Monday, February 15, 2010

The One That Got Away: Naim NAIT 2

The Naim NAIT 2 was an interesting little British integrated from the '90s. It was interesting because it was so small in size, and even more interesting since Naim didn't publish any specs on it...including power output. It was generally estimated between 15wpc and 21 wpc. I owned one from 1993 to 2003, and I grew to love this little amp and wished I'd never traded it in.

At first I paired the NAIT 2 with my rather insensitive (84 dB) Spendor S20 bookshelf monitors. I won't indulge in that tired audio reviewer cliche that the NAIT was a little amp that sounded really BIG. It wasn't. With the S20s, the sound of the NAIT would implode during louder passages. Whenever I played really loud rock or symphonic recordings, the sound would be dull and small and utterly unengaging. But put on some intimate jazz or acoustic rock, and the realism was amazing.

Later I had the NAIT 2 coverted into a preamp (something every Naim dealer knows how to do) and added the Naim NAP 140 power amp. Suddenly I had 45 wpc, which meant that I could now listen to all types of music. Then I upgraded the S20s to the bigger and more efficient (90 dB) Spendor SP100s and suddenly I had my first taste of world-class high-end sound. I even took the NAP 140 out and used the NAIT 2 as a stand-alone integrated and was truly astonished at the quality of the sound.

When I bought the NAIT 2 in 1993, it retailed for $995. I bought a demo unit from my friend Gene Rubin at Gene Rubin Audio ( for just $695. After the NAIT 2 had been replaced by the more powerful NAIT 3 (and then the NAIT 3R, the NAIT 5, the NAIT 5i and the NAIT 5i), you could find one used on eBay for $300 or $400. Now that some of the Naim faithful have proclaimed the NAIT 2 as the best NAIT ever, it's hard to find one for less than $600. I've owned the NAIT 5i, and I see their point. If I can find a mint NAIT 2, I'm going to buy it. It's truly a great little amp with the right speakers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

PRODUCE Opening in Corpus Christi

Margaret and I just returned from Corpus Christi, where we attended the opening of PRODUCE. I got to meet Dusty and his friends, and we had a great time. The evening was part of the ART WALK for Corpus Christi, and we wound up walking through downtown Corpus where we visited such places as Surf Club Records, a great little music store that focuses on local musicians. The record store is attached to the Texas Surf Museum, which features live acts. I noticed that Dick Dale is going to play there next month...I'm thinking about getting some tickets.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One more reminder...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The End of the Reviews!

Well, that's the end of the reviews. Tomorrow I'll be headed out to Corpus Christi to attend the opening of PRODUCE, an art gallery/retail store/DJ school. For those of you who read my DJ DUS interview in Perfect Sound Forever, you'll know what I'm talking about.

For those who haven't, here it is:

MartinLogan Purity loudspeakers

(This was another sidebar. This was my first time with MartinLogan speakers in my own system. Since Jeff is a big MartinLogan guy, I've heard practically every model they make at the TONEAudio office.)

When it comes to my system, I like simplicity. If it wasn't for my love of vinyl, I'd be one of those guys with a matching CD player and integrated amp mated to a pair of mini-monitors. I also enjoy how my smallish listening room can really make high quality stand-mounted speakers really sing. So when it comes to big panel speakers, I'm always a little hesitant. Will they overpower or overload my room? Will they need giant amplifiers? Is everything going to suddenly get really complicated?

With its relatively small 9.5” by 13” footprint, the new MartinLogan Purity immediately sounded promising. First of all, when it comes to MartinLogan, I totally get it. I'm hooked on the expansive sound and incredible detail. I've just always wondered if any of their models would be right for my room as well as my audio sensibilities.

But the Purity is even more remarkable for another reason--MartinLogan has placed a 200 watt per channel switching amplifier in the base of each speaker. That means one (or two) less boxes in your system. So while Jeff may tell you about all the wonderful ways the Purity works with digital music players, flat-screen TVs or even your computer, I'm here to tell you it's an excellent solution for traditional two-channel guys as well..

I connected the M-Ls to the both the Red Wine Audio Isabella and the conrad-johnson Classic preamplifiers and listened to LPs, CDs and FM radio. On first listen, I was ecstatic that I was actually hearing the traditional MartinLogan sound in my listening room—authoritative, effortless and unlimited. I'd just spent a couple of afternoons listening to the flagship CLXs at the TONE studio, and I definitely recognized a strong family resemblance. The Purity system didn't just make the soundstage float gently beyond the walls of my room, it took a wrecking ball and smashed my house to bits. Mini-monitors definitely can't do that.

Low bass performance was also impressive, especially considering that this speaker features two 6.5” woofers per side. The Purity is rated down to 41 Hz, plus or minus 3 dB, which seems extremely conservative. I had another pair of medium-sized monitors on hand that were rated down to 40 Hz, and there was simply no comparison. The MartinLogans reached much further into the depths of the music and pulled out more texture, more realism and more impact from the lowest frequencies. For the first time in many years, I actually felt the deepest bass notes thumping my chest like a playground bully. I threw on a test record with a 30 Hz tone and found there was significant output. While my room may have come into play here, I think that the 41 Hz specification reeks of modesty.

I did detect a slight dry quality throughout the mids and treble, however, which may have been related to the switching amplifiers. If you already have a warmer-sounding tube amp that you're not willing to sacrifice to the gods of simplicity, there's a simple solution. The Purity is also available in a passive version, known as the Source, for less money. If you're looking to combine the speed and detail of electrostatics with a warmer, tube-like presentation, this may be the hottest game in town. But if you're looking for a way to streamline your system without compromising scale, dynamics and authoritative bass response, the Purity should be at the top of your list. The Purity offers so much for so little, I can't even think of any direct competition it may have.

Balanced Audio Technology VK-55SE power amplifier and VK-32SE preamplifier

(This was intended to be a sidebar to Jeff's review of these amps. I don't think the actual review was published until several months after I left. I do have to say that BAT gear is world-class, right up there with the likes of Audio Research, conrad-johnson, etc. These amps were among the very best I have used in my own system.)

It's been a few years since I've spent time with Balanced Audio Technology gear, but this company has quietly and steadily moved into the top echelon of amplifier manufacturers over the last few years. I was eager to hear their latest efforts, the VK-55SE power amplifier and VK-32SE preamplifier.

I immediately felt that the BAT combination was simply superb in terms of bass weight and power, with low frequency control that rivaled some powerful SS amps I've been using over the last year. In fact, I was amazed to learn that the tubed VK-55SE only offered 55 watts per channel, since it sounded much more powerful. Through the 90dB-efficient DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nines, the BAT seemed to offer an unusually high level of control and heft, with all of the low frequencies coming through with a convincing amount of impact and authority.

The BATs were also champs when it came to creating wide-open spaces in my listening room. The soundstage extended easily beyond the room boundaries, and offered a panoramic view of almost every musical performance. On Shearwater's Rook, for example, my brain was able to make sense of the large numbers of performers occupying the space in front of me on each song. These complex passages sounded like they were captured live, with no compression or loss of dynamics as each new bit of musical information flowed effortlessly into the mix. Not only could I hear each musician existing in his or her own space, but I can also sense the interplay between instruments, such as guitar amps bristling against snare drums, or the slap of the bottom E-note on Kim Burke's upright bass bouncing off her body.

Like most great tube amps, the VK-55SE and VK-32SE do need to be warmed up at least an hour before the magic appears. That unlimited sense of bass depth and openness doesn't quick click until everything is hot and glowing. I do mean hot. The BATs are what you might call “winter amps,” which means these babies heated up my listening room like nothing before. If you're used to something like EL34s, you might be surprised at the sheer energy that emanates from the VK-55SE's chassis. Those giant 6C33 output tubes don't just glow—they throb and undulate like a lava flow. As you stand over the '55, you may be tempted to slide off your wedding band and toss it into the bright orange incandescence just so everything will return to normal back in the Shire.

