The Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Amp

 

Mini Mighty Marvel

You want great sound, right? But you don’t necessarily want or have the space for a rack full of gear. Answer – an integrated amplifier. Regardless of your living space, high-quality integrated amplifiers have been back with a vengeance for the last few years now. A decade ago, “integrated amplifier” often meant compromise, but not today, with so many of the majors putting their efforts towards the integrated amplifier as a viable platform for delivering superb sound with a minimal footprint.

A while back at TONEAudio, I put Audio Research’s GSi75 through its paces and came away highly impressed. The GSi75 is a bit more inclusive, featuring an on-board phonostage an excellent, on-board high-resolution DAC, and a headphone amplifier. It has a price to match, $16,000. (It also has a relatively large footprint)

Should you already have a DAC and phonostage that you love, or only need one of these components, but still want the high definition sound that has made this Minneapolis, Minnesota company famous, the $8,500 VSi75 could be your little slice of audio heaven. It’s neat, uncluttered front panel with a central display and six push buttons is a breeze to work through. A silver, metal remote control replicates all of the control functions from the comfort of your seat.

All Audio Research components are built by hand, at their facility in Minnesota. Skilled technicians hand pick, sort and measure all of the individual components and match the vacuum tubes that populate every one of their products. No less than four major checks are done during the build process, and every single ARC component is listened to twice before it heads your way.

The VSi75 produces 75 watts per channel of power, with a pair of KT150 output tubes per channel. If you aren’t familiar with tubes, or perhaps this is your first vacuum tube powered adventure, the VSi75 needs to have the bias current on said tubes adjusted occasionally; an easy and painless process, thanks to the indicator built right into the front panel display. Merely mute the amplifier, push the “bias” button, and use the attached screwdriver to adjust the bias, until the display says “60ma.” This keeps the tubes operating at top efficiency, and as they wear out (Audio Research claims 5000 hours of playing time for a set of tubes, but your mileage may vary – they tend to be conservative in their ratings.) you will have to touch this up.

Fear not, this is an easy operation. In less time than it takes you to download an app from the app store, you can re-bias the tubes in the VSi75. Typically, a new set of vacuum tubes needs to be set at installation, paying attention to them (and touching up a bit) for the first month of operation, then checking them on occasion until they expire. If you listen to your system a few hours a day, a set of tubes should last at least 3-5 years.

Scrumptious sonics

If you’ve never ventured into the world of vacuum tubes, the VSi75 will grab you instantly with its three-dimensional rendition of your favorite music. You might even find yourself singing along more often than you have before, who knows? The magic that Audio Research has managed after over 40 years of building tube amplifiers is the way they’ve married the dynamic immediacy, and control over low frequencies that many audiophiles have come to assume can only be accomplished with a solid state or class D amplifier, with the three-dimensional, “reach out and touch it” feel that vacuum tubes do so well.

After a 30-minute warm up, the Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby,” is exquisitely presented via the Soltanus Virtuoso ESL speakers, with the violins having their own space, separately of Lennon and McCartney’s vocals, and the rest of the instruments floating between the speakers. In case you aren’t familiar with electrostatic loudspeakers, they are the toughest speakers for an amplifier to drive for numerous reasons. Starting here, knowing the VSi75 drives these relatively inefficient speakers with ease, I know everything else I throw at this great little amplifier will be gravy. And it is.

Before switching to the Graham LS5/9 speakers, the urge to resist cranking up Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is unavoidable. Again, a massive sonic picture is painted between these two giant panel speakers, with an auditory trip that feels more like sitting inside a large pair of headphones, with small musical details bouncing all over my 11 x 17-foot living room. While able to play loud, the amount of sheer control that the VSi75 exhibits is extraordinary. Bass is powerful, profound and controlled, even when the amplifier is pushed to its limits. Black Sabbath has a way of doing just that. Vocal laden tracks from Laurie Anderson, Crowded House, and Adele captivate in a similar way – this amplifier puts the performer right in your room, the way many audiophiles say only vacuum tubes can do.

The LS5/9 speakers deliver an equally impressive performance, disappearing in the listening room, thanks to the power and control at their disposal. Whether spinning vinyl (via the ARC PH9 phonostage, here for review at TONEAudio) or the DAC9 (ditto) the VSi75 is a joy to listen to for hours on end. It’s worth noting that more than a few listening sessions went on into the wee hours of the morning, a couple all the way to sunrise.


Wait for it

As more time goes by, the character, or in this case, lack of character of the VSi75 is a blessing. The wider range of albums played merely confirms what was heard at initial power up. Should you purchase a VSi75 of your very own, there is only one caveat – it improves with age. A yellow sheet of paper in the box cautions you that the sound of the amplifier gets better over the first 600 hours of operation.

While the VSi75 sounds excellent right out of the box, you will notice it “opening up” over the first week fairly dramatically, with the sound field it creates increasing in size as the days pass. You’ll also notice the high-frequency response smoothing out a bit, and bass notes getting not only more full bodied but more detailed as well.

To make sure your ears aren’t fooling you, I suggest starting your day’s listening with a track you know well, and play that track every time you fire up the VSi75. About a month into the process, you will be even happier about your purchase. This amplifier blooms like a precious flower as the hours pile up.

One more lap

Leaving the techie bits for last, the VSi75 weighs just under 40 pounds and only takes up a 14.5” wide by 16.25” deep footprint, being just over 9” tall. Our review sample is silver, and you can also order the VSi75 with a black front panel. (the chassis remains silver)  Around back there are five inputs; all single ended with RCA input connectors. Though there are binding posts for 4 and 8-ohm speakers, experience suggests trying both with your speakers, regardless of what they are rated at. Magic shows up in funny places.

