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Shunyata Research Sigma NR v2 Power Cord

The Sigma NR v2 power cord sits at the top of Shunyata Research’s new Reference Series of noise-reducing (NR) power cords, which also includes the new Alpha and Delta NRv2 models. These new offerings were developed using the same designs and technologies found in the top-of-the-line Shunyata Omega QR power cord.

Product Information and Design
The new Noise-Reduction Version 2 (designated here as “NR v2”) are distinguished from the original “v1” series of NR power cords introduced in April, 2017, by a new design and new features. Notably, the NR v2 series introduces a conductor geometry and construction designated “VTX-Ag.” This design comprises an inner conductor of pure silver with a concentric outer conductor of high-purity OFE copper. The materials and geometry are said to combine the transient speed and definition of silver with the warmth, power, and body of copper.

The Sigma NR v2 power cord also utilizes a refinement of Shunyata’s patented noise-reduction (NR) technology, which provides ~12dB of “in-line” noise reduction. This multi-element, wide-bandwidth noise-reduction technology was developed by Shunyata Research’s medical division, Clear Image Scientific, to improve the performance of medical imaging systems in cardiology and neurosurgery. The noise-reduction filter is built into the component-end plug.

The NR v2’s build has also been refined and improved to provide superior audio quality over first-generation NR power cords. For instance, each power cord is treated with Shunyata’s innovative and proprietary Kinetic Phase Inversion Process (KPIP) for a minimum of four days. The KPIP process significantly reduces burn-in time, as well as improving sonics. Most notably, I’ve found that KPIP-treated power cords provide a relaxed and lifelike presentation from the get-go, eliminating the hassles and uneven performance often associated with burning-in new power cords.

On the outside, the Sigma NR v2 is an all-new design, with a black TechFlex jacket terminated with plugs of genuine black carbon-fiber and metallic trim rings. The overall appearance is very attractive, crisp, and modern, and exudes quality. The new design also utilizes Shunyata’s proprietary CopperCONN connectors, which maximize current delivery. The CopperCONN plugs are flash-plated with nickel to ensure contact integrity and provide durability. Not only are the genuine carbon-fiber plugs very sexy looking, they are also functional, as they attenuate and damp micro-vibrations that can impact maximal sound quality. Even though the Sigma NR v2 is a 6AWG cord, it is very flexible and supple, which makes routing and connecting it easy.

sigma nrv2 plug

Setup and Configuration
For this review, I used Sigma NR v2s to power my Conrad-Johnson LP-70S amplifier, CT-5 preamp, and Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC. All components were powered by connecting the Sigma NR v2s to my Shunyata Denali 6000/S v2 power distributor, which was connected to the AC wall receptacle with the new Shunyata Sigma XC power cord. The Sigma XC is the same-specification power cord as the NR v2, absent the noise-reduction filter, and specifically designed for delivering maximal current to power distributors. The Denali v2 is a key player when used in conjunction with the Sigma NR v2, as I’ll explain. My digital front-end networking components: Mac Mini music server, UpTone Audio EtherREGEN, and SOtM SMS-200 UltaNeo network bridge were powered using Shunyata Venom V14D digital power cords, specifically designed for this class of device.

Listening Impressions
Prior to installing the Sigma NR v2 power cords, I was using a mix of Shunyata Venom NR-V10, NR-V12, and Delta NR v1 power cords. After installing the Sigma NR v2 in the system and letting them settle for a day or so, I gave them a listen. It was a veritable revelation.

Let me provide some context: From the first Shunyata Diamondback and Venom 3 power cords I purchased in 2009 and 2010, respectively, my experiences with Shunyata power cords have been positive. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the power cords and power distributor are the most important parts in a high-end audio system. You don’t build a superb house on a weak foundation; you build it on the best foundation, for sound (no pun intended) engineering reasons. The power distribution of a high-end audio system is no different.

Successive generations of Shunyata’s power cords have resulted in an increased reduction in noise, hash, and grunge, and a concomitant increase in resolution, transparency, bass articulation, and definition. I’ve heard some really good power cords over the years, but the new Sigma NR v2 breaks fresh ground in audio reproduction, and most notably, does so in different ways than I’ve experienced to date.

Listening to the Sigma NR v2 cord it quickly became apparent that standard audio-review terminology didn’t apply. Rather, I came to the conclusion that using the Sigma NR v2 in conjunction with the Denali V2 power distributor required a new vocabulary as well as a new perspective, because the intrinsic quality of the musical presentation was different in a fundamental way. The most accurate way to convey this change is to adopt the language used to describe fine musical instruments, e.g. how a Stradivarius sounds compared to a Guarnerius violin, or how a Bösendorfer sounds compared to a Steinway grand.

This power cord brings an accuracy of timbre and harmony, a musical veracity, that I’ve simply not experienced before. Yes, it’s got all the audiophile virtues I’ve described in my previous experiences with Shunyata power cables. But those attributes really don’t speak to what the Sigma NR v2 is about.

While it sounds amazing on all types of music, the qualities of the Sigma NR v2, particularly when used in conjunction with the Denali V2 power distributor, are most fully evident on classical symphonic pieces. The power cords and the distributor work in harmony to provide a class of resolution, timbral definition, transparency, vocal and instrumental accuracy, hall spaciousness and ambience that I have not experienced before. All of this is heard against a background so quiet that the experience is like sitting with the musicians, rather than sitting with the audience. On Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre with Pepe Romero and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields [Philips 438-016-2], Romero’s guitar is so fully and clearly articulated that you can hear his clear ringing tone, the spruce-and-cedar character of his guitar, and the nuances of his virtuosic technique perfectly articulated, even against the backdrop, complexity, and power of the full orchestra going flat-out behind him during very dynamic passages. Moreover, there is so much precision you can “zero-in” on every single instrument in the orchestra in the beautiful acoustics of Watford Town Hall in the UK. Normally, during these passages like these, the subtle, intricate musical details of a classical guitar can get lost against the background of an entire symphony playing en masse. With the Sigma NR v2, you can hear and pinpoint each individual musician or instrumental voice within the full orchestra.

In studio recordings, the gestalt is one of actually being in the studio during recording rather than listening to playback of the recording session. On recordings such as Kenny Burrell’s “Saturday Night Blues” on the seminal hard-bop album Midnight Blue, or Melody Gardot’s “Your Heart is Black as Night” from My One and Only Thrill, I can hear the secondary reflections and, most incredibly, the decay of these secondary reflections splay off the opposite wall in the recording studio. “Tibet” on I Ching’s Of the Marsh and Moon [Chesky Records] is a sophisticated mix of Chinese instruments with complex tonal structures. With lesser power cords, this tapestry of sounds can easily become somewhat congested, but with the Sigma NRv2 every instrument is reproduced with extremely finely resolved detail, timbral texture, and harmonic accuracy.

A friend recently asked me, because of the silver in the VTX-Ag conductor, whether its signature was on the analytical side of the equation or the “warmer and richer” side that some legacy Shunyata power cords, e.g. the “CX Series,” were known for. It occurred to me that I had never considered this question because the Sigma NR is so neutral. And by this I do not mean what “neutral” has come to mean to some audiophiles, which is slightly on the lean, spare, or cool side, rather than the warmer, more romantic side. I mean truly neutral: The Sigma NR v2 imposes virtually no coloration or shading of its own on the music.

Maximizing the Performance of Denali and QR/BB
The traditional experience of listening to live or reproduced music is one of the listener sitting back from the musicians performing in a hall or concert stage. Not so with the Sigma NR v2 and Denali v2. Rather, the soundstage and imaging is so three-dimensional and holographic it’s as if you being surrounded and enveloped within the music. Moreover, each musician and instrument is focused, palpable, and fully fleshed out. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that the Sigma NR v2 was letting me fully hear the impact and functionality of the QR/BB device in the Denali 6000/S v2 power distributor. A good analogy would be putting a larger throttle body in the fuel injector of a high-performance motor. Providing more instantaneous current (what Shunyata refers to as Dynamic Transient Current Delivery or DTCD) enables the full performances of the motor, or in this case, the QR/BB device in the Denali v2. This device, used in the Shunyata Tyhpon QR and Denali power distributors, fundamentally changes the presentation in a way that the audiophile terminology we’ve used for the last 40 years no longer adequately describes. Put quite simply, one has to experience it to get it.

I could go on, but the most important way I can sum up what the Sigma NRv2 power cord does (particularly when it is used with a Denali v2) is to say that it sounds as if you are in the room with the musicians as they create the music in the moment.

With the Sigma NR v2, my traditional perspectives on what a stereo system can reproduce has shifted away from a language that describes gear to a language and sensibility that describes music. Remarkable, truly remarkable.

Specs & Pricing

Conductors: 06 VTX-Ag
Connectors: CopperCONN
Headshell: Carbon-fiber
Noise reduction: >12dB @ 1MHz
IEC connector: C19 20A, C15 15A
Lengths: 1.25m or 1.75m (standard length is 1.75m)
Price: $3500

Associated Equipment
Digital sources: Schiit Gungnir Gen 5 USB Multibit DAC, SOtM SMS-200 UltraNeo network bridge, Mac Mini Roon Core Server, Sonore OpticalModule fiber media converter, UpTone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch, UpTone Audio LPS-1.2 power supplies
Analog source: Michell Gyro SE turntable, SME V tonearm, Koetsu Urushi Vermilion cartridge, Bob’s Devices Cinemag step-up transformer, Uni-Pro protractor
Phonostage: E.A.R. 324
Preamplifier: Conrad-Johnson CT-5
Power amplifier: Conrad-Johnson LP70S
Loudspeakers: Harbeth 40th Anniversary 30.2, Dynaudio Contour S3.4 with Esotar 2 tweeters, REL R-305 sub
Cables: Shunyata Research Sigma NR V2 power cable (preamplifier, amplifier, and DAC) V14D Digital (digital networking components, Delta and Venom interconnects, Sigma Ethernet & Alpha USB digital cables, Delta V2 VTX-Ag speaker cables
A/C Power: Shunyata Research Denali 6000/S V2 and SR-Z1 wall outlet

The post Shunyata Research Sigma NR v2 Power Cord appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Soekris dac1421 DAC

As chief engineer, Søren Kristensen is the technical guru at Soekris Audio. While his main business focus for many years has been designing and manufacturing embedded communication computers, he has always had a strong interest in high-end audio. Two things jump out immediately about the Soekris line of DACs. First, they’re all discrete R-2R sign-magnitude designs. In particular the dac1421 features a 27-bit precision ladder built with over two hundred 0.02%-tolerance thin-film resistors. Second, all Soekris products are designed and built in Denmark—no “designed in the West and built in the East” paradigm here—and yet the product line is remarkably affordable.

The R-2R sign-magnitude DAC technology was developed by Burr-Brown in the early 1990s to address the zero-crossing problem of a conventional R-2R DAC when one-half of the bit-switch circuits turns off and the other half turns on. This degrades signal-to-noise ratio of small signals due to the large noise contribution of switching transients. A sign-magnitude architecture takes a rather clever approach by actually starting at zero crossing and either adding or subtracting current from the resistive ladder to obtain the analog signal. On average, the smaller step sizes result in less noise and greater precision at low levels. To do this requires two internal DAC sections and the splitting of the binary bitstream into positive and negative polarities. The first bit of each binary word is designated as a sign bit with “1” denoting positive polarity and “0” a negative polarity; the rest of the bits specify an amplitude. One DAC section converts positive amplitudes while the other converts negative amplitudes. In the end, the output currents are summed to give the final analog signal. [See the sidebar for more technical details.—RH]

Søren tells me that he always liked the Burr-Brown series of sign-magnitude DACs, and that during 2014 he was thinking about designing a DAC for himself as a side project. It turned out that the PCM1704 chip, his first choice and widely considered to be the best, was designated as end-of-life by Texas Instruments, the parent company of Burr-Brown. With future production in mind, he decided against the PCM1704, but the problem was that weren’t any other similar chips available. Necessity being the mother of invention, and inspired by MSB Technology (at the time the only manufacturer of discrete sign-magnitude R-2R DACs), he set his mind on doing a discrete design. That ended up being the dam1021, the first low-cost R-2R DAC module for the DIY market, which is still being manufactured and sold today.

You may wonder, as I did, how Soekris was able to pull off a discrete R-2R DAC at an entry-level price of $899.One reason had to do with the availability of reasonably priced, precision (0.01%), surface-mount resistors from suppliers such as Digikey, which meant that no matching was necessary. Søren believes that one reason the PCM1704 was designated end-of-life was due to the expense of being manufactured on an old process line requiring laser-trimming. It’s also a question of smart engineering and manufacturing, says Søren, and personally taking charge of every operational aspect. The main PCB has been optimized for automatic manufacturing, using as much surface-mount technology as possible, and, hence, no wires. Parts were selected on a cost/performance basis rather than on audiophile reputation. All high-precision resistors in the R-2R network are highest-quality Vishay, but not better than needed. All important connectors are high quality and gold plated. Søren is not afraid to use parts some might object to for anecdotal reasons, like NP0 ceramic capacitors, MOSFET relays, and switch-mode power supplies. Costs are also being held down by using a direct online sales model, with the maximum of a single reseller between the manufacturer and the end user.

There are two SPDIF inputs (RCA and BNC), as well as a USB input, selectable from the front panel. The USB input is based on a standard XMOS interface chip, with the firmware modified to allow switching between Class 1 and Class 2 USB audio, the latter requiring USB 2.0, which is pretty standard these days. All of the digital inputs are routed to a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which buffers and reclocks the bitstream and performs anti-aliasing filtering. It is followed by a digital volume control, whose output is clocked by an ultra-low-jitter oscillator driving the sign-magnitude R-2R resistor networks. The DAC can also accommodate a DSD input signal, which is internally converted to PCM by the FPGA.

The resistor network output voltage is amplified and buffered by a high-speed, all-discrete, zero-negative- feedback amplifier, operating in high-bias Class AB. The output stage can be switched to either line or headphone output, using MOSFET relays. When driving headphones, the amplifier is set for higher Class A bias current and gain. A crossfeed circuit may also be activated during headphone listening to control soundstage size.

There are four anti-aliasing filters that may be selected via the “Filter” button on the front panel. This gives the user enormous flexibility in tailoring the DAC’s sonic signature to suit particular tastes and system needs. The filter chosen is indicated by the LED color. Red is a sharp linear-phase filter, equivalent to a classic “brickwall” filter. Orange is a mix between linear- and minimum-phase filters. Green is a reasonably sharp, short-delay, linear-phase filter. And finally, the LED off indicates a soft Butterworth minimum-phase filter, which comes close to no oversampling (NOS).

My first order of business was to tweak my planar-speaker reference system toward full neutrality, really an important factor for accurate evaluation of any source component. That meant leaving tubes, i.e., tube colorations, out of the chain and routing all DACs through Ed Schilling’s totally truthful The Truth photocell volume control. Two critical cable changes were also implemented. Canadian Take Five Audio’s cryo-treated Mogami 3103 speaker cable turned out to be an exceptional fit, featuring an even tonal balance coupled with exceptional transient speed and control. Another major upgrade was DH Labs Silver Sonic D-750 digital cable in a one-meter length. I just couldn’t believe my ears; it brought about a substantial increase in soundstage image focus and transparency.

The first few rounds of listening tests were dedicated to Red Book CD via SPDIF input. The Soekris was paired mano a mano against several respectable DACs in my collection. First up was the Altmann Attraction DAC, which I’ve been powering lately off a lithium iron phosphate battery. I’ve lived with this NOS, TDA1543-chip-based design for over a decade and know its sound character quite well. The attraction here is the midrange: vivid, engaging, with excellent tonal color fidelity. With the digital filter set to soft Butterworth, the Soekris equaled the Altmann in these respects while delivering greater treble precision and bass drive. Its tonal presentation was consistently neutral without emphasizing any particular frequency band. Soundstage depth was enhanced as was image palpability, which now bordered on the reach-out-and-touch-someone caliber. These findings, coupled with the dac1421’s enhanced transient clarity and superior resolution of micro-detail, made it clear that the TDA1543 chip was being outclassed, and that some 30 years after its introduction it would perhaps be wise to lay it to rest.

