Recommended Components: Fall 2016 Edition Integrated Amps & Receivers

Integrated Amplifiers & Receivers

A

Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty: $12,950
In 2013, AD described the original Ayre AX-5—a $9950 integrated amplifier built around a recently rediscovered configuration of bipolar transistors known as the "diamond" circuit—as "one of the three best, most musical, most human-sounding solid-state amps I've ever heard." Then, in 2015, Ayre debuted a new version, the AX-5 Twenty—a nod to the company's 20th anniversary—promising even better sound. The AX-5 Twenty is built into the same foursquare aluminum case as the AX-5, and is controlled by the same performance-optimizing Variable Gain Transconductance (VGT) volume-control system—but the Twenty incorporates Ayre's new Double Diamond output, claimed to run cooler (which AD verified) and to offer slightly more power (though the 125Wpc rating remains). This time out, AD got a little pissy about Ayre's user manual and the amp's "pointlessly complex" setup procedure, but was otherwise smitten: He delighted in a sound that was "slightly sweeter" than the original AX-5's. Stringed instruments, he said, were "reproduced with color, body, scale, melodic and rhythmic drive, and believable spatial presence." AD concluded that "the AX-5 Twenty is inarguably . . . more compelling than its predecessor." Although he raised an eyebrow at the 30% ($3000) price increase over the original, AD commended Ayre for allowing AX-5 owners to have their amps upgraded to Twenty status for the same price. (Vol.38 No.8 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics AX-7e: $3950 ★
The success of this 60Wpc, solid-state, two-channel, fully balanced, integrated amplifier depended on the associated sources. Used from balanced output to balanced input, "It was brilliant. Amazing. Stirring, even," said AD. However, used as an unbalanced amp, "The AX-7 still sounded good, but its musical performance lacked momentum and, ultimately, excitement." Overall, the Ayre was "colorful, clear, well-textured, and spatially convincing." It seemed sensitive to the type and length of speaker cable AD used, and seemed more sensitive to AC power quality than average. "I strongly recommend the Ayre AX-7 for use [only] in an all-balanced system." The '7e's power supply now includes greater filtering of the AC mains, increased peak current delivery, and filtering of the rectifier switching noise. In addition, the AX-7e's gain stages now use two-stage voltage regulators in place of the earlier version's single-stage regulators. The sound now combined classic Brit-style pacing and tunefulness with near-SET levels of presence and a fine sense of musical flow, a combination that allowed AD to become emotionally involved in the music. "The AX-7e is the best integrated I've ever heard," endorsed WP. "One heck of an involving amplifier," he summed up. Compared to the Luxman MQ-88 power amplifier, the Ayre offered greater bass extension and soundstage control but lacked the Luxman's beguiling midrange, said JM. Original AX-7s can be fully upgraded for $250–$350, depending on the age of the unit. (Vol.26 No.10 AX-7; Vol.29 No.1, Vol.31 No.3, AX-7e WWW; see also "The Fifth Element" in Vol.34 No.2 and Vol.35 No.4 WWW)

Bel Canto Design Black amplification system: $50,000
Tempting though such a classification may be, the Bel Canto Black is more than just an integrated amplifier. This three-box system comprises a sort-of preamplifier (the ASC1) and a pair of sort-of monoblock amplifiers (the MPS1), the latter operating in class-D, for 300Wpc into 8 ohms or 1200Wpc into 2 ohms. The Ethernet-ready ASC1 can be controlled with an iPhone app; it provides a brace of digital inputs, and via ST-optical connections feeds the MPS1s digital signals at their native resolutions, up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64. The ASC1's single pair of analog inputs (RCA) address an internal 24/192 DAC: Everything that goes through the ASC1 does so as a digital stream, eligible for tailoring by a variety of user-selectable digital filters. (The MPS1s also offer analog inputs.) In his listening tests, MF found the Bel Canto Black to offer "the most compelling digital sound yet," and to embody the best-yet implementation of class-D technology: "[H]ere, finally, is a class-D product that, though sounding definitely different from the older technologies, makes a strong case for equality." JA declared that he was "very impressed by the Bel Canto Black, especially with its behavior as a D/A converter that is effectively capable of driving loudspeakers." From his own listening tests, described in a Follow-Up, JA noted the Black's ability to present spatial and sonic detail. Comparing the Bel Canto to the recently reviewed Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty preamp and MX-R Twenty mono amplifiers, JA wrote: "If the Ayre system was more simpatico with the heart, the Bel Canto Black appealed more to the head." (Vol.38 Nos. 7 & 10 WWW)

Jadis I-35: $7495
Made in France, the beautiful I-35 is a tubed, integrated amplifier with five line-level inputs. Though rated to deliver 35Wpc into 1–16 ohms, the I-35 produced just 17W into 8 ohms at 1% THD. It uses five small-signal tubes (three 12AU7s and a pair of 12AX7s) and two pairs of KT120 output tubes run in autobias mode in an Ultralinear circuit, with plates and screen grids for each channel tied to the split-coil primaries of transformers expertly designed and made in-house. Build quality and cosmetics were outstanding, inside and out. Though it lacked the fullness and richness of Art's Shindo separates, the Jadis produced a natural and engaging overall sound, with an excellent sense of momentum and a very good sense of the spatial relationships between different sounds in a stereo recording, said AD. "This is a damn good amp for getting to the essence of music," he concluded. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

Kondo Overture: $26,900 ★
Made in Japan, the 32Wpc Overture uses a class-A, Ultralinear output circuit with minimal (3dB) global feedback, executed with split-primary output transformers custom-wound by Tango. It uses two Electro-Harmonix EL34 output pentodes, one 6072, and one 12BH7 per channel. Build quality was exceptional and marked by silver wiring, handmade capacitors, bespoke resistors, a solid-copper ground plane, and a tuned chassis made from a combination of steel, brass, and aluminum. The Overture has no balance control, remote control, mono switch, headphone amplifier, or phono stage, but does provide four pairs of line-level inputs and a choice of 4- or 8-ohm output sockets. Though it was slightly lean and not quite as colorful as AD's Shindo separates, the Overture produced a natural, compelling overall sound with a well-extended treble and exceptional senses of drive and scale. (Vol.36 No.11 WWW)

LFD LE V: $4495
Dr. Richard Bews, proprietor of England's LFD electronics, has once again upgraded his and Dr. Malcolm O. Hawksford's original integrated amplifier, the 65Wpc LE (née Mistral): a perennial ST favorite, owing to its complete lack of convenience or "luxury" features that degrade sound and add expense. To those ends, all iterations of LFD's solid-state amp have lacked balance and tone controls, headphone jacks, extra sets of speaker outputs, digital displays, and, especially, remote controls. The LE, which Dr. Bews builds in small batches, provides five line-level inputs (but no phono section), and is made with only the highest-quality parts, some vintage (NOS), some custom-made. According to ST, the new LE V—whose improvements all seem to arise from a combination of sturdier casework and more refined parts—"is a showstopper. I mean that literally. I didn't want to write; I wanted to listen." Compared to the LE IV, which ST owns and loves, the LE V represents "a substantial improvement. Everything just fit into place: harmonics, timing, resolution." Quoth he: "Buy your LFD LE V today." (Vol.37 No.7)

LFD NCSE: $6795
A bigger and more powerful version of LFD's excellent Mk.IV LE, the NCSE Mk.II measures 17.2" W by 3.25" H by 15.7" D, and is rated to deliver 70Wpc. The basic circuit remains the same, with a pair of MOSFET output transformers for each channel. The NCSE Mk.II retained the smaller model's speed, transparency, harmonic accuracy, and illuminated-from-within quality, but added improved bass and dynamics, said ST. "If you like the Mk.IV LE but feel you're running out of power, the NCSE Mk.II would be the better choice, particularly if you're driving bigger speakers in a bigger room," he advised. (Vol.36 No.11)

Line Magnetic LM-518IA: $4450
An original design from a Chinese company that also re-creates classic Western Electric audio gear, the all-tube Line Magnetic LM-518IA is the rare modern integrated amplifier that combines a single-ended output stage with thoriated-tungsten (ie, bright-emitter) output tubes and a tube-rectified voltage rail. The LM-518IA provides three line-level inputs (all RCA) and produces up to 22Wpc into 8 ohms. Tube bias is user-adjustable—but, to HR's disappointment, there is no balance control or mono switch. That said, the amp's "vital energy," among other qualities, has earned it an especially hallowed place in his system: "It is musically alive and vigorous. It plays music with rare charm and sensitivity." even the SET-skeptical JA was charmed: "For such a design, it offers high power." (Vol.38 No.10, Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

