Golden Ear Awards 2015: Jonathan Valin

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Golden Ear Awards 2015: Jonathan Valin

Magico M Project Loudspeaker
Simply put, this $129k, 450-pound, five-driver, three-way floorstander with its aerodynamically shaped carbon-fiber-panel enclosure and massive aluminum top, bottom, front, and rear plates is the most realistic and enjoyable transducer I’ve heard in my home. In addition to its curved chassis, the M Project incorporates all sorts of other advances—from its 10-percent-larger diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, to its unique graphene-carbon 6" midrange driver, to the extraordinarily expensive, one-off Mundorf caps in its re-designed elliptical crossovers, to its three 10" high-sensitivity nanotube-carbon woofers. Intended to showcase Magico’s most advanced technologies, the M Project succeeds in every conceivable way, sounding much fuller, more powerful, more beautiful, more lifelike, and more appealing in the bass and power range, and less tippy in the brilliance range and top treble, than previous Magico loudspeakers, without any sacrifices in the transparency, resolution, speed, and low distortion that have made Magicos so popular with “transparency to source” and “absolute sound” listeners. Indeed, this is the fastest, most detailed Magico yet, but also, far and away, the richest and loveliest sounding. (For you “as you like it” listeners, this thing sounds jaw-droppingly good on well-recorded rock ‘n’ roll.) The only downside to the M Project beyond its price is its availability, which, alas, is virtually nil. Only fifty pairs of these showpieces were manufactured—and nearly all fifty were sold to wealthy audiophiles long before the first M Project was built. So…why is something that almost no one can buy getting my Golden Ear Award? First, because it is so damn fabulous sounding, and second, because the technologies introduced in this speaker are already trickling down (or up) into other Magicos, including the Q7 Mk II, which showed so staggeringly well at Munich High End this year, and which Robert will be reviewing in the very near future.

CH Precision M1 Monoblock Amplifier and L1 Linestage Preamplifier (with X-1 Power Supply)
$94,750 and $47,925
This deluxe, Swiss-made, bridgeable, high-current monoblock amplifier and two-box (separate power supply) dual-mono linestage preamp—authored by the same engineers, Florian Cossy and Thierry Heeb (the C and H of CH Precision) who designed Goldmund’s distinguished electronics back in the day—seem to have some of the same sonic DNA as that of another Swiss company, Soulution. Like Soulution’s 701/711 amplifiers and 725 preamplifier, the M1 and L1 are ultra-fast on transients, ultra-high in resolution, ultra-low in noise and coloration, and quite beguilingly beautiful in timbre. CH Precision’s amp and preamp use no global negative feedback at their default setting (although users can add as much or as little NFB as they choose by means of menus accessed via the LED screens built into the front panels of both units). Personally, I chose not to use any NFB, as I think feedback slows these astonishingly “fast” electronics down. When they are configured in their default positions, I would be hard put to choose between the M1/L1 and Soulution’s 711/725 in every regard save for the bass, where the SMPS-powered Soulution (the CH Precision uses an extraordinarily high-quality transformer-based power supply) still holds an edge in weight, power, and color. When it comes to resolution and speed, however, the two fight to a virtual draw. Indeed, with a slightly less dark (i.e., “bottom-up”) balance the CH Precision may draw ahead by a nose in these two areas. (Then again, it may not.) Which should you choose? Well, that depends on your speakers, your source, your room, and you. One thing is certain: Those shopping for the best in solid-state need to listen to both these marques.

VAC Statement Linestage, Statement Phonostage, and Statement 450iQ Monoblock
$66,000; $70,000; $116,000
These gorgeous, gorgeously made, ultra-expensive, two-box (separate power supplies) tube electronics—the $66k Statement Linestage, the $70k Statement Phonostage, and the $116k Statement 450iQ monoblock power amps—represent designer Kevin Hayes’ “all-out” effort to produce audio gear without the usual constraints of expense, time, and difficulty of manufacture. As those of you who have been lucky enough to hear them at shows can attest, the results are phenomenally lifelike. You might think that the VAC Statement tube gear would sound worlds apart from Soulution or CH Precision solid-state, but you would, in many respects, be wrong. Here is a suite of glass-bottle electronics that has pretty much the same resolution and transient speed as the world’s best transistor gear. No, it cannot do the bottom octave and the power range with quite the grip and wallop of Soulution’s 701/711, but…this ain’t your granddad’s tube low end, either. (And I’m probably old enough to be your granddad, so listen up.) The Statement exercises uncanny (for tubes) control of the bottom octaves. And of course its midrange and treble are simply and gorgeously dense in tone color and low-level texture. However, if, once again, you’re expecting the usual big, bloomy tube-like mids and slight softening roll on top, think again. No “inflated” midband images, no loss of treble-range color or detail here. In focus and extension, the Statement electronics are closer to solid-state than typical tubes. But not in color, not in texture, not in gestalt.