Next up was the Metrum Acoustics Amethyst. Just slightly more expensive than the dac1421, this 24-bit R-2R Dutch design proved to be very competitive with the dac1421 in every way. Easy to listen to and featuring enormous layers of detail, it delivered textures legato style, without the digital glaze many sigma-delta DACs dish out. With as much listening as I do to female voice, it didn’t take me long to realize that the Amethyst sounded a touch laid-back through the upper midrange, not so much an issue with Mary Fahl’s earthy alto vocals (The Other Side of Time [Sony Odyssey SK89892]), but somewhat disconcerting on soprano voice. This same tonal aberration was also evident with USB source material.

Enter the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil. I had developed quite a liking for the Yggy, primarily in the context of tube amplification and USB audio. This time, in the context of solid-state amplification, it didn’t fare as well. It showcased a terrific low end and satisfying tonal weight, but the upper midrange, a serious sonic priority of mine, lacked proper harmonic colors.

So far, the dac1421 had managed to best all comers. There was only more challenger left, and that was the Audio-gd Reference-7—a decade-old DAC using a total of eight PCM1704UK sign-magnitude R-2R chips. Luckily, I managed to snag a used unit recently for a good price. Its default setting is 8x oversampling, which does result in a sweet tone, but image outlines shrink in the process. The digital filter may be bypassed internally, and this NOS setting yields superb 3-D image outlines and remarkably accurate tonal colors. No matter how much I tinkered with the filter settings, the Soekris approached but couldn’t equal the natural textures and 3-D imaging performance of the Reference-7 with Red Book CDs. It became clear during this process that there was no perfect filter setting. While the soft Butterworth filter conjured the most realistic image size it also sacrificed a bit of treble smoothness. Most of the time, the Green LED setting (minimum-phase filter) gave the best overall compromise, especially with the volume control set to -6dB to minimize overdrive of the DAC’s analog output stage.

One undeniable advantage of the dac1421 over the Reference-7 is its ability to handle high-res 24/192 files, which are readily available for streaming off Qobuz. To confess, I’ve become addicted to Qobuz streaming over the past year, mainly due to its wide music content and ease of navigation. This brings us squarely to the USB-audio phase of the evaluation.

Initially, I was a bit disappointed with the Soekris. USB audio lacked the focus and rhythmic drive I’d been enjoying with SPDIF Red Book CDs. I suspected that the culprit was most likely a noisy USB stream from my Mac BookPro laptop. So, I decided to investigate UpTone Audio’s ISO REGEN, a device that is inserted between the computer USB output and the DAC input with the objectives of providing galvanic isolation from a potentially noisy computer and of fully regenerating a clean USB data stream. It looked a bit funky dangling from the USB port, but it undeniably boosted the sound quality by a significant margin—I’m tempted to say by a factor of two. The most noticeable improvements were sweeter textures, tighter image focus, and enhanced soundstage clarity due to cleaner transient attack and decay. UpTone Audio’s Alex Crespi loaned me the optional UltraCap LPS-1.2 linear power supply for use with the ISO REGEN. It displaced a generic Chinese linear DC power supply and further boosted overall sonic benefits. The cost of this UpTone combo almost equals that of the dac1421, but if you’re into computer audio you should definitely up your game with UpTone Audio.

My original intention was to review the dac1421 as a DAC, but I couldn’t resist some headphone listening. It’s not really my thing, and my Sennheiser HD600 cans are clearly not state-of-the-art, but I was determined, nonetheless, to glean some sonic impressions. The solid-state disposition of the headphone amplifier was obvious with squeaky clean and concise harmonic textures. The crossfeed function worked as advertised. The medium crossfeed setting (–8dB sent to the other channel) worked for me, pushing the stereo image forward, thus more closely emulating the soundstage from a pair of loudspeakers.

In the final analysis, this diminutive DAC and headphone amp delivered superb sound quality, underscoring the sonic benefits of a discrete R-2R sign-magnitude design.

My dac1421 was purchased direct from the U.S. reseller, Mod House Audio. I actually started off with the entry-level dac1321 model. It sounded so much like a good moving-magnet phono.

Specs & Pricing

SPDIF/TosLink input: Up to 24-bit/192kHz
USB input PCM: Up to 24-bit/384kbps
USB Input DSD: Up to DoP128 and DSD256
THD: <0.008% (-1dB): <0.03% (-60dB)
Resistor precision: 27 bit, 0.02% resistors
Jitter RMS: 0.3pS typical
S/N (20kHz bandwidth): >120dB unweighted
Frequency response: +0.1, –1.0dB (20Hz–20kHz)
Digital volume control: –80dB to +10dB
Line output: 2.0V RMS (RCA), 50 ohm output impedance
Headphone output: 6.5V RMS (6.3mm jack), 2.0 ohm output impedance
Dimensions: 220 x 40 x 205mm
Weight: 1.4 kg
Price: $899

Stibjergvej 110
DK-4220 Korsoer


Associated Equipment
Loudspeakers: Analysis Audio Omega
Digital front end: Audiolab 6000CDT transport; Mac BookPro running Audirvana 3.5
Power amplifiers: Wyred 4 Sound 1000R monoblocks, Red Dragon Audio S500
Preamplifiers: Lamm Audio L2.1 Reference, Experience Music AVC, Ed Schilling’s The Truth
Cables: Mogami, Acrotec, FMS Nexus-2, and Kimber Select & KCAG interconnects, Take Five Audio cryo-treated Mogami 3103 speaker cable
A/C power: Sound Application power line conditioners

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Pro Sound News’ Top 10 Articles of 2020

Pro Sound News top 10 articles of 2020New York, NY (December 24, 2020)—With the end of 2020 upon us (and not a second too soon), we look back at the year that was, presenting the Top 10 Pro Sound News articles of 2020 that appeared on prosoundnetwork.com, as ranked by the site’s Google Analytics readership statistics. Intriguingly, while the biggest news of the year was the pandemic, virtually none of these articles even mention it. Instead, audio pros like yourself were mostly interested in either looking ahead to when things would get back to normal by checking out the latest gear, or looking back at great moments in audio, whether it was the recording of classic albums or the earliest known stereo recordings. No one knows what 2021 will bring, but for now, enjoy the most popular articles from our site, and we’ll see you in the new year.

10. Discovering—and Preserving—the Earliest Known Stereo Recordings
By Clive Young. In 1901, German anthropologist Berthold Laufer used two wax cylinder recorders simultaneously to record Shanghai musicians, unintentionally creating the earliest-known stereo recordings.

9. Apple Mac Pro Rack: A Real-World Review
By Rich Tozzoli. Producer/composer Rich Tozzoli shelled out $10,000 for an Apple Mac Pro Rack computer; was it worth it?

8. The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s Aja
By The METAlliance. Widely considered a pinnacle of recording excellence, Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja had an occasionally tortured gestation—but it won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album. Now METAlliance members Al Schmitt and Elliot Scheiner share the inside scoop on how…

7. Sennheiser Announces Layoffs Amidst Slowing Market
With consumer and live sound sales heavily impacted by COVID-19, Sennheiser will cut 650 jobs worldwide by the end of 2022.

6. Inside the Live Sound of Live Aid, Part 1: London
By Steve Harvey. We look back at the live sound effort that went into the legendary charity concert Live Aid, held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. With 60+ acts on the bill and 160,000 in attendance—not to mention 1.9 billion watching it…

5. Creative Editing is Key to Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend Podcast
By Jim Beaugez. A variety of audio editing tricks help audio producer Matt Gourley ensure that the Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend podcast keeps the laughs coming.

4. Danny Leake, Legendary Studio/Live Engineer, Dead at 69
By Clive Young. In addition to working as Stevie Wonder’s FOH engineer for three decades, Danny Leake also recorded dozens of top artists in the studio, leading to six Grammy nominations for his efforts.

3. Tool Tours with Intricate, Immersive Sound
By Steve Harvey. Touring the world behind Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years, the prog-metal heroes are filling arenas with a massive audio system that takes a new approach to immersive live sound.

2. Exclusive: Yamaha Launches Rivage PM5, PM3 Desks, DSPs, More
By Clive Young. Take an exclusive sneak peek of Yamaha’s most ambitious expansion for the Rivage series yet, as the company introduces two new consoles—the PM5 and PM3—as well as a pair of new DSP engines—DSP-RX and DSP-RX-EX—and Version 4 firmware.

1. AKM Factory Fire—A Pro-Audio Industry Disaster
By Clive Young. A 82-hour fire in AKM’s semiconductor factory is already hurting numerous top pro-audio manufacturers around the globe.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Graham Audio LS5/9f Loudspeaker

The $7999-per-pair Graham Audio LS5/9f is essentially a floorstanding version of Graham Audio’s LS5/9, which is itself a contemporary embodiment of the medium-sized monitor released by the BBC in 1983. As is typical with the BBC, production of the original LS5/9 design was licensed to commercial manufacturers. And while it uses modern drivers, the quite recently issued Graham LS5/9 is close enough to the original’s specifications to qualify for an official BBC license, all these many years later. 

The LS5/9 is thus a BBC speaker in the literal sense, while the LS5/9f is not. BBC monitor designs did not come in floorstanding versions. But the LS5/9f shares the drivers of the Graham LS5/9. And it shares the designer, too: Both were designed by Derek Hughes. Hughes has a deep connection with the BBC tradition. His father Spencer Hughes was the co-founder, with his wife Dorothy, of Spendor Audio, which produced the Spendor BC1 in 1968, a speaker that deserves to be called legendary if ever a speaker has so deserved. And the Spendor BC1 became the BBC LS3/6, another BBC speaker reissued in contemporary form in a design by Derek Hughes, this one for Stirling Broadcast. We are very much in the design presence of the BBC tradition with the LS5/9f.

Long-time TAS readers will have inevitably become aware that I have taken a strong interest in speakers of the BBC ilk for decades. And I still do; I reviewed the Graham LS5/9s with enthusiasm in Issue 270. And the interested reader can find reviews of other Hughes family designs at regonaudio.com, going way back. But there is more to my interest in these speakers than just my respect for tradition and the power of long exposure to the general type of sound they produce. 

The BBC and its associated designers and engineers were part of a unique development in audio. Never before, and I rather suppose never again, were so many capable and creative engineers offered the opportunity to work on speaker design with almost unlimited resources and, most of all, with an ongoing opportunity to compare on an almost daily basis their work with live sound, and especially with live orchestral sound. 

Of course, any serious speaker designer pursuing the goal of reproducing music as music actually is will compare the results of designs with the memory of live sound and perhaps with the literal sound of individual instruments and voices. But the chance to compare at will the sound of the speaker designs with a literally present orchestra is simply not available to ordinary commercial enterprises. 

Others have run live-versus-reproduced demonstrations. Acoustic Research had their live-versus-canned public demos in the early days of stereo. And John Dunlavy played Blumlein-miked recordings of concerts on his speakers right after the concerts for the interested public. But these were occasional matters, not an actual part of the ongoing design work. The BBC work comparing their designs with live music all happened decades ago. But there has not been anything like it since. Today, people design by theory and listening in the abstract. No company today that I am aware of hires in an orchestra on a regular basis to check how they are doing. The expense would be prohibitive for a private company.

One might ask how much this mattered, this constant comparison to live orchestral sound. I believe it mattered a lot. Most speaker companies, then and now, design on the basis of models of speaker behavior and of theoretical ideals. They really have very little detailed information on how well their designs will do in reproducing real sound and what is crucial in a recording/playback paradigm. And “research” in the subject of speakers tends nowadays to be based on preference testing and/or agreement with unverified theories of how speakers ought to work. Unverified, and really unverifiable in the context that no comparisons can be arranged.

The results speak for themselves All you have to do is go around an audio show with a single recording to see how much variation there is among the speakers and how little match there all too often is with anything like live sound. A BBC-school designer (not Derek Hughes) said to me not many years ago that all one had to do to hear that there was a lot wrong with most speakers was to play a single recorded piano note and then play the same note on a real piano. This had to my mind an almost terrifying ring of truth. If a speaker cannot reproduce single piano notes, what hope for a full orchestra?

And Now the LS5/9f
The Graham LS5/9 was and is very good at producing, with the right recordings, sound that resembled the real thing. It suffered, however, from a limitation. While the bass was warm and full as low as it went, it vanished a bit too early to make large-scaled music completely convincing. It just did not have quite as much bass extension as one would like.

Powering it with the Devialet SAM [Speaker Active Matching] system was a revelation. The SAM system extends the bass by an ingenious electronic control of bass behavior, which has a built in limiting so that the speakers are not driven into damage or overload. In effect the speakers are EQed but in a level-dependent way. This really brought home to me how superb the LS5/9 could be if it just had a bit more bass extension. (The review does not identify the LS5/9 by name—I did not want to induce any prejudice about the LS5/9, as it was alone).

Enter the LS5/9f. The LS5/9f has the same driver complement as the LS5/9. But it has a larger enclosure. The floorstanding enclosure does not just function to lift the drivers into position. The woofer is actually radiating into a considerably larger interior space than that of the LS5/9. The LS5/9f’s enclosure is not dead-air space. It is functioning acoustically to give the mid/bass driver an actively involved, larger, ported enclosure, providing increased bass extension and dynamic capability. 

The added bass extension thus provided does not sound like all that much in numerical description—40Hz versus 50Hz, –3dB. But that is just enough to give one the sense of full-range sound on most music. The bottom note of standard orchestral music is around 40Hz, and the same for the rock-music bass guitar. The LS5/9f is not a bass powerhouse for large pipe organs and earthquakes. But it has the orchestra covered—and rock bands.

This is not to suggest that anyone is likely to buy the LS5/9f because it is a bass powerhouse. But the larger enclosure has moved the response down far enough to eliminate the feeling of missing bass. For most music, you will not feel bass-deprived. The 10Hz additional extension in numbers may not seem like much, but in this frequency range it is, in audible effect, quite a lot. 

Moreover, the LS5/9f is somewhat warmer in the lower regions than nominally flat. In room, the bass response is fairly abundant. This is a complex issue which I shall discuss in more detail in a moment. But in any case, the LS5/9f definitely does not suffer from puny little-speaker sound. And the LS5/9fs will also play quite loudly, with plenty of volume for a room of ordinary domestic size. Orchestras are convincing in dynamic scale, for example. 

Musical Impressions
As it happened, I spent an unusually large amount of time with the LS5/9f. They arrived for review somewhat before the virus outbreak and, things being as they are, they stayed on partly because I was not finished with reviewing them but also because it was not really practical to return them safely. So, I ended up listening to them a lot. If one of the functions of audio reviewing is to evaluate the long-term satisfaction that a review item offers, I surely gave the LS5/9s a good run. And a most satisfying experience it was. 

Listening to a speaker has short-term aspects and long-term aspects as well. The former is based primarily on perceived tonal balance, on frequency response in some sense of combination of anechoic and in-room responses. Changing quickly from one speaker to another brings response differences to the fore, so far to the fore as to all but obliterate other considerations. 

Now the LS5/9f does well in the short term. (We shall get to long term in a moment!) They have a slightly idiosyncratic bass character, but overall they are quite “neutral” over the whole range—as speakers go—with certain characteristics that are distinctive. There is a vestige of the excess energy between 1kHz and 2kHz that the LS5/9 stand-mounts have, but that is easily fixed. The really high treble rolls a bit down. The tweeter level is switchable from 0 to nominal + or –. But none of the settings bring up the really high treble to the level that audiophiles have persuaded themselves is “accurate.” If “air” in the very high frequencies is your big thing, you could add a super-tweeter to lift the output from, say, 14kHz on up. And as noted the bass will tend to be warm. Finally, the speaker does best if it is far from side walls and/or there is high-frequency absorption at the first side-wall reflection points. Still, overall one is looking at a very nearly neutral sound, not surprising in a BBC heritage design. (In spite of the roll-off in the extreme top, I found a reduced tweeter level preferable. Otherwise there is a bit extra at 4-6kHz that is better not there.)

But this frequency range-by-range description is far from doing justice to the LS5/9f in long-term listening. For a variety of reasons, the LS5/9fs make recordings sound like live concert music to an unusual and very satisfying extent, far beyond their basically correct balance alone. There are more subtle aspects of their sound that add a lot to one’s musical satisfaction beyond just getting the tonal character of sound correct.