Mark Levinson No.585: $12,000
With twice the output power, twice the number of digital inputs for its built-in DAC, and a price tag that's twice as high, the Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amplifier handily exceeds its predecessor, the No.383. (Perhaps they should have called it the No.766?) The class-AB No.585 is advertised as delivering 200Wpc into 8 ohms, and its DAC, which offers resolution up to DSD256, includes an asynchronous USB input alongside two (S/PDIF) RCA inputs, two TosLink inputs, and a balanced XLR jack for AES/EBU. Of its four line-level inputs, one is balanced (XLR). Driving LG's Quad ESL-989 electrostatic loudspeakers—and, via its line-level output, a Tannoy TS2.12 subwoofer—the No.585 impressed him with its "sonic purity and ergonomics." LG declared that, while listening to a recent recording of Beethoven's Symphony 7, "I was reminded of being surrounded by the music, the clearly defined sounds of the instruments, and the ambience of Avery Fisher Hall." Noting, among other things, that the No.585 exceeded its manufacturer's power specs, managing 250Wpc at 8 ohms and 390Wpc at 4 ohms, JA stated that it "offers impressive measured performance." (Vol.38 No.12 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio Evolution 700i: $14,000 ★
Robustly built of thick, ultrarigid aluminum, the 700i is a fully differential dual-mono design rated to deliver 175Wpc (190Wpc at actual clipping), running in class-A up to 5W and in class-AB thereafter. Its output stages are powered by six bipolar transistors per channel for a wide bandwidth and low noise floor, while its "zero global feedback" design works to boost the speed of the signal response and eliminate intermodulation distortion. Though it couldn't match the Krell FBI's transient speed or deep-bass extension, the 700i had a full-blooded, dynamic, seamless sound marked by vivid tonal colors, harmonic integrity, and a strong sense of rhythm. With the 700i, "I found myself drawn deeper into the music," said FK. (Vol.34 No.3 WWW; see also FK's Moon Evolution 860A review in Vol.38 No.8 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio Neo 340i: $5800
The 100Wpc Moon Neo 340i is among the growing number of integrated amplifiers that can be upgraded with a plug-in DSD-ready DAC ($900), a plug-in phono stage with MM and MC inputs ($400), and true-balanced XLR inputs ($350). You can get all those options at the start by buying the version Simaudio calls the D3PX ($5800). HR reviewed the latter and especially enjoyed the amp's performance with his Magnepan .7 speakers: "The Simaudio's apparent speed and transparency tamed the Magnepans' inherent sweetness to the point where the .7s began to sound like the high-resolution transducers they are." HR also singled-out for praise the "ridiculously good" performance of the Neo 340i's MC phono inputs, loading characteristics of which are user-adjustable by means of internal jumper blocks, although he noted that his Zu Denon DL-103 cartridge "plays more naturally and in a more relaxed manner into 470 or 1000 ohms than into either of the 340i's choices of 100 ohms or 47k ohms." Reporting from his test bench, JA discovered lowish unbalanced line-level input impedance (7200 ohms at 20Hz and 1kHz), and heatsinking that "isn't adequate for sustained use at high powers"—but otherwise gave this Moon a clean bill of health. (Vol.39 No.3 WWW)

Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 800: $12,999
The latest in a line of Musical Fidelity products distinguished by their use of nuvistors—miniature small-signal vacuum tubes of such extreme durability that they're often hardwired into circuits—the Nu-Vista 800 is a solid-state integrated amp in which thermionic devices influence both sound and vibe. (The Nu-Vista 800's four nuvistors are illuminated from below and visible from above.) This 330Wpc powerhouse has five pairs of bipolar transistors per channel and provides five line-level inputs, one of them balanced. In addition to describing it as Musical Fidelity's "best-looking product, ever," MF praised the Nu-Vista 800 for its "wholeness and consistency of sound" and for being "relaxed and suave, but not at all soggy or gauzy." And while noting that the amp didn't extract from his recordings the last drop of crispness or detail, MF praised its consistently beautiful sound: "The Nu-Vista 800 drew me in." In measuring the Nu-Vista 800, JA discovered a signal/noise ratio that was "a little disappointing," and very slightly less power output (310Wpc into 8 ohms) than is specified, but was otherwise impressed. (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Parasound Halo Integrated: $2495 $$$
Parasound's Halo offers 160Wpc from its bipolar output section—JFETs and MOSFETs are pressed into service elsewhere in the amp—plus a list of convenience features that includes: a dedicated subwoofer output with its own variable high- and low-pass crossover filters and front-panel level control; a 32-bit DAC with USB, coaxial, and optical inputs; a discrete headphone amplifier; an MM/MC phono stage; and six line inputs (one balanced, five unbalanced). HR particularly praised the "easy, intimate realism" of the Halo's phono stage, as well as the "great boogie" factor of its DAC and the amp's overall "easy flowing, mostly smooth, and decidedly mellow" personality. This was not to take away from the Parasound's musical incisiveness: "The Halo played tunes and sang songs as if they mattered," wrote Herb. JA wrapped up his measurements by observing that the Halo Integrated "is a well-engineered, well-performing product." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium HP: $4399
PrimaLuna's DiaLogue Premium HP employs a total of eight power tubes—EL34s are standard, although the user can substitute a variety of other power pentodes—to produce 40Wpc in triode mode or 70Wpc in Ultralinear mode. (On-the-fly switching between modes can be performed with the DiaLogue Premium HP's remote handset.) Additional features include a newly designed, six-tube front end; the "highest-end" implementation yet of PrimaLuna's Adaptive AutoBias circuit; and an all-tube headphone amp. RD, a fan of the company's earlier ProLogue Premium, found that the new amp provided higher power with no loss of finesse, and declared, "PrimaLuna had taken a major step forward in amplifier performance." JA's measurements indicated that "PrimaLuna's output transformers are of excellent quality." Distortion wasn't the lowest JA has seen, but, "fortunately, the distortion is heavily second-harmonic in nature in both modes, even at low frequencies." He concluded that, "overall, the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium HP measures well for a design using push-pull pairs of EL34 tubes." RD summed up: "$4199 for an integrated amp of the DiaLogue Premium HP's level of performance represents excellent value." (Vol.37 No.12 WWW)

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium: $3399 ★
PrimaLuna's top-of-the-line integrated amplifier is rated to deliver 36Wpc with its stock EL34 output tubes or 43Wpc with optional KT120s. It uses PrimaLuna's Adaptive AutoBias feature for easy swapping of output tubes, and has a bad-tube indicator, power-transformer protection, and output-transformer protection circuitry. The DiaLogue Premium was extremely quiet and sounded bigger than its power rating suggested, with a rich midrange and an excellent sense of timing, said ST. "The DiaLogue Premium will be a dream come true for anyone who has a closetful of output tubes," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.6)

Vinnie Rossi LIO: $7750 as tested
Vinnie Rossi, of Red Wine Audio, designed the LIO integrated amplifier around his unconventional PURE DC-4-EVR power-supply technology, which powers the electronics using two rows of series-wired ultracapacitors: one provides pure DC while the other is being charged, those roles alternating every few minutes. The LIO is modular: The buyer adds to the combination of case and power supply—a $1995 product that, by itself, cannot pass a music signal—his or her choice of volume-control module, input-selection module, line stage, phono stage, D/A converter, headphone amp, and power amp, prices and options for which are too numerous to list here. HR was charmed: "Right out of the box, the Vinnie Rossi LIO played music that flowed smoothly and silkily." He noted in particular the amp's "detail, drive, and forward momentum." HR's verdict: "If there is a more innovative and musically satisfying integrated amplifier than the Vinnie Rossi LIO, I have yet to experience it." JA's measurements revealed "good to excellent" performance from the LIO's volume-control, phono-preamp, and digital-audio modules, but uncovered problems such as low-level spuriae at 60Hz, unexpected bumps in the noise floor, power output into 8 ohms that failed to reach the 25Wpc spec by 8W, and too high a level of second-harmonic distortion for his comfort. (Vol.38 No.9 WWW)

