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Lowest noise floor at this price point? Rosso Fiorentino & Norma

The Rosso Fiorentino Fiesole, Norma Revo DS-1 and Revo IPA-140B have a great sound that, according to Skip from AudioThesis, lowers the noise floor and expands the soundstage.

Skip, owner of AudioThesis, showed the Rosso Fiorentino and Norma Revo electronics off at the Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle at the end of July, along with many other dealers showing off their products. You can see more videos from the show by clicking here.

You can see this video and more on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube Channel, such as Tea Time with Alan and Pete.

Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and Publisher Pete Collingwood-Trewin talk about what’s happening in the high-end audio world.

Tea Time with Alan and Pete is just one of several new series on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube channel designed for audiophiles of all levels.

Another series is History of Audio, which aims to teach viewers a little about the History of Audio, which might be a trip down memory lane for many. It also hopes those who watch will learn from the varying experiences of other audiophiles through their trials and tribulations with different equipment.

While you’re on our YouTube channel, be sure to check out our Audio Basics series. So far, this series has covered what makes a great stereo system and how to find a great stereo system.

Soon, you can find reports from manufacturers at audio shows from around the world. Right now, you can see what debuted at AXPONA 2022 and a bit from the Texas Audio Roundup, including background on the Magnepan LRS+. New videos from Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle are also being uploaded every week.

You can also see product reviews on the hi-fi+ YouTube channel coming soon.

Be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel so you don’t miss any episodes!

Click to go back to homepage.

 

Innuos Pulse featured for first time in US

The Innuos Pulse was one of a few new products the company featured at Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle during the last weekend in July.

One of many dealers at the show, Innuos took the opportunity to demonstrate their Pulse streamer for the first time in the United States. They also featured their Statement music server, which also rips CDs and streams music for only the second time.

You can see this video and more on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube Channel, such as Tea Time with Alan and Pete.

Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and Publisher Pete Collingwood-Trewin talk about what’s happening in the high-end audio world.

Tea Time with Alan and Pete is just one of several new series on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube channel designed for audiophiles of all levels.

Another series is History of Audio, which aims to teach viewers a little about the History of Audio, which might be a trip down memory lane for many. It also hopes those who watch will learn from the varying experiences of other audiophiles through their trials and tribulations with different equipment.

While you’re on our YouTube channel, be sure to check out our Audio Basics series. So far, this series has covered what makes a great stereo system and how to find a great stereo system.

Soon, you can find reports from manufacturers at audio shows from around the world. Right now, you can see what debuted at AXPONA 2022 and a bit from the Texas Audio Roundup, including background on the Magnepan LRS+. New videos from Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle are also being uploaded every week.

You can also see product reviews on the hi-fi+ YouTube channel coming soon.

Be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel so you don’t miss any episodes!

Click to go back to homepage.

Focal Naim shows off rare turntable at Pacific Audio Fest

Focal Naim showed off a number of products at Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle last weekend.

One of many dealers at the show, Focal Naim took the opportunity to demonstrate their ND555 streamer, Statement Amplifier, Monoblocks, Utopia Maestros, Chora, Kanta 2, Astral 16, Uniti Nova, and the rare Solstice Special Edition turntable.

Only 500 Solstice Special Edition turntables were produced, and they all sold out within 48 hours, according to the guys from Focal Naim.

You can see this video and more on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube Channel, such as Tea Time with Alan and Pete.

Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and Publisher Pete Collingwood-Trewin talk about what’s happening in the high-end audio world.

Tea Time with Alan and Pete is just one of several new series on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube channel designed for audiophiles of all levels.

Another series is History of Audio, which aims to teach viewers a little about the History of Audio, which might be a trip down memory lane for many. It also hopes those who watch will learn from the varying experiences of other audiophiles through their trials and tribulations with different equipment.

While you’re on our YouTube channel, be sure to check out our Audio Basics series. So far, this series has covered what makes a great stereo system and how to find a great stereo system.

Soon, you can find reports from manufacturers at audio shows from around the world. Right now, you can see what debuted at AXPONA 2022 and a bit from the Texas Audio Roundup, including background on the Magnepan LRS+. New videos from Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle are also being uploaded every week.

You can also see product reviews on the hi-fi+ YouTube channel coming soon.

Be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel so you don’t miss any episodes!

Click to go back to homepage.

Magnepan LRS+, Ultra Wideband Bass System woofer turning heads

The Magnepan LRS+ and Ultra Wideband Bass System woofer turned heads at the Texas Audio Roundup in Austin last month.

Magnepan’s Wendell Diller brought the LRS+ and Ultra Wideband Bass System woofer prototype for Chris Martens to hear at the Doubletree Hilton in Austin. Several listeners were shocked to learn they were only listening to the woofers without the speakers.

 

 

They also spoke a little about the history of Magnepan, how inflation is affecting the industry, and the labor intensive process it takes to build the LRS+.

 

 

Watch the videos above to see the discussion and to see Chris Martens’ preliminary review, or head to the hi-fi+ YouTube channel.

While you’re there, check out the rest of our audiophile content, such as Tea Time with Alan and Pete. In this series, hi-fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and Publisher Pete Collingwood-Trewin talk about what’s happening in the high-end audio world.

Tea Time with Alan and Pete is just one of several new series on the Hi-Fi+ YouTube channel designed for audiophiles of all levels.

Another series is History of Audio, which aims to teach viewers a little about the History of Audio, which might be a trip down memory lane for many. It also hopes those who watch will learn from the varying experiences of other audiophiles through their trials and tribulations with different equipment.

While you’re on our YouTube channel, be sure to check out our Audio Basics series. So far, this series has covered what makes a great stereo system and how to find a great stereo system.

Soon, you can find reports from manufacturers at audio shows from around the world. Right now, you can see what debuted at AXPONA 2022.

You can also see product reviews on the hi-fi+ YouTube channel coming soon.

Be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel so you don’t miss any episodes!

Click to go back to homepage.

Critical Mass Systems CenterStage2M

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Critical Mass Systems’ CenterStage2. These clever feet took the longest time to work their craft, often sounding awful for a few days before turning into something consistently remarkable. When the new CenterStage2M (hereafter referred to as ‘CS2M’) arrived, I mistakenly thought that perhaps the change would speed up the process of working with the product. I was wrong; you need to devote a week to 10 days of things sounding just plain ‘wrong’ before they go so very, very right.

Aside from the change to the name on the side of each foot, there are few clues as to what’s changed from the outside. Inside, things are different. In developing the original, it became clear that what applied to making electronics sound superb didn’t quite work so well for loudspeakers. Ultimately, where making gasket material down to one-thousandth inch tolerance was fine for electronics, the loudspeakers required tolerances an order of magnitude tighter… and when that sort of gasket tolerance was reapplied to the devices sitting under audio electronics, the improvement was so significant the CS2M was born.

Not so simple

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. I spoke to Joseph Lavrencik, the sharp-of-mind guy behind Critical Mass Systems. He suggested, “The original CS2 was finalised using an additive approach; keep adding material until there was enough grip to control the soundstage. CS2M was developed using a subtractive approach; remove material until images were solidly layered and musically accurate.” This proved not to be a subtle change, he says, adding, “Using this approach, we could move the centre image backwards and forwards in space until the detail was precisely correct relative to the size and ‘weight’ of the ancillary images across a broad spectrum of music.”

The essential operation of the original CS2 holds with the CS2M. They act to mitigate surface-borne vibration while cancelling out their potential to add noise. While they make things sound worse, the long wait is because – as Critical Mass Systems suggests – they transfer entropy out of the component itself. Once in a state of equilibrium, they stay that way, which brings me to my biggest problem with both the CS2 and CS2M; the impatient box-swappers of audio will seldom give themselves ten days grace to let the system deroogelate itself (no real terms exist for this process, so I knitted my own). And those with a high review churn rate will enjoy what the CS2M can do to an entire system about once or twice a year.

Well-built and honest

Here’s the deal. If you have a good system on a well-built equipment table and using ‘honest’ neutral cables, put the right-sized CS2M footers under one or more components, then wait a week to ten days to let them do their thing. If your system sports any tweaks, strip it back to basics before you try the CS2M. You probably won’t be able to spend a week to ten days without listening, so you might find your system moving between sounding focused and excellent and sounding like it sunk a bottle of port the night before and isn’t feeling too skippy right now. Anyone used to running in Naim amps will feel right at home here. After a few days, the amplitude of those good/bad oscillations begins to get smaller, and it now varies between how the system used to sound and how it will ultimately end up sounding.

