Douglas Brown

20 POSTS COMMENTS

Review Backdrop 01

During a phone interview with Evan Grimm, Audeze’s Head of Product Training, he admitted that when they’d released their new “Fazor” headphone waveguide technology in 2013, they’d expected near universal praise for the sound. Such was not the case. Many headphone dorks, myself included, preferred the warmth and soundstaging of Audeze’s 1st generation LCD-2 model. In fact, on several audiophile websites, a lot of headphone enthusiasts voiced a passionate preference for the sonic signature of the original pre-Fazor LCD-2 model.

Responding to consumer demand, Audeze have done something remarkable: they’ve released a 3rd generation version of the LCD-2 — the new LCD2 Classic — which seeks to return to the sound of the original LCD-2 model. When NOVO asked if I’d like to review Audeze’s new LCD2C headphones, I was more excited than Stormy Daniels’ legal team.

The new LCD2C is Audeze’s latest pair of the over-ear, open back, planar magnetic headphones. The Classic utilizes a double-sided magnetic structure and an ultra-thin film diaphragm. The headband is constructed out of a powder coated spring-steel arch and includes a perforated leather headband. The ear pads are made from a high-grade synthetic leather. The openings are 7cm x 5.5cm and will comfortably fit any human sized ears. The LCD2C has a 70 Ohm impedance.

My marathon late night listening sessions usually last for many hours. Any headphone that causes listening fatigue or neck-strain is a non-starter. To cut its weight, the Classic’srings” are formed out of crystal-infused nylon. Earlier LCD-2 models that used real wood rings occasionally cracked as the wood aged and/or dried out. Physically, the crystal-infused nylon is lighter and also more impact and scratch resistant than wood. Weighing in at 550 grams, the Classic is the lightest model in Audeze’s current LCD line. If you’re used to ultra light on-ear headphones like Grado’s RS-1, the weight, over-ear clamping pressure, and “seal” of the Classic may cause some issues. I had no problems with any of this.

To offer a discount alternative to their higher echelon LCD-3 and LCD-4 models, some frills have been cut from the new LCD2C. The Classic does not come with a protective travel case or a wood display / storage case. Audeze does, however, sell a hard shell Pelican case for an extra $125 USD.

The original LCD-2’s sound in the lower frequency registers was deep, extended, and powerful. Its textured presence and low-end weight is a big part of what earned the 1st-gen LCD-2 its now legendary status. Although some audio reviewers felt that they sounded a bit dark, most serious headphone listeners recognized the astonishing timbral accuracy that the LCD-2 created in the mid-bass and low bass. Audeze’s goal was to try to return to the warmer sonic signature of the original pre-Fazor LCD-2. So… how does the Classic sound?

The LCD2C comes with a 1.9m length 1/4” to dual 4-pin mini-XLR cable. The stock braided 6-nines Oxygen Free Copper (OFC) cord that Audeze bundles with the Classic sounded fine and moving it while listening resulted in zero cable-borne noise.

For perspective, I tried several after-market OCC Copper (Cu) and OCC Silver (Ag) cords. To my ears, the Classic sounded its best when mated with a 1.5m Audio Sensibility Statement OCC Silver headphone cable [$449 CAD]. As budget permits, to hear the full sonic potential of the LCD2C, I’d strongly recommend upgrading the stock OFC cord to an OCC Silver one.

For comparative testing, I borrowed pairs of Audeze’s original LCD-2 headphones, LCD-2 Fazor, and even their LCD-3 Fazor. [Thanks to Bernie and Andre for these]. The new Classic sounded very similar to the original LCD-2. Compared to the LCD-2 Fazor, the Classic’s sonics were warmer and had more weight in the lower frequency registers. The Fazor version had marginally faster transient speed, especially with high frequency instruments like cymbals.

Gold Note P-1000 Solid State Preamplifier 01

As audio goes, line stages are a dodgy undertaking. In any 2-channel audio system, a preamp is the central connecting ‘hub’ between source components and amplifiers. The sound quality (or lack thereof) of any stereo system is highly dependent on the quality of the preamp. Get the design, engineering, or aesthetics wrong in this component, and there’s nowhere to hide. I’ve heard far too many line stages that sounded as incoherent and unfocused as a drunken one-legged tightrope walker trying to cross two skyscrapers during a windstorm.

Based out of Firenze Italy, Gold Note is renowned for fabricating ultra high-end turntables, tonearms, phono stages, amplifiers, and top shelf audio components. The company recently launched its new flagship P-1000 solid state preamplifier (MSRP $6,250 USD) and I got my hands on a review unit.

The P-1000 is a Class-A preamp with six discrete gain stages that uses a high-end Alps optical encoder volume pot (also known a volume potentiometer or volume dial). Four of the six gain stages are dedicated to the balanced XLR circuits. Two are devoted to the RCA circuits. Its internal power supply utilizes three transformers: one for control tasks and two for dual-mono audio. The unit’s individual gain circuits are designed to keep all signals separate, minimize possible distortion, and extend linear bandwidth. The P-1000 also has a color TFT display that noticeably heightens the unit’s ‘cool’ factor. No one does fashion and design like Italians and the aesthetics of this preamp proudly reflect that sophisticated heritage.

