or has it been raining phonostages lately?

It seems as though the vinyl downpour keeps coming, and there are no signs of it subsiding.  Vinyl sales were up 37% last year, which is a great thing for vinyl lovers.  And equipment manufacturers seem to be keeping pace with this trend, considering how many new phonostages are popping up from out of nowhere these days.  Where you land in this sea of analog goodies will certainly depend on the size of your record collection, the quality of your system and your ultimate dedication to vinyl.  You’ll know vinyl fever has hit you really hard when you decide to make the step up to more than one turntable (or a table with two tonearms), or even if you’re just adding a mono cartridge or a second cartridge of different tonality or quality.

The new Wyndsor phonostage offers two inputs, one RCA and one balanced, which makes it perfect for the budding analogaholic.  While Creek Audio has offered fine and very cost-effective phonostages in the past, the Wyndsor is in a different league, both in performance and price.  The English company has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

Opening the Box

Like many others on the market, the Wyndsor is a two-piece affair.  The signal from a phono cartridge is so faint and fragile that any attempt to preserve its integrity is welcome.  This is why the Wyndsor’s power supply comes equipped with individual mains transformers and separate regulation for each channel, connecting to the main unit via an umbilical cord.  The main chassis is a deceptively simple looking unit, with an illuminated readout section that can be dimmed or turned off completely, a back button, a mute switch and a main controller knob marked “Select.”

It’s this “Select” capability that is the key to what’s available from the Wyndsor.  From this feature the user can select various parameters for various cartridges and store them in the unit’s memory.  You can select cartridge type, load resistance, capacitance, EQ and arm wiring.  Arm wiring?  Yes, you can select single-ended RCA or balanced DIN for the phono cable input.  How cool is that?!

A lot of other phonostages allow for various levels of configurability, but none (at least none in this price range) offer the variety of settings and options available from the Wyndsor.  The folks at Creek certainly thought the feature set through on this product.  What’s even better is that these features can be easily dialed up and stored via the “Select” function.  This is a far cry from having to dial up DIP switches that are either behind a panel or, worse, inside the phonostage.

Best of all, you can use the 16-character alphanumeric display to list gain, loading and cartridge type.  This is an awesome feature, and helps to keep your vinyl world organized; especially if you have an arm with multiple headshell/cartridge combinations, it’s great to see the one you’re using displayed.  Vampires in the audience will be glad to know that you can shut the display off completely if desired.

It’s Not Just About Features

The Wyndsor offers up a lot of sonic goodness, but you will have to wait for it a bit.  Straight out of the box, it’s rather small and thin sounding, like so many other solid-state phono preamps we’ve tried.  But don’t panic.  Leaving it powered up 24/7 will alleviate about half of this, but it needs some serious break in.  I suggest one of those handy little Hagerman devices that knock high-level output down to an RIAA signal at phono-cartridge level.  Avoid the grumpiness, leave your iPod on repeat for a week and be prepared for the caterpillar to make a big change for the better.

Once broken in, the first cartridge on my list was the Goldring 2400 MM.  I dial up the parameters by the data sheet and let her fly.  Most memorable is the recent ORG offering 45 rpm of Weather Report’s seminal album, Heavy Weather.  Of the hundreds of times I’ve listened to this recording in its various iterations, I’ve never enjoyed it as thoroughly as I do through the Wyndsor.  The solid, weighty bass line on this exquisite disc makes for much foot tapping and big grins during this listening session.

I couldn’t resist another period classic, Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out At Night.  You guessed it, I crank “Frankenstein,” taking advantage of the big soundstage provided by the Wyndsor, this time courtesy of the Denon DL-301 MK II MC cartridge.

Very Versatile

Changing the cartridge again to the (2.5-mV-output MC) Sumiko Blackbird is easy with the Wyndsor.  Often this high output MC, which likes to be loaded at 47K ohms, is often a little shy for many phonostages’ high-output settings, but a bit high for the low output.  Thanks to gain settings at 40, 45, 50, 61 and 70 dB, optimization for maximum dynamic range proves straightforward, with the 50-dB setting perfect in my system.  Even the low output MC Dynavector 17D3 (.23 mV) works well with the 70 dB maximum gain setting, yet it maintains a very quiet noise floor.