Of course, the people making and selling Audio Research gear would probably love you to use your VSi75 with one of their source components, and should you do the synergy is perfection, not to mention all the remotes look the same. During its time here, we paired the VSi75 with a number of different DACs and phonostages from Conrad-Johnson, Pass Labs, Simaudio, Nagra, and Gryphon with excellent result, so again, if you already have a favorite source component, fear not. Just be sure it has RCA outputs.

In the end, the Audio Research VSi75 is a fantastic performer and an excellent value. Having owned a number of ARC’s products over the last 35 years, I can speak from personal experience that they stand the test of time. As part of the McIntosh group, there is a vast dealer network, no matter where you live in the world, so auditioning one should be fairly easy, and you can count on support after the sale as well.

The Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Amplifier

$8,500

www.audioresearch.com

Please click here for full specifications…

REVIEW: The McIntosh MB 50 Streamer

It has never been a better time to be a music lover and audiophile. With the multitude of sources available to play back your favorite music, there is something for everybody. Whether you choose vinyl, CD, laptop, even cassette or reel-to-reel tape, the music lover is free to indulge their passion in any which way they feel fit. The latest entry into the world of musical sources is the digital streamer. With wireless operation from a handheld device and the ability to explore hundreds of thousands of songs at the touch of a finger, the streamer has opened a gaping chasm into the world of music in a way that was simply unimaginable in the past.

The McIntosh MB50 streamer is a compact component that despite its diminutive stature, is all McIntosh; the glass front panel and glowing green logo is in keeping with the rest of the herd. As does hassle free set up and operation, and sound quality which is pure McIntosh. Having reviewed the MC301 mono amplifiers and the C52 preamp from McIntosh (issue 79), the MB50 is in keeping with where McIntosh is going sonically with their latest offerings. That combination possessed a sweet, smooth, colorful and organic presentation that was anything but “solid-state” in the worst sense of the word. Like that powerful duo, the MB50 has an accessibility, a musically rewarding character that gets out of its way putting the music first.

Analog outputs for both balanced and unbalanced cables connect the MB50 to your system’s amplifier or preamplifier; digital outputs are also included if you choose to use an outboard DAC. One analog, plus two digital inputs let you connect audio components such as CD players to the MB50, allowing it to act as a mini-preamp; a very handy feature. Two Wi-Fi antennas help ensure a secure network connection for smooth playback; the MB50 can be hardwired to your network via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (not included).

A significant advantage of DTS Play-Fi compared to many other streaming options is that with its Critical Listening mode, native playback of up to  24-bit/192kHz high-resolution files is available with no down-sampling as of January 2017 (Existing Play-Fi customers only need to update your app to the latest version to utilize this feature). Many common audio formats are compatible with the MB50, including mp3, m4a, FLAC and Wav files; along with support for DLNA.

Don’t let the size fool you

I first heard the MB50 confidently take control of a system made up of  Audio Research amplification and Sonus Faber speakers at the McIntosh Group’s WOM (World of McIntosh) townhouse around the corner from my home in SOHO NYC. I was a bit shocked that such a little box could provide such big musical sound and when the ever enthusiastic Joshua Dellinger, McIntosh Group Experience Director for WOM installed an MB50 in my system, we had music within a matter of moments. While I still had some lingering reservations solely based on its small size, they quickly melted away. What we have here is relatively modestly priced ($2,000 MSRP) streamer that easily holds its own in my reference system

With Spotify and TIDAL preinstalled in the DTS Play-Fi App along with Apple Air-play, a universe of music is available in a flash. Delanger’s great taste in music and the ability to download his recommendations at will has expanded my library in some unexpected ways. The Techy yet always soulful James Blake and modern prog-rockists Animals as Leaders are just a couple of hip, super cool additions to my classic rock and Jazz heavy playlists. While not every customer will have access to the factory guy’s set up savvy, worry not. The few minutes required to install and configure the DTS-Play-Fi app is all you need. If you can install Angry Birds on your iPhone, you can set up the MB50.

The MB50 joined the duo of the now discontinued Krell Connect, and the streamer section of the Dan D’Agostino Master Audio MLife integrated amplifier/Streamer/DAC in my system. Each component possesses a sonic profile; a way with the sound that defines the manufacturer’s musical point of view. The Krell Connect’s dynamics give music a propulsive thrust and “Jump” that is incredibly engaging. The MLife streamer, while unable to isolate the streamer section from the integrated amplifier section, is uber-resolving and controlled from the very top to the deepest depths.

Extended listening

The MB50 competes on its own playing field. It’s priorities lay in the way it liquifies textures and renders densely colored instrumental timbre. Instruments and voices sound incredibly real in a way that allows the brain to relax and become deeply engaged. These qualities were unheard of from modestly priced digital a decade ago and still evades some even more costly designs of today. The MB50 is a digital source neutral enough to clearly define each recordings inherent character while squeezing musical nuggets from even badly flawed recordings, expanding the musical universe in all directions. It has enough resolution to offer something special when you feed it a great recording.

Listening to the above mentioned James Blake “Voyeur” From Overgrown, the MB50 presents the swelling, looping themes with lucidity and smoothness. Textures and musical color fill the room, and instrumental lines remain distinct and un-tangled from one another. The ability to effortlessly follow each musical idea is very compelling particularly in music as densely packed as this. Deep bass pours into the room in a more organic way rather than the D’Agostino’s presentation handles low bass. The layers of swirling synth chords surround the vocal line, yet the whole piece holds together superbly. Mr.Blakes “Retrograde” follows the recipe with a build up of circulating themes adding up to a deep, dense, intensely musical if a bit dissonant experience.

