since our last e-zine found its way to you in February. To say a lot has happened since is an understatement. Yet despite this we’ve been busier than ever. There have been a multitude of new components, and with many of you spending more time at home there have been a lot of new systems and upgrades going on.
have been upgrading their range at a frenetic pace in 2022. In February we introduced you to the Evolution STA stereo power amplifier which has since gained some excellent reviews, but the real action is at the other, more affordable end of their range. The new STA-9X stereo power amplifier fulfils the same functions as the Evolution STA but packs it in a far smaller box at a fraction of the price, and even has some tricks that the flagship model doesn’t. The STA-9X has the highest switching speed of any NuPrime model and while 130 watts a side is plenty for most, you can bridge it with a flick of a switch and turn it into a fearsome 330 watt mono power amplifier!
The original STA-9 was no slug but the sound quality from the 9X version is next level, and in terms of quality not far short of the AMG series. In fact for some listeners it may even be better. The AMG series are quite distinct in character from the sound of other NuPrime models, yet the 9X takes the lucidity and power of the classic NuPrime and Nuforce designs to something that is way above the entry level intentions of the original ‘9’. While Nuprime have an almost bewildering array of power amplifier options, the new STA-9X is easily the best value of all in terms of performance for the price – NZ$2400.
The all analogue PRA-9X preamplifier (NZ$2300) and it’s digital sibling, the DAC-9X (NZ$2500) do similar things on the preamp front – both are completely new balanced designs to match the STA-9X and stories in their own right. They look remarkably similar, so you can see the the economies of scale happening, but they are radically different inside – the PRA-9X builds upon NuForce’s, and more recently NuPrime’s history in high end preamplifier design. There’s an excellent headphone section, phono preamplifier, and both balanced and RCA inputs and outputs. Not to mention remote control. The DAC-9X is the third iteration of the 9 series DAC and moves to a Sabre chipset – the headphone section and updated array of digital inputs (plus one analogue), make this the effective replacement for the more costly and highly respected DAC-10H.
Even better, is the new AMG DAC– a thing of beauty in both physical and aural senses. Like the other models in this range, the DAC has a fluid and highly refined sonic signature – the resolution is astonishing, and there has been particular care placed on the design of the analogue output stage.
A new IA-9 integrated amplifier is due for release in December, as are flagship Evolution Two mono blocks, the AMG One mono block, and a new twist on the classic STA-100.
The word on streaming network components, Lumin are at the top of their game. The last 12 months have seen Lumin introduce a series of new models and we’ve had our work cut out covering them all so let’s look at some review highlights.
“The Lumin P1 network player (NZ$20,500) is a standout in so many ways. Its feature set, which combines network streaming, a high-quality DAC, and a multi-input preamplifier, is perfectly suited to today’s music systems. With full MQA decoding and Roon-Ready status, the P1 leaves no important item off the table…. Audio products that combine many capabilities into a single component in the pursuit of low cost or convenience often do so at the expense of sound quality—a case of “jack of all trades, master of none.” But the Lumin P1 defies that stereotype—I’ll call it a “master of all trades.” Robert Harley, The Absolute Sound September 2022.
The U2 Mini(NZ$4500) has been an immediate hit with us – being both one of the most affordable Lumin components yet delivering a jaw dropping level of performance when connected to existing DACs. The U2 Mini is the perfect addition to many systems and will show you just how good streaming can sound.
“To put it bluntly, this is not in line with the price level and a similar impression could be expected from [products] at least twice as expensive. ” SoundRebels
The best selling Lumin T2 has just been replaced by the T3 (NZ$9500). This is the sweet spot in the Lumin range. The improvements made are subtle but significant – finish quality lifted to X1/P1 levels, and a new-for-2022 processing system allowing the T3 to do more and be better at it. The price has increased due to exchange rates, but the T3 is now even better value in real terms –
“Two things make it stand out from the crowd. First is the excellent sound quality, its dynamics and sheer drive giving life and excitement to music. Secondly, the ongoing software maintenance and support from the factory provide peace of mind and confidence in the purchase being future-proof. The assurance of timely customer assistance and cost-free feature upgrades for many years is a big drawcard because, in my view, a digital device is only as good as its support. It’s more than just an update to the popular T2, then. In reality, the new LUMIN T3 is an ever better sounding device than its predecessor – with skilful improvements that make it one of the finest players at its price point.” Stereonet October 2022.
“In addition to reproducing beautiful voices and and solo instruments, the Lumin T3 and AMP really shined on one of my favorite pieces of music with quite a bit going on, to say the least. Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Le Sacre du Printemps, has been a go-to track for me recently. I love the music and I love when stellar audio components reproduce it wonderfully. The Lumin components handled this track effortlessly, while putting its brilliance on full display.” Audiophile Style October 2022
We’ve got several Lumin based systems set up and running here so, if you’re wanting to hear for yourself, just drop us a line.
We’re long time Sonus faber enthusiasts so, it’s been a pleasure for us to build magnificent systems around Sonus faber’s hand crafted speakers this last winter for our clients. From the affordable new Lumina range (which has recently been expanded with the II and V models), through Sonetto, the classic Minima Amator II and Electa amator III, to the even better Olympica Nova collection. If anything the problem is supply – with the combination of Covid disruptions in Italy, long freight times and greater than expected demand we’ve been working hard to keep the most popular models on hand.
Sonus faber pull out the stops with their latest release: the Omnia all-in-one system is evocative of a James Bond lifestyle – curvaceous and sleek with a beautiful walnut top panel inlaid with a series of illuminated strips that also serve as control and display, and the dash panel of a high performance car, the deck of a bespoke Italian speedboat.
Given we’ve also got the latest iteration of the classic Tivoli Music system, which likewise sports a handsome walnut finish and shares a very similar feature set; how do they actually compare? I’ve had both running in my office for the last couple of months and it’s been quite the trip, which you can read about here.
On the analogue front it’s been almost as busy; the new Well Tempered Labs Kauri II MC cartridge, handcrafted from 45,000 year old swamp kauri is an absolute delight. The Well Tempered turntable range has continued to be improved and expanded with models ranging from the latest Wax Engine (a defacto WTL design), the Simplex II, the new Amadeus JR, Versalex and Amadeus 254. The new and very best WTL Phono Stage is also just in.
Nagaoka have released two new affordable, but extremely good sounding Moving magnet cartridge models ($450 and $995) “To keep it short: We have hardly ever listened to a better pickup for this price. The extremely linear top-of-the-range Jeweltone sounds so natural, resolved and fanned out that it provides nothing but pleasure… the “BK” displays an inherently noble perfection, especially since it also does without “artificial freshness” in the form of brightened upper frequencies. In addition, it features a gnarly bass, differentiated down to the smallest facets, which perfectly complements the fine trebles at the other end of the spectrum.”stereomagazine .com
“I can also be enthusiastic about MMs, but only a few have really swept me off my feet. Such as the Nagaoka JT-80 BK. Its black body delivers a scope of colour which is just unparalleled. One of the best MM systems ever.” audio.de
Finally, while our brush with Covid in June didn’t seem too bad at the time, the effects have lingered, and we’re making a concerted effort not to catch it again. Despite this we’ve had a whole lot happening outside Totally Wired. Carolyn has been busy at university tutoring disability students and other classes, the Halo Project ‘Source to Sea‘ planting program on our little farm has continued – we’ve now got over 3000 natives in and a big section of river fenced off. And, after spending almost 4 years as Finance Manager for the Deep South Greens I’ve moved on to become a board member for NZAVS – the New Zealand Anti Vivisection Society.
We’ll be on deck right through to Christmas, and as always, have time to answer your enquiries and requests. Plus we’ve got all the goodies to make your festive season sing 😃
Looking forward to hearing back from you – John & Carolyn at Totally Wired.
As we make the move to streaming services, for many, the idea of an elegant and simple system as a substitute for the traditional collection of components, makes sense. So, it’s time to seriously look at all-in-one systems. The aim is to fill your room with quality music. Let’s learn about how to make this happen.
Pictured above - Tivoli Music System Home Gen 2 (NZ$1800) on the left, Sonus faber Omnia NZ$3500) on the right.
Both Tivoli and Sonus faber have been core brands for us for the better part of 20 years. While they come from opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of price, they both have sound quality at the heart of what they do. The more you know about the history of both, the more parallels you see.
So here we are in 2022 with two complete systems from Tivoli and Sonus faber that come to a remarkably similar end point – the best Tivoli sound ever and the most affordable SF experience ever; how do they compare?
