10 Greatest "Upper-End" Bargains in High-End Audio

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
10 Greatest "Upper-End" Bargains in High-End Audio

Aesthetix Rhea/Rhea Signature


With three inputs, variable cartridge-loading—adjustable at the listening chair via remote control—and a front-panel display of gain and loading, the Rhea is the Swiss Army Knife of phonostages. Although it has tons of gain, the noise level is relatively low, making it compatible with a wide range of cartridge outputs. The Rhea’s family resemblance to the Calypso linestage is unmistakable: transient quickness and speed without etch, a feeling of effortlessness on crescendos, and a deep layered soundstage. Our 2003 Product of the Year. The Signature version of Aesthetix’s Rhea vividly demonstrates the value of component quality. Although the circuit is identical to that of the Rhea, the Signature uses ultra-premium parts throughout. The sonic result is a much better-defined bottom end, even smoother timbres, and (surprisingly) greater dimensionality. Rhea owners can upgrade to the Signature for the difference in retail price. An expensive upgrade over the $4500 Rhea, but well worth it. musicalsurroundings.com

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2


The Golden Ear and Product of the Year Award-winning Alpha DAC is not only one of the best-sounding digital-to-analog converters, it’s also an amazing bargain. In addition to world-class decoding of CD sources, the Alpha DAC can handle any sampling rate to 192kHz and word lengths to 24 bits. Its robust analog output stage and variable output level allow it to drive a power amplifier directly. This feature is significant, because the Alpha DAC is capable of such resolution, timbral purity, and dynamics you’ll want to hear it without the limitations of a preamp in the signal path. When used at its best—fed by true high-res sources from a music server, and driving an amplifier directly—the Alpha DAC delivers stunning resolution of the finest musical detail, throws a spectacularly large and well-defined soundstage, and plays back music with gorgeous tone color and purity. A reference-quality product at a moderate price. berkeleyaudiodesign.com

Benz LP S-MR


The new Benz flagship—the first Benz to be tipped with a microridge stylus (thus the “MR” in its moniker)—more than holds its own in direct comparison with the very best cartridges JV and HP have reviewed. It is simply less “there” as a transducer than other moving coils, save (in JV’s experience) for the Ortofon A90 and Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement. We don’t usually associate “disappearing acts” with moving-coil cartridges, which tend to have rather strong characters of their own. Here, for once, is a moving coil that seems nearly characterless—utterly neutral, very transparent to sources, exceptionally finely detailed, extraordinarily dynamic (at both the loud and soft ends of the spectrum), wall-bustingly wide in soundstaging, precise but not laser-cut in imaging, and consistently lifelike in overall presentation. Along with the Ortofon A90 and the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, JV’s current reference mc. musicalsurroundings.com

dCS Debussy


The least expensive DAC from England’s digital specialist, the Debussy nonetheless makes use of virtually the same circuitry and technology as its far more expensive stablemates. Further, its generous feature list includes plentiful source-format options, single-ended and balanced outputs, and a front-panel sample-rate display. Most importantly, though, the Debussy’s sound is pure dCS, with a density of musical information that sets it apart from the competition. Nor is there any sense of frenetic digital machinations; AT found that sound winds out of the Debussy like thread from a spool. Moreover, this DAC’s USB interface is one of the industry’s best-sounding, and was recently upgraded to accommodate 24/192 and DSD over a single cable. AT did not care for the Debussy’s sound when directly driving a power amp, but otherwise the lack of a front-panel alphanumeric display is about the only drawback of this superb DAC. Despite being about $10,000 less than the next “cheapest” model, the Debussy boasts a sonic and musical imprimatur that unquestionably identifies it as a true dCS. tempohighfidelity.com