The MB50 handles classic rock with ease as well. “Hold on loosely” from .38 Special flat out rocks. The MB50 has a temporal rightness that is never slow or plodding. The music has great swagger, and the guitar solo is gripping. The MB50 at holding a recording together with great cohesion and musicality. There are no odd distortions, be it upper midrange glare or high-frequency grain that irritate the ear destroying the immersive experience. Transients are clean, clear, and utterly natural. The music feels a bit more relaxed without being sleepy or bogging down the presentation. When necessary, the soundstage provides a significant expanse from front to back in addition to providing plenty of left to right information. The Mlife has a bit more focus down to a granular level giving images slightly more inner detail and presence, but the MB50 matches it punch for punch when it comes to over all stage size. Very impressive.

Love it

These days in high-end audio, the term “Value” is thrown about with casual abandon. $20K amplifiers and $30K speakers are often referred to with such terms. My system is an excellent example of modern high-end audio excess. In this context, the only way to characterize the McIntosh MB50 Streamer is that of a flat out steal. Whether your system has evolved into one like mine, populated with uber-expensive components, or you are just beginning to build a modest system with hopes to expand up the food chain down the road, you can rest assured that the MB50 will rise to the demands of either and all scenarios. Add the fact that it has optical inputs and outputs as well as volume control capability makes recommending the MB50 the surest bet in some 20 years of reviewing gear. Would I still love a $100K DCS digital stack? Sure I would but for now I’m having a ball with the MB50. – Greg Petan

The McIntosh MB50 Streamer

MSRP: $2,500

Factory Site:          www.mcintoshlabs.com

Click here for more product specific information

Click here to find a local McIntosh Dealer to audition the MB50 

The Gold Note Vasari MM Cartridge


With so much happening at the pinnacle of the analog world these days, and so much excitement around the mega dollar turntables, phonostages, and cartridges, there hasn’t been much buzz on the entry level. Many of us lament the days of walking into a record store and finding some great records for four bucks, but the same goes for phono cartridges. With decent cartridges in the four-figure range, what’s the new audio enthusiast to do?

Four words: Gold Note Vasari Gold. And you can get one for $385. Too often the moving magnet cartridge is overlooked, and with this example, the team at Gold Note has put a lot of the ethos that is in their top range cartridges into a cartridge for the enthusiast on a bit of a budget.

Forgoing the boron cantilever and a few other exotic bits, the Vasari Gold is still assembled by the same staff of craftspeople that produce the entire Gold Note line, and it shows. Comparing it directly with the Machiavelli Gold ($3,000) and the Donatello Gold ($1,075), the family resemblance is clear. The Gold Note cartridges all share similar sonic attributes: a full-bodied sound, with high dynamic swing, solid tonal contrast, and saturation.

Directly comparing the Vasari to the other two Gold Note offerings reveals less fine resolution and extension at the frequency extremes as well as less delineation of fine detail, but this is to be expected. If the $385 cartridge sounded as good as the $3,000 cartridge, what would the point be? Comparing the Vasari to a few cartridges in it’s price range, such as the Ortofon 2M blue, the Ortofon Quintet Blue, and my other favorite, the Denon DL-103r is illuminating.

It’s just right

If you find the sound of the Denon a bit too warm and the Ortofon offerings a bit cold, the Vasari will be your Goldilocks – just right. And it doesn’t need a step up device. Not that it’s a bad thing, per se, but when you are trying to put a top notch analog rig together as cost effectively as possible, adding an MC phonostage or a step up transformer isn’t terribly frugal.

There is an immediacy to moving magnet cartridges that most music lovers find engaging. What the Vasari lacks in ultimate resolution, it makes up for in jump factor. The Vasari captures all of the raw energy of Oingo Boingo’s classic, “Only a Lad,” mounted to the current Rega Planar 3 just reviewed. Staying in the 80s groove, the Sincero’s “Take Me To Your Leader” is equally punchy and engaging. Slowing the pace with Nick Drake’s classic album, Pink Moon, the Vasari brings out the depth in Drake’s vocal work here, producing an expansive sonic landscape for this acoustic adventure to unfold between your speakers.

The Vasari is an excellent tracker, zipping through the peaks of Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, keeping the sax, drum and bass bits all in perspective, allowing each instrument to shine individually, yet not letting the stereo image fall apart when all four musicians are playing at full tilt. Not every MM cartridge can handle this, yet throwing all of my tortures at the Vasari proves no problem. And check out the quality of the stylus on this baby!

You can get all the Vasari’s specs here, but most important to get you up and rolling is the 2.0-gram tracking force suggestion. This proves perfect on both the Planar 3 and the VPI Traveler (That I use for portable applications, but I’m NOT a DJ!) turntables. The Vasari also proved an excellent update to the cartridges mounted to those tables, so if you are currently sporting an entry level MM cartridge, this could be a quick and easy upgrade to your system.

Easy to integrate into your system

With 4.0 mV of output, the Vasari should provide no problem to any MM input. We put it through its paces with everything from a recently restored Marantz 2245 receiver, all the way up to the mighty Pass XS Phono. While you probably won’t be using the Vasari as the top dog in your arsenal on a mega system, it proves an excellent daily driver cartridge. Even at this level, and I was surprised when putting either the Pass XS Phono or the Audio Research REF Phono 3 in the system, how much music the Vasari can reveal.

