The following is a press release issued by Focal Naim America.
Champlain, NY | April 1, 2021 – Focal Naim America announced today it will be the US distributor of Thorens. With the incorporation of Thorens, Focal Naim America will add a lineup of high-end audio made in Germany to its current audio partners.
Throughout the company’s history, Thorens has developed several devices that have become milestones in the history of consumer electronics and is the oldest consumer electronics manufacturer in the world, founded in 1883 in St. Croix, Switzerland.
“Focal Naim America is committed to supporting our brands and providing our network of dealers with the best in high-end audio and Thorens is a tremendous addition to our portfolio,” said Roman Vet, VP Marketing of Focal Naim America. “We are proud to distribute Thorens with its 138-year hi-fi history and award-winning products.”
“We are very pleased that Focal Naim America is our new partner with its extensive audio experience and dealer network,” said Gunter Kürten, CEO of Thorens. “We are excited to bring our quality and high-performance products to the audiophile needs in the US.”
Focal Naim America is dedicated to offering complete audio solutions, and with the addition of Thorens’ now offers turntables, tonearms, cartridges and accessories in the US.
Building media computers since 2011, Baetis Audio has been run by two classic polymaths. The social entrepreneur Michael Simmons has defined that kind of person as “someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top one-percent skill set.” Baetis founder John Mingo is a Ph.D. economist who served as a Senior Advisor to the Federal Reserve Board and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. He’s also a fly-fishing authority, which is why he lives in Livingston, Montana, minutes away from some of the world’s most famous trout streams. Baetis, by the way, is the genus of mayfly that trout like to dine on.
Joe Makkerh, based in Montreal, has been associated with Baetis Audio since 2014, developing the company’s highly regarded customer support program (see sidebar).Born in the UK and educated at Cambridge, Makkerh had a number of previous careers before becoming Baetis’ CEO in late 2017 upon John Mingo’s retirement. He was a research scientist in several biology and medical fields and, for five years, administered McGill University’s graduate neurosciences program. All along, Makkerh has been a devoted videophile with a strong interest in media computers.
Michael Simmons cites studies suggesting that polymaths are often more innovative and impactful than specialists in many areas of human endeavor. Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs—all polymaths. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a company led successively by these two men, neither of who had formal EE training, is manufacturing some of the most advanced audiophile servers available.
Baetis has established three product levels, the Prodigy (beginning at $2500 for the LE model), Revolution, and Reference (which tops out at $13,000 for the Reference 3B without any extras.) The original Revolution was the company’s very first server, and I wrote it up enthusiastically in Issue 240, nearly seven years ago. This latest iteration, the Revolution X3, is once again in a mid-sized chassis measuring 13¼” (W) x 4½” (H) x 12″ (D). Black and silver finishes are available. The power button has been moved around to the left side, between the lateral extension of the front faceplate and the first heatsink fin, below a USB 3 Type C port to which one can connect a drive or recharge a mobile device. Functionally, all that’s found on the front side of the Revolution is a rather flimsy disc transport—a laptop drive, which, as Joe Makkerh explained, is all that could fit in the X3’s chassis (plus the availability of more substantial slot-loading drives is rapidly diminishing). This transport will rip 4k Blu-ray Discs, something a slot-loading drive can’t do. In any event, anyone with a large number of silver discs to rip will surely be using an external optical drive, quite possibly an automatic system such as the Acronova Nimbie. Baetis offers a robust external drive.
Around back is a Neutrik power inlet. The detachable cable connects to an Adapter Technology Company 12V/16A power supply, a 7″ x 1½” x 3″ brick of reassuring heft. Makkerh estimates that ten percent of Revolution owners opt for a more substantial linear power supply, such as the HDPLEX supplied with Baetis’ Reference models. To the right of the DC power inlet are AES/EBU and SPDIF ports, the latter with either a BNC or RCA connector, according to the purchaser’s preference. Next to those outputs is a slot for an optional “audiophile USB” interface that avoids the computer’s noisy PCIe bus. Baetis offers two alternatives sourced from SOtM, with and without a clock card ($1150 and $500 respectively); the review sample came equipped with the former. With both, an iFi low-noise power supply is provided. Besides the galvanically shielded SOtM add-on, there are eight other USB ports, all connected to the Revolution’s motherboard. If you don’t spring for an SOtM USB card, Joe M. strongly advises that you get “some kind of USB regenerator” to go between Revolution and DAC to more effectively employ a standard USB port. If your DAC accepts AES/EBU, you could, of course, depend entirely on that—as below, the sound quality of that interface approaches that of the SOtM option. But you do need USB if you’re going to be listening to DSD without conversion to a PCM codec. Rounding out the rear-panel connectivity is a DVI video port, 2.0 HDMI, and a Gigabit Ethernet connection.
Inside, the heart of the matter is an AMD Ryzen APU—a CPU that features integrated graphics on a single chip. The Windows 10 Pro operating system, stripped down to remove as much “bloatware” as possible without compromising the function of the music organization and playback software, lives on a 250GB solid-state drive, and the Baetis is equipped with 16GB of DDR4 3200MHz RAM. Standard is the same proprietary daughterboard for SPDIF and AES/EBU that’s employed in the Reference models—though with Revelation Audio Labs CuPID copper cabling rather than the cryo-silver wire used with the priciest Baetis machines.
Makkerh, like Mingo before him, feels strongly that a disk drive with moving parts doesn’t belong inside the computer and a 4TB external USB storage drive is included in the price of the X3. The server is fanless, which saves space and facilitates the use of larger motherboards and the same audio chip implemented in the latest Reference models. There are other à la carte options for a purchaser to consider—a JCAT “audiophile-grade” Ethernet port, additional RAM and external storage, alternative DC cables, etc.—and each computer is built to order. Baetis continues to maintain a hybrid business model: There are a small number of dealers who sell only the Reference models, a larger number of “demonstrators,” plus robust direct-sales activity out of Montreal. The pricing is the same no matter which purchasing channel the consumer uses.
All these details concerning low-noise USB interfaces, RAM, cabling, power supplies, and all the rest don’t count for anything if the computer hasn’t been set up optimally and the owner isn’t confident operating the machine. Audiophiles who buy a Baetis media computer get something that doesn’t come with any other server, and that’s… Joe Makkerh. The Baetis CEO insists on speaking with potential purchasers about their systems and music collections to assure that the best decisions are made regarding the machine they buy and the way it’s configured. If, for example, a special driver is required for the Revolution to function with the user’s DAC, Makkerh downloads and installs it before the computer is shipped to the purchaser. If the customer wants Roon or Audirvana software in addition to the standard JRiver, Makkerh takes care of it. Then, when the computer has arrived at the customer’s home, the owner schedules a session lasting a couple of hours, more if necessary, to meet virtually with Joe, who gains remote access to the purchaser’s computer. (The icon for the application allowing this is displayed prominently on the desktop when the computer is turned on for the first time.) Makkerh assures that everything is working as it should and shows the user how to operate his server. With the system optimized ahead of time, most new owners learn quickly, thanks to Makkerh’s gifts as a patient and methodical teacher. Theoretically, new customers are entitled to a set number of hours of instruction, after which they are charged $50/hour, but in practice Makkerh takes as long as necessary for people to be comfortable with whatever software they are using—and to assist if a problem arises down the line. This level of personal service is unusual in any setting.
The Revolution X3 was evaluated in a straightforward setup. The Baetis sent data via USB, AES/EBU, or coaxial SPDIF to a T+A DAC 8 DSD that connected directly to David Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks driving Magico M2 loudspeakers. Digital interconnects from Baetis to T+A were Revelation Audio Labs Reference Cryo-Silver models (USB and AES/EBU—this is the same manufacturer that provides critical internal wiring for Baetis servers) and Apogee Wyde Eye (coaxial/SPDIF). Analog cables were Transparent Audio Generation 5 Ultra.
On the question of the X3’s sound quality, it seems a stretch to speak of a media computer—a device without a digital-to-analog converter or much in the way of actual audio circuitry—as having “good bass” or “impactful dynamics” or “abundant low-level detail.” It’s perhaps more sensible to note that a server doesn’t attenuate bass, constrain dynamics, or obscure detail. The computer must get out of the way to allow the recording and the rest of one’s system to deliver a satisfying listening experience, and this the Revolution X3 does very well. The best indicator for me is listening closely to über-familiar recordings and judging whether or not the fundamental character of those recordings is faithfully represented. So, the luxuriant back-of-the-hall acoustic of Erich Kunzel’s Cincinnati Pops Telarcs, the brilliantly lit forwardness of vintage Mercurys (such as the Dorati Firebird), or the in-your-room immediacy of the late Dave Wilson’s violin and piano recordings were realized with complete faithfulness to the essence of three very different sonic ideals.
Of course, as with everything else in high-end audio, a particular server can be better or worse at the above, and I had on hand, for comparison, another Baetis—the Reference 2, which has been my everyday digital-file source-component for the past several years. I did a lot of level-matched comparisons between the X3 and the Ref 2 and, honestly, the differences weren’t enormous. Via AES/EBU, the Reference, with its i7 7700K four-core processor, cryo-silver internal cabling, and 400W HDPLEX external power supply, offered a more spacious and detailed presentation. Using the SOtM USB interfaces installed on both, string textures were a bit more complex and there was better spatial specificity with the Reference. These differences with USB largely disappeared when the source material was PCM rather than DSF files. Perhaps the contrasts would have been greater between the Revolution X3 and the latest Reference servers, the Reference 3B and Reference X3 models. Can’t say.
I can say that the difference between the SOtM USB port and a standard USB port, taken directly off the motherboard, was not subtle. On a movement from a Beethoven string quartet (Op. 18, No. 3 in D major, Andante con moto, played by the Hagen Quartet), the ensemble sound was noticeably coarser, with the first violin sounding less sweet in his solo passages, on the standard USB port. There was definitely a sense of noise riding along with the musical signal. Inserting an Ideon Audio Renaissance USB regenerator (the price for the current Blackstar edition is $450) restored at least 75% of what was lost by not connecting to the SOtM port. I concluded, as well, that SOtM USB was only very slightly ahead of AES/EBU, with subtle differences in dynamic life and openness tilting in the direction of USB. Honestly, if playing DSD files natively isn’t of critical importance and assuming your DAC will accommodate the AES/EBU connection, I’d recommend against purchasing the USB upgrade and just use all those regular USB ports to attach peripheral devices and for file transfer.
