Logo

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.

Further Thoughts: Aesthetix Mimas Integrated Amplifier

The Aesthetix Mimas is one of the finest integrated amps on the market today. It’s an absurdly good value, to boot, and one of my recent Golden Ear Award recipients. At the time of the original review’s publication, however, the development of an optional, inboard, modular phono card was still ongoing. Knowing I am an avid analog guy, Aesthetix’s Jim White pledged that as soon as the $1250 phono card was in production he’d slip it into the assigned open bay on the back panel of my Mimas review sample, and I’d get a listen. True to his word, the installation was completed a few months ago. 

Analog LP playback has been a specialty of Aesthetix from its earliest days. The company knows the territory like few others, as owners of its widely respected dual-chassis Io tube phonostage will attest. By contrast, inboard phonostages have a checkered history. Typically built to a modest price point, they rarely enjoyed or deserved the kind of deference vinyl enthusiasts lavished on stand-alone models. Further, as analog faded to a “legacy” format with the rise of digital audio, most inboard phonostages—often noisy and hum-prone—got bundled into budget AVRs or amps as promotional afterthoughts. The resurgence of analog playback changed that equation, and performance expectations have risen commensurately.

Remarkably, given the small proportions of this phono card, its feature-set still approximates many formidable stand-alone phono preamps. It sports both mm and mc capability with adjustable gain and loading. In addition, a dual set of individually adjustable inputs gives die-hard analog enthusiasts the option of preserving gain/load settings for two cartridges or, as the turntable budget allows, of supporting dual tonearms. Its fully discrete, FET-based, high-gain differential circuit utilizes Wima film capacitors for RIAA compensation. 

Installation of the phono card (a dealer is recommended) instantly activates phono/cartridge configuration software that’s driven from the Mimas’ front panel or remote control. Setup is as easy as selecting the “TT” input and following the menu prompts—no dealing with those annoying back-panel DIP switches. For evaluation, my cartridge selection included three designs of varying output voltage—a Clearaudio Charisma V2 (mm, 3.6mV), a Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration (mc, 0.5mV), and an over-performer of a budget cartridge, the new Grado Opus3 (mi, 1mV). My longstanding LP rig is an SME V tonearm mounted on a Sota Cosmos Eclipse turntable.

The truth is that phono- stages—be they onboard or outboard—live or die based on delivering the lowest possible noise. The noise issue is particularly acute with lower-output cartridges, which require greater phonostage gain to boost their miniscule voltages. The challenge for phonostage designers is that the higher the gain, the greater the potential for added background hum and hash. There are no free rides. 

That said, for current Mimas owners who’ve been pining for the full-on, ultra-low-noise vinyl experience, the wait is over. Sonically, the Mimas phonostage’s character dovetailed with the sonic signature of the Mimas amp, with gentle hints of midrange warmth and rosy, extended sweetness in the treble. The waft of harmonic air and treble extension that vinyl aficionados crave was realized in abundance, as was a sense of the tactile and the intimate—peculiarities of LP playback—that seem to enhance female vocalists, such as the timeless Jennifer Warnes singing Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe” [Another Time, Another Place, BMG]. Even at the highest gain setting with the lowest-output mc in my collections (the Palo Santos), the Mimas phonostage was astonishingly quiet—comparable to outboard standouts like the Pass Labs XP-17 and Parasound JC 3+ phonostages that I had on hand.

The Mimas’ rendering of soundstage dimensionality and immersion were exactly what I’ve come to expect from excellent analog. This was nothing like the collapsing constrictive soundstages that characterized inboard phonostages from the past. Images were reproduced with substance and transparency. Clusters of players—choirs, chamber groups, or jazz quartets, for example—were conveyed with superior separation and were also integrated easily within the auditorium environment. Orchestral layering and focus extended to near the back of the hall. 

Beyond the pastoral calm and quiet this phonostage conveyed, the Mimas also had another, more assertive side to its personality. And, frankly, during the “Olympic Fanfare” from Winds of War and Peace [Wilson Audio], I was a little stunned by the resolution, fearsome bass reproduction, and transient fireworks springing from this classic piece of vinyl. Set against its noise- and grain-free silences was this phonostage’s most noteworthy feature—the ability to reproduce and resolve the widest dynamic contrasts, from the softest keyboard pianissimo to the most explosive orchestral tuttis. The track that comes to mind is the cratering darkness of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” [The Planets, LSO, Previn, EMI]. Through the Mimas phonostage, the full weight of brass and winds, screaming strings, and relentless percussion was brought to bear in the nightmarish soundscape of horror, loss, confusion, and grinding despair of armed conflict. Or, take Norah Jones’ quirky track “Sinkin’ Soon” [Not Too Late, Blue Note], with its pots-and-pans percussion, its burbling trombone accents, and gossamer backing vocals—low-level voicings that swing in and out at unpredictable moments and occupy oddball stage positions. Through the Mimas, the energy jumped from this playfully idiosyncratic track at all levels. While I haven’t heard every phonostage out there, it’s hard to believe that this unit left much, if any, resolution on the table.

Is the Mimas phonostage the end of the line in resolving power and musicality? A fair question. The answer is, first, no competitor I know of will embarrass it, and second, you’ll have to dig a lot deeper into the mid-four-figure phono preamp range to equal it. The Aesthetix modular phono card completes an already premium package in the integrated amplifier segment. I originally dubbed Mimas “the very definition of what I am seeking today in an integrated amplifier,” but now I’m happy to amend that characterization. Now, it’s also among the most versatile. 

AESTHETIX AUDIO CORPORATION
5220 Gabbert Road, Suite A
Moorpark, CA 93021
(805) 529-9901

Base Price: Mimas $7000 (add $1250 phono option)

Jim White on the Mimas Phonostage

What are the chief challenges and pitfalls of building a phono- stage into an integrated amplifier?

There are two major challenges of building a phonostage into an integrated amplifier: power supplies and magnetic fields. Power supplies become an issue because, typically, you are drawing current from supplies that perform other key functions, such as powering the main gain stage or, in extreme cases, the high-current output supplies. Mimas was designed from the ground up to have a special power supply, with its own transformer winding, that would be used for optional cards such as the phono, and be minimally used for other functions. It is a very stiff, high-current power supply. Further, we double-regulate that power supply on the phono card itself, to fully isolate it from any noise or fluctuations.

Magnetic fields are a problem because of the large power transformers that are required for power amplifiers. These fields can leak into the phono section and cause big problems. For a phono section only intended for moving-magnet cartridges (with about 40–60dB of gain), it is not a big problem. But for a phono section intended for low- and medium-output moving-coil cartridges (with 60–75dB of gain), it is a much bigger issue. We wanted this module to be something very special, so we went to great lengths to be able to easily handle medium- and low-output mc cartridges as well as mm’s. The input section uses a six-layer board, using the outer four layers almost exclusively for shielding. All of the circuitry is fully discrete, using Toshiba FETs, which we hand-match. This matching allows for greatest CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio, a measure of a circuit’s ability to reject outside sources of hum and noise). The fully discrete design allows us to optimize the PCB layout, among many other advantages. Further, the entire input section is encased in mu-metal to shield it from stray fields. 

What are the limitations of an inboard phonostage?

Typically, you do not find a truly high-performance phono section in an integrated amplifier, especially a fully discrete one capable of handling low-output mc’s. They are mostly limited to lower gains (for the above-mentioned reasons) and do not offer the flexibility to interface with a wide variety of cartridges. They are often meant to provide basic phono amplification, but not performance that is competitive with stand-alone phonostages. From the outset, our design team planned for Mimas to incorporate a state-of-the-art phonostage, so many of the pitfalls were avoided upfront. Nevertheless, it proved to be massively challenging, requiring over two years of work and no fewer than five full prototypes. 

How does modular design make for a better phono card?

The modular design allowed us the opportunity to fully focus on the phono module as a product of its own. We can then optimize every aspect of performance and functionality, without the time and financial constraints that would be imposed by a non-modular approach. Most importantly, a modular approach allows for future upgrades and new features to be implemented without the need for an overall product redesign.

Q&A with Joel Sietsema of Marantz and Classé Audio

What spurred your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side? 

I’ve always been interested in consumer technology. Growing up, I developed a reputation in our neighborhood as the “techy-kid” who could fix VCRs, TVs, etc. I often found myself dropping by a Best Buy to shop for CDs, check out car-audio systems, or test the latest speakers. My initial interest in better audio came from the music side in my first job out of college in Minnesota. As a local MN company, Best Buy was an attractive employer, and I decided to take my first post-college job selling speakers in a Magnolia store inside Best Buy. This is where I got my first formal exposure to premium audio, and was struck by how much better music could sound on upgraded equipment and in a treated room. 

My role as Buyer of Audio at Magnolia Audio Video fueled a deeper level interest in high-end audio, combining two of my passions: technology and music. I was exposed to the very best equipment and ideas on Earth from some of the most influential people in our industry—leaders like John Hunter at Sumiko/REL, Doug Henderson of B&W and JL Audio, Charlie Randall of McIntosh Labs, David Solomon of Peachtree and Qobuz, Kevin Zarow at Marantz, Paul Grove of Martin Logan and Paradigm, and many more. 

Harman Luxury Audio Packs 75 Years of Acoustic Excellence Into New Compact JBL 4309 Studio Monitor Series Bookshelf Loudspeakers

The following is a press release issued by Harman.

NORTHRIDGE, California | April 13th, 2021—JBL proves great things come in small sizes with the launch of its new JBL 4309 Studio Monitor compact bookshelf loudspeakers from HARMAN’s Luxury Audio Group. Modelled on the award-winning JBL 4349, the JBL 4309 loudspeakers are equipped with a 2410H-2 1-inch compression driver mated to the latest High-Definition Imaging (HDI™) horn and feature a 6.5-inch, cast frame pure-pulp cone woofer. The combination of JBL’s legendary acoustic performance with a retro-style and compact design delivers listeners an exceptional studio-grade audio experience. 

The all-new JBL 4309, which has just been announced as a Red Dot Design Award [2021] winner, is a smaller bookshelf version of the recently released 4349 12-inch two-way monitor loudspeakers and features many of the same patented JBL acoustic technologies. While compact in size, the 4309 packs the signature power, dynamics and accuracy that the JBL brand has delivered to listeners for the last 75 years.

“Our Studio Monitor series of high-performance loudspeakers are some of our most popular models globally as there simply isn’t anything else like them,” said Jim Garrett, Senior Director, Product Strategy and Planning, HARMAN Luxury Audio. “The combination of the heritage pro-style aesthetics and state-of-the-art acoustic technologies packaged together in the small form factor of the 4309 results in a fantastic loudspeaker discerning listeners will love.”

Designed in the world-famous acoustic engineering facility in Northridge, California, JBL’s revolutionary High-Definition Imaging (HDI) horn and compression driver technology is the culmination of 75 years of ongoing research and innovation, resulting in the JBL 4309 Studio Monitor’s powerful dynamics and incredibly accurate sound reproduction.

“The combination of the JBL 4309’s powerful woofer, compression driver, and horn harmoniously combine to render music with authority and accuracy; a performance impossible with traditional loudspeaker design,” Garrett continued. “While the acoustic performance of the JBL 4309 is outstanding, the appearance and speaker design is equally compelling. We expect these to be desirable to music lovers who want the performance of the JBL 4349 in a more compact size.”

The JBL 4309 Studio Monitor sports a classic JBL monitor design with the iconic blue baffle and is finished in a choice of walnut or black walnut furniture-grade satin wood veneers. A blue (walnut) or black (black walnut) cloth grille completes the elegant appearance. Dual sets of gold-plated binding posts provide a secure connection and offer a choice of single-ended or bi-wire/bi-amplified connections.

In recognition of outstanding product design, the JBL 4309 has been awarded the “Red Dot” as part of the Red Dot Design Award [2021] program. This sought-after achievement for high design quality is awarded by an international jury and is a seal of quality only awarded to a few products in each category.

The JBL 4309 Studio Monitor will be available for purchase in June with retail pricing of $2,000/pair.

PS Audio Stellar M1200 Amplifier

Mention the words “switching” and “amplifier” in tandem and not a few audiophiles are apt to get a queasy look. The knock on Class D amplification is that it tends to sound cold, sterile, amusical. For the most part, there has been something to the opprobrium that has attached to switching amplifiers. So when I saw that PS Audio’s inventive engineer Darren Myers had come up with a switching amplifier called Stellar M1200, I was most curious to hear it. 

The design of the monoblock M1200, which is priced at $5998 per pair, seems calculated to try to overcome the traditional objections to Class D amplifiers. The input section features a venerable 12AU7 tube coupled to a high-current ICE Edge output section. The idea, as near as I can tell, is to try and mate beauty and the beast. And why not? The advantage of Class D amplifiers is that they don’t really produce any significant heat, weigh very little, consume minimal electricity, and deliver a whopping amount of power—in the case of the M1200 no less than 1200 watts into a 4-ohm load, enough to drive just about any extant loudspeaker with ample headroom to hit sonic peaks loud enough to satisfy the most demanding listener.

When I first spotted the M1200, I reckoned that it would be able to drive my Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic subwoofers easily. I couldn’t help wondering what all that power would be like on the bottom section of my loudspeaker setup. As it happened, however, my system was in flux, with gear whizzing in and out the door; so, I put the M1200s first on the WAMM main loudspeakers without harboring too great expectations. Boy, was I in for a surprise! The M1200 is not a good amplifier; it is a superb one.

There were several enticing attributes of the M1200 that caught my ear, so to speak, from the get-go. The first one was the capacious soundstage that the M1200 produces. It’s always been my experience that the more powerful the amplifier, the larger and deeper the soundstage created by the loudspeaker. Joined to this is a sense of hall ambience, which is very important for a classical buff like me. The M1200 produced all of these in spades. 

On a fine Delos CD of the Brazilian Guitar Quartet playing transcriptions of Bach’s four suites for orchestra, the plusses of the M1200 were easy to detect. For one thing, there was a whoosh of air the instant the quartet began playing the second suite, each guitar firmly and forcefully planted in its own space. One of the attributes of the power that the M1200 offers is a sense of power and drive, not just of the overall performance but of a feeling of dynamic jump for each instrument. To a greater degree than I have heard with most amplifiers, the M1200 truly amplifies the smallest details—the hand of a guitarist inadvertently brushing the strings, a performer sucking his breath in, and so on. The accumulation of these small, almost microscopic, details add up to a more realistic overall sonic landscape. Instruments, whether trumpet, guitar, or violin, emerge as formidable in size and scale.

At the same time, the M1200 is something of a jackrabbit. The amazing damping factor of the amplifier means that it often seems to start and stop a hair faster than many other of its brethren. No matter the musical genre, the feeling of a sense of propulsion is inescapable. In many ways, the music seems to be happening in real time as opposed to that subliminal sense of a split-second time lag. On a Philips LP of Schubert’s sonatas for violin and piano that’s beautifully played by Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley, this alacrity endows the music with a sense of drama. Grumiaux’s bowing has more bite and fervor than most systems would render, as do Crossley’s fortissimos. In my experience, it’s pretty difficult to reproduce a violin’s overtones—the guts of the sound—with any real degree of verisimilitude. The M1200 excels at it. The hall ambience it coaxes into your listening room also means that the lower regions of the piano resound with great fidelity. The piano chords have a 3-D dimensionality to them that is quite winning, particularly in the bass region. Ah, the bass region. I’ll admit it. I’m something of a bass fanatic, and not just because my system is located in the basement. Nor is it that I’m intent on pounding out the low bass on rock recordings, though I’ll confess that I enjoy it upon occasion. No, what I really find illuminating is the degree to which improvements in the bass further the illusion of the real thing throughout the frequency spectrum. In controlling the bass quite authoritatively, the M1200 is able to reproduce effectively the timbral richness of a grand piano, tuba, or guitar. It goes deeper than many competing amplifiers, something that came through vividly on a Pentatone SACD of Bram Beekman playing Bach’s Organ Concerto in D minor. The sustained low organ notes are held with a tautness, even as the melody plays above, that makes for a rewarding listening experience. Ditto for a praeludium by Johann Christoph Kellner; I’ve never heard it better. The linearity of the amplifier means that every note, from bass to treble, exploded out of the loudspeaker with equal force on massive organ block chords. The sound was rich and overwhelming. The depth of hall space was cavernous, as though you were in the cathedral itself feeling the sonic waves emanating from the organ. Forget about the fumbling around that you sometimes hear with other amplifiers that are trying to grasp the very lowest reaches of the organ. The M1200 handles them with aplomb. You’ll hear every note, loud and clear. 

What about the treble region? Here, as you might expect, there are some plusses and minuses. The excellent transparency and power of the M1200 allow it to soar wide open in this fussy sonic region. The grip and control on violin and piano or vocals is most impressive. Take the German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. On a Harmonia Mundi recording of Bach cantatas, it is impossible to detect a hint of compression with the M1200 when Scholl cuts loose. You can also practically hear the air whooshing through the organ pipes on contemplative treble passages. The automotive equivalent would be flooring it on the Autobahn with no sense of hesitation. The power with the M1200, in other words, is always there, always on tap, always ready to deliver. 

But—you knew there was a “but” coming—the M1200 is simply not on the level of costlier amplifiers in offering an unimpeachable treble region when it comes to tonality. In my view, the M1200 closes the gap between switching and Class A/B amplifiers to a remarkable degree—but not all the way. It has great clarity, but simply remains a little tonally thinner on top than other top-flight amplifiers.

The M1200 poses a real challenge for much of the audio industry. It offers a colossal sound and excellent refinement at what has to be considered a budget price for the high end. PS Audio, which has specialized in power regeneration for many years, is really expanding its ambit. For anyone who has a loudspeaker that is difficult to drive the M1200 is a must-audition. It does so many things so well that it is consistently a joy to listen to in my system. 

Of the amplifiers that I’ve auditioned in this price range, the Stellar M1200 is by far the best, a gangbuster piece of gear that upends many old verities about switching amplification. I could live with it for a very long time. Stellar, indeed.

Specs & Pricing

Frequency response:10Hz–20kHz ±0.5dB, 10Hz–45kHz +0.1dB, -3.0dB
Output power: 600W into 8 ohms, 1200W into 4 ohms.
Signal to noise: > 112dB, [email protected] watts
Gain: 30.5dB
Output impedance: <0.007 ohms, 50Hz, 2.8Vrms
Damping factor: >550 at 50Hz, 2.8Vrms, 4 ohms; >1100, 8 ohms
Inputs: RCA (unbalanced), XLR (balanced)
Outputs: Copper-base nickel-plated binding posts (two pair)
Dimensions: 17″ x 3.75″ x 12″
Weight: 27 lbs. (each)
Price: $5998/pr.

Alluxity by AVM Tec Releases Update to Int One Integrated Amplifier

The following is a press release issued by Monarch Systems.

April 9, 2021 | Englewood, CO – Monarch Systems Ltd. is happy to announce the immediate release and availability of a production upgrade to the Int One integrated amplifier from Alluxity. The Int One Mk. II has a US MSRP of $9,500.

The Int One has been Alluxity’s best-selling product in North America. The revised Mk. II edition produces 200W into 8 ohms and 400W into 4 ohms and features a completely redesigned balanced preamplifier section and volume control circuitry. The new preamp section is now fully balanced (making the Int One Mk. II fully balanced from input to output) with all of the benefits of balanced technology: lower noise floor, reduced distortion, higher resolution, better bandwidth, and a +6dB increase in gain. Both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) inputs are available, with a single pair of RCA outputs for bi-amplification.

The Int One Mk. II also features an improved volume control with a greater number of volume relays to offer 1dB volume steps with a range from -79dB to +13dB. This allows much better fine-tuning of music playback levels over the original Int One.

All improvements to the Int One Mk. II were achieved without changes to the physical chassis of the original Int One and as a result upgrades to Mk. II versions are possible. Cost increases have also been minimized.

Alluxity’s Int One Mk. II will begin shipping immediately. Review sample and demonstration units should be available in the US within a few weeks. To discuss US dealer opportunities, arrange for an audition, or inquire about review possibilities, please contact Monarch Systems Ltd. at 720-399-0072 or [email protected].

Metallica & the San Francisco Symphony: S&M2

The latest release by Metallica marks their second collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, S&M appearing in 1999 while S&M2 was recorded in 2019. Pairing the Moody Blues with a symphony is one thing, but Metallica is quite another, and at times the four-piece rock band overpowers the nearly 80-piece orchestra. But when the tempo slows and the volume drops, the two forces blend together in interesting ways. The symphony adds layers of color to Metallica’s long, brooding instrumental, “The Call of Ktulu.” When band and orchestra team up during an excerpt from a classical piece, Alexander Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry,” the results are menacing enough to belong in an upcoming horror movie. “Wherever I May Roam” pairs vocalist James Hetfield with the orchestra to good effect. A raw, edgy tribute to Metallica’s late bassist, Cliff Burton, “(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” begins as a solo feature for the orchestra’s principal bassist Scott Pingel, who’s then joined by drummer Lars Ulrich. Everything is well-recorded, and Metallica collectors have a plethora of formats to choose from, including DVD and Blu-ray, a 4-LP vinyl set, a 2-CD edition, digital audio, digital video, and, for the most hardcore Metallica collectors, some pricey limited-edition packages. 

So Is It Really Hi-Res?