And how it ends up sounding is very good indeed. The significant change is a considerably more holographic sound, coupled with a sense of balance and order, making the system seem less ‘untamed’ than the raw products. This is no small change; it’s like your electronics just took a very big step up in performance, and while it’s unlikely that someone is ever going to use a set of feet that cost more than the thing that sits on those feet, it works exceptionally well across the board. My go-to Primare I35 Prisma is a perfect example; partnering it with four 0.8 feet works out at about 1/3rd the amplifier cost. That might seem like a bitter pill to swallow, but if you try it, the level of improvement in soundstage space, refinement, and focus on the sound make it an easy choice. Of course, the better the system, the more elegant the sound and the wider the soundstage, but the improvement seems consistent from product to product, and those with more petite price tags can sometimes have a surprising amount to give.

Comparisons between old and new are inherently complicated here; you essentially need to listen to your system’s original sound and log that away for ten days before you compare it to the new feet. There is no provision for A-B swaps, especially as the product seems to hold its equilibrium for as long as a day after being removed from either set of feet. Nevertheless, despite the inherent hiatus, it’s clear that the CS2M does everything the CS2 does and does them better. Often a lot better. The sound has greater dimensionality and weight; it’s also even calmer than before.

Relax, refine and reflect

The oddest thing about the difference is how it makes you feel toward the music being played; both make your system more relaxing, but CS2M makes that a more reflective process. Music is a cerebral yet impassioned experience through both sets of feet, but where this was a ‘refinement’ process with CS2, it’s a ‘refinement and contemplative’ process. Beethoven has a calming, blood-pressure-lowering effect on me at the best of times, but the CS2M made me even less inclined to chew through the restraints.

Critical Mass Systems made something remarkable with the CenterStagean,d with the CenterStage2M, the bar gets raised further. ‘M’ takes your system to the Max!

Prices and Contact Details

  • CenterStage2M 0.8 (20×38mm): £275 per foot
  • CenterStage2M 1.0 (35×38mm): £525 per foot
  • CenterStage2M 1.5 (38×51mm): £775 per foot

Manufacturer: Critical Mass Systems

URL: criticalmasssystems.com

UK Distributor: Select Audio

URL: selectaudio.co.uk

Tel: +44(0)1900 601954

Back to Reviews

Synergistic Research Purple UEF

Audiophile fuses split the modern audio world. Those who have heard the difference these fuses make understand their impact on sound quality, and those who have not – or have not – heard them will likely dismiss such things. I just moved from the latter to the former, thanks to Synergistic Research’s Purple UEF!

Regarding Alternating Current, the UK (and a few Commonwealth countries that followed the UK’s lead) is odd. Unlike other countries that went with a radial system, the UK widely adopted a ‘ring main’ for house wiring (hence the use of the term ‘the mains’ to denote AC power in UK homes). In post-war Britain, the standard became a three-pin, 13A plug and socket system, with most wall sockets having an on-off switch and every plug included a fuse (in addition to the ‘case fuse’ inside the device itself). The logic is that if something catastrophic happens to your 240V AC power, fused plugs blow before either the power cable melts, something catches fire, or someone gets electrocuted. While it’s an effective way of keeping British people out of harm’s way, from an audio perspective, it’s a bit of a nightmare that products like the Synergistic Research Purple UEF aim to address!

Mexican Wave

Of course, the term ‘Current’ leads to the wrong way to think about how electrons behave under an electrical charge; it makes us think of electricity as the currents in a river. Electron propagation is more like a Mexican Wave in an arena; the action of the person sitting next to you standing up and waving causes you to stand up and wave, rather than a set of waving arms being passed from person to person. To extract the maximum from this analogy, a fuse acts like a group of people who take a long time to stand up, wave, and sit down, disrupting that otherwise smooth wave around the stadium.

Synergistic Research’s Unified Energy Field concepts were developed to produce a smoother electron propagation in conductors, with a claim to developing what it calls ‘Inductive Quantum Coupling’; on a quantum-mechanical level, multiple quantum systems will act in immediate unison (continuing down that Mexican Wave analogy-hole, it would be like every person in the stadium waving at precisely the exact moment). The Purple UEF fuses take this to levels beyond those of the previous Orange top-performer thanks to a combination of graphene in the UEF technology and a new high-voltage conditioning process, both of which were developed for the company’s SRX cables.

Installation of 13A fuses for UK plugs is simple, especially with plugs with a removable fuse insert. Unfortunately, audiophile-grade plugs generally prefer more solidly screwed-in-place plugs, so swapping out fuses takes a few minutes. Still, fortunately, I have enough Nordost Blue Heaven power cords to hand to make a couple of ‘with’ and ‘without’ power cords so swapping cables over was relatively quick. Case fuses can be quick-changed if they sit in a little plastic rectangle next to the IEC socket. Still, many are internally mounted, which requires opening the product’s chassis, finding the internal fuse (hint: it’s always near the IEC power socket) and replacing and re-screwing the product’s case together again. Remember, of course, to unplug the product as you are dealing with lethal voltages.

After the flurry

The sonic changes to Synergistic Research Purple UEF fuses were immediately noticeable in several ways, with other benefits revealed after the initial flurry of changes. The first change is an increase in smoothness and refinement in the midrange, especially in the high frequencies. The higher frequencies are less congested and restricted too, which makes the top treble appear to have a greater extension. All of which is heard most readily with solo female voice or piano, but unless your record collection is made up of white noise, catfights and people running their fingernails down chalkboards, you’ll hear it regardless.

After that initial impressive change comes the other benefits in short order. Perhaps predictably (at least for those who’ve heard fuse-free Schuko plugs in their system), there’s a distinct sense of music rising out of stillness and calm; the absence of a subtle background hash that too often gives the music an electronic sheen. However, you also notice that the imaging has improved mainly in terms of image stability, soundstage size, and precision. Dynamic range is also improved, perhaps a part of that removal of background hash. In systems already dynamically powerful sounding, the worry could be that it would send the sound over the top and into exuberance; in fact, the sound just seems to expand a little, a little like you just got access to a better master of the music.

The overall effect can be summed up in one word; ‘naturalness’. The sound seems a little less ‘electronicky’ and more ‘natural’ and ‘effortless’. The more Purple UEF fuses you add to the system, the more it tends toward this effortlessly natural sound. Rhythmic elements in the sound just ‘pop’ into place a bit more with each fuse in the chain, and swapping them back for anything else is a step in the wrong direction. There’s no going back.

I can’t see someone not liking the improvements brought about by Synergistic Research Purple UEF fuses, especially as the effect is cumulative. OK, audio’s a broad church and some prefer something more earthy sounding, but what you are doing is adding distortion instead of removing it.

Clear and Present Hinting

The best description of how Purple UEF fuses change the system came from my wife, just before Christmas 2021; “it’s not like an expensive new scarf, but more like tying that expensive new scarf perfectly”… and any relation to a subtle hint for Christmas presents is strictly coincidental. Pricey neckwear notwithstanding, the Synergistic Research Purple UEF fuses make your system sound better by tying the sound together. Not all of us are ‘born to the purple’, but these fuses can bring out the royalty in your system.

Price and contact details

Synergistic Research Purple UEF fuses: £190

Manufacturer: Synergistic Research

URL: synergisticresearch.com

UK Distributor: Electromod

URL: electromod.co.uk

Tel: +44 (0) 1494 956558

Back to Reviews

Jay’s Audio CDT2-MK3

Chinese audio manufacturers have mostly pitched their tents in the high volume, low cost corner of the market. In general, the high-end has been left to western vendors or at least ‘Western design, Eastern build’ products. But it was always only a matter of time.

Audio Music is one of the pathfinders for the Chinese drive into the high-end, offering products underpinned by serious engineering and production values. The company’s RT preamplifier remains one of my personal all-time favourite high-end preamps. It justifies its desirability through sheer sonic quality alone. The comparatively low price – it would likely be four, five times as much with a European or US badge on the front – is simply the cherry on a very tempting cake.

Fewer still will have heard of another Chinese company; Jay’s Audio. It currently offers just three products through a website managed by global distributor Vinshine Audio in Singapore. The company’s CD player, built around a discrete R2R DAC board by Danish specialist Soekris, and the stand-alone DAC using the same core OEM technology, will have to wait for another day. This review considers the CDT2-MK3 top-loading Red Book-only transport. If you want the key take-away up-front, it’s a product that kicks sand in the face of those that assert that no quality audio engineering comes out of China. As with the Audio Music RT preamplifier, the performance/price ratio is off of the scale. Beginning to see a pattern here?