For one thing, these speakers are very coherent. It is all very well to claim that speakers with a lot of drivers and crossovers between them are coherent. But the ear/brain is not easily fooled. And there is in my experience some special attraction to a full-range speaker (or close to it) where one driver produces most of the sound. For one thing, the absence of a crossover means that the lower-order harmonics of midrange musical notes are in-phase with the fundamental and with each other. (Phase differences among fundamentals and lower-order harmonics are known to alter timbre, and such phase alterations always happen except with first order crossovers, or unless DSP correction is used.)

But there is a price to pay: If the driver is large enough to produce bass in a reasonable way, it will inevitably become “beamy” at higher frequencies. Two-way speakers with a high crossover point tend to sound their best for only one listener. But the benefits of a single driver, reproducing almost the whole range of piano fundamentals and their lower harmonics, for example, are considerable.

The LS5/9s sound like a point source even when you sit quite close to them. And this gives one, among other things, ideal stereo, aided by the excellent pair matching (in my review-sample pair anyway, but I rather suppose this will be true in general).

Another feature of the LS5/9f is that the mid/bass/driver is well behaved out-of-band. Polypropylene drivers can have the important property of not having “edge” arising from narrow-band high-Q break-up modes. In the contemporary world, a lot of manufacturers are using drivers of harder materials, which tend to have such “hard” breakup-mode behavior. This may not look like much in measurements of overall balance, with little resolution frequency by frequency. But it makes a difference. Such bad-driver behavior tends to give a hard and edgy sound, which at first might sound “detailed” but wears out its welcome over time. 

The LS5/9f is very much free of this effect, much to its credit. The sound is non-edgy, independently of how one might set the tweeter controls or the balance by EQ adjustments. Nothing wears one down. Pianos, for example, have the character of real pianos, with no untoward “bang-iness.” This becomes more and more appreciated as time passes.

Another feature that makes the LS5/9fs welcome long-term visitors—or potentially permanent residents—is the bass energy already referred to. This is a point that audiophiles seldom discuss honestly. Harry Pearson used to say that he liked his midbass “lean.” Unfortunate preference! The truth is that when one plays a recording at less than live volume—and one really has to do this for various reasons—the famous Fletcher-Munson curves pull the perceived bass level down relative to the rest. This is a very large effect. Back when people seemed to care more about the exact perceived balance of audio, preamps had a “loudness” control for this reason! 

Think of it this way. Up close to an orchestra, where microphones are typically placed, it is very loud. I have measured 100dB for short intervals in, say Scriabin, from the first row. You really do not want to have this level at home. In fact, you really do not want to have it at concerts, either. There is a good reason why most of the audience sits back a bit by preference. But if you drop the level of the recording by x dB, the bass level drops in relation to the mids by surprisingly close to that same x dB. The equi-loudness curves are spaced nearly twice as close together in the bass as in the midrange. Turning the overall level down reduces perceived bass.

The inconvenient truth here is that if you want to hear natural balance at plausible levels, a certain amount of bass excess over flat response is needed. I am not a fanatic about this. Indeed. when I was working with the Sigtech people years ago setting up their DSP room correction, they commented that I seemed to like flatter response than most people. 

Still, everyone ought to know this problem is out there. All the room-correction people offer down-sloping “target curves.” Experiments about this in audio practice date at least back to Ortofon’s “target curve” before DSP correction existed.

Another feature of this is that it is much easier to attenuate bass then to boost it. If a speaker seems too warm for some particular recording, you can tone down the bass easily enough whereas turning bass up by EQ is a tricky business (except if one does an adaptive protection system like the Devialet SAM). All this adds up to the fact that it is a good thing having speakers with adequate bass energy—and maybe a little bit more.

Yet another aspect of the lower frequencies is that almost all floorstanding speakers tend to develop a dip between 100 and 300Hz from the Allison effect of the floor. Look at contemporary in-room measurements of most floorstanding speakers. There is rarely adequate energy in this crucial frequency range. This is one thing that makes audio sound also stupidly wrong to people that have an acute memory of actual music. But the effect is so widespread that a lot of people who spend more time listening to reproduced music than to real music have come to feel that it is normal—and even to like it! 

One can EQ this away—the Allison effect affects the power response and is thus correctable with EQ. But it helps to have a speaker that has some extra energy in the sub-300Hz range. As it turns out, through correct placement and some judicious EQ, I found it quite easy to get the LS5/9f to sound really correct in this region. Indeed, with careful enough placement, it did this quite well without any EQ.

I do not want to leave any impression that the LS5/9f is “boomy” in any sense. Not so. But it does give music an appropriate warmth and fullness without turning the volume up excessively and in spite of “the usual floor dip,” as Martin Colloms used to call the frequently occurring hole between 100Hz and 300Hz. (Incidentally, the correction of this hole is almost always the largest effect of DSP room correction, the one thing where even really smooth speakers tend to change a lot when “corrected.”)

What It All Adds Up to Musically
The Graham Audio LS5/9f, with its warm balance and slightly rolled-off extreme top, is not typical of contemporary speaker designs. One thinks of Peter Walker’s dictum that a speaker succeeds or fails by 10kHz, though the actual top end –3dB point is 16kHz (manufacturer’s specification). Nor does the LS5/9f make an overt attempt to break new ground in terms of peculiar or unusual radiation pattern or driver type. But it is, in fact, unusually adept at making recordings sound musically correct. With everything set up just so—not too close to side walls and with first sidewall reflection points damped, correct placement to counteract Allison effect, tweeter level adjusted right (attenuated in my room), and perhaps a slight cut between 1kHz and 2kHz, something remarkably close to what is actually recorded emerges.   

Piano recordings are startling in their realism. No bangy sound, no exaggerated ringing resonances, just the solid sound of real pianos. This is a rare and for me very valuable aspect of speaker sound. My old favorite, Freddy Kempf playing the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesleid on BIS [CD 1042] sounded almost precisely like a real piano, far more so than with most speakers. So did Volodos’s recording of his transcription of the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata [Sony Classical SK 64834]. And Songs My Mother Taught Me [Mobile Fidelity CD877] with violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Meg Bachmann Vas, recorded by David Hancock using the legendary Cambridge ribbon microphones, offered excellent piano sound and superb violin sound as well, with a remarkable truth to timbre. Flat response is crucial for this but the phase coherence between fundamentals and harmonics also contributes to this effect of tonal truth. Flat response is crucial for this, but the coherence between fundamentals and harmonics arising from a single driver covering much of the frequency range also contributes to this effect of tonal truth. And the absence of cabinet and driver colorations also plays an important role. Here “neutral” is not a cliché buzzword but essentially the literal truth.

The same truth to timbre extends to more complex music. Orchestras sound really right, instrument by instrument. My standby favorite, Telarc’s Ravel-Borodin-Bizet disc [Telarc 80703], sounded right in timbre and also very detailed. The thin-wall damped-enclosure approach developed initially by BBC’s research pays off here: The speaker sound very “compact” in the sense that things stop when they should, and nothing rings so that the real ringing of music from reverberant halls or the like is revealed extraordinarily well. (The trumpet solos on the Telarc bounce around the hall with a tactile realism.) This “compactness” is I think likely attributable to very clean decay behavior in the midrange. In any case, you will know it when you hear it. The LS5/9f make most speakers sound somewhat ill-defined in the mids.

This is not all just a question of how classical music sounds. Sonic qualities apply across the board. And the impressive truth to timbre, non-resonant and highly resolved character, and spatial character were all pleasing evident in, for instance, “I’m Ready” from Dave Wilson’s Cruising with the DeSotos recording, which is anything but classical. It does, however, have natural voice recording and saxophone, too, and on the LS5/9fs, these were shining through. And the whole thing had the “compact,” well-defined sound I have been trying to describe, the sound associated with very rapid and clean decay, in the midrange especially.

The Overall Picture
Much as one may admire speakers designs which depart from conventional behavior in various ways, seeking new approaches to the whole question of speakers in rooms, the truth is that wonderful things can happen by carefully perfecting the right traditional approaches combined with modern driver technology. And so it is with the LS5/9fs.

I had no excuse at all for adding yet one more BBC School speaker to my permanent collection. But I was tempted.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Two-way, bass-reflex floorstanding loudspeaker
Enclosure: Damped thin-wall construction, birch plywood
Drivers: Diaphnatone polypropylene (developed and manufactured by Volt) mid/woofer, Son Audax HD13D34H tweeter
Frequency response: 40Hz–16kHz, +/-3dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Sensitivity: 89dB (2.83V, 1 meter)
Max. output: Over 104dB per pair, 2m
Recommended amplifier power: 50–200 watts unclipped program
Dimensions: 35 x 105 x 37cm
Weight: 25 kg
Price: $7995 standard cherry veneer finish (other custom veneers slightly higher)

Ringslade House, Ringslade Road
Newton Abbot, Devon
TQ12 6PT England

ON A HIGHER NOTES (U.S. Distributor)
26081 Via Estelita, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
(949) 488-3004

The post Graham Audio LS5/9f Loudspeaker appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

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Benchmark Media Systems LA4 Line Amplifier and DAC3 B DAC

Benchmark Media Systems got started in Garland, Texas, in the garage of Allen H. Burdick, who in 1983 developed a mixing console for television and radio broadcasting. This proved so successful that two years later he incorporated and relocated the company to its present location, a factory in his hometown of Syracuse, New York. By then he had invented an audio-distribution amplifier, also for radio and television broadcasting. Called the DA101 and boasting extraordinary specifications and performance, including bandwidth out to 150kHz and dynamic range greater than 120dB, it is said to have revolutionized audio distribution in the era of analog television. In 2007 Burdick retired for health reasons, and John Siau, a gifted engineer who’d been with the company for ten years and had already designed products, took over the reins.

In the early aughts, Siau authored the DAC1, a digital-to-analog converter, initially for the professional market, where Benchmark electronics have long enjoyed high esteem and wide use. It soon caught the attention of some audio reviewers and through them that of high-end audio consumers. Before long, riding a crest of stellar reviews and brisk sales, a new star was born. So at least goes the story. In fact, Siau told me, the idea for the DAC1 from its inception was that it would serve both the professional and the home-audio markets. Almost the whole first run, some fifty units, went to industry professionals (mostly mastering engineers), which unearthed a technical issue. The studio-level outputs were too hot for the balanced inputs on most consumer electronics, so switchable passive attenuators were fitted to all subsequent units. Owing to the combination of state-of-the-art performance, reviews to die for, and sane pricing, the strategy worked. With a beachhead thus firmly established in the consumer sector, this became and remains the pattern for all Benchmark’s subsequent products. With sales as robust as ever in the professional sphere (it’s a good bet more than half of commercial CDs and other digital media have been and are now at some point monitored with Benchmark DACs), the company finds itself in the enviable position of being in an almost constant state of slight back order, which means that practically every one of its most popular products is in effect pre-sold (rather like bicycles in this time of pandemic).

I first heard about Benchmark Media Systems from my close friend and TAS colleague Robert E. Greene, who reviewed the DAC1 in 2009 (Issue 183), found it a “revelation,” suggested that it heralded “the beginning of a new era in audio, in which the regeneration of the recorded signal has become a solved problem,” and purchased the review sample.  Inasmuch as REG is not given to hyperbole—when it comes to words like “revelation,” not only does he typically eschew them, he actively objects when they are commonly, not to say far too liberally, applied—I arranged to evaluate a DAC1 for myself. My responses tallying pretty closely with his, buying it was a no-brainer. Since then I’ve reviewed the DAC1 HDR (the original DAC1 with additional inputs and line-level preamp functions [Issue 204]) and the AHB2 power amplifier (Issue 262). I also purchased the latter and it has remained my reference to this day, as does the DAC1, though it’s discontinued, superseded by the DAC2 (also discontinued and of which I have no experience) and now by the DAC3 B under consideration here.

Meanwhile, Benchmark introduced a superb suite of analog and digital interconnects and speaker cables, than which there are no better built or confidence-inspiring wire-based products in my experience (even the stock IEC power cords are excellent and feature a locking arrangement that keeps them securely fastened at the component end). And just last year the company brought out its first wholly separate linestage. I‘d forgotten that in my review ten years ago of the DAC1 HRG I remarked that I’d stand in line for a Benchmark preamplifier with more inputs, functions, and features. That turned out to be more prescient than I knew, as the preamp was, no surprise, out of stock owing to high demand. Was I disappointed? I’ll anticipate my conclusions to the extent of saying that with the exception of a missing stereo/mono switch, not hardly.

Before properly introducing the preamp, however, it is worth the while to recall that the ABH2 amplifier is a genuinely innovative design, even, if you will, revelatory, and it set new standards in having by a wide margin the lowest noise and distortion and the widest bandwidth of any amplifier on the market then or now (possibly any audio amplifier ever made for commercial use, including Class A designs). In all the journals and websites where such things are reliably tested and measured, the AHB2’s noise and distortion come hair-splittingly close to, meet, or exceed the measuring capabilities of much test equipment. It also set new standards in the areas of tonal neutrality and sonic transparency, though here its margin of superiority is rather narrower inasmuch as most competently or better engineered contemporary solid-state amplifiers are very neutral and transparent. Still, in my personal experience over some fifty years as an audiophile, the AHB2’s performance has never been surpassed or quite equaled in these respects.


This is hardly accidental. Siau states his priorities forthrightly on the Benchmark website: “When you see the Benchmark name on an audio product you can be assured that the product has been designed to be sonically neutral and transparent [boldface in the original]. If you are looking for audio products that will change or enhance the sound of your music, you have come to the wrong place. If you are looking to add a warm veil of even-harmonic distortion, you have also come to the wrong place. On the other hand, if you are looking for accurate, clean, and transparent audio equipment, you will enjoy Benchmark products.” Don’t all audio manufacturers make the same or similar claims? Many do, but quite a number, notably (but hardly exclusively) in the more esoteric reaches of the high end, make no pretense toward accuracy. On the contrary, as forthrightly as Siau declares his priorities, so they declare theirs for built-in tonal flavors or personalities, catering to specific tastes for reproduction that is warm, cool, crisp, smooth, punchy, forgiving, analytical, a bit soft, or so sharply delineated as to sound almost etched. The late Harry Pearson, TAS’s founder, used to invoke the ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, dualisms of antithetical yet complementary characteristics, to describe differences in electronics, e.g., warm, dark, feminine, cool, bright, masculine (tubes vis-à-vis transistors), a metaphor I still find useful.

Benchmark brooks none of this. The instruction manuals, downloadable for free from the company website, contain the most comprehensive, indeed exhaustive set of specifications that I am aware of in audio products, a virtual dock brief of test results, graphs, and other data that document every specification, not to mention full technical descriptions of features, circuits, and functions set forth without hype or extravagant claims (or at least none that aren’t backed up with hard data). It reminds me of the early days of audio when the promotional literature from the great pioneering manufacturers such as Acoustic Research, McIntosh, Quad, and Hafler eschewed bombastic hype in favor of information about why their products were designed as they were and how they worked. (You can banish any concerns about reliability, inasmuch as all Benchmark products are built for 24/7 professional use over decades.)

Yet despite the high regard in which Benchmark equipment is widely held, those stellar reviews, and the rather extraordinary number of reviewers who’ve bought their review samples, there is a small contingent of audiophiles who remain suspicious of all those vanishingly low noise figures (some of which approach the level of Johnson Noise, i.e., the residual thermal noise of the electrons in any electronic conductor); and their brows really furrow in the face of all those distortion figures with multiple zeroes to the right of the decimal point before an integer appears (e.g., for the amplifier: <0.0003 % THD+N at full rated power, 20Hz–20kHz; for the preamplifier: THD <-125 , 0.00006% [!]). Siau addresses these concerns and more in an interview printed on our website. Meanwhile, the company puts its policies where its mouth is, to wit, every Benchmark product purchased factory-direct may be auditioned for thirty days in the buyer’s home and returned if you’re not satisfied with it.

