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"Going mono" isn’t yet an audio catchphrase, but more and more of us have taken that route for its deeply rewarding pleasures -- a sound some think superior to stereo in richness and immediacy. There’s also that vast treasury of vintage LPs that makes its way to devoted listeners via eBay, other online merchants, St. Vinnie’s and Goodwill hunting, and such bricks-and-mortar establishments as the venerated Princeton Record Exchange, Berkeley’s Amoeba Music, and the House of Records here in Eugene, Oregon. What’s more, a vibrant specialty market has sprung up, with stunning reissues of famed early rock and jazz recordings from such labels as Classic, Cisco, Music Matters, Speakers Corner, JazzWax, and Sundazed -- often pressed on heavy biscuits of 180g and 200g vinyl. My own late-night listening now is almost exclusively devoted to mono recordings.
"But what do you use for a cartridge?" The question sometimes comes up in amiable chats with fellow vinyl rats as we browse the LP bins, trying to beat each other to the next esoteric prize in its split and battered jacket. Hoping to sound truthful but not too technical, I usually say, "Oh, something kinda old-school" and leave it at that. The whole truth is, for the past few years I’ve used Ortofon’s GM Mono Mk.II -- a low-compliance, high-impedance (100 ohms internal), high-output, moving-coil SPU that comes in its own retro, G-style headshell (a 51mm distance from stylus tip to collet edge). It mounts, bayonet-style, directly on my Ortofon RS309-D tonearm, itself a 12", high-mass (with appropriate headshell), current-production model designed as a kind of throwback to vintage arms of the 1950s. Lately, though, I’ve been exploring contemporary, 0.5" MC mono cartridges of low to moderate compliance that are designed to be mounted in fixed or detachable headshells on the low- to medium-mass arms more popular among audiophiles who spin vinyl.
To most audiophiles, Magnum Dynalab is a supplier of very high-end tuners. They certainly are that, but this Canadian company is no one-trick pony; a perusal of their website reveals not one but two integrated amplifiers in their product line. Although their MD 209 has a price ($6500 USD) much closer to those of most of the components I review, this time I went whole hog and requested a sample of Magnum Dynalab’s top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, the MD 309, which retails for a hefty $8750.
The MD 309 is one big component. Measuring a nearly square 19"W x 6.5"H x 20"D, it’s so deep that I had to move my rack 6” farther away from the wall. It’s heavy, too, weighing 60 pounds that feels like more. Also hefty is its brick-like, full-function remote control of machined aluminum, which can also operate any of Magnum Dynalab’s many tuners.
Three interesting aspects of the MD 309’s exterior are its 1”-thick (!) faceplate, its audiophile-spec feet, and, front and center, its 5” LCD touchscreen. Thick front panels aren’t unique in high-end components, but the MD 309’s four feet are uncommon in that the base of each one includes a Vibrapod. These are great isolation devices, and it was a treat to see that MD has put more thought into the MD 309’s feet than the industry norm of just screwing on some cones.
In the world of high-performance audio, brands come and go -- an audio firm should be considered well established only after it has survived its first decade. But given that so many hi-fi companies embody the personality of a single visionary, it’s difficult for them to survive, let alone thrive, for longer than 25 or 30 years. One venerable brand -- Audio Research Corporation (ARC), of Minneapolis, Minnesota -- has defied the odds. Founded by William Z. Johnson in 1970, ARC is now thriving in its fifth decade, even after technical and corporate leadership passed from Johnson to his protégés. ARC is devoted to the musical accuracy and integrity offered by tube-based designs; their stated goal has always been to advance the state of the art of music reproduction, and they’ve never lost sight of that goal. Yet to flourish for the better part of half a century has required more than just adherence to an ideal; also needed are sound business practices, constant evolution and innovation, a commitment of service to its customers and dealer network -- and a seemingly endless series of good-sounding, fairly priced components that stand the test of time.
Several achievements stand out in any survey of Audio Research Corporation’s accomplishments, but perhaps it’s the series of preamplifiers bearing ARC’s “Reference” badge that loom largest. The Reference 5 line-stage preamplifier is the current torchbearer of this storied procession, and the subject of this review.
Recent Western literary theory makes a distinction between the author of a book and its writer. The author is the ephemeral entity conjured as the consciousness within a given work -- a novel, say -- while its writer is the actual person who wrote it. The essential difference is that the writer has a life outside the scope of the book -- s/he eats, sleeps, messes around, plays with stereos, etc. The author resides only in the work itself, spectrally, a being conjured by the words of the text -- limited in existence, only a voice or a presence behind the words. There might be a parallel to this in hi-fi: an audio component not only has its "writer" -- the designer who goes on living life, designing other components, showing up at Consumer Electronics Shows, racing balloons in Kansas, shredding the break on the Inside Reef at Makaha -- but also its "author," the virtual voice within the machine.
In this sense, the "writer" of the Valve Amplification Company is Kevin Hayes, president and chief designer of fine audio electronics since VAC's inception. I have met Hayes, exchanged jokes with him at audio shows, and spoken at length with him on the phone. He is definitely a personage. And yet, each VAC component has also its "author," a specific character conjured in the sound of the individual piece of gear itself, a kind of spirit in the sound. If we apply this philosophic notion of split entities to audio, it runs counter to the traditional audiophile view that identifies a particular "house sound" throughout a given line of electronics, insisting that all components produced by a company share, by design, a common character.
Ortofon, the venerated Danish firm that three years ago marked its 90th anniversary, has long been known for its celebrated SPU-style line of mono cartridges. These old-style, low-compliance pickup heads have a stylus radius of 25µm to play the 33.33rpm mono LPs pressed since 1948. The SPUs are made to fit "international," bayonet-mount tonearms of relatively high effective mass such as the reissue EMT 997, SME 3009 and 3012, and my Ortofon RS-309D. Their spherical styli trace the groove at a vertical tracking force (VTF) of about 3.5gm. I own an Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mk.II, which outputs 3.0mV, and I use it to play, with great satisfaction, my collection of vintage mono LPs.
Now Ortofon has introduced the Cadenza Mono ($1120 USD), a half-inch-long cartridge with a modern, nude, fine-line stylus (8x40µm) designed to track at 2.5gm. With a dynamic lateral compliance rating of 12, the Cadenza Mono outputs 0.45mV and can be used in a range of tonearms that have either fixed-mount or detachable headshells.
In the past decade, the ubiquity of the Apple iPod and other portable music players has dramatically increased the market for headphones. While the prices of these new offerings run the gamut from throwaway to four figures, most, in keeping with the emphasis on portability, tend to be earbuds or in-ear monitors -- full-size, high-quality headphones are still the province of audio engineers and a vocal minority of audiophiles. Still, headphone companies continue to release statement-level products to appeal to that niche market. One such example, the Edition 8s, from Germany's Ultrasone ($1499 USD), is the subject of this review.
Ultrasone has been designing and manufacturing headphones since the early 1990s. That makes them a relative newcomer in a product category in which most manufacturers have been in business since the early years of electronic recording. Unlike those other companies, Ultrasone makes nothing but headphones. Twenty years is more than enough time to have built a solid reputation, and Ultrasone has won numerous accolades and a devoted following of audio professionals.
Yoav Geva, founder of YG Acoustics, must have some kind of nerve. After all, he’d proudly proclaimed his flagship Anat Reference II loudspeaker “The Best Loudspeaker on Earth. Period.,” even before a single review had been published. But given the critical acclaim the Anat II would eventually achieve, he was obviously on to something. Not only did this speaker win rave reviews, its published specifications were pretty impressive. In addition to the Anat Reference II, YG’s product line has since been expanded to include the Kipod and the Carmel, reviewed here. Given the reception that YGA’s flagship model has received, the Carmel has some big shoes to fill. I can just hear the skeptics: “So, is this the third best loudspeaker on earth? Period?”
Despite its appearance in YGA’s ads, the Carmel ($18,000 USD per pair) is actually quite attractive. In the ads, the speaker looks monolithic; in the flesh, it’s a sleek design in the Danish or German style that will complement contemporary and modern décors, yet won’t look out of place among more traditional furnishings. The upright upper segment contains a recessed tweeter; a 7” midrange-woofer is at the top of the much larger lower segment, with its sloped baffle. The Carmel utilizes Scan-Speak drivers, modified to YGA specifications. The tweeter, assembled in-house, is a modified 1” ring-radiator type claimed to have greatly extended frequency response, linearity, and power handling. The 7” midrange-woofer, a modified Scan-Speak Revelator, is claimed to provide clarity and bass extension in a compact enclosure.
When you’ve been immersed for several years in high-end audio, chances are you take for granted certain things that may surprise non-audiophiles. One of these is that a lot of today’s audio gear uses the venerable vacuum tube. In fact, many audio “civilians” are surprised to learn that vacuum tubes still exist in the 21st century, and that companies such as Atma-Sphere have been using and refining tubed circuits in their amplifiers and preamplifiers for over 30 years with no plans to change. The Music Amplifier M-60 Mk.3.1 is an example of how Ralph Karsten, founder and president of Atma-Sphere, has refined the sound of a venerable circuit.
Atma-Sphere is one of the few companies whose tube amps don’t use output transformers -- the output tubes drive the speakers directly. Transformers tend to smear the sound and limit the frequency response, and while many manufacturers wind great transformers, there’s no transformer like no transformer at all -- something that becomes clear when you hear an Atma-Sphere amp. You hear bass as deep as that from a solid-state design, but with levels of detail and tunefulness that most solid-state amps miss. The difference is not subtle. And unlike some output-transformerless (OTL) amplifiers, Atma-Sphere’s have been, in my experience, virtually bulletproof. You can even remove or insert output tubes while an Atma-Sphere amp is playing (an oven mitt is recommended). Most tube amps will be damaged if you turn them on with no speakers connected to them, but not the Atma-Spheres; being OTL, they can withstand that normally fatal condition. I don’t recommend that you actually try either of these, but if a connector slips off an Atma-Sphere’s speaker terminal, it’s nice to know it won’t trash the amp.
I’ve enjoyed AudioPrism products for quite a while -- all the way back to CD Stoplight, introduced 20 or more years ago. This is a green paint marker with a notched tip that fits the edge of a CD. You paint the disc’s inner and outer edges with the marker and let it dry. AudioPrism claimed that the green paint absorbed stray infrared reflections of the beam from the player’s reading laser. CD Stoplight has remained one of the most controversial CD tweaks ever since it was introduced.
I am a faithful user of AudioPrism’s WaveGuide and Noise Sniffer. Their other products have included power conditioners, radio antennas, CD Backlight (a luminescent disc to put on the back of a CD during play), and tubed preamplifiers and power amplifiers. AudioPrism’s electronic components were so good that, for a while, they made preamps and amps for Mark Levinson’s Red Rose brand.
AudioPrism went dormant for much of the 2000s, but has now been rebooted by Byron Collet, who was with the company in the 1990s. AudioPrism will bring back many of their older products, along with some new ones -- of which the Ground Control ($149.99 USD per pair) is one.
The Ground Control is claimed to improve the performance of the ground side of loudspeaker and amplifier connections. It would be considered a tweak product by most audiophiles, many of whom consider tweaks a waste of time and money. However, in my experience of tweaks in my own system -- in subjective evaluations, with occasional objective measurements (when possible), and even some blind testing -- tweaks have almost always changed the sound. These changes have not necessarily been huge; some have been for the better, some for the worse, and some have simply been different. But I can’t recall any tweak product that has done nothing to the sound, and the Ground Control is no exception.
Opening a box of audio cables is a uniquely Zen-like experience: the exposing of silent components that are so important to your system that it can’t function without them.
And who doesn’t enjoy opening up a box? It’s just like Christmas! And when that box is full of cables, it’s like the best parts of Christmas morning all rolled into one: there’s not just one big gift -- a single stinking CD player -- in there. No sir! There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the box. The opening process is deliciously extended.
Then you get to plug it all in, down there on your hands and knees disturbing dust rhinos, crumbs, and that button you lost a few years back. Plus, if you’re sufficiently obsessive and were toilet-trained early enough, you can take the opportunity to clean off all your connectors with some metal polish. What fun!
These observations recently roiled around in my head as I spent the better part of a day installing a full set of Nordost’s Norse Frey cables. It had been quite a while since I’d last changed the cables in my system, and let me tell you, I was due.
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