Category Archives: REVIEWS

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.

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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

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 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

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The Paradigm Premier 700F Speakers

Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “Bad Company,” from her latest album puts the Paradigm Premier 700F speakers in perspective immediately. These speakers create a massive, immersive soundfield on this ethereal track. Combine this with a level of resolution rarely available in a $1,598 pair of speakers along with major low-frequency capability, and we’ve got a winner.

Our art director Brian Gage did some of the heavy lifting, putting serious break-in time on the 700Fs, but did not find nirvana in his reasonably large living room. I had a similar result here in my main 16 x 25-foot room – the 700Fs got slightly swallowed up, with a bit brighter feel than either of us liked. Moving them to room two, (measuring 15 x 13 feet) proved to be the magic combination. A little bit of room gain makes for a bit more bottom end and better top to bottom balance overall. Experimenting with a couple more rooms lends us to suggest using a pair of 700Fs (without a subwoofer) in a small to medium sized room for best overall tonal balance.

Placed on the short wall, with the speakers about three feet out into the room, six feet apart and toed in only slightly was a great place to start. Because the 700Fs have wide dispersion in both planes, and substantial HF energy, they will work well in a typical home living room with a fair amount of furniture – and will not need too much attention to final placement for a good result. But the patient can fine tune them for even better sound.

As Brian noticed, the 700Fs offer excellent dynamic contrast – a longtime Paradigm hallmark, and are great for home theater applications. I followed his lead, and after full evaluation in my listening room, moved them into my small theater room as front speakers. This time, power coming from the new Anthem MRX 520 surround receiver. In my HT system, they were part of a mixed group of speakers, with the pair of Paradigm Atoms we reviewed a while back, a Paradigm Defiance subwoofer and a Bowers & Wilkins sub.

Those building a theater system from scratch would be wise to pair the 700Fs with any of the other three speakers (larger and smaller) and one of the subwoofers in the Defiance lineup to get the maximum effect, but back to two-channel world…

Crafted in Canada continued

A big part of the Paradigm story is that their speakers are all designed and built in their Canadian factory. Where some manufacturers have moved their entry-level products overseas, Paradigm does it all under one roof. This is vertical design and build at its finest. Where many speaker manufacturers must work around the compromises accompanying off the shelf components, Paradigm produces every bit of their speaker systems from the ground up – drivers, crossovers, and cabinets. If the driver in a new speaker doesn’t meet their goals, they go back to the lab and re-design it to be in spec, rather than just getting by. The purchasing power that a company of this size brings to bear also helps to keep costs way down and Paradigm has built their reputation on offering maximum performance for the dollar. The 700Fs uphold that 37-year history of excellence.

The stylish PPA™ (Perforated Phase Aligning) tweeter and Midrange lens technology combined with the ART™ (Active Ridge Technology) surrounds in the woofer, all hail from their flagship Persona speakers. This is a level of build quality and craftsmanship that is only offered by a handful of other manufacturers, that incidentally also design and build everything in house, so the 700F has few peers.

Understated black grilles are standard equipment, but if you don’t have to contend with prying paws or fingers, the bold design statement made by the exposed drivers and beautiful machine work seems way too nice to cover up. Spikes are also included, along with pucks so that the spikes do not bite into hardwood floors.

Setup and break in

The 700Fs come out of the box slightly stiff, so give them a couple of weeks of solid play to achieve the maximum bass response, smoothness, and cohesion of the drivers. If you have the luxury of playing them in a room, out of phase with a blanket over them, with some reasonably dynamic program material, this will accelerate the process somewhat. And don’t be afraid to break out the bass heavy tracks.

As mentioned, the 700Fs are easy to get up and playing music, but a bit of fine tuning the rake angle will maximize the imaging width and depth. We suggest placing the speakers for the best balance of lower bass output and upper bass smoothness to start. Then, adjust rake angle in small increments for maximum image width and depth, finishing off by fine-tuning the toe in for the best HF balance. Small steps are reasonable here, and thanks to the high resolution of these speakers, your efforts will be rewarded.

Fortunately, their compact footprint (8.375″W x 12.625″ D and 39.875″T) and light weight (48.2lbs.) won’t require significant acrobatics, or friends to unbox and move into position in your listening area.

Our test pair arrived in a gloss black, with gloss white and an espresso grain finish also available. No matter which finish you choose, the front and the top face of the speakers are finished in matte black – no doubt a move to keep the cost more reasonable. Two sets of binding posts are available for those wanting to bi-wire, but for the duration of our review, the 700Fs were used with a single pair of speaker cables and the jumpers intact. The quality of the finish on the side panels is as smooth as the $35,000/pair Personas we reviewed previously.

Again, this is where building everything in house is a benefit – the same people doing the cabinets on Paradigm’s top speakers are working on these too. However, it’s more than just the quality of the finish on the outer walls of the cabinet that impress. Looking at the 700Fs very carefully reveals the smoothness of the bevels on the front panel and how cleanly the drivers are mounted. There is no visible hardware. The cabinet corners intersect perfectly. This is the level of quality you demand from a $10k pair of speakers. Not something you expect for this price – a definite bonus to qualityphiles. These are speakers that you will be very proud to own.

