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Boulder Amplifiers 508 Phonostage

Boulder Amplifiers’ products tend to be as hefty as their prices. The company’s new 508 phono- stage is neither. It is a svelte piece of gear that retails for $5000. At this price point, there is a lot of competition, but the Boulder acquits itself very well, indeed. It is a clear offspring of the company’s more lavish products, including the new two-box 2108 phonostage. The smallest product that Boulder has offered in two decades, it is carved out of a single block of aluminum and looks quite attractive, at least if a Bauhaus look is your style. Personally, I found its appearance to be quite ingratiating; it didn’t take up much space on my new Stillpoints ESS rack and was dead quiet in operation. No hum, no buzz, no nothing. It just sat there like a quiet guest—until the needle dropped on the vinyl. Then came something else entirely.

Like all Boulder products, the 508 runs in balanced mode. Since many tonearms are terminated with single-ended connections, Boulder offers a spiffy set of adapters, but it must also be run balanced from its outputs. You could use adapters on the outputs if you really wanted, but I wouldn’t advise it. The more adapters you use, the more distortion you introduce. There’s a switch on the front panel for on-off operation along with a mute switch, and another switch in the rear that toggles between mc and mm mode. Gain is a robust 70dB in moving-coil mode and 44dB in moving-magnet mode. You could substitute your own step-up transformer and thereby run an mc cartridge in the mm mode to bypass an extra gain stage, but I don’t really see the point.

Having recently auditioned the $52,000 Boulder 2108, I reckoned that the 508 would be a big step down in performance. It wasn’t. The first LP that I played on the TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable with a Graham Phantom Elite 12″ tonearm and a TechDAS TDCO1 cartridge was a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Narciso Yepes and Godelieve Monden playing Telemann guitar duos. This is a subtle record that takes far less dynamic wallop than delicate figurations and beautiful timbral shadings to make its point. Right from the outset, I was smitten by the 508’s ability to convey them. The exceptional linearity of the 508 manifested itself not as a dryness of sound, but as an ability to convey little details accurately against extremely black backgrounds. Another notable feature was the wide and deep soundstage. Once again, the clarity of the Boulder had a beneficent effect, not only allowing you to hear where the instrumentalists were positioned, but also how their plucks resounded into the hall. The sense of the ambient decay of the notes, particularly on the Sarabande section of the Partita in E major, came through vividly, as did the twang of the guitars on the Menuet that immediately follows the Sarabande. The 508 delivered a keen sense of the body of the guitar and the forcefulness of the performers in communicating with each other. In this regard, the absence of noise with the 508 was itself a striking development. What you don’t hear in high end can often be as important as what you do. In my experience, whether it comes to amplifiers or phonostages, this is an arena in which Boulder has always excelled.

Perhaps even more impressive was the monumental recording of another duo, Pierre Fournier and Friedrich Gulda, performing Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. I recently procured from Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds what looks to be one of the last sets of a special LP edition mastered at half-speed by Emil Berliner Studios. (My limited edition numbers 1668 out of 1700. If you see one, grab it.) The sonics are as superb as the performance, which was recorded in 1959 in Vienna’s legendary Musikverein. Fournier has long been one of my favorite cellists, and the 508 accurately captured his refined and majestic sound. What was most stunning on this album were two things: The 508 anchored the two performers in their respective spaces and provided what seemed like limitless dynamics. To further test the 508, I played another Deutsche Grammophon LP, this time a Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of the late-Romantic composer Manuela De Falla’s wonderful ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat, which he wrote at the urging of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. Once more, the Boulder nicely laid out the orchestra with the trumpet solos firmly rooted in the right rear and woodwinds spaced neatly in the middle. The opening fandango came through with real swagger, the sheen on the strings could only garner a thumbs up, and the great mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza’s voice soared over the orchestra. All in all, it was a very spacious, even lavish, presentation. Dynamics were very good—not as good as with megabuck phonostages. In the treble region, the 508 just couldn’t quite soar into the ether on orchestral recordings, but the tympani came down with a resounding whack. Dynamics are where, in my experience, most phonostages that don’t have separate power supplies tend to falter. The 508 never sounded compressed, but it didn’t have the ultimate resolving power that the big boys can deliver.

Nonetheless, the linearity of the Boulder and its prowess in the bass region should not be underestimated. This came home to me in listening to the 45-rpm reissue of the South African musician Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela,” which is probably one of the most overplayed cuts at audio shows, but, heck, I like it. And it reveals a lot. What it revealed to me in this instance was the profound bass definition that the 508 delivers. The drum crescendos in “Stimela” were cleanly defined and propulsively powerful. I also noticed how clearly the 508 captured not only the huskiness of Masekela’s voice, but also how beautifully it rendered his enunciation of the song’s lyrics. It was as though they were etched in stone. Ditto for his playing on the flugelhorn. The way Masekela soared into the treble region, then issued plaintive wails was profoundly moving to listen to on my system. Boulder often gets knocked for delivering a sterile sound, but it’s a bum rap. This went right to the emotional essence of the music. Ditto for a Sackville label recording that I recently acquired called Three Is Company that features the jazz soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, a remarkable musician who teamed up with the pianist Dick Wellstood for this album. This is traditional straight-ahead jazz and on lively numbers like “Minor Drag,” the 508 viscerally delivered the fast-paced excitement of the music. The 508 nailed the sometimes nasally and keening quality of Galloway’s soprano sax, while Pete Magadini serenely mans the drums, gently accompanying his peers.

