Category Archives: REVIEWS

The Mytek Liberty DAC

It’s the week of Halloween here in the Midwest, which mean a few things – crisp air, beautiful colors, falling leaves, and warmer clothes, but it also means the usual plethora of haunted houses. They pop up everywhere, and inevitably, someone tries to goat me into joining them on their adventure to one.

Each time, I politely decline. Seemingly without fail, the other party presses me about it, saying something like, “What’s the matter, don’t you like to be scared?” My reply is always the same, that people in costumes jumping out at you is not the definition of scared, it’s being startled. I am not interested in paying for the experience of being repeatedly startled.

However, in putting the Mytek Liberty DAC into my main listening system this week, I was just that- startled, but in a very good way.


The Liberty is conveniently one third the size of the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge from Mytek, making it a great fit into many systems. One control adorns the front panel, handling all source and gain duties. The black and gray finish sets off a sleek look, complimented by patterned vent holes in the top. Solid and well constructed, the Liberty is a featherweight component at only three pounds.


The disc I began my evaluation with (Jon Batiste’s Hollywood Africans)sounds even better now that the Liberty has a few hours on the clock. Using the Pioneer Elite DV79-AVi’s coaxial output into the first S/PIDF input of the Liberty- In particular, skipping to track 4, “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” I can hear Batiste’s lips part just before he sings. The reverb in this recording makes my room sound like an old New Orleans church. Voices come from the rafters, and the sax comes right out of the wall. It’s the piano, though, that pushes me back. Never has piano sounded this natural in my system or my room. I have always found it the hardest instrument to reproduce accurately. The Liberty gives it breath and life.

Spinning the classic track from Guy Clark’s album Texas Cookin’, “Anyhow, I Love You,” is where I got startled. I had listened to the song before having the Liberty in place, but now with it in the system, there was a striking new detail. Just before the female voices come into join Guy, I can now distinctly hear them inhaling in the left channel. To make sure I wasn’t losing my mind on this, I took the disc, and played on another system in my house, and that breath was not noticeable. Now, playing it once again through the Mytek Liberty, it is there, clear as day. When I first heard this, my head went right towards that speaker, thinking my wife was standing there, about to say something to me, but it was buried deep inside a 1976 recording. It made my heart race a little.

It also makes me crave a live recording, since this level of realism is getting so enthralling. On the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s gold release of Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!,“Penny for Your Thoughts” rings in this room with striking clarity. Solo guitar with a crowd that I feel part of. Since the electric guitar is my other vice, I can’t help but indulge in the anthemic bliss of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” Everyone has that overplayed FM staple that never got old for them, and this is mine. There are a lot of huge dynamics in this song, lost if you only ever heard it on the radio. The peaks, which need to be played at concert volume, are large and full, with Frampton’s Les Paul Custom grinding big and fat out of both channels. The valleys get low, with a subtle ride cymbal, and then a pulsing high-hat, while the audience reacts. I’ve heard this song thousands of times, but the Liberty is giving me much more clarity from Frampton’s amps. I can hear more of the individual audience members. The iconic talk box solo sings with more soul. It’s a more elevated live listening experience, overall.

Just Ones and Zeros?

I’ve been doing the majority of my listening with the Pioneer Elite, but I did make use of all four digital inputs on the Liberty. With S/PDIF 2, I connected mt Sony ES changer, and utilized the Toslink input for my TEAC CD recorder. While the Mytek does a splendid job with all three of them, it will very quickly demonstrate that all transports are not the same. There are clear, audible differences between all three units, with the more expensive Pioneer Elite outshining it’s more economical cousins in my system.

Upon receiving the Liberty, I quickly made the decision that I wanted to utilize the USB input with my 6th generation iPod touch. I purchased a Lightning to USB and plugged in to find that there was no response. A quick call to the very friendly and very helpful people at Mytek provided a solution. Since the Liberty does not supply any power from the USB, a specific adapter needs to be used. With the procurement of an Apple USB 3 Camera adapter, suddenly, I was in business!

Here again, this is a fantastic experience. Playing the iPod digitally through the Mytek Liberty yields a remarkably satisfying, rich, event that I’ve never had from my little device before. My playlists are now suddenly far more useful and enjoyable, and not just for the car anymore.

Use of the Liberty

As a DAC, the Mytek Liberty is wonderfully straight-forward. The single knob to the right, when pressed, switches between the four input sources. When turned, it increases or decreases the output level. The LED display shows either your source or volume level. I am using the unbalanced RCA outputs, but ¼’ balanced outputs are provided as well. There is a built-in MQA hi-res decoder. Conversion is up to 384K, 32 bit PCM. Native DSD up to DSD256.

Getting into My Head

Besides being a stellar DAC, the Mytek Liberty is also a serious headphone amplifier, so it’s time to switch off these speakers, and cozy up to the system. Grabbing my Sennheisers and a copy of Blind Faith, I plug in. Here is where the multi-purpose control becomes very handy, as this is now the volume control. On “Presence of the Lord,” the Liberty instantly shows that it is right at home with the great Mytek products I’ve been hearing for years, including its big brother, the Manhattan. The Liberty presents a large soundstage in the headphones and loses me in this disc, rather than sounding like a couple of cans on my ears. Detail is just as sharp and striking coming out of the front of the Liberty as from the rear outputs.

Wrapping it Up

Mytek packs an incredible amount of sound and technology into a very small package with the Liberty DAC, and at a fantastic price. To get a DAC with this much striking detail, plus a formidable headphone amplifier, all in a 1/3 rack space is just amazing. I don’t like to be scared, but I might be changing my tune on being startled.

Original article: The Mytek Liberty DAC

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Esoteric N-01 Network Player

Listening to a slew of Peter Gabriel favorites, via NAS drive and ROON, I ponder in earnest the thought of life without a turntable.

Which trend to follow? The declutter lady, telling us to pare down to a minimal compliment of things that bring us joy, or the vinyl enthusiasts, that want us to condemn digital and buy as many overpriced LPs as possible? Even though I’m a life-long vinyl enthusiast, after living with the N-01 for some time now, this minimalist solution certainly is enticing, especially now with Qobuz and Tidal at my disposal.

Esoteric’s N-01 weighs in at $21k; a world class DAC and streamer (or network player, as they call it)

For those not familiar, Esoteric is the premium division of TEAC, the same company that brought a full line of incredible tape decks to the world in the 70s and early 80s. All Esoteric components are hand built and hand tested to the highest specification.

Ultimate versatility

With optical, USB, AES/EBU and RCA digital inputs along with the Ethernet connection, chances are a great many of you will be using this as a DAC via an analog preamplifier, and the N-01s output level up all the way. Thus negating any issues with a very slight loss of resolution at the lowest levels. There is also a USB slot on the front panel [町田1] to accommodate a USB stick. This has to be the most inconvenient way of transmitting music ever – so I did not bother with this at all, but if this is how you do it, it will be a welcome addition. There is a second USB slot on the rear panel as well, adding to the N-O1s flexibility.
Of course, you can use the front panel USB port for an external hard drive, which could be handy for out of town guests to bring their music. As someone who is as territorial as a Chow-chow when it comes to letting others add random devices to their hifi system, if you’re coming to my house and you can’t find something on Tidal, Qobuz, or a NAS with 12,000 CDs on it, we probably shouldn’t be listening to music together anyway. But you can, with the N-01.

Besides, plugging in an external drive to the front panel takes away from the aesthetic of the N-01. Like all Esoteric products, the N-01 is beautiful to behold. Their casework is some of the best in the business, and I appreciate that their products all have a similar look and feel. This is a massive box, weighing in at just under 60 pounds, and it comes in a box that’s about half the size of a dishwasher – you’ll have to get through four sets of cartons to get to your N-01.