A good seat

Thanks to a sensitivity rating of 91db/1 watt, it doesn’t take a ton of power to drive the 700Fs, but the more current and control your amplifier has on tap, the more involving the presentation. The difference between using the 700Fs with a few budget and vintage amplifiers versus contemporary offerings from Nagra, PASS, and ARC is impressive. Through the Nagra amplification chain, the 700Fs easily illustrate the difference between a wide range of source components. These are very capable speakers.

Paradigm claims a low-frequency limit of 33hz, with a +/- frequency range of 45 – 20,000 Hz. Though we don’t perform lab measurements here, a cursory audition of the original Stereophile Test Disc, with test tones down to 20hz reveals solid output down to 35hz. This is more than enough to enjoy whatever kind of music you love. It also is enough output to mate effectively with whatever subwoofer you might want to add to the mix. Often, speakers falling off around 60 Hz (as in a typical sat/sub combination) always seem to have a bit of a gap in the low-frequency response, making subwoofer integration less than seamless. Again, the 700Fs succeed brilliantly with or without a sub.

Again, in the 13 x 15-foot room, our favorite EDM and hip hop tracks reveal more than enough useable LF content to impress through the 700Fs. Paradigm calls them a full three-way system, with a pair of 5 ½” woofers, crossing over to a 5 ½” midrange driver at 800hz via a 2nd order crossover and then to the tweeter at 2500hz. The drivers work seamlessly together and provide a high level of coherency.

Much fun as these speakers are to tear up your favorite rock tracks, solo vocal tracks impress equally, as do acoustic cuts.

Tough to beat

The under $2,000/pair speaker market is incredibly competitive. Paradigm brings engineering and execution together for a class winner. They’ve achieved not only a high level of performance with the 700F; these are well-balanced speakers that do not compromise one area of audible performance for the rest of the spectrum. Quite an achievement for $1,598 a pair and more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019.

The Paradigm Premier 700F Speakers



Digital source dCS Vivaldi One

Preamplifier Nagra Classic Preamp

Power Amplifier Nagra Classic Amp

Cable Tellurium Q Black II

Power Torus Tot II

Original article: The Paradigm Premier 700F Speakers

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The Vitus Audio RI-101 Integrated Amplifier

Vitus Audio is well known around the world for fantastic sound and multiple box amplification chains that weight hundreds of pounds. Even their two-box reference phono stage weighs more than most power amplifiers!

Underneath the massive metalwork lurks enormous power supplies and electronics that are more than overbuilt for the task at hand. Many people that have full Vitus installations have spent well into the six-figure range to get this performance, and if you peruse social media and various hifi forums, you will see Vitus in a number of the world’s finest hifi dens.

However, if you are someone wanting to put together an incredible, yet not crazy money system, the Vitus RI-101 should be at the top of your list, it’s certainly at the top of mine. $15,600 gets you the RI-101 amplifier alone, delivering 300 watts per channel into an 8 – ohm load, which should be more than enough for nearly any speakers you have at your disposal. (yes, it even drove my Magnepans with ease)

From a rack level view, the RI-101 looks exactly like the top Vitus components, But instead of a CNC milled case, the case is standard, albeit heavy duty metal, powder coated black. At this price, it wouldn’t have made sense to go the full heavy metal route and I applaud Mr. Vitus for putting those dollars in the circuitry rather than the casework. With three balanced XLR inputs, two RCA inputs and a pair of balanced outputs (the preamplifier section is fully balanced), there is more than enough flexibility for future expansion. The binding posts on the rear panel are extremely robust and will work well with any audiophile speaker cables you have on hand. All of the connectors are first rate.
Weighing in at just under 85 pounds, the RI-101 is hardly a lightweight. Under the cover a massive power supply lurks, with all the attention to detail that is in Vitus’ top range. Even the volume control is from one of the top models. Again, keeping every bit of investment in the box, Vitus supplies an Apple remote to control volume.

An excellent trend

Add Vitus to the list of manufacturers that have put their resources into a premium integrated amplifier, and put them at the top. My review sample had been played for a bit before arriving, so it sounded great right out of the box, and full song by the next day.

The GamuT Zodiacs were in my living room system, making for a perfect combination. Our sample arrived fully equipped, with the on board DAC/Streamer module, which adds about $5,000 to the price. Closing in on the year 2020, why would you buy a DAC that doesn’t stream? The RI-101 is Roon ready, so you don’t have to waste time trying to make everything in your music collection interface with yet another app. Five minutes after unboxing the RI-101, it’s up and rocking. Roon found it instantly and I was playing music.