To some extent, I’m scratching my head over the 508. It definitely marks new territory for Boulder, which rockets into the stratosphere when it comes to the pricing of amplifiers, phono- stages, and preamplifiers. Somehow the company has managed to cram into this small box a wealth of the attributes of its top-notch gear. It has done the same thing, incidentally, with its new 866 integrated amplifier, which I listened to for several months and which left me flabbergasted at what it delivers. The 508 is a fine piece of equipment that is at home in any high-quality system and is likely to elevate the vinyl performance of not a few. For anyone considering a solid-state phonostage in this price level, auditioning it isn’t an option but a must. 

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: One pair balanced, converts to unbalanced
Outputs: One pair balanced
Input impedance: Maximum mc: 100 ohms; mm: 47k ohms
Output impedance: 100 ohms, balanced
Gain, RIAA: mc: 70dB; mm: 44dB
Frequency response, RIAA: ±0.5dB, 20Hz to 20kHz
THD: 0.01%
Dimensions: 11.5″ x 2.3″ x 9.5″
Weight: 11.5 lbs.
Price: $5000

BOULDER AMPLIFIER
255 S. Taylor Avenue
Louisville, CO 80027
(303) 449-8220
boulderamp.com

Digital Memory Lane

The January 2021 issue’s cover story on the remarkable Wadax Reference DAC prompted me to look back at the evolution of digital audio since the Compact Disc’s introduction in 1982, and to consider just how far we’ve come. 

The standards for the CD format, a 44.1kHz sample rate and 16-bit quantization, were established in the late 1970s, the Pleistocene era in digital audio. Although a higher sample rate and longer word length would have been better, we’re lucky that Sony and Philips didn’t settle on 32kHz sampling and 14-bit quantization, specifications that were seriously considered. In fact, Philips had manufactured 14-bit DAC chips in anticipation of 14-bit CD, and ended up using these 14-bit parts in its first players. Many of us decried the CD’s fundamental specs as being inadequate, but it turns out that the format, when implemented with today’s best technology and practices, can sound superb. It just took the great talents of inspired high-end designers working tirelessly for nearly four decades to get there.

Almost immediately after CD’s introduction, high-end designers set about improving the format. Their first efforts were modified mass-market CD players because it was impossible to source the chips and drive mechanisms. Modifications usually involved replacing the cheap op-amp-based analog output stage with a discrete circuit, power supply upgrades, improved wiring, and better shielding. After the Meridian MCD Pro in 1984 (the first “audiophile” CD player), the go-to player for music lovers wanting better CD sound was the California Audio Labs Tempest ($1895 in 1986). The Tempest, designed by Mike Moffat (later of Theta and now with Schiit Audio), was a Magnavox player with Moffat’s tube output stage. It was the precursor to a long history of innovation, both by Moffat and the industry in general.

The advent of separate transports and DACs was the catalyst for an explosion of creativity from the high end. With the ability to buy input receivers, digital filters, and DAC chips, high-end designers began to apply a musically sensitive approach to digital audio reproduction. In those early days, many phenomena that affected sound quality were still a mystery. Designers relied on their ears to guide development, discovering techniques for extracting greater musical performance from the new digital medium. Some manufacturers, dissatisfied with the off-the-shelf digital filters, wrote their own filter software to run on general-purpose DSP chips, an approach pioneered by Wadia, Theta, and Krell beginning in 1989. It turned out that the specific filtering approach greatly influenced sound quality, which is why each of those brands had a distinctive sound. 

In 1989, a company called UltraAnalog created a very expensive ($250 each in quantity) DAC module that virtually eliminated linearity errors—the bane of 1980s and early 1990s ladder DAC chips. The UltraAnalog DACs became the standard in high-end converters. A landmark product that showcased the UltraAnalog DAC was the Mark Levinson No.30, the most ambitious effort at the time. It sold for $13,950 in 1992, and was hugely successful. The Spectral SDR-2000 ($8195 in 1995) was another milestone converter using UltraAnalog DACs that revealed digital audio’s potential. High-Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD), an encode-decode technology introduced in the early 1990s and used in the Spectral DAC, employed clever tricks to extract more performance from the CD format.

Off-the-shelf digital filters improved greatly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and new DAC-chip architectures appeared that overcame limitations of early conversion technology. Data Conversion Systems (dCS) of England developed its innovative “Ring DAC” that greatly reduced low-level linearity errors. DAC-chip manufacturers began to improve their devices, while also including more and more functions in a single chip. Today’s DAC chips incorporate sophisticated digital filtering and upsampling, can decode high-res PCM and DSD, and reject incoming jitter.

Concurrently, the recording industry was adopting high-resolution recording, which, with careful mastering techniques, could yield significant improvements when down-converted to 44.1kHz/16-bit formats. The obvious next step was a new format that could deliver high-resolution to consumers. The roadblocks were both political and technical. Record companies didn’t want to release master-quality recordings that were susceptible to file-sharing, and there was no consumer format for carrying high-res. The DVD-Audio format provided the technical solution, but it never caught on among audiophiles. The competing Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) was more successful, but remains a niche format today.

The Internet obviated the need for physical formats. Today, we can stream high-resolution, whether Qobuz or Tidal MQA. These high-res bitstreams are turned back into music with DACs that represent decades of hard-won knowledge acquired through the tireless efforts of high-end designers. The Wadax Reference DAC, with its highly sophisticated technology and extraordinary execution, is the pinnacle of this evolution. It serves as a reminder of just how far digital audio has progressed in our lifetimes. 

T+A Introduces Caruso R Multi Source Receiver

The following is a press release issued by T+A.