There’s as much beauty lurking inside the casework of the N-01 as there is on the outside. The power supply is separated from the signal carrying electronics by a thick, Nickel plated, pure steel plate. The bottom half of the N-01 reveals four massive toroid power transformers and two banks of capacitors that you might expect to see in a power amplifier. That a DAC has such a massive power supply speaks volumes. And the attention to detail everywhere else is equally fanatical.

A quick look at the spec sheet reveals that the N-01 plays everything. Everything from the lowest resolution MP3 to the highest resolution DSD file and MQA, so it’s safe to say this component is future proof. I’ve never been a DSD fan, so this is the only aspect of the N-01s performance I can’t comment on directly, with enough depth to have meaning. But if you have a NAS full of DSD files, I’m sure it will be up to task. All of the DSD files I’ve heard in the Esoteric rooms at shows have been fantastic.

All of my listening was done within the ROON environment, with the N-01 as an endpoint. This works incredibly well on a number of levels, but primarily because it is so much better at integrating multiple storage and streaming locations. It also eliminates the more cumbersome user interface available with Tidal or Qobuz.

Initial listening

Functionality aside, the N-01’s spot-on neutral tonal balance. Some components can impart a sonic signature that is either overly etched and hyper-detailed, or slightly warm, this leaves the end user making other compromises in the audio chain to “tune out the difference.” Starting with a neutral source lets you fine tune elsewhere in your system, assuring much more longevity (i.e. the need to upgrade later) for said component. A good thing when spending $20,000.

Those needing an upgrade, can add the G-02X clock ($6,500) or the G-01X Rubidium clock. Staffer Tom Caselli uses the latter in his digital front end and claims a massive increase in sound quality, as it should for the price. Past experience with adding a clock in the context of our players has always been the ability to achieve another level of refinement – dare we say a more analog like presentation. This gives you an excellent upgrade path with your N-01, should you need even more performance.

The N-01s grain free sound immediately puts you at ease, with a palpability quickly putting arguments to rest. Tracking through a bit of Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Ross, as well as the excellent Jackson Five: The Stripped Mixes, there is a delicacy afoot here that is rarely associated with digital playback.

Acoustic instruments come through with an excellent balance of tonal accuracy and saturation. The N-01 never sounds “digital.” Pianos, violins, and other stringed instruments breathe with the correct amount of attack and decay to further paint the illusion of real instruments in a real space – provided the rest of your system is up to task. Finally, the N-01 paints a large, but not overblown sonic landscape in your listening room that feels right from a sense of scale. Where some components can only offer up a huge, three-dimensional sonic picture, the N-01 expands and contracts as the music demands – a true sign of engineering prowess and maturity.

Solo or ensemble use

Using the N-01 with the Pass XS Pre, the Nagra Classic, and the conrad-johnson GAT 2 preamplifiers all proves excellent, with the neutrality of the N-01 merely allowing the sonic signature of these top shelf preamplifiers shine through. A similar result was achieved using the N-01 by itself with the Pass XA30.8, the McIntosh MC275 and the Luxman M-900u power amplifiers. As someone who prefers a slightly warm tonal balance, I particularly enjoyed the combination of the N-01, the MC275 and my Quad 2812 speakers. Thoughts of living without a turntable again filled my head.

Embellishment aside, further critical listening reveals the N-01s ability to separate fine musical details within densely packed recordings, delivering fantastic musical pace, no matter what the selection. Even though said CSN tracks possessed slightly more tonal saturation, the air around the four musicians’ voices was greater, and the distinction of their vocal character easier to discern.

More choices

With so many recent arguments about MQA, I submit that not all MQA decoders are created equal. That being said, the N-01 does a fantastic job at unfolding MQA files. Every A-B comparison on Tidal between the standard 16/44 and MQA version had the MQA rendition revealing more musical information in every sense. Comparing some MQA tracks on Tidal to 24/96 proved to be a mixed bag – for now, we’re going to relegate that to differences in mastering and internet arguments. Suffice to say again, MQA performance through the Esoteric is some of the best I’ve experienced.

Esoteric offers their own Sound Stream app for those not wishing to use ROON, but now that this device is fully ROON compliant, it’s somewhat of a moot point. I loved just plugging it into the network and getting down to business with my music collection.

Esoteric combines multiple 32-bit DAC chips and a 35-bit D/A processing algorithm to process the digital signal with full 35-bit resolution. With old school 16-bit chips falling back in fashion, I prefer the logic behind processing with extended bit depth and that Esoteric implements it to perfection here. There are multiple upsampling and filter settings, but as with my experience with dCS and a few other manufacturers, I saved myself hours of agonizing and second guessing, using it at the factory settings.

Maybe the factory guys are on to something, because that always seems like the best balance of overall musical priorities. Other settings may provide a slightly warmer tonal balance or something else, but it always ends up being the thing that you keep changing, relentlessly. I found bliss with the factory settings.

What’s in a name?

Because the Esoteric N-01 has such a high-quality DAC built in, with the ability to add a clock later, should you wish, it seems a bit of a misnomer to label it a mere “network player.” I like to think of it as a destination level DAC that just happens to stream files. It certainly seems like a much better value proposition from this angle.

The Esoteric N-01

MSRP: $21,000


Preamplifers Nagra Classic, Pass XS Pre

Power amplifiers Pass XA200.8 monos, Nagra Classic, Audio Research REF160M

Cable Cardas Clear

Speakers Focal Sopra no.3 w/REL 212 subwoofers

Original article: Esoteric N-01 Network Player

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

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Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

Gold Note A3 EVO Speakers

Many of us think of “that other company” when we think Italian loudspeakers, but the team at Gold Note is a serious contender, making their way into North America, after achieving major success in the rest of the world.

We’ve been very excited with the performance of the Gold Note electronics we’ve used so far, and our first experience with the small A3 EVO you see here is equally good.

This 5-inch, two-way, compact monitor delivers an incredible wallop for its small size. This gorgeous little pair of speakers is like a tuned Fiat Abarth. More sound and fun than you’d ever think could come from that small shape. Starting the listening with some jazz fusion from FORQ, via the VAC Sigma 170i amplifier, sets me back in the chair, Maxell man style.

Design choices

Everyone has their preferences, but I’ve always loved silk/soft dome tweeters. While not the champions of getting the last few molecules of musical detail like a diamond or beryllium tweeter, there’s an organic nature to the soft dome presentation that keeps me in the chair for hours on end. The SEAS sourced tweeter in the A3 EVO is a perfect balance of high resolving power and tonal smoothness, without being slow.

Cymbals fade off into the background with a natural ease, and acoustic instruments have a natural palpability that always engages. Transitioning from FORQ to Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries, his blisteringly fast guitar work is truthfully rendered, and this record is always somewhat of a challenge. Yet, the EVOs succeed brilliantly.

The cabinets are beautiful, as you’d expect – these are Italian speakers, of course! Available in black or walnut, they’ve kept choices down, to keep the price in line. Every corner, every joint is exquisitely finished, to the same standard as their flagship speakers. The pride in manufacture shows the minute you get them out of the box.

Around back, a single pair of high quality binding posts get the job done, and the rear firing port is an aluminum tube. Precision and care in assembly is everywhere you look. These are speakers you will be very proud to own and show off in your listening environment. As it should be.

Setup and such

The A3 EVO are tiny, but not as light as their small size suggests, at a little over 20 pounds each, they will give you pause when you lift them out of the box. Gold Note packs them with care, and even installs a plastic tweeter cover (magnetically attached) to prevent damage. Make sure to remove the grilles and remove these covers, or you may be horribly disappointed at the lack of treble response when you first fire them up!