Stout boxing

The CDT2-MK3 review sample arrived stoutly double-boxed. Having often experienced a much longer than advertised burn-in, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the CDT2-MK3, left running 24/7, stabilised around the 400 hour mark, just as predicted by Jay’s Audio. It was placed in a review system comprising a Denafrips Gaia DDC/re-clocker, a Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC, Bryston BP-17 Cubed and 4B Cubed pre- and power-amplifiers, and PMC MB2se speakers. Speaker cables, mains wires and single-ended interconnects were all by Quiescent. AudioQuest and Gothic Audio digital interconnects were also used.

The CDT2-MK3 is available in black anodised or plain brushed aluminium finish and weighs 15 kg. The oh-so-silky movement of the top-loading shutter and the thickness and fit’n’finish of the CNCd aluminium chassis bespeak quality engineering. Even the accompanying remote control is machined from billet aluminium and weighs a hefty 390 grammes.

Jay's Audio CDT2 Mk 3

Undo the eight stainless Allen bolts that secure the transport’s top plate, and inside we find audiophile-grade engineering and component quality. There are two power supplies, one for the drive and its servo circuit, the other for the transport’s DSP and clock elements. Incoming mains is filtered for EMI on a separate board, followed by two potted 50VA Noratel toroidal mains transformers backing over 50,000uFs of Nichicon capacitance and 10 individual DC regulated feeds. The oven-controlled oscillator module with its associated PLL circuit is also a Jay’s design.

 

Rear Panel Power

Rear panel BNC, S/PDIF, AES/EBU and HDMI/I2S sockets are coupled to the output through isolation transformers. A CDM4/19 CD drive is bolted to a separate high-mass machined chassis and has its own underslung control board that, like the main board, is a proprietary Jay’s Audio design. On the front of the CDT2-MK3 an OLED display shows track and disc information, and buttons allow access to basic functions. Handset buttons enable more advanced track programming and up-sampling to 176.4kHz.

Would a CDT2-MK3 have to be sent back to Singapore in the event of a fault? The answer is that it is designed to allow easy service in the field. The optical drive type is known for a particularly long service life, but should it fail the replacement process is quite literally plug and play. The circuit boards too are designed to be swapped in a similar manner.

Some doubt Jay’s Audio’s claim to have sourced some 3,000 new old stock pieces of the Philips drive, a type that has been out of production for some years. Frankly, I doubt the doubters. Regardless, you’ll soon read why the company is right to be proud of its IP in the circuitry of the CDT2-MK3, and Jay’s Audio would on one hand be mad not to stress the positive, and would likely have later cause to regret the attempted deceit.

And of course, what really matters is how it sounds. The news is that in every key aspect of performance except perhaps subjective background noise, the Jay’s proved equal or superior to the latest three-times-the-cost offering from the company that leads the field in belt-drive CD transports. Out of the box the Jay’s makes a bankable down-payment of sonic value that places it firmly in the high end. Through the burn-in process it matures to offer a particularly well balanced and generous measure of the key musical pillars of dynamic expression and agility, tonal detail, image placement and timing.

 

Belt Drive

The belt drive transport mentioned just a moment ago was uncannily electrically quiet when I reviewed it, able to draw attention to subtle musical detail that other transports hadn’t revealed. The Jay’s ‘does detail’ to nearly the same degree, but in addition serves up a richer palette of tonal and textural content that makes familiar recordings still more satisfying. And, despite not having the theoretical technical advantages conferred by belt drive, it nonetheless transcribes material with a relaxed flow that somehow just sounds more natural and easy to live with than many alternatives which contrive to sound buttoned-up and overtly digital. A notable transport for any money? Yes. Particularly remarkable for what it costs? Yes again.

Like a growing number of manufacturers on either side of the bamboo curtain including Denafrips, Holo, PS Audio and Rockna, Jay’s Audio is keen on I2S as a way of linking audio components. Unlike coax and AES/EBU, which send everything down the same conductor, I2S uses dedicated conductors for each data type and is less prone to errors because music does not have to be parsed from clock data. So much for the theory. The CDT2-MK3 was the fifth component through my hands in the last six months to demonstrate that while I2S can offer slightly superior separation, well-implemented S/PDIF and AES/EBU, using quality code on a FPGA rather than an off-the-peg receiver chip, remains a solid option. After trying all the possible combinations of cable types I settled on an AudioQuest AES/EBU Diamond cable from transport to DDC and an AudioQuest Dragon HDMI cable from DDC to DAC. A made-in-Manchester solid silver AES/EBU cable by Gothic Audio ran the Diamond a very close second.

Jay's Audio CDT2 Mk3

Experimenting with the cables types in order to determine the optimum combination, I spent quite a bit of time listening to symphonic recordings. The system as configured demonstrated an impressive ability to resolve such complex material and confirming that the CDT2-MK3 serves up solid timing. I then played the same tracks with the transport connected directly to the Denafrips DAC, without the Gaia DDC/re-clocker in circuit. Sound staging and low-end performance fell back as might be expected, jitter being particularly damaging to these two aspects of performance, but on its own the Jay’s still proved no slouch – evidence that the transport’s own internal oven-controlled clock does a very good job of minimising jitter. A visiting friend, hearing the system in this configuration, commented, “Oh the bass! That’s some grunt.”

 

He’s Not The Messiah… but he’s not a very naughty boy!

The truth, though, is that the Jay’s Audio CDT2-MK3 is well-balanced and impartial right across the audible bandwidth. Some people are never satisfied, though. Mike Christ (he’s not the Messiah; it’s a relatively common German surname) who runs HEADquarter Audio near Cologne (headquarteraudio.de), sells a range of brands, including Jay’s Audio. While he admires the CDT2-MK3 very much, he felt the standard puck – a plastic disk with a neoprene underside – could be better. His alternative is the £120 QStab puck – 3D printed from a bone-like material – and while it’s designed for the CDT2-MK3, it should work with other top-loading transports that also use the CDM4 drive. I’m not usually a fan of tweaks. I can’t remember the last time I mentioned one in a review, but the HEADquarter QStab puck is winningly complementary, allowing the CDT2-MK3 to resolve even deeper layers of tonal colour, texture and timing.

That doesn’t detract, though, from what Jay’s Audio has achieved with its CDT2-MK3. It is an impressively engineered and fine sounding transport deserving of serious respect. That it costs as little as it does is further reason to pay it attention.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  • Type: CD transport
  • Transport Mechanism: Philips CDM4/19
  • Digital Output: AES/EBU 5Vrms, 110ohm, HDMI I2S LVDS
  • Output Sampling Rate: 16 Bit/44.1kHz or 176.4kHz o COAX (RCA/BNC) 2Vrms, 75ohm
  • Dimensions: 430mm × 380mm × 120mm
  • Weight: 15KG
  • Price: £2,398

Manufacturer: Jay’s Audio

URL: jays-audio.com

Distributed by: Willow Tree Audio

URL: willowtreeaudio.co.uk

Tel: +44(0)7412690415

Back to Reviews

ELAC Solano BS 283

If nothing else, you’ve got to admire how concise ELAC’s Solano range of loudspeakers is. One floorstander (FS 287), one centre channel (CC 281) and one stand-mounter (this BS 283) – and that’s your lot. None of your ‘slightly larger cabinet/a few more drivers’ padding until a range comprises six or seven models nonsense. The brevity of the Solano line-up speaks of confidence. So does the binary choice of high-gloss black or high-gloss white as finishes. Can’t build a suitably great-sounding stereo pair or home theatre surround-sound system from these three models? ELAC, I’m pretty sure, thinks the problem is with you rather than the other way around.

At £1,449 per pair, the Solano BS 283 are far from the priciest product in ELAC’s catalogue. But despite selling for what is a relatively modest amount, the company hasn’t made an overt attempt to economise. Certainly no one seems to have had budget uppermost in their minds when they specified the complement of drivers. ELAC’s widely celebrated, visually dramatic and wantonly high-performance JET5 concertinaed foil membrane tweeter sits above a 150mm mid/bass driver of the company’s preferred ‘aluminium sandwich’ type – both are hand-crafted and assembled in Kiel, Germany. The former has a claimed frequency response of 50kHz (which puts any potenital uneveness way beyond human ears), while the latter seeks to combine its metal’s torsional rigidity with the transient capabilities of a cellulose alternative. Crossover between the two occurs at the quotidian figure of 2.4kHz.