February 25, 2021 – The Herford-based Hi-Fi specialist T+A elektroakustik has introduced three new products in its Caruso series. The new Caruso R is the first of its type, being a fully functional amplified music-player, rather than an all-in-one device. The decision to opt for a system without speakers is explained by International Sales Director, Oliver John: “The Caruso R closes a gap in our Lifestyle line-up by addressing customers who are looking for a classic stereo system with the added benefits of the modern user interface and connectivity of the Caruso Multi-Source-System.”

To match the Caruso R, the Herford firm is introducing two new loudspeakers in the form of the Caruso S 10 floorstanding and R 10 stand mount, which coordinate neatly with the Caruso R in visual and sonic terms.

During the development stage of the Caruso R, the challenge lay in transforming an all-in-one system into a receiver and adapting the Navigator OS operating system to suit this change. “Although the Caruso’s Navigator OS represented a strong starting point, we had to rethink many aspects of the user interface, and adjust them to suit the altered facilities”, says Project Manager Jörg Küpper. “In the final analysis, the product we developed is a blood-brother to the Caruso, but still a truly independent unit which will be received with just as much enthusiasm by new customer groups”, Küpper continues.

The centre of the Caruso is dominated by a high-resolution landscape-mode 7” screen, which is the key element in the intuitive operation of the whole system. The Caruso R can also be controlled using the Caruso Navigator App for Android and iOS, as well as by the remote control handset which is supplied as standard. The designers at the Herford family company were faced with a difficult balancing act: on the one hand the Caruso R was required to be a compact device; on the other it had to exude an impressive presence in the room. To achieve this, the distinctive loudspeaker grilles were replaced by black-lacquered aluminium cheek panels, while the Caruso R’s landscape touchscreen makes the unit appear wider to the eye. The contrasting silver cover subtly accentuates this effect, with the result that the Caruso R has an elegantly compact, extended silhouette.

In technical terms the new Caruso satisfies virtually every requirement in terms of music. Analogue and digital inputs are present, as are FM and DAB tuners as well as Bluetooth and Airplay 2 receivers. Like its predecessors, the Caruso R can deliver all current sources in a single unit. Music from the home network, or via Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz, is reproduced with equal brilliance as music from the classic CD. Inside the Caruso R, there is the stunning new Streaming Client which was first introduced with the new Caruso and provides access to the Amazon Music HD and Spotify Connect music streaming services. If desired, users can set up the Caruso as the control centre of their home life by means of Amazon Alexa. As you would expect, the Alexa functions and microphones can be switched off at any time to protect a private environment.

The Caruso S 10 and R 10 loudspeakers form the perfect complement to the Caruso R, and uphold its philosophy perfectly. Marketing Director, Conradin Amft, states that it was important to include both bookshelf and floor-standing speakers in the portfolio: “We believe in placing as few restrictions on our users as possible. This conviction is reflected in the two speakers, both of which are specially designed to suit their individual application and environment”. Both speakers feature external designs that slot harmoniously into the Caruso series, while their forceful bass reproduction, crystal-clear mids and incisive treble generate a sound image which belies the diminutive forms.

Yellowjackets + WDR Big Band: Jackets XL

For their 25th album, the tight contemporary jazz quartet takes things up a notch with the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. Together with Jackets founder/keyboardist Russell Ferrante, drummer William Kennedy, and electric bassist Dane Alderson, they put a new suit of clothes on 20-year-old gems like the soulful, Keith Jarrett-inspired “Even Song,” the darkly funky “Dewey (for Miles),” and the surging “Downtown” (arranged by Vince Mendoza). Older numbers like “Mile High” and “Imperial Strut,” the latter from the Yellowjackets’ self-titled debut from 1981, get energetic big band makeovers here while newer pieces like the moving “Coherence” take on a Maria Schneider Orchestra majesty with grand orchestrations. Ferrante’s rousing, gospel-fueled “Revelation” from 1992’s Live Wires is a show-stopping closer to this enhanced Jackets collection. Kudos to the WDR’s Paul Shigihara for his Robben Ford-inspired guitar solo on “Even Song,” Ruud Breuls for his high-note trumpet work on “Dewey,” and Paul Heller for his passionate tenor solo on “Tokyo Tale.”

T+A Electroakustik Solitaire P Headphones

T+A’s electronic offerings should be well known to most audiophiles by now. The Absolute Sound has reviewed several of its digital components and amplifiers over the past couple of years, and all have garnered impressively positive reviews. But until I looked on its website, I didn’t know T+A also made loudspeakers and one headphone, aptly named the Solitaire P. According to T+A, the Solitaire P is a “corded over-ear planar-magnetostatic headphone hand-built in Germany that combines minimalist styling and the finest materials with class-leading research and development.” Like T+A’s electronics, the Solitaire P is a sleek, silver, premium ($6400) affair aimed at putting T+A into the reference headphone game. How well does its first-time offering fare? Read on.

Tech Tour

That term “magnetostatic” (in the first paragraph of T+A’s product fact sheet) deserves further explanation. It’s not the same as an electrostatic driver, which requires an outside power source to polarize the membrane, and therefore needs special powered amplification and additional cabling. The Solitaire P can be driven with any conventional headphone connection. Magnetostatic refers to the Solitaire P’s diaphragm, which utilizes a specially shaped conductor array that is vapor-deposited on the surface. According to T + A, “it is only by means of accurate calculation that the full area of the diaphragm can be exploited, and it is this which brings the theoretical advantages of the planar-magnetostatic system to full fruition.” The Solitaire P sports nineteen high-performance neodymium magnets to drive its diaphragm through precisely calculated magnetic field lines. The combination of retaining rings and the magnet mount accurately maintains the diaphragm’s position in the linear part of the magnetic field so it can generate high sound pressures with low distortion.