The P-1000 has 10 independent stereo inputs: 5 fully balanced sets of XLR inputs and 5 pairs of RCA jacks. It has three outputs: one pair of balanced (XLR) plugs; one set of single-ended (RCA) jacks; and one pair of balanced (XLR) *tube output* plugs. A mini-USB port comes standard to handle future software downloads. This preamp does not include either a phono stage or a headphone amp. A digital input and an internal DAC can be installed for an extra $1,000 USD.

Gold Note also offers a number of outboard upgrades for the P-1000. These include: two different valve (tube) output stages (the Tube 1006 & 1012) which connect to the balanced (XLR) *tube output* plugs; and two higher echelon power supply units (the PSU 1100 & 1250). As I wasn’t supplied with any of these upgrades, I cannot comment on their sonic efficacy. Still, it’s good to know that these upgrades are readily available.

The P-1000 comes with four unique sound modes, all of which can be bypassed. These include: one, a ‘pure mono’ mode to enhance the sound of old mono recordings. Two, a ‘channel inversion’ mode which swaps the left and right channels. Three, a ‘phase shift’ mode that inverts the absolute polarity from 0° to 180° to compensate for CD players that invert phase. And four, a two stage ‘bass boost’ function that increases the dB level in the low bass.

My P-1000 review unit came with a gorgeous black-anodized brushed aluminium finish. A color TFT screen is positioned to the left side of the front panel. If desired, the display can be turned off. Moving from input to input and changing modes was easy and intuitive. The individual inputs are forever titled XLR 1 to RCA 5 and cannot be re-named to personalize the unit.

The P-1000 has an analog bass boost at 45Hz with two gain levels: 2.5dB and 5dB. Although an amp will have to have sufficient headroom to use it, I found the booster to be invaluable. Instead of needing to buy a $5K+ level subwoofer, the bass boost energized the low end without negatively impacting coherency or resolution.

Gold Note P-1000 Solid State Preamplifier 02

Meet the Maker Italian Made Unison Research and Opera Loudspeake

The consumer audio industry around the world is driven by remarkably passionate and sometimes eccentric individuals. For many of these individuals, audio is not just their business, it is a lifelong hobby. Welcome to NOVO magazine’s “Meet the Maker” series of stories that connect us with some of these individuals as we ask what makes them tick as music lovers and learn about insights about their contributions to the audio business. In this issue, we speak with Gianni Maria Sacchetti, the Founder of Unison Research.

Douglas Brown (DB): What made you a music lover and what motivated you to start manufacturing audio equipment as a business?

Gianni Maria Sacchetti (GMS): Music is an art that involves all people, but not all people appreciate and pursue this art with the same levels of intensity. Education, culture, sensitivity, and many other factors determine this intensity.

I had a parent who was both a concert pianist and a composer. This helped create a profoundly deep passion for music within me. A musician does not limit himself or herself to having only executive or technical skills.

Creating hi-end audio equipment that faithfully reproduces music and that expresses my way of feeling and appreciating music was the main reason for creating a company of “musical reproduction instruments”.

DB: How important do you think it is for an audio company to be founded by musicians and/or people who love music?

(GMS): Companies that produce hi-end audiophile devices are different from other companies. Audiophiles seek to reproduce live musical events as accurately as possible through recorded mediums. Accurately recreating any live musical event — not only in terms of the timbre of musical instruments, but also in a realistic orchestral stage reconstruction — is what we’re striving to achieve.

In order to reach this level of sonic accuracy, audio companies need to have an advanced engineering knowledge, as well as a passionate musical knowledge and sensitivity that musicians and music lovers innately understand.

A hi-end audio company founded and run by people who are musicians will undoubtedly be better at achieving a natural, organic, and believable sound.

DB: Do Unison and Opera share design work, manufacturing processes, and/or engineering knowledge?

(GMS): Opera and Unison are located within the same building and our CEO is the same; Mr Giovanni Nasta. Our brands have many distributors worldwide and a number of our employees are actively involved with both companies.

Opera and Unison have a strong and close collaboration. Even during the design process, we share a lot of information and engineering knowledge.

Bartolomeo Nasta, Export Manager, Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers

Bartolomeo Nasta, Export Manager, Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers

DB: In terms of sales volume and audiophile recognition, what are your most successful products to date?

(GMS): Differences exist between our brands, because the life cycles of the two product categories — loudspeakers and components — are completely different. Opera re-designs its speakers every 5-7 years. For Unison’s products, the life cycle is much longer. Some of Unison’s products have been in production for more than 10 years and are still selling very well.

The most successful product in Unison’s history was our Simply Two amplifier. During its life cycle, we sold more than 30,000 units.

Regarding current gear, our most successful tube products are the Simply Italy, the Triode 25, and the Sinfonia. From our Unico line, the Unico Primo, Unico Secondo, and our Unico CD Primo are our top selling pieces.

DB: Opera and Unison both manufacture gear for hi-end audiophile consumers, for mid-fi customers, and also for the entry-level market. Is there a “trickle-down” effect of higher-end technologies filtering down to your mid-fi and entry-level products?

(GMS): From our top range to our entry-level gear, all of our customers will experience the soul of Unison’s products. We feel it’s very important to maintain a level of consistency throughout the entire product line.

