Golden Ear Awards 2015: Robert Harley

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Music servers and computer audio,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Aurender W20,
Constellation Mono 1.0,
Constellation Preamp 1.0,
Constellation Stereo 1.0,
JL Audio E-Sub e110,
JL Audio e112,
Magico Q7 Mk.II,
Moon Audio Neo 430HA,
Raidho X-1
Golden Ear Awards 2015: Robert Harley

Magico Q7 Mk II
Magico has taken the Q7, a speaker I’ve long considered to be the state of the art and, surprisingly, made it significantly better. The Q7 Mk II benefits from an entirely new tweeter, designed from the ground up, a fresh midrange diaphragm made from graphene (a new carbon-fiber-like material), and a redesigned crossover with exotic capacitors. The Mk II obviates the classic dilemma of resolution vs. ease by combining the highest resolution midrange and treble I’ve heard in a loudspeaker with tremendous delicacy and a complete lack of hardness and glare. The sonic impact is so profound that the Mk II sounds as though it has a different tonal balance, but the two speakers have identical responses. Although the woofer section remains unchanged, the Mk II’s bass is considerably improved, perhaps by virtue of the midrange’s higher-resolution reproduction of the overtones of bass instruments. I’ll have a lot more to say about the Q7 Mk II in my upcoming review, but for now I’ll enthusiastically give this stunningly great transducer a Golden Ear Award.

Aurender W20 Music Server
Aurender’s top-of-the-line W20 is the most feature-laden and capable turn-key music server on the market. It also happens to have the best music-management app, an important consideration when choosing a server. Load the W20’s internal hard drive (up to a whopping 12TB) with music, connect one of its many digital outputs to a DAC, link a tablet to your wireless network, and you’ve got virtually unlimited music. The W20’s seamless integration with Tidal’s streaming service greatly expands its functionality. You’ll need, however, a Mac or PC with an optical drive to rip to the W20. The W20’s sound quality is outstanding, due perhaps in part to its 128GB of internal cache memory and other performance-oriented design tricks.

Raidho X-1 Loudspeaker
The diminutive Raidho X-1 brings you exactly the same Danish hand-made ribbon tweeter found in Raidho’s $220,000 flagship D-5. This is one of the greatest high-frequency transducers yet devised, combining stunning speed, detail, and resolution on the one hand, with silky smoothness and ease on the other. When used as intended, in a smallish room at moderate playback levels, the X-1 is nothing short of stunning. The treble resolution, transient performance, soundstaging, liquidity, smoothness, ease, and freedom from etch are world-class—which is saying a lot for a $6400 speaker. But when you push the X-1 to louder playback levels, or play music with heavy low-frequency content, the X-1 runs up against the laws of physics. The 4" mid/woofer’s excursion is limited, causing the X-1 to sound congested in the bass when pushed outside its performance envelope. A moderately sized room and a judicious hand on the volume knob will keep the X-1 within its comfort zone. If you have the appropriate application and expectations, I don’t think that you’ll find a finer sub-compact loudspeaker than the Raidho X-1.

JL Audio e110/e112 subwoofers
No company makes subwoofers like those from JL Audio because no other company has applied as much engineering focus on the category. The firm holds 24 patents on drivers and another 12 on amplification and enclosures. Now JL Audio has brought its technology down to a lower price with the e110 and e112 powered subwoofers. The only differences are driver size (10" vs. 12") and amplifier power (1200W vs. 1500W). Both subs feature a surprisingly high-quality high-pass and low-pass active crossover. The selfsame things that have made previous JL Audio’s subwoofers exceptional—lack of bloat and overhang, coupled with tremendous power and authority—were evident in the e110 and e112. These subs are quick and agile, reproducing transient information with no smearing of leading-edge attacks or decays. As a result, the subs don’t dilute pace and rhythm, as many subs do. Both subs go low, play loudly, and do both at the same time without any sense of strain or compression of dynamic peaks. A stone-cold bargain, and an easy choice for a Golden Ear Award.

Moon by Simaudio Neo 430HA Headphone Amplifier
This upper-end headphone amp is designed and built with the same care and skill as Moon’s other outstanding products. To tell you that the 430HA improved the sound compared to my previous headphone amplifier would be a colossal understatement. I was shocked by how much better my headphones (PSB M4U 2 and Audeze LCD-X) sounded in every sonic regard when driven by the 430HA. With the Moon powering the ’phones, clarity and transparency increased. The 430HA’s rendering of bass was spectacularly great, revealing more tonal and dynamic nuances in the low end and the midbass. The Neo 430HA is an outstanding product in features, design, build, and sound quality. It literally transformed the sound of my headphones, and in the process, elevated my engagement with the music. If you’re serious about headphones, and haven’t heard a first-rate headphone amplifier, take your ’phones to a Simaudio dealer and listen to what the 430HA can do for the listening experience. A DAC option adds $800 to the price.

Constellation Audio Inspiration Series Electronics
Preamp 1.0, $9000; Inspiration Stereo Amplifier, $10,000; Inspiration Monoblock Amplifier, $10,000 each
The three products in the Inspiration Series are the Preamp 1.0 linestage ($9000), Stereo 1.0 stereo power amplifier (200Wpc, $10,000), and Mono 1.0 monoblock power amplifiers (400W, $20,000 per pair). Although not inexpensive, at these prices Constellation products represent quite a breakthrough. This is particularly true when you consider that the Inspiration Series uses exactly the same audio circuits designed for the $65,000 Altair preamplifier and $140,000 Hercules power amplifier. The $9000 Preamp 1.0’s schematic and even its audio-circuit-board layout are identical to that of the Altair. The Stereo 1.0 and Mono 1.0 amplifiers employ the same topology as the Hercules, along with many of the same components, including the transistors in the input, driver, and output stages. The combination of transparency and resolution without etch that defines the brand was readily apparent in all three products. There was no mistaking the Inspiration’s crystalline transparency and openness for any other brand. So many of the qualities that define the Altair and Hercules survive intact in the Inspirations—including a highly resolved yet delicate and refined treble, and rich tone color—that if you’ve always wanted the Constellation sound but the prices were previously out of reach, the Inspiration Series may be just your ticket.