The Solitaire P’s enclosures and yokes are made from a solid piece of very hard high-grade aluminum (if you plan to carve your initials into them, good luck). They are finished in the same satin gloss found on some T+A’s electronics. Like most current-generation premium headphones, the Solitaire P has no crossover components, since it utilizes a single full-range driver to cover its entire frequency range.

The Solitaire P is an open-enclosure design that ranks among the most open I’ve seen. The entire backside of the Solitaire P’s enclosure is a fine black metal mesh except for the opening for the headphone cable, which extends up into the enclosure via a barrel. It makes for an extremely sure connection combined with a nearly unbreakable and flexible exit point from the headphones. Speaking of unbreakable, I must commend T+A for arriving at a clever physical form for long-term durability. While I would never be so barbaric as to actually try it, I can imagine that the Solitaire Ps could survive multiple drops, throws, and even accidental step-ons, with more damage occurring to the other surface than to the Solitaire Ps themselves. They are probably the toughest headphones I’ve ever seen. Maybe if an elephant stepped on them you could break a gimbal, but otherwise these cans will outlive you or me.

T+A supplied two of three possible cables with the Solitaire P. All are made from high-purity copper with a “carefully defined” silver layer. One cable has a 6.3mm (¼”) standard single-ended stereo connection. The second is a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced connection. The third is a 4-pin Neutrik XLR connection. Customers choose two of the three options upon placing the order for a pair of Solitaire P phones. Each standard cable is 3 meters in length, but 5-meter lengths can be custom ordered. 

T+A also offers two different earpad options. The original pads that came with the Solitaire P delivered a more balanced harmonic rendition that the second earpad option that arrived about a month into my review. The second set of earpads was designed to accentuate high frequencies with a bit less midrange and bass emphasis, effectively “tilting” the presentation a bit more to the brighter side, which, T + A claims, “many listeners like a bit better than the strictly neutral presentation of the standard earpads.” I prefer a more balanced presentation, so the second set of earpads saw minimal use.

The Solitaire Ps are easy to drive due to their 80-ohm impedance and 101dB sensitivity. Although my iPhone 6SE has been replaced by the headphone-jackless iPhone 8, I mated the Solitaire P with my wimpiest portable player, a HiDiz AP80, and found that I rarely had to up the volume past halfway. While better, beefier amplification offers advantages in bass control and overall dynamic ease, even a smartphone’s headphone output (if your phone still has a wired output) should be sufficient for the Solitaire Ps.

Ergonomics

Because of all its machined metal parts, the Solitaire Ps are not a super-lightweight pair of earphones at 530 grams (1.17 pounds), but due to their elegant shape they will still rest quite comfortably on most heads. My only quibble with the design is that the click-stops on the headband were not as firm as I would have liked. They were not as set-and-forget as those on the Abyss Diana Phi, for instance. The Solitaire’s headband adjustments are quite similar in design to those of the Sennheiser HD600, but the 600s will not need to be readjusted before each use as the Solitaires will.

If you have a small head, you may need to do “the baseball cap mod” for an ideal fit with the Solitaire Ps. I wear a 7 hat size and had the band set to its shortest setting and still needed to use a cap to raise the headphones up a bit; without the cap the Ps sat a bit too low on my head. Folks with bigger heads will find the side-pressure extremely comfortable; even on my small pointy head it was adequate for a secure fit.

With any headphone regardless of price, the primary factor in their frequency of use is their overall long-term comfort. Wearing my baseball cap, I had no issues and needed to make no adjustments during extended listening sessions through the Solitaire Ps. Without the cap I did have to periodically readjust the headband location since it tended to move from its ideal position. Comparing the comfort of the Solitaire P with my other reference earphones, I would give them an 8, while the Sony MDR Z-1R and ZMR Verité Cs rate a 9, and the Abyss Diana Phi gets a 7. In my comfort ratings, no earphones rate a 10.

Sound

A good reference transducer should call as little attention to itself as possible. Ideally, a listener should hear all the shortcomings of the recording without additional distortion or non-linearities emanating from phones (or loudspeakers) to confuse the sonic picture. Perhaps because headphone listening is so intimate and immediate, any deviations or quirks caused by the transducers are more obvious than with a room-based loudspeaker, where the room’s harmonic additions and subtractions can be far more severe than those of the transducer itself. With earphones, obviously, there is no “room” to affect the sound; instead we have our own integral and idiosyncratic openings called ear canals, which can alter what you hear in equally radical ways, but with fewer correction options. Sure, you can change earpads to alter the sound somewhat, but if you do not like the intrinsic presentation of a pair of earphones, you can’t alter its environment as you can with loudspeakers. Unless you call in the big guns and resort to corrective EQ curves, your only option at a certain point is a different pair of earphones.

Comparing the Solitaire P with the reference earphones I mentioned in the previous paragraphs proved enlightening. The most obvious characteristic shared by all these reference phones was how easy it was to get sucked in by their sound. The harmonic and spatial differences between them were far less marked than the similarities with which they fully elucidated the musical event.

Given what I have just written, were there still noticeable differences between the P’s and my current reference headphones? Yes, there were. The Solitaire P’s precise low end and midbass were only equaled by the Abyss Diana Phi. The Sony MDR Z-1R had equal amounts of bass but without quite the detail and precision of the Abyss and T+A, while the ZMF simply had slightly less low bass overall, albeit with detail equal to that of the Solitaire Ps. Another characteristic of the Solitaire P’s bass response worthy of note was how dynamically unencumbered it was. This reminded me of the LSA 10 Statement loudspeakers I reviewed in Issue 304. Listening to the newest remastering of the Grateful Dead’s classic Workingman’s Dead, which was corrected for intermodulation distortion and flutter and wow via the Plangent Process, Phil Lesh’s bass had a dynamic freedom that let the bouncy exuberance of his playing come through in a way I had never heard before.