Your listening chair position will determine the tweeter height, or you can just use the Gold Note stands and adjust from there. We tried 20, 24, and 28 inch stands, settling on 28-inch for the best balance in our listening room. Horizontal dispersion is good, so if you have to place the speakers at less than the perfect height in your listening room, a bit more toe in will easily compensate.

Finally, whether you’d like a more immersive listening position or a larger stereo image, with a bit more bass response will determine whether you’d like corner placement or nearfield. Again, both provide excellent results, yet with the speakers in more of a corner placement, they produce an incredibly large soundfield in the room. For many of you wanting big speaker sound in relatively small quarters, the A3 EVOs can be your ticket to ride.

As a two-way speaker system, with a rated sensitivity of 87db/1-watt, the A3 EVOs benefit from a little bit of power to achieve higher sound pressure levels. Again, this depends on your desired result. If you’re listening to music with smaller dynamic swings and don’t require high volume, your favorite 30-watt per channel amplifier will get the job done, and if nothing else, provide a great place to start. With these speakers it’s definitely about quality instead of quantity.

Those wanting to rock the house more, will want to move up to an amplifier in the 50-100 watt range to get the little A3 EVOs to move serious air. But remember a 5-inch woofer can only do so much. Just as my little Fiat Abarth is a sheer blast to drive between 25 and 85mph, so are the A3 EVOs. Don’t push them too hard and the level of enjoyment is off the chart good. A bigger amplifier will give them a bit more ease and headroom, and certainly will make an excellent next step, should you have to invest your budget in speakers to start.

Further listening

The A3 EVOs offer up great sound right out of the box, but after a few days of constant play, the woofers go a bit deeper and the upper bass response tightens up slightly, along with the tweeter having an even greater sense of ease and extension. These are very user friendly speakers, so don’t fret over ultimate placement until you’ve got about 50-100 hours on the clock.

Listening to Carole King’s Live in Hyde Park clearly illustrates how natural these little speakers sound, as the audience swells at the beginning of the track, giving my modest sized living room an incredible sense of ambience, almost as if there were surround speakers hidden somewhere in the room. Damn good for a small pair of two ways!

An equally impressive result is had with Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars. There’s a delicacy here that the A3 EVOs are able to communicate, thanks to their exquisite tonal balance. And with program material like this, the tiny A3 EVOs feel much larger. As with all great small monitors, they disappear into the room without a trace, making for some great lights out listening sessions.

What’s not to love?

If you’re looking for a high-performance pair of compact monitors, that are beautifully executed, and a bit off the obvious path, Gold Note’s A3 EVOs get our recommendation. At just over $4,000/pair they offer everything you need to build a highly satisfying system.

The Gold Note A3 EVO Speakers

$4,099/pair – Black
$4,499/pair – Gloss Walnut (as reviewed) Factory NA distributor


Analog Source AVID Ingenium Plug N Play

Digital Source Gold Note CD-1000

Amplifier VAC Sigma 170i

Cable Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Original article: Gold Note A3 EVO Speakers

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

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Totem Tribe Towers

Listening to the deep bass line in Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made up her Mind,” I’m still amazed after nearly 20 years of reviewing speakers, at how Totem’s Vince Bruzzese gets so much bass out of such small cabinets.

These svelte speakers are instantly riveting. The tiny frontal area of the enclosures houses a 1.3-inch soft dome tweeter coupled to a pair of 4-inch Torrent drivers, which are technological marvels. Totem has the only 4-inch woofer that is capable of a 26Hz free air resonance, and the dome tweeter goes effortlessly up to 30kHz. You can read more about the tech involved here, but it’s safe to say that Totem has succeeded brilliantly here in terms of clarity and phase accuracy.

Moving on to some more bass-heavy tracks, these speakers move serious air, regardless of their size. Five different amplification choices from Boulder, Nagra, Pass, PrimaLuna and VAC all deliver the goods: the highly resolving nature of the Tribe Towers quickly shows off the nuances between them all. With a 4-ohm impedance and an 89db/1-watt sensitivity, they work well with tubes or solid-state amplification. As expected, they offer slightly more slam with a big solid-state amplifier, but your personal preference will dictate what you pair your Totem Tribes with. We’ve often seen Totem use a Boulder amp in their demos, but rest assured that you’ll still get that deep bass you heard when tracking through Yello (just like you heard in the demo) with a good tube amp too.

Switching the program to Laurie Anderson’s Live at Town Hall NYC reinforces the exceptional spatial abilities of these speakers – from the ethereal openness of Anderson’s voice to the correctness of the applause in the audience. Staying in the Laurie Anderson groove a little longer, “Excellent Birds” (from Mister Heartbreak) combines both characteristics in one track. It’s incredible how far cone speaker design has come in 20 years or so – you no longer need a panel speaker to achieve this kind of three-dimensional presentation, only to have to compromise dynamics and impact.

Fine details make the difference

The new Totem Tribe Tower tips the price scale at $5,300/pair in Satin white or black and $5,800/pair in gloss ICE (white) or DUSK (black).Perhaps it’s Bruzzese’s love of automobiles, but these speakers are finished as well as any luxury car (if not better than some) and sport a gloss and lack of orange peel that you might expect from a $100,000 pair of Wilson or Focal speakers. Much like a cool car, they look great just standing still.

Our review samples arrive in the gloss black and reveal another great surprise: these beautiful speakers only weigh about 30 pounds each – a significant bonus. Nothing like high-performance speakers that won’t break the bank or your back. After a year of moving 300 and 400-pound speakers, I can’t tell you how welcome this is.

While the Tribe Towers deliver excellent sonics and top value for their price, this is a very important category. With so many great speakers starting at $10k/pair, making the Tribe Towers the anchor of your system allows you to build an excellent system for under $10k, and something pretty stunning for $20k – $30k (depending on whether you require equally good analog and digital performance, or just one excellent source) The Tribe Towers offer enough sonic performance that you can grow pretty far with them, as your enthusiasm and budget allow.

Every aspect of these speakers offers a level of quality that isn’t seen at this price. It starts with the finish, but it’s more than just a pretty paint job. The absolute precision of the finish work on the cabinet edges, dual WBT binding posts, and an innovative approach to the speaker’s feet is impressing. Totem eschews the spikes in favor of round, machined, ball-like feet that offer the same sonic coupling benefit of spikes, yet won’t damage your floor.

The only possible drawback to these feet is the small footprint, and light weight of the enclosures may be a bit wobbly on a relatively loose weave carpet or area rug. Those with small children and modest to large dogs will have to be a bit cautious, as I fear these speakers might be easier than some to topple. The price we pay for beauty.

Back to the sound

One of the secrets to the Tribe Towers success is the quality of the enclosure, crossover, and drivers, along with the meticulous attention to detail in the construction process. Totem hand-builds their crossover boards with a point to point wiring scheme, avoiding the pitfalls of a printed circuit board. The drivers are all hand-matched for uniformity, and the crossover is a gentle, first-order design, only connected to the tweeter.

Totem claims that this helps to offer a cleaner phase response, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to confirm this. Combining this with the minimal front baffle makes for a speaker that quickly disappears in the room, and creates a broad, immersive soundfield in all three dimensions. No crossover whatsoever in the woofer path adds to the fine detail these speakers are able to resolve.

Whether your go-to demo tracks favor vocals or acoustic instruments, the Tribe Towers deliver such a detailed presentation, it almost feels like a pair of premium headphones. We were consistently surprised, having several “wow I didn’t hear that” moments with these speakers. Again, this is the kind of thing you expect for 10, 20, or 30 thousand dollars a pair, but is rarely offered at this price.

