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To Michael Wright,
I am looking for the perfect preamp to go with my monoblocks, the KR Audio DX models. With your good experience, could you tell me some reference preamps I should hear? I mostly listen to vinyl. Thank you in advance for your help
The KR amplifiers are very nice. I spent some time listening to both the DX and VA910s at this year’s CES and came away very impressed with KR Audio and their products. I am currently reviewing the VA910s, which are 160W monoblocks using four KT120s per amp. I spent a limited amount of time listening to the DX at CES, so my experience with it is less than ideal. In terms of the VA910s, I have been using my Purity Audio Silver Statement preamp to good effect and friends who have stopped by to see and hear the amps came away impressed with that combination.
A couple of other preamps I feel may work well with the KR Audio DX would be one of the Convergent Audio or Wyetech Labs preamps. You can find CATs with built-in phonos and Wyetech’s Ruby phono preamp is quite nice. In terms of solid-state preamps, the Blue Circle BC109 and several offerings from Ayre Acoustics would do nicely as well, in my opinion. Be sure to check with manufacturers to make sure there aren’t any impedance mismatches. Let me know how it goes or if you have any other questions. Good luck and good hunting. . . . Michael Wright
To Garrett Hongo,
I just finished reading your insightful review of the TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 arm and saw in the equipment listing that you are using a Box Furniture rack. I am considering purchasing a Raven One from Jeff [Catalano] with either an Ortofon RS-309D arm or the TW-A 10.5 and I am also in the market for a new rack. I was considering a Steve Blinn Design frame and outfitting it with shelves made by Dan at edenSound, but I've always liked the look of the Box Furniture racks. I imagine the Box Furniture outperforms the Steve Blinn racks, but I have oddly shaped amps (Thöress) that are long and narrow and Blinn amp stands can be custom sized. If you have a moment, would you mind sharing how you like using that rack with your turntable? My floor is carpet over concrete if that makes a difference. Also, any information on other racks or isolation platforms that you have found to work well with your Raven would be greatly appreciated. If you get a lot of questions from readers and do not have time to respond, or if you simply prefer to not make recommendations, I will completely understand.
Thanks for your help and for the work you do for Ultra Audio. Your reviews really explore the fine details of the equipment and are full of great information, in addition to being fun to read. My kids think I'm a nut, but you like what you like!
Thanks for your comments. I like edenSound products and use their damping pucks in my system. And Steve Blinn has been an industry mainstay for a long time. But you're right about the look of Box Furniture racks and they work terrifically well, especially with tube equipment. I love mine -- just flat love it. I'd have written a review hadn't a few others for other magazines beaten me to the punch! Re: the Box vs. Blinn and customization. Anthony Abbate (who owns Box) can build your rack custom as well. He did mine. He said, "Essentially, every rack we build is a custom job anyway."
I have my TW-Acustic Raven Two sitting directly upon the top shelf of my five-shelf Box Furniture rack. I was thinking about adding another plinth, possibly from HRS or Symposium, but worried about adding even more height (my rack is already 47"H and I am 5' 8"), when Anthony politely suggested why not just try it with the 'table sitting directly on the top shelf? Well, I tried that and it was splendid! The only thing I've changed over time is the feet. It came with Millennium feet, which I did not like. I changed to the OEM Stillpoints that TW commissioned, which I believe are the M6 Stillpoints with risers. The change was like night and day. Then, just last fall, I switched to the Stillpoints Ultras under both the Raven 'table plinth and the motor pod. The results were outstanding -- gains in imaging, bass pitch and definition, treble air, and soundstaging. Another night-and-day difference.
You didn't ask, but I can say that both the Orton RS-309D and TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 arms are wonderful. I'd had some doubts about the performance of the Ortofon 12" arm, especially as it might compare with arms from EMT and Ikeda, but, though I've not compared it to those arms directly, I have compared it to the performance of the Raven 10.5 and it does very well indeed with the same cartridge, loading, and VTF. And two things to keep in mind about the RS-309D vs. Raven 10.5: the difference in arm length (12" v. 10.5") and that the Ortofon can accept SPU cartridges as well as the now standard half-inch. I got my Ortofon so I could explore the SPU world. If you listen to classical music a lot, though, the Raven 10.5 cannot be beat. Most sensitive, responsive arm I've heard. Quick and dynamic. Finally, Jeff knows his stuff and respects his clients. I'd really recommend letting him guide you. Here's a link to my road article on Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound. He would certainly be a great resource to you here. He has been to me. Good luck! . . . Garrett Hongo
To Jeff Fritz,
I just felt compelled to send you a note thanking you for your candor lately. I know it's not easy to question the establishment and the common knowledge in this industry, but you manage to keep doing it and survive. Your recent column regarding CES is painfully spot on, sadly so.