 

Suitably Chunky

Aluminium baskets hold the drivers in a rounded-off rectangle of a cabinet that’s a combination of MDF and lustrous, beautifully applied lacquer. At the rear are biwire binding posts of suitably chunky dimensions, while the bottom of the cabinet is raised a few millimetres above a metal plinth (to give the downward-facing bass reflex port space to do its thing). At 331 × 190 × 248mm (hwd) the BS 283 is a workaday, and consequently quite manageable, size – and its configuration promises an easy-going nature as far as positioning is concerned. With sensitivity of 85dB and nominal 4 ohm impedance, it doesn’t threaten to be all that troublesome, either.

ELAC Solano BS 283

Of course, JET5 tweeter aside, there are any number of similarly specified, similarly priced and similarly sized stand-mounting speakers vying for your attention. Many companies have a shiny, well-turned out dog in this particular fight. Really, the only meaningful way in which ELAC can expect the Solano BS 283 to stand out from the crowd is with the quality of its sound.

For the purposes of this test, the ELACs are given a fighting chance by being a) positioned securely on top of a pair of Atacama Moseco 6 stands and b) attached to a Naim NAP100 power amp via a couple of lengths of QED XT400 speaker cable with Airloc Forte plugs at either end. Sources into the amp include the matching UnitiQute 2 streamer/pre-amp accessing Buffalo network-attached storage, a Cambridge Audio Alva TT turntable (attached via both its always-on phono stage and aptX Bluetooth) and a Cyrus i9 XR CD player. QED Reference Audio 40 is used for both analogue connections into the pre-amp and also from pre-amp to power amp.

A Japanese pressing of Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon [CBS/Sony] using a hard connection from turntable to pre-amp ought to be a gimme for a pair of speakers with the BS 283’s aspirations – and, to no small extent, that’s how it proves. Certainly the ELAC absolutely lap up the painstaking, detail-drenched recording, happily identifying even the finest harmonic variances and reporting back on them in full. Rhythmic expression is very satisfying too – the ELAC understand the polite, knowingly inhibited grooves and syncopations of the album and can describe their motivations eloquently. This is a very-little-expense-spared state-of-the-analogue-art recording that even at fifty years’ distance sounds upmarket and sophisticated – and it sounds no less luxurious for being delivered by the BS 238.

 

Absence of Silence

High-end response is, unsurprisingly, deeply impressive. Treble sounds are crisply rendered, detail-heavy and informative on every level. We may not be able to hear to the top of the tweeter’s claimed extension, but that peculiar ‘absence of silence’ sensation whenever a sound is played at a frequency above the range of hearing is evident from time to time. And at the opposite end of the frequency range, there’s control, straight-edged precision and, again, a level of information served up regarding texture that borders on the torrential.

In between, Simon’s vocal – recorded (or so it sounds) from no distance whatsoever, and with his disinclination to raise his voice even slightly more apparent than perhaps at any other time in his career – communicates in spades. All of the details of technique are apparent (both of his and his recording engineer’s), as are his quirks of diction.

There’s precious little temperature in the Solanos’ delivery, however. This LP should be the sonic equivalent of a nice relaxing bath – but the ELAC’s precision and neutrality makes listening to this album less of a tranquil soak. ‘Neutrality’ is all well and good in a loudspeaker, as is a desire to stick one’s oar in as little as possible. But the BS 283 is so ‘honest’; how you react to such neutrality is a bit like thinking about Switzerland; do you summon up visions of watches, banks and chocolates, or start recalling the ‘Cuckoo Clock’ speech from The Third Man?

ELAC Solano BS 283

Admirably, the ELACs don’t alter their stance one iota. A switch to a 24bit/96kHz file of Public Enemy’s By the Time I Get to Arizona [Def Jam] ups the dynamism quotient considerably, along with the brittleness and scuzziness count at the same time. The ELACs peer deep into the relatively rough and chaotic mix, and return with all kinds of worthwhile insights. They preserve the implacable attack of the rhythm track, avoiding lumpiness and instead giving proper expression to the gimpy momentum that’s intended. And yes, they serve all this good stuff up without any overt displays of emotion. It’s not every loudspeaker that can cut through the ruckus to make Public Enemy sound like master craftsmen, but then it’s becoming increasingly obvious the ELAC BS 238 are not every loudspeaker.

 

Any Music You Like

Try any music you like, from any source you like – and during the course of this testing we ran through a reasonably wide selection, from a 180g vinyl reissue of Scott Walker’s Scott 2 [UMG] through a compact disc copy of Patti Smith Group’s Easter [Arista] to a 24bit/192kHz stream of Giant Swan’s punishing Bring Back Fives [Howling Owl] – and you won’t get the ELACs to amend their position even a little. If you want a sort of sonic equivalent of verbatim reportage, an examination of a recording down to an almost molecular level, you won’t go wrong here. And if you like this sort of behaviour with a big serving of rhythmic positivity and surefootedness, that’s even better. The ELAC BS 238 make a mighty strong case for themselves – and in the process they do a fine job of differentiating themselves from the multitude.

No one is ever going to ‘plunge’ into ELAC Solano BS 238 ownership because these loudspeakers are not made for such people who act on impulse. Instead, they appeal to your less base instincts. This is the perfect choice for the studied listener. The ELACs simply do what they do with utmost precision and accuracy and the BS 238 make their attitude obvious right from the off. If you share this ‘detail and accuracy are paramount’ approach, the cerebral ELAC Solano BS 238 is the logical loudspeaker choice.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  • Type: two-way; bass reflex port
  • Driver complement: 1 × JET5 tweeter;
    1 × 150mm mid/bass driver
  • Frequency response: 41Hz–50kHz
  • Crossover frequency: 2400Hz
  • Impedance: 4 Ohms nominal
    (3.2 Ohms minimum)
  • Sensitivity: 85dB/W/m
  • Dimensions (H×W×D): 331 × 190 × 248mm
  • Weight: 8 kg/each
  • Finishes: High gloss white; high gloss black
  • Price: £1,449/pair

Manufacturer: ELAC Electroacustic

URL: elac.com

UK Distributor: Hi-Fi Network

URL: hifi-network.com

Tel: +44(0)1285 643088

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Vivid Audio Kaya S12

The big brain behind Vivid Audio and the Kaya S12 – Lawrence’ Dic’ Dickie – once shared an anecdote with me some years back. When Vivid Audio first launched its distinctive, unique-looking loudspeakers at a hi-fi show, the first reaction from the first member of the public to walk into the room was, “Oh no, not again!” Presumably, he comes from a long line of people who had seen it all before, tutting at everything from the wheel (“It’s just a square with the edges knocked off!”) to the Apollo space program (“We’ve had fireworks for years… what’s the big deal?”).

However, one of Vivid Audio’s real-world issues is that people like the idea of genuinely distinctive-looking loudspeakers and buy boring boxes ‘to play it safe’. The Kaya line is partly a way of addressing the need to make a loudspeaker cabinet that doesn’t ‘play it safe’ for sound (and sonic) reasons while creating a more universally acceptable design. As a result, the Kaya S12 stand-mount loudspeaker is the smallest and most domestically chummy of the whole range.

Organic Shape

There’s something very organic to the shape of the Vivid Audio Kaya S12, especially on its dedicated three-point stand. That 12-litre RIMcast polyurethane resin cabinet looks less like a loudspeaker and more like a flower or a large seedpod. This design is so clever because three-footed speakers have traditionally either looked like truncated Ikea living room lighting systems or something out of The War of the Worlds but with fewer death rays. Giving those three legs a gentle concave makes them look like the speaker grows out of them.

Vivid Audio Kaya S12 floorstanding loudspeaker

The injection-moulded enclosure shape of the Kaya S12 is not just there to creep out fans of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The front baffle gives the tweeter a gentle horn-loading, and the overall shape creates the ideal rear chamber size for both treble and mid-bass units, aided by the tapered tube reflex first used in Vivid Audio’s behemoth Giya G1. The design also reduces internal cabinet resonance from the outset, making it an ideal platform for the drive units to do their stuff unimpeded by the box itself.

Unlike most loudspeaker ‘builders’, Vivid Audio is one of the few who make their drive units. In the case of the Kaya S12, the company uses the same 26mm D26 Tapered Tube-loaded carbon-reinforced catenary dome tweeter throughout the line. In contrast, the long-throw 100mm C100L alloy dome/cone driver is explicitly designed for the Kaya S12. Of course, the cabinet making virtually no impact on the loudspeaker’s sound means more of the heavy sonic lifting is on the character of the drive units. If they have a ‘character’, it will be thrown into sharp highlight because the cabinet leaves few places to hide.