LA4 Line Amplifier
Benchmark prefers to call the LA4 a line amplifier (which may be the more correct term because that is what preamplifiers in fact do: amplify the signal) and offers it in two versions: linestage only, retailing for $2499, and the identical linestage with an onboard headphone amplifier, called the HPA4, retailing for $2999 (glowingly reviewed in that capacity by Tom Martin in Issue 293 and an Editors’ Choice Award). A remote handset, optional for $100, is available but not required for full operation of either model. Quite a lot of innovative thinking, sophisticated engineering, and truly astounding performance has gone into what is, like all Benchmark products, a remarkably compact footprint (about that of a trade paperback only narrower and deeper), redolent of “lifestyle” components, but with professional-grade parts, build, longevity, and reliability chasms away from the disposable vibe one often gets from lifestyle products. Its small size notwithstanding, the LA4 packs in a surprising amount of connectivity and functionality, including an LED touchscreen that allows volume setting to be clearly visible from across the room. This includes input selection (four in total, two RCA, two XLR), balance, mute, independent level adjustment for each input, renaming the inputs, disabling unused ones, adjusting display brightness, and—a novel feature I’ve not encountered before—the ability to lock the screen to block  access to advanced features, thus preventing anyone else (inquisitive children, audiophile friends) from altering your settings. Volume is controlled by the only knob (which has a lovely silken movement), on/off by the one button, both functions, along with a few others (input selection, mute, plus the operations of any Benchmark DAC), duplicated on the handset. Outputs are singled-ended (a pair of RCA jacks) and fully balanced (a pair of XLR jacks, plus a single XLR mono sum), while the entire signal path is 100% analog. A pair of 12-volt trigger ports are compatible with most standard such ports on other equipment and will communicate bidirectionally with other Benchmark products. About the only reservations I’d register are the lack of a stereo/mono switch already mentioned and not duplicating the balance function on the handset (balance is always more efficiently adjusted from the listening chair).

I am not going to describe the circuitry of the LA4 in detail because it would essentially involve repeating what you can read in far greater detail in the manual. Speaking of the which, if you buy this or any Benchmark product, it’s worth taking the time to read the instructions carefully. While the basic functions and connectivity are self-evident, the manual will tell you how to take full advantage of the several convenience features and realize optimal performance, particularly as regards getting the full measure of the ultra-low noise levels. For example, the balanced inputs and outputs of the LA4 and all other Benchmark electronics will support the very high +28dBu signal levels of professional equipment. Consumer-grade balanced circuits, however, are often 10dB lower; if your CD player or DAC is one of these, a tip in the manual recommends boosting the appropriate XLR input by 10dB (the single-ended inputs are already boosted by 15dB, with further adjustment possible).


Suffice it to say that, as with every Benchmark product I’ve used or reviewed, everything works smoothly, precisely, flawlessly. I must single out for special mention the volume control. While the whole unit is completely relay controlled, with a total of forty “precision relays switching high-precision metal-film resistors,” each channel has its own gain control with 256 steps in 0.5dB increments. An accelerator facilitates rapid movement up and down the range while preserving the 0.5 steps, while exact channel-to-channel balance is maintained regardless of changes in level (if you’ve altered the balance to favor one channel, the imbalance is preserved through any level changes until you alter it again). The volume control is designed to generate a light “ticking” or “clicking” sound when used, which I liked. For one thing, it sounds cool; for another, the steps are so fine that without it you might not know you’ve made a change. By far, without question this is the best volume control I have ever encountered, capable of finer resolution of level increments than any in my experience (hard to imagine a set of conditions in audio usage where finer gradations would be required).

The LA4 has been widely tested with results that tell the same story as those from the AHB2 power amplifier, i.e., the measurements merely confirm the manufacturer’s claims except in those instances where the limits of the test gear are reached before this or that specification can be precisely verified, almost every tester reporting that the unit beats, often handily, any other ever tested in its product category, regardless of price. But as I mentioned in my review of the AHB2, I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a bit of brinkmanship in all this. Like the late A. J. Conti with his Basis turntables and tonearms, Siau is obsessed with making his products as perfect as the current state of the art allows and pushing that state when it doesn’t. In this he has been singularly successful. The actual significance, however, that is, the audibility of the superiority, is a matter of debate in some quarters. If a noise is already substantially below the threshold of audibility, is anything to be gained by pushing it down even further?

Siau provides compelling answers to this and related questions in the online interview at tas.com. One big reason he designed the AHB2, I suspect, is that he wanted an amplifier he judged worthy of his DACs, following which he designed a preamp worthy of the amp: “The LA4 and HPA4 may be the only preamplifiers or line amplifiers that exceed the signal-to-noise ratio of the ultra-quiet AHB2,” he writes on the Benchmark website. “This means that the LA4 will extract the full performance of the AHB2. In contrast, other preamplifiers limit the system noise performance because they cannot match the SNR [signal-to-noise ratio] performance of the AHB2.” He also states that the best SNR is realized only through balanced interconnects, hence the absence of RCA inputs on the AHB2. It perhaps goes without saying that with the LA4 and the ABH2 in tandem, the volume flat out, my ear right next to either tweeter of my Harbeth Monitor 40.2 Anniversary loudspeakers, I hear nothing—nada, nyet, rien, zip. But truth in reporting requires I report the same result with my McIntosh C52 preamp in place of the LA4, provided the C52’s XLR outputs are used and the sensitivity switch on the back of the AHB4 is properly matched (22dBu, the lowest position, same as for the LA4). (This came as no surprise. While the C52’s noise and distortion figures do not equal the LA4’s, they are absolutely superb by every reasonable standard.)

So much for noise, or lack thereof. What of distortion or other artifacts, tonal or otherwise? Well, here comes the controversial part: I find myself in the same conundrum as when I reviewed the ABH2. Once more I have literally nothing to write about. There’s a complete absence of any sort of artifacts or noise; on very clean recordings, the presentation is uncanny in its purity. Obviously, the LA4 isn’t “perfect” because we know nothing is, but after several months of listening I simply can’t find any sonic characteristics or signature of a positive nature to match any adjectives I can dig up. By “positive,” I mean the usual suspects like warm, cool, smooth, harsh, liquid, dry, etc. To put it another way, I can neither hear nor identify any sort of consistent tonal colorations that appear to originate from the LA4 itself and that are superimposed upon the presentation of any and all sources.

The one exception—I write this with the greatest hesitation, not to say trepidation—may be a slight, indeed, virtually subliminal deepening or blackening of the background against which the music emerges owing to the unprecedentedly low noise floor of these electronics. My reluctance to say this owes to the fact that I believe the perception to be psychologically based, conditioned by my knowledge of the noise and distortion numbers. The noise floor is already so far below the background ambient level of a still day in a rural environment, let alone the neighborhood of Los Angeles where I live, as to be inaudible even if it were higher.  (The effect of psychology upon what we hear or think we hear when auditioning equipment is not, I believe, given anywhere near the attention and study it warrants.)

Otherwise, attempting to put my impressions into words winds up describing what seems to me the sound of any particular program from any particular source, whether it be vinyl (pickups from Shure and Ortofon, recording playing setups from Basis, SME, and Alexia, and Parasound’s JC3+ phonostage); compact disc and SACD (through the Marantz Ruby KI-SA); digital downloads and streaming (from Qobuz and Tidal through an Aurender A10, an NAD 50.2, and a Bluesound Node 2i [reviewed in the previous issue], the latter two paired with Benchmark’s DAC3 B). If the source is drenched in saturated textures and instrumental colors like Strauss’ Don Quixote by James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (DG), then saturated textures are what you hear. If the source is bright up top and lacking in warmth, like virtually all the Szell recordings on Epic and Columbia, then brightness and lack of warmth are what you hear. If a source captures a voice with that wonderful impression of dimensionality and tactile presence, as you hear on Groove Note’s Jacintha recordings or the Anonymous Four on Gloryland (Harmonia Mundi USA, SACD) or Alison Krauss on “Down to the River and Pray” (Capitol, Qobuz), that is how they appear in room, assuming the rest of your system is up to it. When I played my longstanding reference, the Bernstein Carmen (DG), I wanted a flesh-and-blood theatrical experience, throbbing with high passions and powerful drama, that transported me to the opera house, with a holistic soundstage of lifelike vividness and genuinely breathtaking dynamic range, and that is what I got.

Of course, a perfectly legitimate objection to make at this point is how do I know? I don’t have the original source material at my disposal and, anyway, how can one determine in the absence of a wholly objective reference that this set of electronics is better than that set or another or some other still? In fact, one can’t, except that after decades of listening to lots of audio gear and live music, one develops a feel for most of the usual colorations (unless, of course, one is a cotton-eared idiot—I suspect most of us in the trade have been called worse at one time or another). When everything sounds warm and comfy or cool and bright or soft and restrained, when even multi-miked, closely recorded ensembles have “depth,” when things become relentlessly aggressive or merely allow the ears to lie back in an easy chair (to steal a metaphor from Charles Ives), one knows that something isn’t right, even if one happens to like those distortions that present themselves as enhancements.

But there is a way to set up something that is equivalent to an objective reference. Half a century ago Peter Walker demonstrated how transparent his Model 303 amplifier was by daisy-chaining fifteen of them in one channel between the output of the preamplifier (Quad’s Model 33) and the loudspeaker (the original Quad ESL), while the remaining channel was run straight into the other loudspeaker. In rigorously conducted listening trials, no one could repeatedly with any consistency distinguish the cascaded from the un-cascaded channel. So, using the XLR ports, I inserted the LA4 into one channel between my McIntosh C52 and the Benchmark AHB2, while the other channel of the C52 ran straight into the amp. (Balanced interconnects were by Benchmark, though the same results obtained with those by Kimber or AudioQuest.) It is important to emphasize here that the left channel signal passed through the active circuitry of the C52 and the LA4, including through the latter’s volume control and gain stage, before reaching the amplifier, while the right channel went directly from the C52 to the power amplifier. Using mono sources or switching the C52 to mono mode, I dialed in the volume on the LA4 until the two channels were so close in level I could not distinguish them by ear, even with pure 1kHz test tones. (Given the fine resolution of the LA4’s volume control, this was relatively easy.) Then I started listening.

It was impossible to tell the two channels apart, and when I transposed them, the results were the same. Music, voices, instruments, solo, ensemble, classical, jazz, pop, rock, folk, world music, nonmusical sounds, test tones, NPR reporters, television shows, movies, you name it—no matter what I played, it was as if the LA4 were not in the signal path. The only condition under which its presence was noticed was if I altered its level, in which case the change in level vis-a-vis the other channel was easily audible, but the transparency as such remained unaltered and absolute. Once the levels were restored to balanced, it was again impossible to tell that the LA4 was in the signal path.

I shouldn’t want what I’m saying here to be misunderstood: I have no wish to suggest that Benchmark’s is the only preamplifier transparent enough to survive a test like this. Perhaps not all that many would, but certainly any number of competently or better engineered ones would do as well or nearly so. As for improving upon it, well, I suppose it’ll happen someday, though it’s hard to imagine how something that is already sonically invisible can be “more” invisible. But if it were to be equaled, let alone surpassed, one thing it would surely have to possess is comparable bandwidth. The bandwidth of the LA4 goes out to beyond 500kHz at the top end, while its low-end -3dB point is 0.01Hz.

Reduced bandwidth at the bottom causes phase shift that results in mid- and upper-bass that are warmer, softer, and even a bit more expansive than is strictly accurate, hence the sometime impression that there is more bass. But next time some guru “informs” you that a good solid-state component is thin in the bass, ask what he’s comparing it to and see if you can chase up the specifications. I’ll wager the -3dB point of the fatter one is relatively high (around 10–15Hz), that of the “thin” one pretty low, say, 5Hz or below. (This is one reason why, despite their virtues, tube amplifiers are incapable of truly accurate, well-timed bass response.) Bass through the LA4 driving the ABH2 is outstandingly clean and clear, with superlative definition, articulation, and registration of timbre. Kei Koito’s Bach: Organ Masterworks Vol. II (Claves) displays this to a fare-thee-well, as does M&K’s The Power and the Glory (of an organ from the First Congregational Church here in Los Angeles, which I’ve heard live). A longstanding favorite of mine is Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet performed with the full complement of the Vienna Philharmonic strings under Leonard Bernstein. When the double basses reinforce the cello parts, the increased weight is obvious on any decent system, but not with the concomitant improvements in clarity, rendition of texture, and articulation of the deeper instruments that are revealed here. I don’t want to overstate this. The superiority over units with less extended bandwidth is not huge—for many, I doubt it’d be deal breaking—but it is there to be heard with critical listening.

Other benefits of little or no phase shift relate to those elusive matters that fall under the general heading of timing, togetherness, and connectedness, not to mention imaging and soundstaging. “The bass arrives on time,” Siau says, “not later.” But with a bandwidth that sails on up beyond half a million Hertz, that obtains throughout the whole audible spectrum: everything arrives on time and together, and when it isn’t together, it’s because that’s how the musicians are playing. Phase linearity is one of those aspects of audio reproduction that remains somewhat contentious because it’s often difficult to describe its actual effect unless it’s seriously awry. (See Siau’s interview for more on this.) For myself I find there is a difficult-to-define impression of greater coherence and precision not just of timing but of overall system stability—that paradoxical feeling of absolute grip and relaxation—that go beyond imaging and soundstaging.   

Go to Variation 1 in Bach’s Goldberg Variations as arranged for string orchestra and continuo by Dmitry Sitkovetsky in his recording with the NES Chamber Symphony (Nonesuch). At first this might not seem very demanding, but it’s Bach at his most animated and contrapuntal. How forcibly you feel the syncopated rhythms, the accents on the second beat, how readily you can track the rhythms as they are handed off to the various string choirs, with fill by the harpsichord—all this tells you much about a component’s composure, resolution, and togetherness. A different kind of string ensemble is to be heard on the Bluegrass album The David Grisman Quintet (Kaleidoscope), consisting of two mandolins, a guitar, a violin, and a double bass. Again, it might not appear demanding, but keeping all that picking, plucking, and strumming unraveled yet easy to zero in on one instrument or another, not to mention the deployment of the five instruments in the acoustical space, requires the kind of precise control that plays right into the Benchmark’s strengths. Meanwhile, the performances come alive with all but peerless wholeness, integrality, and presence.

You will notice I haven’t said a word about detail. This is deliberate. It is a non-issue. With noise and distortion at the sub-subterranean levels of the LA4, the AHB2, and the DAC3 B, what could possibly remain that would eat, mask, or fail to retrieve even the lowest-levels of recorded information?

I’ve spent the lion’s share of this report on the LA4 because it’s a wholly new product, while Benchmark DACs have been a known commodity for over a decade and a half. Like previous ones, the 3 is available in two versions. The HGC, for “Hybrid Gain Control,” has a volume function, analog inputs, mute and polarity switches, and headphone amplifier, all of which means it can serve as a minimalist linestage preamplifier. The B (for “basic”) eliminates those features. Both versions have two coaxial, two optical, and one USB input that can operate as USB Audio 1.1 or USB Audio 1.2. If you have the LA4 or any other good linestage that you like and are looking to buy a Benchmark DAC, unless you need the headphone amplifier, I see no reason to buy the HGC over the B, as their digital circuitry and functionality are identical, and you save $500.

Since for substantial portions of the review period I used the DAC3 B in tandem with the LA4, comment on its “sound,” or lack thereof, is in effect folded into what I’ve said so far. In the areas of tonal neutrality and transparency, the B sounds like every other Benchmark I’ve heard, which is to say neutral and transparent. But the DAC3 also has new conversion processing, which is said to make for a 3.5dB increase in headroom above 0dBFS, in turn preventing the DSP intersampling overloads “that commonly occur in other D/A converters.” This increase in headroom, plus lower noise and distortion figures than previous Benchmark DACs had, is said to result in subtly improved sound. I will have to do a follow up report because I need more time to investigate this.

Until then, the Benchmark website has a detailed description of the DAC3, its circuitry, processing, and features, with bullet-point comparisons to the DAC1 and DAC2. The main talking points are these:

• Benchmark’s primary commitment remains to PCM digital. Siau believes that DSD offers no advantage over properly implemented 96/24. As for MQA, like some other manufacturers (McIntosh, Linn, Schiit, Marantz), Siau considers both the lossiness and the distortion of the format inferior to 96/24, preferring his DACs convert the full unmodified original files as faithfully as possible. As regards DSD, with hybrid SACDs, the Red Book layer routed through the DAC3 sounded closer to the SACD layer than I’m used to hearing, and sometimes they were so difficult to distinguish I gave up trying.

• For the first time, however, Siau has included DSD conversion, at DSD64 DoP, which is the conversion rate for commercial SACDs. The DAC3 still will not handle 128, 256, and 512. I don’t have a lot of DSD64 files, but those I do were replayed excellently, certainly comparable to the equivalent SACDs as played through the Marantz.

• The DAC3 offers improved performance from MP3 sources, as Siau’s remarks in the online interview. I agree it makes MP3 more “tolerable,” but not so much as to entice me in a hurry to renew my Spotify subscription.

• The DAC3 now uses ESS Technologies ES9028PRO converter.

If you already own a Benchmark DAC and wonder if the upgrade is worth it, take advantage of the company’s 30-day trial and listen for yourself. If you’re in the market for a new DAC and don’t care about MQA, have minimal or zero commitment to DSD, and your source material is primarily CDs and Red Book and hi-res downloads and streaming, the HGC version together with the AHB2 power amplifier will provide state-of-the-art conversion from digital files with some of the lowest noise and lowest distortion technologically possible.

When I told a friend I was reviewing Benchmark’s new LA4 preamplifier and its latest DAC, he said, “Damn good company, damn good products—but they take all the fun out of it.” I sounded this idea, somewhat obliquely and from a different perspective, four years ago in my review of the AHB2 power amp, where I wrote that I wasn’t sure I could in good conscience recommend it to a certain kind of audiophile. This is because it is “only” a “precision instrument designed to perform the precisely defined task of reproducing music and sound accurately, which it does essentially to perfection,” a statement that also applies to these two new products. There are no tonal anomalies you can enthuse.

Specs & Pricing

LA4 Line Amplifier
Inputs: Two pairs single-end RCA, two pairs balanced XLR
Outputs: One pair singled-end RCA, one pair balanced XLR, one mono sum balanced XLR
THD: <-125dB (0.00006%)
S/N: >135dB, unweighted, 20–20kHz
S/N: >137dB, A-weighted
Frequency response: -0.003dB, 10Hz; -0.001dB at 20kHz; –3dB, bandwidth exceeds 0.01Hz to 500kHz
Output impedance: 60 ohms
Output noise: <1.9uV at unity gain, 20Hz–20kHz
Maximum input and output voltage: 20Vrms (+28dBu)
Dimensions: 8.65″ x 3.88″ x 8.33″
Weight: 8.0 lbs.
j $2499 (optional remote handset adds $100)

DAC3 B D-to-A Converter
Inputs: Two coaxial, two optical, one USB for USB Audio 1.1 (96kHz) or USB Audio 1.2 (192kHz or DSD64 as DoP 1.1)
Outputs: One pair RCA, one pair balanced, digital pass through
Sample rates:  24-bit D/A up to 192kHz; 1-bit DSD at 2.8224 sample rate
THD+N: 1kHz at OdBSF, -113dBFS, 0.00022%
Frequency response: -0.015dB, 20–20kHz
Dimensions: 8.5″ x 1.725″ x 9.33″
Weight: 3 lbs.
Price: $1699


The post Benchmark Media Systems LA4 Line Amplifier and DAC3 B DAC appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

The Klipsch Cornwall IV Speakers

The sun still burns hot, a U.S. dollar still equals four quarters, and Klipsch still makes Cornwall loudspeakers.

Refreshingly, some things never change. Save for a gap between 1990 and 2005, the company has been building the floorstanders in its Arkansas factory since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term. As for the period during which it disappeared from showrooms? The decision prompted thousands of listeners to begin a letter-writing campaign demanding production resume. Petitioners got their wish. In 2006, Klipsch introduced Cornwall III, although, given the various updates to prior iterations that occurred, the “III” moniker could have easily been an “VIII.”

Originally devised in 1959 by Paul Klipsch to serve as a full-range option between a pair of Klipschorns, Cornwall bowed as the world’s second commercially produced center-channel speaker. Its no-frills name, coined by Mr. Klipsch’s first wife, stems from its ability to be employed in a corner or against a wall. More than six decades later—a time span longer than most audio companies last—it remains distinctive for multiple reasons, not the least of which relates to its commanding 38 x 25.3 x 15.5-inch (HWD) size and 95.76-pound weight.

The Old School Meets the New School

By any standards, Cornwall is big, and boldly announces its presence by way of gorgeous, book- and grain-matched wood cabinets. During manufacturing, Klipsch keeps the veneer leaves in order as they’re sliced from timber and arranged in mirror-image fashion at the splice joint. The consistency pays off in the form of speakers that should charm any admirer of woodworking or old-school craftsmanship. Akin to the eye-catching crown molding in a century-old Victorian or a custom built-in shelving units, Cornwall visually exudes detail, care, pride, and tradition. Crucial to Cornwall and Klipsch’s other Heritage Series models, such convention extends to the sequential serial numbering of every pair.

Much else about Cornwall recently underwent a transformation. Dubbed Cornwall IV, and sold for $6,000 per pair in a choice of three colors, the tower possesses the most significant design changes of any Cornwall in history. A 1.75-inch K-702 midrange compression driver, midrange Tractrix horn with patented Mumps technology, steep-slope crossover network, and Tractrix ports with inner flares are completely new. Ditto the matte-black riser, attractive script-adorned grille, and aluminum bi-amp input panel on the rear. A one-inch K-107 titanium diaphragm tweeter with an all-new wide dispersion phase plug and massive 15-inch K-33 composite-cone woofer round out the innards.

According to Klipsch, the enhancements collectively translate into improved polar response of the mids, minimized electrical degradation, faster transfer, reduced port noise, lessened turbulence, and deeper bass. Cornwall IV also retains an inarguable benefit of its ancestors: Beguiling efficiency, with a rated sensitivity of 102dB. The triple-digit figure allows the user to pair it with a seemingly infinite number of amplifiers—tubes and solid-state alike—without worrying about having to spend a fortune for massive watts-per-channel output.

Instead, with Cornwall IV, or, for that matter, any Heritage Series model, focus your budget on an amp/wire combination that provides clean power and clean signals. Klipsch’s high sensitivity numbers can be a double-edged sword in that the speakers do no mask mediocre power/transmission as blindly as some harder-to-drive models. Plus, auditioning a Klipsch is a smart way to test your current gear/cabling.

Changing the Narrative

It nearly goes without saying that, in many customary circles, “Klipsch” and “audiophile” are disparate. At least one long-established high-end magazine doesn’t acknowledge a single Heritage Series model in its latest, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Buyer’s Guide. In addition, many self-professed audiophiles—whether clinging to measurements, the belief that horns cannot overcome brightness or harshness, or the thought that Klipsch translates to outmoded technology—won’t give the brand a sniff. Under close examination, such thinking appears shortsighted and ironic, particularly in a hobby that places tremendous importance on the supposed sound of live music.

Indeed, somewhere along the way, high-priced entry points, computer-driven metrics, and occasionally sterile, surgically precise sonics gained precedence over emotion, fun, dynamics, and playback that can recreate the concert experience. Today, finding speakers that deliver a professional recording-studio aesthetic and a mixing engineer’s perspective poses far less of a challenge than identifying models that whisk you to a club or hall, and formidably capture the energy associated with the events staged at the venues. Moreover, audiophile-approved speakers that don’t wilt in the face of rock n’ roll, R&B, or hip-hop turned to loud volumes remain few and far between. Even those that sell for the cost of a fresh-off-the-factory-floor Harley-Davidson CVO.

Of course, some listeners prefer perfectionist-oriented imaging. They want to hear a singer’s tongue smack against the top of his or her palate, or the particular gauge of an acoustic-guitar string. All well and good; the inherent appeal is understood. However, returning not only to the sound of live music, but to the ambience, vitality, soulfulness, and presence that coexist with shows—reference points to which, before the pandemic, thousands upon thousands of people related on a weekly basis and happily paid to attain—evokes deep-seated issues the audiophile industry at large prefers to sweep under the rug. In short, the sound of live music, whether generated in an orchestral hall, 800-capacity theater, or hockey arena, varies from that captured in a recording studio.

Mr. Klipsch recognized the distinctions and strove to design products that reproduce live performances in a home setting. Cornwall IV testifies on behalf of his pursuits. And how.

Holy Schnikes

Arranging Cornwall IV in a relatively square 16 x 18-foot room proves relatively hassle-free. Despite its mass, the speaker’s shape allows for ample mobility. The lack of spikes and angular dimensions also proves welcoming. As does Kilpsch’s simple albeit smart packaging, which decreases set-up fuss and echoes Cornwall IV’s get-to-it functionality. As with most speakers, adjusting the positioning of Cornwall IV by an inch here or there nets audible differences. No user’s interior space is the same, but for the purposes of the review, slightly toeing in Cornwall IV with the lead front corner three feet from the back wall, and the tandem placed eight feet apart, produced optimal results.

In quick succession, it becomes evident where Cornwall IV falls a bit short—namely, hyper-deep soundstaging, microscopic accuracy, polite refinement, and pick-the-third-chair-out-of-the-symphony focus. Characteristics that are all often the parlance of studio monitors and several of their tower counterparts. Cornwall IV also tends to reward whoever sits dead-center in the sweet spot. Off-axis listening sacrifices none of the impact but tends to faintly blur details. Klipsch’s Roy Delgado suggests increasing the toe-in to increase the soundstage and image focus. While counterintuitive to what we’d do with a normal pair of floorstanding speakers, this works perfectly, enhancing the on and off-axis experience, with a more stable stereo image, and more stable bass performance.

If you’re accustomed to a two-channel system augmented with a pair of high-end subwoofers, you may also notice a small drop in low-frequency definition. Not to say Cornwall IV doesn’t supply satisfying bass. It does, and without annoying boom and inflated effects. You could add a subwoofer or two, sure, but Cornwall IV goes plenty deep without any help from friends.

Overall, paralleling its physical size, Cornwall IV plays with enormous sound—enormous dynamics, energy, scale, openness, rhythm, and clarity. While many speakers invite you to them, and beckon you toward music that happens between or behind them, Cornwall IV ushers the music to you in absolute effortless fashion. It’s a key distinction. Forget about needing to lean in or meet songs at a halfway point; Cornwall IV aims and directs the action right at you. If you’ve always desired your own concert venue, and can live without laser-sharp imaging and exacting specificity that let you debate the location of the row the mixing engineer intended you to be seated, Cornwall IV will likely cause you to ask, “Where have these been all my life?” Visceral, unapologetic, and the embodiment of engaging, Cornwall IV brings music alive in sensory-invigorating ways.

As for power, presence, and expressiveness? Hold on to your hazy IPA. At every step, Cornwall IV offers you the chance to feel what you’re hearing—just like memorable concerts. TONE Publisher Jeff Dorgay often says “dynamics are the fifth dimension.” For both macro and micro, Cornwall IV slays. It also thrives in the areas of naturalism and transparency, with vocals and instruments coming across with noticeable richness, fluidity, and solidity. The smoothness and detail of its mid and high regions cannot be overstated.

Another welcome revelation? How Cornwall IV performs at low volumes. You don’t need to go crazy with the loudness to savor its spirit. But, if you do turn your amplification up? Holy schnikes. If a speaker could laugh, Cornwall IV would chuckle all the more you challenge and push it with higher decibel levels. It doesn’t flinch, doesn’t distort, doesn’t put a tourniquet around the music. It lets you (and your equipment) decide the limits—a concept foreign to many speakers taxed with well-recorded rock or pop replete with weight, slam, and body.

Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out

Put through its paces, Cornwall IV handles a wide array of music—including numerous audiophile pressings. Cue up “Sad But True” from Metallica’s self-titled album on the MoFi-supervised 45RPM vinyl edition and sit agog at the size, scope, physicality, and tuning of the drums. Spin any of the 7LPs in the must-have Tom Petty Wildflowers & All the Rest box set and marvel at the tones, immediacy, warmth, and producer Rick Rubin’s ear for nuance and texture. Turn to the analog reissues of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My LoveRid of Me, or Dry, and savor the previously unnoticeable subterranean frequencies and singer’s throaty phrasing. Unsheathe an analog standby like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Janos Starker’s 3LP set of Bach’s Cello Concertos on Speakers Corner, and shake your head at how the musicians appear right before you, requiring no grand leap of faith.

Cornwall IV further unveils profound body, depth, and timbre tied to Johnny Cash’s voice on an original pressing of Unchained, particularly when he leans on his chest cavity, as on “Spiritual” and “Southern Accents.” Another vocal standout, Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers, demonstrates sublime realism and airiness. Brandi Carlile’s voice resonates with reach-out-and-touch-it tangibility on Give Up the Ghost and intricate By the Way I Forgive You. Ditto Adele’s dark register on her smash 21. As for the current, lilt, and grain of Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B-3 organ on the Tone Poet reissue of his Blue Note platter, Prayer Meetin’: Hallelujah.

Crank up the volume to triple-digit decibel levels, and Cornwall IV lets loose. Drop the needle on AC/DC’s Back in Black or For Those About to Rock, and the Young brothers’ guitar riffs—coupled with the crisp, on-point thwack of Phil Rudd’s drumming—radiates with convincing authority, superior control, lifelike separation, and unmistakable liveliness. Similarly, the insight afforded into the knotty architecture of Guns N’ Roses’ “Coma” on Use Your Illusion I; assertiveness of Kiss’ pouting grooves on “Strutter” and “Do You Love Me” off Double Platinum; conveyance of the all-night vibe of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” on Unapologetic; and bare-bones force projected from Run-DMC’s tag-team rapping from Mobile Fidelity’s SACD of Raising Hell—at last, an audiophile hip-hop reissue—provide one thrill ride after another.

Friends, Cornwall IV will not magically turn average or substandard recordings into gold, but its behavior tilts towards forgiveness. Vide, the latest installment of Grateful Dead Dave’s Picks, Volume 36, touts questionable sonics—an oddity for both the band and series. Through Cornwall IV, you hear the flaws but still appreciate the music while getting a grasp on the moment and what takes place. The latter lingers as one of Cornwall IV’s brute strengths: Replicating the moment—and, importantly, its aura—and translating both into a live-sounding medium.

Speaking of the Dead, a variety of the group’s other archival releases (a handful of selections from the Spring 1990 (The Other One) 23CD box set; the February 18, 1971 show on the American Beauty: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) match like peanut butter to chocolate with Cornwall IV. Everything from the timbre of Phil Lesh’s bass to the tenor of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s percussion—and atmosphere and breadth of the stage itself—personify live Dead. Pass the patchouli oil.

The Mike Campbell of Loudspeakers

Yes, Cornwall IV rocks. But it also feels entirely at home with jazz and laidback fare, be it folk or a solo violin piece. No speaker does everything right (see above). Yet Cornwall IV’s versatility furthers its appeal—and should-be designation as a music lover’s design in the same way Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell reigns as a musician’s musician. Others are flashier, faster, more finessed. Few, however, demonstrate such an innate knack for how to play notes, how to sculpt them and let them fade, how to serve the collective whole, and how to hold an audience’s attention for hours on end.

Addressing tastes of listeners who bought into certain buttoned-down principles promulgated by audio tastemakers who never negotiated the musical sea changes that occurred once the 70s revved into gear, the market overflows with speakers that nail classical, small-scale jazz, low-key Americana, and close-miked vocal music—only to run with their veritable tails between their legs when called to unpack information in dense, complicated recordings. All-rounder designs are rarer. Cornwall IV excels with rock, metal, R&B, rap, electronic, and jazz. Still, the manners in which it handles classical and acoustic-based fare please, and hint at both delicacy and sophistication.

Not to suggest Cornwall IV suits everyone. It certainly does not—and will not suffice for those exclusively bent on critical listening and/or playing the role of recording engineer. But, if you listen to a variety of genres, place a premium on the sound of live music, value engagement over crack precision, possess the requisite space in your room, or, alternatively, want to construct a second system devised for concert-like experiences, you could do far, far worse—and will likely spend thousands more in the process.

Klipsch Cornwall IV (photos courtesy, Klipsch corp.)