How we listen to music has changed remarkably since the inception of both companies, yet they have adapted, and indeed excelled in meeting the challenges of a rapidly evolving market. We’ve gone from analogue to digital and CDs to streaming. Yet the basics of what makes great sound haven’t changed that much; while being technically adept is a given, being able to deliver a sound that’s both satisfying and involving takes more and that’s where the experience of both companies comes to the fore.
The Tivoli is a funky almost retro design with roots in modernism. If you’re into architecture – it adheres to the ‘less is more’ dictum and has just 3 front panel controls. The brushed aluminium front plate, light fabric speaker covers and curved walnut cabinet are design statements in their own right.
Sonus faber pull out the stops with their aesthetic; the Omnia is evocative of a James Bond lifestyle, curvaceous and sleek with a beautiful walnut top panel inlaid with a series of illuminated strips that also serve as control and display. The dash panel of a high performance car, the deck of a bespoke Italian speedboat.
Both components have their roots in previous models. Tivoli originally produced a system of separate components which were then amalgamated into a single box – the first epnonymous ‘Tivoli Music System’. They improved upon this with the ‘Art’ system – their first foray into wifi. The new Gen 2 system is vastly better again and we’ll explain why shortly.
The first Sonus faber model ever was a wildly unconventional speaker system in 1980 dubbed ‘the snail’ which probably loses something in the translation from the original Italian.
In 2016 this concept was revisited with their first all in one system – the SF16 – which was extravagantly engineered and had the end price to reflect this. These provided the groundwork for the much more affordable Omnia. Read more about these here.
While Tivoli and Sonus faber have their roots in Europe and the US, they make the most of the unarguable advantages of Chinese manufacture to keep their systems both affordable and consistent in quality. Tivoli have long done this and Sonus faber gained valuable experience with their Venere range which informs the Omnia.
Underneath the physical, is the controlling software which is at the heart of any streaming experience. In the recent past many companies attempted their own controlling Apps but this has proved to be a massively difficult challenge for all but a few, so both Sonus faber and Tivoli concentrate on broad compatibility. Apple AirPlay 2, Google, direct connection to Spotify and Tidal, Bluetooth AptX.
While ‘Bluetooth speaker’ has become shorthand for a plethora of devices there is a world of difference between those and the two systems we’re examining; what we have are viable alternatives to the traditional component systems. I’ll go further – it’s difficult if not impossible to construct an equivalently priced conventional two speaker and amp system that matches either the sound quality or capabilities of these options. While we have undeniably higher performance options in separates, they can and do cost significantly more.
The Tivoli and Sonus faber systems give you great ‘out of the box’ performance and relatively simple operation that anyone can easily master. But in both cases you can fine tune and optimise to reach a really worthwhile level of performance. I’ve now spent a lot of time with both systems, in my office and in our living room, and have to say, I’m impressed. So let’s look at them individually.
First the Tivoli Music System Home Gen 2. While previous iterations have included a CD player, the improvements made with both this system and streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify have rendered disc playing effectively obsolete – there’s no longer any sound quality advantage, and to not have to deal with both the cost and inherent reliability issues of disc spinning enables you to have a considerably better sounding system at around the same price as the older version.
if you don’t absolutely need a CD player, the new Gen 2 is an easy choice over the original CD Playing Music System BT version which is still sporadically available. Tivoli Radios have been a phenomenon over the years simply because they made radio sound appreciably better and anyone could hear this.
The new Music System is just the same in this regard but what really stands out initially is the bass – it’s amazingly muscular and defined. In part this is because the default condition is to have the bass boost turned on which is a slightly cunning marketing choice and for many genres, I’d be more than happy to stay at this setting. The Tivoli does convincingly pull off the ‘sounds bigger than it is trick’ but in fairness I’ve gone back to the flat setting when making comparisons.
The Tivoli employs 4 forward-firing drivers, so it’s mimicking a pair of small bookshelf speakers, and this is very much how it sounds – hence bass, even when boosted, remains coherent and tuneful. The earlier Music System used a downwards firing subwoofer which doesn’t work as well. 4 higher quality drivers work better than 5 lesser units.
The feet that the Tivoli stands on aren’t an affectation – they work in a similar way to quality speaker stands, isolating the unit from the shelf and allowing it to better project sound without colouration. It sounds great in almost any setting and isn’t compromised by placement.
Being a Tivoli, there is a very capable radio section with FM and AM (DAB is in there for other countries). The selectivity and sensitivity is on par with other Tivoli models, but as always your location relative to transmission will determine the number of stations and how good the sound. Add to this an auxillary line input, bluetooth and optical inputs.
I really like this Tivoli – you’ll hear the quality of drivers and the construction in the same way that I do – the sound is sweet and balanced. There’s often surprising levels of detail and it makes differences in source quality obvious. Being still a bit of an Apple person I do a lot of my listening via AirPlay, and it’s hard to fault. Tidal works exactly as it should and what I listen to with the direct connection is surprisingly good considering we’ve got Lumin based systems here that are vastly more costly. But, I’m actually happiest playing albums from my Bandcamp collection on the Tivoli – it gets vocals right, in a way that the brand always has.
The Tivoli probably hasn’t got the love it deserves from both us and the hifi world in general as we’ve been chasing more esoteric systems, plus your traditional Tivoli owner has permanently bonded with their little table or portable radio and can’t quite get their heads around a complete wifi based system. While it may not appeal to everyone, I’m a big fan of the modernist aesthetic that’s inspired Tivoli – put it beside your Eames chair and you’ve got the classic form follows function thing happening. Not so much timeless like the original Tivoli’s but also a lot better than most of the bland me-to designs out there.
Which brings us to the Sonus faber Omnia. Described as an all-in-one high end wireless speaker by a company that defines both luxury audio and the high end of loudspeaker design, the Omnia demands to be taken seriously. While by far the most affordable way to get into Sonus faber, it’s significantly more than the Tivoli system, despite the obvious functional similarities between the two. So just how and why is the Sonus faber better?
The Omnia sits lower, longer and sleeker than the Tivoli. Its curves hide 7 separate speakers – a frontal array of four midrange and treble drivers, two side firing units and a down facing subwoofer all driven by a total of 490 watts of Class D amplifier. The Omnia is described as a Stereo 4 way DSP optimised closed box system. While Tivoli have never disclosed any specification, Sonus faber give us both the above power rating and a frequency response of 30 Hz to 25kHz. This is right in the territory of their larger floor standing loudspeakers.
Not to take anything away from the Tivoli, the Sonus faber is dramatically better but it’s also more demanding when it comes to getting the most out of it. And to do this you really do need to read the on-line manual and set it up properly. There are several options in the webpage based menu – loudness compensation, the Crescendo DSP and free or near wall positioning that all have a significant effect on the sound.
As you’d expect the Sonus faber Omnia delivers a much more expansive spacious sound. The Omnia also has a pronounced run in period as both electronics and drivers settle in and being to move as they should. So straight out of the box the two systems do sound more alike but over time the performance diverges and you really start to understand just how much work and experience has been poured into the Sonus faber system.
As we’ve already intimated, both the Tivoli and Sonus faber Omnia have forms of bass control which is set to the higher level as the default – with Tivoli it’s straight forward front panel adjustment. The Omnia can be reset for via its setup webpage and a QR code and we’d recommend that you do this at the outset or if listening, make sure you know how the unit is set up. For more information on this the FAQ section on Sonus fabers Ominia page is excellent. As is the set up video.
Sonus faber has gone through a process of renewal since the passing of founder Franco Serblin. Without giving up on their heritage of craftsmanship and a devotion to an organic and emotionally involving sound, the influence of a new younger generation of designers and their more modern musical tastes is undeniable and made obvious in new ranges such as the Lumina series.
The Omnia system is part of this new ecosystem and brings the values of Sonus faber to a whole new audience. And enables existing Sonus faber owners to have a simple streaming system you can enjoy and recommend to your friends and family.
The Sonus faber Omnia is, as the name suggests, trying to be the best of all worlds. The speaker array and use of plywood may be an inadvertent echo of the Shahinian designs – Omnia is effectively omni-directional. So rather that relying on a pair of separated speakers to produce a stern image between them, Omnia projects outwards and applies some DSP – Digital Signal Processing – given the more musical name of ‘Crescendo’.
And this works remarkably well – the Omnia creates a sense of space and scale with a credible soundstage that’s apparent not just from a frontal listing position but all through the room. In an open plan environment the Sonus faber sound carries and remains coherent and balanced in a way that considerably more costly forward firing conventional speakers often fall short of. In technical terms the off axis performance is remarkable. This is something we aim for in our best systems but to have a delivery at this level is something else.