B

Allnic T-1800: $6900
From Korean manufacturer Allnic, known in audiophile circles for their single-ended-triode (SET) power amplifiers, comes this push-pull pentode integrated amp. The T-1800 has two EL34 output tubes per side, operated in Ultralinear mode to produce 40Wpc. The T-1800's line stage is passive—still, AD described the amp's overall gain as "abundant"—and offers as inputs four pairs of RCA jacks and one pair of XLR sockets. Source selection is by means of electronic switching, the volume control is a 41-step silver-contact attenuator switch, and the output section is autobias. AD thought that the T-1800 delivered tight, well-controlled bass—if with less "power and gravitas" than his Shindo EL34 monoblocks—and generous treble extension without sounding "bright or even bright-ish." He was dismayed by the sound's relative smallness of scale, which he attributed to the amp's use of global feedback, but said that "the T-1800's flaws are more than merely outweighed by its strengths: They are overwhelmed." Those strengths are good drive, color, texture, and openness of sound. (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

April Music Aura Note v.2: $2500
The Aura Note V2 is a compact and sleekly styled integrated amplifier (125Wpc) with built-in CD player, USB DAC, FM tuner, Bluetooth receiver, and headphone amp. Its USB DAC, addressed by a USB Type A socket on one side of its casework, is good to 192kHz—it uses a 24-bit Cirrus Logic D/A chip—and its class-D amplifier output section uses ICEpower modules supplemented by a switch-mode power supply. The Aura Note V2's playback of CDs had "color and clarity, spatial presence, and a good sense of momentum and flow," according to AD, though its amplifier lacked a bit of texture and richness when compared to the best. He also noted some harshness on extreme peaks when using an outboard phono section into the Aura's line-level input. All in all, AD concluded, "the V2 offers a generally very good musical and sonic experience." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the Aura Note V2's CD player exhibited one of the highest levels of tolerance of defective discs he's ever observed, but also found that its Aux inputs could be overdriven with input signals greater than 3.3V, thus underscoring the need for caution when matching a phono preamp and cartridge to this otherwise recommendable all-in-one box. (Vol.39 No.4 WWW)

Cambridge Audio Azur 851A: $1999
First cousin to the Cambridge Azur 851D DAC, the Azur 851A integrated amplifier provides 120Wpc into 8 ohms, two balanced inputs (XLR), eight unbalanced line-level inputs (RCA), and the rare luxury of bass and treble tone controls. HR wrote that he could best describe the sound of the Azur 851A as "relaxed and enjoyably colorful, in a class-A triode sort of way. It sounded more naturally toned and weighty than my Creek 3330 or my Line Magnetic LM-518IA, and showed none of that off-putting grayness or brittleness often heard in low-priced, high-powered amps." In his measurements, JA discovered that the amp's right-channel performance was not in keeping with that of the left channel—although he suggested that the right channel's relative shortcomings were inaudible. His conclusion: "Assuming that the less-good performance of its right channel was a sample-specific fault, Cambridge Audio's Azur 851A is a well-built amplifier that offers a lot of power with very low distortion at an affordable price." HR's last word: "a versatile and extraordinarily musical cornerstone on which to build a truly enjoyable high-end system that can play all types of music with righteous aplomb for little cost." (Vol.38 No.2 WWW)

Creek Audio Evolution 100A: $2195
The top-of-the-line amp from UK-based Creek, the new Evolution 100A integrated operates in class-G: A pair of Sanken Darlington transistors, biased for class-A/B, do the honors up to 25Wpc, beyond which an additional pair of transistors kicks in, for 110Wpc total into 8 ohms. Of its five line-level inputs (RCA), one can also be addressed as balanced (XLR), while any of the remaining four can be upgraded with plug-in DAC, AM/FM tuner, and phono-stage modules. HR enjoyed using the Creek's Ambit tuner ($250), and praised the "clean, open, extended highs" of the amp's optional Ruby DAC module ($599), which handles 24-bit/192kHz inputs via its coax and TosLink S/PDIF inputs, and 24/96 via USB—though he felt the merely "good" Sequel Mk.2 moving-magnet phono-stage module ($200) wasn't up to the DAC's level of quality. Considering the 100A's amplification talents, HR praised it for playing a great variety of music in a "straightforward, exciting, satisfying way." Apart from some front-panel control glitches that might have been specific to "this well-traveled review sample," JA found that the Evolution 100A "measured quite well." (Vol.38 No.7 WWW)

Croft Phono Integrated: $1895 ★ $$$
Croft's 45Wpc Phono Integrated combines in a single package the company's Micro 25 preamplifier and Series 7 power amplifier to create a hybrid integrated in which line- and moving-magnet–compatible phono-stage gain is provided by ECC83 vacuum tubes, output power by transistors. In addition to its phono input, the Croft has three analog line inputs, but offers no remote control, digital inputs, headphone jack, or upgrade paths for USB connectivity. Apart from a small circuit board containing the bipolar timer and relays, the Phono Integrated is hand-wired, point to point, with neatly made solder joins and Bakelite terminal strips. AD liked the Croft's dual-mono volume controls, SM not so much. They agreed, however, that the Croft's sound was extraordinary: smooth, coherent, open, naturally detailed, forceful, physical, and dynamic, with a great sense of space and an expert ability to drive a beat forward. "If I were a designer or builder, this is how I would do the thing. If I were buying in this price range, this is the one I'd choose," raved AD. On JA's test bench, however, the Croft exhibited a nonflat RIAA response and high levels of harmonic and intermodulation distortion. According to ST, "the sound of the Phono Integrated was musical in a way that very few hi-fi components are." Apart from noting this model's 1970s-style cosmetics ("A pox on cosmetics!"), minimalist conveniences ("A pox on convenience!"), and slightly plump bass, ST declared the Croft "one of the best integrated amplifiers I have ever heard." (Vol.36 No.10, Vol.37 No.5 WWW)

Hegel Music Systems H160: $3500
The Norwegian-made Hegel H160 swims against technology's tide with an output section based on discrete bipolar transistors operated in class-A/B, rather than the increasingly common class-D devices. The H160 is specified as offering 150Wpc into 8 ohms, and its features include a front-mounted 6.3mm headphone jack—a first on a Hegel amp—plus USB, coaxial, optical, and Ethernet digital inputs, these addressing an internal DAC whose measured performance JA described as "workmanlike." Despite his disappointment that the H160 offered only a single unbalanced analog input alongside its single balanced input, HR warmed to its "ardent and visceral" sound, and praised its playback of recorded voices as being "striking in its naturalness." JA's measurements included the observation that thermal stressing brought about a temporary increase in distortion in this otherwise "well-engineered powerhouse": "this is not an amplifier suitable for sustained high-power use." (Vol.38 No.6 WW)

Jadis Orchestra Reference Mk.II: $4795
The latest version of an integrated amp that has been a Jadis mainstay since the late 1990s, the Orchestra Reference Mk.II uses two Russian-made EL34 pentode tubes per channel to produce its specified 40Wpc; phase inversion and buffering come courtesy of one 12AX7 dual-triode tube per channel, while input gain is provided by bipolar transistors. The line-only, nonbalanced amp has five inputs, and is available with a remote handset for an extra $350. AD described the "beautifully built" Jadis as having "a full but reasonably explicit bottom, a richly colorful midrange, and a sense of grand spatial scale." More to the point, he praised the amp's talent for melodic, dynamic, and temporal nuance, and declared that the Jadis is "extremely unlikely to disappoint the music-loving, tone-loving audiophile" who owns efficient speakers. JA joined AD in grousing that bias adjustments on the semi-impenetrable Jadis are difficult to effect, and raised an eyebrow at the amp's not-unexpected higher distortion into loads of relatively low impedance—but noted, "the Jadis Orchestra performed well . . . given its circuit topology." (Vol.38 No.12 WWW)

Naim Nait 2/AVO Ultimate Upgrade: $2190 plus cost of Nait 2 $$$
In 1988, the quasi-complementary, class-AB Nait 2—a revised version of Naim's budget-priced, entry-level Nait—distinguished itself as an exceedingly fine-sounding integrated amplifier and one of the stars of Naim's product line. Fast-forward to 2016, when vintage examples of the Nait 2, no longer in production, continue to win raves from budget-conscious audiophiles—although by now most Nait 2s require servicing. Enter AV Options, which employs ex-Naim staffers and offers various levels of service and rebuilds. Their Ultimate Upgrade for the Nait 2 ($2190) involves replacing and recalibrating 14 transistors (including the output devices) and scores of passive parts (including jacks and sockets), plus deep-cryo treatment of the original transformer and other components. AD loved listening to the AVO-upgraded Nait 2, praising its "profoundly excellent sense of momentum and timing" and offering special praise for its great-sounding MM phono section. Bonus points for being able not only to drive Quad ESLs but to make them sing. (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

Naim NAIT 5si: $1995
Introduced 30 years after Naim Audio's original Nait, the new Nait 5si is a 60Wpc (into 8 ohms) integrated amp with a built-in headphone amp, and with inputs for four line-level sources—but no phono preamp. Inputs are selected with soft-touch buttons, and all are addressed with RCA plugs, while two of those are also equipped with DIN inputs: Naim's traditional preference. HR enjoyed the Nait 5si for tracking complex rhythms with perfection, and for keeping even the most microscopic pitch intervals "in good focus." The Nait 5si lacked color and spaciousness compared to HR's more expensive tubed integrated, but "made it easy to hear—watch—[the music's] rhythms. Forward momentum was spellbinding: The Nait directed my attention toward how the players attacked their instruments." Apart from inverted signal polarity on the headphone output, JA found nothing untoward in his measurements—noting, in fact, that the Nait developed more output power than specified. HR summed up: "The Nait 5si is a world-class integrated amplifier that delivers more audio precision and musical enjoyment than any self-respecting anti-imperialist should ever need." (Vol.37 No.10 WWW)

Octave Audio V 40 SE: $4500
The entry-level V40 SE Line, from Germany's Octave Audio, is an integrated amplifier with an active line-only preamp section and—despite its model designation—a push-pull output section, using two KT88 pentode tubes per side to produce 40Wpc. (A wide variety of similar pentodes can be used instead, but not all will produce the same amount of power.) The output tubes are operated as true pentodes, and the design entails 10dB of global feedback; output-tube bias is user-adjustable via system of which AD remarked, "I have never encountered a surer, safer, less ambiguous, or altogether better means of checking and adjusting tube bias." He was similarly impressed by the Octave's musical performance, describing its ability to portray musical timing and momentum as "superb." AD also enjoyed the V40 SE's "up-front" sound and "better-than-average sense of scale," also noting that while it didn't sound bright, it had sufficiently extended trebles that "reasonable care should be taken in the setup and adjusting of partnering gear." An easy-to-install power-supply enhancement, the Octave Black Box ($1200), made an audible improvement, but shouldn't be considered mandatory. JA noted that the V40 SE "measured as I would expect from a traditional design that uses a pair of KT88 output tubes for each channel," and praised the amp's "impressively high standard" of construction. (Vol.37 No.8 WWW)

Rogers High Fidelity EHF-100 Mk.2: $8000 ★
Made in the US by former NASA engineer Roger Gibboni, the EHF-100 is rated to deliver 65Wpc (JA measured 35Wpc) into 8 ohms; offers four pairs of line-level inputs; and uses two EF86 miniature pentode, two 12AX7 triode, and four KT88 power tubes. Fit and finish were excellent. Though not as nuanced, colorful, or dramatic as AD's reference Shindo separates, the EHF-100 distinguished itself as a tight, punchy-sounding amplifier with loads of natural detail, a very good sense of momentum, and an excellent sense of space. Despite differences in the noise floor between its two channels, the EHF-100 measured well "for a classic design," said JA. Mk.2 has a remote control but is otherwise identical to that reviewed. (Vol.35 No.11 WWW)

Rogue Sphinx: $1295 $$$
The Sphinx is that rarity in contemporary audio: a US-made integrated amplifier with a tubed (12AU7) line stage, a MM-appropriate phono stage, and a headphone jack, all for less than the price of a round-trip ticket to Paris—and Rogue Audio doesn't even make you buy their remote handset ($100). Using Bruno Putzeys's Hypex class-D power modules in tandem with a nonswitching power supply, this hybrid integrated delivers 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 200Wpc into 4 ohms. HR enjoyed his time with the Sphinx, noting its "greater scale and bass force" than his Creek 4330 integrated, and praising its line stage as perhaps "the best of [its] many good features: Everything I played was enjoyably detailed, transparent, and spacious." HR's verdict: "Judging by my experiences with the Sphinx, Rogue's owner and designer, Mark O'Brien, has taken this stigmatized, lower-class mode of operation to a new, more refined level." According to JA, apart from a bit of ultrasonic noise in its output, the Sphinx's amplifier section avoided most of the usual class-D pitfalls, and he particularly praised the MM phono section. (Vol.37 No.8 WWW)

Roksan Kandy K2 BT: $1900
This solid-state integrated amp, descended from the original Roksan Kandy K2 (reviewed by AD in Vol.33 No.5), is notable for offering both an MM phono stage and a Bluetooth input alongside its three line-level inputs. The Kandy K2 BT, which also provides a pair of preamp-out jacks and a bypass input for AV fans, delivers 140Wpc into 8 ohms and 250Wpc into 4 ohms. In HR's system, "The K2 BT showed consistently good tone and scale, but music often felt a tad soft and round—especially at the edges of string plucks and keystrokes." That said, HR declared that "[the Roksan's] phono stage was the best I've heard in a moderately priced integrated—it played LPs in living color." As for Bluetooth, HR was underwhelmed, noting that "the detail, life and naturalness exceeded my expectations but I was disappointed by the amount of low-level fuzz and blur I was noticing." He found that Bluetooth music sounded best when playback levels were kept in check. In his measurements, JA echoed that last sentiment—"if you use the Roksan's BT input, keep your source's volume control down"—and commented that the K2 BT's frequency response "depends to a larger extent than usual on its volume-control setting." (Vol.37 No.11 WWW)

Schiit Ragnarok: $1699
Referred to by its manufacturer as "an intelligent amplifier for headphones and loudspeakers," the Ragnarok—Old Norse for "fate of the gods"—is a solid-state integrated that offers 60Wpc into 8 ohms, 100Wpc into 4 ohms, and no LED display, menu, or remote control. For those omissions, HR thanked the gods. He also praised the "uniquely rich and boldly forceful" sound of the Ragnarok when used to drive the Technics SB-C700 speakers, and declared the "cheerful, articulate" pairing of Ragnarok and KEF LS50s "the most enjoyable stereo system I've used in the 21st century." (HR's second-most-enjoyable pairing: the Schiit Ragnarok with Magnepan .7 speakers, which like power the way Shane MacGowan likes beer.) While measuring the Ragnarok, JA discovered that, when amplifying continuous test signals at high levels, the amp's THD+N rose to as high as 34%. Schiit explained that this "expected" behavior was due to the amp's microprocessor-based bias-management system, which mistook the un-music-like tones for runaway bias. JA altered his testing regimen to account for this departure from the norm and came up with better-looking numbers, but his eyebrows remained somewhat elevated. (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

Unison Research Simply Italy: $3000 ★
The solidly built Simply Italy uses an ECC82 driver tube and an EL34B output tube to deliver 12Wpc. It measures just 10" W by 7.5" H by 15.5" D and offers four line-level inputs, a tape loop, and a single set of outputs optimized for 4–8 ohm speakers. Solid-wood inlays around the hefty, stainless-steel volume and selector knobs help damp vibrations. Fit and finish were outstanding. Though it lacked the dimensionality and expansiveness of larger Unison Research amplifiers, the Simply Italy had a confident, solid sound with surprisingly tight bass, said ST. "My little bambino." He sums up. "Clear, crisp sound, tight bass for all of its 12 watts." ST thinks there may be no better amp for small-group jazz. The Simply Italy was an especially good partner for DeVore Fidelity's Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers, said ST. Replacing the amp's stock EL34Bs with Genelex KT77 output tubes resulted in an airier sound with less robust bass and improved top-end extension. (Vol.35 No.8; Vol.37 No.1)

Unison Research Unico Primo: $2550
The entry-level integrated from Italian manufacturer Unison Research, well known for their more radically styled power amps, the Unico Primo mates a tubed front end (one ECC83/12AX7) with an 80Wpc solid-state output section running in what Unison calls "Dynamic class-A." An optional plug-in board, also solid-state, provides MM/MC phono capabilities. (The Unico Primo is available without phono for $2400.) In addition to boasting what KM described as a volume control with "the creamiest action I've ever laid fingers on," the Unico Primo "charged hard 24/7, with enough dynamic gusto to compel music mightily." KM added that the slightly warmish Unison Research amp "struck an unusual balance between superior resolution in the treble to midrange and weighty low-end fundamentals that were less than accurate." Reporting from the test bench, JA noted a bit more distortion and noise than desired, but very good phono-stage performance. Optional black faceplate adds $150. (Vol.39 No.7 WWW)

