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Gryphon Diablo 300

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To Garrett Hongo,

I’m looking to replace my much beloved CAT SL1 Ultimate preamp, which I’ve now owned for over 12 years, with something even better. My research led me to your review of the VAC Renaissance Mk.3. I was almost convinced that this would be the right choice for me till I came to this sentence when comparing it to the DeHavilland Mercury 3, “With soprano recital and Renaissance choral CDs, the VAC was less refined than the Mercury.”

That something costing half as much could be better in any area of music reproduction would indicate a failure of design of the VAC. Saying it was less refined is a serious charge. For those of us who like soprano and Renaissance choral music, your review would suggest we’d be better off buying the DeHavilland and pocketing the $5000 difference. Am I wrong to conclude that? Of course, I listen to other music as well, but still . . .

My system consists of the following:

Speakers: Verity Audio Parsifal Encore
Amp: Music Reference RM-9 SE
Preamp: CAT SL1 Ultimate
DAC: Concert Fidelity DAC-040
Music server: Specially built by Mike Powell of Verastarr Audio
All cables and power cords are Verastarr Audio Grand Illusion series and everything is plugged into the PS Audio power regenerator.

This system is extremely musical and involving and that’s how I like it. My research led me to two potential choices, the VAC Renaissance and the Shindo Monbrison or Allegro, as they seem to satisfy my needs (judging by the reviews).

The price of the CAT Renaissance [preamp] is going up from $15k to $20k. Unfortunately, price is an issue for me as I’m on a budget and don’t want to spend more the $10k.

Thank you ever so much. I’d like to read your future reviews.

United States

You raise a complex question! Thanks for asking it and for your appreciation of a review I wrote some years ago now.

The answer? As is often the case, the answer is “system dependent.” Luckily, I know the gear in your system very well!

Of the preamp targets you list, I know and highly recommend the Shindo Monbrison (have had it in my system). Yet, the Monbrison can be critiqued as being on the soft side, though rich in tone and texture. It’s fine with blues and jazz, but may lack the kind of powerful drive for rock and orchestral music the VAC Ren Mk.3 has. Drive and slam to beat the band has the Ren 3. Perhaps more than any pre I’ve tried.

But if a remote and built-in phono aren’t an issue, have you thought of the Lamm LL2.1 linestage? I owned one for several years and, next to the Ren Mk.3, it had the best dynamics, drive, and slam. Plus tone and refinement too (though not as refined as Monbrison or deHavilland Mercury 3). I loved its retro looks. Good luck! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I rarely if ever send notes to audio reviewers and usually trust my own ears. However, I read your recent “Jeff’s Getting a New Stereo System” and found that you and I are going through a similar situation. I have decided to focus on one single system rather than have two very good, albeit smaller, systems -- one in my family room and one in my library.

This all started because I have always wanted a Boulder 1060 and have been considering an 1160. So I have decided to sell my Boulder 865 and Viva Solista [integrated amplifiers] and put the money into a great power amplifier. My source is a Vitus DAC-preamplifier, although I may move to a tube front end at some point in the future. I use Wilson Audio Sasha Series 2 speakers.

I am weighing three [amplifier] options right now: Boulder 1160, Boulder 1060, and a Coda (either 15.5 or System 150).

I know very little about Coda, other than the fact that some seriously well regarded audiophiles love the product, think that it is the best deal in audio, and, well, you. So rather than guess, what I wanted to get your direct feedback and thoughts on was the Coda 15.5 or System 150 and how they might compare to Boulder. Is the quality on the same level or is Coda a tier below Boulder?

Warmest regards,
Jonathan L.
United States

Brace yourself for one of those truly unsatisfying answers because I can’t tell you exactly what you should buy.

Coda is a brand that flies under the radar, but shouldn’t. Doug Dale and his staff know power amplifiers as well as any, and have building great amps for decades. I have an older Model 11 that I just love and believe that the newer System 150 would compete with most anything made today. I base this opinion on the fact that I owned a System 100, the model in which the 150 is based on, and it was spectacular -- one of my favorite all-time amps.

Boulder is also a favorite brand, albeit a higher-profile one. Their products are built to a higher standard than anything I’ve ever seen in hi-fi electronics and the sound quality is among the most neutral and resolving you’ll ever hear. I owned a 1060 and thought it was fantastic, and would imagine the 1160 would be better still. This gear is expensive, but unlike a lot in high-end audio, you get what you pay for with Boulder.

Whichever way you go, I think you’ll be happy. No, thrilled. Since you read my article on amplification you know that these two brands are ones that I am considering as well. I can’t guide you to one specific product, but can tell you there is no wrong answer among your choices. Let me know what you decide to do. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

The series of articles you’ve written regarding your change in direction with respect to audio [“Jeff's Getting a New Stereo System”] has been very insightful and interesting. Far more so than TWBAS [The World’s Best Audio System] could ever be.

I agree, for many this hobby is about the gear and not its ability to satisfy one’s ear for music.

I’m guilty of letting myself get caught up in the vortex of collecting the most expensive gear I could afford. However, in the past couple of years I’ve been divesting myself of it all. Somehow it feels a bit easier to enjoy the music.

Good luck with it.

Laurence Phillips

To Garrett Hongo,

I read your review dated October 1, 2009, and thought I should ask you few questions and hope you do not mind.

I have a Finite Elemente Signature rack. I have six pieces of [Finite Elemente] Cerapuc feet, which I used three under my CD player and three under my preamplifier. I have a Linn LP12 turntable and recently I tried three Cerapucs under it and the sound was much better. I moved the ones under my CD player to my turntable, [so my] preamp still had Cerapucs underneath. I decided to use Cerapucs under my CD player and turntable and buy more feet for my preamplifier, which is a VTL 5.5 Series II.

Considering all the support equipment I have is Finite Elemente, would it make more sense to buy three or four Cerapucs or HRS Nimbus feet to use under my preamp? It is a valve preamp and has a grille underneath too, although it does not get very hot. Considering that the Nimbus is larger and would cover some of the grille area underneath the amp, do you think it is not a good idea? If you recommend HRS Nimbus, then should I also buy [HRS] Damping Plates?

I would really appreciate your advice.

Many thanks and kind regards.

United Kingdom

My strong advice is to stick with the Finite Elemente Cerapucs and be consistent with the system you have, especially as the HRS Nimbus footers would cover part of the venting system under your preamp.

I like Finite Elemente products, by the way, and think they make sense and control extraneous vibrations very well. I once owned a Finite Elemente rack and Cerapucs myself, in fact.

The HRS Nimbus footers and Damping Plates make the most sense when used in conjunction with the entire HRS racking system, although the Damping Plates can be used with just about any kind of gear. I use them even though I’ve not the HRS racking system. . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I hope you are doing well and enjoying the journey for your new stereo system.

Your last part was about the DAC with built-in volume control, and I’d recommend you look for the Chord Electronics DAVE. I can’t say anything more except that hearing is believing.

Hoping for you the best,
Muataz Shammari
Jubail, Saudi Arabia

To Jeff Fritz,

I have not heard the Hegel [HD30] you mentioned, but I do have a PS Audio DirectStream ($5999) and love the thing because it keeps on getting better every time Ted Smith puts out new software. FPGAs seem to be the way to go. It is kind of like getting a new DAC with every update. And, if you don’t care for the new version, you can go back to the old one. And of course, it is in your price range.

South Carolina

To Jeff Fritz,

It’s Neil from Everest Audio, a long-time dealer in Regina, SK, Canada.

I just read your latest article on SoundStage! Ultra and found it quite interesting. Two of your candidates for a new DAC are ones that we use in our demo systems daily, the Hegel HD30 and the T+A DAC 8 DSD. Excellent pieces. However, if you don’t mind, I’d like to address one area that in my opinion would be a large improvement for you. I also have used an Oppo BDP-103 in the past, and while certainly a fine piece feeding coax to one of these DACs, it can be easily outperformed. That also goes for the MacBook Pro. After the BDP-103, my next move up was the Bluesound Node 2 and I preferred it in terms of sound quality for Tidal streaming as well as accessing files on my NAS. However, the Bluesound Node 2 still easily takes a back seat to my current Melco N1A/2 digital music library feeding USB to an excellent DAC. The Oppo or the MacBook just won’t touch the Melco in terms of Tidal or digital file playback. Other customers of mine are in complete agreement as well. I haven’t heard this quality of digital playback in any of our systems until we got Melco. Now, I’m not here to just play up the Melco, but just letting you know that, in my opinion, you’re leaving a lot of performance on the table by staying with the Oppo and MacBook. With either of these DACs, the Melco N1A/2 and a high-quality USB cable such as the GutWire USBe-1, you’re still well below your $10k USD limit. The Melco also gives 4TB total storage or 2X2TB of Raid 1 storage.

There are a number of alternatives to Melco out there that will also give you a step up in performance as well, but Melco is one of the leaders right now in performance for the money. If you want more info, you can check it out on our site.

Keep up the great work. I’ve been a fan of SoundStage! for many years now.

Best regards,
Neil Gelowitz
Everest Audio

To Garrett Hongo,

Great review of the Zanden 3100 [preamplifier]. As a psychologist once told me, want what you have. Anyway, I was wondering what a good preamp might do in my system. The system is: Aurender N100H, Kimber Kable USB, UpTone Regen, PS Audio DirectStream DAC, Siltech Classic Anniversary 770i XLRs direct to Oasis Audio S-200 monoblocks (200W class A), AudioQuest Redwood speaker cables, Magico S5 speakers.

I listen to exactly the kind of music as you mentioned in your review of the 3100. If you asked me what I don’t care for in my system, I could not tell you. Perhaps a more defined soundstage and placement of the instruments?

When I tried a Coda Technologies CSiB integrated in the system, it was tiring. Too much on the top end. When I tried an Ayre Acoustics VX-R Twenty, same thing.

I had thought of perhaps a VAC Renaissance like you mentioned, but only saw a Mk.2. I buy used. Someone mentioned an Ayre KX-5 Twenty. Great review by one of your associates.

A friend has an Audio Research Reference 6 between his Berkeley Reference DAC and his Pass Labs X350.8 with Magico S5 Mk.IIs and is selling it because he likes the sound direct from the Berkeley to the Pass.

I am seeing a used/mint 3100 for sale at $7500. Would be a costly mistake and maybe not gain anything?


Thank you,
United States

Thank you for the compliment on my review of the Zanden 3100 preamp. Much appreciated. And glad you found it interesting as a possible choice for your own system.

My editor at SoundStage! Ultra, Jeff Fritz, has recently come to prefer driving his amps directly from a DAC and forgoing a pre. See his recent columns.

That said, I myself like a good preamp as I listen to a good deal of vinyl as well as to CDs. It’s not only convenient to be able switch sources, but I’m very fond of the sound of the Zanden 3100. I used it with a Zanden 8100 stereo amp as well as a VAC Signature 200iQ that I just reviewed. The sound is excellent, particularly with soundstaging and imaging -- a kind of Zanden trademark, if you will.

Regarding your situation, though, it’s very hard for me to recommend which course to take. I’ve not heard the Nagra Jazz in my own system and only passingly heard it in a demo at a show some time ago now. I was impressed but took no notes. Furthermore, I am also unfamiliar with your amps, though descriptions I’ve found suggest they’ve a warm and natural sound not unlike Threshold or later Pass Labs class-A amplifiers.

In general, I prefer matching brands of electronics to each other, especially amp(s) and pre. But I’ve no idea if Oasis produced a comparable preamp. I can say that, in solid-state preamps, I really like the Pass Labs three-box XP-30 and the current Esoteric line of preamps. For tube preamps, I love the Zanden 3100, but you might require more drive than its 8dB gain. Among other tubed, balanced preamps, an excellent value is the VAC Ren. Mk.3 you mention. I’ve owned it and there hasn't been a pre with more drive (22dB gain, as I recall). For another publication, I’ve also reviewed the VAC Signature Mk.2 and found it struck a great balance between drive and finesse. Finally, the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe is another excellent value (18dB gain). I’ve owned one and still regret letting it go. But it isn’t balanced, unlike the VAC and Zanden brands.

I believe your best recommendations may come from other owners of the Oasis S-200 monoblock amplifiers. Is there an owner’s forum or hobbyist’s forum you can participate in?

But I’d be cautious about “jumping” at anything just because you’ve seen it advertised for a good price on a used website. It is an expensive way to audition gear.

By the way, I know your Magico S5 speakers and think they are among the best at their price point available. I’ve heard them driven by all-Zanden electronics (8100 amp, 3100 pre, 120 phono) and thought the sound superb. I’ve also heard them driven by Pass Labs, Soulution, and Constellation electronics and, each time, I heard superior sound. Good luck! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I need your opinion on my intended speaker upgrade, if it can be called that. I’m currently driving my Wilson Benesch Cardinals and their Torus subwoofer with my Gryphon Audio Designs Mephisto stereo amp and their Pandora preamp. Reading about the Rockport Technologies Cygnus intrigues me. Unfortunately, I’m unable to audition it and am solely relying on reviews and customer comments on the web to make an informed decision. Having had experiences with both, do you feel that the Cygnus would be a real upgrade from the Cardinal? If it was your decision, which path would you take? Appreciate your sincerest reply. Thank you.


I have not heard the Wilson Benesch Cardinal speaker, and have only heard other Wilson Benesch speakers at audio shows such as High End, in Munich, Germany. Even still, I have managed to wrap my ears around what seems to be the company’s basic house sound. I know the Rockport sound really well, though, so here’s my best shot at giving you some advice, with the caveat that hearing the Rockport for yourself is surely the best way to go if at all possible.

In a nutshell, I think the Cygnus would have deeper bass and the speaker in general would sound warmer and fuller. My recollection of Wilson Benesch speakers that I’ve heard is that they can sound airy and quick, but are not generally rich and full. You don’t say in your letter whether or not you plan to keep the Torus subwoofer, but I can say that you likely won’t need it with the Cygnus. Rockport speakers always sport deep, articulate bass, and the Cygnus -- with two of Rockport’s largest woofers -- has plenty of deep bass. Rockport speakers have typically been characterized by warmth, although I will say that the Cygnus is more open sounding than previous Rockports of my experience. Still, I believe the Wilson Benesch speakers are voiced with a touch more treble energy and might not play as prodigiously in the bass, yielding a lighter overall tonal balance.

I guess you could take most of this with a grain of salt, considering I have not heard the Wilson Benesch speakers in my room (we’ve asked many times but no review samples ever show). I hope you can hear the Rockports before making a decision. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

Thanks for all the great articles and reviews. I have been following your series on rethinking and rebuilding your stereo system. Fascinating. Just wanted to suggest you take a listen to the Totem Element speakers. I don’t own Totem, I’m happy with my Focals, but if I were looking I’d definitely consider the Totems. I heard one of the Element bookshelf speakers set up with Devialet. Pretty stunning. I thought the Elements, small or large, should be on your list.

All the best,
Jim Ross
Vancouver, Canada