Author Archives: Drew Kalbach

iFi iPhono 3 Black Label and Chord Electronics Huei Phonostages

In any vinyl-based audio chain, the phonostage is one of the most important components. It takes the teeny, tiny signal from the cartridge and boosts it enough for the preamp and the amp to make sweet music. It’s an extremely sensitive component, doing multiple, insanely important jobs, and I’m picky about my phonostage. Thus, I was very excited to receive two new compact black boxes to play around with, the iFi iPhono 3 Black Label ($999) and the Chord Electronics Huei ($1495).

The iFi iPhono 3 is a long, relatively thin and compact rectangle, with small dipswitches on the bottom. There is no power switch—it remains on at all times. Little green lights glow to let me know it is working. The input connections are at one end of the rectangle, and the outputs at the other. It isn’t the sort of thing I’d keep out on a desk. I love a big shiny silver box, but sometimes it’s nice to declutter. 

The Chord Electronics Huei is also very compact, and it is also black, but it prominently features four glowing lights bumped up along the front with a translucent plastic bit on the top that shows off the guts. While small, the Huei is definitely meant to be shown off. There is a small power switch on the Huei’s back, along with the inputs and outputs, but otherwise it is fairly simple.

Despite their small sizes, both phonostages are incredibly versatile. That is the first thing I look for in a phonostage, especially in this price range—most folks spending $999 or $1499 probably need the ability to run some low-output mc cartridges. Since carts come in all shapes and sizes, most phonostages have multiple loading options to maximize their compatibility. If you only plan on using an mm cartridge or a high-output mc, then great, congratulations, you’re a fully self-actualized human being, who knows exactly what you want forever and will never change, and I’m jealous. But for the rest of us, flexibility is an asset in itself—part of the joy of high-end audio is trying a wide range of equipment, and both of these phonostages will allow for a ton of variation.

Setup was relatively easy, once I understood how the two different phonostages changed their load settings. Starting with the iFi iPhono 3 Black Label, I attached the RCA cables, then plugged it into mains with the iPower X, which was an upgraded power supply and came standard. Easy enough—but next was the slightly complicated part. The bottom of the iPhono is filled with little baby switches and a ton of options. Fortunately, iFi had a super handy online calculator that essentially did all the work after I input my cartridge specs. The iPhono featured loading options from 22 ohms on up to 47k ohms, with six stops between, and either 36, 48, 60, or 72dB of gain. For my Zu DL-103, I chose 60dB of gain with a load of 330 ohms. The online calculator showed me the dipswitch layout and made executing it totally brainless, which is sort of necessary for me, although there is also a physical chart for anyone without access to the website.

Next up, I plugged in the Chord Electronics Huei, fired it up, and took a moment to marvel at the pretty lights. I’m a simple man and I like shiny things. However, the lights did more than make me happy—they were also buttons that changed the settings. Each color corresponded to a different load, and switching between them was as easy as tapping and watching the colors change. A nice, glossy chart explained how it all worked, and I settled on purple for the load, which was 320 ohms, and blue for the gain, which was 60dB. The Huei included a bunch of different gain steps—from 49dB on up to 70dB, with six total stops in between for the mc section, and 21dB on up to 42dB with six stops for the mm section. The impedance can be adjusted from 100 ohms up to 3.7k ohms for mc’s, and is a strict 47k ohms for mm’s. The Chord Electronics also included XLR outputs, which changed the gain slightly, allowing for up to 76dB max with an mc, and 48dB max with an mm. Overall, the Huei was the easier of the two to get set up, and had slightly more loading options—but neither was particularly difficult to use, and both were extremely versatile.

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Sonus faber Lumina

I associate Sonus faber with luxurious floorstanders in windswept shapes with finely grained and glossy wood finishes. Even the lowercase “f” in faber somehow makes them sound fancier. So when I was told that Sf had a new “entry-level” bookshelf for review, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Lumina ($899) took me off guard and flipped a lot of my preconceived notions about what a bookshelf speaker in this price range sounds, looks, and feels like. In many ways, this review is about expectations: how marketing sets them, how product categories reinforce them, and how some products occasionally redefine them.

 The Lumina is a vented-box, two-way bookshelf speaker that measures a miniscule 5.8″ x 11″ x 8.4″ and weighs less than 10 pounds. I don’t normally lead with a product’s measurements, but these things are really small—borderline desktop size. They’re much slimmer than the Wharfedale bookshelves I compared them with, and are the smallest non-desktop speakers I’ve had in my listening space to date. It is only natural for people to wonder whether a set of speakers so tiny can play loud enough to fill a large room and dig down deep enough to create a sense of appreciable bass. While I don’t want to spoil the review, I’ll go ahead and spoil it anyway: Yes and yes, they most certainly do.

The tweeter is Sonux faber’s 29mm Damped Apex Dome featured in the Sonetto series, and the mid/woofer is a 120mm custom-designed driver with a diaphragm made from a blend of cellulose pulp and other natural fibers. The speaker’s nominal impedance is 4 ohms, and its sensitivity is 84dB, which means the Lumina is going to be a bit harder to drive. From my own experience, I would stick with Sf’s suggested power guideline of 30–100Wpc, though I’d aim for the upper end of that range.

 My review pair came in a wenge wood finish, but the Luminas are also available in piano black and walnut. The wenge versions include sleek silver accents around the tweeters and mid/woofers, which lend the Luminas an exquisite sense of gravitas that is strange considering their size. Best of all, the main body is wrapped in a soft, dark leather that feels great to touch and looks fantastic. Overall, I’d say these speakers are high among the most visually appealing pieces of gear I’ve ever had in my listening room. I would have gladly placed them in my living room if I didn’t have a toddler who would immediately destroy them.

 Of course, speakers are only as good as they sound, and physical attributes don’t always reveal a product’s inner worth. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, even though everyone’s always judging based on covers, but in this instance, I’d say the form factor of the Lumina does suggest something about the way it’s going to sound, just not in the way you might expect.

 First up on my turntable was a new record from Nat Birchall, a UK multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician. His spiritual, Sun Ra-inspired Mysticism of Sound felt a lot like a pandemic album: self-produced with Birchall playing every instrument. Which is actually a great thing, because Mysticism of Sound reveals a wide and arcing breadth of music. While Birchall’s playing is melodic and multifarious, I couldn’t help but notice the low end first and foremost. Bookshelf speakers don’t typically create powerful bass, and while that was certainly true to some extent in this case, I was still absolutely astounded by the big sounds coming from the Luminas. Considering their tiny dimensions, they shouldn’t have given me a very palpable sense of the low end, and yet never once did I feel the need to turn them up to compensate for their size.

The track “Inner Pathway” is a meandering musical journey with a simple cymbal tap keeping precise time, while Birchall’s sax plays atop a mix of bass and synth. Sax mids were liquid smooth, and the nice sax tone shined through. The synth and bass combination made for a big, deep sonic landscape, and I was impressed with the Luminas’ ability to reproduce a clear and crisp midrange, while still digging deep for the rhythmic bass. It was a comforting and intriguing sound, not at all what I expected from these tiny boxes.

I switched over to the Speaker’s Corner reissue of the 1956 album The Jazz Messengers. Art Blakey plays the only way he knows how: big, bold, and in control. The Luminas kept his fast-paced snare rolls on “Infra-Rae” in tight focus, while his call-and-response solo toward the end of the track was booming and had just enough depth for the kicks to resonate. There’s nothing like a Blakey fill smashing me in the teeth; I always ask for more when he’s through. I want and need a pair of speakers to recreate Blakey’s impact in an almost painful way, and while I can’t say I was left with a gaping chest wound from the Luminas’ low end, I was very impressed by the overall sound. For me, that tactile response, where the bass isn’t just heard but also felt, is the hallmark of perfect bottom octaves. The Luminas simply can’t push enough air to make a kick drum feel like a kick drum. But they certainly do sound like a kick drum, which is a feat in itself.

The live album East/West by Ill Considered features meandering and repetitive, looping, free-jazz freak-outs. The energy of this live show remained solidly grounded through the Luminas, and the mingling of the dual saxophones with Emre Ramazanoglu’s drums and Leon Brichard’s bass created a blanket of twisting sounds. The saxophones were front and center, and the Luminas, once again, built a nice, deep soundstage while reproducing just enough ambient crowd noise to make the space feel like it was alive. Finesse and speed are particularly important when it comes to a live album like East/West, and the Luminas remained on beat and engaging. Drums had enough heft and cymbals had enough sparkle, and the distorted bass rumbled just right below it all. During my listen to these sparkling LPs, I was never tempted to swap in my bigger main speakers for more powerful impact, which I think says a lot for the Luminas.

Speaking of sheer size and scope, I recently received VMP’s reissue of one of my all-time Top Five albums, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It’s an emotional, maximalist slog through a breakup, and a great way to test speakers. It’s the sort of album where more is never enough, and the end result is an enormous, gorgeous sonic landscape. The third track “I Think I’m In Love” starts out with spacey synth over a simple intermittent bass line. Through less than ideal speakers, it can sound a little hollow and the soundstage doesn’t feel deep enough. But the Lumina did it justice, especially as the song progressed and more and more instruments, noises, and voices were added to the mix. 

Finally, I turned to my latest obsession: The Tone Poets series from Blue Note Records. Herbie Hancock’s My Point of View was his second release as a leader and features a fantastic septet. Anthony Williams’s drumming was tight and on point. His cymbals shimmered with just enough sparkle, and his frequent, interesting flourishes and fills sound tight and solid. Tone Poet records are some of the best sounding in my collection and a great test of any system. The Luminas had superior soundstage separation and depth, with Hancock’s piano dead center and the drums shoved off in the right channel. The opening track on Side B, “King Cobra,” begins with a trumpet solo from Donald Byrd, which sounded smooth and tight, never venturing into the harsh and grating, despite getting fairly loud. 

I’ll admit to having some preconceived ideas about how smallish bookshelf speakers were going to sound. Just because of their size, I assumed they wouldn’t have deep bass heft, and they probably wouldn’t have the tightest sense of rhythm and dynamics. However, the Luminas proved me very, very wrong. No, they aren’t going to give you heart palpitations with their sub-bass rumbles. (Again, physics is a thing.) But the Luminas certainly changed my mind about how small bookshelf speakers are supposed to sound—or can sound. As far as I’m concerned, these are the new sub-$1k bookshelf speakers to beat. Just keep in mind those power amp requirements. Highly recommended to anyone looking for fantastic sound and beautiful style in a surprisingly compact package. 

Specs & Pricing

Driver complement: 29mm Damped Apex Dome tweeter, 120mm paper-cone mid/woofer
Frequency response: 65Hz–24kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 84dB SPL (2.83V/1m)
Crossover: 2kHz
Loading: Bass-reflex
Finish: Wenge, black, walnut
Dimensions: 5.8″ x 11″ x 8.4″
Weight: 9.7 lbs. each
Price: $899/pr.

SONUS FABER S.P.A.
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Italy
[email protected]

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Technics SL-1500C Turntable

Technics SL-1500C Turntable

At this point, everyone knows Technics is back.The venerable Japanese turntable manufacturer’s SL-1200G dropped several years ago to near-universal fanfare, and the company has since released several less expensive ’tables. But it’s the non-DJ-styled SL-1500C ($1199) that feels like the most exciting of the lot. Its price is the most accessible, of course, and it retains many of the bones of Technics’ upmarket decks. Despite its simplistic appearance, the 1500C is packed with serious tech, including a new coreless direct-drive motor, which is a huge selling point, along with a built-in phono- stage and a very solid tonearm. The SL-1500C ...

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Marantz PM7000N Integrated Amplifier

Marantz PM7000N Integrated Amplifier

It’s been hard not to preach the all-in-one gospel lately. Most people want simplicity in their lives, which is arguably a big part of why streaming has become the de facto musical delivery system of choice. Let’s be honest: As much as it pains me to admit it, vinyl playback is far from simple, and CDs, while easier to use than vinyl, still require physical storage space. A true high-end audiophile system is typically pretty complex, with multiple boxes, multiple formats, and a finnicky range of compatibilities to keep in mind. However, lately there has been a ton of incredibly ...

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MartinLogan Motion 35XTi Loudspeaker

MartinLogan Motion 35XTi Loudspeaker

I've never listened to a MartinLogan speaker before. That’s a gap in my audio experience that I’ve wanted to fill for a long time. So it was with genuine excitement that I accepted the review for the company’s newly revised and updated 35XTi bookshelf model. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but it’s hard not to look forward to something from a venerable company like ML. Maybe I’m letting my nerd colors show a bit here, but hey, if I can’t be an equipment geek in The Absolute Sound, I might as well give up. Anyway, when ...

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Wharfedale Linton Loudspeaker and Quad Vena II Integrated Amplifier

Wharfedale Linton Loudspeaker and  Quad Vena II Integrated Amplifier

The perfect system doesn’t exist. I think that’s the best part of this hobby: There is no single absolutely flawless system that will please every single ear in existence. And even the best systems have room to change and grow. Tastes vary and range as much as the human condition allows, and it allows for a whole lot. But there are systems that are just plain good, especially when put into a pure cost/benefit equation. They’re good in most contexts and to most listeners. This isn’t lowest-common-denominator stuff; this is just genuinely solid versatile sound. Which brings me to the ...

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Vanatoo Transparent One Encore Integrated Loudspeaker

Vanatoo Transparent One Encore Integrated Loudspeaker

The all-in-one powered-speaker space feels really exciting. It’s both a response to and a repudiation of current mass-market trends. On the one hand, it very much embraces digital and streaming, but on the other, it refuses to compromise on sound. The Vanatoo Transparent One Encore (T1E) loudspeaker is a good example, and has the added benefit of costing only $599 per pair. This speaker hints at what I imagine the future of hi-fi might be, at least at the entry-level. In design, the T1E isn’t exactly breaking new ground aesthetically. My review pair are sleek glossy black boxes (cherry finish ...

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