For listeners devoted to multichannel music, the performance of the Revolution X3 via HDMI was stunning. With an Anthem D2v serving as the pre/pro driving five channels of Pass Labs amplification (three XA 60.8s and an Aleph 0s for the surrounds) and six Magicos (two M2s, an S3 Mk2 for the center speaker, two S1 Mk2s for surrounds, plus a powered S-Sub), the noise floor was exceptionally low, allowing for the subtlest textural detail and spatial cues to register fully. This was evident both with surround recordings aiming to render a specific venue—Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw with Bernard Haitink’s 2010 performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 on the RCO Live label, my go-to example—as well as with creatively engineered 5.1 mixes of non-classical material—Roxy Music’s Avalon is an especially successful multichannel treatment of a stereo original.
There is still a sizable group of audiophiles with listening careers that date back to the analog era. For years following the introduction of the compact disc, it was valid for these music-lovers to continue to favor LPs on the basis of sound quality. But with the steady advance of digital recording methodology and silver disc playback, the also-ran status of digital media vanished. The progression to file playback has arguably improved the digital audio experience further—this in addition to the convenience and satisfaction of effectively managing a large music collection curated over many years. Sometimes begrudgingly, most analog types accepted the silver disc but for a not-inconsequential number, “computer audio” has been a bridge too far. The Baetis Revolution X3 is a well-made, customizable, reasonably priced, and superb-sounding component that, thanks to an unmatched level of customer support, makes this burgeoning part of our hobby accessible to even the most technophobic. Whether you are taking the computer-audio plunge for the first time or want to hear the substantial improvement that derives from retiring that laptop as your digital file source, Baetis Audio’s products deserve the strongest consideration. It was true when its servers shipped from Montana and it’s true now that they come from Montreal.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs/outputs: One proprietary BNC or RCA SPDIF, one proprietary AES/EBU, one HDMI, eight USB ports Connectivity: One Ethernet, DVI video Dimensions: 13¼” x 4½” x 12″ Weight: 17 lbs. Price: $6200 (black or silver) plus $1150 for SOtM interface with clock card, as reviewed. Other add-ons available. (Included: Neutrik DC power cord with Adapter Technology Company 12V/16A power supply, 4 TB USB 3.1 external hard drive for media storage.)
March 31, 2021 – Linn has launched its next-generation Klimax DSM, the ultimate streaming product and the closest you can get to streaming audio perfection. Applying almost five decades of digital technology learnings and expertise, every element has been designed from first principles and is fully optimised for the best musical performance.
A complete reimagining of its flagship streamer, the new Klimax DSM introduces an exquisite custom-designed enclosure that provides acoustic isolation along with visual and tactile luxury. Crucially, the enclosure cradles the beating heart of Klimax DSM and its most critical component, Organik DAC – the ground-breaking, first ever, all-Linn digital to analogue converter.
Gilad Tiefenbrun, Linn Managing Director, said, ‘New Klimax DSM is the ultimate embodiment of Linn’s passion for music and is as close as you can get to streaming audio perfection. We’ve approached every single element with exacting attention to detail, inside and out, to ensure it’s optimised for performance in every way.
Since launching Klimax DS in 2007, Linn has invested substantially in people, skills and manufacturing capability, and we’ve brought that together to create our new flagship streaming product featuring the first home-grown all-Linn DAC.
Organik is a momentous achievement for Linn, making next generation Klimax DSM our most natural sounding product ever. Combined with a new level of precision machined casework, and stunning visual and tactile interfaces, it’s the epitome of extreme engineering.’
Organik DAC: The beating heart
Designed without compromise and manufactured entirely in-house, Organik DAC is the culmination of five decades of audio innovation and three decades of digital technology expertise.
It has been developed from first principles and combines FPGA processing with a discrete conversion stage, enabling Linn to precisely control and optimise every stage of the digital to analogue conversion process for the first time.
The powerful FPGA processing stage uses custom-designed algorithms to provide increased upsampling, more precise volume control, and distortion free modulation. Its partnering discrete conversion stage renders the analogue signal with extremely low levels of distortion thanks to a new ultra-low jitter oscillator and carefully designed clock distribution network. These are cleverly combined within a unique double-sided design which reduces signal paths to an absolute minimum.
Employing decades of experience in optimising circuit design, every component has been selected, designed and laid out by a Linn engineer and populated on a Linn circuit board at the factory in Glasgow. Investment in the latest Surface Mount Manufacturing technology has enabled further refinements to circuit board population techniques, including smaller component placement to tighter tolerances, as well as the use of cutting edge vapour phase ovens to ensure zero oxidisation of the soldered contacts on the boards.
Organik offers significantly lower noise and distortion, measuring better than anything Linn has achieved before. It expertly performs the digital to analogue conversion to achieve the most accurate re-creation of the original music signal, revealing even more of the tiny details that provide a closer emotional connection with the music.
With Organik DAC on-board, Klimax DSM sets a new benchmark in music streaming for the ultimate musical experience.
Advanced new in-house manufacturing technology has enabled Linn to precision engineer the new casework to exceptionally unforgiving tolerances. Every aspect of the exquisite custom-designed enclosure plays a crucial role in preserving the original musical detail while exuding a luxurious look and feel.
Machined from solid, special grade aluminium, the striking design takes on a fresh new Linn DSM family look while retaining the distinguished and much-loved signature Klimax character.
The diamond-cut circles on the upper surface echo the grooves of a record, paying homage to Linn’s iconic Sondek LP12. The dial is rendered in the highest quality materials, from the turned brass bearing celebrating its provenance while creating the smooth handling of the precision-cut glass, to the photo-etched stainless steel surround that encases each of the 100 status lights.
Connected for the best possible sound
The exceptional audio performance of Klimax DSM with new Organik DAC, including support for up to 24-bit 384khz and DSD256 audio resolution, will give all streaming and connected digital, analogue and wireless sound sources a new lease of life.
Connected analogue sources will also enjoy an extra benefit thanks to a brand new higher performance, lower distortion ADC design which has its own circuit board with dedicated power supply, while Exakt Link ports enable direct connection of an LP12 with Urika II.
A USB input enables direct connection to a computer for the ultimate performance stand-alone DAC.
Built-in wireless connectivity enables convenient connection of sources via WiFi or Bluetooth.
Additionally, the AV variant offers HDMI inputs and again uses Organik DAC to enhance the performance of all connected AV sources. It also provides eARC for Smart TV support.
Linn DSM Family
Next generation Klimax DSM adds to the family line-up of Klimax DSM, Selekt DSM and Majik DSM, to offer three highly distinct offerings with a shared family aesthetic. With its striking new design, Klimax DSM clearly sits at the very top of the range.
The two Klimax DSM variants provide choice depending on listening preferences. Klimax DSM (Audio) is for those wishing only to connect music sources. Klimax DSM (AV), with its HDMI connections, provides an enriched listening experience from movie sources as well.
Those seeking the highest performance from a complete Linn system, should opt for the new Klimax System Hub. It’s housed in the same exquisite new enclosure as next generation Klimax DSM so benefits from improved acoustic isolation. It also includes the new, improved ADC, and in terms of connectivity, offers all the same inputs as Klimax DSM (AV) variant, including the option to upgrade with surround capability.
The powerful pairing of Klimax System Hub plus Klimax 350 speakers or Klimax Exaktbox, both with the new Organik DAC on-board, delivers a result that’s out of this world.
Pricing and availability
Klimax DSM is available to order immediately from Linn Specialists worldwide.
Existing Linn customers can trade-in their existing Klimax DS, Klimax DSM or Klimax System hub with supporting trade-in options available from their local Linn Specialist.
Organik DAC for Exaktbox & Klimax 350s
New orders of Klimax 350 speakers and Klimax Exaktbox and will ship with Organik DAC as standard, providing a fantastic performance boost for new customers. They are available to order now with shipping taking place from April.
An Organik DAC upgrade is also available for existing Klimax Exaktbox and Klimax 350 owners.
Klimax Exaktbox with Organik DAC $19,500 Klimax 350 Speakers with Organik DAC $74,750 Organik DAC Upgrade for Klimax Exaktbox $7,020 Organik DAC Upgrade for Klimax 350 Speakers $14,040
March 31, 2021 – Qobuz, the music lovers’ Hi-Res streaming and download provider, has partnered with UMe and Zappa Records to provide dozens of Frank Zappa albums for the first time in Hi-Res Audio.
UMe, the global catalog company of Universal Music Group, and Zappa Records are launching today a Hi-Res reissue campaign on Qobuz totaling 29 albums spanning all phases of Zappa’s groundbreaking career. The five-week campaign will span a series of drops between now and May 7th, with classic and influential albums released for download and streaming in Hi-Res audio quality for the first time.
“Frank Zappa was passionate about making his music sound as good as possible and we are excited to continue that legacy by releasing several of his albums in Hi-Res Audio with Qobuz,” said Bruce Resnikoff, President & CEO of UMe. “Fans on Qobuz canexperience Frank’s genius in the way he would have wanted his music to sound.”
Beginning April 2, fans will be able to stream and download nine albums exclusively on Qobuz. The albums will be available in native 24-bit Hi-Res FLAC format. Each will include an extensive PDF digital booklet, a feature only available on Qobuz’s streaming apps. The assortment includes the second album from the original Mothers of Invention, Absolutely Free, first released in 1967, and Halloween 81, documenting Zappa’s famed holiday residency at New York City’s Palladium, in both full box set and edited ‘highlights’ versions.
On April 1, Ahmet Zappa and Joe Travers, the Zappa “Vaultmeister,” will join Qobuz Chief Hi-Res Evangelist, David Solomon, and the Qobuz team for a livestream discussion. This upcoming event is part of Qobuz’s weekly Qobuz Live series that features hot topics, brands and personalities in the music-lover and audiophile worlds. The livestream will cover the story of Zappa Hi-Res archives, the importance of audio quality, and the upcoming Zappa Hi-Res catalog releases. Additionally, Travers is curating an exclusive annotated Zappa playlist for Qobuz, which will be released later in April.
