I’ve got a little list… there is such a thing as too much choice and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the alternatives. So we did the Kondo thing and asked ‘what sparks joy?’ Components with an identifiable and unique character that can deliver benefits in almost any system are what we all want, so here are our 10 best for 2019.
Welcome to the new year. In between some great beach walks (that’s the mouth of Blueskin Bay on a beautiful Christmas day in the pic above), we’ve been busy with exciting components and systems that are going to make this coming year so much more enjoyable for you…
Expressing your individuality – 2 different system choices:
In a one-size-fits-all world where every phone is basically the same, few things can be more individual than your choice of system to replay music in your home. The downside of this is that our choices can seem bewildering. So I’ve been doing some serious thinking about how we put together a system – even then it’s a challenge to decide what we call it – a stereo or music system, an AV media or surround system? Digital, analogue or both?
It’s become obvious that the old rules that were arbitrarily applied to system design just don’t work any more. Linn had a hierarchy of components starting from source but how does this work when the source is an iPhone? Wattage used to be the go-to specification for choosing speakers and amplifiers but with modern living loudness is hardly a desirable attribute – quality is what counts.
And if you have an existing system, will be the best solution be to upgrade a single component or just to replace as a means to the end of better sound?
With all these considerations in mind I’ve decided to highlight 2 quite different system choices that we’ve been enjoying over the last few months. Working from home has allowed us to spend much more time listening and really coming to grips with how components will perform in your own environment.
The first system centres on the new little French designed D-Stream WAMP-200 SB digital amplifier. This is a completely modern take on the idea of an entry level integrated amplifier and while intended to be a very simple to operate, there is a depth of features and flexibility that simply didn’t exist at any price a few years ago. That, and it sounds insanely good for very little.
The D-Stream hardly even looks like an amplifier – it’s a sleek and compact clamshell with two rear mounted wifi aerials that suggest in a completely reasonable way that this is essentially a network component first and foremost. So while the physical input and output array on the rear panel is modest, this is more than supplemented by wifi, Bluetooth and LAN connectivity and the entire world of possibilities that come with steaming services and shared music collections.
The D-Stream not only opens up all these channels for you, it is more than capable of making great sound with a wide range of speakers. Because it sounds so good, it will make low cost speakers sound better and allow you to build an easily affordable system that doesn’t skimp on quality or features.
But at the same time I’ll point out that the low cost of the D-Stream enables you to select speakers that are better than you might have otherwise allowed for. When carefully set up and connected in the same way we would with a high end amplifier, the D-Stream WAMP 200 SB is the literal giant killer.
As our suggested system, I’ve matched the D-Stream with a pair of rather nice trade in speakers – the Quad 12L.2s which have just come in – these shelf mount speakers have a generous and rich sound which builds on the D-Stream’s clarity and evenhanded presentation. Together they are easily our best sounding entry level system for just $1400 complete.
Now let’s take things up another level – System 2.
There is absolutely a place for a carefully put together component system where each part is purpose built. Because I’m continually evaluating new components I want a baseline system of high transparency at a realistic price point that reflects what I know many of you can afford. Simply put, I want to know that you’ll be able to hear what I do and that you’ll be able to trust what I write.
So I’ve put together a complete system where no individual part is more than $3000 and most are much less – this approach gives a huge degree of flexibility. Each component stands as what I’d hope is best in its class so you can look to put any one of them in your own system.
I’m intentionally using both analogue and digital sources, and the aim is to be able to appreciate both in equal measure.
On the analogue side, we have the Consonance Wax Engine turntable, fitted with the new Dynavector 10X5mk2 high output moving coil cartridge. The digital foil for this is the NuPrime CDP-9 player and DAC – this deals not only with CD but has multiple digital inputs allowing you to stream in from smartphone, network, TV and more.
In keeping with the ethos of separate components we have NuPrime’s remarkable little HPA-9 analogue preamplifier. This is the unsung hero in the NuPrime range – resolutely analogue and running in pure Class A, you couldn’t ask for a simpler product that sounds great and even has an excellent phono stage built in. Originally intended as a headphone amplifier (and there are 3 outputs for this), I’ve found it to be a supremely capable preamplifier that adds quality and drive to almost any system.
