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Gryphon Diablo 300

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To Peter Roth,

I read your review of the Ayre QB-9 DAC and I am interested in the Wavelength Crimson that was featured in this review. I’m a little confused as I saw your answer to a reader saying that the Ayre QB-9 can be beat and the examples you gave of DACs that can beat it were Ayre's DX-5, Wavelength's Crimson, and the dCS Debussy. However, in your review you said that the Ayre bested the Crimson.

Anyway, I’m just looking for the best DAC I can get for around $10,000 or less. Is there anything else that you would recommend? Any thoughts on the Debussy? Thanks for all the great reviews you’ve done and I look forward to your next one.

Thanks very much!

Dave L

Digital technology is a constantly moving target that continues to see significant improvements. At the time I reviewed the Ayre QB-9, it routinely beat the then-existing configuration of my Wavelength Crimson (with Numerator 24/96 DAC module) in that particular review system. This was especially true for music files ripped from CDs mastered in the early days of digital (i.e., mid 1980s to early 1990s -- presumably due to its minimum-phase digital filters, I believe). Even then, the Crimson won out for me with certain program material and the mood I happened to be in. Stalwart tube fans may well have preferred the Crimson overall, but I admit to being primarily in the solid-state camp, and the price differential may well have skewed my perspective a bit.

In any event, Gordon Rankin and Wavelength have not stood still. My Crimson has now been upgraded to HS (high speed) status with the new Denominator 32/192 DAC module, which is based on the 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip. There is a laundry list of other improvements included in this upgrade (e.g., opto-coupler isolation). I’ve also had the analog volume control option installed, so I can directly drive the amplifiers in my secondary system. I will be reviewing the fully up-to-date Crimson in the coming months. Here is a preview: the improvements are not subtle; it offers fantastic performance, and its musicality not only exceeds that of my QB-9, but it is now in a neck-and-neck race with the USB DAC portion of my Ayre DX-5 (although these are two horses with quite a different flavor, and so picking either as a winner is system and sensibility dependent). Beyond these two, I plan to review the Aesthetix Pandora DAC with volume control in 2012 (it is now in production), but what I’ve just heard at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is very promising (especially at only $6k for a full-featured DAC with volume control and all the digital inputs covered).

If I were looking for a new DAC today, in addition to looking closely at the DX-5, Crimson, and Pandora, I would audition the Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 2 with Alpha USB (a recently updated combo), the new Meitner MA-1, the dCS Debussy and the Playback Designs MPD-3. Have fun! . . . Peter Roth

To Jeff Fritz,

I just stumbled over your reviews -- they are great! Thanks for articulating so well!

I am having a hard time deciding on what to purchase. I’ve been saving up for a while, and now I’m trying to home in. I loved what little I heard of the Magico Q3s with ARC Ref 250s, but it was at a convention, so I didn’t get to evaluate as well as I would have liked. I wonder if you have had an opportunity to compare to the other two speakers noted below -- your perspective would be greatly appreciated. Can you offer any insight to my selection below? Thanks so much in advance.

Speakers:

  • Wilson Audio Sasha
  • KEF 207/2
  • Magico Q3 (unfortunately out of my budgetary price range)

Amps:

  • ARC Ref 250
  • Lamm M1.2
  • Dan D’Agostino Momentum (unfortunately out of my budgetary price range)

Preamp:

  • ARC Ref Anniversary (unfortunately out of my budgetary price range)
  • ARC Ref 5
  • Ayre KX-R
  • Lamm L2 (but hesitation since no balanced inputs or remote)

 Victor

In my experience, the speakers need to be decided upon first. Buy what fits your room and tastes -- get what excites you. Although I don’t know your room size, there is no question in my mind that if you can stretch to order Magico Q3s you'll never regret it. It is a phenomenal speaker that will never need replacing. Its transparency, detail retrieval, speed, and resolution are unrivaled at anywhere near the price point. Even if you have to adjust your budget downward on the electronics, in my opinion it would be worth it. In second place would be the KEF, but only if you could get the Blade loudspeaker or some soon-to-be-released variant. I'm quite sure some form of Blade-series speakers will be replacing KEF's Reference series very soon. Based on what I have heard at shows, the Blade takes KEF's Uni-Q technology to another level. Definitely worth seeking out.