The Tribe Towers perform equally well in our 12 x 18-foot room (on the short wall) and our larger 16 x 26-foot room (on the long wall), with just a tiny bit of toe-in. In both places, we followed their suggestion, starting with the speakers about 4 feet from the rear wall, which is an excellent starting point. In the smaller room, the speakers ended up about 6 feet apart and then in the larger room about 10 feet apart. While the smaller room offers a slightly more intimate sonic presentation, these speakers are capable of filling a bigger room with ease.

Should you really like to rock out and have a bigger room, you may want to consider an amplifier in the 75-200 watt per channel range. Physics is physics. In a smaller room, 30-40 watts of high-quality amplification will suffice for all but those needing excessive volume.

Just like the other Totem speakers we’ve either reviewed or listened to at various shows, they possess incredible dynamic range. The Tribe Towers can play loud, really loud when you want to listen to heavy rock, but they also sound good at low level (around 75db average). Not all speakers can accomplish this, but the Tribe Towers are as much a joy to listen to quietly.

Their ability to process large dynamic swings also means the Tribe Towers make a great pair of front speakers in a modest-sized theater system. While we didn’t have a full Totem system to do this, we did use them briefly in our bedroom system, powered by the latest Anthem multichannel receiver with excellent results. And, Totem makes a full line of surround and architectural speakers along with their own subwoofers, so you can keep a uniform sonic signature throughout.

Parting random thoughts

After living with these speakers for some time and using them in a variety of different listening situations, the smile only gets bigger. These are approachable speakers that are indeed without compromise. Their design is very user-friendly – all that experienced them enjoyed them as much as we did, with nary a “not in my living room” comment to be had.

Knowing that Totem has been around for decades, and has a well-established dealer network around the world means that your Totem Tribes will always be supported. This is a big part of what makes them a trustworthy investment. Their commitment to a phase coherent design makes them so engaging to listen to.

Bottom line: zero complaints.

Original article: Totem Tribe Towers

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

TONEAudio MAGAZINE. All Rights Reserved.

Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

The AudioSolutions Figaro M Speakers

A relative newcomer on the HiFi scene, AudioSolutions comes out of the gate producing speakers that are top performers, offering tremendous value.

To be straight up with you, I prefer speakers more in the GamuT, Sonus faber, and Gold Note part of the spectrum. Slightly on the warm side, but still dynamic and resolving. A bit of extra tonal saturation goes a long way with me. So, that’s my bias. If you are looking for a speaker with these sonic characteristics, I can’t suggest the AudioSolutions speakers highly enough. They offer all the qualities I love in a speaker at incredibly reasonable prices. The Figaro M floorstanders you see here are $7,500/pair. Close your eyes, and you might just think you’re in Italy.

After about 50 hours of background duty, the first track up is Drab Majesty’s “Foyer.” Hardly the last word in audiophile fidelity, this track offers layers of atmospheric sounds and synthesizers, that in a lesser system, just sound flat and uninvolving. A great alternative track in the same vein is Thomas Dolby’s “I Scare Myself.” I’m sure you have your faves.

Team players

The Figaros present an easy load to drive, working equally well with tubes, solid-state or class D amplifiers, keeping their signature sound, but revealing the character of whatever they are plugged into. Mating them with the Boulder, Nagra, and Vitus amplifiers we had on hand for review, the Figaros become more dynamic overall, producing more LF extension and sock. Pass and Luxman provide a bit more warmth with tube amps from Line Magnetic and PrimaLuna even more romantic.

 With a rated sensitivity of 91.5db/1-watt, precious few amplifiers will be off-limits, but a few vintage amps in the queue were a bit too much of a good thing for this writer. As always, experiment, experiment, experiment to find your little slice of nirvana. The Figaros even turn in an enchanting performance with my PSAudio Sprout II. This was used in the garage after unpacking to burn them in, with a lot of metal tracks being played at a neighbor annoying level. After a weekend’s worth of parts cleaning, they were ready to move into the studio.

The front panel snaps off so you can use them with flush grilles or without – I always love to look at the drivers, so sans grille cloth I say. The flat, speckly finish covering most of the cabinet tends to diffuse the light bouncing off of the Figaros, so they are not as imposing as a pair of gloss black speakers. They are not as fussy to live with as a result.

The music lover trying to get as much sound as they possibly can for their dollar will appreciate this approach. Beautifully finished cabinets are wonderful, but they do add to the MRSP. AudioSolutions keeps the cost in check going this route. This finish is certainly easy to keep clean and fingerprint free. Half of the side panels are available in any one of 17 different colors, and you can read about that here.

Free of fatigue

Even after a long string of punk tunes, via the Pass XA200.8s (at a higher volume than is reasonable and prudent) the Figaros prove they can play loud with total control. Listening to Amyl and the Sniffers “GFY,” lead singer Amy Taylor channels Wendy O. Williams, along with a little bit of Lemmy and Yoko Ono, the Figaros are cranked to the point of pain. That’s my pain though, the speakers show no break up even at ear-splitting levels – they play loud with ease.

Going back to Yello’s “Vicious Games,” music bounces all over the place. The Figaros create a soundfield that is wide, deep, and tall. These speakers do an incredibly good job at reproducing height information along with the standard width and depth. Same thing, tracking through U2′s debut, Boy. All the tinkly bits float in space, and the Edge’s layer upon layer of processed guitars are all easily decipherable.

As you might expect from what I’ve told you so far, vocal and acoustic music is perfection on the Figaros. ABBA’s rendition of “Dancing Queen” is just as much fun as the Yayhoos remake. Yoko Ono’s vocals on “Watching the Rain” are everywhere in the sonic picture. If your musical taste is more traditional, I had an equally engaging time with Ella Fitzgerald.

Big bottom

AudioSolutions claims bass down to 32hz, and while we don’t measure speakers, a quick run of test tones confirms there is plenty of action at 30hz. The trick to getting the optimum setup with the Figaros (at least in my three rooms) was to get them a bit further out in the room than you might other speakers. It’s kind of like when you order shoes and a particular manufacturer runs half a size large. Get it wrong, and they sound uncharacteristically boomy – it’s not the speakers’ fault. Once you have achieved the perfect low and mid-bass balance, play some of your favorite bass-heavy tracks, and you’ll see what I mean. The Figaros deliver solid and substantial low-frequency output.

Running through a long playlist of hip-hop, EDM, and even some classic rock tracks with a lot of LF information, all but the most bass addicted end users will probably not need a subwoofer. The Figaros achieve true full range performance. Should your musical taste be strictly EDM and electronica, move the speakers slightly further towards the room corners to pick up a little bit of room/midbass gain and get the party started!

Further tech bits

The black finish is definitely slimming. The Figaros weigh 90 pounds each, so it’s up to you if you’ll need help placing them. They are well packed and easy to unpack without drama. Their footprint is small (44.1 inches tall x 10.7 inches wide and 18.5 inches deep) so they won’t overpower your listening environment.

A pair of 7.2-inch woofers, a 5-inch midrange that is run “further than the usual region” and a silk dome tweeter with a mini waveguide make for a full three-way system. Again, it’s important to note what a great job AudioSolutions have done on the crossover network and driver choices. These speakers have a coherence that you’d expect to pay 2-3 times this much for.

Even though the speckled finish is utilitarian in nature, the execution of the cabinetry is flawless, thanks to AudioSolutions “self-locking” cabinet. This is a level of detail I would expect on a $50k pair of Sonus faber speakers, but am thrilled to see in a $7,500 pair.

Adding up to excellence

We could go on and on, with this track and that, but the bottom line with the Figaros is the level of music they reveal. While $7,500/pair can bring you a considerable glimpse into the upper strata of high-end speakers, Audio Solutions delivers a masterpiece. In the context of a $10k – $100k system, they’d probably be the last thing I’d upgrade if I did at all. The only key is that if you like this “sound” as much as I do. If you’re more of a mega detail person, these may not be the droids you want. I can’t think of a speaker in the last decade that’s delivered more sonic enjoyment than the Figaro Ms do for $7,500 a pair. Hence, I am happy to give them one of our Exceptional value awards for 2019. This is a lovely pair of speakers without fault, that could easily be the last pair of speakers you buy.