But despite these geothermal concerns, I was very impressed with these amplifiers. They combined the weight and control of the best solid state amplification with the natural, lifelike sound produced by the finest valves. I enjoyed them thoroughly, and recommend them highly.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

TTVJ Hybrid Phono Preamp

(Here's another phono preamp from my $1000 survey. This one sounded great, looked like hell. Way too often phono preamps are red-headed stepchildren when it comes to the outer design.)

For those of you familiar with Todd the Vinyl Junkie's partnership with designer Pete Millett, you'll know that these two gentleman have placed sound quality and circuitry design squarely over cosmetics in their first three products. The TTVJ Millett 307A headphone amplifier, a state-of-the-art design, resembles a kit version of a tube amp from the '70s, yet offers the most penetrating views into recordings I've encountered. (For $6000, you should expect no less.) The Hybrid Portable headphone amp, which was actually the pair's first commercial offering, is a more modest product which still provides unusually high value despite its tiny size (an obvious virtue for something that's portable). After having reviewed both products over the last few months, it seemed natural that I should complete the TTVJ trifecta and review the remaining product, the Hybrid Phono Preamp.

Innards and Outards
While this small preamp won't win any beauty contests (what phono stage would?), it is certainly far from homely. The simple aluminum case is vented in the front, consistent with the shape of the TTVJ logo, with two vacuum tubes peeking out of the top plate. When switched on, the Hybrid Phono Preamp glows from every direction, yet its compact dimensions allow it to be conveniently placed almost anywhere on your equipment rack without drawing too much attention to itself.

The HPP is extremely flexible in terms of its tube complement, with each option providing a slightly different sound. For the basic $850 asking price, you get a choice between 6DJ8/ECC88/E88CC or 6BK7/6BQ7 tubes, either NOS or current-production. For an addition $240, you can upgrade to Mullard ECC88s, and for $250 you can opt for Amperex 6922s. (I received the Amperex version.) A high-frequency switching power supply provides juice to the tube stage, while low-voltage DC current is sent to the amp via a 12V wall adapter.

Loading options are unusually flexible for an MM/MC phono stage in this price range, with 9 individual settings available from 92 to 5K ohms. Six gain settings are offered as well, including a beefy 80 dB option. Both of these settings can be altered by two small rotary knobs on the back panel, so you won't have to worry about taking the HPP apart every time you switch cartridges.

Beyond these features, however, the HPP is a fairly no-frills design. If you're looking for a fancy grounding hub, you'll be surprised to find ordinary screws for your spade lugs. While the power supply is designed to reduce ground loops and hum, I did have to seat the lug precisely in order to achieve an acceptable level of silence. The aluminum case didn't exactly inspire confidence, either—the top plate rattles loudly when tapped. I know that Todd and Pete Millett are trying to put most of the effort into the inside of the box, but when you spend over $1000 on a phono preamp, you might be willing to toss out a few more bucks for solid casework.

Shut Up and Listen
As with the 307A, most of these concerns vanished into thin air once I hooked up the HPP and gave it a listen. Using my reference J.A. Michell Orbe SE turntable, SME V arm, and both the Koetsu Rosewood Standard and the Zu Audio DL-103 cartridges, I felt that the HPP offered a warm, almost classic tube sound. I know the word liquid can be one of those foo-foo audiophile terms at best, and a euphemism for excessive coloration at worst, but the HPP sounded wet and enveloping and comforting. Some of the best SET amps, especially those which use 300Bs, can make the same first impression without sacrificing detail or a believable upper register. In other words, something about the sound of the HPP shimmered ever so slightly without obscuring details or compromising dynamic swings.

On a lark, I went out and found Steve Martin's first three comedy LPs, Let's Get Small, A Wild and Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty! I used to be a huge Steve Martin fan back in the '70s, mostly because he went to the same high school I did, and because I came this close to interviewing him for our school paper. The HPP did an amazing job of not only taking me back to the first time I heard these routines, but it expanded on those memories by tracking Steve's explicit movements on the stage and conveying the exact space which the audience occupied. I was astonished at how great it all sounded (as well as how funny it all remained). At the same time, the HPP constantly reminded me that these performances occurred thirty years ago by preserving the slight tint and dynamic restraint typical for comedy recordings of the time.

Todd would probably beat me with a Ponderosa Pine branch if I didn't move on to something more, uh, musical. (TTVJ is based in Montana, in case you were wondering.) I'm not one of those audiophiles who is obsessed with using the female voice as an ultimate standard for reproduction, but I have been equally delighted with the MFSL pressing of Madeleine Peyroux's Half the Perfect World and the Tonefloat 180g pressing of Anja Garbarek's Smiling and Waving. The TTVJ Millett did an exception job of delivering the playful momentum of the former recording, and preserving the vast and delicate soundstage of the latter.

A Vintage Sound
The HPP played in the fields of the big dollar phono preamps by maintaining an unlimited sense of space, and only fell short when it came to providing more detail at the frequency extremes. In this regard, the HPP provided an almost “vintage” sound by blending a rich, seductive midrange with a slightly rolled-off treble and less than subterranean bass performance. Both the Koetsu and the Zu are warm cartridges to begin with, so a slightly more neutral cartridge such as the Dynavector 17D3 may be a better overall match. In fact, the HPP may be the perfect phono stage to tame cartridges with a slightly more incisive and analytical delivery, such as a Sumiko Blackbird or certain models from Clearaudio or Benz-Micro.

The only other caveat I had about the HPP involved the appearance of “tube rush” at higher listening levels. Much of the design of the HPP revolves around lowering the noise floor, such as the aforementioned power supply and the fully-balanced moving-coil inputs. This noise always seemed to emerge just slightly above comfortable listening levels, so I didn't find it to be an obstacle. Still, some listeners may resist a product that places a ceiling on the ability to crank up the volume.

Overall, the TTVJ Millett Hybrid Phono Preamp is very competitive with other products in its class, and even edges out most of them in delivering that warm and soothing listening experience so many vinyl lovers enjoy. The HPP is the perfect phono stage for vintage equipment enthusiasts who wax rhapsodic about the phono sections of their classic Fisher and H. H. Scott amps, but secretly wish for more flexibility and detail. It's also a winning solution for audiophiles who have noticed that the overall sound of their analog rigs have drifted into the Lean Zone, a complaint that I've heard fairly frequently these days.

In other words, this is the perfect phono stage for audiophiles who want to be reminded of the reasons why they've stuck with vinyl. So plug in the HPP, sit back in your favorite chair, and listen to some guy prancing around the stage with a banjo in his arms and an arrow sticking out his head. It'll take you back like nothing else.

Jenni Potts at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, Bellingham, Washington July 18 2008

(This one kind of ticked me off a little. I drove all the way from Vancouver, Washington to Bellingham, Washington, from one end of the state of the other, and we forgot to include it in the issue. Jenni's publicist kept asking me when it was going to appear, I kept bugging Jeff...and it still never appeared. I did a full-feature interview with Jenni and reviewed her CD, but Ben Fong-Torres thought we were kind of ODing on Jenni that issue. We were supposed to put it on the website, but never did. Sorry, Jenni!)

With her platinum blond locks and her fairy wings, singer-songwriter Jenni Potts didn't quite blend into the crowd at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. As a full-fledged member of Bellingham's close-knit music scene (Death Cab for Cutie, The Posies, Idiot Pilot, The Trucks), she sat politely in the front row and supported fellow acts Jonathan McIntyre and the Oregon Donors alternate between moody, reflective folk (the former) and raucous indy post-punk (the latter). Once she took to the stage, however, she owned the place, and not just because she decorated the stage to look just like her living room.