It’s been known for several years now that, while it’s not common, some SACDs actually have CD-quality audio; Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me is an infamous example. While working on my Michael Rabin overview in Issue 311, I listened to Blue Moon Records’ SACD of The Magic Bow. It seemed to be missing high frequencies, and it had a perplexing stuffy quality. That seemed odd for a format that should stand out for its dynamic range. I wanted to rip the SACD layer and visually analyze the frequency response, but for a long time, the only way was with certain Sony PS3 gaming consoles. The process looked fussy and far too daunting. 

Searching for a quick, manageable alternative, I found a thread on the HifiHaven.com forum detailing how to rip SACDs to my computer using only a Blu-ray player, two free software programs (SACD_Extract and AutoScript), and a Wi-Fi connection. Google “HifiHaven rip sacd,” and a thread will explain that process.

I picked up a Sony BDP-S6200 (now nicknamed “Jack the Ripper”) for around $50 on eBay and was soon ripping away. The results? A frequency spectrum analysis of Blue Moon’s SACD showed a clear cutoff just above 22kHz, consistent with CD-quality files. The graphic on this page compares, from left to right, Gershwin’s Cuban Overture from an RCA SACD with the Boston Pops, “Hora Staccato” from an original Capitol Magic Bow LP, and “Hora Staccato” from Blue Moon’s SACD. You can see where the frequencies peak, with the Cuban Overture and The Magic Bow LP spiking much higher than 30kHz.  

Whatever debatable improvements occur during WAV-to-DSD conversion, the process cannot restore frequencies that have been cut off or filtered out. With hi-res, I expect to get the full frequency range. Since many readers would love to rip SACDs for archiving, or streaming files from their media servers, or seeing exactly what they bought, I felt this information should be shared. It’s a tool: Use it wisely and legally. 

HifiHaven lists several different Blu-ray players from Sony, Pioneer, Oppo, and others that will work. You’ll need intermediate computer skills, but people on the forum are eager to help. The most difficult part is cobbling together the information; no single post has all the instructions and links. Search the thread for your model number, as some processes vary slightly between models and between Mac and Windows. Here’s my process, so you know roughly what to expect. 

On my PC, I downloaded and extracted the SACD_extractGUI program folder to my desktop; rb.gy/lacgo0 will take you directly there, or see post #284 in the HifiHaven thread. Then I made sure Java was installed and up to date. Next, I went to post #26 and downloaded the appropriate AutoScript program folder and transferred that to a dedicated, empty USB 2.0 thumb drive. 

From there, I connected the Sony to my Wi-Fi and updated the firmware. Under Setup – System Settings, I turned Quick Start Mode on, then I went to Setup – Network Settings – Network Connection Status, wrote down the IP address, and turned the power off.  

Back at the computer, I opened the SACD_extractGUI folder and double-clicked SACDExtractGUI.jar, entered the IP address into the program, and made sure the port was set to 2002. I clicked “Test” to make sure SACD_Extract was communicating with the Sony, then I set it to rip to the DSF format so it would preserve the metadata. With the Sony still powered down, I inserted the USB drive into the front port. A few seconds later, the drawer opened on its own; I put the SACD in, and it closed automatically and the display turned off. I clicked “Run” on SACD_Extract and the magic started. Ripping the next disc just meant pressing eject, inserting the next candidate, closing the drawer, and powering the Sony down again before heading back to SACD_Extract. 

Korg’s AudioGate 4 program will play stereo DSF files, and it can convert them to FLAC, WAV, and several other formats via Menu – File – Export. You can also use programs like AudioGate or Audacity to record modern LPs and check for better-than-CD mastering. To view the frequency spectrum, convert a file to FLAC or WAV with at least an 88.2kHz sample rate, then drag and drop it into Spek, a free program from spek.cc. Happy ripping!

Gold Note Introducing PH-1000

The following is a press release issued by Gold Note.

Firenze, Italy | March 2021 – Introducing the PH-1000, Gold Note’s new premium phono stage.

What if you could play back any LP ever pressed with the correct equalisation? And what if you could adjust or even modify that equalisation curve on the go? Or adjust any of the settings using a simple knob without messing around dip switches and external components? That’s Gold Note’s PH-1000, an ultra-low noise phono stage with high gain and no audio filters designed to be easy to use and easy to love in a way that will change how you think about your analogue setup.

To sum it up, the PH-1000 is a premium phono stage that combines a digital interface with a Class-A discrete component design, offering the widest range of equalisations, gain, load and capacitance adjustments to correctly match any cartridge ever developed. It doesn’t just come with 18 EQ curves available for Stereo, Mono and 78rpm records – it allows you to adjust (yes, actually adjust) the equalisation to virtually recreate any EQ curve ever used to press a record.

It also boasts a headphone output with dedicated volume control, 3 independent inputs (RCA and XLR), and the Single Knob Control (the signature rotary control) that allows you to navigate the menu on the display to change settings while playing music.

There’s more, such as the external load, Stereo/Mono control, phase inversion, L/R channel swap and Rumble subsonic filter. Not to mention that it can optionally feature a built-in Class-A line preamplifier – what more could you want?

Watch the video on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-fAnKm4drY 

You could say this is the result of a modern approach to the concept of HiFi inspired by the needs of the contemporary audiophile. The whole design is in fact based on a very simple idea: to control analogue components through a digital interface and get rid of dip-switches, external boards and other less practical solutions. 

The other simple idea that emerges is that the audio signal path is always as short as possible to preserve the highest audio quality. The same idea that inspired the addition of the headphone output, which makes it possible to create the shortest audio chain ever, going from the cartridge to your ears in only 4 steps. Or the Class-A line preamp that allows the PH-1000 to be connected straight to your power amp.

The reason behind it is that the shorter the path, the better the audio quality. And the PH-1000 does just that.

Available in two models – PH-1000 (suggested retail price of €9.600,00) and PH-1000 LINE (€13.500,00), with the LINE model featuring the Class-A line preamp stage – it’s clearly a phono stage dedicated to high-performance systems.

Want to see the PH-1000 in your living room?

Thanks to the magic of AR (Augmented Reality) you can see it right in front of you – click on the link from your smartphone or tablet and tap the AR icon www.goldnote.it/ph-1000-3d

Moving to the specs: the phono stage features 12 load options (from 10Ω to 100KΩ), 14 gain levels (from 31dB to 74dB) and 7 options to adjust the capacitance (from off to 1000pF). There are 3 RCA and 2 XLR inputs which can also be used for external load plugs, and a dedicated connector for the external power supply. 

The rumble filter can be turned ON/OFF (it’s a 10Hz/36dB octave filter) and the Stereo/Mono control allows for 5 different settings (Stereo, Stereo 180°, Mono, Mono 180°, Mono L). Last but not least, it comes with a remote and the headphone output level can be set to High or Low to match a wide range of headphones despite their sensitivity.

There are 4 EQ curve setups that can be manually adjusted by acting on three main parameters (turnover bass, bass shelf and treble cut) using exclusively analogue technology. Each curve can also be further customised using the proprietary “Enhanced” function which comes from the Neumann Cutting Lathe project and provides superior dynamic and high-frequency extension. As always, the level of quality meets the highest standard throughout the entire production: from the precisely machined aluminium to the audio-grade components and circuitry, each part undergoes strict QC computer-controlled tests.

Visit the official page on Gold Note’s website to learn more www.goldnote.it/phono-stages/ph-1000

ARCAM Models Add Roon Ready Status to Already Extensive Feature Lists

The following is a press release issued by ARCAM.