MSRP: $6,000/pair



Preamplifier McIntosh C2300

Amplifier McIntosh MC452

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Digital Oppo BDP-105 and Mytek Brooklyn DAC+

Cabling Shunyata Delta interconnects and power cables

Original article: The Klipsch Cornwall IV Speakers

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Helius Omega Tonearm and Alexia Turntable

One of the things that most interests, fascinates, and sometimes amuses me about vinyl is the better mousetrap syndrome. I allude of course to the wise saw, erroneously attributed to Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Every designer, manufacturer, and sometimes even reviewer has his or her own ideas as to the correct and proper way to play LPs, which they expend considerable effort and ingenuity implementing, then justifying their choices, emphasizing the advantages of their solutions while criticizing, if not ignoring those of their competitors. It is of course often, indeed typically the case that many of these theories are mutually irreconcilable, even contradictory: fixed versus suspended chassis; heavy versus light platters, subchassis, and bases; belt versus direct versus puck drive; hard versus soft mats; AC versus DC and high- versus low-torque motors; gimbal versus unipivot bearings; pivoted versus radial arms—all this and more before we’ve even got to the subject of phono pickups, phono preamps, cabling, and innumerable after-market accessories such as platter mats, weights, clamps, feet, platforms, power conditioners, etc.

The kicker here is that most of these theories and their attendant solutions have some provisional validity because vinyl is not just an analog medium but up until the signal leaves the pickup also a mechanical one. Virtually everything has some effect on the reproduction, in particular its tonal character, while no design, despite its expense or the ardent proselytizing by designers and their champions in the audio press and among consumers, gives you perfection. One problem that plagues writing about vinyl (and other aspects of audio) is the sheer amount of arguing from effect back to cause, another that very few solutions come without a corresponding penalty. Vinyl can be a very cruel mistress rarely known to dispense free lunches. Hence the deliciously agonizing tweaking to which many audiophiles subject themselves so as to extract that last nugget of gold from those tiny canyons. Some famous psychologist or other is said to have told a colleague in reference to his masochistic patients, “You know, it might surprise you to learn that there aren’t nearly enough sadists to go around.” Maybe that’s why there seems to be no end to the number of new and ingenious pieces of equipment for playing and cleaning vinyl that crop up each year.

Omega Tonearm
The two components under review here were designed by a British engineer named Geoffrey Owen, who has been in audio since the late Seventies when he entered a contest to come up with a turntable that would give the Linn LP12 a run for its money. Afterward, according to his own testimony, “I came to manufacturing tonearms by accident—Tangent Acoustics, my last formal employer, went broke and I had to do something to pay the mortgage. Arms were small, didn’t take up much space and (in the early 80’s) were less contentious than trying to compete against the all-dominating Linn turntable.” In 1983 he struck out on his own, founded Helius Designs, and soon released the Cyalene and Orion tonearms, both enthusiastically reviewed and eventually cult objects. By the mid-Nineties when all things digital were claiming more and more of the market, sales began to drop. Owen ceased making audio products and diversified his company into astronomical and medical imaging (he holds international patents in laser optics). The recrudescence of vinyl in the new century led him back to designing and manufacturing tonearms.

Building on the earlier two arms, he introduced the Omega. Owen’s theories as to the proper way to design an arm are a combination of traditional concepts applied in novel, even innovative ways and genuinely original thinking. In the paragraphs that follow I shall summarize his arguments (the quotations from press releases he prepared for the Omega and the Alexia). Readers seeking more detail—his writing style is vigorous, passionate, and full of energy, but his explanations are arcane and far from easy to follow—should seek out a pair of essays he wrote for the HiFiAnswers (http://www.hifianswers.com/wp-stuff/uploads/2019/05/Helius-Orion.pdf and http://www.hifianswers.com/wp-stuff/uploads/2017/10/Helius-HiFi-Answers-5.pdf). In tonearms he prefers captive bearings to unipivots, to which end he developed a “tetrahedral bearing” that “offers both a captured design and minimal friction”: “It simultaneously integrates both vertical and lateral bearing movements,” which arrangement, he argues, ensures the shortest, most direct, efficient, and effective path so spurious “energy passes through only one structure before it dissipates in the armboard.” He eschews all forms of fluid damping at either the headshell or the bearing housing, claiming the Omega’s non-coincident bearings constitute “differential masses, i.e., different resonant frequencies in each bearing plane,” which provide all the damping necessary.

Although a ten-inch arm, the Omega’s main tube is shorter yet “torsionally stiffer” than a nine-inch arm, but has improved tracking error. Using a computer to measure tracking error across the record, Owen developed his own geometry for the Omega by which he claims that “92% of the record is played with <1 degree of error”: “My aim was to compromise the classical geometry and argue that the inner tracks deserve to sound just as good as the outer ones.” 

When it comes to matching phono pickups he has some decidedly unusual (and rather confusingly explained) ideas regarding effective mass, but the bottom line is that the Omega is “best suited to medium-to-stiff cantilevers” typical of moving coils. Downward force is applied by the main counterweight, designed to be as close to the bearing housing as possible, with three minor weights for fine tuning (you’ll need to supply the gauge). Height adjustment is via the usual collar-clamp and set-screw in the base plate; uncalibrated antiskating adjustment is provided, which means you set it by ear or with test records. Dan Meinwald, whose EAR-USA imports Helius products, prefers to leave antiskating unengaged; I tried it both ways with equally good results, which is to say I heard no mistracking that I could attribute to bias issues. The Omega’s cueing is among the most accurate I’ve come across. The captive cables are very short, terminating in a pair of enclosed RCA jacks that can be attached to the base, after which the user supplies his own interconnects to the preamplifier. The Omega is offered in four versions: Standard, under review here, with Tungsten bearings and copper wiring, retailing for $3695; Standard with silver wire for $3895; Silver Ruby with ruby bearings for $5225; and a 12-inch Silver Ruby for $5295.

helius alexia omega

Alexia Turntable
Inasmuch as tonearms are sensitive both to subchassis movement and to external noise, Owen has opted for a tuned suspension, but the way he has implemented it furnishes a good illustration of how he presses genuine innovation into the service of tried-and-true thinking. Most turntables with suspensions consist in the subchassis being supported by or hanging from three or four springs that are damped, tuned, and free to move in all directions. The Alexia, however, employs a double-wishbone construction that moves only in the vertical plane, where the suspension is quite compliant, but not at all in the lateral plane. Theoretically this means that laterally the subchassis is in effect fixed (i.e., there is no suspension) and thus affords a path for feedback. But I doubt there is much danger of that in real-world listening rooms, where structural feedback comes largely from wooden floors and is confined mostly to the vertical plane (unless one is experiencing an earthquake or lives right next to a construction zone, in which cases feedback is liable to be the least disruption to your listening pleasure). The suspension is tuned to 2Hz, lower than that of any other turntable known to me including the suspended SOTA models tuned to 2.55Hz.

The important point, one demonstrated ages ago by the legendary audio pioneer Edgar Villchur with his Acoustic Research XA turntable and one those opposed to sprung suspensions still don’t seem to grasp, is that it doesn’t matter if the arm and platter move so long as they don’t move relative to one another. In the Alexia, additional stability is achieved from the belt-driven motor sharing the subchassis, which is made from metal damped “with a layer of Perspex, to ensure that high frequencies cannot go back into the arm, and that peaks of energy travelling in opposing directions cannot ring” (see sidebar for more on this).

A big reason Owen went for a suspended turntable is his contention that “maintaining pitch stability in music is just as much a function of subchassis stability.” And very impressive it is that you can bounce—gently, please—the Alexia subchassis up and down as much as an inch with no pitch variation or groove jumping. But he went one step further. While the Alexia has no adjustment for speed, he has fitted an optical sensor below the platter, very near the phono pickup, that monitors the platter speed 120 times per second, as opposed to the more conventional approach of using a servo in the motor. Here is Owen’s explanation as to how this differs from a servo: “Once running, the platter will not slow down until acted upon by other forces. If the ‘offensive’ force is a solitary ‘drumbeat’ then the inertial effects will be effectively absorbed by the platter (with no reference to the speed correction). If the force is large enough to affect the inertial mass of the platter (and for a sustained period), the optical encoder will pick this up and change the speed accordingly. You will notice the central sensor appears under the tonearm—thus giving the software about ‘10 stripes’ (mark/space ratios) from the encoder disk to ascertain if the platter is slowing. The voltage to the motor will increase—not just by the amount needed to correct the increased stylus/record friction but, more importantly, to accommodate the significant increase in magnitude to bring the inertial mass of the platter up to speed. We don’t want to oscillate/overshoot the correction to the voltage, so the ramp-up is subject to being over-damped.”

The Alexia rotates at 33 or 45, selected by buttons near the front; it rests on three feet, two of which are adjustable for levelling; its mat-less platter is made from Delrin “because it has virtually the same acoustic impedance as a vinyl LP”; its construction and styling are of the open-chassis type so popular these last many years; and it’s priced at $5095. Although most consumers will doubtless have their dealers handle setup, including mounting an arm, the task here is so straightforward as to pose no difficulties to  anyone with a modicum of experience (but be warned that both the Omega’s wiring and pickup clips are quite delicate, almost to the point of being fragile, so if you elect to do the job yourself, exercise more care than usual). Helius will supply armboards blank or drilled for several popular arms, but in any practical sense the Alexia performs so optimally with the Omega for which it was designed that Meinwald informs me every Alexia he’s sold is for use with the companion arm. Day to day the combination was one of the easiest, most fuss-free in my experience: I especially liked that speed selection is right up front and does not require moving the belt from one position to another on the pulley—indeed, you can lift a record off the platter, replace it with another of a different speed, and select the new speed on the fly without going through stop, while the optical encoder obviates the need for variable speed control. The Alexia costs without arm $5095. An optional record weight is available ($180), which I used throughout the review. I also fitted the Omega with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil pickup.

It didn’t take long for three aspects of the Omega/Alexia partnership to impress me: extraordinary stability of pitch, wide dynamic window, and excellent tracking of inner grooves. As these relate directly to aspects of the design—i.e., the optical encoder, the isolation owing to the tuned suspension, and the unique geometry of the arm as it traverses the LP—I should point out that I conducted several listening sessions before I read any of the promotional literature or Owen’s technical explanations, so I doubt I was influenced by power of suggestion. To take these in order, I should state right off that much as I enjoy vinyl, it’s gotten to the point that I seldom listen to solo piano on LP as I can’t stand the wow owing to off-center records and other aspects of analog that affect speed (tape, for example), not to mention the havoc it can wreak upon the use of the pedal. It’s surprising how little off-center a pressing needs to be before it’s audible (see sidebar). The Alexia can’t do anything about that, but it certainly replayed vinyl with an impression of rare constancy of speed. I’m not suggesting it’s better than other fine turntables that address speed constancy and accuracy with conventional means, only that to my ears it belongs in the small minority of designs that do this exceptionally well. Robert Silverman’s Chopin’s Last Waltz (isoMike), a really beautiful recording of a piano, does not suffer terribly from off-centeredness  (but, again, see sidebar), so with the volume set at a healthy level, it was easy to close my eyes and imagine the piano in the room, notably for the really powerful left-hand work, the dimensionality of the presentation, and the perspective that allows for just enough atmosphere without blurring focus.

It’s not just piano, however—any and all instruments playing sustained lines and long-held notes were handled with great competence by this combination. For example, M&K Realtime’s direct-to-disc recording of Lloyd Holzgraf on the organ of the First Congregation Church here in Los Angeles—which I’ve heard in situ many times, as it’s only a fifteen-minute drive from my home—was quite spectacular in the stability of the presentation: depth, clarity of line, registration of textures, and dynamic range, M&K’s title The Power and the Glory no mere wishful puffery. The deep extension of the bass frequencies I could feel in my stomach, while the reproduction remained so clean I turned up the volume much higher than I usually do just to wallow in all those majestic sonorities. I hope it isn’t necessary for me to add that this recording alone more than vindicates Owen’s claims about the isolation afforded by the suspension, though that hardly came as a surprise since in my experience well designed and tuned suspensions are consistently superior in these respects to most non-suspended turntables.

In addition to pitch there’s that difficult-to-define matter of timing, the impression that when the music needs to be together, it is together or, just as important, when for effect it’s supposed to be fractionally apart it really is fractionally apart. Some examples: das Schleppen in Viennese waltzes, where the second beat arrives a bit early or the third a bit late (depending on how it’s implemented); any sort of subtly applied rubato; marked slurs in the classical masters, which Charles Rosen points out indicate subtle variations in phrasing and rhythm; differences between accenting a note and detaching it. These sorts of things or their equivalents also occur in chamber and orchestral music. When Stravinsky conducted his own scores, he often liked to have the big tutti chords dampened by not allowing them to resonate too much after they’re sounded (you can observe tympanists doing this in concert when they strike the kettledrum, then immediately place their hands on the skin to stop the ringing, or when a cymbal is struck and they immediately grab the edge between thumb and forefinger). Stravinsky’s last (stereo) recordings of the three great early ballets Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring all feature these effects. On the Bernstein recording of Carmen, the attacks from percussion are fantastic in their impression of hair-trigger alignment or take how the “Gypsy Song” is teased out with positively carnal phrasing and rhythmic point.

One morning I began my listening with the Acoustic Sounds reissue of Brubeck’s classic Time Out, which opens with the uptempo “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” You wouldn’t think that four players could generate a force and sheer power nearly to slam me against the back of the sofa, but they did, so much so I again raised the volume and the sound got only clearer and more forcible, articulation of rhythm scintillating, togetherness unmistakable. From there I went to M&K’s direct-to-disc Hot Stix, as hair-raisingly spectacular a recording of a drum set as I can imagine. Dynamic range here is simply amazing, precision of timing and rhythm spot on.

Back to the Bernstein Carmen: DG was on its best behaviour when they pressed the originals of this set back in the early Seventies. Each time I play these records on a really good setup I am astonished by how wide the dynamic range of vinyl can really be when everything falls into place. The climaxes quite literally leap out at you, while the soft passages are really soft, but thanks to the mercifully quiet pressings (better than many a fancy “audiophile” label’s) they don’t disappear under a lot of surface noise and other detritus. The Omega/Alexia combination was fully up to whatever demands this very demanding recording placed upon it. And as with most classical recordings, a lot of the climaxes arrive with the inner grooves, where distortion is typically very high. Whether owing to the arm geometry Owen designed after his own measurements or not, the way the Omega and Cadenza bronze negotiated the inner grooves was exemplary in its clarity and lack of perceived distortion. Of course, as I noted earlier, much if not most of this must be attributed to the Ortofon, but I’ve used this pickup in setups costing tens of thousands more and I can’t recall they were even marginally superior as regards tracking.

I’m not a detail freak, but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would need more detail than is on offer here. Play the Bernstein/Vienna recording of Beethoven’s Ninth and you will plainly hear the conductor’s foot stamping the podium as he drives soloists, chorus, and full orchestra through the climactic closing pages. Play Jacintha’s “Moon River” on her Johnny Mercer album (Groovenote) and you will hear the faint bleed-through of the piano chords via her headphones, though you really have to listen for them. Play the Ron Tutt side of the stare-of-the-art Sheffield Track & Drum Record and listen to the high hat and cymbals—how tellingly the subtle dynamics of each strike or brush stroke are resolved and thus revealed. This setup also vindicated itself superbly on an old favorite of mine, David Munrow’s recording of Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art (Angel), where the duet between two countertenors accompanied by a pair of recorders will tell you a great deal about your system’s resolving capabilities.

While writing this review I came across an amusing interview with Edgar Villchur, who rejected as “nonsense” the notion that the turntable is the most important component in a system, believing instead that it’s the “job of the turntable to stay out of the picture,” which is accomplished by seeing to it that all the technical parameters of speed accuracy, constancy, low rumble, and isolation are thoroughly addressed. Alluding to some British reviewers who held the XA in high esteem, not least for its soundstaging abilities, Villchur said, “If they held a gun to my head and told me to design a turntable with a very good soundstage, I couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t know how” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOlAua3tBSw). Both imaging and soundstaging are determined by the recording itself. The best a record-playing system can hope to do is to allow whatever has been recorded to be reproduced with as little interference as possible. All my usual recordings by which I assess this sort of thing were reproduced by the Omega/Alexia/Cadenza as I’ve come to expect. For example, during the “Dem Bones” cut of Encore by the Roger Wagner Chorale (M&K Realtime direct-to-disc), the group is solidly there in all dimensions, the shout-outs by individual members of the chorale sounding exactly from their respective places in the group, and the various percussion instruments (a tin pot, for one, I think) registering with quite amazing realism, each securely in place. Side six of the Bernstein Carmen, one of the most persuasive aural stagings of an opera as it might sound from an ideal seat in a theatre, was as I’ve heard it on all the best setups I’ve owned or reviewed over the years: the way the children’s chorus marches in from left to right, the deployment across the soundstage of the various soloists from within the chorus, both panorama and depth set forth to near holographic effect, and air and atmosphere in plentiful evidence.