The Solitaire Ps’ spatial precision was remarkable. While the Sony MDR Z-1R and ZMF Verité C both have clearly defined soundstages, neither had ones quite as large or spacious in overall size as those of the Solitaire Ps. With volume levels matched as closely as possible, the Solitaires produced a soundstage that sounded as if I were closer to the event, as if I had moved up three rows closer in a concert hall. The Abyss Diana Phi was the only headphone that matched the Solitaire’s soundstage size and specificity. 

I’ve often seen the term “open” applied to a soundstage. With the Solitaire Ps this feeling of “openness” translates to a soundstage that is limited by the source material, not the headphone. Some recordings are substantially wider than others, which is usually affected more by the headphones themselves than the musical source, but through the Solitaire Ps each particular soundstage rendition was created by the music, not as a result of the headphones’ own way of recreating spatial relationships.

Another area where the Solitaire Ps excelled was midrange purity, without additive or subtractive colorations. I was especially aware of this on vocals, be they male or female. Male voices did not have any added chestiness, weight, or bloom; instead they just sounded right. Same with female vocals, where nothing was added or subtracted from their native harmonic balance. My current hair length allows me to use Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Pigpen’s vocals on the Workingman’s Dead reissue I mentioned earlier as sonic examples. Through the Solitaire Ps, each vocalist sounded more natural because each was unaltered by any audible transducer-induced colorations.

While the goal of any loudspeaker is to be as even and flat throughout its frequency range as possible, headphones, due to the vagaries of the human ear, are equalized or voiced to compensate for the twists and turns of the human ear canal. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary “target curve,” which is what it’s determined will translate as the most pleasing frequency response for a particular design. Given the subjective nature of different manufacturers’ “room curves” and “ideal frequency-response curves,” which are not based on being “flat” like a loudspeaker but on the company’s own listening tests, neutrality as defined in the wo3rld of room-based audio doesn’t really exist in the headphone world. So, with headphones it comes down to how neutral or natural a headphone sounds to you. After that longwinded preface, I will say that to my ears the Solitaire P delivers the most neutral, balanced, and accurate harmonic rendition of any headphone I’ve experienced. The Abyss is the most similar harmonically, but it adds a wee bit of midbass warmth. As to which you prefer, that comes down to the squirrelly little subject of personal taste.

Summary

The T+A Solitaire P headphones rank among the best, easiest-to-drive, most completely portable reference headphones I have had the pleasure of reviewing. Their superlatives include physical resilience, elegant looks, build-quality, comfort level, and, of course, sound. 

The Solitaire Ps fulfills all the requirements to be considered references. Are they perfect? Not quite. The headband’s click-stop adjustment system, while perhaps adequate for a sub-$300 headphone, doesn’t offer the high level of engineering you would expect, especially considering the refinement found in the rest of the headphone’s physical design. But the Solitaire Ps do everything else so well that it’s easy to work around the headband; I’d simply gaffer-tape it in place.

So, if you are in the hunt for a pair of headphones that you can keep using for ten or twenty years, and you’re hard on headphones, I would strongly recommend trying the Solitaire Ps on for size. They can take it, and they sure can dish it out. 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Open-back, over ear, planar-magnetostatic headphones
Impedance: 80 ohms
Frequency response: 5Hz–54kHz
Distortion: < 0.015 % @ 100dB
Maximum sound pressure level: >130dB
Sensitivity: 101dB @ 1kHz, 1V
Weight: 530g excluding cable
Price: $6400 

T+A ELECTROAKOUSTIK
ta-hifi.de/en/musicreengineered-solitaire-p/

Neil Young Archives Gets Cookin’ with Mojo

The following is a press release issued by Chord Electronics

23rd February 2021 | Kent, UK – In a new article posted on the Neil Young Archives, Neil Young and Phil Baker describe how they currently use Chord Electronics’ Mojo DAC/headphone amplifier with their phones and desktops. They created a web page dedicated to correct Mojo set up to help their members enjoy all that Neil Young Archives has to offer, at full resolution.

In the ‘Let’s Get Cookin’ with SOUND!’ article (neilyoungarchives.com), NYA author Phil Baker introduces the British-built Mojo and the simple recipe for ‘Xstream’ sound quality, which includes Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter and the Neil Young Archives.

Describing Chord Electronics’ Mojo Baker writes, ‘The Mojo, designed and built in the UK, is one of the best portable DACs/amplifiers available at any price. It’s what Neil and I use with our phones, iPads and computers to listen to NYA at its full resolution.’

The article also features practical Mojo advice from Chord Electronics’ Sales Director, Colin Pratt: ‘Mojo unlocks the hidden data that other DACs just can’t reproduce… it brings a real sense of presence to your listening experience.’

Neil Young Archives, described by The Guardian as, ‘A revolution in fandom’, contains the complete archives of Neil Young. The site is designed for a chronological exploration of artist output including music, books, films and videos. Neil Young and Phil Baker recently co-authored a book about high resolution audio, ‘To Feel the Music’.