CAMBRIDGE, UK | April 5, 2021 – ARCAM confirms ‘Roon Ready’ status for five of its models: the AVR10, AVR20, and AVR30 AV receivers; the AV40 AV processor; and SA30 class G intelligent amplifier. Roon Ready status exclusively applies to network devices that have Roon’s streaming technology built in and means that these devices transparently discover and connect to Roon without any configuration to deliver bit-perfect audio. The five ARCAM models have been certified by Roon Labs, working with the ARCAM engineering team, to provide the highest level of quality and performance in network streaming. To certify as a Roon Tested device, a product must also work over USB, HDMI, AirPlay, Google Cast, and other protocols. Again, all five ARCAM models have been profiled by the Roon engineers, alongside the ARCAM engineers, to ensure simple setup and effortless daily use.

As a result, this ARCAM fivesome offers even greater value and performance to existing, and new, users. Already class-leading, and award-winning, models in their own rights, Roon Ready status further ups the ante, bringing Roon’s effortless multi-room abilities and its unified music library to the fingertips of users of the AVR10, AVR20, AVR30, AV40, and SA30.

To ensure that models are running the latest Roon certified software, existing AVR 10/20/30 and AV40 users should run ARCAM Software v1.46, and SA30 users should check for ARCAM Software V867.

NAD C658 Streaming DAC and C298 Power Amplifier

NAD’s new C658 streaming DAC packs a huge number of advanced technologies and capabilities into an affordable package. The C658 is a BluOs-enabled streamer that incorporates a DAC with MQA decoding, support for about a dozen music-streaming services, network connectivity, a full suite of preamplifier functions, a moving-magnet phonostage, two subwoofer outputs with configurable crossover, and Dirac Live DSP room correction. You can add inputs now and in the future, thanks to NAD’s Modular Design Construction architecture. The C658 even has a Bluetooth aptX HD receiver/transmitter so that you can listen to music through your wireless headphones. The price? $1649. 

A logical partner for the C658 is NAD’s brand-new, $1999 C298 stereo power amplifier. It, too, is packed with features, including balanced and single-ended inputs, variable gain, line outputs for daisy-chaining multiple amplifiers, a bridging function for monaural operation, an auto-on feature when signal is detected, and remote control. The C298 is one of the first amplifiers to feature a new circuit, called Eigentakt, that is a significant advance in Class D amplification. The Eigentakt output-stage module, created by a new Danish company called Purifi, has extraordinary specifications, including vanishingly low distortion or noise. The design effort was led by Bruno Putzeys, one of the brightest thinkers in switching-amplifier design (Putzeys created the Hypex Ncore Class D module that is the basis for dozens of high-end amplifiers. I describe this new switching-amplifier module, which you are likely to see in many upcoming high-end products, in a sidebar.) 

The C298 is the third NAD amplifier based on the Eigentakt module. The previous iterations are the Masters M33 and M28, each priced at $4999. The C298 is the company’s first attempt to bring the technology to a much lower price point, largely by eschewing the fancy casework of the Masters Series. The C298 is rated at 185Wpc into 8 ohms and 340Wpc into 4 ohms, with a dynamic power rating of 260W into 8 ohms, 490W into 4 ohms, and 570W into 2 ohms. When bridged to operate as a monoblock, the C298 can output a staggering 1000W into 8 ohms.

The C658 network streaming DAC can accept a wide range of inputs (see Specs & Pricing), but will probably be used primarily via its integral support for music-streaming services, and be controlled through the BluOS app. (A full-function remote control is also included with the C658.) BluOS is a wireless digital ecosystem for connecting and controlling a variety of products, including whole-house wireless-audio distribution.        BluOS is a multi-room wireless platform developed by Lenbrook International, and is a sister brand to NAD. BluOS offers a full suite of compatible products for any application. After downloading the app (iOS or Android), you select the BluOS device to stream to, choose music from a streaming service, and enjoy. I logged in to my Tidal and Qobuz accounts, which gave me access to all the music I wanted. You can also connect to any network-attached drives and play music stored on them. Music management is handled through the BluOS app. The C658 shows up as a Roon endpoint (the  C658 was recently Roon certified). BluOS recently made a deal with the Neil Young Archives to provide BluOS users full and free access to the iconic musician’s catalog, all in high resolution. BluOS is compatible with PCM up to 192kHz/24-bit, but lacks DSD support. The optional USB input module will accept DSD up to DSD512, but converts it to PCM at 192/24. The module also accepts USB 2 audio from a computer. Finally, the BluOS app offers a range of free Internet radio services in addition to the paid streaming platforms.

The C658 also allows you to name inputs, set auto-standby time, disable inputs, select between fixed and variable output levels (fixed is the “theater-bypass” mode), trim the gain on each input, engage or bypass the tone (bass and treble) controls, and adjust the display brightness. On the technology side, it’s built around the ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC. The volume control operates in the digital domain, except when the C658 is in the analog-bypass mode.

The C658 is the first NAD Classic Series two-channel product to incorporate Dirac Live. Dirac Live is a DSP room- and speaker-correction system that measures the frequency response and time signature of the sound at the listening position. From this measurement data, Dirac calculates a series of filters that flatten the frequency response and assure correct phase response at the listening seat. Those filters are then downloaded into the C658, which processes the audio signal before the C658’s digital-to-analog conversion stage. In essence, the system “pre-distorts” the audio signal in a way that is the inverse of the distortion created by your speakers and room. That is, Dirac Live modifies the signal driving your loudspeakers so that the final result at your ears is flat in frequency, with most of the sound energy in the room arriving at your ears in phase. Dirac Live doesn’t just look at amplitude information, but also at the room’s time signature. It distinguishes between deleterious reflections, such as floor and ceiling bounce, and later-occurring and lower-amplitude reflections that sound like natural reverberation. 

The version of Dirac Live included with the C658 corrects frequencies up to 500Hz. For the full-frequency-range version, you must pay $99 for the software upgrade. A future software upgrade will provide extensive control over the C658’s subwoofer-output signals. Specifically, it will include a bass-management function as well as clever tricks, such as causing one subwoofer’s output to cancel a standing wave created by the other subwoofer. That feature is like having an active room-resonance-cancelling device built right into the C658 (provided that you have two subs). The C658 hardware, including the two subwoofer outputs, can accommodate this new feature when it becomes available.

Because Dirac Live operates in the digital domain, analog signals at the C658’s input are digitized, processed, and converted back to analog at 192kHz/24-bit. Fortunately, you can bypass the digital conversion on specified analog inputs so that the C658 operates as a pure analog preamplifier. Those bypassed inputs, however, cannot be processed with Dirac Live, and the DSP subwoofer crossover won’t be accessible. (See the sidebar for more about setting up and running Dirac Live.)

Overall, the C658 was fairly easy to operate considering its extensive features and capabilities. I quickly became accustomed to the BluOS app. In typical NAD tradition, the two products’ casework is utilitarian rather than lavish; NAD spends the parts-budget on those components that affect the sound quality. If you prefer a more upscale chassis, NAD offers the Master Series of components.

