In search of a new reference?


The thing about references is that they tend to be bettered. Sometimes convincingly. Sometimes, not so much. But the mere hint that the summit upon which an audiophile has planted his flag is, in fact, not the summit is enough to inspire the trek back up the mountain.

I like this analogy better than the image of Sisyphus.

So, the time has come to begin gearing up for that next summit. I’m looking for a Reference, with a capital “R”.

For reasons still a bit mysterious to me, I seem to be fixating on an amplifier/preamplifier pairing. Something I can use to compare against all other such pairs, but also to provide some of the best possible signal and power to a pair of reference loudspeakers that are, as yet, still TBD. Not knowing the loudspeakers does present some problems as there is no such thing as an ideal component, except as defined in the context of a system. Amps that work with one loudspeaker may not work as well with another —  for example, an 8wpc SET into an 85dB ESL loudspeaker is not a recipe for sonic shock and awe, but when paired with a 104dB loudspeaker, may be just “the thing”.

So, that said, there are some things I that ought to be true.

  1. Must be awesome.
  2. Must be mainstream.
  3. Must be interoperable with gear from other manufacturers.
  4. More power is almost always better than less.
  5. Must be as quiet as the grave.
  6. No sacrifice in the frequency extremes.
  7. Cost is not irrelevant.

Let’s unpack that list a bit.

The importance of the first is self-evident. It has to not only “not suck”, everyone reading has to simply know, at a gut level, about the sheer awesomeness. It has to let me know as much, and as unequivocally, as possible about whatever widget it is I’m introducing into the system for review. It would help if it would also induce spontaneous and unadulterated envy. The problem is that I probably can’t afford the majority of the gear that falls into this category, but on the off chance it does, that’s what I want.

As for the second, there are a bazillion audio brands out there and many of them that perform at world-class levels. I’m not disputing that at all. As a reviewer, however, I need to be able to establish the broadest baseline possible — so that you, gentle reader, know WTF I’m talking about when I reference my pile of reference gear. If I told you that such and such a speaker sounds just amazing with my MegaAmp1000 from Joe & Akbar’s House of Clones, you might look sideways at me — and rightfully so. Who the hell has heard the MegaAmp1000? No one! So, what can I deduce from some a review that references one? Not a damn thing.

The third point is where the wheels come off many of the prospective buses — I’m not always going to be able to use them together. I may want a different preamp to use with my reference amp, or vice versa. So, if the preamp is only single-ended, that’s a problem. If the amp has a really low input impedance, that’s a problem.

Fourth point — SET may well be the most perfect amplifier design ever conceived. Except for one fact — high sensitivity loudspeakers are required, and high sensitivity loudspeakers are not the most perfect loudspeaker design ever conceived. So, I need an amp that can handle loudspeakers that dip to 2ohms or below (even though this is a clear example of shitty engineering) and have enough guts to take an 85dB speaker to stunning levels of dynamic response. SET amps simply don’t qualify.

Silence is golden — especially when we’re talking loudspeakers of above-average sensitivity or we’re worrying about detail retrieval. So, fifth, an audible hiss or hum pushed out the speakers is unacceptable.

Penultimately — I probably ought to say that I’m a bass freak. I love a good, solid, tight bass line and the satisfactory reproduction of such will be a requirement for me. I also tend to favor “more” detail retrieval over “less”, so a sweet treble (where “sweet” doesn’t equal refined, but instead, is equated with “rolled off”) is a non-starter.

Okay, last but most certainly not least, they have to be affordable-to-me. This is a tricky category as it depends in large part on a lot of variables, but at no point am I going to be satisfying this reference-grade category with components that cost more than a condo at the beach. Ideally, I’d like them to cost less than an entry-level Toyota Camry.

Okay, so on to the list.

All of the gear on this list meets most of the requirements. All are truly remarkable performers, have received rave reviews, and are stunning examples of what is possible in today’s high-end. That isn’t to say that they are all without challenges.

Conrad-Johnson gear is only single-ended. Audio Research is only balanced. Bang. Bang.