Match this with the proven STA-9 120 watt power amplifier and you have a combination that will make the most of almost any form of music coming and and drive any speaker system you wish to connect. And don’t forget the STA-9 can be easily bridged so you can upgrade your system to two mono 280 watt power amps at any stage in the future.
We’ve been completely spoilt for choice with new speakers lately – the new Monitor Audio Silver series or Studios would be obvious choices for this system. But we’ve always loved what Sonus faber do and right now the Chameleon T’s are by far our best value speaker proposition – these are a full sized floor standing speaker the combine the essential ‘voice’ of Sonus faber with the efficiency, depth and solidity you’d expect with two bass drivers in a generously ported cabinet that stands around 1m high. Throw in a choice of Italian racing red or beautifully finished walnut side panels and you have a speaker system that looks every bit as good as it sounds.
Combined with the NuPrime electronics and the Wax Engine turntable, the Chameleons do pretty much everything you could ever hope for – above all they produce the kind of sound that you can just fall into – rich and warm but always involving enough to keep you coming back for more.
Good as all the individual parts are, it’s the connections that make them work and turn it into a functioning system. The timely arrival of a new generation of cables from Keith Eichmann delivered a transparency and balance that is difficult to describe but easy to understand once you hear it. As it stands, this system includes two of the new ‘special’ gPower3 AC power cables, a couple of pairs of the the new QFlow3 analogue interconnects, a set of 2m QFlow7 speakers cables plus the matching bi-wire jumpers. And from the turntable we use a custom made Mogami interconnect with the KLEI Absolute Harmony RCA plugs – this ensures a complete absence of hum which is often the by-product of in -ine power supplies.
It says something about how I regard the importance of connections that when we do a quick add up of all the cables used, if considered as a component, they are the most costly part of this system. Sound crazy? My question to you would be what do you think would make this system perform at a higher level for less? We could change individual components, but would they really improve the system as a whole? And anyway, it would be easy enough to select Keith’s entry level KLEI cables which deliver a remarkably consistent performance – this would quickly bring the total back in line with the individual components.
The nature of component systems is that they are often built up over time – so you may only take one or two parts of the above system as being relevant to you. Think of it as a bit of a real world testbed.
What you’ll find striking is that you could migrate from the little D-Stream system in my office, to the NuPrime 9 based system above, and then to the boots and all Well Tempered/Nuprime Evolution set up, and not feel short changed at any step. Obviously as we go up there are marked improvements in qualities such as detail and precision, a vast increase in available power and dynamics. But each gets to the heart of music and is genuinely enjoyable. We’re not about audio elitism – I’m happy to work at the level you are comfortable with and will do my best to put together the best sound at whatever that happens to be.
Consonance Wax Engine Turntable $1695
Dynavector DV 10X5Mk2 $1100
NuPrime CDP-9 player and DAC $2800
NuPrime HPA-9 preamp $1250
NuPrime STA-9 power amplifier $1250
Sonus faber Chameleon T speakers – on special – were $5000+ Now $2700 (red panels) $3000 (walnut)
KLEI gPower3 AC cables 1m $750
KLEI QFlow3 Interconnects $900
KLEI QFlow 7 Speaker cables 2m $1575
KLEI Q7 Bi-wire jumpers $320.
At the same time as I’ve been writing this, my partner Carolijn has been working through the new Vifa range of wireless speakers from the remarkable little Reykjavik (just $429) though to their elegantly proportioned Stockholm ($2700). Read her take here.
Hifi is about seduction, is it not? After all music is emotionally charged. As a woman in the HiFi industry, I see a lot of contradiction. In the western oriented milieu it occupies, emotion is considered effeminate and seduction is largely in the male domain. Much Hifi therefore, has been designed to counteract the feminine, emotive aspect; to put the macho in its construction. Moreover, to construct an image of HiFi that belongs to the man cave and HiFi forums, with jealous possession.