The first thing I played on the Omega/Alexia was Jacintha’s recent cover of James Taylor songs (Fire and Rain, Groovenote), beginning with “Sweet Baby James.” Now I’m the first to admit I’ve taken many a shot at vinyl zealots in these pages before, but if you want to hear what they’re talking about when they talk about such things as the organic quality of the medium, the warmth, dimensionality, and roundedness of the presentation, the naturalness and musicality, all you have to is listen to this cut and the way her voice is reproduced (a cappella at the outset). Yes, my DSD downloads (64, 128, and 256) do it as well, arguably even better, but that is beside the point: the vinyl is intrinsically beautiful, valid, self-justifying, and requires no apology. 

Criticisms? Only a few. The setup was more sensitive to hum than it should be, but then so are many others. It’s pretty obvious that Helius doesn’t have the means and resources to compete with the likes of SME, Basis, Oracle, Acoustic Signature, Technics, etc. when it comes to industrial grade fit and finish or luxury bling and glam. Despite the space-age open-chassis aesthetics and the use of acrylic, the look and feel are closer to utilitarian than opulent. But this is only to say that Owen put the money where it did the most good sonically and conserved where there are few or no performance or sonic penalties (the Omega bearings feel silky smooth with absolutely no play, while the Alexia’s speed accuracy and constancy so far as I can tell from listening alone are second to virtually none in my experience). The combination performed flawlessly throughout the review period, while nothing about its construction suggests it won’t do so for years, even decades to come.

I was going to end this review by saying that the Omega/Alexia record-playing system punches far, far above its $8790 retail, which in the grotesquely skewed world of high-end audio pricing now qualifies almost as moderate. But I’m not really comfortable with that because I reject the notion, far too widely held by audio reviewers and consumers, that price as such is the ultimate or even a particularly reliable determinant of quality. So let me put it this way: The Omega/Alexia setup performs excellently in all areas and quite outstandingly in a few. If you’re the kind of person who believes that a vastly more expensive mousetrap must be superior to a considerably less expensive one, you may nevertheless still want to give these components a listen, as you just might find that their superiority in those areas gets you a whole lot closer to the music.

Specs & Pricing

Helius Omega tonearm
Length: 10 inches
Bearings: Fixed
Price (as reviewed): $3695

Helius Alexia turntable
Speed: 33, 45
Drive: Belt
Dimensions: 19″ x 5″ x 12″
Weight: 28 lbs.
Price: $5095

EAR-USA (U.S. Distributor)
(562) 422–4747
[email protected]

The post Helius Omega Tonearm and Alexia Turntable appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Audeze LCD-1 Review – Mindfulness

Pros –

Lightweight and comfortable, Folding design, Super soft lambskin leather, Superb balance and linearity, Strong fine detail retrieval in class, Cable orientation always correct

Cons –

Less bass extension than some competitors, Not the most spacious or open sounding headphone, Unorthodox cable design, Plastic build scratches easily

Verdict –

The LCD-1 provides a balance of qualities and conveniences unmatched by immediate competitors.

Introduction –

Who hasn’t heard of Audeze? The US-based headphone manufacturer are an icon of the headphone industry, their LCD line-up having both huge success and staying power. If there’s one thing that alienated buyers from these models, it’s likely their price followed quickly by their large, heavy design. The new LCD-1 is their solution to these qualms, and their sleekest LCD headphone yet excluding the on-ear SINE. It implements the same technologies in a compact form factor designed for all-day comfort. Furthermore, the sound signature has been tuned with monitoring in-mind, pivotal as such a balanced sound is not so easy to come by around this price range.

The LCD-1 retails for $399 USD. You can read all about the LCD-1 alongside Audeze’s technologies here and treat yourself to one here.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Ari very much for getting me in contact with Audeze and making this review of the LCD-1 happen. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Specifications –

  • Style: Over-ear, open-circumaural
  • Transducer type: Planar magnetic
  • Maximum SPL: >120dB
  • Frequency response: 10Hz – 50kHz
  • THD: <0.1% @ 100dB
  • Impedance: 16 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 99 dB/1mW
  • Weight: 250g

The Pitch –

Fazor Waveguide

Audeze implement waveguides to avoid unwanted resonances and destructive interference. This enables greater high-frequency extension and resolution in addition to increasing efficiency. Audeze also promise greater phase coherence resulting in better resolution and sharper imaging. Furthermore, the waveguides can help reduce turbulence and enhance damping enabling higher driver control and a more agile transient response. You can read Audeze’s description here.

Fluxor Magnets

Audeze headphones utilize very strong N50 neodymium magents – the higher the number, the stronger the magnetic force exerted, with N52 being the absolute strongest currently available. This equates to a greater ability to exert force onto the diaphragm meaning a quicker transient response, higher efficiency. This enables Audeze to implement a single-sided array that contributes to the LCD-1’s very light weight design. You can read Audeze’s description here.

Ultra-thin Force Diaphragm

Audeze headphones use an ultra-ligthweight diaphragm just 0.5 microns thick – 1/10th of the thickness of a red blood cell. In turn, the diaphragm is very lightweight which permits quicker acceleration and deceleration – a quicker and cleaner transient response. Alongside the more uniform force application with Audeze’s fluxor magnet array, their drivers offer high resolution and low distortion at high frequencies due to the reduced inertia. You can read Audeze’s description here.

Unboxing –

While the box doesn’t have the luscious velour interior of Hifiman’s headphones, the LCD-1 upholds a premium unboxing experience. Sliding off the outer sleeve and opening up the hard box reveals the compact Audeze carrying case. It’s a tough and protective zippered hard shell with rugged fabric exterior. There’s an elastic internal pocket with Velcro holder that enables the user to store cables and accessories without them scratching the headphones. The headphones are comfortably secured within the case, which also showcases how they fold-up for storage. Audeze also includes a 2m cable and 3.5mm to 6.25mm adaptor and papers to verify warranty and authenticity.  

Design –

Futuristic is one of the descriptors that came to mind when I first lay eyes on the LCD-1. It’s a compendium of clean lines merged with Audeze’s signature faceplate design merging minimalism and the tradition that came before. The plastic construction is a departure from the tanky builds we’ve come to expect from Audeze, however, it is premium where it counts. The earpads and headband make an especially strong impression, employing a gorgeous lambskin leather with plush memory foam on the earpads and soft sponge on the headband. The swiveling mechanism features a metal reinforcement plate that will provide more reliable function over time. Though not the most premium in terms of overall material choice, the LCD-1 feels relatively sturdy and upholds a strong user experience.

The LCD-1 can both fold flat and fold down for storage making them very portable when paired with the included case while enabling them to hang comfortably around the neck. They offer more axis of adjust-ability than most and a nice ratcheting headband slider that lacks position markers but retains its position well. The design of the headband may present issues if you have an especially large or tall head as I found myself using the 2nd largest setting where I usually hover around the middle setting on most competitors. The tolerances are also impressive, with only a slight wobble due to the folding mechanism, but zero rattles, hollowness or creaking indicative of a long-lasting product. The clamp force is slightly higher than average but this is mitigated well by the plush earpads while contributing to strong fit stability. My only personal gripe with the design is that, when folded flat, the earcups are prone to scratching one another.

It is easy to append using some adhesive vinyl, even tape if you don’t mind the ghetto aesthetic. However, competitors such as the Oppo PM3 have small tabs that place the earcups apart, mitigating this issue. It doesn’t help that the LCD-1’s matte finish scratches quite easily even if providing a generally pleasant in-hand feel. The LCD-1 is extraordinarily lightweight in return, especially for a planar. At just 250g it is lighter than most portable dynamic driver headphones. Due to the plastic build and soft leather, I would treat the LCD-1 a little more carefully than most headphones, however, in my experience lambskin wears much better over time than the Faux leather used on the majority of competitors that are prone to pealing.

I am also enthusiastic about the included cable. It’s a dual entry design with TRRS 3.5mm plugs on all terminations. Note, even the headphone side are TRRS which means aftermarket cables are unlikely to fit, and the sound will be in mono if using a regular dual-entry TRS cable. In return, the cable is always in correct orientation since both sides offer stereo that aligns with mono connectors in the earcup jack. The cable itself is of good quality. It’s braided and smooth, but also very supple with zero memory. Microphonic noise is minimal and the cable coils very easily for storage. The metal connectors feel premium and the straight plug has great strain relief in addition to a protruded plug that makes it case friendly.

Fit & Isolation –

I am a huge fan of the LCD-1’s fit and comfort, the lambskin feels superbly soft and supple, while the heat-activated memory foam conforms perfectly to the head over time. They are an over-ear headphone and, as others have stated, the pads are on the smaller side, measuring in at approximately 3.5 x 6 cm but with a larger cavity behind. As the pads are quite deep, they did fully engulf my ears so I didn’t personally find this to form discomfort over time. As always, YMMV here. The headband is reasonably thin but well-padded. Due to the lightweight design of the headphones, they don’t wear on the head like many other either, so I was able to wear them for hours with no issue. For professionals, this will be a prime selling point of the LCD-1, their all-day comfort and the excellent wearing properties of the lambskin leather. Of course, being an open-back design do expect sound leakage in addition to minimal noise isolation. Though compact and fold-able, this makes them less ideal for portable use.

Next Page: Sound, Comparisons & Verdict

The post Audeze LCD-1 Review – Mindfulness first appeared on The Headphone List.

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Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Audio Streamer and CXA81 Integrated Amplifier

“From the Land of Great Rock Music.” “Great British Sound!” Both of these components came with these stickers affixed to them. And that worked for me. Partly because I have a long-time affinity for British rock (particularly from the 70s, 80s, 90s), and partly because I tend to be drawn to hi-fi equipment from the UK. Since Cambridge Audio has been making highly respected components for 50+ years now, I expected a lot from this reasonably priced duo—the British-designed CXN V2 network audio streamer and the CXA81 integrated amplifier. I will examine them individually and together, since used jointly they make up a nearly complete system—just add cables and speakers, and you can stream from your phone, PC, or network.

CXN V2 Network Player Features
The $1099 CXN V2 is the second generation of Cambridge’s very well received streamer and DAC. It is based on the dual 24-bit Wolfson WM8740 DAC with a “bit-perfect signal path” and jitter suppression. Cambridge’s proprietary ATF2 upsampling algorithm increases the bit-rate of all sources to 24-bit/384kHz, and the analog filter uses a two-pole dual-differential Bessel topology.

Available inputs on the CXN include wired USB, coaxial, TosLink, and Ethernet (UPnP) connections, along with wireless AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. Tidal and Qobuz have native support in the Cambridge app, which also provides high-quality Internet Radio streaming thanks to MPEG-DASH support and HLS. The CXN V2 is Roon-ready, but if you need Bluetooth aptX you can separately purchase a BT100 Bluetooth receiver. Compatible audio formats include ALAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, DSD (64), WMA, MP3, AAC, HE AAC, AAC+, and OGG Vorbis. WLAN capability (via included USB transmitter) is IEEE 802.11 b/g or n (2.4GHz).

The CXN V2 is too complex and supports too many different types of streaming and music files for me to test every single one. Even if I had high-res files of each supported type stored somewhere (which I don’t), it would be a Herculean task to try them all. But, as Cambridge is offering free shipping, a 60-day return (only slightly shorter than my review period!), and unlimited online/phone support, doing your own in-home research and auditioning is a breeze.


CXA81 Integrated Amplifer Features
The CX series is actually the midrange of Cambridge’s offerings, with the CXA81 positioned between the extremely affordable AXA35 and the top-of-the-line Edge A at a cool $6k. Priced at $1299, the CXA81 is rated at 80Wpc of Class AB solid-state power. It costs $300 more than the CXA61, but offers only 20 additional watts per channel. Since that only equates to about 1dB greater sound volume capability, which would barely be perceptible, I suspect much of the unit’s added price has gone towards refinements that improve sound quality. Cambridge does state that only the CXA81 has physically separate, symmetrical left and right channels for the analog stages.

Along with the typical four pairs of RCA analog line-level inputs, this amp includes one pair of XLR balanced ins. There are digital inputs, as well—SPDIF coax, TosLink, USB, and Bluetooth (aptX HD)—to drive the onboard high-quality DAC. (I assumed that this DAC was not quite as good as the one in the CXN V2, but more on that later.) The CXA81 features an entirely new digital board, with the ESS Sabre ES9016 D/A chip. It can handle digital files up to 32bit/384kHz, or DSD256. As for outputs, there are two sets of stereo speaker terminals, and both sets can be turned on and off independently. Also included are pre-out, subwoofer out, and a headphone jack on the front panel (plugging in ’phones will mute all other outputs).

Cambridge Audio also includes its proprietary CAP5 five-way protection system to ensure long-term reliability for amplifiers and the speakers they are connected to. CAP5 monitors for DC at the speaker outputs, over-temperature, over-voltage/over-current, short circuits, and intelligent clipping detection.

Both units come with a two-year parts and labor warranty in the USA.

Let’s have some fun. Pretending all I had was a mobile device (Android phone) and the CXA81, I started by pairing them via Bluetooth and brought up the Tidal app on my phone. I began with Sonic Temple from The Cult, another great British rock band, and the sound was decent but nothing to write home about. I blamed the Bluetooth connection. (My past experiences with Bluetooth have not really wowed me, even in its highest-fi version—aptX HD—although there is no guarantee that my phone was actually utilizing aptX HD to full effect.) Sonics could have also been limited by less-than-full-bandwidth Tidal data going to my phone (even though it was connected to WLAN). You do get full Tidal bandwidth and quality (lossless CD or even better from MQA tracks) from a WLAN or Ethernet or Windows PC-connected CXN V2. Don’t get me wrong, what I was hearing completely blew away any music I have heard directly from a phone or tablet or even laptop PC speakers. But it was not up to high-end home-audio standards.


Time for upgrade Number One. I sent the 16/44 PCM digital from Sonic Temple spinning on my Rotel RDD 980 CD transport to Input D3 on the CXA81 (SPDIF coax digital). Wow, this was more like it! Subtle details were popping out of the mix, drum beats had more power and impact, and there was a much better sense of space and reverb. It is incredible how much you are missing from data-reduced music like MP3s and Bluetooth-transferred mobile-phone streaming. With full use of all the capabilities of the DAC, preamp, and amplifier, the sound now coming out of the CXA81 was really quite good. Yes, it was capable of long-term listening satisfaction. But we’re not finished yet.

Then, you guessed it, I had the CXN V2 revved-up and ready to go for upgrade Number Two, with the same tracks from Sonic Temple streamed to the Tidal app on my PC via WLAN, and the CXN V2 connected to the A1 analog input on the CXA81 with balanced XLR AudioQuest Mackenzie interconnects. This was another real step up in sound quality! Billy Duffy’s guitar distortion had sharper teeth. Ian Astbury’s voice had a more convincing gravelly grumble. Subtle sounds and details were even more noticeable. Things which should be smooth and pure were, like solo vocal and sustained notes on solo guitar. The reverb gave me an enveloping sense of the size of the room (or artificial space) The Cult was playing in. Each individual instrument was easy to follow in the mix; even when things got busy and loud, nothing was covered up by anything else. The bass guitar was well fleshed-out as well.

To cross-check, I also tried my CD transport connected to a coax digital input on the CXN V2. Listening to Theater of Pain by Mötley Crüe, I started feeling there were some limitations to the recording quality of this album. So I switched to Mötley Crüe’s self-titled album from 1994 instead. The more sophisticated recording quality on that album brought out some very good qualities of the Cambridge duo. All of this just served to reinforce what I had heard when going from my second to third configuration: that the CXN has a much more serious DAC than the one that is built into the CXA81. Dynamics were more powerful, as if the drummer were hitting the drums harder. Subtleties about guitar sound, distortion, and effects had more character. Voices were more natural and liquid. There was a greater sense of space.

