2014 Golden Ear Awards: Robert Harley

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Equipment racks and stands
Aesthetix Romulus,
Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC Reference Series,
Rockport Technologies Altair,
Simaudio Moon 810LP,
Soulution 701
2014 Golden Ear Awards: Robert Harley

Rockport Altair Loudspeaker
Although it’s been nearly four years since I reviewed the Altair, Rockport’s second-from-top model still sticks in my mind as one of the world’s greatest loudspeakers. My fond memory of how this extraordinary loudspeaker sounded in my home has been repeatedly resurrected by its appearance at shows, where it has sounded fabulous driven by Absolare electronics. Every time I hear the Altair I marvel at its gorgeous tone color, top-to-bottom coherence, ability to resolve micro-dynamic information that other loudspeakers either smear or gloss over entirely, and the way these speakers disappear as sound sources. To top it off, the Altair’s bass is phenomenal in every way. There’s plenty of midbass energy that conveys a richness and density of tone color as well as the rhythmic drive of bass guitar, yet the presentation isn’t overly ripe. The balance is warm and rich without a trace of slowness or bloat, perhaps due in part to the 15" side-firing woofers. The design, build, and finish are all world-class. (214)

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series
I’ll have a lot more to say about this extraordinary new product in my review next issue, but for now you should know that Berkeley’s Alpha DAC Reference redefines what we can expect from digital playback. The Reference is simply stunning in its ability to render instruments as real-sounding objects in three-dimensional space. This startling—and I mean startling—quality is made possible not just by the Reference’s spatial precision, but also by the timbral vividness and extraordinarily high resolution of the tiniest micro-details. What’s more, the Reference performs this magic trick on all instruments simultaneously, even in the most dense and complex passages. This unprecedented (for digital) quality allowed me to easily follow individual musical lines in a way I never thought possible from digital. The build-quality is many steps up from the original Alpha DAC, including a chassis milled from a solid aluminum block. The Alpha DAC Reference is an unqualified triumph. (Review forthcoming)

Simaudio 810LP Phonostage
Canada’s Simaudio is one of those companies that builds premium products at fair prices. The top-of-the-line 810LP phonostage is a case in point. This very sophisticated product isn’t inexpensive at $12,000, but many companies would have charged much more for this level of performance. The 810LP features a massive and elaborate power supply employing 24 cascaded regulation stages built around Simaudio’s proprietary regulator designs. The result is ultra-clean DC powering the delicate audio circuits—Simaudio says the DC supply is as quiet and well-regulated as a battery supply. The fully balanced differential audio circuit is built from hand-matched transistors, and is mounted on a floating circuit board. This attention to detail pays off in the listening room, where the 810LP is as silent as a bank vault. This phonostage resolves fine detail with astonishing precision; cymbals hang in space, and the way their harmonic structure subtly changes with their decay is clearly audible. It’s this level of resolution that brings music to life. The 810LP is a transparent window on the LP front-end driving it, and is fully at home in the context of the world’s best electronics, loudspeakers, and associated equipment. (231)

Soulution 701 Power Amplifier
$155,000 per pair
A pair of power amplifiers that cost more than a Mercedes S-Class? Yes, but if you have the dough, I doubt that you’ll find a more musically compelling amplifier on the planet. The massive 701s break new ground in sheer dynamic verve and vivid immediacy. Although not forward-sounding, the 701s convey a sensational lifelike presence in both timbre and dynamics that put them in a class by themselves. Instrumental entrances fairly jump from the loudspeakers with hair-raising realism. And then there’s the phenomenal bass that must be heard to be believed. These amplifiers have a bottom-of-the-earth solidity and dynamic impact unlike any amplifier I’ve heard. The Soulution 701s are mega-priced, but they also deliver mega-performance. (Review forthcoming)

Critical Mass Systems Amplifier Stand
I’ve been a latecomer to the idea that vibration control is an important contributor to an audio system’s performance. But once I heard the effects of vibration control, there was no turning back. Exhibit A in my conversion is the MAXXUM amplifier stand from Critical Mass Systems. This beautifully built product is based on the same technology found in Critical Mass Systems’ MAXXUM equipment racks; the stands are essentially a MAXUUM shelf mounted on a four-point X-shaped support structure. Sonically, this amplifier stand allows the system to better resolve low-level information. The increase in resolution isn’t heard only as greater detail (although it is to some degree), but rather as an increase in the sense of realism, spatial definition, the fine dynamic structures of instruments, and the ability of the loudspeakers to disappear. The Critical Mass Systems stands allow the extraordinary components in the rest of my system to achieve their potential. Note that an upgraded version is available, and will be the subject of a full review. (Review forthcoming)

Aesthetix Romulus CD Player/DAC
This all-tubed CD player and DAC is one of the greatest bargains in high-end audio today. What makes the Romulus special is that it sounds so “un-digital,” particularly at this price. Rather than sounding flat and congealed, the Romulus opens up the spatial presentation and gives instruments and voices room to breathe. The player has an expansive quality along with a sense of top-octave air and openness. The tonal balance is rich and warm in the bass, which, coupled with the treble smoothness, results in an immediately engaging and fatigue-free presentation. The Romulus doesn’t sound “tubey” in the classic sense, but neither does it sound like solid-state. The design and build-quality are beyond what’s expected at this price. If you have no analog sources, the Romulus can serve as a preamplifier and DAC with multiple digital inputs, provided you purchase the variable-output option ($1000). Thanks to an innovative hybrid analog/digital volume-control, there’s no loss of resolution no matter what the volume setting. (243)