JL Audio Gotham Subwoofer and CR-1 Crossover
$12,000 and $3000
This gigantic $12k subwoofer with two 13.5" drivers, along with JL Audio’s $3k outboard CR-1 crossover, has simply redefined subwoofing for me. Never a fan of subs, I’ve been turned around by these wonderful products, which in combination are capable of a more seamless blend with main speakers (be they two-ways, panels, or floorstanders) than anything I’ve heard (in fact, than anything I imagined possible), with next-to-none of the midrange veiling—the loss of resolution and transparency—that was inevitably part-and-parcel of subwoofing in the not-too-distant past. What the Gotham and CR-1 do is open up an entire new world of loudspeaker possibilities, wherein smaller and/or less expensive mains can be made to sound a whole lot like Raidho D-5s or Wilson Alexandrias or Rockport Arraki or Magico M Projects for a lot less dough.

Odyssey Stratos Monoblock
Speaking of a lot less dough, these $2500-the-pair, high-speed, high-bandwidth monoblocks from Klaus Bunge’s Odyssey Audio are phenomenally good for the money. Of course, there is a reason for this—their family heritage. As was the case with Klaus’ equally wonderful Khartago stereo amp, the Stratos uses the exact same circuit as Germany’s celebrated Symphonic Line amplifiers, which sounded so great at Munich High End 2015 with Audiodata Model One loudspeakers. Even if you A/B’d these monoblocks with super-amps like Soulution’s 711 (as I did), you might still find yourself pondering whether the difference in sound justifies the difference in expenditure. That I ultimately thought it did is beside the point. The way I see it, the fact that the Odyssey Stratos monoblocks could give even a picky listener like me pause makes them super-amps in their own right. Yes, you can buy better. The question, as I said in my review, is: Do you really want to?

Air Tight PC-1 Opus Moving-Coil Cartridge
Price TBD
As of this writing, this cartridge (price TBD) from Air Tight is not yet a real-world product. I’ve been lucky enough to audition a prototype at length, and all I can say is that if the “finished” Opus is equal or superior to the test sample then it will certainly join the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement and Ortofon MC Anna in my Golden Circle of mc cartridges. The PC-1 and PC-1 Supreme have always been gemütlich transducers, kind of the polar opposites of the cooler, less forgiving Ortofons (not the Anna), Goldfingers (not the Statement), and Lyras. Dark and rich and liquid, they have much of the speed and resolution of my Golden Circle über-cartridges, without any trace of the analytical. The Opus carries this same aesthetic a step further, sounding just that much richer and more beautiful, while also adding greater speed, resolution, and spaciousness to the package.

Ultimate Ears PRM In-Ear Monitors and Chord Hugo Portable Headphone Amp/DAC
$1999 and $2495
Ultimate Ears $1999 in-ears are unique in two major respects. First, they are specifically made to fit your ears—and yours alone. (When you order a pair of PRMs you have to visit an audiologist and have him or her make thermo-plastic molds of your inner and outer ears.) Second, you must eq your PRMs for your own hearing or your own taste. The results of all this customization are amazing. Driven by Chord’s fabulous, battery-powered Hugo headphone amp and DAC, which I will rave about in a future review (as if it needs another rave), the PRM is simply a superb high-fidelity transducer that, thanks to its perfect fit and unique voicing (designed for and by you—and you alone), will please your ears more completely and enjoyably than any other in-ear out there. There is a reason why so many performers use these things on stage and in studios. The PRMs let them hear themselves the way they want to be heard—and let you hear music the way you want to hear it.