Here I am again, at the ass-end of the calendar, wondering how it’s possible that yet another year has gotten away from me. Going through it, I’m sure it seemed interminable at various points, but mostly I’m just wondering where it all went to. I’m still backlogged. I’m still working through half a dozen reviews. I’m still scrambling for a few extra moments in each day to sit down, slap some cans on my noggin’, and just listen.
That, for me, is “2013 in a nutshell”. I needed another year in my year in order to get to all of the wonderful stuff that has fallen into my lap. Man, oh man, do I have a lot to talk about.
So, here at this somewhat arbitrary junction between celestial events, I thought I’d reflect on things done and un-done, things reviewed and things still waiting, and call out some of my most visceral experiences that the year brought me.
First up is a monster stand mount loudspeaker from Clearwave, the truly remarkable Symphonia 7r. Elegant and detailed mids, powerful bass and a top-end to die for, the 7r review pair came with a finish that looked every bit of “high-end”. Outstanding. I reviewed this speaker back in February, and I am still wondering why I let this loudspeaker go.
Well, that’s not entirely true; I have another Accuton-based loudspeaker in the stable currently and the Clearwave, while stunning, was simply adding more of what I was already enjoying with my big TIDAL loudspeakers. That speaker is, unfortunately, extraordinarily pricey — in part due to all the uber-expensive bits that go into the design. But that makes the Clearwave, which leverages many of those same bits in a shockingly convincing way, a flat-out bargain.
Thinking about the big Volti Audio Vittoras tends to make me sad. Sad that my house isn’t quite set up the way I would need it to be to slip these monsters into my living spaces in a way that wouldn’t cause my otherwise wonderful spouse to spit nails. It’s not the speakers’ fault — I blame the builder of the house. Seriously, what is the deal with all the undersized rooms these days? 14′ feet across just isn’t enough, but 16′ — or better still, 20′ — and I would have been in business. Oh well.
All that aside, the loudspeakers are just a visual and aural treat. High sensitivity is, but itself, a near-forgotten thing in audio’s high-end these days, which is a downright shame. But horns? Horns are cool. Sure, they tend to do some odd things to the sound, but they also do much that is flat-out wonderful. The Vittora “system”, when paired with the matching Godzilla-sized subwoofer, brought more jump into my listening than I’ve had before or since. Love these speakers, and when I finally figure out how to get them into a listening space that won’t cause serious marital discord, they’re mine.
Gary Koh hooked me up with some time on his marvelous and infinitely tunable G5.3 loudspeakers. These guys are nifty in ways that just scream flexibility. Integrated subwoofers, rear-facing drivers, tweak-able response curves for every section of the audio band leaves you with a pair of loudspeakers that can do it all — and do that everywhere.
The sound field is dominated by a sense of coherence — and in exactly the way that truly big speakers manage so effortlessly. Height and width of the stage is pretty much spot-perfect, with all the expected audiophile traits you’re partial to — you’ll find detail and air a-plenty.
This is an extremely easy loudspeaker to recommend, assuming that the cost-to-entry is surmountable. Got a troublesome room? This would be the can-opener I’d reach for.
After the humiliation of the Vittora, I went in search of a more modestly-sized loudspeaker that would still let me capture the fun of a high-sensitivity design and found a real marvel in the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96. At 96dB, the nominal impedance is 10 ohms, which makes this DeVore a modern-day SET-lover’s dream. The sound I got out of these gorgeously put-together boxes was shockingly deep and stunningly refined — I bought the demos immediately as I couldn’t bear to let them out of my house. A vintage look, the O/96s will remind many of speakers of yore, which is fine. But paired with modern electronics, I can assure you that the sound is anything but squishy, soft, rolled or dull — these speakers not only jump but slam. I loves them … yesss …. My precious.
There are two reasons to design a high-sensitivity loudspeaker. One is to play with low-power amps. The other is to play really loud. The Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon is clearly of the latter sort. With a 4 ohm impedance and a 95dB sensitivity, the Pendragon is just waiting for a reason to rouse the sleeping dead.
I found the SEAS Pendragon to be a remarkable performer on just about every front — including price. This level of refinement and overall top-to-bottom performance is unusual, and at $2,500, it’s pretty much unheard of. The aesthetic may be a bit pedestrian, but I’m pretty sure one of the optional veneers would sort that out without issue.
2013 saw me successfully exorcise an SET obsession with the happy acquisition of the BorderPatrol S10 EXD stereo amplifier. Delightfully retro in looks and stunningly modern in its full-bandwidth linearity and deep, muscular bass response, this 300b amplifier has completely redefined what a tube amp can do and what an SET amp should be. Quite simply, I’ve never heard anything like it. Matched with the Vittoras or the O/96, I found my audio happy place and I’ve been rolling around in that sound like a pig in a poke ever since.
That is, right up until RMAF, when designer Gary Dews finally released his upgraded PSU, the EXS. These new external power supplies are physically twice as big as the ones they overtop, and probably weigh 3x as much. And there are two. Which makes the stereo amp they’re attached to pretty much a monstrosity of epic proportions. It was the introduction of these power supplies that so stunned the crowds wandering into Volti/BP room, and what earned that room a “Best Of RMAF” award. Yowza. Trust me, you’ve never heard an SET amplifier make sound like this. Ever.
Nelson Pass is a legend, and the company that bears his name is still cranking out simply outstanding electronics. Current designs from Wayne Colburn and Desmond Harrington hit my listening space this year and completely revolutionized what the term “reference” actually means. First up was the XA-100.5, a mono block amplifier design operating fully in Class A for their entire 100 watt output, set a standard for me in what a amp really ought to do — which is make their partnering speakers sound as good as they possibly can. Ultra-wide bandwidth with steel-in-velvet bass and airy highs with holographic mids, these Pass amps did no wrong. Like, ever. I just wish they were smaller!
Moving on the XP-30, a three-chassis preamplifier, pretty much nailed my ideal of what a preamp can be. Ultra-quiet, freakishly transparent, and with connectivity out the wazoo, I can’t think of a better exemplar in that class.
Who doesn’t like red wine? This guy! Me, I love red wine in a way that is both wildly inappropriate and entirely not PG-rated. Ahhh, wine. In another life, I would totally be a sommelier/maker/grower. There really isn’t another adult beverage that has moved me quite so fully … but I digress. So, if you’ll pardon the ham-handed segue, Red Wine Audio also takes me to my happy place. And in a far more socially acceptable way.
I have a pair of amplifiers here, the lovely and powerful Liliana mono blocks. Fully capable of 115wpc, these battery-powered lovelies are fully on par with amps three times their price. Better still, they offer SOTA silences and a dynamic slam that will grab you by your shorthairs and rattle you like a toy. A tube output stage and fully battery driven, you will have a hard time doing better for less. Heck, you’re going to have a hard time doing better period.
The matching preamplifier, the Isabella, is every bit as compelling. A matching aesthetic gives the set a stylish chic, and the fact that you can stuff the kitchen sink into one is like fresh creamery butter on fresh-baked bread. Wow. Headphone amp? Check. Phono stage? Check. NOS DAC? Check. Hi-res DAC? Check. Tube stage? Check. Empty-space silences from that battery driven design? Checkcheckcheckcheckcheck. Sign me up as a huge fan. Review forthcoming.
The Vitus Audio Reference series marks a deliberate step into sheer audio madness, and if you can afford to make that step, all I can say is that the rabbit hole goes all the way down. At the very end, you’ll find a set of electronics that would make a Sultan’s checkbook beg for mercy, but this first step — the Reference Line — could very well be the end-game for just about everyone else. The star of the lineup is the RS-100, a 300 watt monster that enjoys one of the sweetest top-ends (matched with an bottom-end full of rock-solid muscle) of any of the solid-state amps I’ve come across and the only amp I’ve heard in recent memory that truly gives the Pass Labs XA-100.5 a run for it’s money. If memory serves, the RS-100 has quite a bit more bass grip than the Signature Series (one step up) SIA-25 integrated, but would only give up a bit in mid-range tangibility. Totally Vitus top-end, however — that sweetness (purity, not roll-off) appears to be a hallmark for the Danish brand. Review forthcoming.
To me, DACs tend to fall down in a couple of places. Purity in the highs, control in the depths and transparency in the mids — any or all can be problematic. I’ve found that solving for all of them tends to be … rare. Why that is has to do with economics as much as design, but whatever — my experience is that the “whole package” requires some inventive thinking and some old-school implementation.
Enter the Da Vinci from Light Harmonic.
This DAC has a polarizing aesthetic but is jammed to the gills with technology — multi-stage buffering, extreme noise isolation and an obsession with the all-important and totally overbuilt analog output, the Da Vinci offers up an elegant, controlled sound that clearly and effortlessly bests the best that I’ve heard here at the house. This is the deepest, most contoured and most naturally controlled bass I’ve found in any source, with the deep-space black backgrounds that lets me hear, well, everything. The highs are beautifully textured, intricately layered, airy and sweet, and the whole is utterly non-fatiguing. “Natural natural natural” is the mantra that runs right along with “wow wow wow”.
Analog? Who needs analog?
If there’s a better digital-to-analog converter on offer than the Da Vinci, I truly do wonder if we should care. There’s certainly more expensive solutions on the market, but this DAC stakes out a point on the price/performance curve where it’s obvious that we’re now obsessing over split hairs as fine as a frog’s. Ever seen a frog’s hair? Pretty effing fine, ain’t it? Yeah. It’s like that. And yeah, it’s that good. Review forthcoming.
Rogue Audio has been quietly selling piles of truly excellent gear for the aspiring neurotic for, well, years. My second piece of gear was the Ares, a phono preamplifier that wildly outstripped my expectations and left me truly breathless. Really! I was doing that “digging deeply into my record collection” thing — which meant wind sprints up and down stairs, and since I’m fat and out of shape, I was totally winded. Anyway. The sound out of this little two-box affair is better than it has any right to be and I have absolutely no compunctions recommending this to audiophiles looking to upgrade and finish. Yes, this one is that good. It’s a game-ender. Full write up is over here.
In many ways, the Phono 2-SB from LKV Research is like a mirror of the Rogue Ares. Priced similarly, the two units couldn’t be more different in implementation … and still be so similar. Both are two-box affairs, with external linear power supplies. Both are wildly configurable. Both are truly excellent, and while the Ares uses tubes, the Phono 2-SB is all solid state. Both, however, do sound incredibly good and at this price point, it’s enough to thoroughly question why spending more would be a good idea. Bass response on the Phono 2-SB is not only class-leading, it’s category leading and may be the best I’ve yet heard here at home. Review forthcoming.
I wrote about the Scout 1.1 for The Absolute Sound, so I’ll refer you to that august magazine for details around this remarkable turntable. Let me offer this, however — while not cheap, this audiophile-class turntable is another of those products where spending more won’t necessarily get you something better. This is a wonderful turntable — and comes with the tonearm all preset. Set up is easy and straightforward, and the build quality is tank-like. Your vinyl has probably never sounded better.
I just found out that the Rondo Bronze is being discontinued, which is a total bummer. The hope is that it will be replaced by a Version 2.0, but this might be a great time to go grab a deal on the outgoing version. Why? It’s spectacular. The detail and warmth on this cart are beautifully balanced and tonally, I found the time spent with it on my VPI loaner to be some of the most engrossing I’ve had with vinyl in years. Want a huge dose of what a $4k cartridge sounds like for a fraction of the cost? Here you go.
Peter Ledermann of Soundsmith is not only a genius, he’s a legend. His cartridges are, as a rule, some of the best performing at their respective price points. No, I don’t know why that is. But I’ve found that the Aida, which occupies a middling position in the lineup, to be a fantastic alternative to spending two and three times as much on another brand. There’s detail, there’s speed — yes. But there’s also a natural, deep bass sound and an overall evenhanded and masterful sense of presence and control to the presentation that brings the whole analog experience to a level that is not only mesmerizing, it’s lethal to your ability to retire your daily agenda. My recommendation? Don’t bother. Why do today what you can do … ah, whatever.
These are the top-of-the-line from Beyerdynamic and they’re every bit the legend they’re rumored to be. The sound is extremely refined, with better bass response than my reference HD800s, paired with a beautiful, non-fatiguing top-end. Build quality is extraordinary, with a very comfortable fit — this headphone not only looks good on the rack, it totally lends itself to really long listening sessions. In fact, it’s the only headphone I have in my collection that does so. It’s a winner, all around.
This is my first foray into the world of custom in-ear monitors, and I have to say, it’s a doozy of a first step. The first thing I noticed, aside from the oddity of having to shove something deep into my ears, is how easy they are to wear. Once properly seated, there’s just nothing to them. Some of my reference cans are huge, weighty and unwieldy — which is why these UE18 Pros are my go-to for reference sound on the go. With the inherent noise-isolation of an in-ear design, that baby in Row C is no longer a concern — feel free to yell your little head off, squirt. As for the sound, this multi-driver in-ear is extremely refined, with excellent response across the audio band. Natural, warm, full — not sure what else I could be asking for here.
The Island DAC/head-amp combo is something of a trend these days in headphone audio — but the purely analog volume control on a USB-powered widget is really unusual. And the sound quality? Some of the best sound I’ve heard coming out of a portable, and one I’m happy to take with me wherever I go. Full review is available here.
Best of 2013
The winner of my Best of 2013 roundup isn’t actually for a product, per se, but more for an approach. In the long-tail (as my friend Chris Sommovigo puts it) that high-end audio seems to be “enjoying” at this point (see here for more thoughts on that), innovation and disruption will be not only necessary but vital to the growth of the industry.
There hasn’t been much to crow about lately, but this year did see something new. Something remarkable. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t call it out.
The Indiegogo campaign run by LH Labs stunned me. Over it’s run, the team pulled in over $1M in funds to go out and make a desktop “awesomifier” for headphone use.
Let me read that back: “they pulled in over $1M”. That’s “million”, folks. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
The how and the why of that is long, complicated, and rather interesting — and it’s worth diving into. I suspect a book will be forthcoming, and a CES workshop is already planned. But for our purposes here, it’s enough to say “Holy Guacamole!” Together with the Kickstarter campaign, this Indiegogo crowd-funded extravaganza has quite literally turned the hi-fi market on its … [cough] … head. My wager? We’ll be seeing more of this — both from LH Labs and from some would-be hopefuls trying to copycat their way into fame, fortune, or at least, some semblance of financial stability.
As to the products themselves — the Geek Out, a USB dongle that is a head-amp and DAC much like the Audioquest Dragonfly but capable of much higher resolution playback, to the desktop version called Geek Pulse, with optional Femto clocks and an external linear power, well, we’ll see those in 2014. In the meantime, the LH Labs team (a spin-off of the Light Harmonic brand — see the Da Vinci mentioned above) should be beyond thrilled. Like cows, jumping moons, that sort of thing.
I, for one, want to congratulate them on a strong close to an awesome year.
And that’s 2013. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few gems here, and yes, the astute will have noticed that more than a couple of these are still works in process. 2014 will solve that — and add more problems, I’m sure.
Just wanted to note that we’ve had a pretty great year. Over a million visitors to the site is an impressive accomplishment and one I’m particularly proud of.
But I couldn’t have done it without my merry band of co-conspirators! A special thanks to the team for all their work and contributions: Brian Hunter, Michael Mercer, Roger Skoff, Panagiotis Karavitis, Malachi Kenney, Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney, Paul Ashby, Darryl Lindberg, John Grandberg, John Richardson, Bill Caraher, Stas Burgiel, and Frank Iacone. Thanks, folks.
See you all in 2014.