Okay, that might be a bit hasty, and if I had to choose, single-ended probably would give me the most options. Other than Audio Research, BAT and Boulder, of course, as they’re all balanced only. [Sigh]. Look — there’s nothing wrong with these design decisions. At all. But for my requirements, which are, admittedly, odd — I’m not sure those particular decisions actually help me.

That leaves Aesthetix and Ayre, and maybe Pass?

Of them, Ayre “favors” a balanced input and tends toward a leaner sound that not everyone is all that happy with. I don’t have any issue with it but both Ayre and Audio Research tend to inspire … passion … both for and against, and I’m thinking “Switzerland” might be a better place to work from, as a reviewer. While Aesthetix is supposed to be “fuller”, the brand isn’t as well-known and is rumored to be tube-noisy. Interestingly, their new “Signature” model Atlas is supposedly a clear step up from what was reviewed in Stereophile and was redesigned, perhaps, to address the shortcomings highlighted there. Who knows. Of that group, Pass Labs is, I’m told, is the most neutral of the bunch (very good), but the relatively low input impedances might make their use with many (but not all) tubed preamps problematic.

Confusing, eh?

Alternatively, I could toss out the “mainstream” requirement, and chart an alternative course. Purity Audio makes some tremendous preamps with tons of compatibility. No idea what kind of amp to put behind one, though. Constellation Audio‘s Reference line is only a bit on the far end of the others, at least with respect to price. Vitus Audio has some gear that is purported to be stunning. TIDAL Audio, too, plays in that rarified air. An ASR Emitter, I’m told, is amazing, but not many folks have heard or even heard of, ASR.

Final decisions are going to come down to price, what I can test, and of course, how the components sort out with loudspeakers. But this is my thinking so far.

Anyway, this is what’s on my agenda for RMAF and CES. More on this to come, I’m sure — feel free to redirect me in the Comments section!

About Scot Hull 1063 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. Funny, because most of the brands you mention are on my final list for a solid state solution to my already all tube one. I am alfeady an Aesthetix dealer. So, after 6mos, where do you stand…Chris

  2. Quite interesting list of equipment over here
    There are two amps series you might want to put onto the list.

    Over here, people were trading in their Ayre MX-R to the entry level (or higher) adyton power amps, claiming a big step up, downside you cannot get them in US, only in Germany and Oslo Hi-Fi center. I don’t think they will send you one for review, however and older model was checked ages ago in Stereophile and I believe it was claimed to be the best amp ever……
    Not cheap, starting at something like US$ 18k for entry level….
    They’re made over here in Norway coming out of a long-term research project at Norwegian Technical Naturscience University, it’s the only amps I seen claimed to have so low output impedance it’s said to be unmeasarable by any equipment

    Daniel Hertz
    Maybe also mark Levinson’s (The man himself) amplifiers made in switzerland, $5K for a pair 🙂

    • It’s being referred to here
      OBJECTION !!!!!!!
      Hegel is an ALL Norwegian brand !

  3. Missing from the discussion is Hegel ( I have great hopes, because the prices are very reasonable for the reported performance, and lots of awards. I heard the demo of entry H20 amp and top P30 preamp at Rocky Mountain 2011 and was VERY impressed. Robert Harley gave a rave to the top-line H30 stereo amp earlier this year. Looking forward to their new top integrated amp, the H300 ($5500) at Rocky this weekend!

    • I need to look at Hegel a bit harder, it’s true. They’re getting good press, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard so far!

  4. Simaudio’s Moon Evo series is definitely way up there in terms of performance…. but I don’t think I would necessarily put them on the same “elite” level as Boulder, Vitus, Accuphase, etc. What they do have going for them is extremely low noise floors, and their big amps have essentially unlimited power reserves at any impedance load while at the same time being able to idle using only 30 or 40 watts from the wall. Simaudio’s house sound seems to bounce around a bit depending on the product. For the most part they are fairly neutral, though there’s usually a slight tilt to either the warm or cool side. Within your price range, I would look at the P-8 and W-7M monos. The new 850P and 880M monos are way over budget.