The Blackbird’s high trackability is a perfect match for Ginger Baker’s monstrous drumming on “Toad,” from the Fresh Cream album.  Cymbals are nicely fleshed out, with plenty of extension, but no harshness or sibilance.  Unable to escape the gravitational field of classic rock, I turn to the drum solo from “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” to wind up the evening’s listening session.

One last cartridge change proves the Wyndsor is an equal match for an upscale dance partner, this time the $1,995 Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, a .4-mV MC.  Switching the program to jazz, I play something from the Meters.  The rich tonality of Leo Nocentelli’s guitar on the Look-Ka Py Py album is full bodied and three dimensional, with great attack and decay.  A superset of various Dave Holland records gives the Wyndsor a sufficient set of bass calisthenics to prove its mettle.

The longer the Wyndsor is plugged in, the more it smooths out.  You won’t mistake this one for a valve unit, but it is not plagued with the graininess that pervades most of the lesser transistor offerings.  If your taste falls more to solo vocals or acoustic music, the Wyndsor delivers, offering a delicate midrange, along with a healthy dose of pace and timing.  The recent Rickie Lee Jones Pop Pop remaster is a perfect example:  Jones’ voice never becomes trampled by the big, acoustic bass lines present on this disc.  The Wyndsor proves equally nimble with dense recordings.  The title track of Pat Metheny’s Song X collaboration with Ornette Coleman is a torture test on a budget analog rig, with Metheny and Coleman riffing at maximum velocity out in front of a robust rhythm section.  The Windsor keeps it all well sorted, without becoming a gigantic blob of noise—a job well done.

Beyond the Facts

Thanks to the power supply and circuit refinements, the Wyndsor offers quite a bit more sound quality and flexibility compared to the plethora of phonostages in the highly contested $1,000 range.  There are a few single input units in this price range offering even more performance, but if you’re like me, then part of your joy in the hobby comes from having multiple tables, tonearms and cartridges. Such being the case, the Wyndsor should be at the very top of your list.  – Jerold O’Brien

The Creek Audio Wyndsor Phonostage

MSRP:  $2,495

Issue 50


995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
Aperion Audio Veras Grand speakers
AudioEngine D2 Wireless DAC

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile

An Onkyo Trifecta
By Andre Marc

Old School:  The Quad ESL’s
By Ken Kessler

Macro: Sound for Small Spaces
Audio Electronics Nighthawk
By Michael Liang

Tone Style

SoundCast Outcast Portable Speaker System
By Ben Fong-Torres

The iPad Mini: Oh Baby!

The Shredder Cheese Grater

A Charlie Brown Christmas – In Green…

In The Groove

Sushi Staplers

Iggy Pop Bobblehead


Live Music: Giant Giant Sand In Portland
By John Darko

Current Releases:

Fresh Releases in the Pop/Rock World
By the TONE Staff

Audiophile Pressings

Miles Davis, Aerosmith and The Beatles


KEF R-300 Speakers

Magico S5 Speakers

Sonus faber Aida Speakers

From The Web:

Cambridge Audio Azur 851C CD Player

Decware ZP3 Phonostage

German Physiks Unlimited Mk. II Speakers

dCS Vivaldi Digital Playback System


PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player
By Jeff Dorgay

Furutech f-TP615 AC Power Filter/Distributor
and PowerFlux Power Cords
By Jeff Dorgay

Peachtree Audio novaPre and Peachtree 220
By Andre Marc

Exposure 3010S2 Monoblocks
By Jerold O’Brien

Dynaudio Confidence C1 II Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF 250 Power Amplifiers
By Jeff Dorgay


Priscilla Ahn – A Good Day

Put those Patricia Barber and Eva Cassidy albums away, and give something else a try.

For those unwilling to forgo female vocalists as part of their audiophile heaven, Priscilla Ahn’s debut is a good way to expand your repertoire.

Issuing the album on LP for the first time, Mobile Fidelity strips away the merciless compression present on the CD and leaves Ahn unsquashed. The perky, Pokemon-esque singer paints a rosy soundscape, with arrangements often resembling those of It’s a Beautiful Day. Ahn’s purity of tone and delicate phrasing should make vocal aficionados swoon, and while the top end crushes that of the digital version, it’s still slightly on the hot side. This one will undoubtedly score more points with the vintage tube crowd than those that own ultra-resolving systems.