C

Arcam FMJ A19: $1000 $$$
Rated to deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms, the FMJ A19 is Arcam's most affordable integrated amplifier. It provides six line-level inputs, tape and preamplifier outputs, a moving-magnet phono stage, and two front-panel mini-jacks: one for driving headphones, the other for connecting an iPod. While the A19 gets its power from a hefty toroidal transformer, a second internal power supply can deliver a direct, isolated, and regulated 6V to two of Arcam's r-series products, such as the rBlink Bluetooth DAC that ST enjoyed. Build quality was excellent, setup simple, operation flawless. Though it lacked some smoothness and drama, the A19 combined a sweet treble, a clean midrange, and well-defined bass for a sound that was fun, involving, and never fatiguing, said SM. JA noted excellent measured performance, but warned that the A19 shouldn't be used to drive at high levels loads much below 6 ohms. Borderline Class B. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

Music Hall a15.3: $549
Rated at 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 75Wpc into 4 ohms, the Music Hall a15.3 is a full-size (16.9" W by 3.1" H by 13.2" D) integrated amplifier that includes a MM phono input, mini-jack and RCA line-level inputs, and a front-panel headphone jack. SM admired the a15.3's "high level of fit and finish," adding that the amp performed without flaw in his system. Using the a15.3 with Music Hall's companion c15.3 CD player–DAC and comparing it with NAD's C 515BEE CD player and C 316BEE integrated amplifier, SM found that the a15.3 sounded "more open and airy, and produced a wider, deeper soundstage with beautifully focused images," although it "lacked the NADs' intangible smoothness and musical flow." Among the inputs offered, none impressed SM more than the a15.3's phono stage, which "sounded superb—quiet, dynamic, and emotionally compelling." (Vol.37 No.6 WWW)

NAD D 3020: $499 $$$
Launched to celebrate NAD's 40th anniversary, the 30Wpc D 3020 takes only its name from the company's iconic 3020 integrated amplifier; every other aspect of the design has been thoroughly modernized. It uses a switch-mode power supply, lacks a phono stage, and has only a single analog input, but includes a front-panel headphone minijack; an optional 6dB bass boost; a subwoofer output; coaxial, optical, and 24-bit/96kHz-capable asynchronous USB inputs; and uses an audio-optimized aptX codec for Bluetooth streaming. Weighing just 3 lbs and measuring an unusual 73/8" H by 25/16" W by 85/8" D, the D 3020 can be placed horizontally, like a traditional component, or stood upright, like a modem or hard drive. Uncommonly sensual for a hi-fi product, it has a large, textured volume knob; soft, smooth side panels; and a touchscreen that occupies its entire front panel and extends through one entire side panel. The sound from every input was warm, present, and naturally detailed; even low-quality MP3s streamed wirelessly via Bluetooth were engaging, said SM. "Right now, NAD's D 3020 is the best bargain in all of hi-fi," added ST. Borderline Class B. (Vol.36 Nos. 11 & 12, Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

PS Audio Sprout: $499 $$$
Designed in Colorado, and built in China, the PS Audio Sprout is a compact (6" W by 1.75" H by 8" D) integrated amplifier with built-in MM phono preamp, 24-bit/192kHz USB D/A converter, and Bluetooth receiver. The Sprout's class-D power amp can deliver up to 33Wpc across an 8-ohm load, and its front panel incorporates a 1/4" headphone jack, use of which automatically mutes the loudspeaker output. In his review, HR observed that the Sprout occasionally lent the sound "a trace of darkness—not grayness or lack of color," but he found that the little Sprout consistently "demonstrated an ability to engage my attention and keep it locked on the space, character, and artistry of the music being played." HR also felt that the Sprout's Bluetooth wireless performance was "richer, more detailed, less hollow and vapid than any Bluetooth sound I've tried so far," though he found the Sprout's sound through headphones less rich than through speakers. Apart from a response-curve bump centered at 67Hz, JA's measurements uncovered nothing untoward. HR's conclusion: "The Sprout specialized in the beguiling reproduction of every kind of music I sent through its four inputs." The price dropped from $799 to $499 in September 2015. (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

D

Lepai LP7498E: $99.90
Rated to deliver 100Wpc via its TriPath class-D output stage, the Lepai is a small (4.5" W by 1.25" H by 7" D) integrated amplifier with one pair of RCA inputs, two pairs of speaker binding posts, and a dedicated 36V DC power supply. It uses STMicroelectronics' TDA7498 class-D module and supports Bluetooth streaming but not aptX. CDs played through the Lepai's RCA input sounded big, bold, and emotionally compelling, with a natural midrange, sweet highs, good bass weight, and well-focused images, but digital files streamed via Bluetooth sounded gritty, compressed, and murky, said SM. Sold by Parts Express with a 45-day money-back guarantee and lifetime service warranty. (Vol.37 No.2 WWW)

K

Heed Elixir.

Deletions
Creek Evolution 50A, NAD C 316BEE, Peachtree Audio nova125SE, PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium, T+A Power Plant Balanced, Unison Research S6, not auditioned in too long a time.

 Complete Audio Systems

A

Eclipse TD-M1: $999
The TD-M1 system comprises a pair of desktop loudspeakers, each of which has a single 3" full-range driver in a reflex-loaded and vaguely egg-shaped enclosure, the latter made with an alloy frame and a molded exoskeleton. Of each TD-M1 pair, one enclosure also contains a 20Wpc digital amplifier and a 24-bit/192kHz USB D/A converter, the latter equipped for wireless streaming via Apple AirPlay. Aside from grousing about high-tech user controls that were slightly too obscure, AD had fun with the easy-to-install TD-M1 system, enjoying in particular its very accessible WiFi function. All in all, AD's time with the Eclipse system left him giddy: "I had a great time with this system whenever I used it—and it was always easy." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

B

Bluesound Vault, Powernode, Node, Pulse, Duo: $449–$999
Bluesound is a new line of whole-house sound products from the Lenbrook Group, owners of NAD and PSB. The Bluesound Vault ($999), which requires an Ethernet connection to the Internet, is an 11.5" W by 9.3" H by 8.1" D box containing an optical drive, a 24-bit/192kHz Cirrus-Logic sigma-delta DAC, and 1TB of storage. Inputs are Ethernet, WiFi, USB Type A, and, by means of an optional dongle, Bluetooth. Outputs include an analog RCA pair and digital TosLink capable of passing up to 24/192 data to an external DAC. The Bluesound Powernode ($699), which looks identical to the Vault but is slightly smaller, is a network player with a 24/192 DAC. The Powernode has the same complement of inputs as the Vault, while its outputs are a subwoofer-out jack (RCA) and two pairs of binding posts for speakers. The Powernode can operate with or without the Vault; in the latter case, the Powernode will access music files from the user's NAS. The Bluesound Node ($449) is—get ready for it—rather like the Powernode, but without (output) power. The Bluestone Duo ($899) is, in the words of ML, "a straightforward satellite-and-(self-powered)-subwoofer loudspeaker system designed by Paul Barton of PSB Speakers [and] meant to be powered by the Powernode." And the Bluesound Pulse ($699) is a 13.4-lb "network-ready boom box" that runs on AC wall current. With Bluesound products scattered throughout his home and with the system as a whole accessing files on his QNAP NAS, ML found the sound of the Bluesound "ecology" to be pleasantly rich and full, if, in some instances, a bit dark; with regard to the latter quality, inclusion of the Auralic Vega DAC restored the missing sparkle. "I enjoyed my time with the Bluesound components," ML stated, noting that the Pulse was perhaps the pleasantest surprise of the lot. Current v2 versions are cosmetically different from those reviewed but otherwise identical. (Vol.37 No.7 WWW)

Music Surround Components

A+

Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8: $11,500
Among pro-audio companies that have set their sights on the domestic market, the Swiss manufacturer Merging Technologies is noted for its experience with high-resolution networked-audio interfaces. Their NADAC Multichannel-8 (its first name stands for Network Attached Digital to Analogue Converter) is intended for use with network-based file players, and is compatible with the audio-specific Ravenna protocol. Via Ethernet, the Multichannel-8 supports PCM up to 384kHz, plus DXD and DSD256; S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs are also supplied, and these are compatible with up to 192kHz, and DSD over PCM (DoP). In KR's system, physical hookup went smoothly, and although there was a hitch or two in setup, the effort was rewarded: "Even admitting to a positive expectation bias, I was impressed with the sound, not disappointed." KR observed that, while listening to a multichannel DSD256 file, "I had the disturbing but exhilarating feeling that music was actually being made in my room, not merely reproduced. The sound was no more 'multichannel' than it was 'stereo.'" Speaking of which, a stereo-only version of the Multichannel-8, the NADAC Stereo, is available for $10,500. (Vol.39 Nos.3 & 5 WWW)