Most of my listening now included the CXN V2, through either Tidal or CD transport to the CXN’s digital input. These two provided the best sound, virtually identical in quality (unless the album had been remastered in the last 15 years or so, where the more recent Tidal version sounded better). For Tidal I tried navigating directly to albums from its menu and remote, which was annoying due to the small display, limited buttons, and slow scrolling I faced with large lists (my album favorites are over 600 now, and growing). I also tried using Cambridge’s StreamMagic app on my Android tablet. That was easier, but had its own issues, as after I’d selected and listened to a track it would move on to some other track that I’d been listening to before, forcing me to manually click on each new track I wanted to hear. (This app was recommended in the Quick Start sheets that came with both units, partly because it includes some configuration and set-up controls for the CXN V2.) You would think the default playback mode for an app would be the same “play the whole album from start to finish” that we’ve become accustomed to since the LP was invented in 1948.

Then I discovered the Cambridge Connect app, which is much better, and installed it on the tablet. Easier to navigate, clearer in layout, easier to search, nearly comparable to the Tidal app itself. I could let an entire album play (or a playlist), or pick and choose individual tracks like a DJ. And, of course, it was using Tidal native, with full data rate and sound quality (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC) but with no MQA decoding, which was an issue. Many albums that I love are available in MQA on Tidal “Master,” and even my humble Windows PC with Soundblaster Audigy sound card is capable of decoding MQA (at least the first unfold, which is the most important one). There is a major noticeable upgrade in quality going from CD (Tidal calls it “Hi-Fi”) to MQA, even though the overall data rate is the same. So I decided to try “casting” to the CXN V2 from Chromecast (Google Home app), and my tablet was able to pair with it and send sound to it. Then I brought up the Tidal app and played from that, hoping it might decode MQA. However, I was not getting full fidelity from this configuration. It obviously sounded worse, data-reduced, (even with CD-quality albums), as if there were another CODEC chain the music had to pass through with Chromecast to the streamer. So that option works, but not if you want the best sound.

Chinks in the Armor?
I know for a fact that my B&W 804 speakers have metal-dome tweeters with a resonance peak around 25–26kHz. I was wondering if I might be hearing some of that peak intruding more than it used to with older equipment that rolled off the response above 20kHz—not hearing the actual frequencies themselves, mind you (my hearing doesn’t go up that high), but perhaps some modulation artifacts an octave or so down. There was some stridency and harshness up in the highest frequencies (upper treble) that made the music less natural. I think it was more the fault of the CXN V2, since I heard similar results when coupling it with my own single-ended Class A amps instead of the Cambridge integrated. So, for comparison, I swapped the B&Ws out for the much smaller Rogers dB101s, which have polymer tweeters.

I put on one of my favorites, Steve Reich’s rhythmic 1970s avant-garde classical masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians. Wow, all the top-octave harshness was gone. These speakers and this recording came together in a synergistic harmony. Apart from the obviously missing low bass, the sound was incredible—one of the most natural and convincing renditions I have ever heard of this music. When hit with mallets, the marimbas were incredibly woody, as if I could touch them and feel the exact density of the hardwood the tone bars were made from.

As I listened more, however, I realized that these speakers were really missing part of the top octave, and that that did cut down on the sparkle of the music. There was a bit of realism missing, and also the Rogers could not play very loud without sounding strained, compared to my large speakers. None of this is surprising, as these were fairly affordable true bookshelf monitors, with small enclosures and only 5″ woofers. Nevertheless, my “experiment” showed two things. One, that the CXN V2/CXA81 system is best partnered with speakers that aren’t excessively bright. And two, that these Cambridge units can make a wide variety of speakers sound great, even smaller, modest ones. To really get the full resolution this Cambridge system is capable of, you do want to aim for getting a more serious pair of speakers eventually, perhaps in the $1000–$2000 range, with decent bass and power handling.

Now about the display in the CXN V2, which is important for track/artist info and not just for album art. If information is going to be displayed on a screen (which worked well with Tidal, for example), it may as well be at a screen-size that you can actually read from more than three feet away, and/or don’t have to get down on your knees to see, if the unit is mounted in a floor rack! Cambridge would have to increase the height of the unit, and minimize (or eliminate) the lower front-panel strip, but these changes would be well worth it, IMHO. Cambridge could then essentially double the size of the display so that it could be legible from 4–6 feet away, instead of only 2–3 feet.

Getting back to the “optimal configuration” with both Cambridge units feeding into the B&W 804s, I discovered that certain recordings can tame the harsh top octave without a speaker swap. Streaming Duniya by Loop Guru was another synergistic harmony. This far-out dance fusion (classified as World Beat or Exotic Dub by some) of looped ethnic samples has always been a lot of fun to listen to. Through the Cambridge system, the inner detail was illuminated in a new way, making it more exciting, more engaging, more toe-tapping. The resonance of the hand drums had more tone; the soundfield felt deeper and wider. The music was dynamic and pulsating, not in a forced but in a friendly way.

Why Integrated?
The integrated amp has traditionally been more popular in Europe than in North America. The reasons for this include smaller living spaces, lower prices, fewer cables needed, etc. If you view an integrated as a preamp and amp built together on the same chassis, you have to admit there are some advantages. There is a potential for better sound for the money, since the output jacks, interconnect cable, and input jacks needed between preamp and amp, and any sonic colorations they impose, are gone. As long as the designers take care to properly isolate the power supplies of the different stages from each other, very good results can be had when using an integrated amp as the heart of your main system.

At a little over $1000, the CXA81 could be the perfect start to a system that is one step up from entry-level high end. You could begin with this unit, some inexpensive cables and speakers, and a low-cost or hand-me-down CD player (use digital-out), and have a decent-sounding system. As time goes by, you could upgrade a cable here, a pair of speakers there, add the CXN V2, and bit by bit hear the improvements, until you arrived at a truly impressive setup. The whole time the CXA81 would be keeping up with the advancements and performing well enough to pass on the increase in fidelity for each change. Highly recommended!

As for the CXN V2, I also liked it a lot. It does many things well, has a plethora of features and supported files/streaming services, and, of course, sounds fantastic. The DAC alone is quite impressive at this price. With its advanced upsampling and high-bit-depth D/A chips, it could reveal more about recordings than I had been accustomed to with my own dated DAC. I just wish it had a larger display and MQA decoding. Actually I would purchase the review sample if it did have MQA, but then again I still might anyway. Also highly recommended!

I must say, good show, old chap, on the lovely British sound—and at a price that’s more affordable than traveling to London.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Network audio streamer/DAC
Inputs: Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth, LAN, coaxial digital, TosLink digital, USB, Apple AirPlay 2, Roon-ready, Chromecast built-in
Outputs: Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog, SPDIF coaxial, and TosLink optical digital
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +/-0.1dB
SNR: -112dBr (at volume set to full)
Weight 4 kg (8.8 lbs.)
Price: $1099

Type: Stereo integrated amplifier (digital-capable)
Analog inputs: 1x balanced XLR, 4x RCA
Digital inputs: SPDIF coaxial, 2x TosLink optical, USB, Bluetooth
Outputs: Speakers A+B, 3.5mm headphone, preamp, subwoofer
Power output per channel: 80W RMS into 8 ohms, 120W RMS into 4 ohms
Frequency response: <5Hz–60kHz +/-1dB
Input impedances: Input A1 (balanced) 50k ohm, Input A1-A4 (unbalanced) 43k ohm
Weight: 8.7 kg (19.1 lbs.)
Price: $1299

Associated Equipment
AudioQuest Niagara 1200 Low-Z power conditioner, AudioQuest NRG-Y3 and NRG-Z3 power cables, AudioQuest Mackenzie and Golden Gate analog interconnects, and Cinnamon digital. AudioQuest Type 5 speaker cable. Kimber Hero and Silver Streak interconnects. Alpha Core Goertz MI-2 T-series speaker cable. Goertz MI Micro Purl silver interconnect. Rotel RDD 980 CD Transport. Assemblage DAC-3 D/A processor. Customized Zen/Bride of Zen pure single-ended class-A integrated amps. Rogers dB101 and B&W Matrix 804 speakers

The post Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Audio Streamer and CXA81 Integrated Amplifier appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

The Naim Supernait 3

Tracking through the silky, smooth harmonies of Shikao Suga’s “Kiseki,” I’m instantly reminded why I’ve always been so fond of the Naim Supernait.

It’s a fantastic, nearly all-in-one solution with solid audiophile credibility. What better way to start listening than with the pair of Focal Kanta 1s that Naim/Focal North America was kind enough to send along with the Supernait.

We’ve been using the Kanta 3s as reference speakers for some time, along with Sopra 3s, so the Kanta 1s are easy to get used to. Music lovers tend to fall into one of two camps when stripping away all the other variables when shopping for a music system: destination people and journey people. If you’re the latter rather than the former, the Supernait 3 will appeal to you because you can upgrade the power supply at a later date, and you can add a DAC/Streamer to access your digital files. (The original Supernait had a great DAC built-in but no phono stage. We’ll get to that later.)

Destination people can have their Naim/Focal dealer set up as much or as little as they need and stop by to pick it all up.

Somewhat of a shift

Naim’s Supernait 3 is a significant exercise in evolution as well as a shift in priorities. Where the original Nait was a small chassis affair producing only 15 watts per channel, (albeit with an incredible MM phono section built in) the current Supernait series has been 80 watts per channel. Naim’s founder, Julian Verker once was quoted saying that they couldn’t give the original Nait more power because “it sounded terrible.” As the Brits are fond of saying, “job done.” Both the Supernait 2 and the Supernait 3 are indeed musical, so this limit has been handily overcome.

Where the Supernait 2 had a built-in DAC, the Supernait 3 returns to its roots with an excellent (and I suspect Stageline derived) MM phono stage. Going straight to this with a Technics SL-1200GAE and Shure M44 cartridge, it was time to rock the house with an extended set of 45 rpm maxi-singles. Starting with Devo, and ending with Prince, this phono section delivers the goods. As Naim always offers a modular approach, and there just happened to be an MC Stageline sitting on the shelf, it was put into use with a second SL-1200/Denon 103 combination. The Stageline has such a small footprint, making it easy to turn your Supernait 3 into a two turntable amplifier, and at a reasonable cost. An extra Stageline will only set you back about $800, and they are lurking on the used market now and then for about $500. Not bad, and you can power it directly from the Supernait 3.

 If you’ve made a modest to somewhat beyond modest investment in a turntable/MM cartridge, the onboard phono section here is not an afterthought, tacked on to appease those with a moderate collection of vinyls (sic). This is a true analog lovers phono stage.

More modularity

In addition to adding an extra phono stage, you can also use your Supernait in the context of a bi-amplified system by just adding another power amplifier, or you can increase its performance with an outboard power supply. Naim has always been a big believer in building massive power supplies – a prime factor in their exceptional ability to reproduce musical pace and timing. Additional power reserves only improve this, and though we did not have an outboard supply available at this time, we did do this with the Supernait 2 in our last review. The improvement was not subtle and worth every penny.

While some criticize this approach, we have always loved this aspect of Naim products because it allows you to grow without discarding your original purchase – a very green solution. And a solid investment. With any non-essential purchase, it’s always nice to know that you can purchase it incrementally. Not to mention having another honeymoon with a component you already love. Adding an external supply creates a new component, allowing you to experience your music collection anew, always fun.

Thirteen years ago, the Supernait 2 was about $4,300, and the current Supernait 3 $4,995. Taking account for inflation, that $4,300 amplifier would be a tick over $7,000 in today’s money, so $4,995 for an even better amplifier is a real bargain. That Naim keeps the price in check is a testament to the production department as much as the accounting department. 

Most people wanting to keep their system all-Naim might pair their Supernait 3 with the ($7,690) NDX 2 DAC/Streamer, but we happened to have their top range ND555/PS555 combination (a click under $40k), and this proves to be a stellar combination. Naim’s unifying architecture makes this all so easy to use.

The one thing unique to Naim is their speaker outputs that look similar to banana jacks. No 5-way binding posts here. Naim suggests using their connectors, though we had no problem getting a solid mechanical interface from Cardas, Nordost, and Tellurium-Q cables. Inputs are connected via Naim 5 pin connectors or RCA jacks. Some of you may even remember when Naim allowed only the use of their proprietary connectors. Bottom line, there are plenty of connections, so you can build a powerful system around your Supernait 3. In addition to the MM phono input, there are four more line-level inputs and a headphone jack on the front.

More listening

The Supernait 3 builds on the strengths of the Supernait 2. Naim says that the power amplifier circuit has been simplified somewhat (“the second gain stage transistors have been optimized, so they no longer need to be shielded by a cascade stage transistor.”) This increases the amplifiers slew rate. While some will argue whether this makes an amplifier more dynamic or not, there’s no question that this is a very fast, dynamic amplifier. Choose a few of your favorite tracks with some intense drumming, or perhaps some rapid acoustic guitar playing, and you’ll hear immediately that the Naim engineers have succeeded brilliantly. Naim has always been famous for producing amplifiers adept at reproducing musical timing, and the Supernait 3 upholds that long tradition.

The high end is smooth and defined, while the lowest of frequencies are well controlled and extended. When paired with the Sopra 3s, it was easy to see what a great job the Supernait 3 does with LF dynamics. Tracking through the entirety of David Gray’s White Ladder, I was constantly impressed with the sheer weight that these tracks were presented.

 As the Naim amplifiers are class B designs, they do not run hot, even when pushed hard. Playing most of the new AC/DC record, Power Up, at a juvenile level still leaves the Supernait 3 barely warm to the touch. The Naim sounds equally good with the volume down low. Aimee Mann’s rendition of the Carpenters tune “Yesterday Once More” (From the Vinyl soundtrack) shows off plenty of tonal delicacy and finesse. This is an amp for all seasons.

What the Naim amplifiers deliver is effortless pace and timing reproduction. They are not quite as vivid as your favorite tube amplifier in terms of creating a huge soundfield in all three dimensions. The Supernait is not a small sounding amplifier, though it is not engulfing the way the (all vacuum tube) VAC i170 is. Definitely a different feel. And in all fairness, the apparent sound of the Supernait’s gets “bigger” when you step up to the external power supply. In the context of a $5,000 integrated with phono, it’s still top of the range. It’s also worth mentioning that even without an external power supply, the Supernait 3 offers a high level of dynamic engagement, even with power-hungry speakers like the Harbeth Compact 7s we have on hand.

The only speakers we would suggest staying away from are a full range ESL. The highly capacitive load that these speakers present did not make for a clean sound. In all fairness to the Naim, The $8,000 Esoteric and a $20k CH Precision integrated that came through our doors fared no better with the Quads – they are the ultimate amplifier torture. The rest of you will be just fine.

Aesthetics and such

You’re either a fan of the stark modernism of Naim components, with their brushed black casework and the backlit green buttons that almost look like M&Ms or Skittles. Personally, I love Naim’s look, and their commitment to making minimal changes in casework design over the years, so you can mix and match multiple generations with ease. Again, this helps to protect your investment – 10, 20 or even 30-year-old Naim components still look great together on your equipment rack. 

The only other manufacturer that has done such a great job of maintaining a consistent design language is McIntosh. It’s no coincidence that Naim gear enjoys the same fierce following that McIntosh does, and their legacy products enjoy a high resale value, should you ever decide to trade up.

However, my experience with Naim over the years is few people trade them in – they just move them to a second or third system and buy more. That’s the ultimate expression of customer loyalty as far as I’m concerned.

The only complaints I have about the Supernait 3 have plagued the amp from the last generation – the volume and balance controls lack any tactile feel. Naim’s engineering driven mentality has chosen the motorized ALPS unit for it’s supreme sonics, and I’m guessing most of you will use the remote anyway. While this is by no means a deal-breaker, as most of you will probably use the remote, the stunningly luxurious feel to the volume control in the thousand dollar Mu-so just makes me wonder why Naim has always chosen not to integrate this here. ED NOTE: Naim has informed me that the MuSo volume control is a digital unit, so this is an apples to oranges comparison – but the MuSo volume control is damn sexy. Last but not least, headphone users will enjoy the Supernait 3. Like the phono section, the headphone amplifier is no afterthought. Auditioning phones from Audeze, Grado, and of course Focal, all delivered great results. This goes further to make the Supernait 3 the perfect partner for those with space at a premium.

At the end of the day, the Supernait 3 is a class leader. Great sound, great aesthetic, and top build quality. Not only do I like this one enough to hand it an Exceptional Value Award for 2020, but I have also purchased the review sample. This is too handy of a system anchor not to have around the studio. 

If you like the Naim approach and don’t really want a big stack of components, the Supernait 3 is for you.


Original article: The Naim Supernait 3

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