Another bonus: The pressing includes three bonus tracks not on the original CD.  Keeping in character with the rest of the album, yet more sparsely arranged, they possess fairly little dynamic range, allowing seven tracks to fit on a side without compromising fidelity.

Click here to purchase from Music Direct.

New Bits for the Paganini

Years ago, more horsepower meant getting under the hood and bolting on some parts.

Today, I get the engine management EPROM reflashed to achieve more horsepower.  And so it goes with digital audio.  While some may question the logic of a four-box digital audio player that still plays physical media, today just underscored why the dCS Paganini is worth the money I’ve invested in it.  It’s modular design makes it obsolete-proof.

Rather than having to take a bath on selling the Pag to get the newest thing from dCS, they sent me a pair of CD’s to upgrade the software in the Upsampler and DAC portions of my Paganini stack, which consists of a Transport, (for SACD and CD discs) the DAC, an upsampler and a word clock.

The whole process took about 40 minutes per box and the instructions were straightforward.  The result?  Being ever skeptical of digital, I was shocked at how much of an improvement took place.  Of course more listening will be required, but immediately there was a much bigger spatial perspective, with more clarity from the top to the bottom of the frequency spectrum and a huge layer of midrange cloudiness that I didn’t know existed is now gone.

It’s sounding a LOT closer to my analog rig.

Audio Pro LV2 Wireless Speakers

Whether you are often on the go, or a more stationary human that just would like great sound in a compact space, freed from the wires that bind you to a rack full of hifi gear, the thought of wireless speakers has no doubt crossed your mind.

Unfortunately, most of the current offerings either offer disappointing sound at best and aesthetics that leave much to be desired. There’s nothing like a bit of Scandinavian design and black leather to spice things up, and the Audio Pro LV2 wireless speakers sound fantastic as well.

Utilizing a two way, front ported design, featuring a 4.5 – inch woofer and a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, each powered by a 25 watt class D amplifier, and optimized via DSP crossovers, the LV2 plays with authority and offers much more dynamic punch than I was expecting from such small speakers.  Audio Pro claims that their wireless transmitter that operates in the 2.4GHz band will carry for about 165 feet (50 meters) could not be verified, but they did work from anywhere in my house to the garage or studio, which were about 50 feet away.

Great Sound Everywhere You Are

Available in white or black leather, these small speakers that only measure about 8″H x 6″W x 7″D will fit anywhere – there’s no excuse for not having great sound anymore.  The LV2s have been my traveling companions – using them almost non stop for the last six months, tucked in a small Pelican case, they’ve provided music on the go and transform the hotel experience into something much more hospitable, much more livable.  Their leather finish is particularly attractive – and solicited enthusiastic responses from my male and female non-audiophile friends.

Fully compatible with Apple’s Air Play, the setup is quick and easy.  Plug the TX100 dongle/transmitter into a free USB socket on your laptop or computer, head to the control panel and tell your computer to output audio to the AudioPro system. Mac users, choose “USB Headset” and push the play button in whatever music player utility you use.

$1,000 buys you a pair of LV2s and the TX100 transmitter, along with the necessary wall wart power supplies to power them up and a handy remote control that lets you control three separate volume zones in your house. (And a master level control) Both the TX100 and the speakers offer three wireless channels so that you can have more than one system playing in your environment.

While you still require an AC outlet to power the LV2s, being freed from running speaker cables opens a lot of possibilities.  A little too gorgeous to go in the garage, they are fantastic everywhere else.  They provide a perfect way to bring sound out on deck for a grilling session, and now that a few friends know about the pelican case, the LV2s have been invited to more than one dinner party.

Natural mids, Excellent Imaging

Easing into critical listening, the recent AF remaster of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s self titled album reveals a lifelike midrange, keeping these three vocalists autonomy intact within the mix.  Other equally dense recordings proved effortless for the LV2s – underlining what a great job the Audio Pro engineers have done with the crucial midrange region.   KD Lang’s Ingénue album was equally compelling.  Her trademark vocals had plenty of tone, sustain and breathiness to impress.

Thanks to the open and non – fatiguing sound the LV2’s offer, you may find yourself abandoning some of your playlists and just listening to the whole album – I did. While not terribly tangible, this seems to be an easy way to judge listener fatigue.

