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Gryphon Diablo 300

Ultra Audio's site platform was changed in August 2010. For equipment reviews previous to that, use this link to transfer to the old site.

Octave Audio V 110I am, in general, no fan of vacuum tubes, and said as much a few years ago in an editorial that earned me scornful e-mails from readers. I have been guided to that conclusion by a philosophical stance and by sonic taste. While I greatly respect the multitude of people who prefer tubed to solid-state amplification, and welcome their presence in the marketplace, tubes have just never held my interest. Earlier this year, I resolved to review a tubed integrated amplifier and give this archaic technology a fair and impartial perspective. Enter Octave Audio’s V 110 integrated amplifier.

JL Audio CR-1Usually, within a given line of loudspeakers made by a given company, as the models increase in cost, the aspect of their sounds that sees the most change is the bass response. Look at a speaker line from almost any brand and you’ll see, at the bottom of the price hierarchy, a smallish bookshelf speaker, usually a two-way. Above that will be, perhaps, a bigger bookshelf model, followed by two or three floorstanders, the largest being three- or four-way models. Often, all of these speakers will use the same model of tweeter and similar if not identical models of midrange drivers; it’s the woofers that grow in size and number as you ascend the ladder of price and size.

fo.QLike many audiophiles, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with tweaks. I’ve gone from being crazy about tweaks to being anti-tweak to somewhere between those positions. Presently, I use only those tweaks that significantly improve the sound of my system, as opposed to merely change the sound.

However, despite my substantial history of tweaking, I’ve only rarely experimented with the many products that are claimed to control electromagnetic fields and/or resonances when wrapped around or covering cables, connectors, component circuits and interiors, and speaker cabinets. There are several reasons for this.

First, since there is virtually nowhere such products can’t be placed, they can sometimes enable astonishing levels of audiophile neurosis. A friend and I once visited a guy who had covered literally his entire system -- components, speakers, cables, fuse box -- with a product said to diffuse EMI and RFI. When I saw that system, I told my friend that, if I ever did that, he should, regardless of any sonic benefit, shoot me.

Devialet 400Reviewers' ChoiceAlthough he didn’t found Devialet until 2007, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, a Nortel Networks engineer, dreamed up what would become the heart of the company’s products in 2003: the Analog Digital Hybrid (ADH) amplifier. The ADH concept is elegant: an analog amplifier provides the output voltage, in parallel with a digital amplifier that supplies most of the current. This hybrid approach to amplification, Calmel surmised, would use the best attributes of each amplifier type in a package that would exceed the performance of either configuration on its own. Although this sounds simple enough, the implementation of ADH in the company’s original product, the D-Premier, was anything but easy. According to the company’s press materials, it took 100,000 lines of code and “many sleepless nights” to realize the goal of ADH.

Audio Research VSi75The tubed integrated amplifier is the ne plus ultra of audio. Strong words, those -- fighting words, even. But think it through: The tube integrated is the Platonic ideal of amplification. It’s one box that performs all the required, necessary tasks -- and nothing more.

While it’s true that technology stands still for no man, it seems that every pimply, shining-morning-faced schoolboy with a MacBook seems to think you need to add a DAC to every bloody component in order for it to do anything actually useful. While buying a DAC-in-the-amp might be reasonable if you plan to upgrade next year, I’m firmly against locking today’s computing technology into a product you might want to use for a few years, and doubly against it when considering an audio component of reference quality (and high price). Digital technology changes so rapidly that it just doesn’t make sense to incorporate it into an expensive amp or preamp that you might actually want to keep.

Triangle Magellan CelloTriangle Manufacture Electroacoustique, of France, has been making loudspeakers for over 30 years. Although the company doesn’t enjoy the footprint in North America that would give them the broad name recognition of a Paradigm or a Bowers & Wilkins, they are one of the larger speaker manufacturers in Europe. Boasting their own anechoic chamber -- something possessed by only a very few speaker makers -- and designing and manufacturing their own drive-units, Triangle has impressive technical capabilities that must be the envy of many companies.

Today, Triangle has six loudspeaker lines with models ranging in price from hundreds of dollars (their Color models) to many thousands, for the flagship Magellans. Clearly, Triangle wants to serve a diverse market by covering as many different price points as they can manage. Wanting to experience the best of what Triangle offers, but also wanting a speaker whose size and cost were still approachable by many serious audiophiles, I chose the smallest Magellan floorstander: the Cello, which retails for $12,000 USD per pair.

Audience Au24 SEReviewers' ChoiceAudience’s top cables comprise its Au24 line. The second generation, the Au24 e cables, appeared several years ago, and were reviewed by Vade Forrester in February 2009.

The third generation, the new Au24 SEs, debuted last year. Besides cables, Audience also manufactures power conditioners, crossoverless loudspeakers with very clever 3” full-range drivers, and a surface treatment for optical discs. If you were to ask Audience how they characterize themselves, they’d probably say that they’re a company of audiophiles and engineers.

Zanden Audio Systems 120Reviewers' ChoiceOver the past six years, I’ve noticed that a few elite audio manufacturers have been incorporating, into their newest phono preamps, other equalization curves in addition to the standard one established in the 1950s by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These ultra-choice tubed and tube/solid-state models range from the Audio Research Reference 2 ($12,000 USD) and Allnic H-3000V ($13,900) up to the Zanden 1200 Mk.3 ($25,000) -- mighty tall cotton for the average audiophile. But there’s good news. Zanden has now developed a solid-state phono stage that’s relatively affordable -- the 120, launched at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, lists for $7500.

Grimm Audio LS1 and LS1s speaker systemReviewers' ChoiceYou can say many things about the Grimm Audio LS1, but not that it is ordinary. What is the Grimm LS1? The easy but incorrect answer is to simply say that it is a loudspeaker. Actually, it’s an all-but-complete audio system that includes analog and digital interfaces, digital crossovers, amplifiers, and speakers. To play music, the only other thing you need is a source component.

The design of many of today’s speakers is dictated by how they will appear -- including whether or not they look like “high-end” components. However, the LS1 was mainly designed by Bruno Putzeys, the man behind the Hypex and Mola-Mola brands -- someone with a solid technical background who seems able to balance the various priorities of loudspeaker design. Nothing in the LS1 seems to have been left to chance, or dictated by anything but solid engineering.

Most speakers today have a narrow front profile and considerable depth, but the Grimm LS1 ($29,900 USD per pair) is tall, wide, and shallow: 45”H x 20.3”W x 6.25”D. Included in that height are the speaker’s two legs, which house the DSP crossovers and amplifiers. The cabinet is available in veneers of Light or Dark Bamboo, or in Corian. A separate, optional bass unit, the LS1s, goes on the floor between the legs. The result is a very efficient construction that I think is quite beautiful.

Aurender W20Reviewers' ChoiceIn our modern world, we constantly see established brands extending their product offerings to increase market share and, thus, profitability. Mercedes and BMW targeted larger pools of buyers by attempting to distill their marques’ luxury pedigrees into, respectively, the A-Class and 1 Series. Toyota went upmarket with Lexus, and even Ferrari has occasionally upped the ante with limited editions of such statement cars as the F40, the Enzo, and LaFerrari. The pattern is repeated again and again in various consumer industries and product lines, and the high-performance audio industry is no exception. Speaker manufacturers do it all the time (e.g., Vandersteen’s progression upward over 30-plus years from the 2 to the 3 to the 5, then the Seven and, soon, the Nine). Similarly, we have followed closely when technology leaders like dCS push ever higher, from their Elgar through Scarlatti lines to, now, the Vivaldi models.