You can easily hear the difference the Crescendo processing makes as it can be switched off in the webpage menu – personally I’d never want to be without it now I’ve tried this. It’s positively cinematic and funnily enough does wonderful things with soundtracks. Extending this theme, the light show from the top panel display plus the downlight highlighting the subwoofer is quite spectacular in a darkened room and makes Omnia a real centre of attention (and you can opt for a power down mode which keeps things civilised when you’ve gone to bed).
Tonally, the Omnia is agile and alive in the same way as the Sonus faber’s new Lumina speakers. Both can really kick when you want, but never break into harshness. Give Omnia great signal via the likes of Tidal connect and it can really open out with a power and authority that is directly comparable with serious larger speakers.
Both the Tivoli and Sonus faber do background music perfectly – at these lower levels, the differences between the two diminish and in both cases, with bass management you’ll get a pleasingly rich sound. The real contrasts between these systems become obvious when you take things further. Be it an orchestra in full flight or something a whole lot modern and challenging, the Sonus faber Omnia will quickly show you why it’s at the next level.
There are two other significant features that the Sonus faber has; The Omnia is Roon ready which is important for many with a stored digital music library. And it comes with a phono stage (which can be switched to line level). This input offers very good sound quality which more than justifies a quality turntable such as the similarly priced Well Tempered Simplex 2 which just happens to share the Omnia’s plywood accents.
These systems offer you an honest certainty in terms of performance; they have enough adjustment to allow you to get the sound you want in any environment and placement. The rapidly improving sound quality associated with streaming services and almost infinite choice of music, combined with software and firmware for the actual units mean you can look forward enjoying them more over time.
Each could be the perfect office or bedroom system yet both have the talents to be your primary music listening system. It really just depends on your level of expectation and budget. For this article I’ve made a conscious choice not to listen to our much more costly systems as a comparison and have looked at both the Tivoli and Sonus faber on their own merits. The Omnia in particular has won me over – it generates a remarkable sense of space, a very real soundstage. And I absolutely love the look; if this is a reinterpretation of how a modern music system should be, count me in.
Tivoli Music System Home Gen 2 NZ$1800 including GST & delivery.
The connection between your amplifier and speakers is critical to the sound quality you enjoy, but is all too easily taken for granted. It’s quite probable that you already have some cable that you regard as being reasonably good that has given service for a significant number of years. Over the better part of 3 decades we’ve certainly seen untold metres of various brands go out with both new, and to existing systems. There’s always been a bit of a balancing act between length, performance, and appropriate pricing, for the system it goes in to. More than any other audio component there is no one size fits all solution.
We’ve heard a lot, we’ve learnt a lot.
There’s been a lot of development and much of the conventional wisdom around speaker cables has proven to be not quite as settled as you might have been led to believe. What we can tell you is that if you’d like to make a really worthwhile improvement to the sound of your system, better speaker cables are a great place to start. If you read on, we’ll step you through some of the principles and guide you to the ideal speaker cables for your own system.
You will hear a difference.
Because cables, home music systems, and the production and delivery of the of the music we listen to, have all got a lot better, the improvement cables can make is magnified. So there’s never been a better time to get into a nicer set of speaker cables.
In the past, the effect of plugs used to terminate speaker cables was equivocal at best. And with good reason. They had utility value in making them easy to plug in and out, hopefully were insulated to stop you short circuiting and damaging your amplifier, (which frayed bare cables are really good at,) and sometimes looked really cool. But underneath they are almost always brass which has conductivity of just 28% of pure copper. The gold plating is less bad but it’s still only 70%. So you can instantly see where the problem is.
Enter the new KLEI Harmony banana plug – with a mix of silver and copper alloys, the conductivity of this plug is actually greater (around 106%) than the purest copper. When used on appropriate speaker cables, the improvement in transmission is immediately obvious – there’s simply more of everything in terms of music. Detail, clarity, bass, treble and everything in between. And as plugs go, the KLEI Hamony’s are one of the more affordable.
This has given me a new appreciation of our proven Kimber speaker cables. All the principles of good design are there with Kimber – ultra pure copper for optimal transmission, a mix of strand sizes to better deal with the full range of frequencies, carefully chosen dielectric and a patented geometry to eliminate RF interference.
While there are many choices with Kimber, two particular speaker cables stand; out 4VS and 4TC. I’ll explain why…
Both are easily terminated with the KLEI Harmony plugs. The heavier 8 and 12 strand versions aren’t but here’s the trick – the KLEI plugs can be stacked with no sonic compromise allowing for very easy bi-wiring or even ‘shot-gun’ cabling (two sets of cable side by side). This works especially well with larger speakers and is in line with Kimber’s own recommendations.
The lower cost Kimber 4PR is still great value for money cable, but if looking at shorter runs the fixed cost of putting 8 plugs on means there’s little actual dollar difference between 4PR and 4VS but there is a worthwhile performance difference, primarily because of the variable stranding in the latter. However, if looking at longer runs of around 4m or more, Kimber 4PR becomes proportionally more affordable.
‘4PR impressed us in a very positive way with its combination of detail, bass extension and sweetness. It has a very convincing way with deep bass, keeping it under tight rein while allowing it to blossom when needed and maintaining precise pitch and duration in a way few budget cables can match.Treble is extended, but never shrill, while the midrange is mainly characterised by the ease with which one can hear into and through it. Imaging has very good depth to it as well as width.‘ Tech Radar
4VS really opens things out when you compare it with 4PR. As noted above, the different gauges of conductor bundled into 4VS delivers better bass and more extended and detailed treble. ‘Agility and expression, great detailing, fluid sound.’ If you have larger speakers you’ll really benefit from bi-wiring with 4VS.
4TC is even better again. ‘Excellent Speed And Clarity. Out of the box, Kimber 4TC surprise me at its price, the performance surpass my expectation, the sound speed and clarity are awesome, the musicality articulated very well, it is smear-free and sibilant-free !’ With 4TC the benefits of the KLEI plugs are even more obvious.
That said, if you can make it work, shorter cables are better. When cable is sold by the metre, it’s obvious that the shorter your cable, the better it can be at any fixed budget. If you can rearrange or reposition your system to reduce cable length it’s got to be a good thing. But don’t compromise on optimal speaker positioning – if they sound best well out from the wall and with a good degree of separation, then any improvement you make with better speaker cables will be made more apparent.
So thereare 4 steps – Kimber 4VS, 4VS bi-wired, 4TC then 4TC bi-wired. At each stage you’ll enjoy a significant and worthwhile improvement to all aspects of your music.
Kimber 4VS speaker cable sets with KLEI Harmony Banana Plugs fitted per pair: 4VS 2 + 2m set $360, 3 + 3m set $440, 4 + 4m set $520, 5 + 5m set $600
Kimber 4TC speaker cable sets with KLEI Harmony Banana Plugs fitted per pair: 4TC 2 + 2m set $580, 3 + 3m set $770, 4 + 4m set $960, 5 + 5m set $1150.
Kimber Kable: 4VS per metre $40; 4TC per metre $95
KLEI Harmony Banana Plugs: $160 per set of 8 + $40 fitting per set.
Once we’re at bi-wired sets of 4TC you’re at around $190 per metre plus plugs. Yet compared to the cost of our better components it’s just a start…
So when you get to the point of looking at two sets of Kimber 4TC, the KLEI QFlow speaker cables come into the frame. Rather than coming off a roll, each set of KLEI cables is hand made so there’s a little more organisation involved in getting them over from Australia (Keith Eichmann is based in Brisbane), but if we don’t have what you want in stock, it’s generally only two weeks between order and delivery. But what you’ll get in return is compelling – a smoother, more expansive sound with appreciably better bass, a real sense of space around the music and detail that you’ve never heard before.
Like Kimber, KLEI provide you with a series of progressively better options, and because of the plugs used, the bi-wire option remains open. So there are the entry level QFlow2 speaker cables, the QFlow3, QFlow7 and finally the QPurity8. The performance gains between these models are substantial.
Just how good are these cables? We can easily compare any of these models against some equivalently priced components and with very few exceptions, we, and a good number of our clients, have found that Keith’s cables provide the greatest overall improvement to a systems performance for the amount spent.
Many years ago Monster Cable suggested an arbitrary 10% of the total system price should be allocated to cable. But even then we quickly found that there were some sensational cables that transformed the sound of the systems they went into. Today we have access, not only to much better cables but also much better components and this means the gains to be made have been magnified. So it makes sense for you to treat cables as not just an accessory to a system, but components in their own right.
Better speaker cables will mean every source in your system gets to sound better. And the improved transparency granted by these cables mean that any subsequent upgrade to your system will be made that much more obvious. This is the counter to the so called ‘law of diminishing returns’.