Unless you are completely anti-digital, or have a fantastic outboard DAC that is worthy of the RI-101, go for broke and get the DAC/Streamer built in. Considering what power cords and interconnect cables cost these days, and how much less shelf space you’ll need, the RI-101 with DAC/Streamer is an incredible bargain.

The DAC module features Ethernet, Coax, AES/EBU and USB ports, so any device you might have is covered. Much like the other DACs we’ve heard from dCS, Simaudio and a few others, streaming directly from the web or your NAS offers up the best sound, with the USB a very close second. The USB port can accept DSD files, and considering the DAC/Streamer is a module, you can count on Vitus to provide a hardware update should it be necessary.

Digital options

As most of my listening was a combination of 16/44 files from NAS and ROON/Tidal/Qobuz, the RI-101 proves flawless. Considering just how little music is available only in the MQA format, I don’t consider this a deal breaker. Moving on to a vintage SONY CD player and a current dCS Rossini CD player, both used as transports reveal that this is a fantastic combination for anyone wanting to still play shiny discs.

Auditioning the dCS via the XLR and Coax inputs with Nordost Heimall digital cables, it was tough to hear a clearcut difference between the two inputs, though we all felt the XLR input was just a touch more revealing. You’ll have to argue amongst yourselves on this, but suffice to say this aspect of the internal DAC is excellent. Should you be an occasional silver disc listener, Rega’s new Apollo player at $995 makes for an outstanding (and very compact) redbook transport that we really enjoyed.

Putting the internal DAC in context with stand-alone offerings from other manufacturers in the $5,000 – $10,000 range, this is the way to go. The combination of functionality and sound quality can’t be beat. Vitus approach to digital, combining the top ESS DAC chips with meticulous execution on all levels is fantastic.

The level of refinement on the digital side will easily win you over on multiple levels. First the amount of low level resolution present again rivals much more expensive units. Whether listening to Michael Hedges plucky acoustic guitars, or Shostakovich’s violin Concerto no. 1, the speed, tone and texture that this DAC brings to the table is incredible.

Switching the program to more contemporary faire is equally enjoyable. Tracking through Prince’s classic, 1999, layer upon layer is revealed, with a sound field that is both wide and deep. What else could you ask for from digital?

Because the low-level signals of a phono stage are so delicate, Vitus wisely chose to leave the phono section as something you can add in a separate chassis. The level of sonic excellence this amplifier delivers is up to any task, so you could easily spend the cost of the amplifier again on a phonostage.

In the end, the sound

Vitus has packed so much musicality into this single box, you might be tempted to stop your Vitus journey right here. The toughest part of the journey with this amplifier is that it is their entry level product. Should you go further up the line you will, of course, get more power, bigger dynamic swing, and even more resolution and delicacy, but this is the perfect introduction to the brand.

The top Vitus amplifiers are all class-A, so they take on a slightly warmer, more full bodied sound, but the class-AB RI 101 captures much of the flagship amplifiers’ character. Vitus calls this design a “high bias AB amp,” so the first 12 watts per channel are in full Class -A mode. At normal listening levels with moderately sensitive speakers, you’ll probably be listening in Class A on all but the most broad musical peaks. Just like the bigger siblings, the RI-101 is incredibly quiet, with well defined, powerful bass and a grain free high end to match. Vitus is one of the few solid state amplifier manufacturers that will not have you wishing for vacuum tubes.

Every speaker that we made part of the Vitus system was handled perfectly. Thanks to the amount of energy available with it’s well designed power supply, a few speakers that are somewhat power hungry, like the Raidho D1.1 felt almost as if we’d installed a subwoofer when driven by this amplifier. The mighty Focal Stella Utopia EMs with their beryllium tweeters can go horribly wrong when driven by an amplifier that is even the least bit brittle in it’s delivery. The match was perfection, as it was with the Focal Sopra no.3 and Kanta no.3. Honestly, there was no speaker that didn’t work well with this amplifier – a true sign of excellent design.

For anyone wanting a world class system without a rack full of gear, the Vitus Audio RI-101 is an excellent choice, no matter what speakers you currently own.

The Vitus Audio RI-101 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $15,600

DAC/streamer module:  $5,000 additional (factory) (NA distributor)


Analog source Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 w/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Phono Pre Boulder 508

Digital source Rega Apollo(as transport), ROON via network

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM, Raidho D1.1, GamuT Zodiac

Original article: The Vitus Audio RI-101 Integrated Amplifier

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.

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Original Resource is TONEAudio MAGAZINE » TONEAudio MAGAZINE

The Audio by Van Alstine Vision SET 400

Audio By Van Alstine produces line stage preamplifiers, phono stages, DACs, and more, the marvelous AVA Vision 400 SET amplifier we review here represents a culmination of Van Alstine’s knowledge applied to music reproduction.

Frank Van Alstine brings over 50 years of experience to his component designs, developing modifications for classic Hafler and Dynaco gear, and of course, focused on his own line of equipment.