I do enjoy reading your articles. The SoundStage! Network is about the only publication [group] I'll actively seek out anymore. And it has everything to do with your candor and honesty. You really do understand what's really going on. You are seemingly unafraid to call BS when you see it. And you seem to still be seeking real fidelity, rather than just giving it lip service. I appreciate all of this. But I really appreciate that, unlike me, you're still willing to endure all the BS on a day-to-day basis. I appreciate that because it gives me something to read and be reminded that not all is lost.
To Garrett Hongo,
Thank you for your expertise! I really enjoy your stuff out there online! You have a great following because we can tell you are passionate about what you do!
I have absolutely fallen for the Shindo sound and will be purchasing a Shindo Masseto preamp. What I loved about the Shindo Masseto was how wide and live the soundstage became. There was such air and space around the instruments. I could feel and discern individual strings being plucked on the cello! I could sense more space around choir voices and separate the singers.
Any experience with the Air Tight ATM-3 mono amp at 110W (55W in triode) using six EL34s? This has a real cult following for the newer Quads, being mentioned by Jonathan Valin in TAS as a "perfect match." In researching this mono amp, it seems to be tremendously respected and one of the classic amps out there.
From the talk out there on the forums, this seems to be a tremendous amp. My only concern is that one owner felt that with his speakers (not Quads) the ATM-3 was "not as transparent" as the newer class-A amps that are out there. What do you think?
Finally, one dealer who I have worked with swears by the VAC Phi 200 stereo amp at $11,000. He also represents EAR and would take the VAC over the 890 "in a heartbeat," which kind of gave me second thoughts on purchasing the EAR 890. Any experience with the VAC piece or from your readers, CES, etc.?
I really appreciate your time on this. I must admit I'm a little excited at the possibility of the Air Tight ATM-3 purchase, but want to be sure that with the new technology and new tube designs out there my system wouldn't be lacking in transparency, soundstage, etc.
Thanks for the appreciation. I'm glad you think my passion for audio comes through in the reviews.
I've some experience, having heard the Air Tight ATM-3 mono amps at CES. I once owned the Air Tight ATM-2 (KT88) stereo amp and ran it for years (with a Thor TA-1000 line stage) as my reference. Later, the ATM-3 was highly recommended to me by Tom Tutay, the warranty tech for Air Tight, who repairs and modifies all Air Tight electronics. I strongly considered the ATM-3 before purchasing my deHavilland KE50A monoblocks (45W). Finally, I know an owner of a reputable cable company who uses ATM-3s with Wilson Sophias for a good result.
I agree with your dealer and Jonathan Valin about the Air Tight ATM-3 mono amps being excellent, but I would also suggest that you take into consideration the sonic signature of the Shindo Masseto. I think it's more in keeping with the EAR 890 sound (that you asked about in a previous letter) than the Air Tight ATM-3, which I think would work better with the Air Tight ATC-2 (tube-rectified) preamp. As for "transparency," I think the Air Tight amps have the best potential to achieve that quality with the ATC-2 as the line stage. My strongest regret in my own audio evolution is that I never bought an ATC-2 to use with my ATM-2. It is an excellent line stage and a perfect match for the ATM-3 monos, as well as other Air Tight amps. I'd characterize its sound as extended, particularly resolving and airy in the treble and upper mids, rich and liquidinous in the midrange. That said, you could get the ATM-3s and certainly try the Masseto with them. But I would also try to audition an ATC-2 down the line. In general, as far as electronics are concerned, I believe in matching amps and preamps from the same manufacturer.
I have reviewed the VAC Phi 200 for Ultra Audio. The Phi 200 and Masseto could be an interesting combination -- but I've never heard it. I have heard the Phi 200 with two VAC preamps -- the Renaissance Mk.3 and Signature IIa (reviewed for another publication) -- and those combos were excellent. With the Ren Mk.3, the emphasis was on drive, punch, and bass quality. With the Sig IIa, the combo had clarity and extension at the extremes, bass punch too (a characteristic of the Phi 200), but also a lot more finesse and nuance, and an openness and detail in the upper midrange that was exceptional.
Finally, if you love the Shindo sound, why not consider speakers other than the Quads? That way you could use any number of Shindo amps your Masseto was designed to work with optimally. You might then look at speakers built by DeVore, Auditorium 23, Audio Note (UK), Trenner & Friedl, Coincident, Hørning, Cessaro, and perhaps Shindo itself. If you're working with a Shindo dealer, he would know what's most suitable and within your budget. . . . Garrett Hongo
To Garret Hongo,
I really enjoyed your review of the EAR 890! I am in the process of building a system around my Quad ESL-2805s, which have, as you know, unique requirements because of their low 86dB sensitivity and variable impedance.
I have absolutely fallen for the Shindo sound and will be purchasing a Shindo Masseto reamp. However, the Shindo amps are poorly matched with the Quads. I was intrigued by the EAR 890 amp as well as the newer Audio Research Reference 75 amp.
I really respect your opinion and wonder if it were your system, what tube amp would you pick from all you have reviewed (preferably in the $5k-$10k range) for the Quad ESL-2805/Shindo combination? Thanks for your time.
Thanks for the good word on the EAR 890 review. Always nice to hear a review of mine has been helpful.
I am familiar with the Shindo preamp sound, having had the Monbrison in my system some years ago and I once visited Pitch Perfect Audio (a Shindo dealer) in San Francisco. I admire the approach and the sound. That said, I know what you mean about Shindo amps, generally of lower power, not being a match with your Quad ESL-2805 speakers given their low sensitivity (86dB) and large impedance swings.
Except for a few listening sessions, I'm not that familiar with the Quad world myself. But I can say what I've observed in my limited experience is that the appropriate matching amp depends upon which type of Quad speaker you have -- whether based on the old ESL-57 (drivable with low power) or ESL-63 (more power hungry). As the ESL-2805 is derived from the ESL-63, I'd say an amp of at least 50Wpc or more is necessary. Given the EAR 890 outputs 70Wpc, that would seem an adequate amount of power. I asked Dan Meinwald of EAR USA about this and he feels confident that the EAR 890 would do fine with the Quad ESL-2805s. You might also note that the Quad II-eighty monoblock tube amp was designed by EAR engineer Tim de Paravicini and outputs 80W -- so the 10W output difference between a pair of Quad II-eighty monos and the EAR 890 seems minor. All of this is to say that the EAR 890 should do fine with the ESL-2805s.
As for the ARC Reference 75, it's fully balanced (all stages -- input, gain/drive, and output -- are fully balanced) and has only balanced inputs, designed to work with preamps and sources with balanced outputs. As Shindo preamps are single-ended only, the two lines are incompatible. Furthermore, I would advise against using XLR/RCA adapters or RCA-to-XLR interconnects. Shindo amps and preamps are designed to work single-ended, whereas ARC's amplification is designed to work balanced. Defeating their designed connections and combining them via adapters or RCA-to-XLR interconnects would not only be asking for trouble, but would also work against their design principles, compromising the sound of each.
If you'd like to consider an intriguing alternative to the EAR 890, you could look at the new Convergent Audio Technology JL5 stereo amp (100Wpc). Like the ARC Reference 75, it uses the new KT120 tube, but runs eight of them in triode mode and is single ended. About to be released, the retail price will run between $10,000 and $12,000.
Finally, as an overall observation, I think the EAR 890 sound is more in keeping with the Shindo sound, of a sonic character more similar than different, frankly, whereas the ARC sound is much less so -- oriented as it has been toward higher resolution more than richness in the midrange, a trait shared by both EAR and Shindo. However, I have also heard that the new Reference 75 sounds richer in the midrange than previous ARC amps. If your heart is set on the 75, I'd get an ARC preamp to match with it. . . . Garrett Hongo
To Jeff Fritz,
Greetings from the Lone Star State, Jeff. I'm in the market for a high-end USB DAC and analog preamp. I was wondering if you're planning on reviewing the Calyx Femto DAC. I'm particularly curious to see if it meets your standards to make it to your TWBAS list.
I know you're a big fan of the Ayre KX-R preamplifier and it's part of your reference rig. I'm curious if there's any synergy between these two pieces, or if they'd suffer from too much transparency, per se, where they would sound too analytical.
Thanks and warm regards,
Oscar E. Bermudez
I'm not planning to review the Calyx Femto, as Doug Schneider wrote a comprehensive review on SoundStage! Hi-Fi last year. My findings echo his. I can tell you that I have had a Femto in my system for over a month and do have it paired with the Ayre KX-R preamp you mentioned. In short, I think the two make a fine sonic match. Both are clean and transparent, as you predict, but the combination is far from analytical or strident. On the contrary, I find the two very easy to listen to for long periods, as they are extremely natural sounding with an uncanny smoothness to the sound. Honestly, I can’t imagine much better sound than what I am hearing from the combo in my system. So, yes, the Calyx is the current DAC of choice for TWBAS. Hear one if you can. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I just bought an almost brand-new pair of Rockport Technologies Ankaas. I would like to match them with an integrated tube amp -- the Unison Research Performance, which has been getting rave reviews! What is your opinion of this amp for the Ankaas? Does it have enough current? I read your explanation to somebody about desirable amps for certain Rockport speakers. You prefer solid state. I do have the Devialet D-premier myself. The sound is a bit 2D -- a little bit flat, not 3D like tubes.
What is a good basic setup for the speakers to start with? My room is 34' long by 22' wide and the height is 9'. I will put the speakers in the center of my room, and I have no limitations in this setup. I do have the Argent RoomLens devices at my disposal as well. My floor is made of concrete with insulation over that, and on top a wooden floor and a huge carpet in the shape of a "T." Behind the speakers I have silk curtains that are covered with a sort of felt at the rear, which are in front of my glass windows.
I hope you are willing to answer my questions. I'm looking forward to your professional advice! Keep on with your fascinating, very enthusiastic and well-written review work! I do admire your qualities.
With the very best regards,
Congratulations on the Ankaas -- they are very fine speakers indeed. You have a rather large room and the Rockports can handle energizing that space with no issues. However, the amplifier you are considering is only 40Wpc and I think that you might be setting yourself up for a major disappointment. It is simply underpowered. As well, the Ankaas are capable of very deep bass and I am not sure the Unison Research Performance is an ideal match to control the 10" woofers of the Ankaas, particularly given the volume of your room. That huge space will swallow bass.
I would not give up on the Devialet D-Premier that quickly. It is an extremely transparent amplifier and will control those Rockport woofers with ease -- a necessity for great sound. This is, in my opinion, just the sort of amplifier you would want to try with the Ankaas. I'd personally love to hear that combination.
I think your issue might have more to do with speaker set up than amplification. If I read your letter correctly you have the speakers (or your current ones) pulled way out into the room toward the center, making them equidistant from the front and rear walls. If this is, in fact, the case, I would advise you to push the speakers toward the front wall so that they are at approximately the one-third mark into the room. This will do two things: first, it will give the speakers' drivers an opportunity to combine correctly acoustically. I think the center mark might be too close to the listening position for that to happen, and that will certainly hamper the ability of the Ankaas to create a coherent sense of space. Second, you will get more bass reinforcement from the nearer-wall placement. Having a firmer low-frequency foundation will help the speakers to reproduce the acoustic of the recording venue better and that will enhance the 3D effect.
Let me know if these tips help. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I read with great interest your review of the Magico Q7. They certainly seem to be rather special. Would it be possible for you to comment on how they compare with Wilson or Avalon speakers in terms of reproducing instrumental timbres? I have always found the Wilsons (haven't heard the new XLF or Alexia yet) to be rather lean and clinical sounding, lacking the natural richness of instruments.
Sonus Fabers typically sound rich but lack transparency and low-level detail especially at the back of the soundstage. I currently have the Ascendo System M-S speakers and use them with CAT amps and Transparent Reference cables. My wife and I listen to a huge variety of music with equally varying sound quality and lean/clinical equipment just makes such recordings unlistenable. How do the Q7s work with poorer recordings? ARC and CAT amps seem to have the ability to be transparent while being kind to less-than-perfect recordings so I am hoping the Q7s have a similar characteristic.
Any feedback you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
This is a complex question because it involves many variables, but I'll try to answer your question completely. First, regarding the speakers you currently own: I reviewed the Ascendo System M-S back in 2007 and I think really highly of it. I would not, personally, replace a pair with any model from the Wilson or Avalon lines that I have heard. Although some of those competing speakers might do a few specific things better than the Ascendos -- like play loud in the case of the Wilsons -- I do think the Ascendos are more neutral overall, as well as balanced tonally in a very pleasing way. So I would think twice before you replace them, at least with Wilsons or Avalons.
The Magico Q7 is different. On the one hand, it is as neutral as any speaker available today and is probably the most resolving speaker you can buy. This means that it doesn't sugarcoat bad recordings the way some speakers do. The big Magicos will reveal what is on the source without editorializing. On the other hand, the Q7 doesn't suffer from the distortions and nonlinearities that most other speakers do, and this characteristic removes what I believe to be a number of sonic irritants that cause listening fatigue, especially during extended listening sessions. So although the Q7 is not kind to poor recordings per se (which by definition would mean that it would also mask good recordings), neither will it produce harshness and grate on your nerves because of design flaws. I find the Q7s extremely listenable for long periods.
The other attribute that the Q7 has that you can take advantage of is the fact that it is very revealing of upstream components. It is very easy, therefore, to fine-tune your system's sound with the electronics of your choice -- the CAT and ARC amps would work very well, I think. The high sensitivity of the Q7s (94dB/W/m) will give you the flexibility to experiment with all sorts of amplifiers too.
Not a simple answer, but I hope that helps your decision. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I just read your wonderful review of the Magico Q3. I went to a dealer in Florida and listened to a pair of Wilson Alexias, and they blew me away. I wonder if I should audition the Magico Q3 in order to make the best choice. Which one would you recommend? I would be grateful if you could help me. I also ordered D'Agostino amps and a dCS player. D'Agostino does not have a preamp. Will a Pass Labs X-10 do the trick? Thank you, sir.
Thank you for the kind words regarding my review. I would absolutely hear the Q3 before you commit to buying anything else in that price range. My personal opinion is that the Magico is a far superior speaker to any of the Wilsons -- much more transparent, neutral, and resolving. The Q3 is quite something to hear when paired with great electronics.
Speaking of great electronics, it sounds as if you will have a wonderful setup. Everything I've heard about the D'Agostino Momentum has been positive and I know dCS makes some awfully good digital gear. As for the preamp choice, although I like Pass Labs, I do know that the matching D'Agostino preamplifier is very close to being launched. I saw a "production prototype" at CES 2013 just a few weeks ago and Mr. D'Agostino mentioned the production version was very close to shipping. In my opinion, I think that's the preamp you should aim for, since it's obviously designed to work with the Momentum. So if I were you,I would hold tight and get the dealer to loan you a preamp until you can hear a D'Agostino -- you’re spending a lot of money and I think that is the decent thing for him to do. Let me know how it all works out. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
Regarding Rockport speakers, can you tell me the following?
1) Having designed virtually his whole speaker line with side-firing woofers, Mr. Payor appears to be moving back to front-firing woofers (Alya, Atria, and Avior). Do you know if this trend will continue up the line to the Altair and Arrakis speakers? Has Mr. Payor alluded to any change in his design philosophy or is it a matter of economics?
2) On the Altair and Arrakis, is Rockport making the 15" cones also, or are they stopping at the 9" units?
Rockport moved to front-firing woofers in order to change the aesthetic perception of the speaker, nothing else. My understanding (you'd be better off calling Rockport directly on this; Andy Payor will gladly answer questions on his designs) is that there is not a sonic advantage either way -- both form factors can be equally successful if engineered correctly. I have been told the Altair and Arrakis will not change.
Regarding your second question, Rockport makes the drivers in the Atria and the Avior in their entirety -- cones, motors, baskets, etc. In the 15" woofers, Rockport makes the cones (their newest cone profile), but the motor systems are made by Audiotechnology in Denmark. . . . Jeff Fritz
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