According to Qobuz USA Managing Director Dan Mackta, “Presenting the work of iconic artists in the best possible quality is our reason for existence. Frank Zappa’s music continues to inspire listeners all over the world and Qobuz is honored to be able to promote his artistic vision.”
See the list of Hi-Res Frank Zappa albums to be released exclusively on Qobuz April 2, and listen to Frank Zappa on Qobuz HERE.
In most areas of sonic performance this substantial (154 lbs.), three-way, five-driver loudspeaker, manufactured in Vilnius, Lithuania, achieves well above what’s expected at its price point. It plays coherently and authoritatively with music that makes significant dynamic and low-frequency demands, but it is also capable of nuance and detail. With a sensitivity of 92dB and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, the Figaro L is not a difficult load for most amplifiers. The speaker ships with two pairs of front baffles, one with a grille cloth and one without. A steel outrigger base with large adjustable spikes ($650) should be considered an essential accessory.
Legacy Focus SE
The massive, six-driver, four-way Focus SE is capable of creating a big sound in every sense of the word, while delivering the kind of speed and resolution from the midrange onwards that is customary in better ribbon and electrostatic speakers, as well as a seamless blend between drivers. The upper mids and treble have life and air, along with a slightly forward midrange perspective. A sensitivity of 94.5dB makes the Focus SE easy to drive. A lot of loudspeaker for the money.
Von Schweikert Audio UniField 2 MkIII
The UniField Two is a two-and-a-half-way design in which a 7″ coaxial driver is augmented below 80Hz by an aluminum-cone woofer. Internal chambers define a mini-labyrinth, which significantly dampens the vent output. The coaxial technology together with a non-resonant enclosure yields exceptional soundstaging and image focus. Expect impressive bass-range performance when the UniField is matched with a high-damping-factor solid-state amplifier, though the bass balance will be shifted toward the midbass. The UniField competes effectively with British stand-mounts from Spendor and Harbeth, offering greater rhythmic precision and bass heft.
$11,800 (stands $1190)
Marking MBL’s entry level for omnidirectional speakers, the Corona Line Radialstrahler 126 three-way contains much of the DNA of its bigger, upper-tier siblings, but brings the cost of acquiring MBL magic way down. The Radialstrahler designs are painstakingly handcrafted in Deutschland and feature intricately assembled omnidirectional drivers—in the 126 model, the midrange and tweeter—the latter reproducing the sweetest, smoothest upper octaves imaginable with effortless openness, detail, and delicacy, sans beaminess, edginess, or harshness. With a pair of 5-inch push-push woofers inside and a rear port, the 126s also reach deeper into the lower octaves than expected, and overall coherence is exemplary. Rich in reach-out-and-touch resolution and utterly convincing instrumental tones and textures, the 126s work within the room (with proper setup) to create a holographic and immersive listening experience. What’s not to love?
Audiovector R3 Arreté
The R3 Arreté is a two-and-a-half-way floorstander with an Air-Motion Transformer (AMT) tweeter and two 6.5″ mid/woof cones with membranes made of cross-woven Aramid fibers in a sandwich structure. High-frequency reproduction is exceptionally open, extended, and non-fatiguing, most certainly thanks to the AMT tweeter. Bass is taut and tuneful; with most recordings the use of a subwoofer isn’t even a consideration. Spatiality and transparency are also first-rate. If detail and neutrality are your things (and you’re willing to forgo some sock and body), the R3 is highly recommended.
Replace whatever loudspeakers you’ve been using with a pair of two-way CrystalConnect Arabesque Minissimos or Minissimo Diamonds (which look identical but come with a superior diamond tweeter and other perks), and people will notice—before they’ve heard a note of music. The whimsical apostrophe shape, the vibrant color, the assured smallness of the things stop folks in their tracks and make them smile. Sonically, the Minissimos are superb everywhere but the low bass (which is to be expected in a two-way). When it comes to imaging and soundstaging, they disappear, creating a broad, deep, and continuous soundstage. A superior and stylish little transducer.
Sonus faber Olympica NovaIII
The new (“Nova”) versions of the Sonus faber’s Olympica line of loudspeakers utilize a construction technique in which multiple layers of bended wood are set into an aluminum exoskeleton to create an exceptionally rigid enclosure. Within this largely resonance-free environment, users can experiment with the positioning of the top-to-bottom “Stealth Ultraflex” resistive port—aimed toward the center of the room or facing toward the sidewalls—to optimize bass performance. The Nova III’s 3-way, 4-driver transducer complement is fully up the task of playing loud and low—dance music, pipe organ, Mahler symphonies—as well as scaling down to deal effectively with more nuanced material—solo violin, an after-hours jazz singer, a virtuoso pianist’s blistering technique.
SteinMusic Highline Bobby M
$14,000 (available without the woofers for $7000/pr.)
The Bobby M and its myriad configurations are uniquely striking-looking and wonderfully musical-sounding transducers that actually make good sense when you break them down—or, rather, when you put them together. Stein’s Bobby speakers are modular: The M (for Medium) designation actually refers to the duo that was reviewed, with one bass extender (with two 6″ woofers) under a two-way, bass-reflex monitor with horn-loaded tweeter and 6″ cone mid/bass. If you use two bass extenders per channel, with one atop the Bobby S monitor and the second beneath it, you’ll have a Bobby L (for Large). Sonically, the High Line Bobby M offered pleasing and smoothly natural musicality and impressive dispersion.
These Maggies’ magical ability to transport listeners to a different space and time, and to there realistically recreate (with lifelike scope and size) the sound of acoustic instruments and the venue they were recorded in is extraordinary. It almost goes without saying (since these are Magnepans), but the 20.7s are also incredibly good values, although you’re going to have to bring a lot of power to this party, and you’re going to need a good deal of room to house two speakers the size and width of a couple of NFL linebackers.
T + A elektroakousticTalis S 300
From a manufacturer known best in North America for its electronics, digital sources in particular, comes the Talis S 300—a three-way, four-driver floorstander, with solid aluminum enclosure, that excels in all musical genres. The S 300 manifests a complete absence of tonal coloration that makes it easy to discern among similar vocal and instrumental timbres. High-frequency reproduction is open and airy, and orchestral weight is satisfying. The reproduction of spatial cues is first-rate. The S 300 responds well to bi-wiring; integrating a subwoofer is rarely necessary but possible.
Larsen Model 9
This is the latest and best embodiment of the Larsen concept: using wall placement and woofers near the floor combined with wide dispersion of the higher frequencies to generate a sound with minimal early reflections but impressive uniformity over the room. The sound of your listening room is replaced by the sound of the original recording venue to a surprising extent. The speakers needs minimal fuss about exact placement and little or no room treatment to achieve independence of the listening space. The Model 9 is superbly finished and surprisingly compact, considering its bass power and extension.
Manger Audio P1
The uniquely musical properties of the Manger Sound bending-wave transducer are brought to life in this svelte floorstander. Manger’s wide-bandwidth, low-mass, flat-disc-diaphragm transducer creates an intimacy and immediacy that are almost eerie in their authenticity. Tonally, the P1 is neutral to warmish, with saturated overtones and firm acoustic-suspension bass. Temperamentally, the P1 is not geared to knock fillings loose or propel images forward like a studio control monitor. Instead, it offers music naturalism without artifice or hype. Without the normally distracting multi-driver discontinuities to deal with, orchestral timbre remains true and realistic. There’s really nothing quite like the P1.
The Quad ESL63 and its variants, such as Quad’s 2812 electrostatic floorstander, have been from the start a speaker family that has gone its own way. They have low distortion, among the lowest; they have almost unparalleled coherence and unity of voice; they have an exceptionally uniform radiation pattern and a very low level of resonant coloration. They are also phase-linear, which is known to have subtle but definitely audible positive effects, on transients in particular. In these categories they have always been in the very top echelon and they still are. “Alone at the top” is a phrase that one is tempted to use, though it would be a slight exaggeration since others are in the same realm, though not many. No amount of money will buy a speaker that does definitively better the things that the Quads do well.
$14,995(includes ST3 stands)
The Micro Evolution One (ME1) may be the smallest in TAD’s Evolution lineup, but this three-way reflex design arguably has more heart and soul than its larger Evolution Series siblings. “Micro” in name only, the ME1’s sonics are high energy and potent beyond the speaker’s modest footprint. On tap are admirable symphonic scale, and soundstage immersion well outside the norm for a transducer of this specification. The headliner, however, is the coaxial midrange/beryllium tweeter, which offers uncommonly transparent and precise imaging and goose-pimply musical minutiae. What is unexpected are the bare-knuckled dynamic thrust and power range that will shock even the staunchest large speaker advocate.
The NS-5000 loudspeaker is the star component of Yamaha’s new 5000 Series, rightly taking its place as an underpriced overachiever in the high-performance loudspeaker marketplace. The large stand-mount 5000 uses a single material for every vibrating surface—Zylon, one of the strongest fibers in existence. The value of this unique material would be nil had Yamaha not also assembled an engineering team with their eyes focused on the musical prize. But it did. As a result, you will be richly rewarded with a nearly not-there transducer. Though Yamaha first used the term “hi-fi” way back in 1954, the NS-5000 is decidedly not (in my use of the term) hi-fi. It’s the kind of product that invites you just to settle into an unfiltered, unforced, truly musical experience.
Sonus faber Maxima Amator
A drop-dead gorgeous product, even by Sonus faber standards, the Maxima Amator is a floorstanding version of the Italian manufacturer’s popular Minima Amator bookshelf model. This is a two-way design, with a 1.1″ silk dome tweeter and a 7″ mid/woofer joined by Sonus faber’s novel “Interactive Fusion Filtering” crossover. Although those who listen to rock and large-scale orchestral music at enthusiastic levels may find low-frequency power and dynamics insufficient for their needs, with most other musical material the exceptionally seamless integration of the two drivers results in a sonic coherency that makes the speakers truly disappear.
Marten Django XL
$15,500 in piano black
The Django wowed TAS editors at CES demo, and the review sample lives up to the promise. While the Django breaks no design ground, the canny choice of materials results in a speaker that, on many tracks, proved virtually indistinguishable from AT’s reference. Warm in character (lower piano notes are ravishing), the Django offers needle-sharp transients; details emerge distinctly and naturally. Most importantly, this is an unfailingly engaging speaker.