    It can be telling to look at what some of the best loud speaker companies use in their own systems. My personal favorite, Rockport is all Gryphon, with the mighty (and ruinously expensive) Colosseum monos driving their Arrakis flagship. The reference amps at Magico are Boulder, Spectral, and Soulution. Wilson uses VTL Siegfrieds. Verity uses Wavac and Nagra. If companies that can get pretty much any amps in the world choose a particular amp to test the performance of their $100K+ speakers, I think that says something about that brand.

    How about Atma-Sphere? The MA-1 MK3.1 monos and MP-1 MK3.1 preamp are well within your budget, and offer both balanced and single ended connections. I think they are at least on the same level as Conrad-Johnson in terms of performance. Plus, I haven’t seen the latest 3.1s reviewed anywhere, so you’d have the scoop!

  5. As usual, I am at odds at what you might call “affordable” and “mainstream”. A few thoughts do come to mind, and some are not new pieces but well known “vintage” ones.

    A reference need not be anything but a set of known devices that have been proven to last the test of time (so even if vintage pieces, they must or should still be out there in good systems), that have some sort of current iteration (again if today’s new components, they should have a direct link to those of the past, but not necessarily have the same brand), and to wit must be somewhat affordable. Even at industry “accommodation” pricing any items (and price ranges) on your list are a significant expenditure.

    My new reference is a system that if bought in today’s market would cost around $3k. Used “equivalents” would cost under $800. I’ve got something like $250 into the system including stands, sources (both digital and analog), wiring, and amplification. It is not representative of an “ultimate” and expensive reference. It is what it represents. So really a large budget should wow some, but it does not necessarily allow you to enjoy it. I wish I had your “troubles” though ;).

    Based on some on your list, I might suggest the Ayre or Accuphase components. Both have (almost) always been well reviewed. As a Canadian, I would love to see Oracle, Sima (Moon), Classé (most notably the Dave Reich designs, such as the vintage DR-9 preamp and the DR-25 amplifier, and the later CA-300 and CA-400 amplifiers), Magnum Dynalab, Totem, et al represented.

    So far I have yet to see what your actual listening preferences are and in what acoustical space will the system be used. Do you have a dedicated listening room that has been constructed for that purpose? If spending significant cash, the first component I’d get is a great room. Then add some equipment. After that all the usual questions regarding music tastes, how load, blah, blah, blah…

    • Stew — I agree with you on the point of a reference, at least generally. The point of this particular exercise, however, is a bit more broad, and seeks to solve two problems. The first is personal — I’d like any and all gear I have and use to be sonically excellent. No shock there, right? In fact, I can’t think of an audiophile who’d deliberately bring in “bad” gear, but whatever. So, yes, I’m looking for a top performer that I can use to judge and discern performance deviations.

      The other problem is a bit more squishy. I was talking with a vendor just the other day, who said quite bluntly: “I’d never send any gear to a reviewer who’s reference was a Denon”. Unraveling that — it wasn’t that he was trying to say that Denon was a poor performer, or that there was anything wrong with someone who owned Denon or liked Denon. His point was, to put it succinctly as possible, if you want to work with high end audio companies, you’re going to have to show those prospective collaborators that you’re worth working with. Part of that will be a personal reference system that they know and understand, and can relate to or at least respect. I guess you could say that this system would be table stakes.

      Now, there’s nothing wrong with Plinius — I quite like it. That said, however, it isn’t as mainstream as, say, Pass Labs. It just isn’t. Plinius does wonderful things, but it doesn’t light up as many the lust-receptors as Conrad-Johnson or Lamm Industries. And quite frankly, there are quite a few brands out there that just play at a different level than Plinius. I guess what I was hoping to do with this system is solve the two problems — without forcing me to spend enough to buy a brand new BMW.

      Ayre is good stuff, and I love their reference preamp. The amps, however, tend to inspire a lot of mixed feelings in readers (as opposed to vendors), so I’m not sure that this wouldn’t simply swap one set of problems for another. Accuphase is great, but the markup here in North America is absurd. Classe is interesting (Atkinson loves his amps), but their preamps aren’t all that. Of that set, Simaudio is a serious option. Need to find out more about them and what option in their line might work.