Carver Black Beauty 305


Bob Carver designed JV’s favorite solid-state amp from the first “Golden Age” of high fidelity, the Phase Linear 400, and Mr. V. rather expected the 300W, KT120-based Black Beauty 305 monoblocks to sound like updated 400s. Imagine his surprise, then, when the Black Beauties turned out to sound less like Phase Linears and more like Marantz 9s! Mr. Carver has always been full of surprises, but this one (and he is completely candid about the rich, liquid, voluptuous, “classic tube amp” sound he was aiming for— and has achieved) is a doozy. Although the Black Beauties probably won’t wow “transparency to sources” listeners, they will bowl over anyone who puts sheer sonic loveliness first. Dark and beautiful the Black Beauties most certainly are, with big bass and surprisingly fine midband detail. While adjustable enough—via biasing and feedback— to broaden their appeal a bit, with higher bias and lower feedback producing a more “modern” sound, these babies aren’t intended for the analytical listener; they are meant for the music-lover. They do share one thing with the Phase 400: They are a best buy, if JV has ever heard one. bobcarver.com

Spectral DMC-30SS II


Spectral’s DMC-30SS is a tour de force in preamplifier design, with its ultra-fast circuits, heroic volume control, innovative power supply, and meticulous attention to detail. Putting it into a system is like washing months of winter off a picture window. Timbres are richly saturated, soundstages huge and defined, and resolution of transient detail is superb (provided that these qualities exist in the recording). Moreover, the DMC-30SS has absolutely spectacular soundstaging, with tremendous depth, width, layering along a continuum, and sense of air among instruments. The DMC-30SS is extremely “fast”-sounding with lightning-quick reproduction of transient detail, yet it never sounds analytical. A world-class preamp that is underpriced relative to its performance. spectralaudio.com

AMG Viella 12


Like the $17k Raidho C 1.1 (or the now-discontinued $4k Ortofon MC A90), the beautifully-machined Analog Manufaktur Germany Viella 12 is that relative rarity—a truly first-rate (and truly original) audio component that, while by no means cheap, is still within the financial reach of folks who aren’t made out of money. The V12 may not (in fact, it does not) give you everything that a Walker, Da Vinci, or Acoustic Signature gives you, but what it does supply on select recordings—the extended sense that you are in the actual presence of real performers in a real space—is more than enough to earn the rave review it got in issue 226, its place on this select list, and one of JV’s nominations for High-End Analog Source Component of the Year come January. A genuine marvel of engineering smarts and manufacturing finesse. musicalsurroundings.com

Raidho C 1.1


Greater “realism” in hi-fi is always a matter of more and less. Where it plays linearly (which is everywhere but below 45Hz or so) Michael Borresen’s elegant Raidho C 1.1 two-way, ribbon/ cone, stand-mount mini-monitor gives you both—more detail and less electro-mechanical noise—to a truly astounding degree, and without any bleaching of tone color. The result, on select great recordings, is a “realism” that not only raises goosebumps but that can actually extend beyond the momentary to an entire cut. “Trust me,” JV wrote, “I have heard few (actually, no) other speakers in my home reproduce a violin with such unstinting, uninterrupted realism as this Raidho.” An honest-to-goodness great loudspeaker, and JV’s current reference. raidho.dk

Constellation Centaur


Very high resolution and voluptuous tone color generally don’t go together in hi-fi gear, and when they do—as in Class A triode tube circuits or Class A solid-state ones—they do so at a price in neutrality. Such amps and preamps seem to have what Raidho’s brilliant chief engineer Michael Børresen wittily calls a “bottom-up” kind of sound. That is, their sonic “center of gravity” seems to lie in the upper bass and lower midrange. Though the 250Wpc Constellation Performance Series Centaur stereo amp would probably qualify as a “bottom-up” amp, in that it has a slightly darkish overall balance (though it is not the fullest s-s amp in the bottom-most octaves JV has heard), it doesn’t trade off as much upper-midrange and treble-range air and bloom as typical Class A amps do. It has gorgeous color and texture on top, coupled with an uncanny ability to resolve very fine details without etching or “spotlighting” them. Given the right ancillaries and sources, the Centaur is among the loveliest, highest-resolution, most lifelike solid-state stereo amp JV has yet heard. constellationaudio.com