*I remember the first time I heard Kimber 4VS – it was at home in my own rather modest little Linn system and it was actually less costly than the cable I had – yet it sounded far more full of life and I became an immediate convert. And to this day I’ve never found a better speaker cable for the money. 4VS has evolved with improved dielectric and now with the KLEI plugs you’re going to hear a greater improvement than I did.
Just as I had to hear the difference to be convinced I appreciate that you’ll feel the same way. That’s why I’ve got sets of Kimber 4VS and 4TC, and most of the KLEI speaker cables here for you to try in your own system. Drop us a line now and we’ll start you down the track to really making your system sing.
KLEI Speaker Cables – 2.0m sets, terminated with KLEI™PureQ Harmony Banana (Classic Harmony for the QFlow2)
QFlow2 SC NZ$925 including GST & delivery.
QFlow3 SC NZ$1585
QFlow7 SC NZ$2375
QPurity8 SC NZ$3170
2.5m sets, terminated with KLEI™PureQ Harmony Banana
QFlow2 SC NZ$1080 including GST & delivery.
QFlow3 SC NZ$1850
QFlow7 SC NZ$2770
QPurity8 SC NZ$3695
3.0m sets, terminated with KLEI™PureQ Harmony Banana
It’s one thing to find a great sounding stereo component but it’s another to build a complete system that makes the most if it.
In the first few months of this year we have brought you a wonderful range of new loudspeakers called Lumina from our favourite Italians – Sonus faber. And now you can also learn about a fantastic family of new network music players from Lumin, based in Hong Kong. Finally we can show you how to combine the two into a brilliant system.
First up, the new Sonus fabers. We’ve published two reviews – one of the smaller and remarkably affordable Lumina I’s which are a continuation of the classic Sonus faber ethos. Yet it’s the floor standing Lumina III which is the real surprise – these are quite unique in the Sonus faber range and break new ground in terms of the style of sound. I’ve found a lot to like with them both – there’s some fresh thinking from Sonus faber and the designs are both aesthetically and sonically appealing on many levels.
Lumin Network players
Lumin do for digital what Sonus faber do for speakers – design and build components that stand above both the mass and specialist audio markets. The reviews for all the Lumin products are stellar. But there’s a world of difference between reading about and actually listening to a new brand. What we have heard is utterly compelling.
It’s not often we’ve been this impressed with new components but Lumin really is next level and opens up a whole new set of possibilities for you.
The whole concept of streaming can take a little bit to get your head around and we’ve intentionally held off from many other components as we were unconvinced by the sound quality, the complication and compromise that we saw. Lumin solves all these issues.
The Lumins are best described as Network Players. That is they play either music you have stored or access music via streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz and Spotify (which will soon be offering a high resolution option). And AirPlay is in the game as well.
A hugely important part of the experience, the free Lumin App is their vision of how to make music browsing and playback intuitive, visual, and tactile. So there are no front panel controls on the Lumins and only a simple display.
What really counts is on the inside – and the sound that comes out. There is a huge amount going on with both the internal workings and the resulting sound and the Lumin site is as good as it gets when it comes to explaining this with comprehensive, easy to understand descriptions and more reviews than any brand I’ve seen – everyone just loves what they hear.
What I can tell you is that Lumin works beautifully with the systems we’re putting together. And is producing a level of sound quality that easily beats anything we’ve been able to do before.
There’s an obvious comparison with NuPrime. But they are quite distinct in what they do and, if anything, are complimentary.
For anyone with a NuPrime DAC, IDA-16 or IDA-8, (or other quality DAC) there’s a Lumin component that’s going to transform your listening experience – the U1 Mini Network Transport (NZ$4000). There’s no obsolescence – the U1 Mini brings you into the world of streaming and the Lumin sound will make your entire system light up.
This is very much the traditional way to build up a high performance system. One piece at a time, carefully chosen. And it often works. Adding the Lumin U1 Mini to your present DAC is a very safe way to get into high performance streaming. It will also take you places you may not have expected. The better the quality of your present DAC, the greater the improvement you’ll experience with the U1 Mini.
Our own experience with the U1 Mini has been revelatory. We’ve documented our findings with many other brands of components and cables over the years and while we often found worthwhile improvements in performance it’s seldom that they are of either the magnitude or consistency that the U1 Mini has delivered.
In simple terms it sounds much better and does so across every type of music we’ve listened to.
What are we actually listening to? As someone with a large existing music collection – vinyl, CD’s and downloads, I’ve often questioned the logic behind streaming services. Lumin has changed this for us.
Tidal and Qobuz solve the quality issue – both offer CD or better quality, and between the two – Tidal being US based, and Qobuz having a more European focus, there is no need to consider either digitising LPs or ripping CDs as almost all titles you could ever want to listen to will be there. Or soon will be.
Spotify have also announced they will soon upgrade the quality of their service. Being a long time Mac user, AirPlay was the first way we used the Lumin. The results from this were the best I’ve heard, but it’s also become obvious that there are some limitations – while it’s excellent to get you up and running and also as a fallback option if there are any network or access issues, the step up in quality with either Tidal or Qobuz is obvious.
Tune In provides the best quality internet radio you’ll ever hear and is part of the Lumin app. It’s free and covers both New Zealand and the world.
We have retained our Nativ Vita touchscreen server as I do have a library of niche and high resolution music on its internal SSD. The Lumin seamlessly accesses everything on it via our network and it’s immediately obvious that anything we play has a lot more going on than when we had the Vita connected directly to the DAC. You can just as easily connect a SSD via USB into the back of the U1 Mini or access anything on your computer via your home network.
Initially I thought the U1 Mini was just the same as the D2 but without an internal DAC section. Same box, similar connections, same price. A classic rookie mistake. The U1 Mini is essentially the best bits of the NZ$11,000 U1 Reference series transport with an internal power supply (the U1 is a two box unit with an external power supply). Which is in turn derived directly from the flagship model S1. Again, read the reviews – there’s a pedigree here that stands above anything else we’ve dealt with before.
So what’s the difference between a network transport like the U1 Mini and a network player – the D2, T2 or X1?. It’s simply all in the DAC – the transport doesn’t have one so has to go into a digital input (the U1 mini puts out USB, Optical Coax, BNC and AES-EBU) but the Network Players have a hierarchy of ever more sophisticated internal DACs, and have both analogue and digital outputs.
These three Lumin models that include formidable DAC sections also have a very high quality volume control system and both fully balanced and more conventional RCA outputs. These are the best options for new systems, especially if you keep things simple and connect directly to a power amplifier (or two).
The Lumin D2(NZ$4000) does for digital what the Well Tempered Simplex 2 does for analogue – and then some. With the D2 you can build a stunningly simple and high performing system that gives you access to more music to enjoy than you could ever imagine.
The two models above the D2 take you even further. The Lumin X1 at NZ$22,000 including GST is the ultimate. Again, just start digging into the reviews and you’ll get the idea.
The Lumin T2 at NZ$8,000 gives more than a taste of the X1’s performance and build quality. The T2 hits the sweet spot for many of you. Well above entry level and perfect for matching with better quality amplifiers and speakers.
All you need is the Lumin Network player, a power amplifier, a pair of speakers and the few cables to connect them.
Making the most of Lumin.
What better amplifier to make the most of any of the Lumin options than the NuPrime AMG STA?
We have already explored the new AMG models in depth and the feedback from clients has been overwhelmingly positive. Add to this the two reviews by Christiaan Punter at HFA and you have a compelling case for this new amplifier. Here’s his conclusion.
“The AMG-PRA + AMG-STA form a beautiful combo, not only visually, but also in terms of sonic synergy, the preamp’s robust and full sound perfectly complimenting the power amp’s slightly leaner balance. The combined result is a musically always engaging sound that is solid and full-bodied, smooth and refined yet highly detailed and transparent, with perfect pacing, and great dynamics. Honestly, at 3200 euro, I haven’t heard a better amplifier, either integrated or separates.
As great as the combo is, the AMG-STA power amplifier really is the star of the show. On its own, it is capable of performing on a level that is well and truly beyond what might be expected from an amplifier at its price point. To be more precise: if the preamp already performs at a level that belies its price sticker, the power amp steals the show as it has the ability to perform on the level of amplifiers that typically cost multiples of its modest 1.595-Euro price. I am not kidding!
Combine the AMG-STA with a great volume-controlled DAC and you’ll have a nearly unbeatable system. Between single and dual amps, if ever there was a no-brainer decision, this is it. The pair simply raises the performance in each and every audiophile parameter, without harming the emotional involvement.“
I’ve highlighted the key sentence for you. The Lumin’s are great volume controlled DACs but there are even more reasons to select the AMG STA.
The Lumin network players are all full balanced designs and it’s strongly recommended you use this connection with them. The STA has it.
The AMG STA also has a far higher input impedance that almost all other power amplifiers – 1M(illion) Ohms, matched only by their flagship Evolution One Mono power amps – this is optimal for the Lumins.
The sound of bridged mono AMG STAs is better in every way than a single unit. As a combination with any to the Lumin models you’ll gain performance that’s directly comparable to insanely expensive systems.
The expressive nature of the Sonus faber speakers allow the Lumin/NuPrime combination to really shine. From the new Lumina I bookshelf and III floor standing speakers, through the Sonetto, Olympica Nova and Heritage ranges we’ve put together some magnificent systems that reflect the tastes and individuality of their owners.
The final link in this story are the KLEI cables. As a client recently wrote to us “Thanks again for sending up the KLEI cable. I tried my best to convince myself it was no better than my existing Wireworld Eclipse RCA cable but failed miserably. This KLEI is incredible. Seems to have all the space, depth and soundstage of a good Nordost cable while keeping the rich, musical tone and flow of Wireworld. They are genuinely astonishing. I think if more people knew about KLEI products and how they sound, they’d be banging down your door. I’d never heard of KLEI until I came across your website but they beat every other cable I’ve heard, at home or in shops, in my mere mortal price range at least.” Karel.
In the system options that we have outlined to you, there are 3 connections that will take the performance to the next level – the interconnect between the Lumin and NuPrime, speaker cables to your speakers and last but definitely not least, the mains cables.
That said, because all the actual components involved have significant warm up periods – a good 300 hours at least you may wish to start with entry level cables. It also takes a while to adjust to a new level of sound quality, deal with the operational learning curve of the Lumin App and get speaker positioning right. Over this time, the standard power cables provided with the Lumin and NuPrime will be fine. And our entry level Kimber cables rank highly in anyone’s estimation.
But when you are ready, the KLEI options will have the same transformative effect of any of the component choices. The AC mains cables are where you’d get the most immediate and cost effective performance gains and you have four choices from around $600. We’re more than happy for you to try any of these out for your self before making a commitment.
The KLEI interconnects – both analogue for the network players and digital for the U1 Mini are the next port of call. The KLEI QFlow7 balanced analogue interconnect is about as good as it gets in this setting. Then consider the speaker cables.
Hearing for yourself.
We presently have two full Lumin based systems here are ready for you to listen to. If you are one of our out of town clients we’re happy to organise a home trial – this effectively how we came to really appreciate Lumin, the NuPrime AMGs and KLEI cables ourselves. Now we can share the experience with you.
Heading into 2021 we’re looking for more of those moments. We have the means towards this particular end. First up are two components that have crystallised much of my thinking about how we listen to music and the qualities that are important when it comes to really enjoying what we hear.
Home. Our safe place, our place of sanctity, family HQ, escape. Whatever home means to you, home is where we revive our spirits, have a life that is our own, a place from which we look out to the world. Our daily routines help keep us stable and enjoying each day.
There have been ups and downs to this year, yet here in Aotearoa our ‘high social trust has resulted in a society essentially free of the virus.’ Happily, many have rediscovered home life and it is nice to see that music listening is part of that. Our own habits have changed and we’ve made the most of new technologies like streaming, podcasts and bluetooth, along with our ongoing love of analogue. Such things have played a big part in our coping with the new situation that the world found itself in. Studies have shown the benefits of listening to music. For everyone both music and being connected aid our sense of well-being. We certainly found this ourselves.
There was some initial anxiety in our household as due to our rural living, being reliant on mobile data and hotspots for internet connection some adjusting was required to handle the increased data use. Work-wise that was achieved and then, for entertainment came the challenge of being able to stream to our out-dated but much loved Loewe television. We mostly still use our Cambridge blu-ray player but in July came Idiot Prayer – Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace and the International Film Festival that we wanted to stream. John’s tenacity at finding solutions got us there so we were able to to enjoy these visually while connecting to our NuPrime amplifiers and Sonus faber Sonetto speakers for sumptuous sound. Our favourite of the Film Festival was the quirky Dinner in America – a feel good film with a ‘kickass’ soundtrack.
We hope that you too managed to find ways of enjoying your time at home. It is a pleasure for us to help you in these endeavours so with the festive season and summertime on the horizon we have a few thoughts to share…
First up for the festive season some loudspeaker Specials –
MONITOR AUDIO SPEAKER SPECIALS
There’s only one downside to running a home show room – you very quickly run out of floorspace. Even a representative range of loudspeakers covers a lot of models between our two core brands – Monitor Audio and Sonus faber. So at some stage we do have to send some of our favourites to new homes and this is as good a time as any to do it. Plus we have a NuForce multi-channell amplifier that’s been traded in too. Perfect timing as a real Christmas treat for you!
Tivoli Audio celebrates 20th anniversary 💝
In the year 2000 the original Tivoli Model One was taken into hearts and homes the world over. Today it remains unrivaled as the table radio for broadcast listening. The 2020 versions have been re-engineered so that the woodwork has an even better finish, and the electronics have been improved to give greater precision to the tuning as well as taking the sonic performance even further. These up-dated models also have better power supplies that minimise interference and come in biodegradable, environmentally friendly packaging.
To celebrate their 20 anniversary Tivoli Audio has produced a limited-edition Model One BT in a high gloss lacquer coated walnut finish. Commemorating this special occasion atop the unit reads 20th Anniversary in mother-of-pearl inlay. The knobs and tuning dial have been crafted out of wood and coated in high gloss lacquer to match the radio’s cabinet. There will be only 1600 worldwide and we have some coming. A special gift or a collector’s item these are $549 and orders can be taken now.
Danish company Vifaare long-known and respected in the Hifi world for loudspeaker drivers. After 80 years in the business they changed tack and began producing a range of single music units – bluetooth/wifi speakers including portable speakers of varied sizes and multi-room speakers.
Much of the best in home audio are also ‘best kept secrets’. Not intentionally but the specialist manufacturers are not often on the radar of magazine reviews etc. Mass market players play spurious commercial games that are particularly intense in the lucrative fields of headphones and bluetooth speakers. Like Tivoli Audio, Vifa use natural materials in classic designs, utilising best quality parts and build practices along with the kinds of technology today’s users are looking for. Whenever we play a Vifa we are enamoured with their sound. A sound that is light-years ahead of many of the ‘big names.’ Vifa speakers are 21st century multi purpose players designed for humans. Carolijn describes Vifa as ’sound objects with tangible appeal’.Here is her review.
A new addition to our personal living is the cute ‘Helsinki ‘ which we use in the bedroom for streaming radio and podcasts. The larger ‘Copenhagen’ is our go-to for taking to parties where music is needed. It can fill a big room with clarity. The little ‘Reykjavik’is proving to be popular as a gift as is the big ‘Stockholm’ for households as the main hifi system. Something in the Vifa range could be just what you’re looking for.
Analogue therapy 🥰
We’ve noticed that the holiday season is when many of you cast your eye over your turntable system looking to see how it could have new life breathed into it. We know how you love your analogue system as we love ours so we always keep in touch with some of the best analogue companies passing what we learn onto you. On our analogue page you can find information on turntables, phono stages and cartridges. Often at year end it’s time for a new styli or cartridge, or perhaps you would like to treat yourself to an upgrade in the system. If you’re not sure just ask John. Few in the industry has his level of expertise so he is sure to suggest what is best for your particular system.
Our online shop makes purchasing easy for you. You’ll find Tivoli radios, Vifa bluetooth sound systems and some of the more popular home audio components and accessories – wherever you see our online shop logo on a product page this option is available. At our online shop you can now use POLi secure bank transfer payments. Pyewacket Cat loves helping with packing and gift wrapping 🙂 Any of our products can also be ordered by email or phone.
We look at the new, affordable, and impressive bluetooth centred product: the iFi Zen Blue. We revisit another star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
Getting Better Bluetooth
Bluetooth has a lot going for it as a wifi system – it’s simple, works almost anywhere and is as close as we come to a universal standard that works across brands, operating systems and regions. Yet the simplicity and ubiquity of bluetooth means it’s often seen as a compromise option. The arrival of a new and affordable bluetooth centred product – the iFi Zen Blue at just NZ$350 – now Mk II version – will change this way of thinking. And it’s prompted us to have another look at one of the unsung heroes in our range that’s also a star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
But let’s first talk about the new. iFi have been around for a while and have built up a suiteof small and reasonably affordable digital components – DACs, headphone amps and accessories. The new Zen Blue stands out in the iFi range for several reasons:
*It’s the first of a new generation of products with input from renowned audio designer John Curl The sprinkling of audiophile pixie dust over the Zen Blue may not have any impact on the mass market but for those of us that value sound quality, I can assure you from my own listening that this is a level of quality from Bluetooth that you will not have heard before and even better, it has applications in many different systems.