AudioSolutions Figaro M



Digital Source dCS Vivaldi One

Analog Source Luxman PD-717 w/Kiseki Purple Heart

Phono stage Luxman EQ-500

Preamplifier Pass Labs XS PRE

Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.8

Cables Tellurium Q Reference

Original article: The AudioSolutions Figaro M Speakers

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

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Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

The Boulder 1161 Power Amplifer

August 31, 2019
I love wristwatches, but I’m kind of a lurker.

I’d love one of those big, chunky, Rolex Submariners, but I can’t quite make the leap to almost $20k for a watch. I wear a much more modest Tudor Bronze Black Bay. In a recent article from John Mayer on the website, he referred to my watch as “a way to get into the serious watch guy game without spending five figures.” Made me feel even better about my purchase.

High-performance audio is a similar thing. We see so many amazing technological triumphs, but some of them are out of our reach. Interacting with our readers for 15 years now, I’m amazed at how many of you have invested 30 to 100 thousand dollars in a music system. While that seems to be a big sweet spot (as are the 5-10k system owners) it’s still a far cry from the “money no object system” owners. No disrespect, it just is what it is. But guess what, that’s what we all want, right? Occasionally, you can cheat the numbers, and a few rare pieces of gear with a moderately high price tag, aren’t so far out of reach that you’ll never even be able to dream of owning one. And because they offer such tremendous long term value, make perfect sense to pull the trigger on.

The Boulder 1161 is precisely that kind of thing

If I received a big lottery payout tomorrow, I’d buy a full Boulder 3000 series system. It’s the most musically revealing gear I’ve heard in my journey as an audio consumer and audio writer. These are all six-figure components and worth every penny. But, they will remain out of my reach unless I have a major windfall. The new 1100 series is spectacular, in its own right. At $22,000 for the amplifier and $21,000 for the matching 1110 preamplifier, you could add your favorite pair of 10-20k pair of speakers a great source to make up a system that is close enough to what the crazy money gear costs, to live with for the rest of your life. And have no regrets.

Much like our discussion in the review of the dCS Bartok recently, you probably aren’t going to walk out the door and buy a $43,000 amp and pre tomorrow, and you probably aren’t going to start your hifi journey here. (Bully for you if that’s your starting point, though!) You work up to components like this, so you probably have something decent to sell or trade as a starting point, so this isn’t as scary as it seems at first blush.

After giving the 1161 an hour to fully stabilize thermally, the first cut to evaluate the mettle of the Boulder is Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Mary Magdalene,” a track combining a lush female voice, a wispy percussion track, and some of the deepest bass grooves going. It feels as if I’ve pushed my speakers and the listening room about 25% further apart. Many audiophile clichés come to mind, but the way this amplifiers’ complete lack of noise and coloration is uncanny, and if you’ve never heard a Boulder amplifier or system, might even freak you out a little. In an excellent way. I’ve never forgotten my first Boulder experience, and listening to the 1161 takes me right back there. The clarity that this amplifier offers is stunning.

What you don’t get

Because the 1161 is conservatively rated at 150 watts per channel (into 8 ohms), it doesn’t require the massive “big blue” 32-amp connector and power cord that Boulder’s bigger amplifiers use – providing considerable cost savings. Using a high quality, 15-amp AC socket means your favorite power cord will work just fine. Most users having speakers with a sensitivity rating of about 86db/1-watt, should be just fine with the 1161, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Those requiring more power can step up to the 1160, producing twice as much power, with an MSRP of $28,000.

Because of its power rating, this is a Boulder amplifier that can be easily lifted solo. Hitting the scale at just over 60 pounds, this one is maneuverable. Should you step up to an 1160 (at 135 pounds) assistance will be required. And remember, this is still the 1100 series. 

Boulder is known for casework that is flawlessly executed. This is because Boulder controls every aspect of their chassis building in house, from machining the raw aluminum to the final finish. They look great from a distance, but when you get close and truly inspect any Boulder product, you can see what a fantastic example of metalworking art they are. They are the only manufacturer in the United States that still has this level of control.

Functionality is king at Boulder, and their casework is not self-indulgent – the intricate design of the heat sinks allows higher heat dissipation while saving space over an amplifier with traditional finned heat sinks. The 1161 features the same heatsink design that graces the rest of the line, but the front panel and remaining chassis bits are of a slightly simpler design. The front panel design of the 1100 series is in part homage to the Flagstaff Mountain, which is near their Louisville, Colorado offices.

Finally, you don’t get to use your speaker cables if they have banana ends. The large wing-nut speaker terminals will only accommodate spade lugs because Boulder feels that is the best way to connect speaker cable – bananas loosen with time. So be prepared.

What you do get

Most importantly, you get the sonic virtues that have made Boulder a legend: tonal neutrality and freedom from coloration like nothing else, incredible dynamic range, and high resolution without fatigue or distortion. This fully balanced amplifier runs in class A mode up to 17 watts, (gently transitioning to AB above that) does a better job at disappearing than anything we’ve experienced. It’s so exciting that Boulder has not decreased the quality of their smaller amps, just the amount of raw power on tap.The 1161s 150 watts per channel never max out our Sonus faber Stradivaris (92db/1-watt) or the Focal Stella Utopia Ems (93db/1watt). These flagship loudspeakers deliver incredible performances with the 1161 in the amplification chain, and I couldn’t play them loud enough to detect any kind of clipping. Though the 1161 manual says that the white power indicator will briefly turn red in the presence of clipping, we were not able to make this happen, even playing TOOL at disgustingly (or invitingly, depending on your perspective) loud levels.

Where my reference Pass amplifiers sound slightly tubey in comparison, the Boulder is straight in the middle neutral. We will be revisiting this amplifier again in a month or so when the new 1110 preamplifier joins the system, along with our reference Boulder 508 phonostage for a full Boulder experience. For those curious about the difference, the larger Boulder amplifiers (with larger power supplies and even more output transistors) run further into class A mode, with the top amplifiers running class A all the way to rated power. And that’s what you pay a higher price for.

Many amplification components touted as “neutral,” merely exaggerate detail, overprocessing tonal contrasts in a quest for resolution, but these same products become exhausting to listen to for any length of time. When the Focals were in the system, I felt like I had a miniature version of Boulder’s reference system which features the Focal Grand Utopia EMs and a full complement of 3000 series components. This is an amplifier that you can listen to for days on end, and as you do, discovering new information in your recordings.

Sonically excellent as the 1161 is, most of its other virtue is underneath the top panel. The level of attention to detail rivals what you might expect from the Ferrari Formula One garage. (and, I’ve been to this garage) It’s no surprise that when you visit the Boulder factory, you see their biggest models being wheeled from one department to another on engine stands, in a spotless environment. Boulder’s employees are well trained and have been with the company for years, some for decades. (image courtesy of Boulder Amplifiers)

Nothing I’ve ever had the privilege of lifting the cover on in the audio world is built to this standard. This is what gives Boulder products the highest secondary market value of anything going – if you can even find them used. I’m sure people that trade Boulder in for something else are out there, but every Boulder owner I’ve encountered has only traded up. It’s rarely if ever for sale used, and I’ve never heard of one that has malfunctioned. I don’t even recall seeing a service area when I visited the factory, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

Excellence defined

In a world where countless hifi reviews lead to a conclusion where the reviewer says, “Is the XYZ amplifier worth the price asked? I don’t know, I can’t make that decision,” I have no reservation saying the Boulder 1161 is one of the best values in high-end audio today. On their website, Boulder says that the 1161 “has no sonic drawbacks.” For a change, the product exceeds the manufacturers claim.

