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To Garrett Hongo,

Outstanding review! Would you consider the sound of the VAC Phi 200 much better than the Herron VTSP-3A and M1 mono amps? From your review the Herron appears to be laidback and doesn't capture the full harmonic structure of notes. Do you think the VAC is more revolving, and have you heard the VAC 160i integrated yet?

Thanks,
Ron

Thanks for the kind remarks. About comparing the VAC Phi 200 to the Herron VTSP-3A and M1 monoblocks, well, I haven't had the VTSP-3A in my system, so I can't tell you much about how it would be with the Herron M1s vs. the VAC Phi 200 and Renaissance Mk.3 preamp, say. Both are very good companies with owners who have great ears. I like all these products, but I am actually least familiar with the VTSP-3A. I'd like to know, myself, how it would be with my Herron M1 monoblocks. But I suspect it would perform perfectly well, given the designer is Keith Herron.

And the M1s are no slackers by any means. They are reference pieces for me, and I like them because they have a similar sonic signature to my deHavilland KE50A tube monoblocks. The Herron M1s are essentially my summer amps when it gets too hot to run tubes in my study, which doubles as my listening room. They're not only the solid-state amps I like the best for operatic voice, choirs, and orchestras, but, when I use them, I don't have to switch anything else around in my system. I keep either the Lamm LL2.1 preamp or deHavilland Mercury 3 preamp in, along with all attendant wires, etc. As for "getting the full harmonic structure of notes," that's exactly why I like them! They get that!

The Phi 200 is, in many ways, much more "solid-state" sounding than the Herron M1s! The bass is tight, transients are fleet, and extension superb at both extremes. I think, though, it works best with VAC preamps, as I've tried both the VAC Renaissance Mk.3 and VAC Signature IIa preamps with excellent results. The Renaissance Mk.3 is the more dynamic pre, while the Signature IIa has more finesse.

And I have heard the new VAC 160i integrated, which I think superb. I spent over an hour at CES '12 listening to it with Tannoy Glenair speakers and a Clearaudio Ovation turntable with a Talisman MM cartridge as the source and I was completely enthralled. What a rich and lavish and yet sophisticated sound with great delicacy and spaciousness! I could have listened to it all day and all night. I think it is a fantastic product and I'm tempted to ask for it for review, actually. It's the best integrated I've ever heard at a show. And its looks are an achievement as well. Have you noticed it has only two pots in the back for transformers? One rectangular one on the left and one squarish on the right? The secret is that Kevin Hayes found that the output transformers were quieter with both on the far left, away from the inboard phono stage, so he placed them side-by-side and potted them together instead of having them outside each edge of the power supply transformer. This made for a distinctive look. It's a great piece. . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I just read your Magico Q3 review with great interest. I have Shindo F2a Sinhonia monoblock amps (generating about 40) and a Shindo Giscours preamp connected via Auditorium 23 cables to DeVore Silverback speakers. I will eventually go the turntable route, but CDs are thoroughly enjoyable played through my Bel Canto stack (DAC and CD player) and I am in no rush. I have terrible room acoustics: speakers about 9’ to the listening position and I have them about 20’ apart (don’t ask me why . . . it's complicated). The room is large: probably 24' x 35' and replete with floor-to-ceiling glass on three walls, wood-planked ceiling and stone floors. Alas, it’s truly horrible for a music room, but there is nothing I can do. Even when I put the system together three or four years ago I always intended to get bigger speakers someday and miss my old 8’ electrostats from my previous setup.

I have researched the new stuff out now and several products seem to be large improvements over "traditional" gear:

1. Vivid Giya G2
2. Wilson Audio MAXX 3 (even the Sasha)
3. Magico Q3 or Q5

My simple question is, how do you think something like the Magicos would work within my system and, if you are familiar with the DeVore Silverbacks, can I expect enough improvement to be worth it to me to change? Many thanks for your help.

Best,
Jeffrey V. Langdon

You have several issues that you will need to address if you want really spectacular sound (and it seems that you do). First, with a room that size I think you need more powerful amplifiers no matter what speakers you choose from your shortlist. You simply have a lot of volume to fill (I'm guessing much greater than-8' ceilings) and it will take a substantial amount of clean power to do that with any of your chosen speaker candidates. And is there anything you can do to address room acoustics? There are some really nifty sound-treatment products these days that blend into décors rather than dominate them. Something to think about . . .

Regarding speakers, there is no question that Magico and Vivid occupy top positions in terms of what can be done in 2012 with dynamic-driver-based loudspeakers. Both brands are striving to perfect the linear, low-distortion, minimal-box-signature loudspeaker, and it seems they are coming ever closer to that goal with each new product. Frankly, I love the sound of both companies' speakers. On the other hand, I don't think the Wilsons are competitive with either brand. As to which one on your shortlist to pick? I'd get the Magico first and Vivid second, but I know our publisher, Doug Schneider, would reverse that order. The Magicos really come closest to the ideal of the "full-range, dynamic-driver electrostat" of any speaker I've heard. Either way you go, you'll be treated with state-of-the-art, full-range sound. I am actually quite fond of the DeVore speakers (from my short auditions at shows), but I don't think they are pushing the boundaries of what's possible the way Magico and Vivid are.

As for power-amplifier brands, you could easily drive any speaker with a pair of McIntosh MC601 or Simaudio Moon Evolution 880M monoblock amplifiers. The Vitus, Soulution, and Gryphon amplifiers of the world are available at much higher costs still. I do realize that my suggestions are somewhat radical in terms of investment and domestic feasibility, but the products you are considering have the potential to produce state-of-the-art sound and if you make that last push, I believe you will be eminently satisfied. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Garrett Hongo,

I've been researching mono cartridges and came across your reviews in Ultra Audio. They are informative, excellent reviews!

I'm trying to build a system around SPUs and an SME 3012-R tonearm. My goal is to be able to easily change cartridges to play all the stereo, mono, and 78s in my collection with a one-tonearm system. SPUs seemed perfect for this. The problem I'm having is finding a transformer that would work with the lower outputs of the stereo cartridges and the higher outputs of the mono and 78 cartridges.

I read in your review of the EAR MC 4 transformer that you used with the SPU mono. Did you have any problems with the high output of the SPU mono overloading your phono stage? Do you prefer the sound of the SPU mono straight into your 47k input on your phono stage or loaded by a transformer?

Thank you for any advice you can give.

Kevin

I love the EAR MC 4 and am purchasing one for myself! I found there were no issues with using its 6-ohm/X24 setting with my Ortofon SPU Mono GM MkII SPU (3.0mV/100 ohms). I run the phono cables to the MC 4 first and then Auditorium 23 interconnects into the MM inputs of my Herron VTPH-2 phono without any issues. No overloading. And, using mainly the 6-ohm inputs on the MC 4, I also use a half-inch MC and another SPU of much lower output -- the Ortofon Cadenza Mono (0.45mV/5 ohms) and the Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary (0.3mV/2 ohms). For all of these, I prefer using the EAR step-up rather than running into the MC input of the Herron phono.

I will say, however, that when I play classical music or opera recordings, I prefer running my Zyx Airy 3 (0.24mV) cartridge into either the MC inputs of the Herron phono or else via the Music First step-up into the MM inputs rather than through the EAR MC 4. I mention this in my review as well.

I've not tried 78s, however, but I know Dan Meinwald of EAR USA plays them using the EAR 834P phono, which, for its MC function, has a far lesser step-up in it than the MC 4. The MC 4 should be even better. I've visited his home on a couple of occasions -- once just to listen to 78s and they sounded great!

Finally, I know Ortofon has recently released a step-up designed to be used with its the classic SPU-type mono cartridges, the CG 25 DI MKII and CG 65 DI MKII -- the ST-M25 Mono. I haven't heard it yet, but Jeffrey Catalano of High Water Sound in New York City, a dealer and distributor of great expertise, recommends it highly. If you bought it, you'd also buy one of the "classic" Ortofon SPUs. Likewise, you'd buy a dedicated step-up for each of your other MC cartridges. I've friends -- in the category of analog purists -- who do this with great results and say there is no other way for optimum performance.

So there are basically two ways to go here -- the EAR MC 4 or its like with multiple gain/impedance settings; or a small array of various "dedicated" step-ups designed to work precisely with any given cartridge. I chose the EAR MC 4 and done! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I wanted to say bravo for your choices of components for your TWBAS 2012 project. I do know that you could have picked some "safer" alternatives, ones that the establishment has already conceded as being great. And some of them undoubtedly are. But what you did was choose products that seem to really appeal to your sense of what's best in high-end audio. Anyone that has read your writing on Ultra Audio (as I have for years) would know immediately that you were true to your convictions. I think that will make reading about TWBAS 2012 even more exciting: I know it's genuine. Although I would have liked to see an analog source -- like a Clearaudio turntable! -- there isn’t much I personally would change. Thank you, Jeff Fritz.

W. Barthule

To Garrett Hongo,

Your review of the VAC Phi 200 was spot-on across the board. You are so right about it. It is startling and amazing. It is the best amplifier that I have had in the house. (Of course, it's the first $10,000 amplifier I've listened to here!) So my Music Reference and the VAC PA-100/100 will be up for sale. I also had a chance to listen to the Quicksilver V4s. Anyway, thanks for all of your input.

A quick question: I see that in your system list you are using the Cardas Golden Reference power cord. Is that a cord that you think is particularly good?

A friend was over yesterday and brought NOS 6550 tubes that sounded really nice in the Phi. I'd guess that Kevin would say that they wouldn't be a good choice, but have you tried any different tubes from stock in the Phi?

Best,
David

No, I haven't tried any output tubes other than stock with the Phi 200, but I have rolled NOS signal tubes into it -- extensively. Sylvania '52 Bad Boys, Tung-Sol roundplates, Brimar CV1988, Sylvania chrometops, etc., and found, in the end, that VAC's stock tubes do as fine a job as any in my system, to my ears. Not to say there wasn't any difference, but that the differences were more fine and tonal than major.

I've TS 6550 greyplates from the '70s I could try in the Phi 200, but, again, the amp sounds splendid stock and I've little motivation to roll output tubes into it.

Kevin uses Shuguang 6SN7s as input and driver tubes and, he tells me, he's started experimenting with the Psvane 6SN7s that are getting so much attention nowadays. I've tried Psvane EL84s, 12AX7s, and KT88s with very good success. I like them all and prefer them to NOS for being more affordable and replaceable!

As for the Cardas Golden Reference power cords -- yes, they are indeed very good, especially given the price point. But I'm now reviewing other power cords from another manufacturer -- established, European, and more expensive -- that I think are even better. Look for the review soon on Ultra Audio! . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

Thanks for the article on the Coda 15.0. I am a Coda fan and owner of their CSi integrated amp as well as their 06p phono preamp. I like everything about those guys and their approach. I am happy with my CSi integrated, but I can’t help wondering just how much better the new 15.0 would sound. I suppose that I would add to it Coda's 05x preamp, or wait for their upcoming 07 preamp.

Question: Have you compared the CSi with the 15.0? I would like to hear from someone who has heard both. Thanks for any feedback.

Ren Tilden

I have not had the opportunity to hear the CSi, though I am sure it is a very good unit based on my experience with many Coda products over the years. I think, however, that you're really comparing apples to oranges, as you are looking at a major investment upgrade for your system. An integrated amplifier, even one as ambitious as the CSi, is still compromised in terms of power supply, circuit sophistication, output stage, component choice and isolation, etc. The 15.0 is an all-out monster class-A amplifier that, when paired with a really good preamp such as Coda makes can produce world-class sound quality. The CSi, in my estimation, won't be able to compete at all. The only caveat I would offer is that you would want to have appropriately revealing loudspeakers coupled to a good room, and a good source, to really be able to appreciate the differences that the more expensive Coda electronics will provide.

You will be spending a lot of money if you commit to this upgrade, and if there is any way for you to compare for yourself, that's always wise. But, personally, I think the improvement will be substantial. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Garrett Hongo,

I just read your review of the VAC Renaissance Mk.3 preamp. I love your hi-fi reviews. Have you ever considered collecting them, or writing a love story about the art of listening, and music? It could be fabulous. I don't know of anyone who listens as broadly and deeply as you seem to.

Do you have any experience with McIntosh integrated amps? I am dreaming a bit about a serious upgrade but can only stretch so far, and beyond a certain point an upgrade might be wasted on speakers, etc., that aren't at the same level; you must know what I mean. At any rate, many of the higher-end retail shops around here and in Boston push these McIntosh components; and sitting in the rooms, they sound pretty good, at least compared to my NAD/B&W system here on my desk. My speakers are simple: just B&W 600-series bookshelf speakers, set up along with my components right in front of me on my desk. I have an NAD C 515BEE CD player and an old JVC JL-A20 turntable with a signet AM10S cartridge with Audio-Technica stylus. Current integrated is an NAD 314.

Gary

Thanks. Actually, I've a contract with Pantheon Books to do something like that, a kind of "audiobiography." Glad for your encouragement!

McIntosh is good but there are numerous others with more bang-for-the-buck in my opinion. Still, Mac has high resale and that can be a consideration.

As for integrateds, as your NAD 314 is 30Wpc, I suggest the Electrcompaniet ECI-3 I think, as at 70Wpc it's double the output of your NAD. The EC-5 is 120Wpc and more current for orchestral and opera. I had the ECI-3 and it sounded very good, though there wasn't quite enough juice for my speakers at the time, which were 89dB/4-ohm models. The B&W 600-series speakers are nominally 8-ohm speakers, if I'm not mistaken, and 70Wpc should be plenty.

Unison Unico or Secondo are also excellent. Made in Italy. Highly recommended. See http://www.soundstagehifi.com/traveler/traveler200804.htm.

If you want tubes, I suggest you look at PrimaLuna -- either the One or the Two.

But you must match the amp to your speakers. That is the main thing. For headroom and a possible upgrade in speakers, I'd go with amps of higher wattage -- at least 70Wpc. . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I write you from Greece and live in Creta Island. I read your review of the Rockport Technologies Altairs and listened to the Ankaa, and then decided to buy the Altairs and they are great! I have to thank you very much for that, as I was looking for speakers for three years to match my Lamm M2.2 amps. I would like to ask you if the Lamm M1.2s are strong enough to drive the Altairs, as they operate in full class-A and have a warmer sound than the M2.2.

My listening room is fully treated by RPG components, in every detail, and the sound is great. My system consists of the Lamm L2 Reference preamp, LP2 Deluxe phono, Audioaéro Capitole Mk II player, SME 30/12a turntable, Acoustic Signature Analog One turntable with three motors and two tonearms.

Do you think that the M1.2s are capable of driving the Altairs, or should I try other solutions like Vitus, Soulution, Gryphon, and so on? Thank you very much for your time.

With my best regards,
Antonis Koniotakis

First, congratulations on the Altairs. You have some of the best loudspeakers available and I'm sure you'll enjoy many years with them. Now to your question: I do think the M1.2s can drive your Rockports, but I'm not sure they are the absolute best choice. The Rockports are designed primarily around powerful class-A amplifiers and owners I know tend to favor those types of amplifiers to pair with them. I've had multiple Rockports in my systems over the past six years and definitely have my preferences for amplification. Two of the brands you mention, Vitus and Gryphon, are definitely my preferred amplifiers for the Rockports. I went into some detail recently in a letter titled "Gryphon or Vitus with Rockport" about just these pairings.

The Altairs are extremely revealing, powerful loudspeakers. They like good, clean power, but also benefit greatly from exceptional refinement and absolute control. Those characteristics are possessed in great quantities by the Gryphon and Vitus class-A offerings. Most amplifier/speaker pairings I suggest are of the listen-before-you-buy type. But Gryphon and Vitus, when paired with Rockport, are sure-fire combinations guaranteed to bring long-term enjoyment. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Garrett Hongo,

I very much enjoyed reading your review of the TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm. I was particularly interested in the sound comparisons you made with the latest Tri-Planer Mk.VII arm. You also made just a passing reference to the Graham Phantom Supreme. I would be very interested to know if you've had the opportunity to audition the Supreme, and if so, what your impressions were regarding how its sound stacked up against the 10.5s. I'm ready to purchase the Raven One table, but am trying to cobble together any information I can on the sound of the 10.5 and Supreme arms before ultimately deciding which to mate with the Raven One.

My principal concerns are having a sound that can project the kind of resolution and presence that illuminates nicely not just the foreground of the orchestra but also its rear-of-stage instruments. You've pretty much made it clear already to me that the 10.5/Raven combo does just that. I was able to surmise this from your reference to 6th-row sound in comparison to the mid-hall perspective of the Tri-Planar Mk.VII. Having heard the Tri-Planar before, I realized it did not resolve those rear-field instruments in a manner I prefer. It was as if significant information had been absorbed by a sponge, leaving me unsatisfied with its presentation. I'm curious if the Graham Phantom Supreme resolves like the 10.5, and whether or not it compares favorably with it along other lines. One other issue that concerns me is that while I want a somewhat closer, more involving sound that still retains a nice three-dimensional soundstage, I want to avoid an overly vivid, hot, and excessively analytical kind of sound -- I prefer something that's easy to listen to and relax with. I sincerely appreciate any insights or impressions you might be able to offer in the matter of TW-Acustic 10.5 versus Graham Phantom Supreme.

Kind thanks,
Jeff

First of all, congratulations on your purchase of the TW-Acustic Raven One. I'm sure you'll be happy with it.

For the kind of help you need regarding comparing other tonearms to the TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 arm, I think you might be better off talking to a dealer about it. I've no experience with the Graham Phantom Supreme, actually, but Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound has. I'd talk to him. He's as knowledgeable as they come where tonearms are concerned.

As for your re-characterization of my review comments in reference to the Tri-Planar vs. TW-A Raven -- no, I didn't quite say that, though I do believe the Raven tonearm to be more resolving and dynamically responsive. The Tri-Planar didn't "lose the back row of the orchestra" so much as present the sound as a pleasing, integrated whole. Perhaps I'm revising, but that's how I'd characterize things today. Thanks and good luck. . . . Garrett Hongo

To Jeff Fritz,

I enjoy your reading your reviews and columns at Ultra Audio very much. I've written to you once before, a few years back, and you were kind enough to write a thoughtful answer so I have another question for you concerning speakers.

I currently own the Magico M5 speakers driven by the VTL Siegfried amps and the VTL TL-7.5 Series III preamp. I have a pretty good room acoustically, and fairly large -- 20' wide, 33' long, with 12' ceilings. I enjoy what I hear very much. I am thinking about a speaker upgrade, but to change, it would have to be a real upgrade in sonics and not just a change in sound as I really enjoy what I hear. My question revolves around the new Magico speakers. I've read your Q3 review so I know what you think of that speaker and I read the answer you gave someone concerning purchasing the Q3 versus the M5. It's the same answer I would have given as well (even though I haven't heard the Q3). My questions are:

1. Do you have any thoughts on how the Q3 and Q5 compare in sound quality? And perhaps any other thoughts on how these compare to the M5 other than what you wrote in that letter's response?

2. The last time I could tell, you were using the Rockport Arrakis as your reference speakers. Are you still with the Rockports? If so, what are your thoughts on how the Q3/Q5 speakers compare to them. I know there is a large difference in price, etc., but I am curious what your thoughts are on this.

By the way, I read one of your letters concerning the CH Precision digital front end. I had an opportunity to hear the CH precision gear in my room this past weekend. As a digital front end going through my preamp it was very good and better than what I currently use -- an Esoteric P-03/D-03/G-0s stack. Not better enough to make me change, but it was better. However, given that the C1 box is also a preamp, when we switched to drive my amps via the C1 it was quite amazing to hear. I don't know how CH does what they do, but once you hear it, it's difficult to go back to any other digital front end.

Thanks for your time and I look forward to reading what you can share with me. Thanks again.

Arnie

Thanks for the note. It sounds as if you have an amazing setup in a room that can comfortably house such a reference system. But I, like you, know that when the upgrade bugs bites, you start looking at ways to improve things, even if what you have is amazing already. I'll address your questions in reverse order.

Regarding CH Precision, I have them scheduled to come in for review in 2012. I have only heard good things about them and your experience confirms what I've heard from others who have used their products. I think any conversation about top-flight digital has to include them at this point. They are certainly a new player on the scene that is shaking things up at the edge of the art!

The current Rockport Arrakis speakers are totally different animals than the models I had. The new ones have beryllium-dome tweeters and an active crossover for the bass section. Their D'Appolito-style configuration and ported design mean that they load a room completely differently than a point-source design does. The Arrakis is a stunning speaker in every respect and I think the current version is a must-audition in the cost-no-object speaker realm if you have a room that can support their size.

As for your speaker upgrade, I think you have to be quite careful. What you have now is exceptionally good. I've heard the M5s on several occasions and they are accomplished in many ways. Having said that, I think the Q5s represent a ground-up rethinking from Magico, and are a definite improvement over the M-series speakers you have. If you are considering moving into the Q line, the Q5 is the only logical choice to make. Although I do think the Q3 would improve on the M5 in some ways -- after all, it does have the Q-series cabinet platform and the Be tweeter, both improvements versus the M5 -- in a room the size of the one you have I would want a larger speaker. I have spoken to Alon Wolf about the differences between the Q3 and Q5 (I have not heard the Q5 in my room) and he tells me that the Q5 is more revealing and utterly neutral, and plays louder and deeper. It simply does more of what the Q3 does so well. I feel fairly confident in predicting that the Q5 would improve on what you hear from your M5s in every way. Please do let me know what you decide to do. . . . Jeff Fritz