A

Bryston 9B-SST2: $9095 ★
The 9B-SST2 power amplifier (called 9B-THX at the time of the review) boasts five channels, 120Wpc into 8 ohms, and is built like pro gear; ie, like a tank. Hand-soldered, double-sided glass-epoxy boards and elaborate grounding scheme front special-grade steel toroidal transformers. According to JA, "the excellent set of measurements indicates solid, reliable engineering." LG was impressed by this amp's speed, power, extension, its tightness and definition in the bass, and its "excellent" midrange. Fully the equal of more costly amps, with wide dynamic contrasts and "involving" vocals, and sonically similar to previous Bryston ST amps. THX conformance, a 20-year (!) warranty, and a reasonable price make this beefy, reliable amp an attractive package—a perfect choice, suggests LG, for home-theater and multichannel music systems. KR's long-term multi-channel reference. (Vol.23 No.9 WWW)

Bryston SP-3: $9995 ★
The SP-3 combines a true analog preamp and a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor in a beautifully built, relatively compact (17" W by 5.75" H by 14.25" D) case. It uses Bryston's high-quality 24-bit/192kHz DACs and offers a full suite of connections, including: eight HDMI inputs, two HDMI outputs, a 7.1 set of analog inputs and two 7.1 sets of outputs, four S/PDIF inputs, two AES/EBU inputs, and USB, RS-232, and Ethernet jacks. The sound from the SP-3's analog stereo inputs was "absolutely pristine, powerful, and a breath of fresh air," while digital S/PDIF or TosLink datastreams sounded transparent and convincing, with especially detailed and extended treble. "I think the Bryston SP-3 is the first great audiophile preamplifier-processor," KR concluded, "It almost redefines Class A sound for a surround processor." (Vol.35 Nos.5 & 7 WWW)

Classé Sigma AMP5 power amplifier: $5000
From Classé's Sigma series of Chinese-made and comparatively budget-priced components comes their new AMP5, descended from the Sigma AMP2 stereo amplifier. The five-channel AMP5 shares the proprietary class-D technology of its two-channel brother, and gives the user a choice of inputs: RCA jacks for all five, or XLRs for the two front channels and RCAs for the remainder. On installing the AMP5 in his system, KR "immediately" heard a performance distinction, and ultimately praised the amp's midrange and treble as "pure and smooth—something of a surprise for a class-D amp—and the bass was powerful, delineated, and extended." His verdict: "performance that easily competes with or outperforms comparable nonswitching designs." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Classé Sigma SSP preamplifier-processor: $5000
The Chinese-built Classé Sigma SSP offers a less expensive alternative to the company's flagship, the SSP-800 ($9500), without giving up too much in the bargain. The Sigma lacks an analog 7.1-channel input, and doesn't support composite or component video. Video inputs and outputs are limited to HDMI: eight of the former and only one of the latter. But the Sigma's parametric equalizer has more bandpass filters per channel—five instead of nine—and the less expensive component supports DLNA audio via Ethernet and AirPlay: "Ideas not yet born when the SSP-800 appeared," as KR puts it. Perhaps best of all, per KR, "the Classé Sigma SSP sounds more like a top-tier analog preamp than any pre-pro near its price." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

exaSound e28 Mk.2 multichannel DAC: $3299
Like exaSound's e18, the e28 uses a Sabre32 D/A chip capable of handling almost any PCM format with resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz; but, while the earlier model could play DSD files only in stereo and at the base sampling rate of 2.82MHz, the e28 handles DSD sampling rates of 2.82, 3.072, 5.64, 6.14, 11.28, and 12.28MHz without converting the signal to PCM. In addition, the e28 includes an enhanced headphone output, and is specified as having lower distortion and noise than its predecessor in every measured mode. The sound was smooth and balanced overall, with sweet highs, a decidedly pure midrange, and an exceptional sense of space, said Kal. "The exaSound e28 is a real-world, second-generation, cutting-edge, multichannel DAC. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for something better to come along any time soon," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.11, Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Illusonic Immersive Audio Processor IAP 16: 16,000 CHF plus tax
Made in Switzerland, the unusually versatile—if very expensive—Immersive Audio Processor includes a five-band parametric equalizer in each of its 16 output channels. It processes two- and multichannel sources into one of 168 loudspeaker setups with the ability to manipulate the presentation's spatial distribution using three parameters: Center, Depth/3D, and Immersion. A superb control app provides an attractive graphic interface for accessing all of the IAP's functions, and works in real time so the user can immediately hear the effects of any adjustments. Though it lacks high-resolution decoding and doesn't accommodate multiple remote zones, the IAP has four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, three coax and two optical digital inputs, three analog stereo RCA inputs, an XLR analog stereo output, and 16 additional XLR output connectors. Setup was relatively simple, operation was flawless, and the sound was remarkably clean, transparent, and balanced, said Kal. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

Krell Foundation preamplifier/processor: $7500 (with 4K)
Despite some wrinkles with the EQ system, this is an excellent-sounding and proficient pre/pro for audiophile ears. DSD capability is now being added. (Vol.37 No.5 WWW)

Marantz AV8802A: $3999
KR, happy owner of a Marantz AV8801, intended to ignore its immediate successor, the new and somewhat more expensive AV8802: After all, the new model's improvements all seemed aimed more at the home-theater enthusiast than the music-only audiophile. But he relented on learning that, for the AV8802, Marantz has eliminated all op-amps from their signature Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Modules (HDAMs), thus promising even more of the analog refinement for which the AV8801 was known. The AV8802 offers 13.2 output channels vs the 11.2 of the AV8801, and seven HDMI inputs vs its predecessor's 6. The AV8802 supports Dolby Atmos and Auro Technologies' Auro-3D, and, with the advent of the AV8802A—to which any AV8802 can be upgraded—HDCP 2.2 copy-prevention technology. After driving its analog inputs with the analog outputs of various DACs, KR declared that, "in almost every way, the AV8802A was an improvement over the AV8801." His conclusion: "It's easy to recommend the AV8802A, despite the bump in cost: It offers cutting-edge features and outstanding sound." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

McIntosh MC303: $11,000 ★
The three-channel, 300Wpc MC303 amplifier measures 17.75" wide by 12.4" high by 22" deep and weighs 155 lbs. Its large front panel is home to three blue power-level meters, two gold-rimmed knobs for meter illumination and power, and two substantial handles. Driving KR's B&W 802D loudspeakers, the MC303 delivered "the relaxed spaciousness and transparency of master tapes." There was a smoothness that extended through the frequency spectrum and seemed to erase the 802Ds' crossover transitions. The Mac couldn't quite match the firm bass or natural treble of the Bel Canto Ref1000 Mk.II monoblocks, however. (Vol.32 No.5 WWW)

Meridian HD621 HDMI Audio Processor: $2000 ★
Meridian's HD621 HDMI Audio Processor smoothly integrates six HDMI inputs, HD audio processing, and SD upsampling with any Meridian processor that can handle a Smartlink/MHR, including the G61R, G68, C61R, and the 861. It extracts the PCM audio data from the HDMI input, FIFO-buffers the PCM, and up/downsamples it for output to the main processor. Upsampling is accomplished by "apodizing" filters identical to those used in the Meridian 808i.2 player-preamp. HDMI from the HD621 sounded "more detailed and open" than PCM data via the Oppo DV-980H's three S/PDIF connections, while "Red Book" CD sounded "superb" through the Meridian. "So rejoice—the HD621 brings HD audio to Meridian systems, and it sounds superb with non-HD sources as well," said KR. (Vol.32 No.9 WWW)

Meridian Reference 861: $20,000 ★
Multimedia controller with video, DSP-based decoding for matrixed and discrete multichannel audio sources. Functions as analog preamplifier-controller, digital and video controller, and A/D–D/A converter. Built-in, reprogrammable decoding of multichannel sources (Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, Ambisonic, etc.), plus THX and Trifield output from two-channel sources. All inputs digitally processed. Of Trifield's synthesized front-three-channels output, KR observed, "I came to regard the loss of air and the narrower soundstage as acceptable concomitants of the richer, tighter, better-defined central images. 'Audiophile air' began to seem an artifact rather than an enhancement." DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 music recordings "injected" ambiences whose acoustics superseded his room's. Multichannel is immersive, but our KR would rather not sit in the middle of a string quartet or orchestra. For two-channel, "equal to the best...beyond significant reproach." Multichannel, he declared, is the future, and Meridian is ready now. Logical but complicated setup and option procedures entered via PC; heavy dealer involvement is key to getting the best from this ultimate component. But when the 861 is programmed for precise time alignment and amplitude balance among the speakers, and the crossover and bass management adjusted independently for the main, center, and rear channels, "everything seemed just right, and it made for consistently satisfying listening," he decided. "The TriField DSP is a greatly advantageous feature that deserves more recognition. I felt confident that whatever little silver disc I put into the 800-861, it would sound superb." Meridian's new MConfig program replaces pages of configuration options with a drag-and-drop graphic user interface, and offers guided channel-level settings and room-correction setup routines. KR: "The upgraded 861 Reference's sound was delightfully and characteristically transparent?.Still Class A after all these years." The updates in Version 6 of the 861 preamplifier-processor include SpeakerLink connections for Meridian's DSP speakers, an "endpoint" card for optimal performance with Meridian's Sooloos music-server systems, a proprietary apodizing upsampling filter for all digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz DACs. The 861 v6 partnered a delicately pure and transparent midrange and treble with exquisite delineation of voices and instruments, said KR. "The 861 has always been and still is the best-sounding audio processor I have heard," he concluded. Of the V8 refinements, some—most notably the newly required use of Meridian's SpeakerLink digital cable, which ensures a digital path from source to each speaker's integral amp—impact only users of Meridian's DSP speakers; others include a digital-input card that has a USB input—which itself may open the door for 24/192 input—as well as a linear power supply for lower noise, and redesigned oscillators and clocking that, according to Meridian, reduce jitter by 40%. KR's verdict: "Overall, the Meridian Reference 861, especially in its V8 incarnation, is still my favorite audio preamplifier-processor to live with." Price varies with options chosen. HD621 outboard processor adds HDMI capability. (Vol.23 No.2, Vol.26 No.8, Vol.29 No.7, Vol.34 No.5, Vol.37 No.11 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M17: $5499
In KR's view, NAD's Masters Series of products has of late taken a turn from the conservative to the adventurous—evidence of which he sees in the Masters M17, which contains individual, updateable modules for digital video, analog video, digital audio, and analog audio. Although the current model lacks a USB port and audio-data Ethernet port, a fifth module, to support streaming and Bluesound, is said to be in the works. Although KR criticized the poor positioning off the front-panel Off/Standby switch, he declared that "the M17's remote control was an unalloyed delight: slim, and just hefty enough to feel good in the hand." According to KR, "The M17's sound, too, was delightful." He noted dynamics that were "precise and satisfying," and bass that was "delivered with authority"—and that "playing hi-rez and/or multichannel files from my server, connected to the M17 via HDMI, was simply glorious, especially as these signals were passed through a Dirac Live speaker-and-room–correction filter set at [24-bit/96kHz]." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M27: $3999
"No mere afterthought to the Masters M17 pre-pro," according to KR, the Masters M27 is a seven-channel class-D power amp based on the recent Hypex Ncore module. Single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs are provided for all channels, and the Masters M27 is rated at 250Wpc—or 180Wpc with all seven channels driven. A mildly wonky on/off switch was the only fly in this multichannel ointment: KR praised the M27's sound as "notably clean and punchy," adding that "[the amplifier's] midrange and treble were completely free of any grain or, significantly, the grayish character that is a consistent flaw in the sounds of many of the otherwise excellent class-D amps I've used." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 31: $3295 $$$ ★
Based on circuitry developed by John Curl for the highly praised Halo JC 1, the three-channel A 31 power amplifier is rated to deliver 250Wpc into 8 ohms or 400Wpc into 4 ohms. Like other Halo models, the A 31 is solidly built and has a clean, attractive, brushed-aluminum faceplate. On the rear panel are three groups of connectors/controls, one per channel, including balanced and unbalanced inputs and gain controls. Though it lacked some upper-bass richness, the A 31 had a "clean, luminous" overall sound, with a sophisticated, detailed treble; rich, clean midrange; and firm, extended bass, said KR, adding that "the sound is full, balanced and detailed and packs a wallop." (Vol.35 No.9 WWW)

Parasound Halo P 7: $2295 $$$ ★
The Halo P 7 is a full-featured analog stereo preamp with six stereo inputs, balanced and unbalanced outputs, front-panel headphone and MP3 jacks, and an MM/MC phono preamp. It also provides two 7.1-channel unbalanced inputs that can be set for home-theater bypass, optional bass management for all sources, and RS-232/12V connections to integrate with modern A/V systems. With its "delightfully open, balanced sound" and outstanding versatility, the Halo P 7 is "the category killer of analog multichannel preamps or HT bypass," raved KR. (Vol.32 No.1 WWW)

Theta Digital Dreadnaught D: $6149.95 and up
The fourth model in Theta Digital's Dreadnaught series—hence the D, which also refers to the output stage's class of operation—the Dreadnaught D uses Hypex NCore modules, coupled not with a switch-mode power supply but with a distinctly robust supply of more traditional design and construction. Hence this class-D amp's atypical size and weight of 17.5" wide by 7.9" high by 19.6" deep and 98.6 lbs. A modular design, the Dreadnaught D can be had with up to eight channels of 225W each; Theta Digital sent us a 225Wx5 sample, which, according to KR, "not only sounded good, it sounded right." After writing his review, KR continued to live with the Dreadnaught D, using only three of its five channels, and his enthusiasm for it didn't wane: "I've been on a long search for a powerful, transparent three-channel amplifier that I can lift. The Dreadnaught D meets the first two criteria." (Vol.39 Nos. 3 & 5 WWW)

B

Emotiva XMC-1 preamplifier-processor: $2499 $$$
The US-made Emotiva XMC-1, a 7.2-channel preamplifier-processor in a substantial (21 lbs) enclosure, offers more controls than its more austere high-end brethren (the Classé Sigma comes to mind) while forgoing needless bells and whistles: a user interface that Goldilocks and KR would describe as "just right." KR was also impressed by the XMC-1's "exemplary" OLED screen, which displays three lines of information, and the "outstanding" range of controls afforded by its front panel and remote handset. Of perhaps greatest interest is the XMC-1's distinction as the first affordable pre-pro to include Dirac Live room-correction software—in Limited Edition (LE) form—and a calibrated USB microphone; Emotiva offers a $99 upgrade for users who wish to upgrade to the full version of Dirac Live. KR's verdict: "I found the XMC-1 to be a superb-sounding pre-pro for all media." (Vol.38 No.7 WWW)

Marantz MM8077: $2399 ★
The 150Wpc MM8077 is a seven-channel power amplifier. Each channel has selectable unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR inputs, driven by a common power supply equipped with a huge transformer and a generous capacitor reservoir. The MM8807 matched the much more expensive Bryston 9BST in terms of power, transient response, and imaging, but lacked some bass definition and control, said KR. An excellent multichannel amplifier, and a perfect partner for Marantz's AV8801 pre-pro, he concluded. (Vol.36 No.3 WWW)

miniDSP U-DAC8: $275 $$$
According to KR, miniDSP's new U-DAC8 is, "by an order of magnitude, the least expensive multichannel DAC on the market." The PCM-only U-DAC8 handles resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, is powered by a 5V wall wart, and is addressed by a front-mounted USB Type A jack. Although the U-DAC8's better-than-average detail resolution seemed accompanied by "a somewhat etched treble," KR was pleased with its performance, noting that "music sounded pretty clean across the audioband, with particularly good, tight bass." Referring to this newest miniDSP DAC as "a giant-killer," KR concluded that "the U-DAC8 is an excellent way to begin listening to multichannel files." (Vol.38 No.9 WWW)

NAD T 187: $2999
The versatile T 187 preamplifier-processor's modular construction enables various combinations of: 7.1-channel inputs and outputs, six pairs of stereo analog inputs and outputs, several video inputs, up to six HDMI inputs, three each coaxial and optical inputs, one each coaxial and optical output, an Ethernet jack, and a mini stereo jack for mobile players. Additionally, the NAD's unique application of Audyssey's MultEQ XT room-correction software includes a custom target curve developed by Paul Barton. Easy to set up and use, the T 187 offered a full-bodied sound with a smooth, detailed treble, said KR. Paul Barton's target curve added a touch of warmth, with stronger, tighter low bass. "Even if it doesn't do everything possible, the NAD T 187 does everything right," concluded KR. (Vol.36 No.1 WWW)

Rotel RMB-1585: $2999 A powerful and transparent 5-channel amplifier. (Vol.37 No.9 WWW)

Rotel RSP-1572: $2199 ★
This compact, handsome preamplifier-processor offers six HDMI, two component, and two composite video inputs; two HDMI, one component, and four composite video outputs; four optical and three coaxial digital audio inputs; eight stereo analog inputs; one 7.1-channel analog input; and one USB input. Audio outputs include one optical, one coax digital, two stereo analog, and one analog 7.1-channel preamp output with dual jacks for two center and two subwoofer outputs. While the RSP-1572 lacks auto-setup and room EQ capabilities, its variable filters allow the user to effectively deal with room acoustics. The Rotel offered transparent highs, a clean midrange, and full bass, said KR. "Those of us who don't mind getting our hands dirty with some measurement tools can have it all with the RSP-1572: great sound and great looks," he concluded, though he adds that the room EQ is a bit challenging. (Vol.35 No.3 WWW)

C

Yamaha Aventage MX-A5000: $2999.95
Measuring 17" W by 8.25" H by 18" D and weighing 56 lbs, the MX-A5000 is a massive and versatile 11-channel amp rated to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms. Rear-panel Channel Select switches and front-panel Speaker Select buttons permit a wide range of configurations, including: five-channel biamping, five main channels with two independently amplified zones, a triamped center channel in a mono- or biamped five-channel system, and other, more specialized arrangements. A perfect sonic partner for Yamaha's Aventage CX-A5000 pre-pro, the MX-A5000 produced a clean, open overall sound, with a slightly soft treble, well-defined midrange, and solid bass, said Kal. "If you need 11 channels, regardless of how you choose to use them, I highly recommend Yamaha's MX-A5000," he concluded. (Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Deletions
Nuforce AVP-18 not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
germay0653's picture

For the past three years not one Pro-ject turntable has been in the recommended list but there is always some number of Music Hall models recommended. I believe they're made at the same factory, some even share the same arms. I'm not trying to take away anything from Music Hall because they're fine turntables but this just seems a little biased maybe.

jdaddabbo's picture

Having read and re-read many times over reviews for such speakers as the KEF R700, Monitor Audio Silver 8, B&W 683 S2, GoldenEar Triton One and Triton Five... I am finding it quite confusing to see the Triton Five listed under Class C. So I re-read all of them yet again, and then immediately doubled back to the R700, Silver 8, and Triton One... and still I'm expecting to see the Triton Five also listed under Class B. Can someone please help me understand what I am missing? Is it that I am not taking away strong enough some things stated about the Triton Five, or is it maybe that I am taking away to strongly comments made of all the others, which in either case is having me feel that all 5 speakers belong under Class B (or simply under the same Class). Thank you very much for any guidance you can give me! Ps. I'm currently in the market for 3 pairs of speakers for use in my new Home Theater setup and therefore both the Silver 8 and Triton 5 were looking quite good at their respective price points.

John Atkinson's picture
jdaddabbo wrote:
I am finding it quite confusing to see the Triton Five listed under Class C. . . Can someone please help me understand what I am missing?

When I polled the writers for their recommendations, the balance of opinion was that the Triton Five didn't quite reach the standard set by the other speakers. But it was a close call. If you like the sound of the Triton Five, don't worry about the rating - as it says in the introduction, we still recommend it.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

George Napalm's picture

I noticed that Music Hall MMF-7.3 is listed as Class B component. But despite being the cheapest turntable in this category it doesn't have a "$$$" mark...

User5910's picture

Re: "The SubSeries 125 (originally called SubSeries 1)"

It looks like the predecessor was the SubSeries 100 based on your 2014 Recommended Components article. The SubSeries 1 is ported, unlike the 100 and 125.

http://www.stereophile.com/content/2014-recommended-components-subwoofers

Marc210's picture

Are measurements correlated with listening experience(s) ?!

sophie1511's picture

That power amp showed in the picture looks more like over the range microwave...Lol. Jokes aside, i have been using Gemini XGA-2000 Power Amplifier and its been over a year since I purchased it.

I still have no problem or concern with it. It is highly recommended from my side.

ww85's picture

2016 was the worst. So it should have been no surprise to me that the Sonos Connect (aka ZP80/ZP90) finally fell off this list. Back in 2006, I had already been looking for years for something that seemed it should have been common sense simple. A way to take my entire cd collection and play it it all through my stereo without compression or having to leave the couch. After all, the files are digital and digital is digital… Once you get past the cost (and labor) of storing them on an external hard drive, it should just be a matter of getting the files to play on your system. What seemed like something that should be pretty straight forward turned out to be a major undertaking for the "industry"... Then along came Sonos with aspirations for a simple way to put music in every room of a house digitally. Speakers were built into amps, they marketed to people who used to love those cool looking B&O systems of the 80’s and 90’s. Fair enough... But when reading John Atkinson’s review of this new system, the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. With regards to the ZP80, the processor that could be dropped into an existing system, it was exactly the answer I had been looking for. On top of that, it was cheap, sounded great if you used the digital out to a good Dac, (and measured well too) and once purchased, revealed a great interface from my ever present lap top that made it the most life changing component I ever owned. That is not just nostalgia talking. The Sonos ZP80 made listening to anything you wanted listen to, any song that ever popped into you or your kids head, just one click away. The music was CD quality and it was playing on my modest (but beloved) system. The queue feature let you add songs to your playlist as you thought of them. All of that for $349 in a box that is still available, and apparently, still looked down upon by high enders… When I read that review in 2006, not only did I see the interface I had always wanted, but what seemed like an apparent conundrum for the audiophile community. If you can take a cd and burn it to any hard drive, well, there goes the need for high end transports (and who knows what other components) And sure enough, after JA’s review, there seemed to be lots of backlash. The parts in the ZP80 were crap for God’s sake! Mods were out almost instantaneously. I was attracted to them of course, but in retrospect, I think everyone (me included) missed a salient point from JA’s review- “The Sonos can take the digital output from the NAS drive and convert it for you, or send it unmolested to your favorite DAC.” Unmolested! That was and is the beauty to the whole thing and what I think was and is being missed by a whole generation of audiophiles on a budget. With a simple setup, the Sonos Connect/ZP80/ZP90 can make the most modest stereo sound better than anything an mp3 weened music lover could imagine. I know, I did it in my NYC loft for family and friends for years. They always wanted to know where that music was coming from. Why was that song we were just talking about playing all of a sudden…
Of course, the system is not perfect and I’m always looking for better. Especially after visiting a local high end store and listening to them giggle when they find out what my front end is. (Not that they have any idea how I have it configured.) They hear the word Sonos and assume I’m listening to compressed files on powered speakers. “No” I protest. “I listen to lossless files…” They smirk and say ok, but the parts on that thing are a joke… I try to add that I just pass the signal digitally through it to a Bel Canto Dac, but no, he’s tuned out… He just wants me to hear that 5K music server that will blow me away. And that suggestion on his part was earnest. I did listen. I have looked. And overall, I find the same difficulty now in shopping for a new front end as I did back then. In addition to the sound, the way you access that sound, the interface, the playlists, the streaming services that work on the equipment are all major factors in how you use it on a day to day basis. Sonos has that stuff figured out to a large degree and I see nothing out there that does all that at anywhere near the price… I would say the way I use it almost constitutes a hack, because it’s not really what Sonos as a company is about. It’s also not how I’ve seen any other reviewer talk about it in ten years. Which is a shame, because it works really well and sounds better than it has a right to….

John Atkinson's picture
ww85 wrote:
2016 was the worst. So it should have been no surprise to me that the Sonos Connect (aka ZP80/ZP90) finally fell off this list.

As my original review was 10 years ago and the product has been changed since then, I didn't think appropriate to keep it on the list. But if the Sonos is still working well for you, that's what matters.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

ww85's picture

Thanks for the reply. It wasn't intended as a criticism for leaving it off the list and hope it doesn't read that way. Maybe it was more of a eulogy for an over performing old favorite and a thanks for reviewing it in the first place...

GustavoS's picture

I have been reading and reading for 100 times the Recommended Component Lists and am counting the days for the update in March. It is a tremendous help for some of us who have not the product offer available in the US or Europe. After reading extensively many, many reviews of different speakers, I have found that rock music is not always present (a site dedicated to vintage audio, fan of Tannoy Gold 15, has expressed that one the best track tests is the Anarchy in the UK single, 45 rpm, as it says that the track is very well recorded but only a very good speaker can manage the complexity of the track). Then, I would like to know what the "best" speakers below the 3 kusd line are:

- Kef R300
- ATC SMC 11 with subwoofer?
- MA Gold 50
- Polk LSim 703
- W. Jade 3
- Sonus Faber Venere 1.5 (auditioned it against the Paradigm Studio 20 vs, and I liked a litlle more the Paradigm)
- Dynaudio x14
- Dynaudio Emit M20
- Revel m106
- Others?

Your help will be very, very much appreciated.

Best regards from Argentina,
Gustavo

X