Potts was celebrating the release of her new CD, Take This and Go (Clickpop CP008), and was joined by her backing band, known as The Twitterpated. The combination of drums, bass and vibraphone perfectly complemented Potts' dreamy yet urgent voice as well as her accomplished strumming on acoustic guitar. (Like a Hawaiian slack key guitarist, Jenni changed her tunings on nearly every song.) Starting with the opening cut of the CD, “Pro LC,” Potts displayed a level of charisma and confidence uncommon for a new artist that had just turned 21 the week before.

The central portion of the show featured Potts alone with her guitar. With her short video Pretty Things playing on a screen behind her, she remained forceful and commanding, and seemed much more compelling than any cute-girl-with-a-guitar has a right to be. The front doors of the AMRE opened out into the streets of Bellingham, and I watched as at least 20 people walked past, stopped, listened to Jenni and then immediately paid to get in and see the rest of the show. I don't think I've ever seen that happen before.

Potts does tend to stick to her corner of the world (and a corner it is, indeed, with Bellingham being just 18 miles from the Canadian border), so it doesn't make sense to tell you to see her when she comes around. But I have a feeling that her new CD will create a lot of buzz, and with buzz comes opportunity for greater exposure. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, see her now before she gets too popular and starts booking the bigger venues.

Harbeth Monitor 40.1 loudspeakers

(This review was never finished, which is why it didn't appear in TONE. These were the speakers I was using when I left. To put it bluntly, these are my favorite speakers in the entire world, and I hope to buy a pair one day and get off the audio merry-go-round. I'll pair them with the LFD NCSE integrated amp and then retire to a cabin in the mountains...)

A few years ago, I was discussing some of the more conventional BBC monitors from England with a dealer friend of mine. He told me that many of these “big boxes,” such as the classic Spendors and the Tannoy Prestige series, were falling quickly out of favor since consumers seemed to want tall, slim floorstanders these days. It seemed like such a shame, since many of my favorite loudspeakers were BBC-licensed behemoths.

Fortunately, someone forgot to tell Harbeth about this marketing trend. Not only was their flagship Monitor 40 one BIG box, but there’s been a long waiting list for potential buyers ever since the first pair made their way into the US a few years ago. There’s a reason for that.

I still remember the first time I heard the original Harbeth Monitor 40 loudspeakers. I remember the second and third times just as well. I remember the associated equipment used on each occasion, and the music that was selected. I can instantly retrieve my impressions of the soundstage, the imaging, the tonality and the performance at the frequency extremes. At the time there were three or four loudspeakers I longed after and hoped to own one day. After my relatively short time with the 40s, I never seriously considered them again.

The Proverbial Big Box
This world-class loudspeaker might look a bit frumpy next to its more svelte and fashionable competitors. It is, for lack of a better word, a big box. Its front baffle is much wider than the diameter of the woofer. Despite its size, it still needs a stand, albeit one that raises the Monitor 40 just a foot off the ground or so. (I used the dedicated stands from Skylan.) When you set these down in your listening room, they don’t quite blend in like those slim piano-black towers your wife preferred. They puff out their chests and say, “Congratulations…you are the proud new owner of a pair of Harbeth 40.1 loudspeakers.” Every guest that visits your home will be treated to the same stoic proclamation.

That said, the 40.1s are surprisingly easy to move around. They’re more bulky than heavy, thanks to the thin-wall construction.

Damning the 40.1s
It might seem as if I'm waxing rhapsodic about a mere pair of loudspeakers. The more objective and skeptical among you may take the opposing view and say that if my impressions of these speakers are that pronounced, that if the Harbeths sound so different from every other transducer on the market, well, maybe they're doing something wrong. Maybe they're too euphonic or rolled off. Maybe they're too warm and romantic. But now that I've spent a significant amount of time with the new 40.1s, I know why I find them so utterly memorable and engaging. They are simple the most relaxed loudspeaker I've ever heard.

In the wrong context, it may sound like I'm damning the 40.1s with faint praise. I keep discussing the fact that they're laid-back, as if they are rolled off or overly smooth. They’re not. I've always felt that the difference between the truly great pieces of audio gear and the runners-up is the feeling that all of the musical information is being laid out in an expansive manner that allows your brain to easily translate all of the sonic information. This means that the music never sounds overly-aggressive or forward (unless that's the mastering engineer's intention), complex musical passages never sound confused or overlapped and that listener fatigue is a downright alien concept.

Originally I was concerned that the 40.1s would be way too much speakers for my relatively small room and thought that the Monitor 30s would be a better overall solution. But Alan Shaw states that the 40.1s only need a few feet of space between them for the best sound. Then I started thinking of all of those BBC photos with the 40s crammed into tight spaces between impressive banks of video monitors, not to mention the fact that some 40 owners actually dig these monoliths in a near-field listening arrangement, and I took the plunge. I pushed my sofa as far back as it would go (I hope the ADA doesn't inspect my listening room anytime soon) and the Harbeths wound up sounding their best with only about six feet of space between the inner edges of the cabinets. I toed them in directly toward the listening position as well.

To my surprise, the Harbeths were quite happy in this relatively tight space. In fact, they seemed to jump up a notch in immediacy and clarity when I sat forward slightly in my sofa, my head even closer to the baffle.

If I had only one gripe about the Harbeths, it would concern the performance in the deep bass region. These are big speakers with a tremendous footprint, and it seems like demanding that this level of owner commitment should result in flat frequency response in the 25 to 30 Hz neighborhood. (Lowther owners need not respond to this comment.) Alas, the 40.1s only make it to about 39 Hz, which is very respectable but not quite earth-shattering. The Harbeths can reproduce the visceral impact of most kick drums (ably and thunderously demonstrated in “Mirrorball” from Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid), but they may come up short when it's time to drag in Virgil Fox--or Tony Levin, for that matter. This brings up the subwoofer question, but I would only use the finest examples with almost unlimited flexibility when it comes to matching and blending. I wouldn't want to compromise the 40.1s delicate balance just to get that last octave. Plus, do you really want another big box in your listening room at this point? I don't.

Stop the audio world…I want to get off
To summarize, the first time I heard these Harbeths, I thought that they might be the best speakers I'd heard up to that point. This was back when the US distributor told me that there were less than a dozen pairs in the US, and the price was still close to the current line of Quad ESLs. The second time I heard them, I completely lost interest in the Quads altogether. By this time, I had a couple of Harbeth dealers ask me for my opinion, since they couldn't get in a pair in for audition. The third time I heard them, I was told that I was listening to one of the last production pairs in existence, and that the 40s were discontinued because the woofer was no longer being made.

Now that the 40.1s are here and readily available, I can't help but feel lucky. Having them in my listening room for the last few months was a genuine highlight of my audiophile life. When it's time to retire and get off that proverbial audio merry-go-round, I can't think of a speaker I'd rather own than these.

Friday Classic LP: Red Hot Chili Peppers—Mother’s Milk

(For a while we tried a "Friday Classic LP" review at TONE, where we mentioned an classic album that was still currently available on LP and reviewed it. Unfortunately, the feature left with me, and this was the last one that never made it to print.)

Chad Smith once worked for my buddy Scott in the film industry. One day, Chad approached Scott at work and asked for the afternoon off. “The Chili Peppers are having try-outs for new drummers,” he said. Scott, who was also a musician, gave him the time off and wished him luck. “I didn’t even know you played the drums,” Scott said.

Later that afternoon, Scott got a call from Chad. “I won’t be coming in tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. I’m a Chili Pepper!”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were definitely in state of transition before their 1989 breakthrough album Mother’s Milk. Guitarist Hillel Slovak had died from a heroin overdose the year before, and drummer Jack Irons, who suffered from bipolar disorder, decided to exit the band shortly thereafter. While the band certainly enjoyed a strong cult following up to that point (especially in their native Los Angeles), they had yet to truly enter the mainstream. With the addition of Chad and guitarist John Frusciante, the Chili Peppers entered the studio a little more saddened, a little more grown-up, and they churned out an album that would finally make them famous.