Listening

I auditioned the C658 and C298 separately in my reference system before using them as a pair. This put each product under the microscope of reference-quality sources, electronics, cables, and the Wilson Chronosonic XVX loudspeakers. For a more real-world situation, I paired the two NAD components with a speaker of commensurate price, the Focal Chora 826, a floorstanding three-way that sells for $2200-per-pair (review upcoming in the April issue). The complete system, without cables, was $5848. I ran balanced interconnects between the two NAD components.

I connected the C658 to my network via an Ethernet cable. NAD also sent to me the Bluesound Pulse 2i, an all-in-one tabletop system ($699) that connects to the BluOS network wirelessly (as I used it) or via an Ethernet port. NAD wanted me to experience how products like the Pulse 2i allow BluOS to function as a whole-house wireless audio system. I wasn’t expecting to receive the Pulse 2i, but discovered that it was a great way to have music outside the listening room. There’s the joke that the audiophile’s way of realizing whole-house audio is to open the listening room door and turn up the volume. I must confess to taking that approach myself. But the ability to place the Pulse 2i in the kitchen, for example, and have full wireless access to high-resolution streaming music controlled by my iPad was compelling.

Starting with the C298, the amplifier had more than enough power to drive the Wilson Chronosonic XVX to any listening level without strain. Even on music with very wide dynamic range (John Williams at the Movies on Reference Recordings) the C298 had plenty of pluck. Peaks were reproduced effortlessly; the bottom end stayed tight and defined at high playback levels; and the soundstage didn’t collapse during the loudest and most complex passages. NAD has long been a proponent of amplification with lots of dynamic headroom, which could be defined as the difference between the amplifier’s continuous power rating on the spec sheet and the clipping point on musical peaks. This approach makes sense; music is dynamic and much of its expressiveness is contained within those dynamic contrasts, and not on steady-state tones. It’s worth noting that the Eigentakt Class D output module is rated at 400W, but NAD specifies the C298’s output power at 185Wpc into 8 ohms. Clearly, there’s a generous amount of headroom.

As with other Class D amplifiers I’ve auditioned, the C298’s bass reproduction was outstanding. This amplifier goes deep, has a nice sense of heft and weight through the midbass, and has terrific dynamic punch on instruments such as kickdrum. An acid-test of bottom-end impact is the track “Octopia” from drummer Simon Philips’ album Protocol II (Qobuz 96/24). In addition to first-rate performances by the entire band (including great guitar work by Andy Timmons), this album showcases Philips’ phenomenal talent, recorded with spectacular drum sound. His huge kit includes many low-tuned toms that put the C298 to the test. The C298 did justice to this album, sounding like an unflappable powerhouse and reproducing the kit with effortless dynamics and impact. 

But it wasn’t just all sledgehammer impact; the C298 also revealed dynamic subtleties and nuance. Throughout the listening, I noticed that the C298 had an unusually satisfying ability to convey music’s rhythmic flow and forward propulsion, from the funky grooves on bassist Brian Bromberg’s Thicker than Water (Tidal MQA) to Ray Brown’s hard-swinging acoustic bass on Soular Energy. This could be the result of the C298’s extremely low output-impedance, which translates to the amplifier having an iron-fisted grip over the loudspeakers’ woofers—either the Wilson’s 12.5″ and 10.5″ drivers or the pair of 6.5″ woofers in the Focal speakers.

The midrange had a nice presence on Norah Jones’ voice on her album Day Breaks (Tidal MQA). Her vocal had good tonality, too, with just a touch of added sibilance. The upper-midrange to lower-treble was a bit forward in perspective, but only a bit. This character brought cymbals and the upper harmonics of instruments to the fore, imparting a lively quality to the sound. Significantly, the C298 lacked the “chalky” haze over the mids and treble that I’ve heard from other switching amplifiers. Instrumental timbre was fairly natural, with excellent resolution of inner textural detail. The C298 was also remarkably adept at revealing subtle instrumental lines. It was easy to hear low-level instruments in the mix or at the back of the hall. The C298’s soundstaging was outstanding—big, open, spacious, and detailed, with precise image placement. If you think of amplifiers in this price as sounding flat, congealed, and a little grainy (compared to reference amplifiers), you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise with the C298.

Dropping the C298 into the middle of a system with $800k worth of source components, electronics, cables, and loudspeakers revealed just what a spectacular bargain this amplifier is. Although not the last word in timbral liquidity, the C298 does just about everything else at a level far above what its price would suggest. It was supremely musical and engaging, particularly the wonderful sense of rhythmic drive and ability to convey dynamic shadings and expression. I have not auditioned many Class D amplifiers, but can confidently say that the C298 is the best switching amplifier I’ve heard.

The C658, in this same system but feeding my reference amplifiers, revealed a good-sounding DAC at this price level. The overall tonal balance was neutral, but with a slight treble emphasis, heard as a bit of additional sibilance on voices. The top end also had a touch of sheen overlying instrumental timbre, and a slight layer of grain. This tended to affect recordings that are inherently bright, rather than blanketing all music. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but I’ve heard smoother-sounding DACs. 

I was particularly impressed by the C658’s resolution through the midrange; the NAD revealed subtleties of texture and dynamics that are commendable for its price. The bottom end was well defined, and favored articulation over weight, making it easy to follow bass lines. Importantly, the C658 didn’t compress images in the soundstage into two-dimensional representations; rather, image outlines had some tangible space and air around them. The C658 had a good ability to present instruments and voices within a soundstage that was wide and well defined. Dynamics were similarly impressive, with the C658 having the ability to convey subtle nuances of dynamic expression such as gently struck cymbals. 

To get a better feel for the C658’s DAC section performance, I compared it to the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, a $199 overachiever. Although the two products couldn’t be more different in function and capabilities (the DragonFly is a USB stick with no features other than MQA decoding), the AudioQuest, nonetheless, provides a benchmark for what is possible at an entry-level price. The NAD’s bass was a little lighter in weight but more detailed than that of the DragonFly, which was a bit loose and billowy. With the NAD it was easier to follow bass lines, and the overall tonal balance sounded more natural, with the bass better integrated into the rest of the music. The C658 had a much wider and deeper soundstage, with greater spread and separation of instruments in the hall or in the multichannel mix. I also heard greater midrange resolution from the NAD, which better revealed subtle details about how instruments make sounds. The acoustic guitar accompaniment on Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” sounded more natural and realistic through the NAD. Overall, the C658 was significantly better sounding than the DragonFly Red. It may not seem fair to compare a $199 USB stick to a $1649 full-featured product; nevertheless, the comparison puts the C658’s DAC performance into perspective. Although you can find better-sounding DACs at the C658’s price, they won’t have the NAD’s extensive capabilities—full preamplifier functions, phonostage, subwoofer outputs with configurable crossover, streaming under BluOS control, and, most significantly, Dirac Live DSP room correction. 