As mentioned, the LV2s are easy to work with in terms of speaker placement.  The more passionate audiophile can, of course, tweak the setup to achieve maximum results, but these speakers sound great with a minimum of fuss, just placing them on a desktop, bookshelf or countertop.  Should you be so inclined to get that extra bit more from them, experimenting with small footers to raise the speakers about an inch off of the surface they are placed on will eliminate some of the bass gain (which I actually found to my liking in the desktop environment) but will yield even cleaner midrange response.  Just avoid anything sharp and pointy, so you don’t harm the leather case. How much of a crazed audiophile are you? Fortunately, wireless operation means no fussing with speaker cables.

Playing a wide range of program material with various levels of quality proves the LV2s have ample dynamic range to really rock out and enough resolution to easily discern between mp3 and CD quality files if you have a mixture at your disposal.  Because of the systems 48khz sampling rate, 24/96 or higher sources will be a moot point.

Bass and Then Some

Most good desktop speakers feature great imaging, with the listening spot seriously nearfield, so bass is what makes or breaks an awesome desktop experience for this listener.  Sampling beats from Dark Side of the Moon, The K&D Sessions, and Can’s Tago Mago, the LV2s have well defined bass extension without overhang or upper bass bloat.  Should you need to rock the bass a bit more than the LV2s provide, the LVSUB will fill the bill, with its 8-inch woofer powered by a 200 watt class D amplifier, featuring the necessary level trim and crossover adjustments on the rear panel – all wrapped in matching leather.

The LV2s tick all the right boxes to make for a great desktop and portable audio system, yet those requiring even more power will be pleased with the new LV2e model that will be released as you read this.  They have made some minor driver changes, but the most exciting difference is the addition of a satellite mode that rolls off the bass response when used with the LVSUB – allowing 10db more output than just running the LV2s full range.

If that doesn’t turn you into the Maxell guy at your desk, nothing will!

The “e” model now has wall-mounting capability, along with red as an optional color.  Pricing stays the same at $1,000 per pair, and for those wanting something even more unique, there is a brown saddle leather option at $1,300 for the most posh environment.

Those requiring great sound with stylish good looks and freedom from speaker cables, look no further than the AudioPro LV2.  I’ve enjoyed them enough to purchase the review pair.  – Jeff Dorgay

The AudioPro LV2/LV2e

MSRP:  $1,000

Mfr. Info

Simaudio 600i vs. 700i (and the i7 too!)

Following up a highly successful product always presents audio manufacturers with problems. No matter how long a product’s life happens to be, when a change occurs, someone is going to be crabby because they just bought the “old” box and now there is a “new” box on the dealer’s shelf. Somehow, with a certain segment of the audiophile population, all reason goes out the window. For those of you that own a Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated amplifier, take a deep breath and relax. Your amplifier is just as good as it was the day you bought it.

Now that we’ve cleared the air, let’s move on. Having just finished work on its Moon 850P Reference two-channel preamplifier and highly regarded Moon 880M monoblocks, Simaudio engineers added more to their knowledge base and redesigned the top end of the company’s integrated amplifier range. Where the 150 watts-per-channel i-7 once represented Simaudio’s peak integrated, the manufacturer now offers the 600i and 700i, with 125 watts per channel and 175 watts per channel, respectively. Priced at $8,000 and $12,000, both models are also pricier than the former i-7.

A Solid Case for An Integrated

Mimicking the example set by the i-7, the 600i and 700i are dual mono designs, with gigantic toroidal power transformers under the hood. And both amplifiers have an elegant, understated look and feel. But the second you pick up either of them, the message is clear: these are serious amplifiers.

While some hardcore audiophiles always look down on the integrated amplifier concept, these days, it’s nothing to sneeze at. The Simaudio amplifiers offer the flexibility and performance of comparably priced separates, and best some of the latter in their respective price class. For the music lover that doesn’t necessarily want a gigantic rack full of gear and cables yet still craves high performance, an integrated is the way to go. Since Simaudio has its own in-house 5-axis CNC machining center, these amplifiers have the visual appeal of the world’s finest and most expensive components. They will look right at home in a design-conscious environment and are available with silver, black, or a combination of black and silver anodizing.

In the end, however, it’s about performance. Having both the amplifier and preamplifier on the same chassis eliminates not only at least one set of interconnects and one power cord, it presents the ultimate in system synergy. With an integrated, you’ll never again agonize over whether you picked the perfect cable to go between your amp and preamp.

Ins and Outs

Because of the dual mono design, both amplifiers feature mirror images of the inputs and outputs on the respective side of the chassis rather than having them grouped together. It’s a different approach than that taken by many other manufacturers, but once you get used to it, everything works fine. Both amplifiers have four sets of RCA line level inputs and a single balanced input; the 700i has tape monitor inputs and outputs. And, in what makes for a nice touch, both offer a variable level output (RCA only) to drive an additional amplifier or powered subwoofer.

The heavy-duty WBT binding posts will handle even the most massive speaker cables, but those utilizing really monstrous cable will have to work to get the posts to the level snugness they might desire. An RS-232 port, IR port, and 12V trigger (SimLink) ports also reside on the rear panel, so either amplifier can easily be put to use in a home automation system. Overall, along with great ergonomics, the rear panel features an adequate amount of inputs and outputs.

Since it’s a fully balanced differential amplifier, my only complaint with the i-7 relates to the absence of two or three balanced inputs on the rear panel. As Simaudio makes fully balanced phono preamplifiers and CD players, it makes no sense to not take advantage of connecting to the amplifier in balanced mode. Like the other Simaudio products we’ve reviewed, the 600i and 700i require at least a few hundred hours on the clock before sounding their best. Out of the box, they definitely sound stiff. These amplifiers get approximately 60% of the way to their ultimate sound quality within the first 48 hours of play, and the rest takes time—a situation that mirrors that associated with many high-powered solid-state amplifiers. While not a green solution, I suggest running your 600i or 700i 24 hours a day (with signal passing through) for the first few weeks of ownership. During the course of our tests, we left them on non-stop.

I placed the 600i and 700i on a Finite Elemente Pagode Signature rack, and used Simaudio’s 750D DAC/CD player as a primary source component. The AVID Acutus SP Reference with SME V tonearm and Koetsu Urushi Blue cartridge via the Audio Research REF Phono 2 served as my primary analog source. The whole system was cabled with Cardas Clear interconnects and speaker cables. To ensure that neither of the amplifiers’ performance would be compromised, I employed my $150,000 GamuT S9 speakers—the anchor of my reference system, normally powered by $100k of Burmester electronics—to compare all three Simaudio amplifiers.

600i vs. 700i

Each new Simaudio unit is a stellar example of an integrated amplifier providing a worthy alternative to separates. They both have lightning-fast transient response along with a healthy amount of control, whether reproducing the higher-frequency transients of a cymbal strike or controlling the thwack of a bass drum. While some solid-state amplifiers offer too much detail, the 600i and 700i achieve the balance of high detail without being harsh or fatiguing—a minor miracle on its own.

On paper, there are a few main differences between the 600i and the 700i. The 700i has its own dedicated power supply for the preamplifier, while the 600i shares its power supply with both sections. The 700i also features a considerably larger power transformer with greater reserve capacity. While both amplifiers offer a “no overall feedback” design, the 700i takes it a step further, incorporating Simaudio’s LYNX design. This utilizes a four layer gain board design, that puts the gain and output sections in closer proximity than they would be otherwise, making a significant improvement in the 700i’s utter transparency.

Listening tests back up claims made in Simaudio’s white papers. DCC’s remaster of 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack, with that radio classic you’ve heard a million times, “I’m Not In Love,” sounded wonderful via the 600i. It kept the vocal track well in front of the heavily layered mellotron intro, and the hints of acoustic guitar well in the lower back of the sound field. Quickly switching to the 700i and playing the track again became a stunning experience, especially after the first chorus, when the female vocalist whispers, “big boys don’t cry.” On the larger amplifier, her voice almost lept into my lap, possessing more dimension, space, and realism.

Along with a neutral, clean tonality, both amplifiers have considerable dynamic punch and headroom that go beyond their power ratings. While the GamuT S9 and B&W 805Ds are very easy to drive, the Magnepan 1.6s are another story. The latter usually require hundreds of watts to really rock. The 600i had no problem handling big bass drum that opens the title track of the Drive-By Truckers’ recent Go-Go Boots, complete with sufficient weight and texture. And the 700i, well, it went one louder. Highly impressive showings from both models.

The key word here? Refinement. Such welcome polish makes it easy to believe you are listening to separate components. But do you want a 330i or an M3 Sport? That’s a question only your checkbook can answer. The tonality of both amplifiers is identical, but the extra oomph offered by the 700i is hard to forget once you’ve experienced it. Horsepower is always intoxicating.

Living In the Past

My impressions of the new amplifiers were extremely positive, but I was also very curious to compare them to the i-7. Reviewed in Issue 16, the latter received high marks for transparency, tonality and dynamic punch; a pretty awesome package for $6,000. We purchased the review sample, and it has been staff writer Mark Marcantonio’s reference for the last two years. He and I were more than a little jumpy when we sat down on a weekend to compare the two newcomers to the faithful standby.

If you find one used, the i-7 still sells on the secondary market for about $5,000. With many components being blown out the door for half of their list price only months after purchase, such residual value speaks volumes the i-7. So, should you ditch your i-7 and trade up? It depends. Starting our comparison by listening to Adele’s recent 21 left us thinking that the older model was the way to roll, as it claimed a warmer overall tonality than that of the new models. 21 is somewhat compressed, with a slightly bright tonal balance. So, we brought out a few new Audio Wave Blue Notes and Sheffield Labs favorites to get a better feel for acoustic performances. That’s when the tables turned in favor of the current crop.

Once the program material featured more dynamic range, the additional bass grip delivered by the new amplifiers made such sonic elements more decisively known, and the higher level of resolution provided a more natural musical experience. Whether we listened to Black Sabbath stomp through “Iron Man” or Dexter Gordon blast out “Tom Cat,” these amplifiers had a natural ease along with a lightning-fast attack and equally quick and clean decay that allowed for long listening sessions without any trace of fatigue.

Spinning vinyl further widened the gap, with the differences between analog and digital being much greater through both new amplifiers than they had been with the i-7. Listening to the new remaster of Boogie With Canned Heat proved trippy, staying true to the original psychedelic vibe with an incredibly big sound. The extra resolution and three dimensionality allowed the analog pressings to breathe in a way they didn’t when played through the i-7, which, via comparison, sounded warmer and slightly slower. However, in all fairness, if your music collection is primarily comprised of digital and/or newer, more compressed recordings, you might favor the older i-7. Such extra warmth goes a long way to tame digititus.

Spending Other People’s Cash

It’s always easier to spend other people’s money, so rush right down to your Simaudio dealer and buy the 700i. According to the gloom-and-doom messages we seemingly encounter on a daily basis, the world’s economy is going to collapse sooner rather than later, so you might as well have an awesome stereo before the world ends.

All kidding aside, these are both great amplifiers and easily the equal—if not the better—of any comparably priced separates I’ve heard. The 700i possesses even more refinement than the 600i, and its extra power will drive more speakers. However, you can almost put your hands on the 600i and its companion CD player/DAC, the 650D, for the price of the 700i. After side-by-side listening, the progression between the two amplifiers is fairly linear. It’s not as if you get 85% of the goods with the smaller amplifier and pay a premium for the bigger one. Your room and speaker choices will be determining factors. The more volume you crave, the more you will probably be pushed towards the higher-powered 700i. And, it’s worth noting that even at modest volume levels, the 700i reveals more musical information and offers a larger presentation in all three dimensions.

If nothing else, the decision to buy the 700i over the 600i may be determined by your system expansion plans. The 600i is certainly no slouch, but might leave you craving down the road, where the 700i likely has a higher chance of staying in your rack for a longer period. Me, I’d eat mashed-potato sandwiches for a few months and buy the bigger amp.

Simaudio 600i and 700i integrated amplifiers

MSRP: $8,000 and $12,000, respectively

Manufacturer information:


Digital Source
Simaudio 750D CD player/DAC w/Sooloos Control 15

Analog Source
AVID Acutus SP Reference w/SME V and Koetsu Urushi Blue, Audio Research REF Phono 2

GamuT S9, B&W 805D, Magnepan 1.6

Cardas Clear I/C and Speaker

Running Springs Maxim, Mongoose and HZ power cords