Selling direct from his company website, Van Alstine keeps the price low, making his gear more accessible to budget minded music lovers that prioritize performance. AVA’s components offer solid fit and finish, avoiding the audio jewelry approach to case designs. This utilitarian appearance keeps Van Alstine’s production costs down, passing the savings on to his customers. Keep in mind the adages, “What’s inside counts,” and “Beauty is only skin deep.” AVA makes applaudable tradeoffs or the best sound.

In line with this philosophy, the standard version of the Vision SET 400 comes in a basic, powder-coated black case with a simple rocker switch for $1,999. The updated model you see here, featuring a thick, anodized, aluminum panel and push button for the power switch is an extra $200.

The ins and outs

The Vision SET 400 is audio rack-friendly with dimensions of 7 inches tall, 17 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, weighing 38 pounds. Much of that mass results from the beefy toroidal transformer inside; providing the fuel to push 225 watts per channel into eight-ohm speaker loads, and roughly double that into four ohms. No matter how hard we pushed the amp, it never failed in its firm control over various speakers. Driving my GamuT RS3i speakers, the SET 400 never falters, even at high listening levels. The heat sinks jetting from the rear of the unit peak at a temperature so low they fail as a hand-warmer.

The gold-plated, five-way binding posts accommodate speaker cables with spade, bare-wire, or banana terminations giving the owner a lot of flexibility. The amp also sports a pair of gold-plated RCA inputs for connection with a preamp.

The “SET” in the Vision SET 400 solid-state amplifier’s name refers to its Single-Ended Transistor based circuit design. The Vision amplifiers offer a Class A/B topology. However, the biasing maintains pure Class A power at normal listening levels. When pushed, the amp leans on Class A/B at higher power levels.


The SET 400 needs but a few days to reach full operating potential. As with past AVA designs we’ve used, there’s no lengthy break-in period required. Consider a weekend trip away, with constant music play and you’re ready!

Overall, the SET 400s sonic signature features a lot to love and very little to criticize. Thanks to the amount of reserve power always on tap, Rock and Electronic music is always vivacious, yet there is plenty of nuance to satisfy jazz and vocal tastes.

Indeed, the SET 400 threads the needle with an overall neutrality, yet has a touch of warmth to boot. Never artificially fluffing up the sound, it manages the deft feat of taking harsh recordings and making them far more enjoyable. Even when pushed, the amp seems almost tube-like in its ability to create fatigue-free music which results in long, couch-locked listening sessions. For example, the opening synthesizer notes heard on Portishead’s Roads pour forth with a seemingly-loving embrace. Where some amplifiers portray Beth Gibbons’ voice harshly or stridently, the AVA excels. Van Alstine’s years of designing tube gear presents us with a solid-state amplifier with similar voicing. String instruments maintain their dimension, bass notes carry with appropriate authority, and percussion features a punchy strike combined with fluid decay.

Bass proves another strong suit. The AVA’s high power reserve gets a grip on speaker drivers and refuses to let go. Bass guitar plucks reverberate with realistic tightness, followed by a decay with a palpable presence. The Vision also offers great soundstaging capability. Music emits in all directions beyond the physical speaker bodies, with plenty of separation among musical elements to distinguish each in its own space with little overlap.

One needs a pickaxe and a shovel to dig for criticisms at this price. Comparing the AVA with an amplifier like the Conrad-Johnson ART 150 which is several times the SET 400’s cost, the Vision has a slightly compacted width and depth of the musical performance, resulting in a bit less sense of three-dimensional, organic realism. For instance, the airy spatial cues perceived in a superb recording’s ‘space’ – As heard in Johnny Cash’s cover of “Danny Boy” from American IV: The Man Comes Around– are reduced a bit. However, that’s hardly a fair criticism given the price discrepancy between the two amplifiers. AVA has created something very special with the Vision SET 400.

The combination of the AVA’s sound and power make it an excellent fit for all but the hungriest speakers. Our publisher mentions to all the Magenpan lovers in the audience, that this amplifier did a fantastic job with his Tympani IVs.

Summing up

$2,000 is not chump change for most people. However, in the world of high-end audio, that dollar figure lies at the lower-end of the cost-no-object spectrum. The AVA Vision SET 400 amplifier offers excellent performance and a tremendous value. The AVA never fails to deliver marvelous, forgiving, detailed, and rich sound. Though I remain smitten by my current reference amp, I’m sad to see the AVA depart. While the Vision amp has some small tradeoffs in comparison with amps many times its price, the Vision is one of those few components I could enjoy for many years to come.

After enjoying its voice for a month during our review period, I found myself beguiled by the AVA’s prowess. The amp represents a stellar choice for a budget-responsible system with very few sonic compromises. If you seek an amp in the sub-$2,000 range, the Van Alstine Vision SET 400 sets an extremely high bar and deserves a TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award for 2019.