This elegant if unusual speaker combines two sealed-box cone woofers above and below Muraudio’s unique, doubly curved electrostatic drivers. The curvature of the driver element both horizontally and vertically generates an effect resembling a virtual point source rather than sounding like a typical flat panel. The SP1 is very clean with extremely low distortion. The bass is very well integrated and precise in character, albeit not extended to the lowest lows. The spatial impression is attractively unconstrained, and the balance is overall neutral. Muraudio became famous a few years ago for its omni PX1 model, which used three doubly curved panels to form a 360 degree source. But the SP1, at a much lower and very reasonable price for what is involved, is a truly exceptional speaker in its own right.
Magico S1 Mk II M-Cast
There was a time when Magico’s enclosures were made primarily of wood; now they’re all-aluminum or carbon fiber, every model. For both the S Series and Q Series, Alon Wolf has his “platform” established and continues to advance the performance of the drivers and other components he puts into these optimized enclosures. The two-way, sealed-box Magico S1 Mk II floorstander is indeed as much a Magico as the S7 or the Q7, and must be a top consideration for anyone in the market for a loudspeaker up to $20k. As the saying goes, it “comes from good stock.”
Wilson Audio SabrinaX
Although significantly more affordable than most of Wilson’s other speakers, the SabrinaX unquestionably comes from the same gene pool. Utilizing the Convergent Synergy Mk 5 tweeter from the WAMM Master Chronosonic, the 8″ woofer from the Sasha DAW, the binding posts of the XVX, and Wilson’s new AudioCapX-WA capacitors first implemented in the XVX, the SabrinaX is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The cabinet is constructed entirely from Wilson’s ultra-dense X-material to reduce vibration and noise. The result is a speaker crafted with the same attention to detail as the XVX, and one that conveys a sense of musical truth and beauty remarkable at its price. As expected from a single woofer and smaller cabinet, the SabrinaX lacks the massive low-end authority of Wilson’s more expensive offerings, but literally nothing else.
Sanders Model 10e
$17,000 (includes one Sanders Magtech amplifier)
The 10e is a hybrid with a flat electrostatic panel mounted above a transmission-line-loaded woofer. The speaker, which must be bi-amped, comes with a DSP crossover with a variety of user adjustments. The lack of midrange coloration puts the Sanders in the top echelon. This is one of the lowest coloration speakers there is. And when you consider that even if you buy two Sanders Magtech amplifiers—one comes along as part of the $17,000 package—the total cost, exclusive of source components, is $22,500, and that you can adjust the speaker to suit your room and your tastes, the Model 10e is not only a wonder but also a bargain.
Carver Amazing Line Source
The Carver Amazing Line Source is one of the most remarkable speaker systems ever. It offers a dynamic capacity that allows realistic SPLs for even big bands and huge orchestras, with room to spare (120dB+ if you dare!), amazingly low levels of distortion, full frequency extension at both extremes, and an almost uncanny ability to reveal recorded space. Indeed, the ALS has few peers in reproducing the sense of hearing a live performance of large-scale music. If your goal is the reproduction of the live auditorium experience, then these speakers will be a revelation and an ongoing pleasure.
Harbeth M40.3 XD
A large three-way that requires stand-mounting, this is one of those rare speaker systems for which the term “monitor” is not in the least pretentious because it is literally accurate as a description of the speaker’s function and as a statement about its own intrinsic accuracy. The 40.3 is the virtual embodiment of tonal neutrality, and with a frequency response from 38Hz–20kHz of ±3dB, (but near ruler-flat across most of that range) it possesses an ease, effortlessness, and lack of strain that translate into a listening experience that draws all the attention to the music. Like the 40.2, the 40.3 represents the designer Alan Shaw’s highest development so far of the BBC school of speaker design, possessing a sheer musical authority almost nonexistent in PS’ previous experience. The 40.3 is now PS’ reference when it comes to reproducing music in all its natural power and glory.
The following is a press release issued by Wilson Audio.
March 29, 2021 – When it came time to upgrade the Alexx®, Daryl Wilson wanted to be sensitive to where research and development had brought Wilson Audio® over the past five years. The decision was made that a fresh look at the Alexx was in order, so Wilson Audio’s R&D team approached the Alexx V as it if were an all-new loudspeaker. They took elements that clearly worked in the original design and began to apply the myriad of technologies generated by Wilson’s R&D since the advent of the Alexx. Following major launches of the WAMM Master Chronosonic®, Chronosonic XVX®, Sasha DAW®, and SabrinaX®, Alexx V joins a very special family of ground-breaking loudspeakers designed and handcrafted especially for music lovers and audiophiles alike.
The original Alexx loudspeaker, launched in 2016, quickly gained critical acclaim throughout the industry. Alexx benefited from several elements developed during the five years Wilson Audio’s founder David A. Wilson, and his unwavering R&D team, brought to life his magnum opus: the WAMM Master Chronosonic. Now, five years after the monumental accomplishment of the WAMM, Alexx V builds upon the original Alexx’s success by offering a completely re-engineered performance envelope without greatly increasing the footprint. Comparing the overall size of Alexx V to the original, Alexx V is only one inch deeper and one inch taller while maintaining the same width.
Each and every component of Alexx V has been re-evaluated and significantly improved. The launch of Alexx V represents a cumulative approach to loudspeaker design, something that Wilson Audio has been steadfast about integrating since the very first location monitor (WATT®) that Dave built almost five decades ago. Incorporating the latest technologies, engineering efficiencies, and material sciences, Alexx V has improved upon the original Alexx by giving, yet again, a higher level of resolution (both temporally and audibly). Finally, Alexx V incorporates Wilson Audio’s latest design language which started with the WAMM Master Chronosonic. The open gantry design not only allows for more structural rigidity and setup flexibility, it also provides a more free flowing organic look and emotionally expressive sound.
Alexx V features unique and exotic materials that have been tested, developed, and refined exclusively for Wilson Audio over the course of roughly fifty years. Methodically utilizing mixed-materials, in pursuit of obtaining the highest performance, has long been a fundamental aspect to each Wilson loudspeaker.
A variety of carefully chosen materials have been implemented in this distilled design. The latest version of X-Material, extremely monotonic and damped in its response, is found throughout the woofer, gantry, and upper modules. S-Material is tightly coupled to each midrange and provides a neutral and natural surface from which music can launch. First used in the Chronosonic XVX, our latest and most remarkable sound-vortex, V-Material, is strategically nested into interface locations for superior vibration control. V-Material behaves like a vibration absorber and has been put in the structure between the woofer module and the gantry. V-Material can also be found in our new, carefully engineered, and high performing Wilson Audio Acoustic Diode™ spike system. X, S, and V-Material, combined with carbon fiber, austenitic stainless steel, and aerospace grade aluminum, are aesthetically and judiciously blended to make cutting-edge audio and industrial art.
Alexx V is an extraordinarily adaptable design. Carrying over elements from its larger siblings, such as the XLF reversible woofer port and independently adjustable modules, allows this system to be elegantly tailored to your listening room. These tools built into the DNA of Alexx V allow for greater ease of installation into a wider variety of listening spaces, thus permitting the listener to truly experience the depth and ability of this system.
The open architecture gantry first launched with WAMM Master Chronosonic, followed by Chronosonic XVX, has now found a home with Alexx V. Not only does this benefit the overall appearance of the loudspeaker, but critically, it also enhances the overall rigidity of the entire upper module section and minimizes pressure trapped behind the enclosures, resulting in greater fidelity. Easier access to the upper modules makes for quicker adjustments. Similar to our innovative lighting solution (Sono 1™ from Coolfall®) featured in Chronosonic XVX, Alexx V has an illumination cross-brace at the rear of the gantry which aides in speaker module setup and time-alignment fine tuning.
Continuing the Midrange – Tweeter – Midrange (MTM) design geometry of the original Alexx, our Engineering team has spent considerable time advancing key components of the loudspeaker’s sound characteristics. Every baffle angle, at every module position, has been refined. The time-alignment accuracy of Alexx V is much closer to the XVX, giving this system the ability to recreate micro-detail one would expect from a much larger system.
The different sized lower and upper midrange drivers allow for a more careful tuning of the frequency band, which, when combined with the latest manufacturing advances, gives a greater degree of accuracy and adjustability. The incredibly fast and resolving 5.75” mid-woofer used in the original Alexx, TuneTot®, and SabrinaX, carries over to Alexx V. With the midrange band managed by two dissimilar sized drivers we opted to leverage the incredible advances of our Alnico (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt) QuadraMag® design. This 7” mid was originally developed for Chronosonic XVX and has a warmth, beauty, and texture that brings to life all the elements in your favorite recordings. The QuadraMag driver combines four separate magnets, arranged in an innovative quadrature geometry, further enhancing the delicate intricacies found in the all-critical midrange region.
Behind the midrange drivers, internal wave diffusers have been machined directly into the material to further aid the resolving power of these drivers and by dramatically increasing the settling speed of the system. This creates a more life-like reproduction of midrange tone, expression, and accuracy in these remarkable midrange drivers.
When it came to the tweeter, the R&D team once again considered all available options. Fundamentally, the integration of the tweeter and midrange is an absolutely critical element to accurate sound reproduction. Countless hours were spent examining areas of potential improvement. After careful and methodical consideration, the R&D team decided to build an all-new tweeter system. Therefore, Alexx V features an entirely new Convergent Synergy® Carbon (CSC) tweeter, which builds upon a modified version of the previous Convergent Synergy motor while embracing an re-imagined, intricate, and innovative rear-wave chamber. This carbon fiber design is completely manufactured in-house using several 3D printers. The sonic results of this tweeter development cycle have been nothing short of dramatic. The CSC offers far greater and more linear high frequency extension while providing unprecedented ambient retrieval and superior harmonic detail.
Wilson Audio originally developed the 10.5” and 12.5” woofers in conjunction with the WAMM Master Chronosonic. These state-of-the-art bass drivers incorporate Wilson Audio’s latest thinking into accurate and musically relevant low frequency reproduction. Carefully optimizing the Alexx V enclosure, the internal volume has dramatically increased (+16%) compared to the original Alexx. The net result is that Alexx V features almost the same internal woofer volume as the Chronosonic XVX, which in turn allows for much deeper low-frequency reproduction, faster transient settling, and an overall increase in bass resolution.