The Vasari is easy to set up, and using merely the supplied VPI and Rega tools works well. Should you have more accurate tools, the Vasari will reward you with better channel separation and an even smoother top end. So, if you can talk your dealer into setting it up, or you have access to the right tools, the Vasari is a finer paintbrush than its modest price suggests.

As good as digital is getting, modest analog gear doesn’t always convey the elusive analog magic, but it’s a pleasure to report that the Vasari Gold delivers on all levels. Whether you are building a frugal analog front end or just upgrading that $99 cartridge your turntable might have come with, I suggest putting the Vasari on your list. It’s just right.

 

 

 

http://www.goldnote.it

 

Tough to Beat: The SVS Prime Bookshelf Speakers

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These days $500 doesn’t buy much in the world of audio.

Reflecting back on a pair of ADS L400s, that had a retail of $400 a pair back in the late 1980s, the SVS Prime Bookshelf speakers are indeed impressive. There are speakers with an extra zero on the MSRP that have nowhere near the level of fit and finish that the Primes offer, especially the piano black model. (which actually cost $600 a pair, a matte black ash finish is standard) Whether you want to fork over the extra hundred bucks for the shiny speakers is up to you. When it comes to hifi on a budget, I’d spend an extra Benjamin on a better amp or phono cartridge, but that’s me.

The Primes make an excellent showing with any source. I ran them through a wide gamut of music with a Paradigm MRX510 (2ch mode only), Simaudio ACE integrated, PrimaLuna ProLogue One integrated and a recently refurbished Marantz 2245 reciever. While all provided a different feel, due to the differences in amplification, all were enjoyable.

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Elvis Costello’s rendition of the Burt Bacharach classic “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” from The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack instantly reveals the smooth yet revealing character of these speakers. A little softer when rendered by the vacuum tubed PrimaLuna and a little punchier through the solid state choices. Chrissie Hynde’s lead vocals permeating Pretenders 2 has the same effect. These little speakers do a great job of keeping fairly dense tracks well sorted. Of course those audiophile vocal jewels, should you choose that mission, will convince your buddies who haven’t heard of SVS that you spent a lot more for these speakers than you did. And that’s pretty awesome isn’t it?

Switching the faire to acoustic music is even more impressive. When playing Brad Mehldau’s latest, Blues and Ballads the soundstage created between the Primes vastly exceeded the boundaries of these speakers on their stands, going all the way out to the side walls of my modest 11 x 17 foot listening room. Mehldau’s piano is reproduced with timbre and texture – something you don’t usually get with $500 a pair speakers.

Pace and timing is also quite good on a record like this – the cymbals hang in the air with a lot of shimmer and the bass accompanying Mehldau has some texture and not only keeps the groove going, but goes fairly deep – a major achievement for a small, budget loudspeaker. Should you be a fan of more bass heavy tracks, consider adding one of SVS’s subwoofers, which is exactly what I did, being that we have their SB-2000 powered sub ($699).

Giving the volume control a mad twist, playing Claude Challe’s Select 9 had the house shaking like the time SpongeBob invited the jellyfish home to party at his pineapple. If you step it down a notch to the $499 SB-1000, you’ve got an amazingly capable system for a thousand dollars, and if a sub is not in the cards right now, I can’t think of a better pair of $500 speakers to put on your short list. Those wanting a full home theater system can keep it in the family with a matching center channel and possibly a pair of Prime Towers for just under a thousand bucks a pair. The crew at SVS offers a 45 day trial, so if you don’t like ‘em as much as I do – send em back. But I’m guessing hardly anyone ever does.

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The SVS Prime Bookshelf speakers sound as great as they look. They are the perfect anchor for a reasonably priced, high performance audio system. Highly recommended.

And in honor of our first year, we are now going to start handing out a few awards and the Prime Bookshelf speakers get our first “Year’s Finest” award for 2016.

www.svsound.com

 

The Neo230 HAD from MOON by Simaudio: Marvelous!

aa_sim-230-had_1Soldiering on with an older, tube based headphone amp/DAC/Preamp that’s given me good service in the desktop system, the upgrade bug hit suddenly and swiftly. Something new would have to address my growing library of high-resolution audio files as well as my constant streaming from my Tidal account. Most offerings from the usual suspects proved frustrating. Considering my vintage FM tuner collection, this new component would need at least one or two analog inputs to accomodate that to make me a happy camper.

 

A few close audiophile friends suggested the  Neo 230HAD from MOON by Simaudio, which covers all the bases, so the hunt was on. The Neo 230HAD proves to be as versatile as I’d hoped and is a fabulous performer to boot. With six inputs; four digital and two analog, I can connect source components till the cows come home. Digital signals are served by two coax inputs, one optical input and one high speed USB input. Analog sources can be connected via RCA inputs on the rear of the unit or via mini plug on the front panel – this is particularly handy. Input selection is handled by an easy to read front panel switch and corresponding LEDs.

Two RCA analog outputs are offered; one fixed and one variable, so it can serve double duty as a headphone amp and DAC for a larger system or as a standalone line level preamplifier feeding a power amplifier and speakers – making this little headphone amp that could a game changer for me. It is little: only 3 x 7 inches, stretching back 11 inches, so have a deep shelf or desktop. And at almost seven pounds, be ready to do a few bicep curls with this baby; lifting the cover reveals a stuffed circuit board and a major power supply. No corners have been cut here, the 230HAD has the same level of the full sized Moon components.

aa_sim-230-had_2Listening begins with tidal and a pair of NHT Pro monitors, eliminating the need for a power amp, but do require the variable outputs of the 230HAD. Though Simaudio has an excellent reputation for high quality, I was not prepared for what hit me upon firing up my favorite TIDAL playlist. Where the outgoing unit never fully engaged me at the desktop level, the MOON commanded my complete attention as if I were listening to the big system in my living room. The bass had far more control and articulation than I was used to on the desktop with these speakers. Moreover, the inner detail, soundstage and lack of glare pulled me in to the point where I feel kind of guilty now spending so much time listening at the desktop and neglecting the main.