Price and availability

Mojo is available now priced at £399

2020 Product of the Year Awards | High-End Loudspeaker of the Year

Yamaha NS-5000 

$15,000

An effort of 19 engineers and 8 years in development, the full 5000 Series sees Yamaha return to the audio deep end, making waves with a cannonball dive off the high platform. The NS-5000 loudspeaker will be viewed as the Series’ star component, and it rightly takes a place as an underpriced overachiever in the high-performance loudspeaker marketplace. The NS-5000 uses just one material for every vibrating surface—Zylon—one of the strongest fibers in existence, which offers a nearly ideal combination of stiffness and damping. The innovation continues on this large “bookshelf’s” insides, with tuned chambers replacing broadband stuffing to attack resonances more efficiently across the audible frequency band. 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 to just settle into a very unfiltered, unforced experience. Refined, carefully judged by people who obviously care. Whether it will become the classic that its NS-1000 ancestral variants were is for the market and time to determine. But from our tiny little hidden world of the high end, we should all celebrate when companies from the bigger world of industry and commerce, like Yamaha, passionately contribute to a better audio future. 

YG Acoustics Introduces DualCoherent 2

The following is a press release issued by YG Acoustics.

February 2021 – YG Acoustics is pleased to announce DualCoherent 2, a significant advance in one of our core and unique technologies.

DualCoherent 2 builds on YG’s industry-leading DualCoherent crossover technology, further optimized through the powerful modeling capabilities of Cambridge Acoustic Sciences (CAS)

https://cambridgeacousticsciences.com/.

Working together with CAS, we measured the electronic and acoustic behavior of our proprietary drive units to an unprecedented accuracy. Leveraging the petaflop compute cluster at CAS, we were able to build detailed models addressing the elaborate interplay of amplifier, crossover, drive units, cabinet and listening room—all simulated playing real, high-resolution music.

Designed and optimized exactingly around the detailed phase and frequency behavior of the YG proprietary drivers, DualCoherent 2 matches phase to an extraordinary level at the crossover point.
In addition, current requirements are substantially reduced, further extending the range of amplifier choices available to customers.

DualCoherent 2 is implemented with the finest audio electronic components, including the massive and highly vibration-resistant ViseCoil™ bass inductors machined and built in-house by YG. Other components include cost-no-object choices such as Mundorf MCap SUPREME EVO SilverGold capacitors and MResist SUPREME resistors.

DualCoherent 2 was originally conceived for implementation in the Sonja XV platform. Additional substantial research and development has resulted in the extension of DualCoherent 2 crossover technology throughout the Sonja product line.

Going forward, all Sonja XV, Sonja XV Studio and Sonja 2 series speakers will include an “i” suffix in the model name. The “i” designation will indicate an improved version of the model by the inclusion of DualCoherent 2 crossover technology.

All previous Sonja XV, Sonja XV Studio, Sonja 1 series and Sonja 2 series speakers can be upgraded to DualCoherent 2 specification. This upgrade can be accomplished “in the field”. There is no need to return speakers to the factory.

For pricing details, please see www.yg-acoustics.com to contact the geographically appropriate dealer or distributor.

2020 Product of the Year Awards | Solid-State Power Amplifiers

Rogue Audio Dragon 

$3995 

Boasting 300Wpc into 8 ohms (500Wpc in 4 ohms) Dragon is a sophisticated hybrid tube/Class D design that stands atop the Rogue lineup as the most powerful stereo amp it offers today. Indeed, Dragon has enough output to comfortably drive the vast majority of loudspeakers with ease. Perhaps surprisingly, given its tremendous power, it also elicits a near-granular level of finesse and clarity from instruments at the back of the stage. Speed and transient information are naturalistic and lively; tonal balance predominately neutral, with glimmers of midrange warmth and a well-defined presence range. Violin and viola are particularly well rendered and distinct; bass response is superbly controlled. And always lurking at the ready is the voice of authority, eager to reproduce an organ’s pedal point or the left hand of a pianist striking the bottom-octave keys of a concert grand. Not just another high-powered beast, Dragon is truly a splendid and easily attainable amplifier that will proudly grace any system. 

aesthetix_atlas_2

Aesthetix Atlas Eclipse Mono 

$28,000/pr.

The Aesthetix Atlas Eclipse Mono is a powerful amplifier that delivers like few others on the promise of hybrid technology. The tube input stage actually allows the amplifier to capture almost all of the body, texture, and sense of space offered by the best all-glass designs. At the same time, the solid-state output stage provides the bass slam and control seemingly available only with high-power transistor amplification. Designer Jim White has taken his widely admired Atlas amplifier to new heights by carefully matching all of the output transistors, using the latest in custom-designed StealthCap technology, upgrading the power supply, and redesigning the casework to reduce resonances. The audible result of these efforts is seemingly unlimited power (rated 300Wpc into 8 ohms and 600Wpc into 4 ohms) with a pristine transparency that the earlier versions of this amplifier could not quite achieve. With this open-window-to-the-world clarity comes three-dimensional instruments, rich tonal color, expansive soundstage, a blacker background than the original Atlas, and subterranean bass. For those of you using dedicated subwoofers, the Atlas Eclipse offers a separate input followed by a built-in high-pass crossover that allows the user to roll off the low frequencies going to the loudspeaker driven by the Atlas, which in turn allows for a much cleaner transition between main speaker and subwoofer. The Atlas Eclipse Monos are a celebration of hybrid design fully realized—truly deserving to be called Product of the Year.

BØRRESEN Releases Z5 Loudspeakers

The following is a press release issued by Børresen.

February 2021 – The BØRRESEN Z5 loudspeakers are now launched! These speakers are the top-of-the-line model of the Z-series. The Z5 now completes the Z-series of loudspeakers, which also includes the Z1 compact speakers, and the Z2 and Z3 floor standing models.

The BØRRESEN Z5 is a huge 2½ way floor standing loudspeaker equipped with a Ribbon Planar Tweeter,
2 bass/midrange and 4 bass drivers. The BØRRESEN Z5 loudspeakers guarantee unsurpassed clarity, detailed subtlety and unadulterated purity in their musical performance.