When we consider creating something new, we always think of producing a line of products which offer people better choices and superior quality within every price range.

We usually start from the top of the line and then engineer downward. With the Unison Triode 25, however, we don’t have a product on top or below with the same features. The Triode 25 was designed from the ground up. It has, in fact, been one of our most successful products to date.

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Acoustic Solid Solid Classic Wood MPX Midi Xtended 720

We live in an age where the price of entry to audiophile sound can choke a good-sized bull-moose. As wonderful as $500K level 2-channel systems can sound, none of it gets my adrenalin flowing. Why…? ‘Cause I can’t afford it.

What does kickstart my heart is when established audio companies with 6-figure components release sensibly priced gear where I can clearly see—and hear—that their cutting-edge technology has trickled down to more affordable products. When my editor at NOVO asked if I’d like to review a mid-level Acoustic Solid ‘table, I was more excited than a lifer stuck in a penal colony when the latest sealed issue of High Society magazine is slid into his cell.

I first heard one of Acoustic Solid’s $100K+ level TTs at the 2012 Munich Audio show. The sound of that rig was as jaw-dropping as the price tag attached to it.

The subject of this article, the Xtended-MPX + Rega WTB-370 tonearm costs $2,200 US; without the cartridge. My review TT featured a 40 mm thick MDF plinth that was finished in a gorgeous wood veneer. The aluminium platter is 35mm thick. It’s machined from a single billet and “string driven” by an outboard MC/M1 micro-processor controlled synchronous motor. The ‘table also includes a natural leather mat and a 5mm thick acrylic mat.

The WTB-370 tonearm was anodized black which, offset against the X-MPX’s wood plinth color, looked stunning. Overall, the TT exuded old world craftsmanship, cutting-edge engineering, and a luxury aesthetic that would look right at home in any posh 2-channel system.

After trying an entry-level Gold Note Vasari Red M/M cartridge that was provided to me with the ‘table and not liking the sound, for perspective, I climbed higher up the ladder and tested this ‘table with three other cartridges.  These included a Benz-Micro Wood MO-0.9 M/C cartridge; a Dynavector XV-1s M/C cartridge; and a Sumiko Pearwood Celebration Mk#2 M/C cartridge. To my ears, the Sumiko sounded the best. One thing was audibly clear: the better the cartridge, the better the sound.

An incorrectly set-up ‘table will compress the soundstage, choke its dynamics, and smother resolution and detail. Acoustic Solid provided 20 pages of comprehensive instructions for setting-up the X-MPX. A scale to dial-in cartridge tracking force and a high-quality spindle weight were both included in the box. To buy these two items separately would add at least $800 to the price.
Overall, initial set-up took about 45 minutes. Acoustic Solid must be commended for their instruction guide. Even though I’ve set-up hundreds of TTs, I found their directions extremely helpful. After burning the ‘table in with the Vasari Red M/M cart for a week, all of my serious listening tests were done using the Sumiko Pearwood Mk#2 M/C cartridge.

The Xtended-MPX is a gorgeous TT. The looks of the ‘table mesmerized me like a Ferrari Modena 360. I spent hours examining its fit and finish looking for manufacturing flaws. I didn’t find any. Acoustic Solid built this TT like it mattered: with care… and pride.

Angel City Audio (Custom)

[Editor’s note]: TAVES 2017 coverage part 1 and part 2 articles were posted on our website earlier this week.  This is part 3 of our coverage, by Douglas Brown.

Angel City Audio
Angel City Audio proudly brought a pair of ACA Seraphim Skogrand Edition 3-way floorstanding loudspeakers (MSRP $58,000 CDN / $45,000 USD) to TAVES 2017. To quote from the brochure:

“The ACA Seraphim Skogrand Edition reference loudspeaker is the first found worthy of using Skogrand SCIW Beethoven internal wiring. This is a 1.00 air Dielectric Ultra Pure Ohno Continuous Cast (UPOCC) solid core wire and it is the only one of its kind in the global market preserving the signal most effectively, completely, and undisturbed.”

Their ACA Seraphim Skogrand SE speakers were used in a stunning 2-channel system comprised entirely of Triangle Art’s flagship components. These included: a Triangle Art Master Reference turntable ($39,900 USD); an Osiris Mk#2 12” tonearm ($6,800 USD); a Reference Tube phono-stage ($12,999 USD); an Apollo M/C cartridge ($8,000 USD); Reference Tube pre-amplifier ($17,999 USD); and Reference Tube mono-block amplifiers ($17,999 USD).

Cabling was a mixture of Skogrand’s A/C power cords, a 9ft pair of TEO Audio’s Reference speaker cables ($44,000 USD), and a 1.0m pair of TEO Audio Kronon interconnects ($3,199 USD).

Audiyo (Custom)

Audiyo Inc. / 1877-Phono
Audiyo Inc. displayed a vast array of Furutech’s new NCF (Nano Crystal² Formula) power cords, speaker cables, interconnects, jumpers, USB and HDMI interconnects, digital interconnects, end plugs, and power distribution systems. Also inside this room, Audiyo showcased 1877-Phono’s newish Copperhead turntable ($5,500 CDN); which had Zavfino’s new carbon-fibre tonearm ($1,500 CDN) mounted on-board.

bluewave audio (Custom)

Bluewave Audio
Based out of Montreal Quebec, Canada, Bluewave Audio chose TAVES 2017 as the venue for the WORLD premiere of their brand new GET wireless hi-fi headphone amplifier ($159 CDN).