Next, I moved on from the Wilson Chronosonics and listened to the C658 and C298 driving the Focal Chora 826 for some time before engaging Dirac Live room correction. (See the sidebar on setting up and running Dirac Live.) Starting with the stock version that corrects up to 500Hz, I could see in the measured response two peaks of excessive energy in the range from about 80Hz to 180Hz, with two dips below 80Hz. The target curve showed a smoother response after correction, with the gently rising bass of the NAD target curve. In the listening seat, engaging Dirac resulted in more low bass and less midbass bloat. The Focal Chora 826 almost sounded almost like a different speaker in the low end, with greater depth and extension. Kickdrum had more impact, with seemingly much steeper and faster transient attack, coupled with quicker decay. The musical effect was greater punctuation of the rhythm. With the midbass bloat removed, it was much easier to hear nuances in bass playing; pitches were more clearly articulated; and, most significantly, I could more easily hear the starts and stops of each note. With Dirac, individual notes were more distinct in pitch and dynamics. This was true across a wide range of music, from Ray Brown’s acoustic bass on the previously mentioned Soular Energy to Brian Bromberg on Thicker than Water. The overall tonal balance was somewhat lighter and leaner, but this leaning out of the midbass was entirely salubrious; the sound still had plenty of weight and authority, but was cleaner, tighter, and more intelligible.

That impression was with the Dirac version that comes free with the C658, which corrects up to 500Hz. Below this frequency is where room modes are most problematic, and this version of Dirac results in a remarkable transformation of the bass and low bass.

I then switched to the full-frequency-range version, a $99 upgrade, and again measured the system and loaded the new filters from my PC into the C658. I’ve generally believed that it’s best not to try to correct higher frequencies with DSP, for several reasons. First, it’s easy to dramatically change the sound of your speakers (which you presumably like) and get “lost in the woods” trying to find the right tonal balance. It’s easier to do more harm than good. Second, correcting higher frequencies is much more technically challenging that correcting lower frequencies. In my previous experience, it’s best to use DSP to fix the bass and leave the rest of the spectrum alone. 

But that wasn’t the case with Dirac Live. The bass improvements just described were all there, but the effect on the midrange and treble was equally remarkable. Using the NAD target curve (the frequency response the correction system aims for), Dirac didn’t fundamentally change the Focal Chora 826’s smooth and flat tonal balance. Instead, engaging full-range Dirac produced a startling improvements in image specificity, in clarity, in the ability to hear individual instruments through the mix, and in transient response. Sounds started and stopped faster, with less overhang. I also heard a smoother upper-midrange and treble, with less hash. The sound was overall more refined. The impression of individual instruments within a soundstage was heightened.

The full-frequency version of Dirac Live is the most impressive DSP correction system I’ve heard. It is well worth the $99 upgrade. In fact, it made the $2200-per-pair Focal speakers sound like more expensive models.

I next tried Dirac Live with the Wilson Chronosonic XVX, a speaker with much greater bass extension than the Focal. The Wilsons are perfectly positioned in my built-from-scratch listening room, which has good dimensional ratios for evenly distributing room modes. Even with these advantages, rooms will still create peaks and dips in frequency response, caused by the interaction of direct and reflected waves, and between different reflected waves. Two waves combine constructively to produce a peak of energy at certain frequencies, or destructively to create a dip at certain frequencies. Those frequencies are determined by the room’s dimensions. After measuring the system and loading the correction filters for the Wilsons into the C658, I compared with no correction. I did hear an improvement in the bass, but it was an order of magnitude less than with the Focals. The bottom end was a bit more muscular and defined, with slightly better transient performance. 

After lots of swapping individual components in and out of the reference system, and experimenting with Dirac, I finally settled in for some music listening to the system as it was intended; the NAD pair driving the Focal Chora 826 with Dirac properly calibrated. I have to say that the performance of this $5848 system was outstanding, particularly in the bass. The bottom end was quick, articulate, punchy, and had outstanding resolution of pitch and dynamic shading. It was truly a full-range system with a terrific bottom end, a quality that’s very difficult to achieve without spending a lot more money. 

Conclusion

The C658 and C298 can serve as the heart of a capable and powerful music system. The C658 streaming DAC is loaded with all the features needed in today’s digital streaming world, has expandable inputs to accommodate future interfaces, and the BluOS app provides easy and intuitive control over a music library. The C658 can also serve as the heart of a whole-house wireless system. The C298 amplifier is a powerhouse that will drive virtually any loudspeaker. It also has qualities that are consistent with much more expensive amplifiers, including superb soundstaging, clarity of instrumental line, and good resolution of timbre. Bass and dynamics are spectacular, with excellent rendering of pitch and clarity of bass lines. The overall sound is slightly forward in perspective through the midrange and treble, a character that suggests attention to system matching. I can see the C298 delivering terrific performance when paired with much more expensive components. It’s that good.

I would have recommended this pair without Dirac Live, but this DSP speaker- and room-correction system vaults the performance to a new level, without the sonic compromises I’ve heard from some other DSP systems. The improvement in bass extension, clarity, and dynamics is astounding. The full-frequency version of Dirac brings newfound image specificity along with far more lifelike reproduction of transients.

Considered alone or as a duo, the C658 and C298 deliver exceptional performance and value.

Specs & Pricing

C658
Digital inputs: USB, 2x coaxial, 2x TosLink, Gigabit Ethernet RJ45, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11 ac/n), Bluetooth aptX HD (two-way); Apple AirPlay2, HDMI on optional MDC board
Analog inputs: Line in x2 (unbalanced), phono (mm, >80mV overload margin)
Analog outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, single-ended on RCA jacks, subwoofer output x2
Other input/outputs: IR in/out, 12V trigger in/out, service USB
Formats supported: MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, ALAC, OPUS, MQA, FLAC, WAV, AIFF; converted DSD supported only via BluOS desktop app
Dimensions: 17 1/8″ x 3 15/16″ x 16″
Weight: 22.3 lbs.
Price: $1649

C298
Output power: 185Wpc into 8 ohms, 340Wpc into 4 ohms
IHF dynamic output power: 260Wpc into 8 ohms, 490Wpc into 4 ohms, 570Wpc into 2 ohms
Mono IHF dynamic power: 1000W into 8 ohms, 1100W into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, single-ended on RCA jacks
THD: 0.005% at 1W-185W
SN ratio: >98dB (A-weighed, 1W output into 8 ohms)
Input impedance: 56k ohms single-ended or balanced
Dimensions: 17 1/8″ x 4¾” x 15 3/8″
Weight: 24.7 lbs.
Price: $1999

NAD ELECTRONICS
633 Granite Court
Pickering Ontario
L1W 3K1 Canada
nadelectronics.com

Experiments in Living: Spektral Quartet

Performers have long sprinkled contemporary pieces in classical programs like raisins in a pudding. Proposed affinities provide an often tenuous rationale for inclusion. This project by the Chicago-based Spektrals explodes that formula. Everything about it is anatomized, theorized, and curated to provoke listeners into forming their own connections among musical units. That there are connections is assumed. 

Schoenberg, in his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” lauds not only Brahms’ late harmonic daring but also the asymmetry of his phrasing: a composer should be “afraid to offend by repeating over and over what can be understood at one single hearing, even if it is new.” (Such “elitist” mid-century orthodoxy drove Philip Glass to additive rebellion.) The first example Schoenberg cites is Brahms’ C Minor Quartet op. 51, no. 1—which opens the Spektrals’ album. It’s followed by Schoenberg’s Third Quartet, which introduced his 12-tone method (even notes should not be repeated too soon!). I don’t expect to hear more meticulous or penetrating readings of either piece. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Quartet 1931 fully holds its own in this company, with equally dedicated playing.