      As for listening space, I guess I ought to write that up again, but I know it’s around here somewhere. It’s a basement, 14′ x 8′ x 40′. I listen to jazz, pop, classic rock, techno, whatever the hell I feel like — but it tends not to be classical.

  6. All of BAT’s high-end products are balanced only. it kind of makes sense they do call themselves “BAT” after all. If you were to consider balanced only products, I think Boulder’s 1010 pre and 1060 power are in a different league from the BAT gear. There’s probably a reason nobody really talks about them anymore.

    Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure Gryphon has a preamp and amp combo within your price bracket. Definitely check them out if you haven’t Gryphon products look a bit weird, but the sound is glorious.

    • Gryphon has come up more than once — but I don’t think they have distribution here in the US at all. As for pricing, or models, or, well, anything at all about Gryphon … I don’t have a lot other than what’s on the site. Which may mean they’re also not mainstream enough, yet? It’s a puzzle.

      I’ve always been impressed with Boulder, but have yet to spend any time with their gear ….

  7. What about Balanced Audio Technology? Do not hear about them much anymore. A VK655SE with a REX amp or REX tubes would be nice.

    • That’s true, BAT is certainly not getting much love these days. In fact, I don’t really know anyone talking or writing about them ….

  8. Oh, and please try to hit room 577 at the Denver Marriott this year. Vapor Sound will be showing their new Joule Black with BMC electronics. It’s a floor standing, 3-way version of the Cirrus monitor, and could be a giant killer of epic proportions.

    • It’s hard to discount them. But I’m not sure that using a single-ended pre with a balanced amp is a recipe for optimal performance….

  9. I heard that the Arion Harmony series (Hybrid tube/proprietary Class D amp stages) mono-blocs are the bees knees. HS-500 is 500WPC and $6K a pair retail. I think there may be a version that is 1000WPC.

    This is a NJ company near Newark airport and they sell Analysis ribbon speakers as well.
    There is starting to be some noise about them at on-line forums.

  10. I forgot to mention, Accuphase’s preamps are as good as their amps. The C-2820 is absolutely brilliant. That combined with an A-200 or P-7100 would be an absolutely killer combination, competitive with the best in the world.

    Classe I’ve generally found to be somewhat sterile.

    How about a Simaudio Moon 850P and 870A? Well known company, uber quiet, enormous power, very low impedance capability.

    • I’m getting the feeling that the Accuphase pricing I saw online may not be … real. I’m almost scared to ask what the A-200 costs in US dollars.

      • They undergo a continous improvement process, there have been incremental improvements even in 2011 and 2012. It is a continuous 30+ years development story, only 2 models of course, the Emitter 1 and 2 with 2 flavours (Exclusive or Basic). I was former (and still am) an adept of low powered amps of very high quality (SETs or hybrid) paired with high efficiency speakers. My latest incarnation of this ‘pattern’ was the (quite amazing) Tom Evans Linear A amp driving Reference 3A speakers. However, as imho really high efficiency designs are hard to find and not really cheap (e.g. DeVore top models, Coincident top model), I decided to take a radical turn and try the Magnepans 3.7. For them I opted for the ASR Emitter 2 as it was hard to find an amp that brought the magic of the former system. The ASR did this (at least for me). Here in Germany the ASRs still get periodically press but you have right in that it is a ‘known story’ ans probably not so exceiting anymore. Hope this helps,
        all the best,

  11. It’s been awhile, but in my last experience with Audio Research Reference I was not bowled over by them. Ayre and Pass are ok… but at that sort of price I would demand WAY better than “ok”.

    Vitus is a must listen, definitely. They have amps that can switch between Pure Class A and A/B, so you can have more power or maximum purity as the situation calls for it. Boulders are balanced only which is too bad, they are superb. DarTZeel’s NHB-108 amp and NHB-18S pre may be worth a listen if you’re ok with some “tube like” signature as opposed to sound that’s strictly down the middle like the aforementioned Boulder, though they may be too soft in the bass department.

    You MUST listen to an Accuphase. The A-65 is sweet. If you think Luxman sounds good, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Their A/B amps are also exceptionally good, a little less sweetness and purity, a little more punch and dynamic energy. The pure Class A 65 should be enough to power just about any speakers though, unless they’re really inefficient. 60 watts into 8 Ohms doesn’t seem like that much, but that’s what it says on the tin, that’s not what it’s actually capable of delivering. It will actually dish out way more than that before sliding into A/B. The Accuphase also will simply double down at any impedance you can throw at it. 120 watts into 4 Ohms, 240 into 2 Ohms, 480 into 1 Ohm. No load is too challenging. Same with with their A/B P series amps, 1 Ohm, no problem. Just tons of power.

    I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure the Karan KA S400 fits into your price requirement. Worth checking out.

    On the tube side, VTL’s S-400 is excellent, though it’s less friendly to loads below 4 Ohms.

    • Accuphase is some really pricey gear, but FWIW, I just love my near-vintage Accuphase SACD player. Vitus is on the list — but boy-howdy, do they get spendy fast. DarTZeel is supposedly really good, but the really good stuff is also really spendy — the not so spendy is intolerant of speaker variance off of 8ohms. BMC is also good, but has similar limitations, that is, both are probably fine to 4ohms and not much past that. Stereophile is hot for the big Classe amps, and I’ve heard the big Cary amps are similarly good.

      • Okay, just did some lookups on pricing and the Accuphase C-3800 and A-200 are both under $20k each. Less than I thought — by a lot. I’ve got a note into the US distributor to see what’s what.

      • Okay, so I talked with AXISS, the US distributor. Here are the prices:

        C-3800 is $43,500.
        C-2820 is $31,500.
        A-200 is $69,000.

        LMFAO. Um, yeah, these are WAY out of my price range. Holy cow.

    • I would like to second the Accuphase A65. Best “affordable” amp i have heard to date, and one of the most beautiful too.

      Definitely getting one down the line to pair with my Accuphase preamp which i dearly love.

  12. I can comment on the Aesthetix equipment. I have owned the Rhea & Calypso “Signature” versions – despite multiple efforts at NOS tube rolling, noise matching and testing, the ambient noise levels of these preamps was just unacceptable. Tube rush everywhere , which is not surprising given the number of gain stages Jim White insists on using . For what they are , I consider them seriously over-priced and poor value for money. Seriously fails your “quiet as the grave” test for sure. Reviewers have been suspiciously silent on this issue but f you check the user sites on the web, they are stuffed full of complaints from disgruntled owners.Why not consider Lamm instead ? – tubes and tube-hybrids done right . And you forgot VAC – king of the hill IMHO as far as high end , deathly silent, high powered tube gear is concerned.

    • I’m was afraid that this would be the case.

      I’ve not explored VAC, mainly because the KT88 is not one of my favorite tubes (the only tube I actively dislike is the KT90, or maybe the 6550 — it’s hard to pick between them), but VAC is still on my audition list … assuming I was doubling my (admittedly arbitrary) budget.

    • I have the Aesthetix Atlas Signature amplifier and the Rhea Signature phono stage. I am using the Audio Research Reference 3 preamp and Vandersteen 5a Carbon speakers. I am happy to say that I have not had an issue with tube noise at all.

  13. I need to get you a pair of Liliana Monoblocks. But we’re rolling out a new tube stage that can take 6922 family and 12AX7. And changing our enclosures and they are going to look sweet!

    The only thing that might not fit your requirements is mainstream, but we’ve been doing this since 2005 and are not unknowns 😉

    Ok – the cost isn’t high enough, and the boxes aren’t 100 lbs each. But they drive everything very well! Seriously solid bass – super silent, midrange, tone, extended top end pass 40kHZ….

    I can even offer a balanced input – but I’m not a big proponent of balanced unless you’re running like hundreds of feet of wire in a studio…

    Sorry I can’t make it to RMAF. But I’ll be at the NYC show, and CAF in 2013!


    Vinnie Rossi Red Wine Audio

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Heya, Vinnie! I can’t believe you’re blowing off RMAF. Boo, hiss. 😉

      Love to try out the Liliana monos with your Isabella pre. And no, I’m not trying to knock you, your efforts or your brand. You know I love your stuff.

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