Mid-Range (Rear Vent):X -Material with S-Material Baffle
7” Mid-Range (Rear Vent):X -Material with S-Material Baffle
Woofer (Front or Rear Ported):X -Material with V-Material Top Plate
Weight Per Channel Uncrated: 500 lbs (226.80 k g)
Total Approximate Shipping Weight: 1,400 lbs (635.03 k g)
The official global launch for Alexx V is 29 March 2021. We anticipate Alexx V to be on display and ready for demonstrations at 17 Dealers/Distributors at the time of launch. Wilson Audio is prioritizing shipments to Dealers and Distributors who are featuring Alexx V as a part of a show or event.
Will all the readers who have spent over $130 on a dinner for two raise their hands? OK. Will anyone who did not raise his hands yet who’s spent more than $130 for a cable or interconnect raise his hand? By now we should have the vast majority of the folks reading this review with their arms in the air. You can put them down now. What if I told you that for that same $130 you could have a USB DAC capable of not only playing back high-resolution PCM files but also DSD and MQA files, in addition to offering single-ended and balanced headphone outputs and an adjustable balanced line-level preamplifier output? Interested? I hope so.
The iFi Zen series of components offers audiophiles and budding audiophiles on extremely tight budgets the prospect of excellent sound and extensive features for very little fiscal outlay. The Zen DAC, Zen Blu, and Zen Phono can be used alone or in concert with one another for different input sources, while the Zen Can provides headphone outputs. The Zen DAC handles USB digital inputs (2.0 or 3.0), while the Zen Blue accepts Bluetooth sources and has outputs for single-ended and balanced analog as well as coaxial and TosLink SPDIF. The Zen Phono has single-ended and balanced outputs and supports both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges via four different gain settings.
While it’s certainly important to know what’s inside a component (we’ll get to that), it’s equally if not more important to know who designed it. IFi, formed in 2012, was created as a sub-division of the high-end firm Abbington Music Research, whose principal designer is Thorsten Loesch. For the Zen DAC project John Curl was drafted as the co-designer, focusing on the analog sections of the Zen DAC. This impressively accredited designer-duo focused on making the most cost-effective high-performance DAC/preamplifier they could for the Zen’s price. While I have not reviewed any AMR products, my own history with John Curl’s designs goes back to his Class A, differentially balanced, two-chassis JC-80 preamplifier, designed for Frank Dennesen in the mid-80s. It was impressive both in sound and in the amount of heat its pure Class A amplification scheme could generate. In many ways the Zen DAC is just as impressive, though it is far smaller and runs much cooler than its ancient predecessor.
The Zen DAC’s list of component parts includes a mix of something old and something new. The device list begins with the latest XMOS 208 series USB input chip, which iFi proprietarily modifies, followed by a BurrBrown DSD1793 DAC chip, which is certainly not the newest DAC chip available but one that iFi has used in the past. The Zen’s analog stage features a true differential balanced circuit with TDK COG capacitors, Texas Instruments low-noise power supply, and an analog volume control. Using an older chip almost guarantees that the Zen DAC will not, and does not, measure as well as the latest generation of AKM DAC chips, but, as we learned from the “specifications war” of the late 70s, not all specifications are as audibly important as others, and in the end we all listen with our ears rather than through test rigs.
Ergonomics and Setup
The Zen DAC is not merely a DAC; it can also serve as a balanced-output preamplifier. But unlike the vast majority of balanced preamplifiers with XLR outputs, the Zen DAC uses a 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output-connector, due to space and price restrictions. Finding a suitable Pentaconn-to-dual-balanced-XLR cable so that the Zen DAC’s balanced outputs can be used to drive a balanced-input power amplifier and its single-ended outputs reserved for a subwoofer, proved to be the most difficult part of setting up the Zen DAC as a stand-alone DAC/pre. First, I tried a $30 Pentaconn-to-dual-XLR cable from Amazon, which generated a constant hum, so it was not useable. IFi sent me a cable that worked, but currently the equivalent via Amazon was around $80, which could be a bit pricy for a $130 DAC buyer. Another option was to use a cable to convert from Pentaconn balanced to RCA single-ended, but that route generated a low-level buzz on both channels with both of the cables I purchased for the application (from two different manufacturers).
During much of time I had the Zen DAC, I used it as a basic DAC with fixed output connected to a Tortuga Audio V2 passive preamplifier via its single-ended RCA analog outputs. I also used the Zen DAC connected via its balanced outputs to the $7999 Sony SA-Z1 active loudspeaker system. At the end of the review period I hooked up the Zen DAC via its balanced outputs to the Mytek Manhattan II’s balanced analog inputs so I could listen through the Spatial X-2s connected to the Pass 150.8 amplifier and dual JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers. Going from active volume control to a fixed output level on the Zen DAC was as simple as moving the switch on its back. I connected a bevy of amplifiers to the Zen DAC during the time I used it as a preamplifier, including the Benchmark ABH-2 ($2999), Clone Audio 25P (discontinued, last price $750), Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), and Perreaux E110 (discontinued). Loudspeakers tethered to the system include the Audience 1+1 V3 ($2965), Silverline Minuet Supreme ($699), Aperion 4B ($199), Role Audio Kayak ($695–$795), and ATC SC7II ($1495).
The front panel of the Zen DAC has a large centrally located volume knob flanked on the right side by single-ended ¼” and balanced Pentaconn headphone outputs. The left side has a “Power Match” switch, which alters the gain levels of all the outputs, and a “Truebass” switch, which enhances the Zen DAC’s bass output. On the rear of the Zen you’ll find a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn and one pair of single-ended RCA analog outputs, a USB 3.0 input, and a 5V power barrel-connector. You have several options for an accessory/additional Zen DAC power supply. You can upgrade to an iFi Power ($49) or iFi iPower X ($99) power supply at any time. You can also add other iFi devices such as the iPurifier3 ($129), AC iPurifier ($99), and DCi Purifier2 ($99). At different times during the review I used the iFi Power, iPurifier 3, and DC iPurifier. During that period, the nearfield system was also attached to a PS Audio Dectet AC power conditioner. With this setup I did not hear any audible differences with the DC iPurifier2 in service. I used the iFi iPower supply (not the X) throughout the review, except for a couple of hours to confirm that it made an audible improvement. I did find that my choice of cabling between the Zen DAC and either a preamplifier or directly to a power amplifier made an audible difference. Kimber Kable’s KCAG ½-meter lengths were far more revealing, dynamic, and involving than the no-name standard freebie cables. And yes, even a ½-meter pair of RCA-terminated Kimber KCAS cables are more money than a Zen DAC, but if you want to hear what the Zen DAC can do, decent cables are needed…and yes, they could very well cost more than the DAC itself.
The shape of the Zen series products is unique without being wacky. You can still stack Zen components if that is your way, and with all but the thickest and heaviest cables there’s no need to pile additional weight onto the Zen’s tops to keep them from being pulled askew. For extra security, I added a steel cylindrical doorstop on top of the Zen DAC, which made it look like it had a stainless-steel chimney.
The Zen DAC supports every file format from PCM through FLAC and DSD512, as well as MQA. Unlike most entry-level high-performance DACs, which often lack any way to tell what format and bit-rate is being used for a particular file, the Zen DAC uses a color-coded system of lights that surrounds the volume control knob to signal the format and bit-rate. The Zen DAC isn’t the first DAC I’ve reviewed that used a color-coded system. The Chord Qutest also employs such a scheme, but with the Qutest there are more color options, some of which are not easy to differentiate. The Zen DAC keeps it simple with only five options—green for PCM up to 96k, yellow for PCM above 96k, cyan for DSD up to DSD128, blue for DSD256, and magenta for MQA. Unlike the Chord’s cornucopia of colors, I was capable of memorizing the iFi color code. The only tricky part of initial setup for Roon is that the Zen DAC must be designated as a “renderer only” rather than a “decoder and renderer”; otherwise it will not properly respond to or decode MQA. IFi recently added a new and different GTO filter set available via a free download for users who want to try a different “flavor” of digital filter on the Zen. And if the newer GTO filter is not to your liking, you can revert to the earlier version any time via iFi’s website.
The two buttons on the Zen DAC’s front panel add versatility. The “Truebass” is much like a fixed “contour” control that increases mid and low bass. This can be useful for listening at low volumes or with a pair of headphones that seems bass-shy. At normal listening levels I found it of little value, but when listening late at night at “don’t wake the wife” levels, it was OK (though I prefer headphones for this scenario). The other feature, called “Power Match,” changes the output-section gain. Its higher gain setting was useful for lower-sensitivity headphones and could possibly help with certain amp/speaker combinations.
Before I go all better-than-sliced-bread crazy over the Zen DAC, let me list my issues and quibbles with it. First quibble is the volume knob itself. It doesn’t wobble or feel loose, but it turns with so little effort that if you adjust by feel, you may find that as you reach down to adjust the volume it’s all too easy to accidentally come in contact with the control, at which point it will move. Some additional resistance or click stops would eliminate this issue. Next quibble is there is no remote control, so if you plan to use the Zen DAC’s volume control as opposed to its fixed output, the unit will need to be within hand’s reach.
I had some small issues with the 4.4 balanced headphone output on the front panel. Sometimes it required a bit of turning to successfully establish both channels’ outputs. The balanced 4.4 output on the back worked in perfect silence with balanced connections to balanced amplifiers, but when I tried to use several different brands of cable that went from balanced 4.4 to unbalanced RCA, I noticed low-level buzz on both channels. I ended up using an adapter to double the number of available outputs to two pairs of single-ended outputs, so I could attach both a single-ended-input power amplifier and a single-ended-input subwoofer to the Zen DAC.
The lack of an included power supply would be an issue if the Zen DAC supported SPDIF like the Schiit Modius does. But since it will always be connected to USB, as that is its sole input, an additional power supply should be considered an upgrade and not a necessity (except for optimal sonics). My final issue with the Zen DAC was the choice of 4.4 Pentaconn balanced connections as the balanced-output option. It’s not that the Pentaconn is in any way inferior to 3.5mm balanced, but it is certainly not as common—there are simply too few cabling options at prices that would be acceptable for an entry-level system. My hope is that iFi will supply a commensurately priced Pentaconn-to-balanced-XLR cable in addition to the Pentaconn-to-Pentaconn cable that’s available.