 

Streaming hi res PCM and DSD files from my NAS via an AURALiC Aries feeding the USB input on the Moon proved even more interesting. The internal DAC in the HAD230 is easily as good as many outboard DACs I’ve heard costing as much as the HAD230! Impressive indeed.

 

Moving on to the headphone section, the source of my initial intrigue, my tough to drive Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs were a breeze, no matter how high the volume level. Of course my trusty Sennheiser 650s, a long time favorite that offer up a much more benign load came to life in a way they never have. Those with Oppo or Audeze planars need not worry either; they are a perfect compliment to the HAD230. I can’t imagine a set of phones that would cause an issue for this robust headphone amplifier. Every kind of program material from the most delicate female vocals to the hardest driving metal is dynamic and full of delicate nuance.

 

Just like the bigger Neo 430HA, the 230HAD is a phenomenal building block for a great two-channel system. Moving to my second room, pairing this jewel with a pair of Vandersteen 1Cis and a 40-watt per channel PrimaLuna tube power amplifier makes for a glorious combination. Whether streaming straight from TIDAL or spinning some vinyl via the new Rega Planar 3 turntable with my trusty Black Cube phonostage, you’ll love this box, even if you never plug a pair of headphones into it, and my assessment with the DAC applies equally well, the 230HAD is worth the $1,495 asking price just as a DAC and pre.

 

aa_sim-230-had_3Major headphone happiness led to tweaking my desktop system further. Replacing USB, RCA and power cables have taken things to dizzy new heights. I never dreamed that a desktop system could be so much fun. Whether you want a primo desktop system, or a great anchor for a high performance/moderate budget two-channel system, get down to your MOON by Simaudio dealer and grab a 230HAD. You’ll have years of listening pleasure ahead of you.

 

www.simaudio.com

 

Problem solved! Larsen 6.2 Speakers…

AA_Larsen pair 2Most music lovers face the problem of “where to put the speakers,” but those in small spaces even more so. Larsen HiFi of Sweden conquers this by building speakers with a small footprint (only 9 x 10 inches at the base and about 30 inches tall) that are designed to sound their best right up against the rear wall. Like most other hifi speakers, they still benefit from being away from the side walls, if possible. Now you can actually put a pair of speakers next to the couch and they will sound fantastic. You won’t have to argue with whoever you share your living quarters with about this anymore.

All of the five available finishes are gorgeous (mahogany, cherry, maple, black and white gloss lacquer) and will integrate with your décor easily. Don’t let the small size fool you; the minute you play your favorite record and close your eyes, you’ll be wondering where the speakers are! Seriously, because these speakers are voiced for being placed next to the wall, setup couldn’t be easier. Plug your favorite speaker cables in, set them about 6-9 feet apart, and give them a couple of inches from the wall. That’s it. These are the easiest speakers I’ve ever set up in nearly 15 years of reviewing hifi gear. At 28 pounds each, you won’t be reaching for the bottle of Tylenol when you are done, either!

At $3,995, the Larsen 6.2s won’t break the bank, and thanks to a very gentle crossover network and 88db sensitivity are easy to integrate into any system. While we drove them with a wide range of amplifiers, The Rega Brio-R, at just around $1,000 and the new Simaudio NEO Ace integrated at $3,500 both proved excellent solid-state choices. For those loving the gentle touch of vacuum tubes, any of the PrimaLuna models is a fantastic choice and we were incredibly fond of pairing the 6.2s with the new HP Integrated that we just finished reviewing. Our limited selection of amplifiers provided a slightly punchier rendition with solid-state amplification, and a slightly more organic sound with the PrimaLuna, but not enough of a difference between the two that either is unobjectionable. The bottom line; whatever you have on hand will work well with the Larsens.

AA_larsen 4 copyRadiohead’s recent release, A Moon Shaped Pool, proves very ethereal, with an expansive soundstage – a perfect way to show off the imaging capabilities of these speakers. The three dimensional picture painted mixes Thom Yorke’s spacy, listless vocals with layer upon layer of synthesizers and strings to create a highly immersive experience that goes well beyond the speaker (and couch) boundaries. The reverse tracked vocals on “Daydreaming” are particularly engaging. It’s like a wall of sound instead of just sound emanating from the two tiny boxes flanking my couch. Had my review samples arrived in matte black, they would have literally disappeared next to my black leather couch.

Brought to North America by the same people that bring us GamuT speakers and electronics, I had to rock some Talk Talk, so that importer Michael Vamos would at least be here in spirit. Again, the massive soundstage rendered makes these speakers a ton of fun. Yet a handful of great minimonitors can do this. Moving along to a pre release copy of Jeff Beck’s latest, Loud Hailer, (which should be out by the time you read this) it’s clear that the Larsen’s can really rock too. Combining Jeff Beck’s screaming guitar work with a driving bass line that really gets under your skin, these speakers can rumble with the best of them. Unless you need to feel the Earth move underneath your feet, you will not need a subwoofer with the Larsen’s. The factory website claims “deep and precise bass down to 26hz.” Thanks to a bit of room gain picked up placed so close to the wall, the 6.2s have very strong output playing 30hz test tones.

Bass notwithstanding, the new Jeff Beck record is fairly dense throughout the spectrum, revealing the Larsen’s ability to untangle complex recordings with ease, keeping the bass line taut, the guitar overdubs in place and the vocals rock solid – even at high volume levels.

The final aspect of the Larsen speakers that is highly commendable is their natural tonality. The seven-inch woofer provides quick, tight, punchy bass, with a smooth midrange and transition to the soft dome tweeter. Listening to some early Bill Evans, the Larsen’s nail the complex overtones of the piano with ease, not a feat all speakers can accomplish. A similar outcome is achieved with any recording full of acoustic instruments. Vocals, both male and female are equally rewarding to listen to through these speakers, and no matter what your pleasure, they will satisfy.

AA_larsen 3aIf you’re worried that being space challenged means you can’t enjoy music the way you’d like to, look no further than a pair of Larsen 6.2s. Even if you don’t have to put the speakers back against the wall, knowing that you can, now opens up your decorating options. Who knows? Now you can roll your motorcycle into the living room, with speakers that live up against the wall. Options!

 

www.larsenhifi.com (factory)

www.audioskies.com (US distributor)

Ooh, La, La! Focal’s Sopra no.1

 

Sopra no.1 AAFor a city of barely more than a half million people, Lyon, France is a pretty cool place. In addition to it’s fantastic cuisine, it’s ranked 19th globally for innovation, a virtual hotspot of technical activity. And it’s home to Focal, an equally innovative speaker manufacturer. A few years ago when I visited the factory, there was something lurking in the corner of the R&D department that would later become the floorstanding Sopra no.2. Inquiring about the prototype, I was quickly escorted out and politely asked not to mention anything about what I saw. It all became clear at last year’s Munich hifi show and here we are today with three Sopra models.

The no.1 is the smallest model, stand mounted, with an MSRP of just under $9,000/pair, including the massive yet stylish stands, leaving nothing to chance. Visually similar to Focal’s Diablo Utopias, costing nearly twice as much, the Sopra no.1 takes advantage of all new technology, developed by Focal to get higher performance from a smaller form factor.

A two way system, the new woofer and tweeter, not only achieve lower distortion figures than past models, they are combined in a very efficient way with an 89db sensitivity, assuring compatibility with modest powered amplifiers. We had excellent luck pairing the Sopras with both solid state and vacuum tube amplifiers.

For those wanting a more in-depth explanation, click here:

Walking around the Focal plant, the level of technical expertise combined with an equally high level of old world, hands on craftsmanship is stunning. The Sopra line of speakers are built from their innovative drivers up to the finished product completely by hand via the same craftspeople building the $194,999/pair (not a typo) Grande Utopia EM speakers. It shows the minute you slide them out of the box. These speakers are drop dead gorgeous, and our test pair is coated in a flawless white finish. Beautiful as the walnut veneer is, the Sopra’s sophisticated shape bets for a shiny, solid color. Black, red and orange is also available – all are equally spectacular; your décor will determine which you choose.

Commandeer a bit of help to unpack the Sopras as they weigh just over 40 pounds each with the stands equally massive. Thanks to built-in, easily adjustable spikes, which are easily retractable until you find the best balance between bass punch and midrange clarity, initial setup is a snap. We suggest starting with the Sopras about six feet apart and about three feet from the wall if possible. Proceed to move them apart until the stereo image falls apart, then move slightly back together. Then move them as a pair (might want to grab a tape measure for this) closer and further away from the wall until you get the best bass response without booming. Grab your favorite bass heavy hip hop or EDM tracks to sort this out quickly.

Sopra no.1 AA-2Once you’ve completed this task, sit back and have an adult beverage, but not too many if you want to fine tune the speakers further. Patience still intact, experiment with toe in and then if you really want a gold star, experiment with tilting the speakers back on their axis slightly. This is where those large adjustment knobs at the base of the stands are worth their weight in gold. When you get this angle just right, the stereo image rendered between your speakers really gets deep. Now you can really get the party started.

Yoko Ono’s vocals on “Yes I’m a Witch” is absolutely creepy. She sounds like she’s everywhere in the room, haunting you wherever you go, thanks to the Sopra’s great dispersion characteristics. Sit on the couch, sit on the floor, walk to the kitchen – she’s still right there. But that’s what you pay the big money for; big sound. Excersizing the bass is equally entertaining spinning Mr. Scruff’s Trouser Jazz. The bass energy here keeps you nailed to your seat and tracking through the album, all of my party guests are flabbergasted by just how much air these small speakers can move.

Fun as these audio acrobatics are, all that PR copy about Focal’s new driver technology is absolutely true. These speakers are fatigue and distortion free. The only downside is that if you have a lot of amplifier power on tap and live in an apartment building, you may just have a few neighbors knocking at your door, so be prepared for crisis management or party time.

Sopra no.1 AA-4The Focal Sopra no.1 speakers are a premium offering from one of the world’s finest speaker manufacturers and paired with top shelf components will provide you with a world class listening system. They get our highest recommendation.

www.focal.com

$8,995/pair, with stands

 

 

Ace Indeed!

ace frontMOON by Simaudio’s Neo ACE All In One Music Player
A number of well-worn clichés come to mind when attempting to describe the new ACE all in one music player from Simaudio; crescent wrench, Swiss army knife, etc etc. Yet none of them truly encompass how awesome it is. This Montreal audio company has been building award-winning components for 36 years and is well known for their massive amplifiers, DACs and killer phono preamplifiers; all having five figure price tags. Yet the ACE barely tips the scale at $3,500. And that’s for an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, streamer, MM phonostage and headphone amplifier. You’d spend that much on five sets of moderately priced interconnects and power cords, not to mention a rack to hold all that stuff.

What you may not know is that Simaudio has been on fire for the last 3 years, taking the expertise that comes with having all phases of design, manufacturing and even metalwork under one roof and distilling that essence down to incredibly affordable components that do not sacrifice performance. Their award winning Neo 230HAD headphone amplifier and Neo 430HA headphone amplifier, both incorporate DAC’s, function as excellent line stages, but the ACE does everything.

Having used many of their top components for years over at TONEAudio, Simaudio combines rock solid build quality (all of their components carry a 10 year warranty, and their service department looks like something from a Maytag repairman commercial) with contemporary styling, and intelligent ergonomics. Most importantly, MOON components have always provided best in class sound to match the ergonomics and functionality. Even their instruction manuals are well written, and for those of you that normally blow off this stage of the installation, you can get up and rolling with the ACE ignoring the manual, but it offers such a depth of features, it will serve you well to spend some time with the manual.

In the 60s and 70s, it was common to go to the hi fi shop and purchase a receiver; incorporating an AM/FM tuner along with a high quality phono stage, so that you only needed to add a pair of speakers and maybe a turntable or a tape deck and roll. Today, with streaming being the way most music lovers roll, the ACE has you covered, with Simaudio’s MiND streamer built in. Just head to the app store, download “Moon MIND controller” and your zooming, with Tidal integration. You can also stream from your favorite mobile device via Bluetooth, so friends can easily share their music when visiting.

ace rearThanks to it’s built in DAC with 8 digital inputs that accommodate anything you can throw at it, your laptop, iPod or other digital device easily integrates into your system. Everything from 16/44.1 CD quality files up to DSD is a breeze. You can even go completely old school digital and play CD’s via one of the ACE’s three analog inputs, which I took advantage of with a borrowed MOON Neo 260D CD player. Should you incorporate a MOON by Simaudio CD player into your ACE based system, the slender remote included will also control said player; again a nice touch towards simplicity. Rega’s new Planar 3 turntable with Elys 2 cartridge (also in for review) proves a fantastic match for the onboard MM phono stage. Analog playback via LP is equally enjoyable through the ACE and after a couple of tracks, it’s obvious that this was not an afterthought. Stepping up to a VPI Classic Two table and Sumiko Blackbird high output MC cartridge also was a lovely match with the ACE and this all in one is certainly up to the task of connecting an equally expensive turntable.

Rounding out the package, the headphone amplifier is stunning with Sennheiser, ADC, Audeze and OPPO phones, so it should be compatible with whatever you’ve got in your stable. Again, emphasizing convenience, Simaudio thoughtfully includes a 1/8th inch stereo jack on the front panel labeled MP, so that you can plug in a pad, pod or phone from the analog outputs should you so desire.

ace displayOne more small, but significant touch in the ergonomics department, the ACE is the company’s first product featuring an OLED readout, making it easy to read in any ambient light level. Here’s to hoping this display makes it into all future Simaudio components. Another luxurious touch giving this product a much higher feel than it’s price suggests.

The 50-watt per channel power amplifier proves to be up to the task of driving everything we have on hand for review, including the Quad 2812 electrostats and the somewhat inefficient Rogers LS5/9 speakers. The synergy with the $10,000/pair Focal Sopra no.1 speakers in for review is stunning, but may be a bit more than you want to spend, but the point is that the ACE provides a level of sonic refinement way beyond what you’d expect for the price.

ace indside
The MOON by Simaudio Neo ACE is a component you can live with for a long time, and make multiple source and speaker upgrades before you might even entertain going back to seperates again.

Major audiophiles in the audience, take note; TONEAudio will be featuring a more in-depth analysis in the weeks to come, running the ACE further through its paces with more analog and digital sources as well as exercising all of the digital options.

However, the short recommendation, should you want a high performance, all in one component, the ACE is for you. And, in celebration of our first year afloat, we’d like to award the ACE one of our “Year’s Finest” awards. This is one of the best values we’ve seen in high performance audio in a long time. And, after purchasing the review sample, it will be a permanent reference component here.

The Neo ACE All in one music player

$3,500

www.simaudio.com

Small Superhero! The GamuT RS3i

AA_gamut-1Twenty thousand dollars is a substantial amount of money to spend on a pair of compact speakers at first blush. But after spending a few years with GamuT Audio’s past flagship speaker, the one hundred and twenty thousand dollar S9 and now the new Zodiac, the question begs, “how did they do it?” Granted, a small speaker like the RS3i can only move so much air in a room, but the amount of high quality bass that these compact monitors generate is staggering; you keep looking for the subwoofer. At a recent demo of these little jewels at Audio Vision San Francisco, the assembled crowd was spellbound. And with good reason.

 

While the GamuT “sound” may not be for you, if it is, nothing else will do. As GamuT designer Benno and I, musing about automobiles made the comparison, a few of the other speakers, a bit better known for razor sharp resolution come off more like a Ferrari, communicating every pebble in the road. Exciting, yes, but exhausting on anything less than a racetrack, and even then only in small doses.

 

The magic that GamuT brings to the table is to offer up nearly as much detail as those other, more surgical speakers, yet offering a tonality that is lush, engaging and saturated, without ever sounding dull or slow. They aren’t just making an easy to listen speaker by rounding off all of the musical details. I use the larger RS5i as one of my two main reference speakers at TONEAudio magazine and like my former S9s, I have listened to them from sunrise to sunset and beyond with zero fatigue. I never tire of GamuT speakers.

 

When comparing the stand mounted RS3i to the floorstanding RS5i, the sound is nearly identical at most volume levels as long as the RS3i’s aren’t called upon to reproduce super low bass notes. While the woofer driver is different, the tweeters are the same as is the cabinet construction, made out of 21 layers of pressed and glued wood to achieve a perfect balance of tone, while neutralizing cabinet induced distortions.

 

These speakers will benefit from a few hours of careful fine adjustment, and in particular, they respond to the rearward tilt of the speakers to make sure that the sound from the tweeters hits your ears at precisely the right time. However, those with less than Jedi Master skills will find that getting the RS3i a couple of feet from the back wall, about 6-8 feet apart, and positioning your listening chair or couch about the same distance back will achieve excellent results.

 

In the context of The Audiophile Apartment, where we don’t have a massive listening room, the RS3i does an incredible job of disappearing in the room, producing a holographic, three dimensional soundfield that feels as if you’re sitting inbetween the earcups of a massive pair of headphones. It only takes about 15 sec of your favorite track to become immersed in the music, even more so if you happen to have GamuT’s Lobster chair and footstool. (We’ll report more about that in the future.)

 

Spinning Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock (GamuT USA’s director Michael Vamos’ all time favorite album), this record gently comes to life in a sparse, yet expansive way. The delicate vocals of “Myrrhman” just hang in my living room/listening room, as if peeking around the corner from the bedroom, punctuated with bits of percussion and synth. When the pace picks up on the next track, “Ascension Day,” the soundfield dramatically swells to the occasion, with lead vocals leaping out in front of the speakers, with drums hanging back gently, while the guitars and keyboards race in and out of the mix with a harmonica coming out of hiding every now and then. No matter what the program material; rock, jazz, classical, solo vocalists – the RS3i doesn’t discriminate.

 

Granted, these are aesthetically beautiful speakers, but the true beauty of the GamuT RS3i is that once they are powered up you never see them again – you simply ease back and forget the rest of the world. If I didn’t already own a pair of RS5i’s, I’d be writing a check for these. Highly recommended.

 

 

www.gamutaudio.com

REVIEW: Dynaudio’s XEO4 wireless speakers…

aa xeo4As the haunting beats of David Bowie’s Blackstar fill the room, my guests are all looking for the speakers, thinking something much larger is at work. Three pairs of floorstanding speaker systems sit by the doorway, awaiting a visit from the UPS man, all silent. Today’s entertainment is being provided by the tiny Dynaudio XEO4 speakers; their black cabinets hiding in the shadows of my apartment.

Dynaudio’s flagship Evidence Platinum speakers have been the benchmark by which everything else that comes through the door is evaluated, for about a year and a half at TONEAudio magazine, and they have had little, if any competition – as they should at $82,000 for the pair. Taller than me, these aren’t necessarily the first choice for the Audiophile Apartment, or anyone else that is challenged for space. Though they are very environmentally friendly, both in their slender shape and ease by which they integrate into the room. Bravo to you should you forgo other luxuries to install a pair in your apartment!

With so many of our readers living in smaller spaces, Dynaudio’s engineers have distilled an amazing amount of the natural tonality, wide dynamic range and low distortion that makes their top speakers so enjoyable down into a pair of tiny speakers that only measure 7” wide, 10” tall, and just over 9.5” deep. Available in either a satin black or white finish, they will easily blend in any décor. I highly suggest the matching Dynaudio stands, as they match the aesthetic and have plenty of mass; providing good bass grip and preventing floor dwelling mammals from tipping them easily.

In case you’re thinking $2,399 is a bit much for a pair of tiny speakers, keep in mind that the XEO4s are not only fully powered, but they also can accept digital source components via TOSLINK, coax or USB via the integral Dynaudio Hub. The Hub also features two analog inputs (one mini jack and a pair of standard RCAs), allowing the connection of an older television/cable box, a line level component or even a turntable! This is a ton of money you’ll save not needing an amp, preamp, receiver or DAC, not to mention the cost and clutter of the associated cables!

For the analog lover in a tight space, we mated the XEO 4s with the new Clearaudio Wood turntable and the ultra compact Lehmann Black Cube phonostage for an outstanding, yet compact analog setup. Each one of the XEO4s have a 50 watt amplifier for the woofer and soft dome tweeter, making this a 200 watt system. It’s easily enough power to get your neighbors pounding on the ceiling.

For the rest of our music loving audience not requiring a turntable, streaming your favorite digital files is a breeze. No matter what you connect to the input of the XEO4s, the hub detects it automatically – which means zero setup hassle. Just plug the powered speakers into the AC line, find a spot nearby for the hub and you’re ready to roll. You can connect to the source wirelessly, or via Ethernet cable as well.

The only real decision you have to make with the XEO4 (besides black or white) is whether you place the speakers near a wall, on a counter or out in the room. A switch on the back of the speakers offers three settings for the internal digital signal processor (DSP) to optimize the XEO4s bass response for where it is placed in the room; just follow the directions.

Going back and forth between the $82,000 Evidence Platinums and the XEO4s is an amazing testament to Dynaudio’s core values and how even these small powered speakers share the core aesthetic and sonic values of their cost no object masterpieces. The Audiophile Apartment is too young to start handing out awards, but these speakers are of that nature.

If you want high quality sound without the associated rack of gear, we suggest the Dynaudio XEO4. Should you have a bigger budget and slightly more space, consider the floorstanding XEO6.

 

The Dynaudio XEO4 powered loudspeakers

 

$2,399/pair

 

www.dynaudio.com