Over the years we have seen this image shoot itself in the foot and unhappy Hifi buyers who sought to play an ego-enhancing game. HiFi is a word that can’t seem to escape this connotation, and one that is stuck in the time of ‘Mad Men.’ The HiFi industry grapples with its own identity.
Oh, how we at Totally Wired have disliked this incongruous image, long rallied against it and sought out others of like mind! For us, ‘music systems’ better describe what we sell – that is ‘systems’ that produce ‘music,’ and music is loved by everyone. This has broad scope because it covers the ‘how’ you like to listen to music, and the ‘why’ you like to listen to music. In other words, what a music system does for you. And there we come back to seduction.
By now you’ll be wondering where I’m going with this. That place is the now, the Anthropocene, where humankind collides with nature and simulacra dulls our senses. Yet the ineluctable pull of music endures. In response, inspired engineers, alongside imaginative visual designers, are producing engaging music systems to meet new yearnings, ones with longevity and small footprints. It is our job to research the HiFI quagmire for the best options, and in the case of separate components compose the particular music system that will enthral you.
Wireless loudspeakers in exclusive Nordic design: Vifa
Late 2017 we were introduced to the Danish Vifa music systems. These are single unit “portable, wireless, wifi, bluetooth loudspeakers” – there’s no simple word that describes them. The Vifa story is one of a company who in 2014 boldly re-invented themselves for ‘the now.’ They had an 80 year history of making some of the the most sought after drivers for loudspeakers. As Wiki will tell you, “a speaker driver is an individual loudspeaker transducer that converts an electrical audio signal to sound waves.” This is the Vifa technical heritage, and one, that given the quality and reputation of their product, could happily have continued with, but they chose to take a new path.
Vifa clearly challenged themselves to use the mastery they had to develop new drivers, along with the environment (cabinets), they were placing them in, the amplifiers to power them, and the digital processing to control, with the end goal of being optimal for music reproduction. To our experienced ears they succeeded.
With the digital wave providing new ways of sourcing music Vifa were able put their technical prowess into specially developed speaker drivers, and place them in single unit designs that people could simply send their music to – or radio stations, podcasts, Spotify, or whatever their digital source could store or access. Your options are wide open.
Vifa designers looked to their Nordic environs, even reached into the Nordic psyche, to visualise sound producing objects with tangible appeal. Objects that, in their words, give ‘timeless sound experience,’ and furthermore, that ‘the listening experience’ was the key to the solutions they arrived at. Their starting point, they say, was respect – for materials, details and for the user. Art, interior, textiles are visible in their creations.
So what does all this mean? To us, who give counsel on music systems? To you, who look for inspirational objects in your life? For us both, who seek music listening devices to live with, and enjoy? Firstly, it is our objective to provide you with what you desire; and to give you choice through a defined range of selected options determined by our experience and knowledge. Vifa is noteworthy and comes with our recommendation. Here is my review.
It is their distinctive character that first captures attention. These do not match the perception of HiFi. For a start, they are individual, portable units for unencumbered, mobile lifestyles; for individuals to own, and to share as they wish. Yet their textile outer imbues a sense of home and interior comfort. The strong cast aluminium frames with tactile satin-matt finish, exudes security, and to give authenticity the ‘vifa’ brand name is stamped in. Aluminium, of course, is chosen for its light-weight strength. Both textile and frame appear highly durable. To take them further away from looking like electrical appliances the most used control buttons, and indicator lights are embroidered into the front fabric. Lesser needed buttons are within easy reach on the back, indented and engraved for touch control. Understated and refined.
Yet our inner psyche likes interconnections and Vifa have been mindful of this. The wool fabric of the Vifas remind our us of warm soft jerseys, and with the embroidered buttons, reminiscent of early loudspeakers. The shape and carry handles of the Oslo and Copenhagen harken back to early portable radios.There’s no doubt the Helsinki will have you thinking Dior-esque handbag. There really is delight in these products that inspire Disney-like imagination, and that is where the art of Vifa comes in. They weave modernism with environment. They truly are products of this Anthropecene era. Take the smallest of the range, the Reykjavik – think bleached driftwood and sand, time-worn river stones, gems exciting prospectors, the shape of your palm, and the sense of touch through your skin. Now add to this cutting edge technology that enables extraordinary 360 degree sound through a small unit that works hand-in-hand with your mobile device.
So if you want a little bluetooth speaker in your life you’ll find no more pleasurable a one than the Reykjavik – and that pleasure carries over if buying it as a gift. The same goes for the other two portable models, Helsinki and Oslo. The mobile Helsinki with luxury leather strap (optional shoulder length on available), has unabashed vogue appeal, whereas others may prefer Oslo. Oslo evokes city apartment living and warm summers evenings on balconies and decks. These are music systems in their own right giving you choice in where you can listen to music, in seamless concert with bluetooth sources, on your own or when socialising.
Here I’m going to jump to the largest of the range, Stockholm – one of the two in the Vifa Home series. Vifa have five models in total – Portable: Reykjavik, Helsinki and Oslo; Home: Copenhagen and Stockholm. All named after Nordic cities of course, and they certainly do reflect clean Scandinavian deign.
The Home models are exactly that because not only can they bluetooth, they can Wifi, AirPlay, and multiple units can connect to form whole house systems. Of all the range Stockholm is the only one that does not have an inbuilt battery. Its big, so needs to be plugged into the power. Saying that I have no trouble picking it up and moving it around the house. On first sight its long shape suggests sound bar- but it is so very not! Listening to Stockholm tells me that its long shape is really like having pair of good stereo speakers in a single unit – that is why it is long. Not so it can perform tricky sound processing but so it can play music – in stereo. Like a good pair of stereo speakers there is imaging, ie. the (blah), HiFi term that describes hearing left and right dispersion of sound as well as merging into the centre. In other words emulating how things sound when at a live performance. You can place the individual instruments and vocals, and have a sense of space. This is what makes Stockholm a credible music system.
And one worthy of your attention – should you be after a sub-$3000 system for listening to your digital sources, most especially if simplicity appeals in an ‘anti-HiFi’ kind of way. The other reason to look at Stockholm is if you are thinking multi-room. The Vifa ‘Home’ app make it so easy, and the sound and style of the Vifas are light years ahead of the other boring wireless contenders. The Vifas are unobtrusive and don’t dominate your life, or aesthetically a room,
The Stockholm cabinet while wide is not very high and very little deep – I won’t go into specifics as you can jump into our webpage for that or jump over to the Vifa site. The various designs of the Vifas are individually all encompassing with every aspect of each one optimised for its purpose and size. All manner of technical challenges in building high performing loudspeakers are met. Stockholm produces the full array of high tinkly details down to deep warm depths, instruments are clearly picked out (pianos sound beautiful), voices fully nuanced, and there’s powerful low thumps when the music has them. Both the Stockholm and the Copenhagen are capable enough to be main music systems in your home, fill large rooms and can come alive at party volume – within reason, of course.
The rechargeable battery and carry handle which Copenhagen have means it is more easily moved around and placed. It too produces the kind of sound quality described above, and with its ease of use is my ‘go-to’ for playing music at home. Vifa homes will typically have a Stockholm, a Copenhagen or two, along with family member’s choice of portable Vifas.
The Vifas are without a doubt sumptuous, and have an aesthetically seductive appeal which alone is enough to make anyone want one. Yet even after months of having them in the house I still find when one is playing I do a second take thinking it is one of the larger music systems going. They fill our large room that well, and somehow, as if by magic these single unit systems produce music with clarity and fullness, separating out the sounds and instruments beyond what you would expect. I’d suggest to anyone thinking of a new music system or bluetooth companion to cast your eye over the Vifas and step into the HiFi Anthropecene.
The new QFlow7 bi-wire jumpers and Classic Harmony Banana plugs from Keith Loius Eichmann Innovations (KLEI) at Totally Wired:
Find out why this is the best and most affordable upgrade for almost all speakers and stereo cables. The story starts with a simple banana plug…
All about the new Monitor Audio Silver 6G 300 floorstanding speakers, the new Well Tempered Simplex turntable, your best choices in the Tivoli Radio range and wrap up of Cambridge’s latest disc players.