Van Alstine Vision SET 400 Amplifier

Starting at $1,999


Analog Source SME Model 10 with SME V and Model 10 tonearms. Dynavector 17D3 and Denon DL-103R cartridges

Digital Sources Roon Nucleus, Simaudio MOON 780D DAC, Oppo BDP-103, Synology DiskStation 415 Play

Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers GamuT RS3i, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables Jena Labs

Power Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose, and Cardas power cords

Accessories ASC tube traps, Cathedral Sound Room Dampening Panels, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

Original article: The Audio by Van Alstine Vision SET 400

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

ROON Nucleus and Nucleus+

We’ve been using ROON at TONE since the final alpha release, and it’s a powerful solution. None of the other music delivery platforms come close – if you love music and the discovery of more music, it’s the only way to go.

ROON allows you to combine music saved on your computer or NAS with whatever music you stream, seamlessly in an album art oriented browser. It’s like going to the record store and flipping through the largest group of record bins on the planet. Minus the crabby record store person with a dominant attitude behind the counter making fun of your music choices. Want to find everyone your favorite artist has played with or was influenced by? ROON will take you there, leading you down path after path of music exploration.

One of ROON’s strengths has always been the “Roon Radio” function, picking up after your playlist is finished, finding music that is remarkably similar to what you’ve been previously enjoying. That function is improved; the radio function goes beyond your collection, searching whatever streaming services you are accessing. Now, in addition to having the world’s biggest record store at your fingertips, you have the world’s biggest and most diverse radio station to feed you new music.

But capability requires power, and we haven’t even talked about all the other cool stuff ROON does like stream over multiple zones, offer DSP room correction and EQ, as well as a few other goodies. We’ll talk about that in its own article.

The more you ask of ROON, the more it requires from your host computer. ROON actually gives you the specs to build a purpose-built server, but this requires a ton of computing knowledge and that kind of defeats the purpose of such an intuitive platform, at least from my perspective. Even dedicating a Mac Mini strictly to ROON service and stripping it down as much as possible, begins to drag with an extensive music collection and multiple zones.

It’s all about dedication

Thankfully, last year, ROON developed their own box, the Nucleus and Nucleus +. You can read all the techie bits in their white paper here. The ROON crew not only came up with a dedicated box that is dead quiet, compact, and looks super cool, they even wrote their own OS that is optimized for ROON and nothing else.

Both the $1,399 and $2,499 Nucleus and Nucleus+ look precisely the same. The standard machine is meant to handle music collections of “less than 100,000 tracks,” and the Nucleus +, collections larger.

Staffer Rob Johnson went for the standard model, and me with over 12,000 CDs ripped, and quite a few thousand more indexed via Qobuz, and to a lesser extent, Tidal and Spotify went all out for the Nucleus +. I can say without reservation, as much as I love the ROON platform, it finally delivers on the promises 100% with a Nucleus +. When scrolling through a full screen of albums, searching, or when we have all three of our ROON zones going at once, the Nucleus + never hesitates to deliver what we need.

This is even more important to those of you streaming high res files, either via MQA with Tidal or uncompressed via Qobuz. Even when playing 24/192 files in the house, garage, and studio simultaneously, we could not detect any performance gap. You will, of course, need your Nucleus and NAS (if you have one) connected via Ethernet and the fastest router you can put your hands on.


While the Nucleus needs to be hardwired into your network, you can access it wirelessly from your phone, tablet, or laptop anywhere in your listening environment. Simply go into ROON and create whatever “zones” you need. Now that so many streaming DAC’s can be used as ROON endpoints, there’s no need to be a computer-based music listener, tethered to your DAC. Considering what some premium USB cables cost, you can almost buy a standard Nucleus for the same price!

If you aren’t utilizing a NAS for some of your music collection, you can still select a hard drive that is connected to a computer on your network or plug a USB drive directly into the back of the Nucleus. Finally, there is an HDMI output that can be utilized for output, and the sound quality will work in a pinch, but streaming via a ROON ready DAC is still the way to roll for optimum sound quality. Either way, it’s nice that ROON offers the option.

Back to square one

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review – there is no better way to catalog, store and play digital music back than ROON, and taking advantage of the extra horsepower that one of their Nucleus devices is nothing short of perfection. The ROON team has made digital music playback as effortless and glitch-free as it can be made.

Considering what a Mac Mini runs these days, the Nucleus is a bargain in comparison. Get your email on your phone and leave the music serving to ROON. You’ll be glad you did.

Original article: ROON Nucleus and Nucleus+

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.

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Sugden A21SE Signature Edition

Listening to Dexter Gordon’s classic, “GO” through the Sugden A21 (actually the A21SE Signature, but I don’t want to keep writing that) and my Quad 2812s is positively heavenly, with all the tone, texture, and dynamics I’d ever need.

There is something incredibly cool about listening to an amplifier that sounds this emotionally involving that doesn’t have a five-figure price tag. Record after record reveals one a-ha moment after another.

Honestly, it’s even better than that. Music and audio lovers often have a wide range of needs, and at times it’s easy to lose your way obsessing over things you don’t need. I’m not being judgmental, I’m sharing this from an “it takes one to know one” perspective.

