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To Aron Garrecht,

I’m a longtime follower of SoundStage! Ultra and have to say it’s a wonderful job you have, especially when I read you can have a $16k Simaudio DAC on “loan” for the last four years then have it upgraded at no cost to you.

It’s also great to read that $30k is a “steal,” and I’d really love to know what an “industry accommodation price” might be to you for such a product.

Of course other people might call such long-term loans and accommodation prices bribes for good reviewers and reviews, but I know SoundStage! is above that sort of thing.

I just get frustrated at the glib way reviewers refer to their relationships with manufacturers and how easy it is to lose sight of how much money $30k is for most people. Although maybe not Ultra readers.

I know it’s impossible to put a value on good sound, but it might be a useful service to readers if reviewers stated beside their list of Associated Equipment what they actually owned and paid for themselves, what is on loan (long term or otherwise), and what was provided free by manufacturers.

Keep up the good work. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

United Kingdom

Thanks for writing in and posing some good questions. I’m happy to address these, and I’ll start by responding to your comment regarding the long-term loan of the Simaudio Moon 780D DAC. This was an unusually long loan; the longest I have kept any product, in fact. Back in 2016, I reviewed the original 780D, and towards the end of that review Simaudio reached out to see if I wouldn’t mind holding on to the 780D as a new version was in the works, with changes that were expected to be software-based only. Scope creep pushed back the release date of the 780D v2 several times, and then in early 2018 I was asked to review a pair of Simaudio Moon 888 monoblock amplifiers. Despite the 780D v2 having already come out, I was asked to hold on to my review sample until after the Moon 888 review, then return it with several other components Simaudio sent along with the monoblocks. It was late 2018 by the time I sent back all the Simaudio gear, but was asked again to hold on to the 780D v2 as it was slated to go on the road for some upcoming shows. That plan fell through, and it wasn’t until late 2019 that Simaudio reached out for me to return the unit. It’s now gone.

The EMM Labs DV2: As a reviewer, I’m afforded the opportunity to demo and review a lot of expensive gear most people don’t have access to, and I stand by my assertion that the EMM Labs DV2 is something of a steal amongst its peers. Here’s why: I believe the DV2 has no peers. Now, I understand where you’re coming from -- $30,000 is a lot of money for any audio product -- but for those with the means to shop at this level, the DV2 poses a genuine value in terms of build quality, performance, and technology.

This brings me to accommodation pricing, because, even after the discount offered by EMM Labs, the DV2 was still more than I could afford. Accommodation pricing varies depending on product and manufacturer; therefore, there isn’t a number I can put on it, but think dealer price, which is roughly 50% the retail price. I understand how long-term loans, industry discounts, and rumors around free product handouts can lead to various assumptions, but we at the Soundstage! Network pride ourselves on highlighting the good and the bad for each product we review, and we have strict policies governing product purchases and loans. . . . Aron Garrecht

To Hans Wetzel,

Thank you for the review I’ve read about the [Simaudio] Moon 700i v2 [integrated amplifier]. You must be a serious audio professional. That’s why I try to ask your opinion between the Moon and the McIntosh [Laboratory] MA9000 [integrated amplifier-DAC]. In July, I’ll do a demo, but before then I need opinions from professionals, so if it is possible . . .

Kind regards,
Franco Gravina

What cool amplifiers to which you’ve narrowed down your search! Each has its own unique personality and sonic flavor, so here is what I’d expect you might hear. The Simaudio Moon 700i v2 is a fantastic example of just how good a class-AB amplifier can sound. Its transparency, fleetness of foot, and extended, airy treble make for a sound that ticks all of my personal boxes. The McIntosh MA9000, by contrast, will likely sound a little fuller and more robust through the midrange, with plenty of power and drive in the bass, and a slightly subdued top end. These should not be night-and-day differences, but should reveal themselves through extended listening, so please do line that up with your own listening preferences and how such a sonic profile would match with your reference loudspeakers. Performance aside, the McIntosh sports far more power than the Sim -- 300Wpc vs. 175Wpc into 8 ohms -- and also includes a built-in DAC, while also retailing for notably less money here in the United States. I don’t know what they cost there. As for looks, you’re balancing the Mac’s signature blue VU meters with Simaudio’s more modern-looking chassis.