*The actual design and build quality of the Zen Blue is way ahead of anything else at this level – the sleek metal casework and solidity have me wondering how on earth they do this for the price.
*Finally the connectivity and how this allows us to better exploit the Zen Blue’s abilities are outstanding.
The Zen Blue is primarily a Bluetooth receiver but has both analogue and digital outputs. What sets it apart from everything else is the quality delivered from both (noting that there is switching between them).
It is by definition a DAC and so has the ability to convert the digital Bluetooth signal to analogue and does this with a high performance Sabre DAC chipset. Thus making it perfect for direct connection into any analogue system. It even comes with some quite reasonable connecting cables.
If you’ve wanted to take a leap into wireless connection from your smartphone to your system, but haven’t wanted to either change the actual components, or been reticent about either quality or simplicity of operation, the Zen Blue is the solution you have been waiting for.
It also features a new 4.4m balanced jack output option. This has applications with some active speakers and specialist amplifiers.
The internal DAC is very good, and it’s highly likely that in many lower cost or older systems where the amp may have both analogue and digital inputs (think almost all home theatre products) , that the Zen Blue delivers the highest performance via analogue.
Where the Zen Blue absolutely shines is when connected to a high quality system with digital inputs – especially the coaxial (RCA) option. Bluetooth has not been an option with many better amps and DACs, in part because of concerns of quality compromise relative to wired connections or networked wifi.
The evolution and proliferation of Bluetooth standards means for many designers it’s just too hard to include. When you see what iFi have done this becomes clear – ‘All current and future Bluetooth® audio formats are supported. This includes Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX HD, LDAC and HWA, hi-res Bluetooth® codecs created by Sony and Huawei respectively, AAC, Apple’s favoured format and SBC, the standard Bluetooth® codec.’
So yes – it will work in virtually any setting. And with the rapid improvements in the quality of streaming via Spotify, Tidal, Apple and more, there is no better time to make this jump. Not forgetting also that for music that you choose to buy and store, the levels of resolution are often well above CD.
The Zen Blue is, by a considerable margin, better than our previous solutions in every regard which is all the more impressive given the modest difference in cost.
Consider these specific applications:
Our very best DACs – the NuPrime Evolution and DAC-10 – don’t feature Bluetooth. But when connected to the Zen Blue via coax the sound quality from iPhone is remarkable – the music is free flowing and detailed. If it weren’t for our exposure to some truly high end digital options such as the Nativ Vita, I would be quite happy to have this as my primary digital source.
Both the NuForce DDA-100 and NuPrime IDA-16 are awesome digital amplifiers that don’t have Bluetooth – again, the Zen Blue is the perfect fit. Add to this a long list of other quality DACs and amplifiers such as Meridian, Wadia, Rotel, Cambridge and many more, and you can start to see the possibilities.
All this said, there are a couple of things the Zen Blue doesn’t do. The whole idea behind Bluetooth is that it’s a relatively simply system to use that ‘pairs’ with your smartphone.If you want multi-room or multi-source abilities then we should be talking about networked wifi systems and that’s a conversation we’re happy to engage in.
We’re happy to have your enquiry or order by Email
And if you want the performance of the Zen Blue into your speakers but have reservations about your existing amplifier, let’s look at the D-Stream option.
In a classic case of convergence both the Zen Blue and D-Stream WAMP 200 SB have little aerials and could be mistaken for modems. But the D-Stream, as well as having Bluetooth and several other inputs, both wireless and connected, is also a fully fledged amplifier that will outperform many existing analogue amps. Just as it’s easy to underestimate the performance of the Zen because of both low cost and size, the D-Stream is often overlooked in favour of bigger or more costly solutions. But its finish and build quality is even higher than the iFi and it offers control of all features via front panel or ap.
So – if looking to add the simplicity and performance high quality of bluetooth to an already capable system the Zen Blue is exactly what you need.
If wanting Bluetooth at this level, AND upgrading the overall performance of an older amplifier (not to mention a host of other features), taking the next step up to D-Stream makes even more sense.
Here are some end user reviews from Amazon – the D-Stream consistently gets 5 stars.
I took a chance without much knowledge of this product. I hooked the D-Stream up to my ELAC UB5 speakers and streamed some tunes from Tidal in high resolution.
All I can say is – it’s been quite a while since I have been this pleasantly surprised. The amplifier in the D-Stream is legit! I had to hear it to believe it. This is an amazing product for the money.
That’s one small amp for man, one giant leap for sound!
I really like this amp/streamer!
I’ve had it about a month now and have used it with Kef LS50 speakers (8 ohms), Elac UB5 speakers (4 ohms) and wharfedale Diamond 230 Floor standing speakers (8 ohms) and have enjoy the sound of all three sets of speakers hooked up to this. It’s clear, detailed, the bass is never boomy, and I never get tired of playing music on it (tidal hifi and Qobuz). Really, the sound of this thing is amazing!
I did have an issue with the remote not working. I reached out to the seller and they were very supportive. They even sent me a replacement right away without waiting for me to return the first one. The second on had no issue with the remote. Tops in customer service, I wish more companies were like them.
I’m giving it 5 Stars because it’s that good!
I would recommend you give it a try, worth the money!
Sound quality is my priority. The WAMP 200 is round & warm (not-digital sounding), but authoritative in bass. Very green – I notice no heat waste. Totally Wired reviewer says: “On sound quality alone, the innovative D-Stream WAMP-200SB stands as the best sub-$1000 amplifier I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.”
Well said. Very versatile with Hi Def streaming (wireless or Ethernet), Bluetooth, Toslink (electronically isolated), and analog line in. Front panel controls, remote and IOS controls all intuitive and effective. Set up was easy and sound is improving each day (warmer). I opted to leave power on constantly to accelerate maturation; seems to draw very few watts and produces zero apparent heat. Would be great if Version II has headphone out. Impressive product even in current configuration.
We’re happy to have your enquiry or order by Email
The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage is the product of several lifetimes in high end audio. In both absolute performance and value for money it is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard.
From the Wise Ones
The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage is the product of several lifetimes in high end audio – the primary designer is William Firebaugh, Chief Engineer at Well Tempered Labs (WTL from here on in). But there is also input from Frank Denson in New Zealand who, through his association with William, Dr Tominari from Dynavector Japan, Jonathan Davies (Australia) and Opera Audio in China, quietly stands at the centre. Frank has made this remarkable product happen.
Between them, Frank and William know more about turntables, cartridges and how to get the best out of analogue records, than I could ever hope to describe. For over 30 years Frank has encouraged my efforts and gently mocked me when I’ve taken wrong turns, but there is no-one in the audio industry I have greater respect for.
Last year I was sent a pre-production version of the new Well Tempered Phono stage – despite running the incorrect power supply to it, and being told next to nothing about how it should sound, what I heard made an indelible impression. Since then I’ve been waiting, sometimes impatiently, for the finished production units to arrive.
As a lifelong music and vinyl enthusiast, and owner of a good number of excellent phono stages over this time, I have to say the wait has been worth it. In both absolute performance and value for money (the WTL Phono is very reasonably priced and I’ll go into why this is so further into this article), it is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard.
This is an assertion that obviously warrants qualification but bear with me and I’ll explain why…
The design is, even if you lift the cover and look inside, deceptively simple. Let’s start with William’s own explanation pulled directly from the manual…
‘The necessary break points for the RIAA equalisation are distributed throughout the circuit in order to ensure optimum overall time response of the circuit as well as ensure the necessary frequency response. Normally the RIAA equalisation is effected with an arrangement of interconnected resistors and capacitors. Since the RIAA recoding process requires that the treble frequencies be substantially boosted relative to the bass frequencies, control of the time response is an important requirement.
The MM/MC Phone circuit employs state-of-the-art operational amplifiers. Using these devices ensures a low noise, high gain, stable and predictable design result.
I prefer using resistors of the carbon film type although metallic film resistors might have an edge for noise characteristics. I prefer capacitors with polypropylene dielectric.’
What this all means may not be self-evident to you so we’ll step through the three sections.
The process of making vinyl records is quite different from digital and the standards were set decades ago. In order to make both recording and playback work as a physical process, the frequencies of the original recording had to be significantly skewed – and then on replay this process has to be reversed. Doing this is a major part of phono stage design but for the most part, designers have simply adopted an orthodox approach and not surprisingly this means a lot of phono stages really don’t sound that much different from each other.
Go a step further and think about the broad range of frequency that records can store and cartridges can play back – effectively from 0hz to well over 60 kHz from even modest setups and how this is often truncated to a 20hz -20KHz range which has been arbitrarily set as both what we should be able to hear and a de-facto standard for most audio equipment.
Then consider that within these ranges the treatment of the signal may not be evenhanded – where this gets more conceptually difficult to grasp is the relationship of frequency (pitch) to time. Lower frequencies travel more slowly than high, and over the broad frequency range this creates a real issue – the sound will effectively be smeared, and as a simplistic example, the bass will be out of time with the treble.
William is one of the very few (and maybe the only) analogue audio designers to seriously address this and just in the same way that his turntables adopt novel and unconventional ways to solve issues of resonance and noise, this phono stage deals with both time and frequency rather than just the later.
This is why the Well Tempered phono stage makes such an immediate first impression – it does things in a markedly different way that gets us much closer to the original performance.
The second and third parts are more about component selection. The quality and choice of op-amps as solutions for amplifying music has improved dramatically over recent years, essentially as a by product of digital’s exponential development. The Well Tempered Phono stage takes advantage of this by using the very best available – this feeds into the end cost but I’ll explain shortly how the value side of things is maintained.
We then get to the section on the sound of the individual resistors and capacitors used in the circuit – this is something many designers of esoteric components make their primary selling point,and while I’m happy to believe that everything makes a difference (especially given my own experience with cables and connectors), this has to always be looked at as a ‘nice to do’ part of the process – each little part may well add to the end cost. So this has to be looked at in terms of the final product – does the sonic benefit justify both the cost and selection time involved?
That said, if I’m going to trust anyone to make these evaluations it’s people like William and Frank who have consistently delivered better sounding products.
Taken as a whole, the unique design and the cumulative effect of multiple small but significant component selections add up to an obvious and worthwhile performance advantage.
Design is one thing, manufacture is another. High end audio has long had an uneasy relationship with sometimes brilliant design but costly and inefficient implementation, often by extremely small (essentially one man) operations. This is often compounded by the need to sell products which means the ‘look’ and marketing end up being a big part of the end price.
The connection between Well Tempered Labs and the Opera Audio company based in China solves this issue. I know there can sometimes still be some bias towards different countries but China operates on a scale and level of efficiency that few in the west can grasp – they have a heritage of craftsmanship and a relationship with music that goes back in millennia, and a thriving audio industry that dwarfs both our local and most internationally recognised brands.
The fact is that just about every electrical component in a New Zealand, UK or US made audio product comes out of China or Asia. Building components at the source location therefore just makes sense if you are able to do it. So Well Tempered works with Opera who take care of building The WTL Phono Stage.
The physical design is intentionally straight forward – it’s a rectangular black metal box, no bigger or smaller than it has to be to accommodate the internals, and is finished to a standard above utilitarian, but not needlessly glitzy. The RCA sockets and connections are similarly non-branded but I have no doubt they have been selected with both sound quality and reliability as a priority. Thus you benefit directly from the economies of scale, with lower component and manufacturing costs. We also see a level of consistency and reliability which small operations struggle to match in the real world.
The two parts – innovative design and efficient manufacture come together to give you both sound quality and value.
For all this The WTL Phono Stage exists in a world where the percentage of people that will have both the means and the inclination to invest in serious analogue playback is limited. Yet the enjoyment provided is up there with the most hedonistic pursuits – but without the consequences. Within this small but enthusiastic market we are effectively a community where, if word of a better way of doing things gets around, we can all benefit. Which, in part, is why I’m going in to such depth.
Set up and matching.
Setting up the WTL Phono stage is very simple – the connections are straight forward with RCA in and out, and a press fit earth terminal that accepts bare wire. The 24 power supply is rather larger and heavier than usual and has a snuggly fitting 3 pin socket that locks in place. On the bottom there are two sets of dip switches– one for each channel.
The first 3 switches on each block set the gain (how much the WTL amplifies the sound) and so you are able to adjust for a wide range of cartridges both moving magnet and coil. I found the second and slightly higher setting to be best with the Nagaoka MP150 we first connected – it’s not often we have the luxury of being able to adjust gain with MM and it certainly proved worthwhile.
The next 3 switches adjust the loading impedance which is primarily a feature used with MC cartridges although the is a 47K ohm setting which is the accepted standard for MM.
It’s worth noting William’s comments in the manual on this – ‘there are many factors that contribute to the optimum loading of phono cartridges that include cable, preamplifier etc and we recommend starting with the lowest impedance setting closest to the manufactures recommendations’
‘In my experience, MC cartridges loaded with 47K ohms yield and excellent result and 47K is what I have used for some time now.’
For use with our low output MC – the Dynavector DV17Dx we set the gain to 1300 and impedance to 150 ohms – this gave a similar level of output to the Nagaoka MM and there were still 4 higher available gain settings. In other words the WTL Phono stage has more than enough output to match any low output moving coil cartridge AND drive any integratedor pre-amplifier to it’s optimum level.
There is a perception that you should exactly match cartridge and phono stage specifications in order to enjoy the best sound but this paints a simplistic picture.
As you have read above William has a preference for a much higher input impedance when listening to MC and if we look at another example with the NuPrime Evolution One power amplifiers which have an extremely high input impedance, there is certainly a good case to be made for this approach.
Often you’ll be told to select the option that sounds best yet when you try, it can be difficult to actually hear a worthwhile difference. I to, have found that fine tuning cartridge loading to be so subtle as to have just given up. But with the WTL, these selections have become much more obvious. The only conclusion we can come to is that with it’s higher resolution and transparency, we have crossed a threshold. As a by-product of this, I also re-assessed the set up of my turntable and found that it is even easier to hear small changes to the physical parameters such as arm height, damping and tracking weight. The end result is not just better performance through the sound of the phono stage, but a significant overall lift because it is now possible to fine tune in a meaningful and repeatable way.
William also recommends that you employ as good as possible interconnect cables with The WTL Phono Stage. For the output side we have found Keith Eichmann’s KLEI interconnects to be the best choice and with a range from around $350 to more than the cost of the phono stage there is plenty of choice. On the input side a little more experimentation may be warranted. Many turntables have their own cables and outside of upgrading the RCA plugs there may not be any options to change these.
The Sound of WTL Phono.
It’s always good to have a well regarded and long runningbenchmark from which to make any comparisons and the Dynavector P75MK4 serves this role – there is a relationship between the two designers and so we have no conflict in terms of outlining what the WTL does better, especially when many Well Tempered turntable owners are also Dynavector clients.
On moving magnet the WTL is dramatically better and it’s in this setting that both my pre-production and first listening of the finished unit is based.
With both higher quality moving magnets such as the Nagaoka MP, Ortofon 2M ranges and specialist cartridges such as the WTL TLC and high output moving coils such as the Dynavector DV10X5 & 20XH, there is absolutely a case for a superior phono stage.
The lower cost of these cartridges (when compared with most worthwhile moving coil options) is not a reflection of constrained performance but simpler construction. With the better units the stylus profiles are every bit as good as much more costly cartridges and the higher output delivers much better noise performance. MM cartridges are often better in terms of tracking ability and broad compatibility with various tonearms.
The WTL Phono allows MM cartridges to bloom and involve in a way I’ve never heard before – albums sounded like they had a completely remixed and improved production with entire threads of vocals and instrument lines being clearly revealed. There is pace, yet the music sounds more relaxed and flows with no hard edges (except where intentionally delivered). Percussion is remarkable with drum hits gaining impact but also seeming to be more realistic and organic – i.e. we hear the sound of a wooden drum stick hitting a skin rather than just an impact. The difference between a real drum kit and performer is distinct from the electronic version – yet the latter is even more clearly carried in the production and you can hear nuance that simply wasn’t there before.
The MM performance really stunned me – there were clearly things going on in there that were not previously revealed in a much more costly setup of both turntable and low output MC via the Dynavector P75MK4. Not only this, but both surface noise and any background hum was appreciably lower and it seemed that setup and matching was much easier.
Well Tempered have a history with Phono stages – the lower cost RIAA is still a current model and the TTP – a two box tube based design that was also MM only will have helped in providing a base to work from.
The easy switching between gain settings with the The WTL Phono Stage is immensely useful with MM – not only to deal with the varying outputs but also to work with the differing input sensitivity of preamplifiers. We are now able to fully optimise and gain a full dynamic range which rivals any MC system. This should be of particular interest to anyone with an Ortofon 2MBronze or Black.
The sound-staging is also remarkable. Again this has always been a selling point for MC over MM yet The WTL Phono Stage changed my perspective as to what is possible with even quite affordable moving magnets such as the Nagaoka MP-150. Combined with the extra dynamics afforded by correct gain setting and the remarkable lucidity, The WTL Phono Stage made me seriously question the higher endsystem we’ve assembled.