Given the Zen DAC’s price, most experienced audiophiles, including me, would assume that while adequate for background listening, the Zen DAC would be no real competition for “serious” cost-no-object flagship or “premium” DACs. This assumption is based on past experience with DACs built for a budget price-point. And while physically the Zen DAC is no competition for a flagship DAC, if you close your eyes and listen to reference-quality recorded music you know well (or that you were the original recording engineer for) you will be as surprised as I was. The music is all there without the grey haze, middling-level definition, noise, grain, or that soft “pleasing” sound that I was expecting. Used as a Roon endpoint with an accessory outboard power supply I found the Zen DAC’s performance to be good enough that I could happily live with it and even use it in a high-level nearfield or desktop digital-audio system.
When listening to a super-expensive component, most audiophiles listen for where and how it sets new audible performance standards. With a budget or entry-level component, the listening scheme is reversed—you’re listening for the sonic flaws. But what if, after many hours of listening on a wide variety of systems, you don’t hear any of the usual flaws or “tells” that telegraph a component’s budgetary roots? That leaves an audiophile or reviewer in a pickle…but not a big pickle. The only logical conclusion is that DACs, even an entry-level one using older DAC chips such as the Zen DAC, can now perform at a high enough level to satisfy many audiophile’s sonic needs. This was not the case even a few years ago.
I used the Zen DAC in three rather different systems. In the Sony SA-Z1 desktop system, the Zen DAC was connected via its balanced fixed-output and got its signal from a Raspberry Pi4 powered by an iFi iPower supply. Compared to the same streaming sources from an Astell & Kern AK2000 connected via analog mini-stereo, I couldn’t discern any differences in the sound quality. In both cases I heard everything I was expecting to hear and perhaps even a bit more. The midrange purity and detail I was accustomed to hearing through the Sony with other streaming/DAC combinations was not diminished in any way by the Zen DAC. When I listened in my main system, connected via the balanced analog outputs, using the Mytek as an analog preamplifier, I could hear that the Raspberry Pi4 was simply outperforming a Mac Mini on streaming sources. The Mac mini’s stream wasn’t as dynamic and lacked a bit of low-level detail and precision compared to the Pi4 through the Zen DAC.
I assembled a budget-friendly combination of the Zen DAC connected to the Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), driving the Aperion 4B ($199), and wired it up with basic no-name cable…my sonic verdict was that the loudspeakers were the weak link, not the Zen DAC or that ridiculously good Fosi chip amp. When I swapped in the Role Audio Kayak speakers and installed my reference Kimber KCAG and Audience Au24-SX speaker cables, the sound was nearly as refined as it was through the Clones 25P or Benchmark ABH-2.
My favorite somewhat cost-effective combination of components with the Zen DAC was my MacPro titanium-trashcan desktop system, using Roon connected via USB, with the single-ended fixed output connected to the Tortuga Audio LDR V2 passive preamplifier, which was then connected to a Velodyne DD 10+ subwoofer and Clones Audio 25P power amplifier driving a pair of Role Audio Kayaks. The midrange purity and delicacy of this system reminded me of the kind of seductive presentation I usually associate with a single-ended tube amplifier, but without any of the background noise or low-level hum. It didn’t matter whether it was a male or female vocalist; the absence of grain and electronic texture was entrancing. On Julia Michaels’ track “Just Do It” via Tidal, her voice had a commanding presence that was not owed to volume or gain but to the harmonic rightness of her particular vocal timbre.
Using the Zen DAC connected via balanced to the Benchmark ABH-2 driving the Audience 1+1 V3 proved that time travel is indeed possible. OK, not really, but almost. I have MQA-encoded FLAC files of Eric’s Wiggs’ new EP Vermillion Road, which unfolds to 96/24 via Roon and the Zen DAC. Wiggs and his guitar had a three-dimensional presence and sense of weight and dimensionality in this system that rivaled any ultra-high-end system I’ve ever heard. These same tracks sound equally transformative with the Zen DAC connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system. These same two setups also handled big, bold, in-your-face pop music, such as Halsey’s “Clementine” on Tidal, with aplomb.
Putting the Zen DAC’s headphone outputs through their paces I discovered a mixed bag. If you want to use your high-sensitivity in-ears, such as the 115dB-sensitive Empire Ears Zeus, you will be disappointed, due to some low-level hiss from the unbalanced output and even more hiss from the balanced 4.4mm output. If you have medium-to-low-sensitivity headphones, the results will be more to your satisfaction. Using the Zen’s unbalanced outputs, I had enough gain to drive the Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm version without activating the gain boost. Using the balanced output with the Sony MDR Z-1R headphones, I also had more than enough gain, and the bass through these extended-bass headphones was most impressive. DJ Snake’s “Frequency” had just the right amount of push coupled with pitch clarity on the lowest frequencies. One small ergonomic issue is that when you plug in headphones, the outputs on the back of the Zen DAC do not mute. You will have to turn off your amp and subwoofers to engage in any late-night headphone listening.
While the Zen DAC’s “Powermatch” feature may have value with some harder-to-drive headphones, I did not find it of value with amp/loudspeaker systems. In almost every case the sound became less controlled with some added harshness in the upper frequencies during loud passages. Also, the midrange lost some of its relaxed and natural timbre with Powermatch engaged. The “Truebass” bass boost proved to be more useful, especially at low volume levels and on extremely bass-shy recordings, but given its 10dB boost at the lowest frequencies I wouldn’t engage it on any loud hip-hop tracks, unless you enjoy watching your woofers trying to jump out of their cabinets.
As I said earlier, just a few short years ago there would have been little competition for the Zen DAC that could deliver similar features and sound quality at even close to its price, but nowadays you do have several other high-quality options at equally appealing price points. The Schiit Modius ($199, Issue 311) has a more limited feature set, since it is only a basic DAC with no preamplifier or volume adjustments, but it does offer additional input options including TosLink and RCA SPDIF. The Modius also lacks MQA capabilities, but it does have a balanced out via full-sized XLR connections instead of the Zen’s 4.4mm Pentaconn connections. Another competitive option is the Grace Standard Balanced DAC ($150, available through drop.com), which offers excellent sound in a small box with fixed-level XLR balanced outputs and an additional optical/coaxial SPDIF input. Connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system via its balanced outputs the Grace performed on a par with the Zen DAC, but it is not MQA-compatible as the Zen DAC is. The Grace would be an excellent option for someone who already has a high-performance balanced analog preamplifier. If you don’t mind putting in some assembly time, the Khadas tone board with plexi case ($104 via Amazon) delivers remarkably good sound for either USB or SPDIF. It only has single-ended outputs and no MQA capabilities, but for PCM, FLAC, and DSD files the Khadas, with its 119dB S/N figure, will amaze you. For $399 the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital offers almost all the features of the Zen DAC, while adding additional ones such as a full-color display, multiple filter options, more inputs, and a better interface for high-sensitivity in-ears; it even has a remote control. What the Pro-ject lacks are the balanced outputs for amps or headphones, a bass boost, and different gain-range options. But I never felt a need for either a bass boost or different headphone gain options while using the Pro-ject. If you don’t require balanced outputs, the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital would remain my top budget choice if you can pony up the extra cash.
I often see the cliché “giant killer” in positive reviews of lower-priced gear. That really doesn’t tell you much. An “it is what it is” approach strikes me as a more even-handed way to look at the Zen DAC. Yes, it offers a lot of features at an entry-level price, and I found that when it is mated with other high-performance components the end result can be reference- or near-reference-level sound, but it does require careful system matching and quality cables that will likely cost far more than the DAC itself.
I see two ideal users for the Zen DAC: younger just-minted audiophiles looking for good sound on a budget for nearfield listening, and older ones looking for an inexpensive way to add an MQA DAC and a decent headphone amplifier to their room-based systems. The former will use most of the Zen DAC’s features while a majority of the latter will set it on fixed output and use it as a basic DAC. Both win.
Just as I was finishing up this review, drop.com (formerly Massdrop) announced a Signature version of the Zen DAC at $249. This version eliminates the headphone outputs, as well as the Truebass and Powermatch options. It adds “better parts.” I suspect it will appeal more to seasoned audiophiles than to newbies, but I will admit that I committed to purchase one, and am still awaiting delivery. The big question in my mind is whether the Signature actually delivers additional sonic performance. It sure does look cool and capable. You can expect a follow-up in a future issue.
Specs & Pricing
Type: DAC/preamplifier Inputs: USB 2.0 and 3.0 Formatssupported:PCM to 384/24, DSD to DSD128, FLAC, MQA Output:Balanced and unbalanced analog via one pair RCA and one 4.4 Pentaconn, fixed or variable Dimensions: 100 x 30 x 117mm Weight: 491g (1.08 lbs.) Price: $129
The following is a press release issued by Wilson Benesch.
March 26, 2021 – In the summer of 2021, Wilson Benesch will launch its next generation of infrasonic generator technologies. Developed in Sheffield, England, the new TORUS Series is based on the on the award-winning Torus design that precedes it. The TORUS Series reframes this technology in the next generation of low frequency sound technologies from Britain’s leading high end audio design and manufacturer.
Low Frequency Sound reproduction – What is the Challenge & What is the Solution? Timpani, Kick drums, kettle drums, these are all great examples of instruments that inspired the innovation of Wilson Benesch infrasonic technologies. Each musical instrument creates low frequency sound with attack and dynamics that hit you in the chest.
The TORUS Series seeks to recreate this experience of live music though innovative technologies including the push-pull motor design, a rounded geometric enclosure that mimics these instruments and a super lightweight Carbon Fibre – Polyethylene Terephthalate diaphragm. By combining these highly evolved technologies, Wilson Benesch deliver the ultimate solution – lightning fast, highly integrated, perfectly resolved low frequency sound that physically moves the listener.
Launched in 2006, the Torus Infrasonic Generator remains a significant departure from all prior art. Unlike all design’s prior, the Wilson Benesch Torus Infrasonic Generator eliminated the cabinet from any and all structural responsibilities. Instead, Wilson Benesch placed a 16kg Steel Core at the heart of the Torus Infrasonic Generator. The core legislates that all energy from the two push-pull Neodymium motors is grounded. Ingeniously simple. Totally unique. The result was the absence of cabinet noise and subwoofer drone.
The attack and dynamics of a bass drum or kick drum adequately demonstrates what is required in order to recreate low frequency sound. Through collaboration with two leading companies in the field of fibre weaving and composite design, a new fabric was invented to achieve what was previously impossible. The Carbon Fibre – Polyethylene Terephthalate diaphragm is geometrically optimised and realised from a woven material that incorporates both the fibre as well as the resin matrix. This material is woven exclusively in Europe for Wilson Benesch. The geometrically optimised, sub-200g, Carbon Fibre – Polyethylene Terephthalate diaphragm is a marvel of engineering. The lightweight diaphragm can support 1000 times its own mass, a testament to the stiffness of the structure. The diaphragm at the heart of the new TORUS Series sets the industry standard both in terms of stiffness and damping. It is a peerless solution that enables the reproduction of lightning-fast Timpani.
Inspired by the instruments that it aspires to reproduce, the new TORUS Series round external structure is the geometrically perfect shape. The absence of flat panels or material redundancy is notable, taking its place is the curvature that defies cabinet resonance, a perfect example of form follows function.
The new TORUS Series will represent a new level of refinement, quality and performance. Delivering music enthusiasts a new level of low frequency sound reproduction within their personal home audio system. The new Wilson Benesch TORUS Series.
AVAILABILITY: Q3 2021 PRICING: Circa £13,000 PRE-ORDERS: Opening MAY 2021.
The Torus and its external Infrasonic Amplifier still represent one of the brands most successful designs to this day. But innovation never stands still. And this year the new TORUS Series will replace this technology.
As of April 2021, Wilson Benesch will discontinue the these products. Wilson Benesch will continue to provide product support and servicing into the future.
Elvis Costello is a sonic chameleon. From his late-1970s persona as a new-wave provocateur to his current role as an eclectic elder statesman who follows the muse of his ever-shifting musical moods, the main constant Declan MacManus has followed throughout his career has been one of evolution. Hey Clockface, his 31st studio album, continues with that transformative trajectory via a 50-minute genre-bridging smorgasbord of evocative sounds and expressive vocals—and also reinforces his knack for clever song titles. (I’m looking directly at you, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential.”) The intimate yet open aural palette painted by Costello and co-producer Sebastian Krys, threaded across three intercontinental studio locales, puts the listener right in the room alongside the musicians with an estimable level of drum, percussion, and horn-section detail. The declarative sneer of “No Flag” ripples with spooky Fender Jazz basslines, snarly Fender Jazzmaster guitar tones, and swirling Hammond organ lines, all courtesy Costello’s own hands. The foreboding “Newspaper Pane” is a picture-perfect audio snapshot of observational despair, while “Radio Is Everything” is a spoken-word relief map for its cynical, world-weary narrator. Once again, Elvis Costello shows there’s a time and a face for exploring everything his fertile creative mind conjures.
Basic solid-state power amplifiers are not, due to their essential nature (boxes with parts inside), sexy objects that inspire a lot of audiophile lust. The STA200 will never be accused of looking sexy or especially stylish unless you’re into stark minimalism. But if sound quality and solid-state reliability are your primary purchasing criteria, the STA200 should be on your radar. You may not be blown away by the STA200’s looks, but its sound turns it into one sexy beast.
Channel Islands C100S
For some audiophiles the highest praise that can be heaped upon a solid-state or switching amplifier is that is sounds “tube-like.” SS’s position is different. He prefers a power amplifier that attempts to sound as invisible as possible—a straight wire with gain, to repeat that old audio cliché. The C100S stereo power amplifier provided more than enough power to drive all the loudspeakers SS threw at it and did so in a way that allowed each loudspeaker’s unique personality to come to the foreground. If you need a harmonically neutral power amplifier that you can attach to a wide variety of loudspeakers, the C100S stereo would be an excellent choice.
Wyred 4 Sound ST-500 mkII/ST-1000 mkII
These high-efficiency power amplifiers—delivering 250 and 500Wpc respectively—have got to be among the great bargains in audio. Although they were not accorded a formal review, PS used them to drive the Emerald Physics CS3.2 II speakers, and then for a good month auditioned them on his Quad 2805s. Throughout they performed flawlessly, delivering sound of exemplary clarity and control, perhaps fractionally on the cool side of neutral, but not excessively so and never compromising the reproduction of warmth. Pricing depends upon options (i.e., WBT binding posts, power, etc.).
The NuPrime ST-10 amplifier is what NuPrime calls “near reference class.” Why only “near” reference? As far as reviewer SS can tell it’s because this stereo amplifier only puts out 150 watts per side into an eight-ohm load. The ST-10 is a very quiet, extremely low-noise power amplifier that, as long as it isn’t pushed into clipping, sounds exceedingly neutral and uncolored. The ST-10 did a superb job of driving a variety of speakers with authority and control.
Audio by Van Alstine Ultravalve
The 35Wpc Ultravalve is a thoroughly modern and rationally priced vacuum-tube amplifier. While its perspective is not as romantic as that of its “godmother,” the Dynaco Stereo 70, it is far better focused, clearly more dynamic, and in general a higher-resolution device.
Coincident Speaker Technology Dynamo 34SE MKIII
The swanky Dynamo isn’t your typical 8Wpc single-ended triode (SET) design. There is no 300B in sight. A 6SL7 dual-triode drives a triode-connected EL34 output stage. There is no global feedback, and the power supply is tube rectified. Expect a sweet midrange, an exceptionally dimensional soundstage, and a dynamic presentation belying the amp’s miniscule power rating. Harmonic textures aren’t overly liquid, implying decent-bandwidth output transformers. Treble textures can be improved via judicious tube-rolling. Here is an amp that shouldn’t be defined on the basis of its cost. It captures much of the magic of SETs at an entry-level price.
This feature-laden amp is built around a new Class D output-stage module, the Eigentakt, that brings unprecedented performance to switching designs. Rated at 185Wpc into 8 ohms, the C298 has generous dynamic headroom, and can easily be configured to operate as a 1000W monoblock. The bass is nothing short of spectacular—powerful, dynamic, tuneful, and tight. This bass prowess translates into a visceral feeling of rhythmic drive and flow. The mids and treble are clean and open, if a bit forward in perspective. A lot of amplifier for the money.
Odyssey Audio Stratos
Even if you A/B’d these superb, high-resolution, 180Wpc monoblocks with super-amps on super-speakers (as JV did), you might still find yourself pondering whether the difference in sound justifies the difference in expenditure. That JV ultimately concluded it did is beside the point. The way he saw it, the fact that the Odyssey Stratos monoblocks could give even a picky listener like him pause made them super-amps in their own right. Yes, you can buy better. The question is: Do you really want to?
Quad Artera Stereo
This 140-watt-per-channel amplifier—the latest refinement of Quad’s innovative, patented, award-winning “current dumping” technology—is, in PS’ opinion, the finest amplifier the company has ever made by a good margin, and unquestionably the most uncompromised implementation of Walker’s current-dumping circuit.
Rogue Audio Hydra
Rogue Audio has got something with this hybrid, “tubeD” stereo amp. Not merely a tube circuit placed in front of a Class D output section, it creates a sound completely unlike those first Class D amps that bit your ears. Fast, powerful, and resolving, the Hydra reproduces instrumental tones and timbres with accuracy and texture, has good spectral balance, and creates a consistently broad and vivid soundstage. Though GH found an occasional lack of top-end smoothness in the sound of orchestral strings, he noted owners could tailor its presentation by rolling input tubes.
March 24, 2021 — Qobuz, the music lovers’ Hi-Res streaming and download provider, is now the first music service to deliver 24-bit Hi-Res audio streaming on Sonos. Qobuz customers will be able to listen to studio-quality music on their Sonos speakers, preserving all of the details and color of original recordings, with the ease of simply pressing play in the Sonos app. Available with the Sonos S2 app, this new integration is one of Qobuz’s broadest expansions of Hi-Res streaming support to date.
Qobuz USA Managing Director Dan Mackta said of the partnership, “Qobuz has always strived to make the highest quality audio accessible, as people become more interested in better sound. Now, on Sonos devices, we’re making it easy for millions more people to experience the improvement Hi-Res audio can make.”
“Our open platform enables partners to bring the best of their experiences to the Sonos system and our mutual customers,” said Ryan Richards, Director of Product Marketing at Sonos. “Qobuz has been at the forefront of high resolution music streaming, and we look forward to customers enjoying their music with the clarity, depth, and room-filling sound of Sonos.”
In 2013, Qobuz became the first music service to offer 16-bit FLAC streaming on Sonos. And now, it is continuing to expand access to higher-resolution streaming on Sonos by introducing 24-bit streaming, compatible with most products on the Sonos S2 platform, which supports up to 48 kHz/24-bit audio resolution. This new integration builds on Qobuz’s continued expansion of hardware partnerships, including the addition of Hi-Res compatible hardware on the Android platform several years ago.
Qobuz has always catered to the audiophile and the audio-curious market, with its expert curation, exclusive editorial content, liner notes, download store, and world-class sound quality. This expanded experience on Sonos will make premium Qobuz streaming capabilities accessible to a wider audience of music lovers. Qobuz has over seventy million tracks and is adding more in full Hi-Res quality every day.
Qobuz 24-bit Hi-Res streaming is available on Sonos in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Audiophiles who are into LP playback are living in interesting times. Never before have they had so many options for turntables, cartridges, phono preamplifiers, and accessories. Granted, some analog product options are priced so that only a few will ever own (or hear) them, but many more are created with an eye toward ubiquity. And like most product categories, both the highest priced and the least expensive get the most press, while the mid-priced offerings, which often deliver the best value for a given product category, are often overlooked.
As a fellow who has benefited from the pleasures of high-value audio products for many years, I habitually look for that kind of component to review. Fortunately, there are audio firms like Vincent Audio, many of whose offerings are aimed directly at the middle of the audio market. Founded in 1995, Vincent Audio is based in Germany, but its production facilities are in China. I remember seeing Vincent’s first two audio products unveiled in a small display at a CEDIA show. I was immediately impressed by the build-quality, retro looks, and internal design.
Fast-forward to 2020. Vincent now has five separate lines of products—the PremiumLine, the SolidLine, the TubeLine, the PowerLine, and the CableLine. Vincent’s most populated line is its PowerLine, which has 13 different products covering a wide variety of component categories, including three phono preamplifiers—the PHO-200, PHO-300, and PHO-500. This review will look at the $699 PHO-500, which is the most fully featured phono preamplifier in Vincent’s PowerLine. The PHO-500 has more features compared with the PHO 8, which was reviewed by Neil Gader in Issue 211. While its specifications are similar, the PHO-500 adds a USB output option that makes it possible to digitally record any LP you play through the PHO-500.
A phono preamplifier has two functions it must perform simultaneously—equalize the raw signal from the phono cartridge with the RIAA curve to realize flat response, and boost the output of the phono cartridge to line level. Sounds simple, right? But even minor variations in a phono preamp’s RIAA curve can be audible, and when you boost a signal from a moving-coil cartridge 60dB+ you are also boosting the intrinsic noise 60dB+. That high amount of gain makes the circuit more sensitive to outside noise due to the boost. So, it’s not easy to design a high-performance phono preamplifier. And designing a phono preamplifier for a particular price point increases the level of difficulty.
Unlike a DAC, where the sources for the important parts are often included in a manufacturer’s specifications, few phono preamplifier manufacturers offer detailed circuit diagrams or parts lists. I requested some additional technical information from Vincent to delve deeper into some of the details not found on its website. The first stage of the PHO-500 employs a low-noise OPA37 op-amp, which amplifies a moving-magnet signal five times and a moving coil a maximum of 47 times. The second stage is an active RIAA circuit built around a OPA134 op-amp. All the gain devices inside the PHO-500 are low-noise op-amps.
Setup and Ergonomics
Setting up the PHO-500 was straightforward with no objectionable quirks. The first step is to determine if your cartridge is moving magnet or moving coil, and then set the gain switch on the front of the PHO-500’s primary unit accordingly. Then, you can adjust the cartridge loading via a set of dip switches on the bottom of the PHO-500. For moving-coil cartridges, you have a range of 99 ohms to 1000 ohms impedance with fifteen choices. For moving magnets, you have the options of 15pf, 115pf, 235pf, and 350pf. The final step in the setup is connecting the ground wire from the turntable to the PHO-500.
I used the Vincent 500 in two turntable setups. The first was a VPI HW-19 with original, but re-wired Souther linear-tracking tonearm and Denon 103 Van den Hul custom cartridge. The second was a VPI TNT III with Graham 1.5 tonearm mounted with a Clearaudio Victory cartridge. My current reference phono preamplifiers are the Mytek Manhattan’s internal phono board and a Michael Yee PFE-1. All preamplifiers are configured with a 100-ohm cartridge resistance. (I don’t have any moving-magnet cartridges, so I can’t comment on the PHO-500’s moving-magnet performance.)
Since the power supply for the PHO-500 is on a separate chassis, I was able to move the PS far enough away from all the other components in the signal chain that I heard no low-level hum which I could attribute to the power supply. (Bear in mind that I could generate some hum by placing the power supply in “vulnerable” areas close to high-gain components. The only “tweaky” part of the PHO-500 setup, besides cart impedance, is where you place the power supply. Farther is better.)
Now let’s look at the PHO-500’s USB. Its 96/24 output is intended to go to a computer with recording capabilities. You could, in theory, digitally record every LP you play via the PHO-500. Very few people do that. Why? Because of time…it will take you at least one hour per LP to record and then input track information. So, my advice is to be very selective as to how many LPs you intend to digitize or, like many who enter into similar projects with the best intentions, you will not succeed.
I hooked up the PHO-500 to my MacBook Pro via Vincent’s supplied USB cable and opened Audacity, which is a free, but decently featured recording app. Audacity found the “Vincent” USB input, which I selected from the pull-down menus. I then proceeded to record a track at 96/24. After recording, Audacity prompted me for some basic track info before saving. I played it back via an AudioQuest DragonFly Red into a Sonoma M-1 electrostatic headphone system. The results were excellent. Yes, I could hear a bit of background vinyl “swish” when listening via headphones, but otherwise audible noise was negligible. For those special LPs in your library that you want to add to your digital library, this USB output combined with Audacity will accomplish the task with ease.
When you turn up the volume on your phono input, what do you hear? If no record is playing, ideally you should hear silence. That’s where all those deep velvety black backgrounds come from—silence. But a phono input is rarely silent. If you turn up the volume sufficiently, you will hear noise. It could be hum, or it could be something else, such as buzz or even a whine. The reason for this is simple: Every signal has noise, and the only signal that has absolutely no noise is a dead short. With the best digital gear, you typically get over 100dB SNR (some of the latest gen DACs can deliver 120dB). The Vincent PHO-500’s specifications indicate that it has approximately 70dB SNR via its mc settings. As with most phono preamplifiers, the most pernicious potential noise from the PHO-500 was at 60 and 120 cycles from AC. Fortunately, the PHO-500 proved to be quiet enough that I had to turn the analog volume control on the Manhattan II to 20 or less (the Manhattan volume control numbers are the reverse of most preamplifiers in that smaller numbers are a higher volume level—100 is mute and 0 is full output). At 25 or higher I could hear nothing, even when my ear was touching the ribbon tweeter of my Spatial X-2 or buried in my JL Fathom f112’s woofer.
Measurements I’ve seen for the discontinued PHO-8 display a slight bass hump centered around 150Hz and a subtle upper-frequency rise that begins around 2kHz, peaking at 20kHz. I found the PHO-500 had a similar harmonic character. While I did not hear anything that I could attribute to the rising top end, I did notice a bit of extra weight and warmth that was certainly not objectionable and that could actually make many recordings sound a wee bit warmer and friendlier. As I’m writing this, I’ve got Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” playing on the VPI HW-19. Kenny Baker’s fiddle has a lovely euphonic sweetness on “Poor White Folks,” aided, no doubt, by the PHO-500’s frequency response. As with most of the LPs I played through the PHO-500, when I was listening to “Uncle Pen” the Manhattan’s volume settings were usually between 25 and 30, which means that black background we crave was very much in existence.
I will readily admit that the majority of my regular listening time is to digital sources, either online streaming or from my NAS. Perhaps because of this, when I do listen to LPs, I often find it to be a more relaxing experience. Recently a friend gave me a picture disc version of the Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go. Played on the VPI HW-19/Denon 103 VDH, the LP was “softer” than the digital experience—the harmonic balance was also slightly warmer with detail and image specificity reduced compared to the Tidal MQA version of the track. I noticed that this particular phono/turntable/preamp combo did not generate the same low-frequency sympathetic resonances in the next room that the digital file does during “Xanny” (a superb track for seeing what in your room will resonate due to its generous supply of low-frequency energy). While the LP rendition was easy to listen to, it wasn’t nearly as well resolved in terms of low-level information, dynamic power, or image specificity as the hi-res digital version.
For comparison I switched to the Mytek Manhattan’s internal phono card. I immediately noticed that the Manhattan’s phono card wasn’t quite as quiet as the PHO-500. I could only turn the volume up to 27 before hum was noticeable. So, the PHO-500 ranks as a quieter phono preamplifier than the Manhattan’s internal phono card! Listening to the Eilish record through Manhattan’s card I noticed slightly better image specificity, but a less dynamic low-frequency response. On “Xanny,” none of the usual spots in my adjacent room resonated in sympathy. Switching to the PHO-500 instead of the Manhattan internal phono pre with the VPI HW-19/ Denon VDH combo, I noticed that image specificity remained unchanged, but there was a bit of additional low end, and I could play slightly louder with a still silent background.
Next I connected the Michal Yee PHE-1 phono preamplifier to the VPI HW-19 rig. This proved to be the quietest phono preamplifier I used thus far. I could turn the volume up to 15 before I heard noise from the Spatial X-2s. Obviously that also allowed me to turn up the volume on program material compared to the previous combinations. I noticed the image specificity was more precise than through the PHO-500, and the PHE-1 was the first phono preamplifier that generated bass resonances similar to the digital version.
For my last comparison I connected the PHO-500 to the TNT-III/Clearaudio Victory turntable rig. The noise was even lower than with the HW-19/Denon! I also got a better level of quiet compared to the Michael Yee PFE-1. I also got to 13 before I could hear a slight hiss. This was also easily the best sonic combination, with the most precise image specificity, superior bass extension, and additional dynamic contrast. What this implies is that the PHO-500 can and does benefit from a “better” front end. In short, the PHO-500 can “scale up,” as we digital guys say.
For many years I used a John Curl-designed Vendetta SCP-2B phono preamplifier as my reference phono source. It was replaced a couple of years ago when I determined that the Manhattan’s internal card was its equal. Given that the PHO-500 clearly bests the Manhattan’s internal phono card, you could, as I have, come to the conclusion that the Vincent PHO-500 can produce what I would have considered “state-of-the-art” performance less than a decade ago.
A phono section is the sum of its parts. And to make a complete system you need a turntable with an ’arm, cartridge, phonostage, and cables to and from the phono preamp to your line-level preamplifier. Since most audiophiles have a budget for the whole system, yet buy these components a la carte, whatever money you save on one part you can then devote to another. For anyone trying to assemble a high-performance phono system on a reasonable budget, the PHO-500 could be an ideal choice, since it delivers a high-quality, low-noise signal that easily mates with a wide variety of high-performance front ends. And you get the added benefit of a device that allows you to record your most treasured LPs at 96/24 resolution. Well done, Vincent. Well done.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-piece solid- state phono preamplifier Inputsensitivity: Moving magnet: 58 mV; moving coil, 6.8mV Signal-to-noise: Moving magnet: >83dB; moving coil: >70dB Inputimpedance: Moving magnet: 47k ohms; moving coil: 100 ohms–1000 ohms (adjustable) Outputimpedance: 250 ohms Dimensions: 130 x 95 x 205mm (for power supply and PHO-500 each) Weight: 1.4 kg (power supply), 1 kg (PHO-500) Price: $699
Pangea AudioDistributing 5500 Executive Parkway SE Grand Rapids, MI 49512 (616) 885-9818 pangeaaudio.com