Legacy link:
This new site was launched in July 2010. Visit the older site to access previous articles by clicking above.

Back Cover

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.

Transfiguration Phoenix SOver the past few years, Bob Clarke of Profundo has hosted me for some impressive and pleasurable demos, both at audio shows and at his new home in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin. The systems he sets up usually include analog chains and these always feature cartridges made by Transfiguration, a small Japanese firm specializing in low- to medium-output moving-coil transducers. Last spring, during a listening session in Round Rock, as we enjoyed an Ella Fitzgerald LP of tunes made famous by bebop genius Charlie Parker, I mentioned, as casually as I could, that I was curious about Transfiguration.

Clarke said he’d just received the first production units of the Phoenix S cartridge ($4250 USD), a new redesign of the Phoenix that he thought was a significant improvement over the Phoenix Mk.II ($2750, discontinued). He believed the Phoenix S had more musically relevant resolution, was more open and extended on top, and sounded smoother and more free of grain.

M2Tech Young DSD DACHow much should you spend these days on a digital-to-analog converter? It’s a loaded question. The knee-jerk audiophile answer is “How much do you want to spend?” -- as if that’s really going to tell the consumer what they need to know. Shouldn’t the answer also be “What level of sound quality are you seeking?” and “What system components do you have now?”?

In the last few years, my idea of what is an acceptable amount to pay for a DAC has changed. I think the most anyone should ever need to spend is about $15,000 USD, maybe a smidge higher. For that you can get a state-of-the-art DAC from, say, Ed Meitner -- or Berkeley Audio Design’s new flagship, the Reference. Unless your ultimate goal is bragging rights, I don’t see any reason to spend the $30k, $40k, $50k, or even more that some companies are charging.

Audio Research SP20In my youth, in audio’s dark ages, when LPs were the primary format for recorded music, a preamplifier was a single box housing a line stage and a phono stage. Today, however, preamplifier is often used as a synonym for line stage. If you’re a vinyl fan, there’s a good chance your phono stage is a separate component with its own power supply -- a phono preamplifier. That makes economic sense; despite the resurgence of interest in vinyl, many of today’s audio systems have only digital sources, and the surge of interest in computer audio will probably only increase the popularity of all-digital systems.

Magico S3Reviewers' ChoiceThe floorstanding Magico S3 costs $22,600 USD per pair and measures 48”H x 12”W x 12”D, a small footprint that makes positioning them considerably easier and more rewarding, particularly in rooms not dedicated to listening. The speaker’s effective width is increased to 16” with handsome outrigger stands that, when set properly, couple the speakers to the earth’s continental shelf. Despite its modest size, each S3 weighs 150 pounds -- like all current Magico speakers, its cabinet is made of aluminum well damped to suppress any ringing. The S3 is also the largest of Magico’s S models to have a monocoque chassis, which is claimed to provide greater stiffness than the multi-piece construction of, say, the S5.

The S3’s fit and finish in one of Magico’s six basic M-Cast finishes (Black, Pewter, Silver, Rose, Bronze, Blue) is beyond reproach. For a modest upcharge, you can get the S3 in a painted, M-Coat finish. Like other Magico speakers, the S3 is made almost entirely in house. No off-the-shelf drivers for these guys; the S3 has the same beryllium tweeter and Nano-Tec midrange driver found in the S5 ($29,400/pr.), along with a pair of newly developed 8” woofers instead of the 10” model used in the S5. While I greatly admire inventors who first must invent something else in order to realize their true inventions, I sometimes wonder if it’s actually necessary, or merely marketing fluff to justify a designer’s OCD. In the case of Magico’s Nano-Tec drivers, it seems to have been necessary. Here’s why.

Synergistic Research FEQReviewers' ChoiceDuring its first 17 years, Synergistic Research manufactured only signal and power cords. However, in 2008, the company introduced the first of what would become an avalanche of non-cable products: EM cell power conditioners and component platforms, active cable power supplies, AC outlets, interconnect and speaker cells, passive room-treatment devices, component feet, digital-to-analog converters, and fuses.

Many of these products, like most of Synergistic’s cords and cables, utilize technologies that are derived from the work that Ted Denney, the company’s ’s lead designer, has conducted concerning several areas of quantum mechanics, particularly the balancing of energy fields within active components. Undoubtedly, such technologies are not always completely understood or explained. Nor can their effects always be measured by traditional testing equipment. These technologies are, like almost everything in the world of high-end audio cables, controversial.

Nonetheless, Denney claims that Synergistic’s sales have doubled since 2008. Clearly, he’s doing something right.