The principle that guided the development of the Z-series loudspeakers was to provide an uncompromising high-end audio performance at an affordable price. The technology behind the Z-series consists of electronic components that are either adopted from the highly acclaimed and award-winning 0 -series, completely redesigned or are innovative spin-offs resulting from BØRRESEN Acoustics’ extensive audio research activities.

The magnet system in the Z-series is a brand new construction. From the invention of the patented iron-free driver system in the 0-series, BØRRESEN Acoustics came to realize that it is possible to reduce induction to an amazing 0.04 mH, which is approx. 10 times lower than that of common driver systems. The challenge for manufacturing the new Z-series was now to design a new, but less costly driver system with significantly reduced induction. As a result, BØRRESEN Acoustics developed a driver with an induction of only 0.06 mH. By linearizing the magnetic field, the driver is less affected by the actual movement. This makes it also much easier for an amplifier to control the driver.

A spin off from the development of the 0-series is the design and layout of the Z2 and Z3 models. These models are equipped with the large 8” inch bass drivers placed closer to the floor. Since the speakers are now acoustically much better integrated into the room, the bass drivers can perform the music with a remarkably deep bass.

BØRRESEN Acoustics has also incorporated some of the exclusive components from the 0-series into the Z-series:

The state-of-the-art ribbon tweeter is a distinctive and defining high-end component in all BØRRESEN speakers. The same applies to the driver membrane used for the bass and midrange drivers with the exceptionally low weight of 5.5 grams, which allows an outstanding resolution and high efficiency. The crossover is also configured with exclusive components from the 0-series with the intent to reduce its own resonance.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to audition the new BØRRESEN Z-series of loudspeakers. From the impressive Z1 compact speakers to the Z5, the brand-new, top-of-line flagship model. Discover the speakers that are best suited for your individual listening preferences. Immerse yourself in a breathtaking dimension of an authentic sound experience of high-end music with amazing dynamics, natural lightness and emotional passion.

Take a closer look at the BØRRESEN Z-series on the company’s YouTube channel: Audio Group Denmark.

Visit the BØRRESEN website www.borresen-acoustics.com to learn more about the new Z-series of loudspeakers and to find your local BØRRESEN dealer.

Bob Dylan: Love and Theft

The recent release of the astonishing Rough and Rowdy Ways was yet another reminder that Bob Dylan has always been a confounding artist, creating a near 60-year patchwork of masterworks and forgettable throwaways. But when he hits it, few can equal the guy. Dylan was 60 when this follow-up to 1997s acclaimed Time Out of Mind was released in 2001. It’s one of his most confounding sessions—and, as MoFi’s outstanding reissue reminds us, also one of his best. Love and Theft could not be more different from the world-weary darkness of its predecessor. Whether it’s the rockabilly twang of “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” the music hall shuffle of “Bye and Bye,” “Po’ Boy,” and “Moonlight,” the rollicking swing of “Summer Days,” or the Biblical country-blues of “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Dylan sounds both happy and confident as he tears through these songs with his crackerjack yet loose-limbed band—these guys are having fun. Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl edition significantly betters the original. The balance and blend between the band and Dylan’s voice is spot-on; there’s a greater sense of clarity and continuity, studio air, instrumental texture, dynamics, low-end richness, and presence. Excellent stuff here and highly recommended—especially if you don’t know it.

Lenbrook Americas Launches DALI OPTICON MK2

The following is a press release issued by Lenbrook Americans.

PICKERING, ONTARIO, CANADA | FEBRUARY 10, 2021 – Lenbrook Americas today launched the DALI OPTICON MK2Series, updating and replacing the OPTICON Series. With a continued focus on improved music reproduction, thoughtful design, stylish aesthetics, and the use of the latest technologies, the upscale OPTICON MK2 provides a truly immersive listening experience for both music and movie lovers alike.

The OPTICON MK2 Series is comprised of six models – two bookshelf/stand mount models – OPTICON 1 MK2 ($999/pr US MSRP) and OPTICON 2 MK2 ($1,499/pr US MSRP), two towers – OPTICON 8 MK2 ($3,999/pr US MSRP) and OPTICON 6 MK2 ($2,499/pr US MSRP), a centre channel – OPTICON VOKAL MK2 ($799/ea US MSRP) and a low profile on-wall LCR – OPTICON LCR MK2 ($999/ea US MSRP). The DALI OPTICON MK2 initial availability varies by model and finish beginning in late February/late March 2021.

CABINETS

The DALI OPTICON MK2 Series offers fresh, elegant aesthetics in three new finishes – Satin Black, Satin White and Tobacco Oak* with new furniture grade grille fabrics matched to finishes.

Each OPTICON MK2 enclosure is designed to optimise rigidity and minimise panel resonance. The OPTICON MK2 25mm thick front baffles provide massively rigid foundations for the drivers, and the floor standing OPTICON MK2 models employ extra internal bracing to further ensure rigidity and practically eliminate panel resonance.

CLASS-LEADING PERFORMANCE

Benefitting from the latest in new technologies and innovations, OPTICON MK2 is designed, developed and manufactured at DALI’s factory in Denmark. All cabinets and drivers are built with a consistent focus on the DALI audio principles of low-loss, low distortion and low colouration. Each pair of speakers is built and tested at the same time to ensure acoustic and aesthetic consistency. The rigid, braced cabinet construction eliminates resonances and while minimizing colouration.