As for electronics, I don’t think there is a loser in the bunch that you've picked. Tubes and solid state still do sound different and that is probably the most important decision you face based on your candidates. One thing I would recommend is that you pick the amplifier and preamplifier from the same manufacturer; this will give you the best chance at creating good system synergy and will certainly avoid impedance mismatches. Lastly, many amp-preamp combos these days have added functionality when you use the units together and I think that will enhance your enjoyment of owning them. Specifically, I think the amplifiers from ARC and the Ayre are simply superb, so those would be my first choices based on what you've selected. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

You just had to do it. In "Blowin' The Vault" you wrote, "When I decided on the speaker for TWBAS 2012, it became obvious to me that something had to change. I can’t yet tell you that speaker’s name, but I can say that it’s a one-piece model, it’s extremely heavy, and it’s taller than the Rockport Technologies Altair."

So now we're all wondering what the speaker is. It's one piece, so we know it is not the Arrakis again, or the X-2 from Wilson, or the big Verity. It's taller than the Altair, so that would seem to rule out the Magico Q5 and the TAD Reference One. Do we have to wait till next year to find out? This is killin' me!

Jim Trennor

Yes, you'll have to wait till next year, but just barely. Mark your calendar for Sunday, January 8, when the components that will make up TWBAS 2012 will be revealed in Las Vegas, Nevada, on our www.SoundStageGlobal.com site. You'll see the announcement streaming live on video. And I can tell you that the system is shaping up to be quite something! . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

As I read "Exploding Two Myths, Confirming Two Suspicions," I couldn't help but agree entirely with you about some of the practices in our beloved hobby.

I am writing to ask you to seek a review of a small audio company called CH Precision from Switzerland. They have two products called the D1 (CD and SACD player) and C1 (DAC, with upsampling to 705.6kHz).

Why? Once you hear it, you will understand why I decided to buy it (C1) from my dealer here in Singapore. They are a new start-up but my understanding is that the owners have extensive experience in the audio world.

My current system:
Magico Q5 speakers
VAC Signature Mk.2a preamp
Gryphon Colosseum amp
Apple MacBook Pro with Pure Music
Kubala Sosna Elation interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables
Shunyata Research Triton power conditioner on all equipment except the power amp

Cheers,
Ben

I've actually been trading emails with CH Precision and their US importer, Musical Artisans. The first production units are on their way to the States now and I'm scheduled to get a C1 sometime late this year. And yes, I did know that these people were involved with Orpheus Labs and Anagram Technologies. Nice system and suggestion! . . . Jeff Fritz

To Garrett Hongo,

Have you ever had the opportunity to compare a VAC Phi 200 to the 70/70? I keep hoping to find that middle ground between the two (being a classical musician, and wanting that oboe to sound like it's made out of wood, not cardboard, but also wanting to get every bit of detail). Hence the question. VAC gear comes up so seldom in reviews, and comparisons within the line seem to come up often online, and there is a perceived idea of a "house sound" with VAC.

Many thanks,
David

No -- not really. But I think they're birds of a different feather. The 70/70 is a push-pull 300B stereo amp that uses, what, four tubes per side in parallel?

The Phi 200 is a KT88 push-pull that uses two KT88s per side. Kind of VAC's version of ultralinear, but, then again, not really. The 70/70 is way on the edge of what a 300B tube can be employed to do and the sound is very appealing to many -- warmth, luscious midrange, etc.

The Phi 200 is incredibly fast, resolving, and tight in the bass. In many ways, close to a solid-state character to it, but, then again, not really. It's much too articulate in the upper mids and treble.

Finally, I've never thought to compare them side to side. Again, birds of a different feather. It might be more appropriate to compare the 70/70 to the Canary CA-339 300B monoblocks and the Phi 200 to ARC's Reference 110 or VTL monos.

I'm a listener and lover of classical music, actually. It's generally what I base my assessments upon. Have you read my review of the Phi 200? In it, I address the issue of a "house sound" associated with VAC gear -- a notion that I'd had myself -- until I heard the Phi 200. Something else entirely! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Garrett Hongo,

I hope this email finds you in good health and great spirits. I read your Ultra Audio review of the PBN Audio Olympia-L preamplifier and Mini-Olympia stereo amplifier. I thought it was both informative and accurate. In fact, your review greatly influenced my purchase of a pair of PBN Sierra Denali monoblocks. I'm persuaded that the PBN amp lineup is the audio industry's best-kept secret. They are great performers. But now that the upgrade bug has bitten, I'm considering an upgrade from PBN. My question to you is: Do you intend to review Peter's latest amp, the EBSA1? What other amps would you say compete with the Mini-Olympia? My front end is the dCS Delius and Purcell, and my speakers are Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 8s. Thanks.

Ray

Thanks for your appreciative comments. I'm glad my review helped you decide.

I haven't heard Peter's new amps yet, and I'm sorry to say I've no plans to review them. But solid-state amps with a like amount of power to your PBN Denalis that I admire are made by MBL (8011 and 9007 monos), Edge (NL-10.2 and NL-12.2 stereo amps), and Boulder (1060 stereo and 1050 monos). Being a tube guy, though, I really think the CAT JL Signature Mark 2 stereo amp makes for great sound with speakers like the new Wilson Sasha and Magico V2 and V3.

As for tonal character, on a sliding scale from warm to "neutral," I'd say it goes from CAT, MBL, Edge, and Boulder, with the PBN Denalis and Mini-Olympia even "cooler" in their sound than the Boulder amps. Another way to put it is that I hear Boulder as smooth and even-handed in presentation, PBN electronics as more detailed. All those Caddock resistors Peter loves! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

This is exactly what I find frustrating about audio reviews ["Talking Points: What Politics and High-End Audio Reviews Have in Common"]. How much value are they to the reader if the writer doesn't have the balls to actually make comparisons to other products. I don't need the writer to tell me the Wilsons suck compared to the Magicos, but an actual comparison of strong points and weaknesses actually makes the review not only a good read, but useful.

Cheers,
Joseph Pagan

To Jeff Fritz,

Hope all is well. At our last club meet Burmester was mentioned, but no one in the club has heard, first-hand, Burmester speakers. So I went onto their website [to learn more]. Have you had the chance to listen to their Reference Line B100 or B80 speakers, and have you had any exposure with the 808 preamp?

Any feedback, opinion, or comparison would be much appreciated. I will be sharing it at our next club meet.

Kind regards,
Bran Blaze

I've never had the opportunity to hear Burmester gear, though I've had in electronic components that compete with them such as Boulder, Gryphon, Vitus, Pass Labs, Behold, etc. And competing speakers from, basically, everyone. I'm not sure whether this is because they don’t want their equipment compared with their peers, or, well . . . I really have no idea! But as of now, I have no experience, and I don’t see that changing in the near future. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

I am one of the many readers who greatly enjoy reading about TWBAS, from initial search to final listening impressions. While I may never be able to afford such a system, it is great fun to know what a system assembled with great care and no budget constraint looks and sounds like. Moreover, every industry needs an upper benchmark to which everything else can and should be compared.

Here's where my suggestion comes in. Why not pit TWBAS [2012] directly against a terrific-sounding system costing five to ten times less? It would be ridiculous to pit a $5000 system against TWBAS, but some of us might aspire one day to a $50,000 system and want to know whether such a system would give us 60 percent or 95 percent of the absolute best. I would propose the following system:

1) Oppo BDP-95 used purely as a digital transport. Why such a cheap machine? Because the Oppo has the advantage of being a very versatile player, and because independent measurements on data-reading accuracy and jitter suggest it would be hard to beat purely as a digital transport (its analog section is another matter, of course).

2) Devialet D-Premier, which Mr. Schneider raved about, handling the DAC and amplification.

3) Magico Q3 speakers, which you raved about.

Cost on cables should be much less than for TWBAS [2009], since here a single digital cable would likely replace one or two pairs of analog interconnects (and because, even if one accepts there are performance differences across digital cables, one does not need to spend thousands to get top performance, unlike with their analog counterparts). The total cost of this system, depending on the speaker cables you chose, should be around $60,000. If previous years are anything to go by, TWBAS [2012] could easily exceed $300,000.

So, are you in?

Jacques Miniane
Baltimore, MD

Jacques, you must be a mind reader. I was just having this conversation with fellow reviewer Randall Smith the other day. We were discussing TWBAS 2012 and the conversation gravitated to how much performance we could get right now for as reasonable a budget as possible. I told him that if I had to assemble a system with almost no performance limitations in a real-world room, I would get a Devialet D-Premier and a pair of Magico Q3 speakers. Then I got stuck on the source, but you might have solved that dilemma for me.

I don't know what TWBAS 2012 will ultimately look (and sound) like, but I do know that it will have to be darned good to surpass the system that you have proposed based on my listening. The Q3s driven by the Devialet D-Premier was featured this year at High End in Munich, Germany, and I got a good, long listen. You're right on track, Jacques. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

Thanks for your work on the "TWBAS" column. I can’t afford most of the equipment, but it’s a lot of fun to read. Just my two cents, but how about Constellation Audio’s Hercules amps and the matching Altair preamp just as candidates for TWBAS 2012? For the source, how about the dCS Scarlatti stack?

Dave L.

I like your taste in gear, Dave. There is no question that Constellation Audio is a big player on the high-powered, extreme-quality solid-state scene nowadays. They are certainly on my radar. And dCS is always in the conversation when it comes to discussing the best digital components. I am currently enjoying the Debussy as my reference DAC. Thanks for the suggestions! . . . Jeff Fritz