For a great many listeners, the results with a MM or high output MC will be all you could ever want. On a purely economic level, I’ve always appreciated the lower cost of many MMs and ease of stylus replacement. It is also clear that the combined cost of a good MM and the WTL at $2500-$3000, is less than that of many MCs and phono stage, and what I hear suggests that the former is by far the better option. Especially if you factor in the cost of stylus replacements over time. Remember we are always looking at an analogue combination as a whole – turntable, cartridge and phono stage (plus the connections).
The WTL makes the gradations between MM cartridges more obvious than I have previously found. There is a vast difference laid out between Nagaoka MP110 and 150 with the latter proving to be far more sophisticated in it’s rendition. The WTL TLC while based on the MP150 shows a much more articulate character and by turn the latest MKII version of the Dynavector DV10X5 delivers a cinematic soundstage by comparison.
All this taken into account, the potential with a high quality MC is greater again so the next question is how does the The WTL Phono Stage handle this relative to the Dynavector? In our own system, the match of the DV17DX cartridge and P75MK4 has been effectively optimised by the unique PE – Phono Enhancer – mode. And up until now, that really did seem as close to ideal as it was possible to get.
The Well Tempered again improves on the Dynavector P75 but in different ways.
The WTL Phono has a warmer overall sound with a more organic and realistic bass – percussionof all types is better handled with greater depth and impact and a far more convincing sense of texture.
Vocals are more intelligible – the P75Mk4 gives the impression of pushing vocals forward but I can now understand that the different bass qualities highlighted bythe WTL provides a more realistic overall balance.
Surface noise is definitely reduced with the WTL – the sound is more relaxed yet still has immediacy and bite when required. In some analogue systems I’ve heard surface noise effectively placed in the outer parts of the sound stage but with the WTL it is uncannily absent – I’m not quite sure what is going one here as the low level detail, especially the fades at the end of tracks are revealing a lot that I’ve never heard before.
The work done on the temporal front of the design is markedly more obvious with MC – the relationship between different instruments where each is voiced over different frequencies – for instance bass and lead guitar – is presented in a way that just makes far more sense. The musicians are playing together in terms of timing and it’s much more apparent that they are distinct instruments yet part of the same performance.
Subtle changes in tempo are much more obvious – be it a drummer shifting up a notch or the bass line being produced by a human rather than a machine.
As with MM the range of gain settings is broad and easy to change – you can do this quite happily while playing with no obvious clicks. And there is a truckload of gain on tap – as much as twice what we found optimal with the DV17DX and little NuPrime HPA-9 preamplifier. Overall the WTL will work with a broader range of cartridgesand amplifiers than the Dynavector.
Most importantly we have established that even with Dynavector cartridges and running in PE mode, the WTL Phono is still appreciably better. For other cartridges and in normal or MM mode the improvement is greater again.
None of this implies any sort of criticism towards the P75MK4 – it is a stellar performer given it’s cost and with each iteration the P75 has become markedly better.
But the way the WTL improves things in the time domain is obvious – the way the music flows anda greater sense of ease is one part but also the treatment of the leading edge of notes. The slight sense of edginess with the P75 is translated into a more nuanced and detailed approach.
On top of this I strongly suspect the more robust power supply and greater possible gain contribute to the impression of greater depth. The WTL has a linear supply whereas the P75 has a very special switching circuit, and while the P75 has predominantly small surface mount components, you can see larger more conventional parts within the WTL – William’s selection preferences and greater budget are likely to also play a part in the sonic differences.
There are some real paradoxes when comparing the new WTL Phono Stage with the Dynavector P75MK4. I get the feeling the Dynavector has been intentionally optimised for low output MC. But the WTL does amazing things with Moving Magnets that leave it for dead and in many ways take the performance of these lower cost cartridges to a level above the P75MK4 with many coils.
The WTL does certainly respond to low output coils of higher quality but the performance advantage over the P75 in this regard isn’t quite of the same magnitude – but this has to be taken in the context of this review only considering the DV17DX and P75MK4 in PE mode. It is highly likely that in other contexts the magnitude of theperformance jump will be at least the same if not higher than I’ve found with the MM comparison.
The Dynavector also makes LPs sound more consistent with each other – now I have another reference it appears that the P75 has a distinct colouration that overlays the sound of every record. The WTL stands in contrast by laying bare the differences in production values between records.
I’ve been listening to a very broad range of LPs while evaluating The WTL Phono Stage – some older (30+ years) LPs while revealing much detail that I simply never remember hearing are also sounding somewhat thin and compressed when compared to new pressings and productions. In part I feel that modern recording techniques – especially the software that is often used, have advanced recording quality. The standardisation of 24+ bit recording while obviously digital is enabling some fantastic productions from an incredibly broad range of artists.
Remembering that the whole analogue recording process does involve a level of manipulation because of the mechanics of vinyl production and the RIAA standard, the approach taken by William Firebaugh is proving advantageous to even digital masters.
And as I’ve suggested, the way in which the WTL works almost sounds like a new interpretation or re-mastering with many recordings – the difference is that great. While we don’t havea directly comparable phono stage or a master recording on hand to test the veracity of this idea, I do, in many cases have a reference back to the actual performances of the same bands and artists when seen live. It may come down to a gut feeling but for me, the WTL is the best I’ve heard yet in this regard. And by a good margin.
Unlike another product which I’ve recently reviewed that also has a distinct ‘live’ sound, the WTL is much more transparent and isn’t creating an overlay or character that gets in the way of the music. It does make the differences between productions more apparent rather than less but for the good ones that’s stunning. For the lesser ructions you’ll still get something but maybe not to the same degree.
That said, the unexpected reduction in surface noise is a real boon for record on even the most scrappy records. I’m really not sure why this seems to be a feature of the sound and normally this world suggest some kind of filtering but none is evident.
Unlike many other new components we have listened to the warm up period for The WTL Phono Stage doesn’t seem to be that obvious. This may have been obscured by changes we made between turntable systems and the changes of setup prompted by the greater resolution, but the qualities that convinced us in the first instance remain consistent. I do suspect that we are hearing subtle improvements in low level detail over time but the relative (and deceptive) simplicity of the circuit with fewer but high quality than many digital components would account for this.
The power consumption of the WTL is modest – just 20 watts so it barely runs warm and should be left on continuously unless the system is not going to be in use for a week or more. The lack of any switching is a fairly clear indication of the designers intentions.
While the Phono comes with a dedicated 24v power supply included, Well Tempered have released a new turntable power supply intended for the Amadeus 254GT, Royale and Versalex called the ‘Ctrl’ which has a 24v connection for the Phono and may well deliver even higher performance.
The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage sets new standards in both value and performance. The unique implementation of RIAA processing provides a new and better interpretation of vinyl record replay which is, paradoxically, most striking when applied to moving magnet systems. In doing so it causes us to question the assumption of placing precedence of the cartridge over the phono stage.
On top of this, The WTL Phono Stage also works it’s magic with low output moving coil cartridges, and with an extremely broad range of easy to adjust settings, is compatible and indeed optimal with virtually any phono cartridge and amplifier on the market today.
The WTL Phono is our best performing phono stage offering you real material value for money and build quality. It delivers exactly what the Well Tempered Labs promise – ‘new music from your records’, making analogue both relevant and viable for any enthusiastic music listener.
The Well tempered Labs Phono – NZ$2100 including GST and and delivery.
The new Cambridge Solo is the perfect introduction to analogue at just $295 inclusive.
The Well Tempered Labs RIAA ($610) is all about bringing high end analogue performance to the masses. The RIAA Phono stage is gusty little box. It is specifically designed for moving magnets such as Ortofon, WTL’s own TLC cartridge or high output MC cartridges like the Dynavector 10X5.
The Dynavector P75 MK4 ($1250) has been the go-to phono stage in New Zealand since it’s introduction in 2003. Over time we’ve seen a series of significant upgrades and now we’re thrilled to introduce you to the MK4. The new Dynavector P75MK4 is the most substantial re-working of the design with by far the greatest advance in performance.
The new Well Tempered labs Phono Stage ($2100) sets new standards in both value and performance. The unique implementation of RIAA processing provides a new and better interpretation of vinyl record replay which is, paradoxically, most striking when applied to moving magnet systems. In doing so it causes us to question the assumption of placing precedence of the cartridge over the phono stage.
Having just pumped out an in-depth 5500 word review that’s taken a good two months of listening, writing and editing, it’s quite a relief to finally hit ‘send’. Our typical client tends to hold on to a component or system for 20 to 30 years and often they will really stretch financially to make it happen, so it’s important that you have as much information as possible.
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.