SMC

DALI SMC (Soft Magnetic Compound) is a coated magnet granular material that has many advantages when used in driver magnet systems. SMC’s unusual combination of very high magnetic permeability and very low electrical conductivity results in improved flux linearity, reduced magnetic hysteresis and a significant reduction in harmonic distortion. All of these SMC benefits together produce a significant measured and subjective reduction of low-level detail masking and colouration.

DRIVERS

The EPICON derived cones on all OPTICON MK2 models are made from a mix of paper and wood fibre that provide a stiff, lightweight and well-behaved structure that ensures minimal break-up resonance and provides the cones their distinctive colour. The bass/midrange driver magnet system consists of a large ferrite ring magnet surrounding a pole piece manufactured entirely of the unique DALI SMC material. The OPTICON 8 MK2 uses a dedicated 6 ½” midrange and two 8” woofers. The OPTICON 6 MK2 uses two 6 ½” woofers, the OPTICON 2, VOKAL and LCR MK2 each use one 6 ½” woofer while the OPTICON 1 MK2 uses a 4 ¾” woofer.

SOFT DOME TWEETER

The new 29mm soft dome tweeter used in all six OPTICON MK2 models offers significant advances over the two different soft dome tweeters used in the previous OPTICON series. Its relatively small increase in diameter over the previous 28mm tweeter may seem a minor detail, however it results in a significant increase in dome radiating area which means lower distortion, higher power handling, and an ability to operate at lower frequencies. Use of the same soft dome tweeter across all six OPTICON MK2 models not only results in consistency of tonal character, but also enables similar crossover topology to be used on each model for consistency of dispersion characteristics.

HYBRID TWEETER

DALI has a long and successful tradition for engineering and integrating hybrid tweeter modules comprising a soft dome tweeter working together with a ribbon tweeter. The OPTICON 6, 8 LCR and VOKAL MK2 models use a new hybrid tweeter design that marries the new 29mm soft dome tweeter with a custom designed 17mm x 45mm ribbon tweeter mounted on a new cast aluminium faceplate for reduced vibration. The hybrid tweeter system is configured so that the ribbon tweeter begins to contribute from 10kHz upwards; just as the response of the soft dome tweeter is beginning slowly to fall away and become more directional. The ribbon tweeter both extends the system frequency response towards 30kHz and contributes to keeping high frequency horizontal dispersion wider than would otherwise be the case. The new hybrid tweeter literally offers the best of both worlds – the clarity, speed and dynamics of a dome tweeter, with the very high frequency detail and smooth finesse of a ribbon tweeter.

DUAL FLARE PORT DESIGN

All six OPTICON MK2 models are bass reflex designs. Reflex loading employs the otherwise unused acoustic output from the rear of a bass driver to extend low frequency bandwidth and increase low frequency power handling. With the OPTICON 1, 2, 6 and 8 MK2 we took the MK2 opportunity to incorporate our Dual Flare port design. This Dual Flare technique brings port design into the realm of aerodynamics with exit and entry flares carefully designed to minimise turbulence at the airflow rate expected from the port diameter and tuning frequency. Dual Flare enables OPTICON MK2 reflex ports to remain laminar (like a gently flowing river, rather than rapidly churning white water) and work effectively to reinforce low frequency performance to a significantly higher volume level than would otherwise be possible.

In the case of the OPTICON VOKAL MK2, it employs twin, forward facing letterbox style reflex ports configured to enable the system to be enclosed in furniture units. Not only does its enclosure format not provide enough space for Dual Flare, port flaring is less critical on a system designed primarily for voice reproduction.

With the OPTICON LCR MK2, its on-wall installation requires an entirely different reflex port approach. The reflex port exits are located in the rear panel and engineered to vent in parallel to the wall. The rear wall surface effectively becomes integral to the port tuning and exit flaring.

CROSSOVER DESIGN

Exceptional care was taken to make the filter topology as simple as possible with the minimum of components between the amplifier and drivers. Furthermore, as part of the crossover design, some individual crossover components were upgraded – lower loss capacitors in particular. The result is a noticeable increase in overall coherence, detail and precision across the entire OPTICON MK2 series. The crossover assemblies in each OPTICON MK2 speaker are located internally adjacent to the terminal panels in order to shorten signal paths, and on the OPTICON 6 and 8 MK2 models the terminal panels incorporate optional bi-wiring facilities. The connection terminals on all OPTICON MK2 models are gold plated to ensure long term reliable connections.

“When listening to the OPTICON MK2 you quickly realize that it’s all about immersing yourself in the music”, says Jeff Earl, Product Manager for Lenbrook Americas.  “OPTICON MK2 is positioned in the DALI range at the point where engineering and technology take a significant step up and utilize many of the advancements from our RUBICON and EPICON series, while being refreshed with new aesthetics.”

The series technology and feature upgrades include:

  • Upscale aesthetics with new Satin White, Satin Black and Tobacco Oak* finish options
  • New furniture grade grille fabrics matched to finishes
  • New woofers and midrange drivers with full SMC driver pole-pieces
  • DALI EPICON derived wood fibre cones colour matched to speaker’s sleek appearance
  • New, larger diameter soft dome tweeter derived from the DALI CALLISTO
  • Hybrid, soft dome and ribbon tweeter on the OPTICON 6, 8, LCR and VOKAL MK2
  • New solid die-cast aluminum tweeter faceplate for reduced vibration
  • DALI Dual Flare reflex ports for a smooth, non-turbulent airflow through the speaker
  • Re-engineered crossovers incorporating upgraded, low-loss components
  • Optional bi-wire connection facilities on OPTICON 6 MK2 and 8 MK2
  • Tonal balance revoiced to maximise the subjective benefits of the MK2 revisions

*OPTICON 8 MK2 is available in Satin Black and Tobacco Oak Only.