Ayre KX-R TwentyReviewers' ChoiceColor me skeptical. This review is a month late because I was having a hard time accepting the announcement of Ayre Acoustics’ new KX-R Twenty preamp -- and, subsequently, requesting to review it. The original KX-R had been my reference for some two-and-a-half years -- longer than I can remember any component staying in my system since I began this reviewing thing back in 1998. Sure, other preamps came in for review. But then they left. I can’t say I was ever tempted to replace the KX-R, not even with substantially more expensive components that I was able to compare it with, side by side. The KX-R was the quietest, smoothest, most resolving, most enjoyable preamp I’d had in my system. Heck, it might be the single best stereo component I’ve ever owned.

Invicta MirusReviewers' ChoiceCanada’s Resonessence Labs made a name for itself with its first product, the Invicta DAC ($4995 USD; $3995 at time of review), which our own S. Andrea Sundaram positively reviewed in July 2012 for SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Since then the company has primarily been occupied with releasing a host of new, less expensive products -- their Concero line -- priced below $1000 each. And just this past year, Resonessence reached an even more attractive price point with the Herus USB DAC-headphone amplifier, for $350. Reaching a wider audience is clearly one of the company’s goals, and I think it’s a strong move -- many audiophiles are realizing that great sound needn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Vivid Audio Giya G4Reviewers' ChoiceA listener’s room should always be a strong consideration when selecting a reference loudspeaker. Size, as I’ve been told in a variety of contexts, matters. I’ve always been inclined -- and I suspect I’m not alone in this -- to buy the biggest speakers with the biggest bass drivers I could lay my hands on. That’s not always advisable, however. Sticking a pair of such obelisks in a small listening room just won’t work. You probably won’t get enough stereo separation from massive cabinets, speaker height could be a problem, and the bass will assuredly overload even the most damped and treated space. Normally, as you move down a given line of speaker models, the cabinets get smaller and less complex, the driver arrangements simpler, the drivers perhaps less capable. The smallest is usually a three-way, maybe even a two-way. Each of these compromises leads to concessions in terms of dynamic range, ultimate output ability, and, likely, powers of resolution. For me, the smallest speaker was never an option. Then again, I don’t like getting the smallest of anything. Maybe it’s because I’m American.

Aurender X100LReviewers' ChoiceWhen I heard that Aurender was releasing two new music servers at lower prices than their original S10 ($6990 USD), I was encouraged. I found the S10 -- the company’s first commercial product, released in 2011 -- to be a remarkably good server. It was so good that I included it in my The World’s Best Audio System 2012 -- a no-holds-barred spectacle designed to explore just how good reproduced sound could be. The S10 was one of two source components, the other being an Esoteric P-02 disc transport ($23,500). In 2013, Aurender upped the ante with their flagship W20 ($16,800), their best effort at creating the perfect music server, but at a price that only the most well-off audiophiles could even consider. I welcomed the announcement of less-expensive Aurenders.

Then my excitement turned to concern. What would the company have to do to make a product at half the price of the S10? Would it have a cheaper case? Cheaper connectors? Less advanced software? What would be compromised, and would those compromises ultimately lead to a disappointing product? There was only one way to find out.

Sonus Faber Olympia ISo Doug Schneider, Jeff Fritz, and I are walking into Sonus Faber’s suite at the Venetian Hotel, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. There to present the Italian brand with a Product of the Year award for their excellent Venere 3.0 loudspeaker, which Jeff reviewed last year, we run into 33-year-old Livio Cucuzza, chief designer for the Fine Sounds Group, which owns Sonus Faber. Cucuzza introduces himself, and despite being preceded by quite a reputation, given his work on Sonus Faber’s Venere models, their stunning Aida speaker, and sister brand Wadia’s Intuition 01 integrated amplifier-DAC, I can’t help staring at his shirt. In this sea of ill-fitting suits, bad plaid, and dad-khakis, Cucuzza is rocking tight jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a bat on it. Except that the bat’s head has been replaced by a cat’s head. It’s a bat-cat. Naturally.

When we mention that we’re there to present the award, Cucuzza lights up, and hustles out of the room to fetch the rest of the Sonus Faber crew. A few minutes later he strolls back in, followed by four colleagues. These dudes look like they’ve just sauntered off a Versace catwalk. Two wear impeccably tailored suits: one sports a skinny tie and a fierce tan, while the second is a Jeremy Renner look-alike with a spread-collared Oxford and a pocket square. The other two, between them, wear stylish designer glasses, a supremely well-fitting tweed jacket, and award-winning smiles. Doug and I just stare at these guys, then at each other, then back again. We feel like total slobs.