Everything under scrutiny

Every aspect of what goes into making a drive unit comes under Dic’s scrutiny. Those long-standing ‘well, we’ve always done it that way’ facets of loudspeaker driver engineering are stress-tested and – if found wanting – he seeks a better way of doing things. For example, the internal architecture of the enclosure features a unique tapered absorber that surrounds the rear of the mid-bass driver. Absorbent material fills the radial slots formed by the deep ribs in this absorber; each absorbs a different frequency and prevents interference with the action of the cone. TL;DR version; the enclosure is deader than Elvis.

This scrutiny even looks to the slightest changes; Vivid Audio uses flat wire instead of conventionally drawn round wire for winding voice coils. It means the loudspeakers’ sound doesn’t require hundreds of hours or run in and doesn’t take an hour or so of playing to ‘come on song’ in a listening session. Of course, it also benefits a loudspeaker at its incursion extremes, meaning you can bass play louder for longer too!

However, don’t take its ease of running in to mean the loudspeaker is a pushover; it demands careful installation and partnership. The Kaya S12 needs a little ‘breathing space’ between it and the rear wall, but not so much that it leaves the listener in a small room using the speakers as headphones.

Head vs Heart

In most loudspeakers, there seems to be a ‘head vs heart’ trade-off; you either get a loudspeaker that sounds remarkably detailed and analytical, with outstanding imagery and shimmering ‘micro-dynamics’ or one that is consummately musical, entertaining and rhythmically ‘in the pocket’. The Vivid Audio Kaya S12 is not like most loudspeakers. It blends rhythmic drive and energy with the transparency that makes you think of electrostatic loudspeakers. That applies universally; from ‘To Be Loved’ from Adele’s therapy session album 30[Columbia/Melted Stone], through the lo-fi brilliance of The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ [The Clash, CBS], to Arvo Pärt’s chillingly atmospheric ‘Speigel im Speigel’ [Alina, Spivakov et al., ECM]. In every case, the musical insight comes from the detail and the underlying depth of performance. You get that elusive combination of insight into the recording and that sense of a musical performance.

However, the big thing from this little speaker is the relative absence of distortion. It’s a paradox that while we strive to reduce distortion in electronics, loudspeakers frequently have more significant deviations from accuracy. However, when you hear one of those rare loudspeakers like the Kaya S12 that doesn’t have the same degree of distortion found in other speakers, you hear music as even more of a cohesive whole than usual. It’s beguiling in the extreme.

This transparency is not easy to pin down, as it’s a bit of a group effort on the part of the Kaya S12. The quieting effect of that cabinet and the absorber did not introduce sing-along sessions to hold back the drive units. It’s the drive units themselves. It’s even the stand, which seems capable of doing its job while adding or subtracting nothing. Put all those elements together, and you have a sound just so damn lifelike that you want to hear more.

 

Vivid Audio Kaya S12

My days of guitar wrangling are largely behind me, but a well-turned Telecaster can still make me think of playing again. Amateur musicians listening to masters of that instrument will play music on the Kaya S12 like a masterclass because the clean and detailed loudspeaker gets you in the spaces between the notes. Playing ‘Soft Winds’ from Ed Bickert’s Out of the Past CD [Sackville] is a perfect example; it can sound like drab dinner jazz, but the playing is masterful. Here, Bickert’s masterful ‘grips’ (impossible jazz chords) almost seem attainable and understandable, and there is so little between you and the late Canadian jazzer. It’s like being in a session with the guy.

Do (more) than one thing well

We’ve often had snippets of this before, often on loudspeakers that do one thing well at the expense of the whole. I remember hearing a loudspeaker playing Dylan’s harmonica like it was in the room but making almost every other instrument sound like Dylan’s harmonica. Here, you get that stunning ‘unencumbered by artifice’ presentation, but it cuts across all instruments. Again, I could rattle off a list of recordings ­– both commonly used ones like Joyce DiDonato and Trentemøller and more ‘for personal use’ albums like Grinderman and Heavy are the Head – but it applies universally. The Kaya S12 is like having less loudspeaker and more studio or concert hall in your room.

No, it’s not the only product that delivers that degree of musical insight, but it’s one of the few that can get even close to the degree of detail and precision you get from top-end audio trailblazers at a fraction of the price and size.

It’s hard to avoid discussing the size of the loudspeaker because the Vivid Audio Kaya S12 highlights the difference between regular humans and homo audiophilius. Asked to sit in front of what we consider ‘reasonable’ sized loudspeakers, ordinary people are intimidated by the physical dimensions of the big boxes in front of them. The Kaya S12 doesn’t have the same physical presence, so rank-and-file humans look at them in terms of their aesthetics… and often find them a pleasing shape. Meanwhile, audiophiles look at a loudspeaker like the Kaya S12, proclaim it ‘too dinky’, then are astonished at the scale of the sound it produces… and find it a pleasing shape sounds like a win-win to me.

The size of the loudspeaker is both its greatest strength and its lone weakness. Being so ‘dinky’, the Kaya S12 acts almost as a ‘point source’, meaning its stereo and detail reproduction are outstanding. Stereo soundstaging is staggeringly good as the loudspeaker effectively removes itself from the room, leaving the instruments each occupying their place within a three-dimensional space. Even if that is the impression of dimensionality created by delay and panning, you feel enveloped in a sound-field that is physically and emotionally ‘there’ in the room with you. This spatial excellence has a degree of detail and precision that is almost impossible to replicate at anything close to the Kaya S12’s price and size.

Plumbing the depths?

The lone weakness described above is bass depth. The Kaya S12 does a remarkable job at plumbing the depths given the constraints of size and drive-unit acreage, and it rolls off cleanly, so you get the impression of those deep bass notes even if you don’t get quite the same gut-punching intensity. Although it gets surprisingly close irrespective of room size. In a small room, however (which, let’s face it, is where the Kaya S12 will likely spend its days), this clean roll-off is almost ideal as it doesn’t trigger standing wave resonances where the room ‘joins in’ with the music. The nearly preternatural bass speed and effortless, bouncy, infectious sense of rhythm baked into the Kaya S12 make partnering it with a subwoofer very difficult. A good sub will anchor the sound in space, but the Kaya S12 speed will take that ‘anchor’ concept and take it to mean ‘holding everything back’.

Discussing a subwoofer almost misses the Vivid Audio Kaya S12’s point. More than just a ‘good’ loudspeaker, the Kaya S12 is also an ‘important’ one. It’s important because it reflects the increasing understanding that ‘metropolitan’ listeners exist and do more than listen on headphones. It’s a source of some personal frustration that high-enders with a profound love of music but who live in large cities with small rooms are left out in the cold by most audio. The ‘oh well, compromises must be made’ stance is as wrong as ‘let’s shoe-horn a vast system into a small room’. The Kaya S12 is a legitimately high-end loudspeaker for such rooms. That it isn’t a full-range design is an advantage in spaces so small that anything below 60Hz has its in-wall accompaniment. But the uncompromised performance, from that taut bass to the upper limits of hearing, makes it something special. That Vivid audio no-distortion, super clear, and, it has to be said, ‘vivid’ sound is in full effect here, scaled down – but not shrunken – to work in a broader range of rooms than you’d expect.

‘Impressed’ doesn’t even describe my feelings toward the Vivid Audio Kaya S12. The Kaya S12 takes the ‘loudspeaker for small rooms’ concept to new heights. Its combination of stereo focus, detail and clean bass makes the Kaya S12 a cerebral performer; the tremendous sense of musical performance and excellent beat give it some heart, too. While it might not be the first choice for dub reggae or church organ fanatics, I’d happily trade bass weight for bass precision, especially as trying to get both in the same box requires a more significant investment in loudspeakers in a larger room. Those of us living in The Big City – where space is at a considerable premium – have just got a new champion to fight our corner.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  • Type: Reflex-loaded two-way stand‑mount loudspeaker
  • Drive units: Tweeter – 26mm alloy dome with tapered tube loading, Mid/bass – 100mm long throw alloy cone
  • Nominal frequency response: -6dB 45–25,000 Hz
  • Nominal impedance: 8 Ohms
  • Crossover frequency: 3kHz
  • Connectors: single wire binding posts
  • Sensitivity: 87dB 1w/1m
  • Finishes: gloss piano black, gloss Pearl white, custom colours, matte Oyster grey
  • Dimensions H×W×D: 480 × 237 × 254mm
  • Weight: 6kg
  • Price: from £6,000 (stand £1,500)

Manufacturer: Vivid Audio

URL: vividaudio.com

Tel: +44(0)7515 127049

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Marantz SACD 30n and Model 30

It’s the start of 2022 when writing this, and CD and SACD are supposedly ‘dead’ formats. So it might seem strange for Marantz to launch a new silver disc player. But the 30n is more than that; it’s also a streamer and hub, and thus hugely versatile. Marantz describes its new creation like this:

“The Marantz SACD 30n marries a classic premium SA‑CD / CD player with a modern digital source’s hub/preamp. It plays hi-resolution files including FLAC HD and DSD from your home network, local USB storage, and online sources such as streaming services and Internet radio.