And that’s what you write the check for. Given the Boulder 1161s sonic performance, build quality, and that it is as obsolescence proof as a component can be, I find it to be a more than worthy candidate for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019. If you seek what Boulder offers, there is no better. And if you don’t need the raw power of the 2000 or 3000 series, this amplifier can easily be the last one you ever buy. Unless of course, you get a hankering for a bigger Boulder…

The Boulder 1161
MSRP: $22,000


Analog Source GrandPrix Audio Parabolica/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM, Sonus faber Stradivari

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Reference

Original article: The Boulder 1161 Power Amplifer

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

TONEAudio MAGAZINE. All Rights Reserved.

Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

The Wharfdale Linton Speakers

For some odd reason, paging through the album artwork in the Roon browser, trying to decide what record to play first on the Wharfdale Lintons in my system, Queen’s News of the World jumps out at me.

Maybe it’s that I haven’t actually listened to this record in ages, or perhaps it was just watching the Family Guy episode where Brian terrorizes Stewie with the album cover, or, maybe it’s just that these reasonably priced speakers from Wharfdale really rock. Yes, they do. Those of you that have had the chance to hear them at recent audio shows know what I mean.

Budget speakers are full of compromise because there’s only so much a designer can give you on a tight budget, yet the Lintons are as close to perfection for $1,200 a pair as anything we’ve ever heard. They are genuine full range “bookshelf” speakers in the best British tradition, and very substantial. You’ll notice how lovely the cabinets are as you unpack these 40-pound three ways. The Lintons look and feel like a $4,000 pair of speakers. Actually, cabinet-wise, they are finished to a higher level of quality than my $4,000/pair JBL Classic L-100s.

Thanks in part to a pair of ports on the rear panel the Lintons offer solid bass down to the 40hz range, negating the need for a subwoofer in nearly all environments. Their ability to deliver claimed peaks of 110db means you can crank these speakers way past the point of prudence. You’ll never get there with a pair of mini-monitors.

System and setup

While you’re at it, consider buying your Lintons as a with their matching stands, bringing the cost to $1,499 a pair. That’s what you’d pay for a pair of KEF LS50s without stands. They are available in walnut, as you see here, or red mahogany. Both are pleasant and easy to integrate with your décor. Another fun aspect of the Wharfdale stands is the small shelf on the bottom that will comfortably hold 20 or so of your favorite records in each. Nice touch.

Finally, the Lintons 90db/1-watt sensitivity makes amplifier choices a breeze, and they are both tube and class-D amplifier friendly, so whatever you have on hand will be a good place to start. I began my break-in period with a stack of vintage Nakamichi 600 components and ran the gamut after that. Everything from the PS Audio Sprout II to the Audio Research REF160Ms plays well with these speakers – nothing should be off-limits.

Final review listening was done in our living room system with the VAC Sigma 170i tube integrated (85wpc) the dCS Bartok DAC and the MoFi StudioDeck +U that we just recently reviewed. Great as the Lintons work with everything, again, there’s just something about these speakers, a great tube amp, and a long playlist of classic rock that is inescapably good.

A day or two of varied program material is all you need to hear the full potential of the Lintons and then do final room tuning. Horizontal and vertical dispersion is excellent, so these speakers are less critical than most to optimize, especially if you are using the Wharfdale stands. This makes the Lintons easy to engage anywhere in your listening environment, not just on the center of the couch. This is also excellent when friends drop by, even those sitting off to the side or corner will get a good helping of the music, making these speakers everyone will enjoy at a get together.

Provided you have enough freedom to place your Lintons, it won’t take very long to achieve a good balance between bass extension and upper bass smoothness. In our 12 x 18-foot living room, they ended up on the short wall about three feet from the back and side walls with a few degrees of toe-in.

The Lintons are not terribly cable sensitive, but Cardas Iridium speaker cable offers up a few more molecules of warmth than our other favorite budget speaker cable, Tellurium Q black. The former offering the best synergy with solid-state and the latter slightly more tube friendly. For those on a super tight budget, cut this Home Depot extension cord ( in half, strip the ends and get down to business. It’s all good.

An excellent gateway to audiophile madness

Nearly all of the competitors in the Lintons price range run out of performance pretty quickly, so when the desire to upgrade your system arrives, the speakers are often the first thing to go. Not so here. After using these speakers with a relatively wide range of source and amplification components, the Lintons deliver highly satisfying musical performance with entry level  electronics, yet have enough resolution to remain keepers when the upgrade bug hits. That’s superior value.

The key to these speakers is genuinely the balance that they’ve achieved at their price – sonically and aesthetically. In the best British tradition, they go about their way of delivering great music without a fuss. Not quite as warm and woolly as a pair of Harbeths, yet not quite as dynamic as similar offerings from Totem and Paradigm, the Lintons are fantastic all-rounders.

Their real strength, beyond being easy to place and drive, is their wide tonal and dynamic range. If there is any sacrifice here (and again, all speakers at this price make some sacrifices), it’s that of pinpoint image placement within the soundstage. My reference $4,000 JBL L-100 Classics have the same issue, and for my money, I’ll take a speaker with a bit more diffuse soundfield that offers bass extension and dynamic ability every time.

They also offer a high degree of tonal accuracy and cleanliness, that is rarely offered at this price, so if you don’t share my love for classic rock, they do an equally good job with acoustic, classical, jazz, anything you have in your collection. This is another bonus for the beginning audiophile that loves to stream their music. Speakers with this kind of capability will invite you to sample more new music because they won’t poop out when you turn the volume up. Hmmm.

Which brings us full circle. That’s what makes the Wharfdale Lintons really rock, and so much fun to build a system around. These are speakers that you can get lost in for hours upon end just listening to music, and that’s what it’s all about. We can go on and on about specs and such, but none of that matters, if ten minutes into the music, you’re distracted by that new face aging app on your phone.

While we don’t offer a TONEAudio Maximum Fun Award, the Lintons would be our first choice. However, they are more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. They’ve got it all, great sound, great build quality and a heritage that few speakers can match.

The Wharfedale Linton Speakers

$1,198/pair (without stands) $1,498/pair (with stands)


Analog Source MoFi Ultra Deck, AVID Plug and Play

Digital Source Rega Apollo CD player, dCS Bartok DAC

Amplification VAC Sigma 170i

Cable Cardas Iridium, Tellurium Q Black II

Original article: The Wharfdale Linton Speakers

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

TONEAudio MAGAZINE. All Rights Reserved.

Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

The dCS Bartok DAC

Listening to the delicacy of Allison Miller’s drumming in Boom Tic Boom, in my living room system, it’s easy to see how this DAC can be the end of your digital journey.

Like every other dCS DAC I’ve owned or reviewed, they always manage to hit a perfect tonal balance, combined with wide dynamic range and a natural presentation that never feels digital at all. Good as their last entry-level piece the Debussy was ($11k about 8 years ago), the new Bartok at $13,500 (and $15,000 with a built-in headphone amp) offers quite a bit more. By comparison, many of your favorite automobiles have gone up in price by a much greater percentage.

The Bartok’s sonic signature is similar to the Vivaldi but the Vivaldi is further refined. The Bartok reminds me much more of my former Paganini in terms of the ease it presents. Much like my reference dCS Vivaldi One, the Bartok just sounds like music. There’s no “pretty good for digital” stuff going on here. dCS’ John Quick had this to say about the similarity of the Bartok in their lineup:

“Bartok and Rossini share the same processing and RingDAC analog boards, so overall, they have the same processing capacity. The differences between the units (that affect their cost and ultimately their overall performance) are literally down to the Bartok having half the power supply and the chassis being far less expensive. The Bartok’s construction overall is less complicated, using thinner metal. It uses a folded metal internal chassis wrapped in aluminum side and top panels; and although the front panel seems like a thick hunk of aluminum like everything else, it’s actually a very thin cap that either includes the punch-outs for the headphone outputs or not.”

A long-term investment

It’s been argued elsewhere that components like the dCS Bartok will only be purchased by the wealthy, in reference to its $13,500 price tag. ($1,500 more, if you want the internal headphone amplifier, and I highly suggest that you spend the extra- you won’t regret it)

However, I submit that $13,500 – $15,000 isn’t out of reach for all but the well-heeled (read my article on “motorcycle money” here). Call me crazy, but I’m guessing you probably didn’t wake up today and say “I’m gonna buy a $15,000 DAC today.” Most audio enthusiasts don’t start there. Some do, but most don’t. Most of us work our way up the ladder. More realistically, you’re probably trading in a $3k-$8k DAC and moving up to what might be your last. dCS’ programmable architecture goes a long way towards making an investment as future proof as digital technology can be.

Over the nearly ten years I owned the Paganini stack, numerous upgrades were only an upload away, giving me a new DAC every time. You can read more about dCS’ approach and technological solutions here at their website.

This is an excellent time to make an investment like this because Roon is well implemented, there are several excellent streaming services available (directly via dCS’ own Mosaic App should you not go the Roon route), and all of the dCS players have proprietary fully-implemented MQA. We could have a dodgeball game to the death about MQA, but if you are a fan, rest assured that dCS has done a fantastic job at decoding MQA. I’ll even put the Nomex suit on and go as far as to say they’ve even outdone Meridan on MQA decoding ability – these files though both of the dCS DACs here, sound more lifelike than they have on any other MQA equipped box we’ve heard.

Just grab your favorite phones

Because the Bartok has already started achieving a lot of fanfare in the headphone world, let’s start here. As dCS’ first entry into this world, they’ve built a brilliant product. The Bartok’s full class-A headphone amplifier drives everything from my Koss Pro-4AAs that I’ve had since high school to the new Focal Utopias to perfection. You’d probably spend more than $1,500on a premium interconnect and power cable to add a headphone amplifier of comparable performance to a Bartok based system, so it’s almost like getting a fab headphone amplifier at no extra charge- and you don’t need to find more rack space. How’s that for justification?

After exhausting auditioning with about 20 different pairs of phones in the $50 – $4,000 range, I don’t need a better headphone amplifier than the one built in the Bartok. A couple of the top choices from Luxman ($4,995) and Woo Audio ($16,000) reveal a little bit more music, but nowhere near enough for this moderate headphone user to ever justify the additional cost. The front panel features a standard ¼-inch headphone jack and a 4-pin balanced jack. While this won’t cover every single headphone out there, all of the premium headphones on the market have one of these two options (if not both) available (and most have detachable cables allowing for adapting to either).

Headphone use couldn’t be more straightforward. Plug into the front panel and switch the Bartok’s output from line to headphone, and then use the knob on the front panel as volume, or control from your mobile device or laptop with whatever app you are using for playback.

Even the most fanatical of my headphone pals came away highly impressed with the Bartok’s performance. Those of you living in tight quarters, tight enough that you can’t afford the space for a power amplifier and speakers right now, would do well to grab a Bartok, a Roon subscription, and a few of your favorite streaming services.

This leads to my only complaint with the Bartok- it would be lovely if dCS would add a single analog input, so those needing just one input could use it as a standalone preamplifier, or those going strictly for the headphone experience, could add a phonostage too. If you’re all digital, the Bartok is pretty incredible.


Rather than seeing the Bartok as a $15,000 headphone amp that happens to be a remarkable DAC, I see it as a destination DAC that’s a steal at $13,500 and even more so with the addition of the headphone amp. Perspective is everything.

After coming off a year with the Rossini and now nearly a year with the Vivaldi ONE, the only thing the Bartok doesn’t offer that the other two larger and more expensive players in the lineup offer are scale and some ultimate top-end refinement. Some of this refinement can be achieved by adding a dCS external clock.

The sense of scale comes from bigger power supplies, isolation of functions to individual chassis and the added electrical and mechanical isolation that comes with taking core functions to separate chassis. The progress dCS has made here is astounding. Again, Mr. Quick chimes in, offering some more insight:  “We are getting better at trickling down more of the sound of our flagship in our current offerings, and Bartok is really special in that regard. Considering it has 6-7 years of R&D ahead of it from Vivaldi and Rossini – far ahead of anything else we’ve done- versus the 2.5-3 years that separated Scarlatti and Debussy… that definitely made a big difference. Beyond that, where we’ve taken the RingDAC in the latest series is also a primary contributor. We could not have made nearly the same overall improvement in changing the mapping algorithm (as we did in Vivaldi and Rossini v1 versus v2) in the older generation products.”

It’s all about resolution

Having the unique ability to compare the Bartok side by side as the anchor to a very nice $50k system (which is where I suspect most Bartoks will end up) and my reference system, worth nearly ten times this much, illuminates the differences clearly.

In my primary reference system, that has a much broader dynamic capability, more low-level resolution, and a magnificent soundstage, the Bartok makes a great showing. For many analog crazed audiophiles I know that are primarily analog, but would still like digital, this could be an excellent choice.

Regardless of choosing delicate, small ensemble choral music, or the most raucous rock, starting with the Bartok feels just fine. But then switching up to the Vivaldi One shows precisely where the limits of the Bartok lie. Yet going back to the system in my living room, which is unable to resolve as much musical information, the delta between the two is not nearly as vast.

The point here is that the core musicality of the Bartok is highly similar to the bigger boxes in the dCS range, and that’s what I appreciate. Some manufacturers are not nearly as good at delivering a linear increase in performance as you go up the range. The Bartok is at the top of its class for the price asked, as are the Rossini, Vivaldi ONE and full-blown, four box Vivaldi – as it should be. There’s no law of diminishing returns if you have a system capable of resolving the difference.

Versatility defined

The Bartok can accommodate any digital source you’d like to connect, via its RCA, Coax, or optical SPDIF inputs, single or dual AES inputs, USB or network inputs. That’s right, it’s got a fully capable streamer built in that will access your UPnP network and bring files in from your NAS or straight from your network.

The Bartok has a fully balanced, class-A output stage in addition to the headphone amplifier, and there are balanced XLR and standard RCA outputs, that are both variable. More about that in a bit.

Our experience with the Vivaldi ONE, the Rossini, and Bartok is that the best results are streaming music files right from the network. Those not wanting to pony up for a ROON subscription can use dCS’ own app, which works well and sounds excellent, though lacks the ultimate functionality of ROON. It’s also incredibly handy that you can chain another network device through the Bartok. I use a Naim Uniti Core for CD ripping and offline storage in addition to my NAS, so this is a perfect way to keep the Uniti Core close by.

Excellent luck was also had with a variety of different CD players as transports. Those who want to keep it all dCS might consider a used dCS transport for their disc needs, and if you use a Paganini transport with the dual AES connection, native SACD playback is possible. There are no limitations to digital playback with the Bartok. You can even connect to it as an Airplay zone!

Pre or not to pre

The ultimate question for some will be whether to use the Bartok as a standalone preamplifier, forgoing a linestage/preamplifier, or putting one in the system. Conventional wisdom suggests that less is more, but digital volume controls are always a touchy thing. At extremely low listening levels, they tend to lose resolution. Where the Vivaldi One can, in fact, be used without a line stage, if you are only concerned with digital playback, the Bartok is pretty good.