Mother’s Milk wound up selling three times as many copies as their previous LP, 1987’s The Uplift Mojo Party Plan. Chad’s drumming was clean, powerful and athletic and gave the band a less funky and more rock-oriented sound. John Frusciante’s guitar style, however, was greatly influenced by Slovak, so the band retained much of their basic identity. Mother’s Milk was a huge hit, and their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” became a permanent fixture on alternative radio playlists all over the world. “Good Time Boys” and “Knock Me Down” also charted as singles. As an added bonus, the Peppers provide a fun and blistering version of Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire.”

Many critics felt that this was the turning point for the band, and that without Mother’s Milk the band wouldn’t be the success it is today. I feel that as good as this album is, it would have been a fluke without the more accomplished and ambitious follow-up, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Still, Mother’s Milk is a great party album, full of groove and funk and generous helpings of power rock.

And hey, I know the drummer.

Clayton Audio S-40 power amplifier

(This was a neat Class A amplifier I used for the better part of 2008. I could live happily with this amp for the rest of my life.)

A few months ago, I found myself trying to choose between two absolutely wonderful power amplifiers to see which one would take up permanent residence in my reference system. Both were fairly expensive, both were well-respected in the audio world, and both took my system to places it had never been before.

The first amplifier was a well-known classic tube design from a highly respected company. Every recording sounded warm, natural and beautiful through this amp. It had enough power to drive most speaker systems, which suited my needs, as well as my desire to continue using tubed amplification after leaving the world of single-ended triodes. But ultimately, I felt it was just a little too soft.

The second amplifier was a stunning example of precision audio equipment, a gleaming, teeming piece of industrial architecture. It was solid-state, so I wouldn't have to worry about the cost of replacing tubes (that first amp had quite a few). It also had a lot of power, so I would never be hamstrung when it came to reviewing speakers. But ultimately, I felt it was just a little too dry.

Around this time, the Clayton Audio S-40 amplifier showed up at my door. It was less expensive than the other two amplifiers, and had less power as well. The Clayton was certainly attractive in its own dark, brooding way, but didn't quite have the wow factor of the other two. I'm not sure why I didn't take it seriously at first. In retrospect, I feel a bit foolish. But to paraphrase Goldilocks, this amplifier turned out to be just right.

Show Me the Amp!
Clayton Audio, based in Clayton, Missouri, is a very low-profile company. It doesn't even have a website. Clayton has been in business since 1994, however, and has been quietly building some of the most intriguing Class A amplifiers in the industry. Headed by Wilson Shen, a former IBM systems designer, Clayton Audio originally featured two products: the monoblock M-70 and the S-40, both of which come in the same case. (Clayton has recently added some new and more ambitious models to their line.) The physical appearance of these amplifiers is somewhat striking, with a basically square and compact countenance offset by a very deep chassis. These amps will require dedicated amp stands, since they are probably too deep to fit comfortably in most equipment racks.

The top of the S-40 is also unique. Long fins, serving as a heat sink, run all the way from front to back, covering the entire top plate. This offsets the otherwise chunky, square appearance of the amp, making it appear almost streamlined. These heat sinks are necessary, of course, because the S-40 provides 50 watts per channel of pure Class A power. But while the case and heat sinks of the S-40 were warm to the touch during normal operation, the amp did not heat my listening room to uncomfortable levels on warm summer days. In fact, I can think of a few tube amps that I've owned that ran much warmer.

In his days at IBM, Shen developed a strong working relationship with Motorola, which influenced his ideas on amplifier design. The S-40 eschews the practice of using MOSFETs in the output stage, and places Motorola bipolar power transistors in their place. These devices had never been used in an audio product until Shen did it. He also used his pull with the folks at Motorola to select only the highest quality semiconductors and parts for his designs, and kept the ball rolling by using DH Labs wiring, Sprague capacitors, C&K switches, Omron relays and so on.

The S-40 I received differs somewhat from the original design in that the power has been increased from 40 to 50 watts per side. (One wonders why Shen didn't change the model number to S-50 to reflect this!) Since the original S-40 had a reputation for sounding much more powerful than its power rating, this can only be good news for those looking for compatibility with a wide range of speakers.

Show Me the Sound!
As I said before, the S-40 bridges the gap between classic tube sound and modern solid state characteristics in an intriguing way. In many ways, it was truly the best of both worlds. (After seeing Clerks, it's hard for me to use that phrase without giggling just a little.) I used the Clayton in my reference system over the course of many months, occasionally pulling it out of the system to review this amp, or that amp. While some of these products may have surpassed the performance of the S-40 in one specific way or another (and usually at a significant increase in cost), the Clayton felt like a comfortable old friend when I returned to it. It knew my musical tastes well, and it communicated to me in a relaxed, friendly way that made me feel welcomed in my own listening room.

If that sounds a little touchie-feelie to you, well, that's the point. Every time I fired up the Clayton, I'd literally heave a big sigh of relief. The S-40 was able to provide all of the warmth of the best tube designs, and yet add enough vital detail to the presentation to stave off the feeling that I was missing something in the mix. At the same time, the S-40 never sounded harsh or bright, even when the recording came up a bit short in the lush, romantic department.

For instance, my Sundazed LP pressing of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is notable for revealing every last detail in this busy mix, but it can sound dry and unemotional with certain solid state amplifiers. At the same time, many of those little details can be lost through tubed amplification, especially SETs. The Clayton was able to walk that tightrope and once again give me the best of both worlds (snicker). The pain, heartache and chronic migraines came through in Jeff Tweedy's crackling, expressive voice like never before. While this is one of my very favorite recordings of the last decade, my appreciation for it grew even more with the S-40 in the playback chain.

Show Me the Love!
I'm tempted to pull out that old review cliché and call the S-40 the Honda Accord of amplifiers. You know, it doesn't come in first place in any single department, but it performs so well across the board. But I think the Clayton is actually the Acura NSX of amplifiers. While it may not be as breathtakingly fast as a Ferrari or a Lambo, it's user-friendly and offers regular audiophiles the chance to experience the very best for slightly less money.

I have heard one or two amplifiers in my system that I would ultimately prefer to the Clayton. Those amplifiers, as I said before, cost a lot more money. Like a Ferrari or a Lambo, they consistently provided big thrills and prompted me to exclaim “Wow!” more than once. But the Clayton is that special car in your garage, the one you've owned for years, the one you buff with a diaper, the one you actually have a long term relationship with.

I could switch to analogies about women here, but I think you get the point. I like the S-40. I like having it around. I hope it stays.

Aperion Audio Intimus 533-T loudspeakers and Intimus S8-APR subwoofer

(Here's another Aperion review that got canned when they replaced these with a new model. Aperion Audio is an interesting company...they're based in Utah, but their stuff is manufactured in China. Still, they offer huge bang for the buck, a great return policy, free shipping, etc.)

If you're like me, you have a lot of non-audiophile friends who are constantly asking you for audio recommendations. This is especially true of loudspeakers. Being an audiophile apparently means that you not only know which speakers are the best, but the best ones for them. And that can be quite difficult, because your buddy is looking for something that really rocks, pumps out the bass, and looks bitchin' as well. Oh, yeah...and they can't cost a lot of money, either, or their significant other will skin them alive. In other words, they want it all, they want it now, and they want it for five or six hundred dollars max. They can maybe push it to a grand or so if they brown bag it for the next month or two, and buy the significant other something nice and sparkly.

I've always balked when making such recommendations. For a grand, I'd lean toward a nice set of small but high quality bookshelf monitors. And while my buddy might learn a thing or two about midrange purity and superb imaging, he is still going to ask a lot of questions about bass output. He has non-audiophile buddies, too, and he needs to impress them as well. And what about the babes? Babes love bass!