As more and more smart phones are now being released without headphone jacks, Bluewave’s GET is the most affordable solution to getting high quality sound out of your smart phone. Their product literature states: “Enjoy music with the highest level of clarity, answer phone calls thanks to the integrated high quality MEMS microphone, control your music with the play/pause/shuffle buttons, and adjust volume without ever having to handle your phone.”

I listened to a Leonard Cohen track off of a smart phone on this device and was mightily impressed by the audiophile sound quality that I heard. I was so impressed, in fact, that I’m going to try to source a GET for a future NOVO review.

The tiny GET measures 1.25” x 2.25”. And yet, it includes an ultra-high quality ALPS analog volume potentiometer, plus 44.1Khz and 48Khz sampling rate capability. It supports SBC, MP3, AAC (IOS), AptX, AptX Low Latency, and AptX HD codecs. The GET is manufactured entirely in Canada and it is THE solution for the “fake obsolescence” that many smart phone manufacturers are foiling on an unsuspecting public.

Nothing makes me happier than when two enterprising businessmen come up with a way to circumvent the utter nonsense that massive smart phone companies are trying to stuff down the throats of unwilling, and often unwary, consumers. Kudos to Bluewave for having the guts, tenacity, and temerity to release the wonderful sounding GET wireless headphone amp.

CH Precision (Custom)

DVL Audio / Nordost
DVL Audio’s ultra high-end 2-channel system featured a Kronos Pro turntable ($38,000 USD), a matching Kronos Black Beauty tonearm ($8,500 USD), and a Haniwa low inductance M/C cartridge ($8,000 USD). DVL also brought Swiss OEM CH Precision’s D1 SACD / CD transport + player ($38,000 USD) and a CH Precision C1 Reference DAC ($33,000 USD) as their digital source.

Pre-amplification featured CH Precision’s P1 dual mono phono pre-amplifier ($31,250 USD) and X1 external power supply ($15,000 USD). A CH Precision M1 Reference 2-channel stereo power amplifier ($51,000 USD) rounded out their components. Combined with a pair of Focal Sopra No. 3 floorstanding loudspeakers ($24,000 CDN), a full loom of Nordost Valhalla-2 Reference interconnects, speaker cables, power cords, and Massif Audio Design’s racks, amp stands, and risers, DVL Audio achieved an amazingly detailed and, concurrently, musical sound that was in my “Top 3” exhibitor rooms for overall sound quality at the entire TAVES 2017.

HEGEL Audio (Custom)

Hegel Music Systems
Situated in the Karsh room, Hegel Music Systems brought 2 separate 2-channel systems: both of which were active and available for auditioning.

System ‘A’ featured a Hegel CDP 2A ($2,900 CDN), a Hegel H190 integrated amplifier with on-board DAC ($4,500 CDN), and French loudspeaker company Cabasse’s entry-level ‘Jersey’ model floorstanding speakers ($1,699 CDN).

System ‘B’ combined Hegel’s H90 entry-level integrated amplifier with an on-board DAC ($2,200 CDN), Polish audio firm Pylon’s (pronounced ‘P-Lawn’) Opal bookshelf monitors ($990 CDN – $1,390 CDN; depending on finish), and Pylon’s Diamond 25 floorstanding speakers ($2,900 CDN). Both of these 2-channel systems provided superb ‘bang for the buck’ high-end sound.

PMC speakers (Custom)

PMC Loudspeakers
Showcasing PMC’s speakers, Hegel’s components, XLO’s cabling, and Stillpoints vibration control products, the PMC room had a Hegel Mohican CD Player ($6,000 CDN) and a Hegel HD30 DAC ($6,000 CDN) sitting on Stillpoints’ ESS34-20-4 rack plus Ultra 6 tuning devices ($24,419 CDN).

For their pre-power components, they employed a Hegel P30 pre-amplifier ($9,000 CDN), and a Hegel H30 amplifier ($20,000 CDN). These were combined with a pair of PMC’s massive MB2 S.E. floorstanding speakers ($40,800 CDN). This highly dynamic system utilized a full-loom of XLO’s Signature-3 interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables (exact pricing unavailable).

QNAP TAVES (Custom)

QNAP
QNAP showcased a sampling of the company’s massive selection of NAS (network attached storage) devices at TAVES, aimed at home entertainment and small business applications. Capable of 4K video and 7.1-channel sound, these NAS devices are priced at $200 USD per each hard drive bay and configurable to an almost endless number of bays. Designed to serve as the central storage hub (and a personal cloud), these storage devices allow end users to stream digital content via Airplay, Plex, and DLNA multi-media applications. Using QNAP’s mobile Apps, end-users can also remotely access, view, and download digital files stored on their home NAS system.

SonicBoom Music (Custom)

SonicBoom
As the largest independent music retailer in ALL of Canada, Sonic Boom brought a variegated selection of pristine import vinyl records, 180 gram and 200 gram virgin vinyl recordings, and numerous vinyl accessories to TAVES 2017.

Sonic Boom’s downtown Toronto store houses a staggering amount of new and used vinyl, CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, and all of the accoutrement which any self-respecting audiophile and/or videophile would see as ‘must have’ items are all readily available for purchase.

Be forewarned though: if you have an addiction to high-end vinyl, Sonic Boom can (and probably will) send you off on what might become a rather lengthy trip to analogue Heaven. Need your vinyl fix…? These guys and gals will happily hook you up with some of the sweetest sounding records on the planet. There… you’ve been warned.

Venture Audio (Custom)

Venture Audio
Travelling all the way from Singapore(!) to Toronto, it was an absolute pleasure to chat with Njoo Lee Ming, sales and marketing manager of Venture Audio. Their commitment to providing ULTRA high-end 2-channel analogue sound has been rock-solid for 30+ years.

Out in the hallway just outside of Venture’s room, I thought I heard a “live” (read: a NON-recorded) pianist playing a Diana Krall song on a real piano. Once inside, it shocked me to find that there wasn’t a real, live, living and breathing pianist playing a baby grand piano. Nope… the sound was coming from a vinyl record-based 2-channel audio system.

For TAVES 2017, Venture brought a Triangle Master Reference turntable ($39,000 USD), a Venture VP100P phono pre-amp ($32,000 USD), a Venture VP200D 2-channel stereo pre-amplifier with built-in DAC ($60,000 USD), and a pair of Venture’s fully-active flagship Quantum Signature floorstanding loudspeakers ($150,000 USD); which were finished in the irrationally beautiful Elm Burl high-gloss finish. The Quantum Signature speakers delivered a remarkably accurate, coherent, and non-fatiguing sound that simply melted my jaded and cynical heart.

All of the cables and the A/C power distribution system featured Venture’s own in-house designed and branded ‘Venture’ models.

Venture’s 2-channel system was the ONLY one at the entire TAVES extravaganza which I mistook for real instruments. As such, they’ve earned my ‘Best Sound at TAVES’ for 2017. Kudos to them for achieving this!

Von gaylord audio (Custom)

Von Gaylord Audio
Based out of Sacramento California USA, Von Gaylord Audio is one of a very few high-end audio manufacturers that produces ALL of their own audio components including sources, DACs, pre-amps, power amps, speakers, and even cabling.

For TAVES 2017, Von Gaylord’s 2-channel system showcased their VG-8 bookshelf speakers ($5,000 USD), Harmony class ‘A’ pre-amplifier ($18,000 USD), Uni DA DAC ($13,000 USD), Nirvana mono-block amplifiers ($8,500USD), and a full loom of Von Gaylord branded cabling (aprx $14,000 USD all in for ICs, SCs, and SCs).

Wynn Audio (Custom)

Wynn Audio
Based out of Richmond Hill Ontario, Wynn Audio swung for the fences with a ‘State of the Art’ 2-channel reference system that showcased Metronome digital sources, Karan Acoustics pre/power components, German Tidal speakers, Zensati cabling, and Critical Mass Systems racks.

The sources in Wynn’s uber-reference system were a top-of-the-line Metronome DreamPlay 30th Anniversary CD Player + on-board DAC ($105,000 CDN), and a Thales TTT-Compact Mk#2 turntable ($19,000 CDN) with Thales Statement tonearm ($30,000 CDN).

Wynn’s pre/power set-up featured a Karan Acoustics KA Ph Reference phono preamp ($30,000 CDN), a Karan Acoustics KA L Reference pre-amp ($24,000 CDN), and a pair of Karan Acoustics KA M 2000 monoblock amplifiers ($78,000 CDN). These amazing sounding components drove a pair of Tidal (German) Contriva G2 floorstanding loudspeakers (base model price $65,000 CDN).

Combined with Critical Mass Systems’ awesome Olympus racks ($13,000 CDN per each rack), Entreq Olympus Tellus grounding box ($12,000 CDN), and a full loom of Danish Zensati Seraphim and Zorro cables ($220,000 CDN), this 2-channel system represented an all-out assault at achieving ‘State of the Art’ sound quality.

I spoke at length with Metronome’s CEO and owner Jean Marie Clauzel who generously took the time to provide me with a barrage of technical information about their Kalista CD player + DAC and the company’s philosophies towards both business and music.

Wynn’s 2-channel system had a relaxed, organic, and natural sound that was a joy to listen to. If money wasn’t an issue, this is the kind of system that I’d have Wynn Audio assemble for me. Their careful attention to detail, component matching, speaker selection, and knowledge of how to squeeze the sonic lemon to wring every last ounce of sound of out ultra high-end gear is what made their room sound so special. Wynn achieved the best digital sound I heard at TAVES 2017. Germane to the 40 or 50 different rooms that I listened to systems in, this is quite an accomplishment.

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Hafler PH60 Solid State Moving Coil Phono Stage Review 02

There’s an old adage about self-reliance that states: “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll go bankrupt on the East coast.”

Similar to commercial fishing, as a hobby, high-end audio can cause financial hardship and even bankruptcy. Trying to get better sound can quickly become an addiction that’s like a drug: it puts a hook into you and, in very short order, every cent of your disposable income is being spent on chasing the sonic dragon.

Thankfully, there are still some audio products being made which deliver great sound at sensible prices. Hafler’s new PH60 solid state Moving Coil (M/C) phono stage is one such product.

In 1954, David Hafler founded Dynaco with Ed Laurent. During the next three decades, the Dynaco brand name became synonymous with low priced / high quality tube gear and their Do-It-Yourself (D.I.Y.) home-build DynaKits.

Introduced in 1959, Dynaco’s Stereo-70 [ST-70] EL-34 based vacuum tube power amplifier is still highly regarded for its excellent sound and low price. When production of the ST-70 stopped, Dynaco had sold more than 350,000 of them; which makes it the highest selling tube amplifier in history.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, David Hafler’s DH-101 pre-amplifier, matching DH-200 power amp, and the 225w/ch DH-500 stereo amp were all big sellers. These tube units were praised for their exceptional value and amazing sound quality by audio reviewers and enthusiasts alike. Sadly, Hafler died in May 2003.

In 2014, the Hafler brand name was bought by Vancouver-based Radial Engineering Limited. Radial had previously been the Canadian importer for Hafler’s units. Following in Hafler’s footsteps, today Radial continues to offer superb sounding audio products at real world prices.

Radial has recently released a new line of Hafler-branded solid state components. With chassis dimensions of 4½” x 1¾” x 6”, the PH60 Moving Coil (M/C) phono amplifier is a compact unit. Priced at $599 USD, it comes standard with a 3 year warranty.

Hafler also manufactures the PH50 Moving Magnet (M/M) phono stage and two phono step-up transformers. All of these units are assembled entirely in Canada.

Aiming to induce as little sonic “coloration” as possible, the PH60 is an active Moving Coil (M/C) phono pre-amp that uses a Class ‘A’ output transformer-less (O.T.L.) head amp’s circuit. It comes in one colour: matte black.

The PH60 offers cartridge loading options of 50 Ohms, 100 Ohms, and 200 Ohms. More exotic cartridge loads can also be handled by soldering resistors into the “custom” positions on the circuit board. My review unit was factory set to the 100 Ohm load level.

The front face has two buttons: one for power; and the other for a switchable “low cut” high-pass filter that’s designed to cut low frequency rumble and excessive bass energy. The rear face offers a pair of RCA input jacks, a pair of RCA output jacks, a ground, and a 15 volt 400mA power supply plug. It’s a breeze to set-up. So… how does it sound?

I tested the PH60 with a half-dozen different turntable rigs, but primarily used my heavily-modified Rega P25, RB-600 tonearm, and a Sumiko Black Bird M/C cartridge set-up for listening sessions. This Rega rig seemed an appropriate ‘table to mate with a phono stage in this price range.

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Zavfino OCC Silver Dart Power Cord A

During the early 1990s, a ‘Quiet Revolution’ in audio cabling occurred. Audiophiles recognized that insulating cables from Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) and Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI) could lower the noise floor and drastically elevate the sonic performance of their systems. Twenty five years later, cables used in high-end 2-channel audio systems are now considered as important—if not more so—than the gear itself.

High quality power cords drop the noise floor waaaay down. Less noise means that more detail, texture, and tone can emerge from the soundstage. This accuracy makes the timbre of instruments ‘feel’ more organic and natural. High-end power cables also increase the amount of energy (read: life) any system has. The results are better pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT), deeper resolution, and a far more lifelike sound to recorded music.

Today, cutting-edge materials and wildly sophisticated manufacturing techniques have ushered in a new ‘Golden Age’ in audio cabling. Older generation cords that were state-of-the-art just five years ago are being beaten by newer and better sounding ones. Zavfino’s new OCC Silver Dart power cable ($1,200 USD for a 2.0m cord) is one fine example.

More Canadian than a Winnipeg Jets fan ordering a double-double while piloting a zamboni through a Timmy’s drive-thru in Flin Flon Manitoba, 1877 Phono has been proudly offering cables, components, and accessories to OEMs and DIY’ers for more than 18 years. Zavfino is one of their registered brand names.

The 1.5m Silver Dart power cord I reviewed had a gorgeous snakeskin-silver outer jacket. The cable’s 1.25 inches thick and it’s as stiff as a Keanu Reeves monologue. Be forewarned: you’ll need at least 18 inches of space behind any component to plug this power cord in. Although it isn’t too heavy, this cord is also difficult to rotate along its torsional axis.

An electrical anomaly known as the “skin effect” occurs when electrons move through any solid core wire. Higher frequencies travel along the outside (the skin) of the conductor faster than midrange and lower echelon frequencies. This results in hazy PRaT, muddled instrumental timbres, and an unnatural sound.

To negate the skin effect, Zavfino’s patented H-Wound process twists thin silver stranded wire tightly around thicker central OCC copper solid-core conductors. They refer to this construction as a ‘cable within a cable’ and claim that it achieves “perfect pitch” and superior PRaT.

Bryston BDA-3 DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) Review 01

More Canadian than Darryl Sittler sipping a double-double from Tim Hortons while handing Terry Fox an autographed #27 Maple Leaf Jersey at the Toronto City Hall, Bryston has been manufacturing consumer electronics out of Peterborough Ontario since the early 1970s. Today, Bryston sells a vast array of audio products including amps, preamps, digital products, speakers and even a turntable.

In this review, we look at the BDA-3 ($3,495), Bryston’s current flagship Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). What’s a DAC you ask? You may not know it, but if you listen to music then you use a DAC all the time. The DAC is a device that’s responsible for converting digital audio to an analog signal that’s audible by the human ear (and played by speakers or headphones). The DAC sits between the music source (CD player, your smartphone, laptop, etc) and your amplifier and is critically important in the overall quality of the music we hear. A high quality DAC can make all the difference in the sound of your home or headphone music system.

The BDA-3 is Bryston’s first DAC to include DSD conversion. The unit can convert PCM, DSD, and DoP (DSD over PCM) encoded digital signals. The BDA-3’s front panel has three vertical rows of LEDs. The first two rows indicate what the incoming PCM digital signal sampling rate is. The third row shows which DSD sampling rate is being fed into the unit.

There’s one ‘On/Off’ button located to the far right side and one ‘Upsample’ button. There are also individual buttons for all of its inputs. An optional remote control (the BR-2) costs $250 extra.

Users can upsample PCM streams by multiples of 44.1 KHz or 48KHz through the S/PDiF inputs. It’s not possible to upsample either native DSD or DoP signals.

The BDA-3 features two AKM decoding chips which can convert binary PCM-encoded signals up to 32-bit / 384 KHz resolution and DSD code up to 4 x natively. The unit offers an immense number of audio source inputs – a whopping total of 10. These include 4 x HDMI; 2 x Asynchronous USB; S/PDiF over BNC, RCA, or Toslink (i.e. optical) connectors; and 1 x balanced (AES/EBU).

Computer based music players and servers, SACD players, Blu-ray transports, TVs, and digital media players can all pass hi-res digital code up to the DSD-512 or 32/384 PCM level through the BDA-3’s USB inputs; or up to 24/192 PCM signals through its HDMI inputs.

The unit also has one HDMI digital output, one pair of single-ended RCA analog outputs, and one pair of balanced XLR analog outputs. For control applications, the BDA-3 comes with an RS-232 interface port, a USB control port, and an Ethernet jack.

Chipsets alone do not guarantee good sonics. Achieving true high-end sound also depends on the quality of the power supply, the way in which the D-to-A conversion is done, and the quality of the output stage.

The power supply in the BDA-3 is linear, not switched. And it uses a fully balanced dual-differential DAC. This means that there are no phase-splitters anywhere in the signal path.

Bryston claims that integrated circuits (ICs) “…limit the bandwidth and dynamic range of so many other DACs.” Accordingly, there are no ICs anywhere in the BDA-3’s proprietary solid state analog output section. To learn more technical details about the BDA-3, I encourage you to visit www.bryston.com.

Kicking off my listening sessions, I conducted a number of comparison tests between Bryston’s BDA-1 DAC and their latest BDA-3 model, using PCM music files. The BDA-3 consistently created better resolution, a much wider and deeper soundstage and smoother pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT). It also offered superior low-level detail retrieval compared to Bryston’s first DAC- the PCM-only model BDA-1.

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Skogrand Vivaldi Interconnects

During 2016, my editor Suave Kajko at NOVO magazine let me audition a pair of Skogrand’s Tchaikovsky interconnect cables ($6,950 US) for about 8 months. Within a very short time, I concluded that these were (indeed… are) the quietest and most accurate pair of interconnects that I’d ever heard. As a reviewer, I wanted—perhaps even needed—to have those awesome cables in my arsenal of reviewing tools. Sadly, I had to return them.

At the TAVES Consumer Electronics Show in 2016, Suave asked if I’d like to review Skogrand’s new Vivaldi interconnects ($750 US/2m length) and a matching pair of Vivaldi speaker cables ($850 US/3m length).

Word spread like a virus through my local grapevine of audiophile friends that I’d be getting Skogrand’s new interconnects and speaker cables in for review. All of my audio-buds were drooling in anticipation at hearing the new ‘entry level’ cords. Up until now, the biggest issue with Skogrand’s wires has been their cost. You want the best…? Well… the best costs money: a LOT of money. Not any more though. The new Vivaldi cable line has price points that are far more accessible.

The excitement which Skogrand has created by releasing their entry-level (read: affordable) Vivaldi line of cables has been utterly remarkable.

Since 2011, Skogrand has been proudly making ultra-high end reference calibre audio cables in Norway. Whereas many of the bigger cable companies who established themselves in the 1990s and 2000s seem to be resting on their laurels and are still selling the same wires that they designed 15 or 20 years ago, Skogrand’s newer cable technologies are pushing the boundaries of what is, sonically speaking, possible.

The Vivaldi Interconnects (ICs) which I reviewed were about 3/4-inch in diameter. The have a striking ox-blood red colored, stitched fabric cover which sits underneath a heavy-gauge clear polymer outer jacket. The conductors are 24 AWG OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) solid core copper wires. My review pair was terminated with locking Skogrand RCA plugs.

The primary sonic goal for all of Skogrand’s cables is to “…liberate the true sound of every system connected with [them].” Instead of adding or subtracting any sort of sonic coloration, all of Skogrand’s cords have been designed with the penultimate goal of letting audiophiles hear exactly how their components sound.

Skogrand uses balsa wood, OCC copper, Poly-tetra-fluoro-ethylene (PTFE) cotton, cross linked poly-olefin, Per-fluoro-alkoxy fluoro-carbon (PFA), silver, gold, silk, and rhodium in different configurations to achieve an exceptional clarity and accuracy from all their cables. The ends of the Vivaldi ICs are fairly stiff. As such, an end user will need at least 12 inches of clearance behind the components.

Skogrand Vivaldi Speaker Cables

The 3m pair of Vivaldi speaker cables (SCs) I reviewed came with a white tech-flex jacket and was terminated with Swiss-made CMC Euro-style Copper banana plugs.
Much like the ICs, the Vivaldi speaker cables also need at least 12 inches of clearance on both ends to hook-up an amplifier to most speakers.

Both the ICs and SCs come with air tight and water-proof Pelican hard shell flight cases. The build quality is exceptionally high for ICs and SCs in this price range.
Released in 1993, Junkhouse’s debut album Strays is a phenomenally well recorded rock record that contains a wide variety of toe-tapping songs with catchy guitar riffs and, in places, a strong acoustic edge that gives some of the tracks a small-town country feel.

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Gold Note Giglio Turntable + B7 Tonearm + Dynavector 10X5 M/C Cartridge Review

Gold Note Giglio Turntable Review.indd

With nearly 25 years of experience in manufacturing 2-channel components, today Gold Note of Florence, Italy makes a range of turntables, cartridges, phono stages, amplifiers, speakers, and other music products.

Having recently reviewed Gold Note’s value-packed Valore Plus 425 turntable (now online at www.novo.press), when the opportunity to audition their higher-end Giglio (pronounced Gee-Leo) ‘table arrived, I dove on it like Oprah on a baked ham.

The Giglio turntable ($5,200 US, equipped with the B5.1 tonearm) sits in the middle of Gold Note’s turntable range and features a plinth that’s comprised of three separate layers: real wood; stainless steel; and acrylic. The Italian walnut or Tuscan olive woods used in the base are aged in hardwood slats for 8 years and then cooked in an autoclave to ensure structural integrity.
Once the wood’s cured and hand carved into its unique vibration-deadening shape, it’s finished with a natural lacquer. The wood base is attached to a 3mm thick stainless steel middle plate and then bolted via 16 strategic points to a 2cm thick polished black acrylic top plate.

This tri-layer sandwich construction adds noticeable mass and ensures superior resistance to air born and mechanical vibrations. Plinths can also be ordered with a black or white lacquered MDF base. The walnut plinth of my review ‘table added a formidable class and sexiness that reminded me of a smouldering 1960’s era Gina Lollobrigida. Like the lady, this ‘table has curves in all the right places.

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All elements of the drive mechanism are designed to minimize vibration. The Giglio comes standard with a polished bronze bearing and an 8cm long spindle that’s made out of carbon-rectified hardened steel. The 2.3cm thick platter is formed out of a PTE polymer-based material called black Sustarin.

The ‘table features a 12 volt synchronous motor that converts voltage in an A/C to D/C and then back again to A/C fashion. Users can make precision adjustments to the platter’s 33⅓ RPM and 45 RPM rotational speeds via the electronic speed control buttons on the top left side of the plinth.

Manufactured by Gold Note, the B7 is a 9” long pivoting tonearm and retails for $1,700 US.  The B7 is an upgrade to the B5.1 tonearm which comes standard with the Giglio turntable.

To reduce vibration, the B7’s arm wand is made out of 6 different diameter titanium sections and uses four custom-fabricated ceramic micro ball bearings: two for the vertical plain and two for the horizontal axis. The counterweight is machined out of aluminum and can handle cartridges up to 20 grams.

The internal wiring is an AWG 36 Hyper Litz shielded 99.9999% Oxygen Free Copper (OFC) cable. The Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) can be adjusted via 2 set screws on the arm’s base and the cartridge’s azimuth can also be fine-tuned by a micro-sized screw.

Overall, the B7 is a superbly engineered tonearm with an impressive level of micro adjustability.

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The very first 10X cartridge was released in 1978. The 10X5 is the fifth incarnation and retails for $660 US. It weighs 7.3 grams, has an elliptical stylus, and an aluminum cantilever.

Offering a high output of 2.5mV, this Moving Coil (M/C) cartridge can be used with the 47k Ohm load setting that most Moving Magnet (M/M) phono stages use.

With the Giglio rig, the 10X5 created a beautifully full, warm, and natural sound. The soundstage was deep and wide, and yet also focused and palpable. It never sounded harsh or thin. Germane to its incisive low-level detail retrieval and profound ability at capturing micro dynamic shifts, the 10X5 consistently made music sound coherent, powerful, and involving. Amazingly, this is Dynavector’s lowest priced M/C cartridge.

Flaws…? The 10X5 has some extra weight in the lower mid-range and upper bass. To get even better sound, try Dynavector’s higher echelon Te Kaitora Rua or DRT XV-1T M/C cartridges. To my ears, a Sumiko Pearwood Celebration Mk2 M/C cartridge created the best sonics.

Overall, if you’re looking for a High Output Moving Coil (HOMC) cartridge that makes beautiful music at a reasonable price, Dynavector’s 10X5 should be at the top of your list.