Part Two of the album features works by living composers, many of which pose technical challenges that are easy to underestimate. Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state asks the quartet to enact the timbres and parallel pitch fluidity of electronic instruments. Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes adds Claire Chase on flutes to spoof the conventions of jazz fakebooks. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals calls for group improvisation around Lee’s vocalized effects. The whole project takes its name from performer, scholar, and MacArthur “genius” George Lewis’ wide-ranging String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living—a title that quotes in turn from a John Stuart Mill passage proposing that “individuality should assert itself.”

That’s the playlist—if you begin and just keep going. But the Spektrals want you to choose your own adventure. University of Chicago professor Patrick Jagoda helped them “gamify” the experience for the era of Spotify and sampling. In the spirit of Fluxus, and of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, they commissioned Natalie Bontumasi to design a striking deck of 20 cards backed with collages by øjeRum. Each card identifies a track; shuffling and drawing determines playback order. From a pack of 60 smaller “bridge” cards, bearing a wild assortment of words, the listener chooses one that suggests a conceptual link between each musical unit and the one last heard. (For those forgoing the card set and hi-res files, Romanian firm Critique Gaming has produced a free online emulator with mp3-quality audio at eil.spektralquartet.com.) While this tarot-tracking can be whimsical, its serious purpose is to prompt close listening and new discoveries with each hearing.

Since the pieces couldn’t all be recorded in the same venue, Grammy-winning engineer Dan Nichols, a self-confessed “maximalist,” built a multi-armed “Lovecraft array” for four pairs of spot mikes so the players could see each other—and so a single virtual space could be conjured independently of physical location. The perfectionist Spektrals chose the best phrases from many takes to assemble Nichols’ “ransom note that doesn’t sound like one.” Even at 176.4kHz/24-bits, the seamless result is the most intimate, musically adventurous simulacrum imaginable. Baudrillard would be proud.

Audio Connection | A Visit to a Local Audio Shop by your Roving Reporter Dr. Matt Clott

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name…

And they’re always glad you came…”

 

Founded in 1980, Audio Connection in Verona, New Jersey, has been owned and operated by John Rutan since 1989. It’s what I refer to as an anti-boutique; it’s a lived-in mess, entropy in motion, a place filled with more LPs and CDs than gear (and there is a lot of gear). If there ever were a stereo store version of Cheers, Audio Connection is it. John has the friendly demeanor and abundance of worldly advice of Sam Malone. And Maestro Nick, John’s second-in-command, is an audiophile version of Coach, if ever there was one (the endearing qualities, not the clueless ones—and replace Coach’s limitless knowledge of baseball with classical music). John knows everyone by name and greets every customer, reviewer, and rep with the same exuberance and warmth. He sees a new face as a new friend, not a potential buyer. This casual atmosphere has resulted in a huge customer base that is passionately devoted to John, his shop, his selection of gear, and his attitude towards the hobby. The lines he carries are selected 100% on sound, support, and performance, and profitability takes a back seat to value and musical enjoyment. John does a great job of adapting to his clients’ own style of listening, yet provides almost imperceptible guidance to help each put together a wonderfully synergistic system, without ever feeling like John’s done more than offer subtle suggestions.

John’s core equipment is a list of lines that focus on customer service, quality, value, and musicality. Vandersteen, Proac, B&W, Rotel, NAD, Audio Research, Aesthetix, AudioQuest, AMG, Berkeley, Magnepan, Belles, Rega, HRS, Rogue, VPI, Aurender, Innuos, Bryston, CAD, Clear Audio, Quicksilver, Cardas, Hegel, and Quadraspire, to name a few. He has been a dealer for many of these brands since he took over the store in ’89. “I need product lines that make me fall in love with the music, and I need to know that I can work with them and that they will work with me. If they let me down, I let my customer down, and I can’t have that.” There are five listening rooms resembling your average family room, office, or den, as opposed to clean, custom-designed listening rooms. Don’t let their lived-in look fool you, though. John has made sure that each room sounds terrific, by using a combination of treatments and household items like plants and well-placed furnishings. As a result, your audition will give you a solid idea of what the equipment will sound like in a real-world environment. And John or Nick personally sets up all of the larger system sales, and are happy to help with setup of most everything purchased.

The focus at Audio Connection is exactly what the name implies. John wants to help each client make a connection with the music. Listening sessions are casual, laid-back, low key, and low pressure. John is as excited about demoing a $2300 Rotel/B&W system as a statement $100k+ Audio Research/Vandersteen system. The demos always sound great, and frequently include a story about the gear, the music, the designer, or a life lesson from John’s years as a dealer or his wonderful multi-cultural marriage. His fund of knowledge of the gear, the hobby, the technology, and the design is astonishing; yet, he shares that knowledge in casual conversation without a hint of condescension or arrogance.

I experienced a perfect example of John’s approach three weeks ago, when I went to Audio Connection to hear the new Vandy Kento loudspeaker with matching Vandy monoblocks, and the Innuos Statement music server. Richard Vandersteen has always made gear that conveys the music—gentle, refined, passionate. The Kento takes the attributes of a Quattro and brings them very close, indeed, to those of a top-line Model Seven Mk2. Natural harmonics and decay, insane dynamics, controlled low-frequency extension, and soundstage layering that whisked me away to that special place we audiophiles go to when the presentation is just right. The synergy between amps and speakers bordered on black magic. And then we were listening to a smaller system John had set up on the opposite side of the room, consisting of Belles stereo amp and preamp, Proac speakers, and a more affordable Innuos server with built-in DAC. John was clearly excited about the combo he was showing me, because I was just getting into the Vandy side of the room when the music started coming from behind me, and I had to quickly rotate my chair 180 degrees to point my ears in the direction the music was now coming from. The whole system cost less than the Kentos alone, and yet it was musical, engaging, and affordable, proving that John loves what he does and is very good at it. Not that John wasn’t excited to show me the Vandersteen system, quite the contrary. Oh, and I got advice on what vitamins to take, as well. John is 15% intellectual, 60% seasoned audiophile, 3% guru, and 35% short-attention-span, over-exuberant 6-year-old. And yes, I do know that equals 113%. Because John is a 113% kinda guy.

“I’m not looking to blow your doors off when I show you a demo…. I’m helping you make a long-term emotional connection.” He explains that “spectacular” is fleeting. It becomes fatiguing and lacks long-term stability. “So many of my clients are overcome by ‘the hunt,’ they lose sight of the true goal.” In many ways, John is the epitome of man’s transition from hunter/gatherer to stationary agrarian. Invest in your location, put the time in to sow the seeds, reap the crop, and you gain stability and lifelong sustainability. Otherwise, we are on an endless loop of hunt, eat, move on….. more commonly referred to in our circles as “the audiophile roller coaster.”

Audio Connection is a place everyone should experience. When COVID is not a thing, John frequently hosts get-togethers, new equipment announcements, and, on occasion, beta-testing of gear that’s not yet available. There is always great music, great equipment, great people, and proof positive that this hobby has a social element that many of us find as important as the gear and the music. Johnny focuses on creating that emotional connection that draws us to our systems and holds us there for hours, days, months, and years. He’s about human connections, not closing the deal.

John always suggests you bring your wife or girl with you, since they usually migrate towards the long-term connection, and “see past ‘spectacular’ better than we do.“ And John’s greatest piece of advice? “Give your gal or guy a hug, if they ask for it or not. They need one. “

Stop by and say hi. You will be glad you did. And if your name is Norm or Cliff, even better.