“It features HEOS streaming, voice and multi-room support, and DAC functionality, as well as Apple AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth integration. The SACD 30n is future-proofed, accepting file formats all the way up to 11.2Mhz quad-DSD and 384kHz/32-bit PCM via USB-B/USD-DAC.”

 

Skin in the game

Speaking as someone with skin in the game (I’m currently in the market for a streamer and looking at various acronym-led options) a product like the 30n that features a CD/SACD player and Streamer interests me greatly – providing the performance on silver discs is outstanding.

To partner the SACD 30n, Marantz offer the matching Model 30 integrated amplifier. This is a compact 100W Class D design featuring tone and balance controls and an MM/MC phono stage. The UK price of both of the 30 components is £2,899 each.

Marantz Model 30

Both the Model 30 and SACD 30n have a quilted front panel, with a raised central section that’s back-lit from the sides. It looks very unusual – both classy and nicely understated. Pictures of the items don’t always make this clear – you have to see them to appreciate the styling.

I began with the SACD 30n, and it quickly became obvious that it’s a very capable CD/SACD player. I’d been enjoying the Denon DCD A110 player very much, and the 30n matched it for clarity and detail, while delivering a slightly more immediate and assertive sound.

On both standard Red Book CD and SACD, the 30n produced an impressively-clean and focused sound that had great presence and dynamic range. Given that the SACD 30n costs £100 less than the Denon, and features a built-in streamer/hub, it’s excellent value.

Compared to many other silver disc players, CDs on the SACD 30n had a nice depth and weight that made them sound more like SACDs. SACDs sounded better still – solid, weighty, and clean, with bite and clarity, plus a nice unexaggerated naturalness.

Playing Copland Orchestral works Vol 1 SACD [Chandos CHSA 5164] the bass drum on ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ had truly awesome heft and depth – real floor-shaking bass, but only if your speakers are capable of reproducing low frequencies below 25Hz.

Superior build?

I’d say the Denon DCD-A110 and matching PMA-A110 amplifier offer superior build quality over the Marantz items, but not by much. The Denon items are heavier and more solidly-made, but the quality of finish is about equal and the Marantz certainly looks classy and attractive.

Marantz’s HEOS app works well, and allows you to stream from subscription platforms such as Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Napster, Amazon music, Soundcloud, etc. At the time of writing (June 2021) the SACD 30n does not support MQA files on Tidal, but this is a future possibility.

Marantz SACD30n

Marantz tell me MQA support could be added in a future firmware update, should they decide to go for it. So, if you’re a Tidal user, lack of MQA might be a deciding factor, but maybe not for long. The 30n sounded very good with Tidal, but MQA files via Arcam’s ST60 were generally better. Some MQA files are only 44.1kHz and deliver CD quality, while others are 96kHz and sound superior. Playing ‘Come Together’ from the Beatles Abbey Road album [Apple], the MQA version (via the Arcam) sounded more dynamic and better separated.

The non-MQA file sounded ‘flatter’ and voices/instruments did not project out from the speaker enclosures. The MQA file had more depth and space, and the placement of voices and instruments in the stereo soundstage was more holographic and real-sounding. However, comparing the 30n against the ST60 on Tidal with non-MQA files, I’d actually put the Marantz slightly ahead of the Arcam for clarity and separation.

Given the range of options offered, the SACD 30n is simple and straightforward to use. A small rotary control selects functions, and runs HEOS Favourites (subscription needed), Internet Radio, Music Servers, USB Music, Bluetooth, CD/SACD, USB-DAC, Co-Axial, Optical 1 and 1, and Set-Up.

You can select most of these options from the supplied remote handset. The display on the SACD 30n is clear and easy to read, but – unlike many current streamers – you don’t get a representation of the album cover when streaming.

I used the SACD 30n via USB with a hard-drive containing downloaded music. For some reason, the SACD 30n didn’t always read the file name. Many of these I’ve created myself, usually with the composer’s surname at the first item. But sometimes the SACD 30n chose to read hidden metadata.

All of which means that instead of an item coming under (say) B for Beethoven or Brahms (as per the file name) it’s found under S – S for Sir John Barbirolli… Maybe there’s a way around this – I’m not sure. But interestingly, the Arcam ST60 did not do this.

HEOS Man

Marantz’ HEOS app is a lot better than Arcam’s MusicLife app, though hopefully the latter will soon have a significant upgrade that sorts out its problems. I could navigate files on my USB hard drive connected to the SACD 30n using HEOS, unlike the Arcam/MusicLife.

Given all the exciting headline features of the SACD 30n, the Model 30 amplifier could easily be overlooked. I went over to it from my £8k Musical Fidelity NuVista 800 and was impressed by the clarity and focus of the Marantz. Class D seems to deliver a sound of great solidity and precision.

I typically find Class D amps a little ‘dark’ in terms of tonal balance. There’s a slightly lack of ‘sparkle’ and brilliance perhaps, but overall the presentation itself strikes me as very natural and truthful. I like the effortless focus and clarity of the Marantz Model 30. It’s an exceptional amplifier.

To draw an analogy, the Marantz Model 30 is a bit like freshly-squeezed orange juice compared to fizzy orange squash. It offers a purer, truer flavour without false excitement or drama, yet delivers the music with great integrity that involves and moves the listener.

Marantz Model30

I’d be intrigued to hear it in a variety of situations, driving other loudspeakers, but in my set-up it works extremely well – to the point where I’d be very happy to live with it full-time. I even liked the ‘sound’ of the tone controls; the way they let you boost/cut the extreme bass and treble.

Go Direct

That said, I preferred to use the amp on its ‘direct’ setting, which by-passes the tone controls and balance control. The built-in phono stage was very good too, and I liked the visual readout of volume level in decibels.

Being Class D, the Model 30 amplifier operates very efficiently and draws very little power. It gets very slightly warm during extended use, but runs cooler than a typical Class A/B amp. The SACD 30n is shown standing on the Model 30, and you could do that without overheating problems.

Opinions seem polarised when it comes to a CD/SACD player that incorporates a streamer and USB DAC. Those who prefer downloads and streamed music may well regard silver disc as obsolete. So a product that combines CD/SACD playback with streaming might seem a ludicrous combination.

Others, like myself, may still prefer CD/SACD as their main source, but require a good streamer. Given how good the SACD 30n is playing silver discs, it’s likely to be an upgrade on older CD players. For those with Hybrid SACDs but no dedicated SACD player, something like the 30n is worth considering.

True, it’s more than double the price of a Streamer such as Arcam’s ST60, but I’d argue it represents very good value. For someone like myself, with a big collection of CDs and SACDs, the Marantz is arguably a better option over a dedicated streamer.

Neat and Compact

Then there’s the matching Model 30 amplifier. It’s neat and compact, yet delivers music with impressive clarity and precision. I like it’s focus and ability to deliver detail without seeming splashy or edgy. But, is there a slightly lack of sparkle at the top end?

Maybe; but possibly it’s more a lack of control and a slight added emphasis with other amps. I sometimes wonder if there’s a slight lack of top-end openness with Class D, but at the same time I love the ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’ clarity of the sound.

I find both Marantz 30 models especially good at low dynamic levels. The music retains focus and solidity, and never gets smeared. All told, the Marantz SACD 30n and Model 30 is a very impressive combination that sounds really great and offers outstanding value. Go hear it!