I’ll make this easy for you

If you don’t need more than 30 watts per channel, or balanced inputs, buy a Sudgen A21SE Signature. Get off the anxiety train and just dig it. A big part of the magic that this amplifier possesses is because of its class-A operation. But Sugden takes this a step further – this amplifier is single-endedclass-A. If you’ve ever heard one of the early Pass Aleph amplifiers, they use a somewhat similar approach.
Running the output transistors in single ended mode gives this amplifier an added amount of liquidity that even the best class-A amps can’t achieve. Dare I say, they sound tube like. If you love the sound of an SET but need more than a few watts per channel, with some serious bass control to boot, this amplifier is going to quickly become your holy grail.

Bypass the bling

If you ask the fellow that manages Jerry Seinfeld’s fleet of Porsches his thoughts on the best of the breed, he’ll look you in the eye and say “mid 80s Carrera – they are the best mixture of fun, function, and performance, without all those weight adding features.” That’s what the Sugden A21SE Sig is – a perfectly executed 84 Carrera with no options. Pure driving excitement. Ironically, Jonathan Halpern, the Sugden importer drives a mid 80s Carerra. Coincidence?

If you’ve got a turntable and a DAC, do you really need a zillion inputs, all those blinking lights, meters and such? If you do – that’s ok, this amplifier will not make you happy. But if you just love to drive, I mean listen, and all that matters is sheer performance without all the frills, few things will do the job like the A21 does. And every amplifier I know that is this luscious costs a lot more. The A21SE Sig’s meager $3,250 MSRP is the best money you’ll ever spend in high end audio.

This is an amp that even if you move on to a more grandiose system, you should keep. Forever.

As mentioned earlier, the A21SE Sig features five, single ended, RCA inputs. We used the dCS Vivaldi ONE as our digital source and the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 with Boulder 508 phono (via XLR adapters) for analog duties. This amplifier is not the least bit out of its element with world class sources, and it has more than enough resolution to hear the difference between a gamut of phono stages from $1,000 to $65,000.

Auditioning required

With only 30 watts per channel at your disposal, you have to use them wisely, so you’ll need to get the right speakers, but it’s not like only having 9 watts per channel to work with. John DeVore’s speakers work well with the A21SE Sig; Harbeth, Spendor, and Grahams make great playmates too. Ditto for the Focal Sopra and Kanta range. Those in small rooms can achieve magic with whatever flavor of LS3/5a you enjoy. Perhaps the biggest surprise was connecting the A21SE Sig up to the Focal Stella Utopia Ems. These massive three ways, with their 13” field coil woofers enjoy a sensitivity rating of 94db/1-watt and they thrive on low power, high quality amplification. Again, the A21SE Sig delivers a stunning, three dimensional presentation with these flagship speakers.

The Sugden doesn’t really need any “break in” beyond being powered up for 24 hours, like every other class-A amplifier we’ve used, it does need to warm up. Even though there are no vacuum tubes here, class-A amplifiers usually run fairly warm and it takes about 90 minutes to fully stabilize thermally.

Sound at turn on is fine, but as you’ve had your A21 for a while, and become familiar with it, you’ll notice a slight haze in the presentation when it is ice cold; slowly and gradually clearing over that first 90 minutes it’s on.

Glued to the listening chair

Record after record proves that this is an amplifier completely free of fatigue. There’s a level of inner detail present, that will have you scratching your head (or reaching for the screwdriver to take the top cover off) to find the vacuum tubes inside. While you won’t find them, this is the result of decades of engineering refinement.

Regardless of the music you love, the A21SE Sig allows an incredibly musical experience. Bass is powerful, controlled, and anything but one-note. As the Focals go down to 16hz, the sheer amount of control and texture that this little amplifier delivers might be lost on a listener with a pair of LS3/5as, but through the mighty Focals, it was dramatic and impressive.

Inner detail is equally fantastic. Especially when listening to music with densely packed, similarly voiced harmonies, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Utopia, or Crowded House. Where lesser amplifiers would leave these tunes sounding like a fat, or maybe slightly overdubbed vocal, the A21SE Sig gives each vocalist and individual space within the recording. CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is just beautiful to behold. Going back to the 80’s self-titled Utopia, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox, Kasim Sulton and Roger Powell all go back and forth trading lead vocals on each track, yet because they all have such a similar vocal range, it’s easy (on an lesser resolving amplifier) to think TR is doing all the lead vocals. Again, the A21SE Sig clearly reveals the subtle differences between the group members.

Acoustic music lovers will be equally, if not more enthralled. The sheer amount of texture this amplifier reveals when listening to violins and pianos of different kinds is amazing. Everyone who’s ever claimed that “solid-state doesn’t/can’t sound as good as tubes” needs to hear this amplifier.