On pure sonics, the Simaudio edges it for me, as I favor that wide-open, hyper-transparent sound more than midrange body and presence. As a package, though, the McIntosh is super cool and a total hammer of an amp. You have a tough decision ahead of you. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Jeff Fritz,

If I don’t find a speaker soon I’m going to need a few doctors and a divorce lawyer! My room is 17’ x 10’. I have tried Wilson Audio Sophia 3s -- they were very nice but too harsh on top. I have tried Sonus Faber Olympica IIIs. Again, very nice, but lacked midrange. And I have recently had a home demo of some TAD Evolution Ones, which sounded quite overpowering and, again, a bit subdued in the midrange.

I would love a speaker that’s got authoritative bass, a great midrange, and a smooth top end. There are currently some EgglestonWorks Andra III SEs available. There are some Rockport Miras available, and some EgglestonWorks Kivas or Nines. I like the Audiovector R 3, but I think that a pair of them would lack the weight and authority I’m looking for.

There are other options available, but they all seem to have ceramic or metal drivers, which scare me.

Thanks for your time.

Kind regards,
Matthew S Williams
United Kingdom

Having both the Sonus Faber and TAD speakers in your system, and finding both lacking in midrange, raises some flags. As such, I would advise you to first examine your room acoustics. Those speakers are fairly neutral designs and there is no inherent flaw in them that would result in a lack of midrange. This might indicate an acoustics problem that should be addressed before you audition more speakers. Perhaps there is a dealer that could help with that, or a room acoustics company online that could assist based on your room’s dimensions and layout.

As for speakers that might work for you, of the ones you name, the natural choice would be the Rockports. In fact, the attributes you desire -- “authoritative bass, a great midrange, and a smooth top end” -- are some of the same terms I would use to describe the Rockport house sound. I would advise you to consider a pair of Rockport Atria IIs. That model incorporates Rockport’s latest thinking on loudspeaker design, including the waveguide-loaded tweeter. Based on your criteria for a speaker, I could not recommend them strongly enough. For your reference, I reviewed both the Mira and original Atria. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

I hope you and your family have been well during these difficult times. I’m writing because I have an amplifier-matching question.

I did buy the Sonus Faber Olympica Nova IIIs and absolutely love them. Now, though, it’s time to upgrade amplification, but with all the choices out there I’m having a really hard time deciding. At-home auditions here in Canada (at least in Ottawa) are not often something that dealers do, which makes it more difficult. So I’m writing in the hopes that you might be able to provide some input into my short list:

  • Devialet Expert Pro 220
  • Bryston 14B3
  • Simaudio Moon 760A
  • McIntosh Labs MC312

Or some kind of used Vitus (not many of those around in Canada, though).

As always, I’m open to any other suggestions you might have. My price range is somewhat flexible but not unlimited.

Thank you kindly in advance. I truly appreciate it.

Best regards,

You’ve got some interesting choices there, Martin! The one that sticks out like a sore thumb is the Devialet. As I’m sure you know, it is the only one listed that is an integrated amplifier with DAC and other functionality built in. As such, it will not only replace whatever amplifier you are currently using, but also your preamplifier and DAC if you have a separates-based system. That is a huge consideration in terms of system configurability.

Leaving that out for a moment, you’re left with three powerful solid-state power amplifiers that will most likely be driven by either a preamplifier or a DAC with volume control built in. Each of those models you list is easily powerful enough to drive the Nova IIIs. So, in practice, I do not think the wide range of power outputs mean much (the MC312 at 300Wpc, 14B3 at 600Wpc, or 760A on the low end at 130Wpc, all into 8 ohms). In terms of sound quality, I can’t really give you a blow-by-blow comparison because I have not heard these models in my system. Describing a “house sound” based on past experiences with the brands is also not really that helpful, and would be a mere guess in terms of how it would apply to the specific models you list. Really, I’m only left with two suggestions. If you bought your SFs from a dealer that you trust, ask him or her what they think. Hopefully they know the Sonus Faber brand well and maybe will have a suggestion as to partnering amplifier. The second thing is that you can’t really go wrong with any of the three power amplifiers -- they are all made by solid brands I know and trust. Furthermore, they are all made by companies whose factories are within four hours (by car) of where you live, so I cannot imagine service would ever be an issue. I think you’d end up with a solid match with any of the three.

Back to Devialet. The company’s products do sound super, but choosing one does lock you into a system model that is not easily changed. Do consider that before jumping on that option. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Hans Wetzel,

Thank you for all of the valuable information you provide. I recently bought a pair of Dynaudio Special Forty loudspeakers and while I am looking forward to listening to them, they are only part of my stereo system right now. Next, I am in the market for an integrated amplifier. I am considering the following: the Naim Audio Nait XS 2, Hegel Music Systems H160, Raven Audio Nighthawk MK3, and Simaudio Moon Neo 340i.

My listening room is a somewhat cornered-off section of a large loft, and I think I enjoy a slightly warmer sound, but please don’t put too much stock in that assessment. Could you advise on which of the above you think would work best with my speakers, and, if you have time, why? Many thanks in advance for your thoughts. I can’t demo amps right now for obvious reasons, but would like to have a nice system to listen to while stuck at home.

Chris Jordan
United States

Hegel’s older stuff -- like the H160, which I reviewed, and the H300, which I reviewed and owned -- doesn’t sound very warm. In fact, it’s a bit forward-sounding, leaning towards the eager and dynamic side of neutral, so I’d rule that out. I’d actually never heard of Raven Audio before you mentioned the company, but their electronics, which seem to be all tube designs, look interesting. The Raven Nighthawk MK3 is a really neat integrated, but its power rating of 20Wpc into 8 ohms isn’t a lot to work with when your Dynaudios have a sensitivity of 86dB. With the system in a large loft, I’d have to imagine you’d really want to hammer your two-way Danes at some point, and I would worry that under those circumstances the Raven integrated might come up a little short. If you are more conservative with your volume control than I am, however, the tube-based integrated could work, depending on your listening material, and it will almost assuredly bring a touch of warmth and body to your system. I have no experience with Naim, unfortunately, but it’s listed as having 70Wpc into 8 ohms, which is plenty of power for your setup.

Finally, the Simaudio. Of the four amps you mention, it’s the one that instantly jumped out at me as a likely candidate. With 100Wpc into 8 ohms, and a really wide-open, yet neutral sound that isn’t as forthright as the Hegel, the Sim would make a great partner for your fancy new Dynaudio monitors. If I were in the shoes, I’d grab the Neo 340i and not look back. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Jeff Fritz,

Just a fantastic premise and content with regard to acquiring your new system [“Jeff’s Getting a New Stereo System: Part One”]. I too am a retired audiophile (2005) also looking to get back into it with “self-imposed” budget restrictions. I think what you are doing is actually taking things to the next level, trying to find the best deals in audio. I would liken what you are doing to the [original Stereophile] review of the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A -- getting a preamp on par or better than a $40k preamp for only $1895. Also, this is like a sommelier, being able to recommend a great wine for half the price of others.

I am planning on doing the DAC-preamp-processor thing as well, and was going to purchase the Auralic Vega G2, but noticed in your most recent review that you are using the Hegel Music Systems HD30. Also, with regard to these processors, I wonder: is there one that is most easily upgradable as technology improves?

Thank you,
JJ Prosser
United States

Thanks for the kind words about that series of articles. I really enjoyed writing each installment, especially considering that so many audiophiles, it turned out, were in the same boat as me: wanting something spectacular, and willing to pay good money for it, but not willing to spend the equivalent of a house.

Regarding your choice of DAC (with either full preamp functionality, or just digital-inputs only with integral volume control), there are some fantastic options available to you. The Hegel Music Systems HD30 ($4800) and Auralic Vega G2 ($5999) are still very competitive at their respective price points, but there are many more options. There are models from Benchmark Media Systems and Bryston that would fit the bill also, as examples. You’ll have to consider the features you want as you’re making your decision. For example, do you want streaming built in?)

As for upgradeable technology, I would not count on that. I’ve seen far too many products that were claimed to be “future proof” or some such term, but really weren’t. Buy something that has the features you want now and that you love the sound and ergonomics of, and enjoy it. I’ve found that worrying too much about what a product might or might not become in the future is not only fruitless, but can zap the enjoyment right out of the ownership experience. Good luck with your next stereo system and please let me know what you end up with. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

I was very interested in your Shunyata Hydra Alpha A12 review. I am about to undertake a home demo of the UK version here in England.

You didn’t mention trying your power amp via the Hydra, just [using it] straight from the mains. Did you actually try this, since the Hydra supposedly doesn’t restrict current at all? I appreciate that you mentioned that your Boulder was “silent” (so how do you improve on that?), but thought it might have been worthwhile to have just tried it, even to see if it was a backwards or sideways measure. Unfortunately, my power amps are remote from my speakers (ATC SCM300 active studio towers) due to their fan cooling noise, so I can’t try the amps and other system components at the same time (unless I buy two!).

The rest of my system comprises Melco N10 music server and Jays Audio CDT3-MK2 CD transport front ends driving a Tidal Audio Preos preamp-DAC. My ATCs are 14 years old now but are still going strong. They can play at very realistic sound levels without distress in my room, which is 30’L x20’W x 9’H. I sit approximately 20’ from the speakers. My musical taste is very varied, but often (not always) I like to really crank it up.

The Vimberg Tonda is on my list of possible replacements. Although the ATC is basically a studio monitor, with the other gear in front, the pair never fail to impress me -- very musical with no hint of clinicity, so I’m a bit reluctant to make a change. I’ve heard the Vimberg Minos at the UK’s sole dealer, but his room was tiny compared to mine. Do you think the Tondas would A) be able to drive my room fully, and B) be a genuine improvement over the ATCs?

Hope you and your family are safe and well in these troubled times.

Graham Rush

In regards to your first question, no I did not try the Hydra with the Boulder 2060 amplifier. For me it was really a question of logistics. Had I connected the Shunyata to the Boulder, I would have had to disconnect it from the Hegel HD30 DAC. Perhaps I still will try the Boulder/Shunyata -- the Shunyata is still here -- but I felt having the source component connected to the Alpha A12 was my best bet in experiencing a system improvement, which turned out to be easily heard -- and quite an improvement it was. Good luck with your audition -- I suspect you’ll be adding an Alpha A12 to your system.

As for the Vimberg Tonda, you do have a very large room, and I’m not sure just how loud you listen (though you say you like to crank it). What I can tell you is that I heard a pair of Tondas at Munich’s High End in a room very similar in size to yours. When I was there one cut that was used during the demo was a very bass-heavy house music track played at a chest-thumping level. I was very impressed that the Vimbergs could drive the room easily and with a full, immersive sound. This was actually one of the reasons I chose a pair of Tondas -- I hate when I sense I’m going to break a set of speakers when I want to play something loud. I was listening to some classic Kiss tracks the other day and cranked it up and it sounded absolutely amazing -- super-clean highs and powerful, pounding bass. I loved it! I have not heard your ATCs, so I can’t make that comparison. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Howard Kneller,

I hope you don’t mind me asking you for your insight!

First, my setup:

  • PurePower 1500 power regenerator for all my components
  • NAD Masters Series M50 streamer/CD player
  • Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC
  • Esoteric A-03 amplifier
  • Onda Ligera Wave 168D speakers (also the smaller Onda Ligera Wave 16 and my very special 50+-year-old Yamaha NS-30s)

My system is now based on streaming. As you can see, I don’t use a dedicated preamplifier. Instead I use the preamp inside of the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DAC.

A couple of months ago I bought an Esoteric A-03 amp. I can hear the quality, but am not completely happy with my sound. My system’s sound doesn't grab me like it should. I presume some of my source equipment is now the weakest link.

I am considering a couple of next moves to try to get the sound to be better/more involving. I need to work hard to plunge myself into this crazy audio hobby of ours, so I am hoping for your advice!

Of course I am asking you because you had the A-03 yourself (did you sell it?) and have a lot of experience with the Esoteric brand! What is my best next move going forward?

  1. Buying an older Esoteric K-01 SACD player/DAC: I understand I can drive the Esoteric A-03 direct with the K-01. Will I lose a lot by not including a preamp? A big positive is that I can start to listen to SACD discs of very high quality!
  2. Buying an older Esoteric C-02 preamp: I will continue to use the Antelope DAC for the foreseeable future. This is a more expensive route to take and I am wondering if the Antelope DAC will not limit the sound.
  3. Buying an older Esoteric D-02 DAC: I think it will be possible to drive the A-03 direct.

What do you think of going direct to the A-03 from K-01 or D-02? Is the DAC inside of the K-01 of a lesser quality than the D-02? How big is the difference in your opinion? I am now focusing on building a system with Esoteric components, but maybe you have other suggestions?

I am very curious about your ideas what next step is best to take!

Kind greetings,

Thanks for writing. I did have an Esoteric A-03 amplifier. To say the least, that model is excellent and it was hard for me to let go of it. But, I ultimately did so and replaced it with the company’s S1 Grandioso amp, which in fact betters the A-03 in every way, albeit at a much higher cost.

From the upgrade choices that you laid out, I think that you should add an external preamplifier, either the C-02 or even the less expensive C-03. Upgrading your source will almost certainly improve the sound, but I don’t believe that is where your issue lies or where you will get the best bang for your buck (or in this case, euro). Also, in my opinion, while the ability to play SACDs is nice, it’s not crucial given the somewhat limited availability of titles, the premium price that many SACDs still fetch, and the availability of DSD audio files.

In my experience, preamplifiers that are built into other components such as DACs, or relying on a DAC’s digital or analog volume control, are good if you need to use them in a pinch, but they will not come close to performing as well as adding a high-quality external preamp. That’s not to mention the extra connectivity options that an external preamp often brings. Also, for reasons beyond the scope of this response, I am not a fan of going sans preamp, although there are some people who may disagree.

I have extensive experience with the preamp that is built into the Esoteric K-01 disc player -- its performance does not in the least change my view on this issue. Although I have not tested the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, I would be surprised if its built-in pre performed at a level that would affect my thinking. This is especially true in light of your dissatisfaction with your system’s sound.

Finally, I am not a big fan of buying older DACs, although cost is certainly a part of the analysis necessary in deciding on any such purchase. They usually do not perform as well as newer models. In any event, I believe that changing your DAC at this time would likely be going in the wrong direction. If you are aspiring to build an all-Esoteric system, you might want to sell the Antelope at a later date, but I would first add the external preamplifier.

I am sorry to recommend to you what might be the most expensive option, but I feel confident in my recommendation. As noted, there is always the C-03 preamplifier, which is less costly than the C-02 and can be very reasonably priced in the used market. . . . Howard Kneller

To Jeff Fritz,

I currently own a pair of the B&W 802 speakers with a McIntosh Laboratory amp and preamp as my at-home sound system. I am a seriously passionate music fan and love watching concerts (Coldplay, Eric Clapton, Santana, Adele, Billy Joel, etc.).

I have been advised that it would be a life-altering, valuable investment -- and would make a substantial difference in the sound quality I so enjoy -- if I upgraded my current system to the Magico M6 [loudspeakers] with an MSB DAC and MSB M500 Monos at a cost of around $350,000.

I read your articles on the SoundStage! Network and am looking for advice (mainly on the sound-quality difference) and wondered if you would have time to give me your opinion?

So, with that background and if you were me, would you keep the current system and just buy the MSB DAC, or would you switch out the entire music system, take the plunge, and go for the Magico M6 speakers?

Really appreciate your thoughts,
United States

You’re considering a monumental upgrade to your stereo, not to mention a massive investment financially. I obviously can’t advise you on the second point and would never attempt to do that.

I can tell you that you’re contemplating owning one of the highest-resolution audio systems an audiophile is capable of assembling. I’ve listened to Magico/MSB-based systems many times at shows and can attest that the pairing can be pure magic. You’re also looking at the top models from those companies, so there is no question that with expert setup (which obviously you should get with such a purchase), the sound quality you should obtain will be beyond what most audiophiles will ever have a chance to hear. No doubt better than what you have by a substantial margin.

Sound quality is hard to quantify, though. A massive improvement to one guy is a moderate step up to another. So, ultimately, you need to hear what you’re buying to know if the sound quality on offer is “worth it” to you. What I can tell you is that you’ll have arguably one of the finest stereo systems money can buy. The rest is up to you. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

As of late, I’ve been pretty disappointed with a lot of the high-end equipment that’s being put out. It’s not that it’s not good, but that it’s not good enough.

Seeing the quality of the stuff that Benchmark puts out for a few thousand dollars, I find it amazing how companies offer and reviewers can think so highly of high-dollar equipment that underperforms.

I can understand paying for a Bentley. It’s about more than performance. With audio equipment, though, it should be all about performance, but that no longer seems to be the case. You can’t get away with this type of bullshit with TVs, but, with audio equipment, sure. It’s insane.

Last year, Stereophile did a review of a BorderPatrol DAC that John Atkinson said, in no uncertain terms, was crap. The reviewer that listened to it loved it.

Personally, I take reviews without measurements with a grain of salt.

Not everything audible can be measured, but everything you can measure can be heard. Noise and distortion are not good things unless you’re talking about a guitar amp.

All the best,
United States