Eventually, this conversation will turn toward subwoofers, and while there are many three-piece speaker systems that can be purchased for well under one thousand dollars, I'm not about to recommend any of them. Almost every one I've heard had a big problem with low frequency integration, meaning that there was a stunning lack of seamlessness between the sub and the satellites. In order to get seamlessness, you usually have to spend more money. A lot more, in fact.

To be specific, you have to spend $1149. So you may have to brown bag it for three months instead of two...

Aperion Audio saves the day (and my reputation)!
We've covered Aperion Audio speakers previously in these pages, specifically the 632-LR monitors and 633-T floorstanding speakers. If you've already checked those reviews, you'll know that Aperion is a little different than the majority of audio companies out there. Based here in Portland, Aperion designs their gear here, but manufactures it in China. Okay, that may not be so different in this day and age, but Aperion also sells directly to the customer, ships for free, charges no sales tax, and gives you a 30-day no-hassle money-back guarantee. Even the shipping materials reek of incredible value. All Aperion products are shipped in solid double boxes, and every speaker is nestled in a comfy midnight blue velvet sack. Even the drawstrings are classy.

I received a pair of the Intimus 533-Ts, which are the middle model of their floorstanding line of speakers, along with the Intimus S8-APR subwoofer, which is yet another middle child. The 533-Ts retail for $375 each (a hint that these can be used for home theater applications), and the sub goes for just $399. All three enclosures were finished in cherry and were quite attractive, although one of the 533-Ts appeared to be lighter in color than the other speaker and the sub. It was slight, but noticeable. Considering Aperion's excellent reputation for customer service, I'm sure they would take care of something like this immediately.

Intimus 533-T tower loudspeakers
I started off by plugging the 533-Ts into my reference system without the sub. A relatively tall, slim design, the 533-T consists of two 5.25” woofers and a silk-dome tweeter in a ported enclosure. With a 89 dB sensitivity and a steady 8 ohm impedance, the 533-Ts should be fairly easy to drive, even though Aperion recommends at least 50 watts per channel to drive them. I used both a Nagra PSA (100wpc) and a McIntosh 275 (75wpc) just to be safe.

I immediately liked the sound of the 533-Ts, noting their smooth and warm demeanor. If I could describe them in one word, it would be clear. I'm not talking razor-clear or ultra-detailed, but free of edginess and distortion and other artifacts that can get in the way of the music. They might have been lacking in that organic, natural, I-can-hear-you-breathing sonic presentation that more expensive loudspeakers manage, and I found the soundstage to be slightly narrow as well, but for $750, the overall sound quality was nothing short of amazing.

The one thing they didn't do was deep bass. Aperion claims that the 533-Ts only go down to about 65 hz, which sounds about right. I guess that's why they sent me the sub!

Intimus S8-APR subwoofer
The S8-APR sub is powered with a built-in 150 watt amplifier, and allows you to get down to about 35hz. With its active 8” woofer and its two 8” passive radiators, the S8-APR is described as a sealed passive radiating design. It's a busy-looking little cube, with only the top and bottom unfettered by drivers, connections and controls.

The rear control panel contains for pairs of binding posts for a speaker level connection, and two pairs of RCA jacks if your preamp has a sub out feature (my ModWright 36.5 line stage doesn't, so I went the former route). In addition, you can invert phase, switch from 120V to 240V, and choose between three power options (on, off and auto). Finally, there are two knobs for level and crossover frequency. Aperion suggests you turn both of these knobs to the 12 o'clock position, and start your fine adjustments from there.

With my new, smaller listening room, I had to back off quite a bit from this position in order to avoid whumpy, one-note bass. In fact, when I first inserted the S8-APR into my system, the output and crossover controls were just a bit to the right, and my first musical selection (“King of the Mountain” from Kate Bush's Aerial CD) caused my next door neighbors to run over and see if everything was okay. (“All we heard was a big thump, like a sonic boom!”) I eventually set the crossover frequency just a bit above the 65hz mark, to mate properly with the low-frequency limitations of the 533-Ts, and the output level somewhere around 10 o'clock to reduce the effects of the sonic boom.

So happy together...
Once everything was hooked up for a while, I sat down for some serious listening. (Well, duh.) I took a while for me to stop thinking “$1149...$1149...$1149.” That's what I kept thinking about while listening to the Aperion system, whether or not I could come up with a loudspeaker that would sound better for that kind of money. Of course this depends upon your priorities when it comes to a speaker. I'm sure there are a variety of somewhat small yet well-built monitors that could better the Aperion in terms of midrange clarity or imaging or even the size of the soundstage. But will they hit 35hz with aplomb? It's doubtful.

The Intimus system didn't prove to be outstanding in one specific parameter or another. It was simply well-rounded, and it offered a level of sound quality that easily surpassed its modest price. And once I could get all of those monetary qualifiers out of my head, I simply relaxed and enjoyed some of the richest, deepest bass I've experienced, coupled with very smooth upper frequencies. And while the soundstage was relatively narrow, it was deep, subjectively extending behind the back wall of my listening room.

Did this combination achieve that aforementioned seamlessness? I have to admit that it did take some work. At first I recognize that the sub did sound detached from main speakers. Fiddling with the crossover frequency did make a difference, but I had even more success by experimenting with placement. The S8-APR isn't a wallflower, happy to be stuffed in convenient nooks and crannies. It likes to be the center of attention, which mean placed midway between the 533-Ts. Only then did I experience a cohesive, balanced sound.

So at last I've found an affordable loudspeaker to recommend to my non-audiophile buddies, and some of my audiophile ones as well. Aperion Audio has created quite a bit of buzz of late, and after spending some time with one of their middle systems, I can easily understand why. I'd love to hear some of their more ambitious designs, as well as maybe one or two of their small monitors. I know that they tend to stick to the same basic drivers throughout most of their designs, so that means there is a definite Aperion “sound.” And that, my audiophile and non-audiophile friends, is a good thing.

(This was just an odd article that never found a home.)

I have a fascination for films from the Silent Era. While the reasons are obvious--it's living, breathing archaeology--I'm constantly drawn to the backgrounds. I'll see a tree swaying in the breeze and be instantly reminded that it's swaying in 1922 or 1926 or 1930. I see babies and toddlers in crowd scenes and wonder if they're still alive and how many great-grandchildren they now have. taps into that basic attraction. This astonishing website, named after a teenage coal miner from a century ago, features thousands of high-definition photographic images from bygone eras that will allow you see an almost unprecedented amount of detail. You can choose from a variety of galleries such as Pretty Girls, Aviation, Civil War (obviously not for the squeamish), Cars & Trucks, Cities, Railroads, Service Stations and Kids, with most images presented with very few flaws. (A few specks of dirt here and there reveal that most of these photographs were created with a flatbed scanner.)

If you want a real treat, check out the section on 4 X 5 Kodachrome transparencies. Most of these images were captured during World War II, yet look clear and revealing as if they were taken earlier this morning. It's strange and fascinating to peer deep into the eyes of a gorgeous young woman of college age and realize that she's now in her '70s or '80s. Seeing soldiers man their guns or sit in the cockpits of their airplanes offers an immediate and visceral connection that no memory, however sharp, can replicate. When you see the panoramic shots of major American cities such as Detroit in 1942, it's hard to believe that those streets don't look the same today. It's only after you see the steady parade of old cars and men wearing suits and hats that you begin to have a feel for time and place.

The Shorpy Gift Emporium also features fine art prints of most of these images through the Juniper Gallery, along with an assortment of WPA posters, fruit crate artwork and vintagraphs. It's easy to lose a few hours poring over all of these galleries, but it will be worth it.

Zu Carboniferous

(Here's the rare CD review that somehow didn't make it. This was a really bizarre CD, but I liked it...even though it gave me a headache for the rest of the day.)

Zu Carboniferous
(Ipecac IPC110, CD)

The latest from Zu is a tall, slim floorstanding model that uses…wait a minute. Oops, I’ve got the wrong notes. No, this Zu is an chugging, guttural metal/jazz/punk trio from Italy that makes Rob Zombie sound like an 18th century fop in comparison. While their last album with Nobukazu Takemura, 2006’s Identification with the Enemy: A Key to the Underworld was a jagged, avant-garde free-for-all that borrowed liberally from Frank Zappa, Ornette Coleman and others, Carboniferous is a lean and determined freight train of sound that will make you a) clench your fists and pump your noggin rhythmically, b) jump in your car, throw it in the CD changer and stomp on the gas or c) reach frantically for the Extra-Strength Tylenol and the volume control.

After you listen to the first few of these churning, instrumental maelstroms, you might be surprised at how axe-free these metal assaults actually are. Zu is actually a guitar-less trio, with Jacopo Battaglia on drums and electronics, Massimo Pupillo on bass and Luca T. Mai front and center with baritone sax. That’s right--much of the buzzing and rumbling on this album comes from a member of the brass family. Some of the more industrial elements are augmented by synthesizers and Pupillo’s crunchily mechanical bass, and guest guitarists do appear on the songs “Chthlonian” and “Obsidian,” but Mai controls this beast via a mouthpiece and an ordinary reed.

The sound quality fares better in the occasional quiet reflective parts, especially when Battaglia and Pupillo engage in simple yet muscular counterpoints. At full blast, this recording suffers from a bit too much compression and sounds a little homogeneous. I wondered if this was one of those classic cases of “LISTENER: TURN THE VOLUME WAY UP” from the ‘70s, but tiny birds started falling out of the sky outside of my house when I indulged. While this may ultimately fall into the category of Music to Play When the Party Is Over and You Want Everyone to Go Home, it is performed with uncommon precision and imagination. The only slight bow to convention is the appearance of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), who sings on “Soulympics” and “Orc,” but that’s still a galaxy away from the Diana Krall LPs I reviewed last week.

Zu is a heady, heavy, ruthless listen. I bet it would sound great on a pair of Druids, too!

Shanling CD-T1500 CD player

(I had a chance to take this CD player to Texas with me, and now I regret it. It was very cool looking, and it sounded great! Now I'm stuck with a lowly Denon CD player until I can scrape the money together for another Naim.)

I grew up in the shadow of Disneyland, and one of my favorite hangouts as a kid was the Stovall's Inn of Tomorrow. This now-legendary motel was known for both its topiary gardens and its “Space Age” themes of swirling atomic icons, geodesic domes and other futuristic touches. Futuristic, of course, is a relative term, and the Inn of Tomorrow was that kitschy combination of past and future that could only be imagined in the '50s when people thought we would be piloting our own personal spaceships to work by the year 1980.

The Shanling CD-T1500 CD player reminds me of this aesthetic. It's not quite as swoopy and curvy as this Chinese audio company's more expensive offerings, which generally have styling cues that seem more rooted in the 21st century. With the exception of the top-loading transport and acrylic clamp, the '1500 resembles an old-fashioned '50s tube amp in its general layout—albeit one re-imagined for a future where transistors were never adopted by mainstream electronic companies. It has solid transformer cubes toward the rear—one each for the tube, analog and digital output stages--and two pairs of Russian EH6922s along the sides. (These Electro-Harmonix tubes have cool gold-plated pins as well.)

Plenty of Atomic Age touches differentiate the appearance of the Shanling from other CD players, however, such as a pair of aluminum rings guarding each tube and glowing blue lights set into the substantial isolation columns, transport and tube sockets. The contrast of the blue against the comforting yellow-orange glow of the 6922s is very striking in appearance. The CD-T1500 will definitely be the center of attention of any listening room whether it is switched on or not.

Where's the flux capacitor?
The '1500 also provides an extensive list of features and capabilities. Apart from the tubes, which are used for the balanced and unbalanced analog output stages, the Shanling provides 24-bit/192 KHz upsampling, an advanced Philips CD-PRO 2 linear tracking pick-up mechanism and an aluminum alloy chassis that is designed to absorbs vibrations. I/V conversion is accomplished with a 12x Burr-Brown OPA604 chip, and digital-to-analog conversion is handled by a pair of Burr-Brown PCM1794 DAC chips. Low pass filtering is supplied by two Analog Devices Ad627s. RCA, XLR and coaxial jacks are provided, as is a 100-step digital volume control.

The remote control contains a wide variety of functions (it's clearly meant to be used in conjunction with an all-Shanling system), but I was especially thankful for the four-step brightness adjustment key. When those blue lights are going full force, audiophiles who like to listen in the dark will be utterly distracted and will find this dimming feature an absolute necessity. The four settings allow you to control both the brightness of those blue lights and the display. Then again, you can go for broke and leave the blue lights a-glowin' and impress all of your friends. At the very least, the CD-T1500 is a heck of a conversation piece for non-audiophile guests.

My only reservation regarding the ergonomics of the Shanling has to do with the display itself. From a normal listening position of about eight to ten feet away, the numbers are too small to read. I found myself constantly leaning well forward just to see track numbers and time elapsed. I was also a little underwhelmed by the looks of the remote control, which seems like it might belong to an '80s television set. If you're going to make such a huge statement with the styling of your CD player, why not spend a few bucks and come up with a remote that matches?

Despite that observation, the CD player itself offers an extremely high level of fit and finish for a somewhat modest $3295. The aluminum chassis is beautifully machined and solid (the CD-T1500 weighs nearly 25 pounds), and the four buttons on the front of the top panel (stop, play/pause, previous, next) have a firm and confident quality to them when you push them. If you think that Chinese gear lacks fine craftsmanship, the CD-T1500 might change your mind.

It's your cousin...Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you're looking for?
The Shanling spent more than six months in my reference system. As I reviewed several power amps, preamps and speakers, the CD-T1500 remained a quiet constant. It never drew attention to itself, nor did it consistently remind me of any specific shortcomings or colorings. The last tubed CD player I reviewed, the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight, sounded a bit like a 300B amplifier to me. It offered a big, almost spherical soundstage and definitely added a sonic signature (albeit a very engaging one). The CD-T1500, however, reminded me of an excellent 2A3 or 45 based tube amp, which meant that it was much more linear and clear and detailed than I thought it was going to be. Sure, it was a slightly warm and forgiving player overall, but the sound wasn't idiosyncratic, colored or snipped at the frequency extremes. It blended right into all types of systems and never once faltered.

The '1500 excelled at reproducing the full spectrum of bass frequencies. It captured the woody and slightly sloppy bass work through most of Shearwater's Rook, and it was able to flesh out both the upper pluck and subterranean excavations of John Entwistle's bass throughout the 1996 CD reissue of Tommy. I was able to pair the Shanling with loudspeakers that provided full bass extension into my relatively small room such as the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nines and the Gradient Helsinkis, and the Shanling always delivered a generous yet appropriate amount of low frequency information when required.

The upper frequencies were equally impressive, with the Shanling able to communicate the air and space around performers without sounding dry and edgy. That's where the magic of those 6922s kicks in, and why a tubed CD player is such a darned good idea. At no time did I feel like anything was being rolled off, yet the Shanling never made me cringe while listening to some of my less-than-lush CDs such as TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain or Boy Eats Drum Machine's Booomboxxx. CD players with tubed output stages are sheer genius when it comes to analog lovers who are still looking for a digital front end that fits their sonic preferences.

You're safe and sound now, back in good ol' 2009.
As a hardcore vinyl lover, it's easy for me to know when I have a decent digital front end in my system. Whenever I own an analog rig that can easily surpasses the sound quality of my CD player, I spend an disproportionate amount of time listening to LPs. When I have a good digital player at my disposal, however, I actually have to make a genuine choice when I want to listen to something. If I choose a CD over an LP, I won't even give it a second thought.

The Shanling fits into that relatively small group of digital players that have come my way over the last few years and have given me a true alternative to analog. It won't make me give up on vinyl the way a couple of those hideously expensive players would. The CD-T1500 lacks that sense of infinite scale that many of those five-figure machines provide. But for $3250, the Shanling is an excellent value, and a true vinyl lover's CD player. Like a DeLorean, the visual aspects of the '1500 may or may not be to your liking. But close your eyes, hit the dimmer switch, and prepare to be impressed.

PS Audio GCPH phono preamplifier

(Ah, at last...some vinyl equipment. In the summer and fall of 2008, I reviewed seven or eight phono preamps in the $1000 range. My favorite of all was the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE, which I bought and still have in my system. The PS Audio, however, had the most features for $1000 and possessed a sound quality second only to my Lehmann.)

What if the best phono preamplifier in the world cost just $1000? Would the audio world be turned on its ear? Would the manufacturers of all those $5000 to $10,000 phono stages sprint back to their respective drawing boards? Better yet, would such a product prompt millions of music lovers and audiophiles to get back into vinyl for the first time in years?

Probably not. First of all, $1000 isn't chump change for a lot of people, especially when the vast majority of music lovers don't even know what a phono preamplifier is, or what it does. Secondly, there is no best in the world of audio, only preference. Just as Citizen Kane has its detractors, so do products from the likes of Wilson, Continuum and WAVAC.

“No better phono stage ever made...”
These words appear in some of the ad copy for the PS Audio GCPH phono preamp, and I know how this type of hyperbole makes most seasoned audiophiles wince. Still, the GCPH makes a hell of a case for itself by offering an astonishing amount of features for a mere grand. You get plenty of flexibility with impedance loading and gain so that you can use the GCPH with almost any cartridge available. You get a subsonic filter and a large power supply for deep, quiet bass response. You get a choice between RCA and XLR connections. You can adjust gain, phase and switch from mono to stereo via controls on the front panel or by remote control (a major selling point for my lazy butt). You can even use the GCPH as a preamp by connecting it directly to your power amp if you're one of those purists who have an all-analog system. (God bless you if you are!)

All of these features are placed in a handsome and substantial case. In other words, the GCPH isn't one of those no-frills phono stages that eschew features, appearance and even the most minimal of enclosures in the service of a superior circuit or design. Build quality and styling are similar to some of the finest (and most expensive) phono stages I've used. Still, PS Audio didn't get carried away by putting the GCPH in a giant box filled with empty space. At 8.5” by 3” by 15.5”, the GCPH can share a shelf with other similarly-sized analog components, such as an electronic power supply.

Fortunately, the GCPH isn't the polar opposite of those bare-bones phono sections, offering an impressive list of features and only adequate sound quality. In fact, the GCPH is one of those truly aggravating components for reviewers because it's so hard to pinpoint any real sonic shortcomings. With some phono preamps at this price point, I can usually pick up on at least one minor flaw in a relatively short time, such as a lack of deep bass or a slightly dry presentation. The GCPH sounded balanced and confident right out of the box, immediately winning me over. Bass was deep and extended, and the highs were smooth without sounding rolled off.

I've been spending a lot of time listening to the Polyvinyl pressing of Ida's Lovers and Prayers, and I've been hypnotized by the stark yet lovely sound quality of this LP. With the GCPH hooked up both my Michell Orbe SE/SME V/Koetsu Rosewood combo and the Thorens TD-160 HD/Dynavector 17D3 I have in for review, the soundstage was clear enough and large enough to let me see the boundaries of the recording space, something that usually doesn't happen with an affordable phono preamplifier. With other recordings, I felt that the GCPH offered an impressively neutral sound that avoided both the glossiness and woolliness that I find common in most entry-level units.

It was only after I spent some time with two state-of-the-art phono preamps (which cost five to ten times as much as the GCPH) that I finally noticed that this wasn't quite the best phono preamplifier in the world. I hate to use this term, but the PS Audio lacked a certain magic that these very expensive units produced with ease. About half of the audiophiles in the world will roll their eyes, and the other half will know exactly what I mean by this term. Sometimes there's that last bit of illumination in sound that distracts your attention away from the recording, and redirects your focus to the natural properties of the music. It's that proverbial last veil, the point where you say to yourself, “This sounds so real.” The big guys hit that mark on a fairly regular basis, where the GCPH just barely glanced off of that lofty target.

I only had one other minor quibble with the GCPH, and it had to do with the grouping of the RCA jacks on the back panel. The two pairs of jacks are not separated by INPUT and OUTPUT, like on most phono preamps, but by left and right channels. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except for the input jacks are both labeled white, and both outputs are labeled red, which means you'll be plugging white RCA plugs from your interconnects into red jacks, and vice versa. The owner's manual didn't make this as clear as it could have, in my opinion, and you might get a little exasperated working it all out in your brain before flipping on the power switches.

How about “no better $1000 phono stage ever made”?
So the GCPH isn't quite the best phono preamplifier in the world. I'm not even prepared to call it the best $1000 phono preamp, since you might be able to find a quieter battery-powered unit in this price range, or a lusher and more romantic sound from some of the tubed competition. Again, it depends on your preferences, and what type of analog rig you'll be using. But I'll go out on a limb and say that you probably won't find a $1000 phono stage that clearly beats this combination of sound quality, build quality and features. At this level, the PS Audio would be my clear choice, and it certainly earns my highest recommendation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Benz-Micro Ref 3 cartridge

(This one was written in May 2007. Unfortunately, Benz-Micro replaced this model before this review could appear. By its brief length, you can tell this was meant to be part of an overall series on cartridges.)

If you're looking for a bigger, clearer, more dynamic presentation in your analog rig, take a look a Benz-Micro's wooden-bodied Ref 3 cartridge. This moving-coil cartridge, which offers 0.3 mV of output, is almost startling in its ability to deliver clean, extended high frequencies. I also found the Ref 3 to provide stunning dynamic contrasts with ease when mated to my Michell Orbe SE turntable and SME V tonearm. For instance, the Benz's skills at drawing out powerful and convincing musical crescendos from a stark black background were evident while I listened to my treasured Athena pressing of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and Vocalise, performed by Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Ref 3 never sounded compressed or taxed by the louder, more rhythmically complicated passages. More than once, goosebumps were raised on my forearms, a telling sign.

The midrange quality of the Ref 3, however, may have sounded slightly subdued in the context of the outstanding performance in the treble region, but it never detracted from the overall presentation. If anything, these frequencies were smooth and relaxed, possibly a result of the superbly-crafted wooden body. At the same time, the Ref 3 is one of the rare wooden-bodied cartridges that could never be called warm or lush, although I suspect the body is what keeps this Benz from being characterized as cool or analytical.

The Ref 3 is sensitive to loading, preferring to be run full-out at 47k ohms. Experiment with lower settings (I originally had it set at the same 100 ohm setting as my Koetsu Rosewood), and you'll find the bass response to virtually disappear. Once I opened up the throttle, so to speak, the Benz sounded full and impressive, and in perfect balance with those spectacular highs.

I think the Ref 3 might the ideal cartridge for turntables, such as acrylic models, that might sound otherwise overdamped. I actually mounted it on my Technics SL-1200, and the Ref 3 almost completely eliminated that dark, claustrophobic Technics sound that troubles me so. I know that it sounds crazy to mount a $2000 moving-coil cartridge on an SL-1200, but for the first time, I was able to enjoy the sound of LPs played on this rig. So if you're looking for a cartridge that will inject a little excitement into a fairly dull-sounding analog rig, the Ref 3 is it. It's the cayenne pepper of moving coils!

Aperion Audio Intimus 5B loudspeakers

(This was written in June 2009.)

It was the proverbial dark and stormy night here in the Pacific Northwest, and I had my reference system ripped apart and spread all over the floor of my listening room. I had old stuff going out and new stuff coming in, and I was making room, dusting shelves and cleaning jacks in preparation for the new set-up. Suddenly, I had a hankering to listen to my UK pressing of XTC's English Settlement (more specifically, “No Thugs In Our House), and I glanced around for a quick solution. I saw an unopened box containing a pair of Aperion Audio Intimus 5B mini-monitors. I thought to myself, “I can get these up in running in a couple of minutes,” so I grabbed a box cutter and got to work.

In no time I had the 5Bs sitting on the floor, hooked up to a SimAudio I-7 integrated amp via a pair of Audience Maestro speaker cables. I hadn't received a pair of stands yet, so I figured I'd at least get them broken in a little beforehand. Then a funny thing happened. These tiny little Aperions sounded really good just sitting there on the carpet while playing “Runaways” and “Ball and Chain” and “Senses Working Overtime.” Sure, the soundstaging and imaging were slightly askew and earthbound due to this haphazard arrangement, but these speakers sounded full and detailed and pleasant. I was able to get through all four sides of the LP easily and even moved onto a couple more LPs.

“I can't wait to get these set-up properly,” I thought.

Coming back to earth...
After getting these broken in and positioned on Sound Anchor stands, the hyperbole lessened just a little bit. These little speakers aren't quite the Second Coming, but they still offer plenty of value and performance for their size. The Aperion Intimus 5B, the “middle child” in the Intimus bookshelf range, takes advantage of Aperion's new 1” silk dome tweeter and redesigned 5.25” woven Fiberglas woofer as well as their custom HD-X3 crossover. My pair arrived with the “furniture grade” cherry finish that looks like it was carved from the same log as every other Aperion speaker I've seen. The veneer is real wood, however, which is becoming rarer at this price point. (Glossy black is also available for the same price.)

When I removed the Intimus 5Bs out of their very thorough packaging (which includes the ubiquitous Aperion purple velvet bag with yellow drawstrings, a nice touch), I truly wondered how much was left for the drivers, crossovers and cabinet. Manufacturing these speakers in China and selling them directly certainly saves a few bucks, but Aperion also offers free shipping, a 30-day money back guarantee (including return shipping), a 10-year warranty and excellent customer support. Considering that these speakers cost only $450 a pair, you may start to wonder how this Portland-based company makes a profit.

Feeling the Illinoise
The Intimus 5Bs wound up performing their best with a little bit of power behind them. These speakers are relatively inefficient (84 dB) and have a steady 6-ohm impedance. While I started with the 150wpc solid-state SimAudio I-7 on that fateful, inclement night, I eventually tried the new conrad-johnson LP66S tube amplifier which offers 60wpc. The 5Bs sounded a little more soft and indistinct with the CJ, and dynamic contrasts seemed to retreat into similar shades of gray. Aperion recommends at least 25 wpc for the 5Bs, but I'd go a lot higher just to preserve that full sound. The I-7, therefore, stayed in the system for the remainder of the review.

After extended listening sessions with the I-7 at the helm, I still felt that the bass performance of the 5B was genuinely impressive considering the size of the enclosure. According to the specs, the 5Bs are down 3 dB at 75 Hz and down 6 dB at 62 Hz. I felt, however, that the added body in the lower frequencies was due to a bump in the mid-bass response, not unlike a classic LS3/5a. While I'm not a fan of added colorations, I do prefer this type of sound to some modern mini-monitors that cut off suddenly under 60 or 70 Hz and remove the foundation completely. (In most cases this presupposes the addition of a subwoofer.) The soundstage was surprisingly large as well, extending well beyond the boundaries of my listening room. Again, I had to shake my head in disbelief that a speaker so small and inexpensive could get these fundamentals right.

The 5Bs ultimately came up short in the delivery of inner detail. I imagined a child coloring with crayons, getting all of the borders and lines perfect but becoming suddenly uneven and shaky when it came to shading the interiors of those shapes. On Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, for example, I couldn't hear as much air and separation between instruments during complex and busy songs as “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” or “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” (Yes, those are real song titles.) These instruments would blend together as if the musicians were sitting in each other's laps, especially if I turned the volume up a bit. More intimate and streamlined selections such as “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Jacksonville” fared much better, with Stevens' voice sounding appropriately breathy and fragile.

One more caveat involves the grille covers. It's been a while since I've heard a grille cloth alter the overall sound of a speaker this drastically. With the grilles in place, the treble became excessively grainy and harsh, and I thought I had finally found the Achilles' Heel of these little speakers. Once these were removed, the upper frequencies smoothed out considerable and even took on a slightly liquid and warm character. Finally, there's the standard disclaimer that accompanies most mini-monitors...don't turn them up too loud, and don't think you're going to impress your buddies when you play the new albums from AC/DC, Metallica and Guns 'N' Roses.

But did I mention the price?
It seems kind of silly to nitpick about dynamics and loudness with a $450 pair of speakers that are just slightly larger than the aforementioned LS3/5a. As good as these are as stand-alone speakers, I'm sure that they realize their potential when mated with one of Aperion's subwoofers. (I've used one of these in the past and found it to be another outstanding bargain.) I also discovered that the 5Bs are excellent near-field monitors and might be the perfect speakers to hook up to your computer. Aperion recommends them as an excellent solution for gaming as well. In this type of application, the 5Bs will allow you to hear deep into a recording while retaining the same sense of scale as in a normal configuration.

The repeated use of terms such as “near-field monitor” and “LS3/5a” and “mid-bass bump” in this review may be a clue to my true feelings about the Aperion Intimus 5Bs. Are they a poor man's LS3/5a? I was able to hear the Stirling Broadcast update of that venerable BBC monitor for a couple of months earlier in the year, and I was constantly reminded of them during my time with the Aperions. I think the Stirlings possessed that inner detail that the 5Bs lack, but at nearly four times the price. If I needed a small speaker for a small price, however, I'd probably choose the Aperions. If I needed a small speaker that sounds good while lying surreptitiously on the carpet, the choice is even more obvious.

Old Reviews!

After I left TONE in May 2009, I still had nearly twenty reviews that were written and had yet to be published. Every two months Jeff Dorgay would give me my assignments for the next issue, and not all of them made it. None of them were outright rejected...sometimes we ran out of space, sometimes the equipment was revised or discontinued and sometimes behind-the scenes shenanigans were to blame.

So I'd thought I'd start releasing them here. An unpublished article is like the proverbial unexploded needs to fulfill its destiny. So over the next few days, I'll be throwing these onto the blog! I hope you enjoy!


This is more of an experiment than anything.

When I left TONEAudio in 2009, publisher Jeff Dorgay told me, "You should do your own thing, like a blog!" Just a few weeks ago, a person completely unrelated to the audio industry told me the same thing. While I do work as a search engine optimization (SEO) content writer for a couple of companies, I still have no idea if anyone will "follow" my blog or even know that it exists.

I could use my SEO smarts and use repetitive keyphrases to lure you into my fold, but I'd rather just talk about the things I want to talk about. That means NO editors, NO filters, nothing between you and me.

For those of you still curious about who I am, you can check out the Vinyl Anachronist columns at Perfect Sound Forever:

There's a nifty inner page that has all seventy-something of my Vinyl Anachronist columns, too:

Then there's the New Zealand version of my Vinyl Anachronist column at the magazine AudioEnz:

Finally, you can check out TONEAudio at see my old stuff:

There! I said "The Vinyl Anachronist" four times. That's the magic amount for SEO purposes.

Finally, feel free to email me with your questions at