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Model 30

  • Type: Integrated amplifier
  • Inputs: five line-level stereo RCA pairs, one MM/MC phono input, exterior preamp input, remote control bus terminal
  • Outputs: 1× RCA stereo pair record output, 1× RCA stereo pair preamplifier output, ¼” headphone jack
  • Power output: 100W/8Ω, 200W/4Ω
  • Frequency Range: 5Hz–50kHz
  • THD: 0.005% (1kHz, 8Ω)
  • Signal to noise ratio: 88dB (MM), 75dB (MC), 107dB (line)
  • Dimensions (W×H×D): 44.3 × 13 × 43.1cm
  • Weight 14.6kg
  • Price: £2,899

SACD 30n

  • Type: SACD/CD player featuring network audio streaming and DAC Mode
  • Inputs: 1× coaxial S/PDIF, 1× optical S/PDIF, 1× USB Type A, 1× USB Type B, built in dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • Outputs: 1× RCA stereo pair (fixed), 1× RCA stereo pair (variable), ¼” headphone jack
  • Sampling/File support: PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD files up to 11.2 MHz, Gapless playback of FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and ALAC files up to 24-bit/192kHz (DSD files up to 5.6 MHz)
  • Frequency Response: 2Hz–50kHz
  • THD: 0.0008%
  • Dynamic Range: 109dB
  • Dimensions (W×H×D): 44.3 × 13 × 42.4cm
  • Weight: 13.5kg
  • Price: £2,899

Manufacturer: Marantz

URL: marantz.com

Tel: +44 (0)2081034770

Back to Reviews

Dr Feickert Blackbird

There is an easily understandable path through Dr Feickert’s turntable line. The Volare is the basic nine-inch arm model, the Woodpecker has an adjustable arm base allowing for up to 12” tonearms, the Blackbird (that we went with) adds a second tonearm option (up to 10”) and adds an extra motor, and the Firebird extends that potential second arm to 12” and adds a third motor to the mix. There’s also a Linear power supply upgrade.

This pragmatic approach is perhaps a perfect expression of Chris Feickert himself. Vinyl is obviously his passion, but he expresses that passion in a very pragmatic manner, making a fine collection of set-up tools alongside this equally pragmatic collection of turntables.

Down to earth

Maybe the best way to highlight the down-to-earth nature of the turntables is the choice of tonearms open to a Dr Feickert user. Here, it’s not about ‘what works’ and more about ‘what’s still available’. Time was, Feickert turntables were sporting Jelco and SME tonearms, but with the former ceasing production altogether and the latter only providing arms on its decks, those options have gone away. But, as always with Dr Feickert, whatever arm you wish to use will work with the Blackbird. And that means most today use arms from Kuzma (the 4Point 9 is a perfect choice), Rega and even Schroeder.

Dr Feickert Blackbird turntable

The addition of a second arm base into the plinth and an extra motor does make the Blackbird larger than models like the Woodpecker, of course, and it’s also bigger than those UK mainstays of top-end turntablism; the Linn LP12 and Rega Planar 10, but it’s not that much bigger. Indeed, it’s not larger than Michell’s full-on Orbe deck.

Motor position is always going to be ‘fun’ on a two-motor turntable but is especially ‘interesting’ when there’s a second arm in the only possible place for that motor; the net result is the motors sit underneath the cartridge of both arms. That being said, the second motor acts more as a powered flywheel in this turntable, so as long as its position doesn’t significantly unbalance the platter, it’s just there for greater speed precision. Given that the base model has no slouch in the speed precision stakes and that Linear supply, this could be seen as gilding the lily but is actually a sound turntable design.

Uneven pull

The concept hangs on the notion that a single motor – no matter how ‘good’ will exert an uneven pull on the bearing, which doesn’t work well with a bearing that is not supposed to ‘see’ any lateral force. Logically, a single motor and one or two pulleys should fix the issue, but reducing that pull creates drag in the process. Adding a second motor 180° from the first, however, works exceptionally well… almost as well as three motors 120° apart. Back in the Jurassic Era, I used a three-motor Voyd turntable for many years (and a two-motor Voyd Valdi on the way to that big hitter), and there’s a strong possibility of design parallelism at play because the same concepts ring true to this day and they ring just as true with the Dr Feickert turntables. However, the big difference between the Voyd from the late 1980s/ early 1990s and the Dr Feickert today is the pull of two arms didn’t really exist back then, and the position of the motors reflects what a few decades can do to the vinyl frontier.

Motors and pulleys be damned; Dr Feickert is a piece of cake to use. Setting up an arm is effortless thanks to that Vernier-like scale below the arm base; the arm sits in a round slider base that can be moved along that aforementioned scale and locked off with two Allen bolts. And that’s the most complex part of the installation. Seriously… you’ll take longer levelling the stand it sits on than you will building the Blackbird (or any of the Dr Feickert line). Given that some turntable makers seem to glorify instructional opacity, this installation’s simplicity is a pleasant surprise. Just four buttons on the left side of the plinth control 33, 45 and 78 speed too. However, I dare say it will put off that high-end contingent who thinks masochism = audio perfection.

In an ideal world, all the performance of a turntable should be described by the sound of the cartridge itself. The deck and arm are simply there to ensure the cartridge’s performance is not sullied by mechanical errors elsewhere. Reality is very different, but the Blackbird gets closer than many to that notional ideal. It’s a super clean, unforced and detailed presentation that ticks all the boxes and even challenges a few preconceptions we have.

Zingy top

For example, a medium mass unsuspended turntable should be a little zingy in the top end and have good, if slightly slow-sounding bass, but the Blackbird is very clean at the top end of the registers, and the bass is taut, tight, deep and rhythmic. A perfect example of what the Blackbird is doing so right is ‘Torn Curtain’, the last track on side two of Marquee Moon by Television [Elektra]. This New York proto-punk band can be a challenging listen when played on decks like the Blackbird because it does the opposite of what the turntable does well. But here, the voice cut through the mix without sounding like it was made of broken glass, while the outstanding bass and drum work are both easy to follow and surprisingly rhythmically charged for a dour-sounding song.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised because the Blackbird was the perfect house guest in all other cases. It didn’t obstruct or chip in with its own opinion, letting the arm and cartridge just do their thing instead. Soundstage, for example, is more a function of the arm and cartridge (especially the latter) than it was influenced by the deck itself.

We’ve been so changed by the notion that the turntable plays such an essential role in influencing the sound that when we find one that steps back from that role, we first find ourselves pondering its justification for existence and end up pondering the justification for those more intrusive turntables instead. The deck gets out of the way so well that I wholly depressed myself by playing through all of Closer by Joy Division [Factory], only to cheer myself back up by playing through all of Louis Prima’s The Wildest [Pure Pleasure reissue]. It’s that sort of turntable; not one to impose, but one to enjoy (or, in the case of Joy Division, one to leave you inconsolable and alienated).

Dr Feickert Blackbird turntable

The most significant part of the Blackbird, however, is that feeling that you could put any piece of music on it, and it would give it a fair rendering, constrained only by other parts of the audio chain. That, coupled with the ease of use and assembly that might make Apple and Ikea blush, makes for a surprisingly enjoyable experience. It creates confidence in the listener that their music will reproduce well, whether it’s Van Morrison singing ‘Stoned Me’ [Moondance, Warner], Scritti Politti’s vastly overproduced 80s pop [‘The Word Girl’, Cupid & Psyche 85, Virgin] or the sonic beauty of Berlioz [‘A Ball’ Symphonie Fantastique, NY Philharmonic, Mitropoulos, Columbia, Speakers Corner reissue]. The result is always the same. Music is enjoyable, entertaining, satisfying and without impact from the turntable.

Fuss Free

The audio world needs a damn good, fuss-free line of high-end turntables, and that is precisely what you get in the Dr Feickert line. The choice of Blackbird is almost arbitrary; it could have been any of Chris Feickert’s turntables, and the result would be the same. Precise, accurate, and enjoyable record playing done right. All it takes to get great sound with the Blackbird is a good arm and cartridge, and… job done!

The best way of thinking about the Blackbird is just how much of a ‘second tonearm’ itch you have or are likely to have. If a bi-armed deck is not going to be in your wheelhouse, go with the Woodpecker or Volare. If you are already fully bi-armed, go with the Firebird. And the Blackbird is for, er, bi-curious folk. Cheap puns aside, this is an excellent concept, and the turntables are easy to set up, fun to use and enjoyable to listen to. What’s not to like?

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  • Type: belt-drive turntable, two motors, mounting positions for two tonearms
  • Speeds: 33, 45, 78rpm
  • Armboard system: quick-release system for tonearms/armboards
  • Armboard right: 205–320 mm pivot-spindle (9–13 inch eff. length)
  • Armboard left (optional): 205–240 mm pivot-spindle (9–10 inch eff. length)
  • Integrated Protractor for cartridge/tonearm alignment
  • Dimensions: 530 mm × 420 mm × 150 mm
  • Weight: 17.5 kg (chassis), 22 kg (without tonearm)
  • Price: £6,995, Linear PSU £895

Manufacturer: Dr Feickert

URL: feickert.org

UK Distributor: MidlandAudioXchange

URL: midlandaudiox-change.co.uk

Tel: +44(0)1562 731100

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Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

Franco Serblin, (1939–2013) one of the great italian speaker designers devoted his life to making some of the world’s finest speakers, initially founding Sonus faber, and then selling the company in 2006 to start a ‘Serblin’ range of speakers under the company name Laboratorium.

 Alan Sircom recently reviewed the Accord stand-mount, and hot-on-the-heels of this Laboratorium has recently released the floorstanding version, designed by Massimiliano Favella, constructed in solid walnut, and finished with chrome. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful speakers to grace my listening room. Sonus faber, the previous enterprise of Serblin, borrowed the names of some of the great violin makers for their ranges, Stradivarius and Guarneri. It is interesting that just as the great Italian cities were famed for their take on pizza (Neapolitans are soft and thin based, Roman are more crispy etc.), the same is true of the centres of Violin making: Cremona, Milan, Venice, Brescia.

 

It’s a family affair

Each family of makers had distinctive sounds; Cremona’s most famous violin-making town was famed for the sound’s sweetness and power. The Venetian sound, by contrast, has a sense of liquidity to it, a sort of liquid mellowness as opposed to the naked Cremonese sweetness. I apologise for the digression, but I am lucky enough to play on a Venetian violin, made in 1710 by Matteo Gofriller. I see a remarkable similarity between the sound of the Accordo Essence, built just 45 minutes from Venice and the sound of the Venetian violin-making school. More of that later!

 The speaker sits on chrome spikes, which are adjustable and have small cups which rest on the floor. The Essences are a three-way ported design; a 29mm silk dome tweeter, designed by Ragnar Lian (founder of Scan-Speak), a 150mm mid-range microsphere-coned drive unit, and a 180mm woofer.

Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

The speakers, like the stand-mounts, are handed and are a wonderfully curvaceous take on ‘rhomboid’. There are ports for both the midrange and woofers; ‘double ported’, I suppose I should say. The rear has high-quality binding posts, only a pair, and no bi-wiring tweakability here! The speakers are internally braced with aluminium and magnesium and weigh 30Kg each. Similar to the Sonus faber range, there are grills constructed with rubber strings. I couldn’t figure out if they were removable or not, but they created a floating effect, like harp strings, and I doubt they affected the sound in any discernible way. Overall, these are objects of incredible beauty and one of the highest scoring Wife Acceptance Factors of any product I’ve reviewed.

 

Minimum power

The spec suggests that the minimum power output for a suitable amplifier to drive this is 20 Watts. I’m using some 200 Watt VAC Phi’s, which have no problem driving them, but I suspect that 20 Watts isn’t going to be nearly enough to do them full justice with a sensitivity of 88dB.

Listening to them in my system with a dCS Bartok and Townshend Allegri Reference preamp, there is an initial familiarity with the sound. I think that the tweeters are reminiscent of the Scan-Speak tweeters on my Sonus faber Concertino’s, a smooth, mellow, warm sound, and very different to the diamond tweeters on my B&W 802d3’s, which have a stridency which can cause problems with the wrong matching. It’s a highly distinctive top end, rounded, gentle and quite sonorous.

Listening to Leif Ove Andsnes playing the rather extraordinary Beethoven Choral Fantasia [Sony], a piece whose first movement consists of a piano solo and which Beethoven hadn’t finished for the first performance, resulted in him sitting at the keyboard turning blank pages! The second movement, which was finished, has shades of the 9th Symphony, various woodwind/string moments, and a piano and a choir. Entirely off the wall!

The Accordo Essences provide a very alluring sound. That’s really first and foremost. Nothing ugly, shrill or out of place, just a sheer aesthetic beauty to the sound. The drive units show how well chosen they are, as there are no ‘sonic leaps’ between them, just one long mellow continuum of sound. The bass is articulate, clear, powerful, and goes down surprisingly deep for a speaker with a narrowish baffle. The piano texture is uniformly coherent, showing no lack of integration between the drive units. Each drive unit works its part in the overall sound in an even and balanced way. Three drive units, one instrument.

Enter the brass

When the brass enters to contradict the strings, the spatial image is good, deep and large; perhaps a little of the spatial information is not quite as present as it could be with the choice of the Scan-Speak tweeter, which prioritises beauty and smoothness above the last word in airy spaciousness. As each musical character takes their place in this bizarre piece, superbly recorded in High Resolution, the vocal soloists keep adding to the largesse of the texture. The Serblins cope admirably, producing a grand scale of sound effortlessly. Not holographic, but well spaced.

Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

Onto Bruckner’s 7th symphony, the epic slow movement, a tribute to Richard Wagner, Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra [re-released in High Resolution, on Decca] provides a powerful rendition of this magnificent work. The scale is reproduced effortlessly, never a rough sound and always beautiful; these speakers will appeal to listeners whose glass is half full. It provides the best orchestral texture you need to appreciate the music. It is at the opposite end of the scale to my B&W 802d3’s, which veer towards the concept of the ‘Monitor’, i.e. what they use in Abbey Road studios to hear the ‘warts’, to see the glass half empty.

I’m sure seasoned audiophiles find that they have the amount of water in their audio glasses that accords with their philosophy of listening. I make a few recordings of my quartet and various orchestras, and there are times when I need to hear the tiniest details, however bright and unpleasant they may sound. On the Serblins, these little eccentricities get minimised, and I was amazed, for example, at just how good the raw feed from the orchestral recording sounded. It wasn’t clear what I needed to do to equalise it because it just sounded good the way it was. Definitely speakers for the end listener and not for ‘Pro Audio’.

Playing some jazz, Art Farmer and Farmer’s Market on Qobuz, initially recorded in the mid-1950s (and remastered), the Serblins hit the nail on the head with that ‘old world’ jazz club sound. They provide toe-tapping rhythmic propulsion and timing magnificently and the rose-tinted approach they bring really works here brilliantly.

 

More valves!

Giving the Accordo Essences a spin with another valve amplifier I happened to have from a previous review, the Prima Luna Evo 400 integrated amplifier, which came furnished with EL34s, proved a good partnership. They are slightly less bright than my VAC Phi 200s, and EL34s are more airy and spacious than KT88s on the VACs, so in Triode mode, they seemed to complement the Serblin’s well.

Listening to Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic [Warner] really sounded lovely, full but with some extra space and air. Interestingly, the choice of valve makes such a critical difference here. I have to speculate whether a brighter transistor amplifier will work well; I’m not sure it would give the same airy quality that an EL34 brings to the party, but it would be worth a hearing.

Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

The Accordo Essence is a truly unique proposition. They look stunning, curvaceous and fabulously constructed in a natural wood that assures the most anti-audio partners! Their sound, as I discussed earlier, bares a striking audio resemblance to the violins made in the golden age of Venetian violin making; not bright and sharp, but liquid and smooth, not known for their vast power, but a pleasingly balanced and warm sound. They seem to extract the best from a piece of music without being overly analytical and appeal to the actual music lover who just wants to enjoy their music. Even if that music arrives in a romantic rose-tinted way. It is worth careful partnering with a suitable amplifier. Valves are a sure-fire winner, but EL34s work best in my system. In these dark times, who wouldn’t permit this marvellous sonic indulgence?

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  •  Geometry: 3-way floorstanding vented box loudspeaker
  • Cabinet: Super – rigid, arch–shaped solid wood structure, decoupled with aluminium – magnesium parts to obtain resonance control.
  • Tweeter: 29mm silk – dome by Ragnar Lian, Mid–woofer: legendary, custom made,150 mm microspheres cone,
  • Woofer: 180 mm microspheres cone, aluminium dust cap.
  • Frequency response: 35Hz–22KHz
  • Nominal impedance: 4ohm
  • Sensitivity: 88dB/2.83V/1m
  • Minimum power amplifier: 20W/channel
  • Finish: Solid walnut – Metal parts of chrome and aluminium
  • Dimensions: 1100 × 230 × 430 (H×W×D)
  • Weight: 60 Kg /pair speaker unpacked 70 Kg /pair packed
  • Price: £12,998 per pair

Manufacturer: Laboratorium

URL: francoserblin.it

UK Distributor: Absolute Sounds

URL: absolutesounds.com

Tel: +44(0)208 971 3909

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