I could go on forever

But I don’t want to bore you. Seriously the Sugden A21SE Signature is an amplifier that every audiophile and music lover should own. For some it will be a destination product – it’s certainly good enough in that capacity. For others it will be a bookmark, but either way, this is an amplifier that shouldn’t be missed.

Oh yeah, you can get one in orange too. I like that a lot.

I guarantee that this is an amplifier, that once you hear it, you will never forget it. Very enthusiastically recommended, especially in a world where we mistakenly think that “high end sound” requires a six figure budget.

The Sugden A21SE Signature

MSRP: $3,250 (factory) (US importer)

Analog Source Luxman PD171A w/Kiseki Purple Heart

Digital Source dCS Bartok

Speakers Quad 2818, Harbeth P3SR, JBL L-100 Classic

Cable Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Power PSAudio P15 Power Plant

Original article: Sugden A21SE Signature Edition

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The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement

The first time I drove an Aston Martin, it was an otherworldly experience. The sheer opulence of the car was equally matched by the performance, providing a feel in a sporting car like no other. Yes, a geeked out Subaru STi is just as fast, but the sheer beauty of the Aston is unmistakable. You’ll get the same feeling when you unpack an Artisan Fidelity turntable.

Except this is like unwrapping a freshly restored and re-engineered DB5. Yes, it is an excellent record playing machine:  luxurious to behold, I suspect it will always give you pause when playing a record. Old car guys like to say, “It looks fast just standing still,” and that sentiment applies to the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement Turntable, presented here in its latest version 2 form.

Gently placing the stylus down on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Aisles, I received an equally out of this world experience. If you’ve spent some time with idler drive turntables, you know they have a loveable, somewhat fat, burly, yet enjoyable tonal character. By comparison, my Thorens TD-124 sounds bloated and lacking in detail, when listening to the same tracks, even with the same phono cartridge. (in this case, a Lyra Delos)

Having an incredible digital front end at my disposal, analog has to be either really good or really different to go through the ritual that accompanies listening to a record. The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement offers up a degree of tonal saturation, dare I say, a slightly romantic presentation, that I doubt anyone would ever mistake it for anything but incredible analog. There’s nothing like this in the digital world, and every time I listen to this table, I want more.

Artisan Fidelity’s Christopher Thornton has built the ultimate sleeper Garrard 301 turntable. As a vintage based deck, it still lacks the last bit of clarity that a top modern direct drive offers, but that’s not the point here. We’re not talking about ultimate musical accuracy here, we’re talking about flavor. This table is all about the sonic and visual character) It’s like the difference in body that a Les Paul Custom offers over a Stratocaster. Some prefer one over the other, some have both. You know where I’m going with this…

If you’re of the “a Timex tells time as well as a Rolex, so why spend the extra money” school, stop right now. Turn the page. You won’t like what I have to say.

What makes the Artisan Fidelity Garrard so incredible, separating it from the other “pretty plinth for old hardware beneath” Garrards, is the excruciating level of design fanaticismand precision engineering found in every aspect of this table. Considering how many fine watches cost as much or more than the Artisan Fidelity table, if you value what this table has to offer, it’s a steal at around $22,000 with external regulated power supply.  I’ve used turntables that cost three or four times as much that didn’t provide near the experience that this table does.

Breaking in your brain

Arriving in a couple of crates, the AFG (as I’ll refer to it for the rest of the review) is respectfully packaged, and basic assembly takes only minutes. But it takes a while for everything to sink in fully. If you are as much of a qualityphile as you are audiophile and music lover, you may need to put this table on whatever rack you have in mind and just sit back to take it all in. No other turntable I’ve spent time with offers such a sensual nature of operation. This is a product that begs to be used, often.

Every surface on the AFG is sheer perfection, from the clear coating on the upper Copper platter surface to the premium glossy black automotive paint finish on their proprietary solid billet Aluminum alloy chassis. Everything shines and sparkles. It may even prove tough to keep your enthusiasm in check to mount a tonearm or too, but you will be rewarded. The sample in question, for now, sports an Audio Creative GrooveMaster II tonearm in the front position with the Hyper Eminent EX cartridge from My Sonic Lab.

The rear position is occupied by an SME M2-9-R arm, expertly reworked to feature upgraded bearings, Cardas internal tonearm wire, and a hardwired tonearm cable (also Cardas), sporting a Kiseki Purple Heart cartridge, making for an excellent tradeoff. Additionally, we’ve been using the rear position as a test bed for cartridge reviews on our new site ( Both arms have been feeding into the new Pass Labs XP-27 phono stage going forward, but for the purpose of this review, all comparisons were made on our reference Pass Labs XS Phono.

As a confessed mechanical enthusiast that loves anything finely machined, coated and painted, the AFG is as close to sensory overload as it gets. The plinth is only the beginning, and once the massive modular platter, consisting of copper, magnesium alloy, aluminum, acetal and stainless steel is installed, a lot of the beauty is underneath. But the plinth alone is a work of art. You can click here for the full explanation on the Artisan Fidelity site, but here’s the short version.

Details, details, details.

That’s what will have you doing a second, third, fourth, and twentieth double take on this table. If you are used to the shortcomings mentioned above of the idler wheel system, it only takes about five seconds of musical flow to turn your head like a dog in disbelief. All the speed inconsistency and cloudiness you’d expect from an idler table does not exist with the Artisan Fidelity. Every aspect of this decades-old design has been re-thought and re-engineered to 21st-century spec.

There is a staggering amount of person-hours in the assembly of one of these, and I suspect more than any other high-end turntable I’ve used. I highly suggest going for the slightly larger plinth which enables one to add a second tonearm, making the investment even easier to amortize. Not to mention the visual appeal of two tonearms!

From the inverted and modular Sapphire bearing/heavy balanced Copper hybrid main platter unit to the finely machined austenitic stainless steel idler wheel, that has only .003 inch variation in its periphery surface diameter and precision billet aluminum eddy current disk brake, it’s the refinement of every aspect of this classic table’s design, combined with fanatic, individual final assembly and listening tests that distinguishes this from your Grandfathers Garrard. Forget everything you think you know about the idler drive system.

Quick setup

As this table uses a rebuilt version of the stock English AC induction drive motor, which happens to be a 220-volt/50hz configured unit, my sample arrives with an optional Sound Carrier Universal Turntable power supply ($1995) and offers a wide continuously adjustable range of fine voltage and frequency tuning for each 33 1/3, 45, and 78rpm speeds. In practice, this takes about five minutes to set up to perfection completely.

Setting both tonearms up to perfection with Richard Mak’s Analog Magik tool kit and a SmartTractor alignment tool, has me rocking in the free world in about an hour. Not bad for two tonearms. You can now purchase both of these tools directly from Artisan Fidelity, and if you don’t already own them, I highly suggest their purchase with your table, as the investment will pay dividends both in the short and long run.

Returning to the listening chair…

We can talk tech forever, and designer Christopher Thornton is such a passionate individual that he can explain everything he’s done in as granular of a level as you’d like. As exciting as this is, I dare you not to fall in love with this turntable by the time you play the first track.

Where my reference Grand Prix Audio Parabolica lifts so much detail from a record, it’s often hard to believe that so much detail exists in these grooves, the AFG gets nearly as much detail, but adds slightly more weight and fleshes out the midbass just enough to carry you through the average to pretty good records in your collection in the way that the more resolving table can’t.

Your perception of musical reproduction is so personal, there is no best here. Some days you want to drive the Bentley, and some days you want to drive the Porsche GT4, both are awesome, but neither can really deliver the experience of the other. Both will get you to the grocery store and back, and you can live with either at moderate speeds.

Much will depend on where your musical priorities lie. I maintain that to really enjoy analog to the fullest, you need more than one setup, but that may not be practical for everyone. Where the AFG excels is in the sheer size, scale and weight of its presentation. Going back to the Blue Note and Impulse jazz catalogs, listening to a lot of acoustic instruments, this table does an incredible job of reproducing the texture and character of a stand-up bass, the force of a horn, or a quick ride around the drum kit. And Ella’s voice has never sounded more realistic in my system.

Classic rock lovers will feel equally at home. Electric guitars sound massive, and multilayered studio recordings from the 60s to the 80s open up a level of sonic sorcery that might have you double checking to make sure no one put something in your drink. The sound field presented by this table with either cartridge is big, wide, deep, airy and immersive.

An experience like no other

I could gush on and on about the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement for hours, but we’ve all got to get back to work, eh? The minute you listen to a record on one, it will either captivate you to the point where you can’t live until you find a way to make one yours, or its exuberant nature will not be your cup of tea.  Car talk aside, the only other thing I can really compare the AFG to that might make even more sense is a pair of top range Sonus faber speakers. They are the only other audio product I’ve used with a similar level of finish.  And it is the only other product where my friends’ spouses say, “yes, you can have one of those in the living room.”

Just like every SF speaker we’ve had in for review, the AFG is the only other product that brings a similar level of intrigue with it. Everyone wants to touch it. So much so, that I am thinking about mounting a very inexpensive cartridge to the rear tonearm, so everyone can experience the sheer physicality of operating this turntable.

As one who rarely turns fanboy on products, the AFG is a rare piece of gear that at the end of the review has me losing my ability to remain objective. If you genuinely love analog, you should experience one, whether you write the check or not. However, I suspect if you value the qualities I’ve mentioned here, you will have a very tough time not falling victim to its spell. This one has been here for the better part of a year now, and I pinch myself every time I use it.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This is why it was our Analog Product of the Year for 2018.

The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement

Single 9″-12″ tonearm compatible plinth configuration, $18,995 (Exotic hardwood and Automotive finishes optional)

Dual 9″ – 12″ tonearm compatible plinth, as above, $19,995

Sound Carrier UTPS Power Supply $1,995 (optional)

Original article: The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement

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.

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