Ultimately, this is the other area where the entry-level Bartok is bested by the top dCS player. In my living room system when playing the Bartok directly into the BAT VK 56SE power amplifier and Focal Kanta no.3s, adding a preamplifier made a slight difference, offering up a little bit more spaciousness and definitely a smidge more warmth at very low-level playback. It was easier to notice the minute level of flatness there at the lowest level after going back to having a tip-top preamplifier in the system, but it will depend on your needs.

However, switching from the Kanta no.3s to the much larger and more resolving Focal Stella Utopia Ems, the jump in performance added by our Nagra Classic Preamplifier was unmistakable, especially in the area of tonal contrast and saturation. And of course, low-level playback is warmer and more full-bodied.

It’s about music

As I’ve said before, the dCS DACs have always deliver supreme musicality, and I have hung my hat on their products, using them as a reference tool for over a decade. However, what I love about dCS is the way they serve the music and not the other way around. This is a player than I can listen to for 12-16 hours a day (and have on many occasions) with zero fatigue.

dCS does an outstanding job at presenting music with a tonality that is dead center in the middle of the scale. Their products (and the Bartok is no exception) are neither warm and romantic nor overly bright, bleached or harsh. Hitting the tonality bullseye is tougher than it sounds, but they manage to pull it off every time.

Every other musical parameter is equally well represented. Rather than go on at length with tracks you may or may not know or like, the best way to see what I mean is to go to your dCS dealer and give the Bartok a listen.

Is it for you?

Returning to our original conversation, you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have a dCS Bartok of your very own. If you love music, and you want a top-quality digital front end that will offer enough performance to stay put, the Bartok is a winner. The performance that it provides more than justifies the price asked. dCS has put a considerable helping of their top technology in a package that outperforms many far more expensive boutique DACs.

Best of all, the customer service and ongoing support that comes with a dCS product assures that this is a digital player you will enjoy for years to come. Highly recommended. And yes, spring for the headphone amp!

The dCS Bartok

$13,500. ($15,000 with headphone amplifier)


Preamplifier Nagra Classic Preamplifier

Amplifier Nagra Classic Amplifier

Speakers Focal Kanta no.3 and Focal Stella Utopia EM

Cable Cardas Clear

Original article: The dCS Bartok DAC

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The TUK speakers from Kanto Audio

My apologies for the title. To be absolutely correct, the TUKs are all you need if you don’t want to listen to records. Music lovers sourcing their tunes digitally, have everything they need inside the small (but well packed) box that the TUKs arrive in. And for $799 a pair, these speakers offer an incredible amount of sound for the price.

Much as I hate listening to the Eagles, their first album is well recorded and offers some great harmonies, most that get lost on so called, budget speakers. The integration between the TUKs 5 ¼” woofer and AMT tweeter is flawless, and they offer distinct separation of these voices, doing an excellent job keeping the tracks’ pace locked down. Whether listening to layered harmonies, densely recorded metal tracks, or acoustic tunes, the TUKs are a pleasure to listen to, for hours on end.

This, along with the first week of listening was done strictly with the Bluetooth input from my phone, via Roon and Qobuz. I suspect that a lot of the potential audience for these speakers (or any compact, powered speaker for that matter) is more of an “on the go” listener, so if this happens to be you, you will not be disappointed using the TUKs this way.

Moving up

Should you have further audiophile aspirations, the TUKs have you covered with a built in 24/96 DAC, accessible via the rear panel USB port, RCA/SPDIF port, or an optical input. Sampling each, with an old SONY CD changer and Mac Book Pro, versus streaming 24/96 files from Qobuz and CDs is a major step up, with the TUKs offering a much higher level of performance from the already impressive Bluetooth input.

Listening to a number of the same tracks from the initial audition period, is a completely different experience utilizing the on-board DAC. Clarity makes a major jump forward, and if you have the opportunity to truly place the TUKs for optimum sound, a much bigger and deeper sound field awaits you as well. In typical fashion, Kanto puts the amplifier and DAC in one speaker, tethering to the other with a speaker cable. The powered speaker is designated left and the passive right, but should you need to place the powered speaker on the left due to proximity of your AC outlet, it takes a mere push of the button on the remote control to re-orient the speakers, so that left is left again.

Subtleties make the difference

This is a very nice touch, and something I haven’t seen on other powered speakers. The TUKs are full of nice touches, from their satin finish to the aforementioned remote. Fit and finish is high quality, and if there were no badges on these speakers, you’d believe me if I told you that these were built in the same factory that the $4,500 pair of Bowers & Wilkins Duo’s we reviewed recently.

Attention to detail is more than skin deep with the TUKs. In addition to the high-quality DAC and 130 watts per channel on tap, the TUKs also offer an on board phono stage, which we took advantage of with a few budget turntables from Rega and Pro-Ject, utilizing moving magnet cartridges, as well as a vintage Technics with a new Pro-Ject MM cartridge. On one level, this might be the most impressive feature of the TUK – these speakers have a damn good phono stage built in! If you already have a turntable, or are thinking of starting to spin records, the TUKs are a perfect place to start.

Put em anywhere

The small 8.5”W x 10.9”H x 7”D footprint makes the TUKs easy to place for maximum fun. Thanks to the TUKs wide dispersion, they offer great sound no matter where you have to place them. However, if you do want a more traditional audiophile setup, a good pair of stands with the speakers about 6-9 feet apart delivers the goods. Work with the room, best you can to achieve the best balance of upper bass smoothness and lower bass extension. Kanto claims a low frequency limit of 50hz, and this seems reasonable as long as you don’t push the TUKs too hard with tracks having a lot of sub bass information.

For the rest of you, a subwoofer is easily added. Thanks to an 80hz internal crossover, you can add one of Kanto’s subs, or anything else that has a high-level input. As I didn’t have a Kanto sub on hand, my REL T7 (which used to sell for about $349) worked well, and its white finish goes with the current aesthetic. Much as I love the TUKs, adding the sub really makes for a more full-range system, especially if you like music with a lot of low frequencies. With sub in place, tracking through hip hop and EDM faves is a breeze, and crossing over the TUKs, relieving them of amplifying the lowest frequency gives them even more dynamic range.

The small footprint makes the TUKs easy to bring music along wherever you might happen to be. They were as at home in my garage for a weekend worth of car maintenance as they were at an impromptu gathering, and on my back porch, by the fireplace. Actually, they work exceptionally well as a go everywhere party speaker. You might even call the TUKs the perfect road trip companion.

Thanks to all the inputs and small size, they also work incredibly well as powered desktop monitors. Those of you that spend a lot of time in front of a screen will enjoy these as conduits for your favorite tunes, or even to use editing video. Editing a few upcoming YouTube pieces was a snap through the TUKs.

Sonic superstars

Cool as everything else about the TUKs are, their sonic performance is well above everything else we’ve heard in this price range. They not only reveal a high level of musical detail, they have a level of refinement that is absent in this price category. Oh yeah, they even have a built-in headphone amp too. And It’s really good.

With or without a subwoofer, we can’t think of a better way to spend $799 on a hifi system. And remember, this isn’t just a pair of powered speakers, the Kanto TUKs are a complete hifi system. Everything you need to listen to music is in the box. Well, except for a turntable!

And we are pleased to award the Kanto TUKs the Audiophile Apartment’s first Product of the Year award. Whether you are just starting your journey, or need another system elsewhere in your environment, a pair of these will provide you with a lot of listening pleasure.

Original article: The TUK speakers from Kanto Audio

Please note that all TONE Audio copy and photography is © 2005–2018 TONE Magazine LLC. This RSS feed is provided for personal, non-commercial use only.

If you are not reading this content in your news aggregator, RSS reader, or direct, then the site you are looking at may be guilty of copyright infringement. If you locate this anywhere, please contact [email protected] so we can take action immediately.

TONEAudio MAGAZINE. All Rights Reserved.

Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE