Gramophone Dreams #30: Skyfi Audio Page 2

Just then I was struck by a memory from decades ago, of being in a corrugated-metal pole barn, in the middle of nowhere. It too was super-clean and filled with 50 years' worth of vintage Leica film cameras. While perusing the shelves, I stumbled on a dozen or so black-bodied Nikon rangefinders hidden in a remote corner. All these cameras were supremely beautiful—and timeless looking. I wanted one of each. Driving home from the Leica barn, I wondered which digital cameras might someday be considered timeless and beautiful.

After lunch, Sphere and I began our carefully orchestrated listening sessions.

Aerodynamic heads
First up was a system from the early 1990s: KEF 107 Reference speakers (with KUBE equalizer), powered by Sony's still-coveted TA-N77ES stereo amplifier, driven directly from the volume control of a Sony 707ESD CD player. Wires were all from Monster Cable.


I remember that in 1990, speaker designers were all about minimizing diffraction and were creating speakers with aerodynamic heads—like the KEF 107 Reference and its primary competitor, the B&W Matrix 801 Monitor with its fiber-crete head and "free-field" mounted tweeter. The era of wide- baffle speakers had ended. The sound, from a Chesky CD (Wycliffe Gordon's Dreams of New Orleans), was initially all lumpy and round and monoistic. Then Sphere asked Ben Hase and Elliot White—Skyfi's senior audio technician and marketing director, respectively—if they could position the loudspeakers farther apart and toe them in a little. They did, and in short order the soundstage tripled in size. New detail appeared. Images became more distinct and more obviously three-dimensional. Everybody in the room praised this setup. I didn't. They raved about the imaging.


Skyfi's senior audio technician Ben Hase testing an amplifier.

I thought it sounded like the images were surrounded by dull, sluggish air. First, I blamed the bass cabinets. Then I blamed the Sony CD player. But maybe it was the Monster Cables?

Beige room dividers
Next, we drifted back a decade to 1978 and auditioned a beautifully preserved pair of Magnepan Tympani I-D planar-magnetic loudspeakers—a real high high-end design.

Some background color: Back in the day, after reviewing the Magnepan I-D for The Absolute Sound, that magazine's founder, the late Harry Pearson, and Magnepan's Wendell Diller tried an experiment: pairing the two bass panels from the three-panel I-D with the mid- and high-frequency panels of the Infinity QRS loudspeaker using a Van Alstine-modified Dahlquist DQLP-1 electronic crossover. The result was a hybrid speaker that Pearson dubbed the QRS-1D. He described it as "a system of genuine musical authority and accuracy, possibly the best now extant." (For a couple of years, until both the I-D and QRS were discontinued, affluent audiophiles went crazy for it.)


You can't imagine how surprised I was to see these historic Maggies driven by a classic Marantz Model 7 preamp and the best-looking tube amplifier ever, the Marantz 8B. The sound was sweet and spatially huge—but! It was obvious the Marantz 8B's modest power supply was not pulling the Magnepan's current-hungry load. I had to ask, "Fernando, why the 8B?" Whereupon he switched in a Bryston 4B solid-state amplifier, also circa 1978—which got everything perked up, fast-accelerating, slamming, and focusing. The 4B put genuine slam in those illustrious Maggie bass panels. The well-drawn soundstage occupied the entire space in front of me. The source was a Garrard 301 turntable in a custom plinth with an SME 309 tonearm and Sumiko Songbird cartridge. This was classic Golden Era audiophile sound, and everybody loved it.

Puppies on a hot leash
Okay folks, right now is when the whole day exploded in front of me. There was a time, long ago, when I was making a living dealing in old tubes and dusty old Altec and Western Electric gear. I lived in a firehouse on Staten Island, and I had borrowed a friend's pair of Wilson Audio's Series 2 Tiny Tots (WATTs) and their associated Puppy woofers. I had them positioned between a widely spaced pair of 1947 Altec Voice of the Theatre speakers. I loved inviting people over to compare soundstage widths. Today in Jersey, though, I was not prepared for what I heard.

Fernando had created a system around Wilson WATT/Puppy 5s using Spectral DMA-360 mono amps and a Krell KBL preamp. The source was a super-rare Nakamichi Dragon CD player/DAC. (It looked like an alien spaceship.) I never knew such a thing existed—and I never knew WATT Puppies could sound this juiced or this vivid. The Spectral amps' 533W into 4 ohms made the Wilsons boogie all over the room and steal my heart. This WATT-Spectral combo generated more rhythmic nuance and high-frequency detail than I ever imagined possible. I've always admired the Wilson speakers but only rarely enjoyed them. Today, I thought the WATT/Puppy 5s were the best speakers ever created. Obviously, I had never heard them with Spectral amps. On the Wilsons, the DMA-360s generated explosive dynamics. The sound was completely effortless. And 100% trans- parent. The fire-breathing Spectrals put on a fantastic show! (I would have loved to hear the Magnepan and KEF speakers with these amps.)

But here's the kicker: According to the Spectral's specs, the DMA-360 is 3dB down at 1.8MHz!

Therefore, its owner's manual mandates the use of MIT cables, which supposedly act as low-pass filters, preventing spurious high frequencies from destroying tweeters or sending the amp into oscillation. (The Skyfi system followed that dictum: All cables were from MIT.)

1950s firescreens
It's always good to end at the beginning—and I can't imagine a better speaker to follow the Amazing WATT/Puppy show than a beautiful pair of Quad ESLs. Along with Paul Klipsch's corner horns, the Quads were the beginning of audiophile audio as we know it.

Three out of five of my closest audio friends use Quad ESLs. They will never give them up. I've owned four pairs, because I admire their uncolored transparency, quality of detail, and trademark truth of timbre. But I prefer horn-level dynamics, and I hate sitting in the sweet spot. So I sold the lot and now stick to simple truths from Harbeth, Zu, Falcon, and DeVore. My day at Skyfi ended pleasantly with music streaming from ancient bronze firescreens sitting in front of a stone fireplace.


The Quads were driven by a rare and extremely sexy (by my standards) 50Wpc Luxman 3600 stereo tube amplifier. Manufactured between 1979 and 1982, the Lux uses push-pull pairs of 8045G power triodes—an unusual tube that was manufactured by NEC exclusively for Luxman. Today, this KT88 lookalike is near unobtainium, and replacements are likely more expensive than the 3600 amplifier I auditioned.

On top of the short rack was a turntable I've always wanted: a belt-drive Thorens TD 125 Mk.II with an SME 3009 II tonearm and a Sumiko Moonstone cartridge. The Sumiko was connected to the phono stage of a Conrad-Johnson PV8 preamp.

Folks, this too was a Golden Era stereo system; to my old ears it sounded a little too golden and a little aged, but it made me slump down in the cushions, close my eyes, and fall dreamily into every black disc they played.

Truth in value
WHAT I DISCOVERED AT SKYFI: a treasure trove of serious-quality components from some of audio's glory days, restored to last for another generation and beyond.

WHAT I LEARNED: Fine-sounding, good-looking audio equipment never gets old or goes out of style. The best, like Western Electric horns, Garrard rim-drive turntables, and speakers like Quad ESLs and BBC LS3/5a's, will likely outlast the polar icecaps.

HOW IT SEEMS: The best of today's audio is just different—not really better or worse. Contemporary audio aims for squeaky-clean, uber-quiet sound—and ease of manufacture. Yesterday's audio aspired to conspicuous musicality, durability, pride of ownership, and pleasure of use.

WHAT I KNOW FOR SURE: Old audio gear maintains its value because it was designed by wizards, built like tanks, looks good in our homes, and reliably delivers satisfying sound.

It is also endlessly fascinating.


tonykaz's picture

1.) Uncompromisingly good performance

2.) Built by a group of loyal employees

3.) Sold at a Fair Price

Products that have these features will have sustained Value. ( even if they are in rather shabby condition )

I'd venture to suggest that there isn't a single Quad 57 in pristine original condition.

I have compiled a partial list of Manufacturers that are recognized for meeting these Standards.

Schiit, PS Audio & Magnapan are a small example/sample . I'm subscribing to and reading Stereophile to help me to recognize a few more.

Every field has outstanding Companys.

Tony in Venice

ps. Of course I'm disappointed to learn of Outfits that decided to abandon their Loyal Employees and Off-Shore to Asia ( much like my own General Motors Corp. ) I can never support any person or company resorting to this horrible practice. dam em!

AaronGarrett's picture

Since they pointed to an amp that you reviewed as the exception, it seems that you are creating resale value through your reviews as a rightly trusted reviewer.

Herb Reichert's picture

Thank you Aaron Garrett for the nicest compliment. But Rogue did not need my help.

The Rogue Audio Sphinx is a great-sounding amp at a VERY nice price made by very good people and audiophiles recognized this long before I wrote about it. Most importantly, it does not sound like a generic class-D amp.It has that extra 'lightening in a bottle' thing going.

To me, consensus is the only value-maker.

not herb

JHL's picture had me at Flesh & Blood, Herb, in the first paragraph thereof. Kindly carry on, good man.

Value is an experience, an experience I've only ever had in the presence of gear with soul. That's the gear that makes reality, damn the technophilia.

Stereophile is gifted with your sensibilities and proclivities. Long may they live.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some of those old amplifiers and reel to reel analog tape machines may be still worth seeking out :-)......

volvic's picture

i read this great article listening to a Furtwangler CD played in an ancient Sony CDP-111 player through an even older Tandberg 2060 receiver while visiting my parents in Montreal. The Tandberg will most likely outlast the polar ice caps. Vintage equipment is just that, endlessly fascinating.'s picture

That guy gets it. He has (had?) a pair of Altec 604's in drop- dead beautiful cabinets for sale on Audiogon that I'd do things I KNOW are wrong to get my hands on.

ok's picture

had me the same experience once; shame this wilson never repeated.

Kal Rubinson's picture

w/p had me the same experience once; shame this wilson never repeated.

What are you saying?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be KR could review the new Lexicon SL-1 wireless speaker system with SoundSteer technology ($40,000/pair)? ......... KR mentioned about those speakers in his 2017 CES report :-) .........

tonykaz's picture

That Rogue has a Sound Quality reputation, as do Genelec Active Monitors which probably out-sell all Audiophile Loudspeakers by consistently delivering outstanding Sound Quality, reliability and Re-Sale Values.

Should we consider the B&O Active Loudspeakers that Mr. Kal Rubinson reviewed for Stereophile ?

Class D is real amplification, nasty comments about it are probably no longer warranted or earned.

Tony in Venice

ps. Of Course : folks steeped in Mid-Century collecting can legitimately ignore 21st Century technologies, even I am still hunting for a early 1980s Conrad-Johnson MV-45a with Cage ( for old times sake and outstanding sound quality on MG2 maggies.)

Anton's picture

I heard them once in an L.A. store.


I wonder what they went for. Likely above my budget, but a boy can wish!

JRT's picture

There are businesses that restore and/or modify old vintage cars.

Many of those are collectible and some can be very valuable in the market place.

Compare two used cars:

An older restoration example 1957 Mercedes Benz 300 SL roadster in relatively nice condition can fetch ~$1M at auction.

The 2009 MB AMG SL63 power retractable hardtop roadster would eclipse the 1957 300 SL by every measure of performance, ride, handling, NVH, amenities, safety, efficiency, refinement. It sold new for ~$135k, and can be found for ~1/4 of that now in low mileage lightly used condition with nearly as-new appearance.

I would argue that if you want something to store in a climate controlled garage and occasionally look at, the 1957 300 SL is artwork on wheels. But if you are going to choose among the two for a commuter car in traffic, or for a long distance drive on public roads, or most any other situation that includes using the car for transportation, the SL63 would be the very much better choice.

Just because it sells for more in the marketplace does not mean it works better at the purpose for which it was intentionally built.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You cannot compare old 1957 Mercedes with old Krell KSA-50 or old Mark Levinson No.27 ....... It is like comparing apples with oranges ........ Chances are those old transistor amplifiers could still work well with the modern loudspeakers and other associated equipment ........ I think JA1 still uses his old Krell amp for some of his testing :-) ...........

JRT's picture

A better example from late-1950s might be a pair of Quad ESL loudspeakers (£52 in UK new circa 1957, not sure about US pricing) powered by Harman Kardon Citation II amplifiers ($229 each new circa 1959, or $159 kit in need of assembly).

tonykaz's picture

The Car was not all that wonderful, Engineering & Performance Wise.

The KRELL was and still is a stunningly Spectacular piece.

Tony in Venice

ps. I was an Electrocompaniet Fan over the Krell, mostly because the Electro voicing was addictive.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Electrocompaniet Nemo 600 WPC/8 Ohms mono-blocks were very favorably reviewed by Stereophile :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

I was referring to the Ampliwire Amps of Per Ambrahanson , 1980s vintage.


The PreAmpliwire preamp with their unique and beautiful performing MC step up.

Tony in Venice

jeffhenning's picture

I truly do love the way some of the old stuff looks. Marantz, Technics, Luxman, SAE, McIntosh?... probably the best looking audio equipment ever. Nothing, today, comes close.

And I think it's fantastic that Skyfi takes the effort to make sure that their vintage products are up to spec.

Where I digress from this love of old stuff is that it's old and no longer state of the art, best of breed or cutting edge... pick your description. A Lamborghini Contache, while very cool, is no longer considered a great sports car. Lambo makes much cooler, better stuff now.

Man, I wish they made a Benchmark AHB-2 with giant meters on the front!

JRT's picture

The web page does not mention anything about the ballistics of the meter.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Those meters may not experience any 'Newtonian drag' :-) ...........

JRT's picture

Audio engineers have traditionally used the word "ballistics" in description of analog meter dynamics.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ok ...... Those meters may not also, experience that much 'Newtonian drag' :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bel Canto REF600M mono-blocks ($4,990/pair, Stereophile Class-A) use Hypex nCore Class-D modules :-) ..........

jeffhenning's picture

McIntosh doesn't need the giant meters for their amps to sound fantastic. It definitely, though, adds to the cool factor.

Also, the nCore amps relating to this thread are cheaper.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Then, the D'Agostino Relentless mono-blocks should definitely sound fantastic, with those huge meters :-) .......

I was mentioning the Bel Canto REF600M as an example ....... They were tested and 'certified' by Stereophile as Class-A :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

...if the amps are huge, but the meters, in comparison, are so small.

Again, the quality of the amp is based upon the size of the meters.

The smaller the meters, the worse the amp! It's simple science. Can you not get that?

It's already been scientifically proven.

Pseudo-science is wonderful. Real science is for chumps & idiots.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... The new McIntosh Class-D multi-channel amp M1254 has meters too :-) .........

jeffhenning's picture

...That's not what I need.

Of course, it's a McIntosh so it's fantastic.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some other examples ....... Some models of amps from Technics, Luxman and Accuphase have meters :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I forgot to mention ........ Some models of Pass Labs amps, also have meters :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... see the SAE 2HP-D:

The meters are also switchable to a one-third octave display:

tonykaz's picture

Some of the OLD gear is quite up to snuff compared to today's better gear. Some rare Russian Tubes excell in Sound Quality.

However, the older gear's performance can have Vinyl's dynamic Range of 30 to 40 db, Vinyl's not having ultra low freq. like modern Digital's ability to drop down to felt range.

Looks are personal but Chord gear is attractive sculpture.

Tony in Venice

jeffhenning's picture

I think that I've just fallen in love with an amp again!

And it's an nCore so that ain't all.

I always used to joke with my dear, departed step-dad in the 70's & 80's that the quality of the amp was related to the size of the meters on the front.

Also, the price is very reasonable.

Herb Reichert's picture

to compare basic power amplifiers to automotive engines rather than whole cars.

just sayin'


Bogolu Haranath's picture

Most of the old car engines didn't have fuel injection or multi-valves ......Most of them were less fuel efficient ........ Most of the modern engines and automobiles have all those qualities :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Today's SOTA High Performance Cars feature Electric Motors at each wheel ( like Active Loudspeakers ), have intense, butter smooth power to infinity and are SOLAR Powered. ( they even drive themselves )

Just Say'n,

Tony in Venice

JHL's picture

the ancient Western Electric tube amps - the very costly ones leased to commercial theaters - while technically bandwidth-limited by modern standards, may have nearly everything beat in terms of sheer grainless, immediate, insightful musicality. That happens when the entire circuit is iron and triode. They're also nearly immortal, speaking of value, and their collector worth is both purposeful and resolute.

We miss a lot when we assume a thing is automatically passe. The Bugatti Type 47 Grand Sport's 16 cylinder from 90 years ago is still high art and will be forever.

Connectedness of sound is the most important term in high end audio. It's also the rarest.

tonykaz's picture

Nice point about those Western Electric Amps. I've never owned one but I did take a Dynaco ST35 in trade that was very good sounding but looked rather rough. I sold it to Dave Wasserman for only a small few Dollars ( to my unrelenting regret ).

Bugatti only ever made outstanding Art pieces. What a Great Brand!!

Tony in Venice

JHL's picture

To be sure the WE and small Dynas are wide apart because the former are so over-built. The latter is also a tiny pentode.

As a testament to the enduring legacy of the WE, some modern variants keep the overall architecture but add back the bandwidth and control. State of their art: