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Talent scout

VPI’s Junior package

makes your vinyl sing

Shape shifter

KEF’s iconic EGG

satellites go wireless


Issue No. 410

May 2016

Hi-res hero

Audiolab’s superior M-DAC+

adds DSD support & more




B&O, Goldring,

Oppo & Tannoy




worth over



Group Test

Six of the best

sub-£350 cans


MAY 2016 £4.75



5 AX streaming

speakers with

a hi-fi pedigree

Music and


Portable perfection from

Astell&Kern and Audeze

Criterion Audio is a new, premium hi-fi dealer in Cambridge. From vinyl and valves to the latest in streaming and headphones,

we can help you find the perfect audio system to suit your budget and needs. We have a wide range of carefully

selected products: from familiar brands to amazing manufacturers you will not find anywhere else in the UK. Come visit

us and listen in one of our purpose-built demo rooms or relax in our dedicated headphone lounge.

www.criterionaudio.com info@criterionaudio.com 01223 233730






www.hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 410 May 2016

Picture credit: Fabienne Pennewaert



Mercury 7.2


Kel Assouf





If this month’s cover star is

anything to go by, hi-res audio is

gaining traction among serious

audio fans. Audiolab’s hotly

anticipated M-DAC+ sits alongside

its original M-DAC model – one of

our favourite digital-to-analogueconverters

since its launch in 2011

– and adds 32-bit/384kHz PCM

format support as well as compatibility with DSD64,

128 and 256 music files. It’s undeniably one of the best

specified digital-to-analogue-converters around at the

price, but how many of us actually own any DSD

content? There seems to be a dearth of DSD files of any

form around and I suspect that most of us will continue

to play just a few hi-res files via USB and a lot more

CD-quality material for a good while yet. The launch is

undoubtedly seen as an encouraging sign that greater

resolution music files are on the way, but it will remain

futureproof for a good time to come. Read our

four-page In-depth review starting on page 16.

Since we all miss an issue of Hi-Fi Choice from time

to time it’s good to know that you can plug any gaps

in your collection by making use of our Back Issues

service, which has recently found a new home. The

website at mags-uk.com is where they’re at and finding

them couldn’t be easier. Sign in on the home page,

then select Hi-Fi Choice via the Titles or Publishers

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Lee Dunkley Editor

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MAY 2016 3


hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 410 May 2016


6 Audiofile

The latest news on the hottest products

from the world of hi-fi coming your way

12 Webwatch

Essential websites to direct your browser

towards for all your hi-fi requirements

69 Letters

Put your points of view and queries on

audio matters to our team of experts

79 Opinion

The Hi-Fi Choice team say it as they see

it as they discuss the issues of the day

99 Music Reviews

The month’s essential new CD, vinyl

and hi-res releases given a work out


122 Reader Classifieds

Sell your unwanted hi-fi for FREE here

124 Back Issues

Get your hands on old copies you missed

130 Next Issue

The sonic treats to look out for next month


60 Record Re-mastering

Champion vinyl re-masterer, Sean

Pennycook, reveals the tricks of the trade



Get those heads

nodding as we test six

of the best headphones





page 120!


90 Beautiful System

Astell&Kern and Audeze team up to create

the perfect portable hi-fi setup

94 Labelled With Love

Immediate, record company of two of the

best-connected names in late sixties pop

102 Music Legends

Voice of his generation – and most others

– Bob Dylan comes under the spotlight

118 Colleen Murphy

The woman behind Classic Album

Sundays talk about her love for vinyl

6 99

Audiofile: Quad Z Series loudspeakers

Music Reviews: Santana’s Santana IV

4 MAY 2016



Scout Jr


“It’s not unusual to

spend over an hour

trying to eradicate a

single problem click”


MAY 2016

Sean Pennycook Record Re-mastering feature p60


Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus


DALI Zensor 5 AX loudspeaker


Onkyo TX-8150 network stereo receiver


Audiolab M-DAC+ digital-to-analogue converter


Kit testing

16 Audiolab

M-DAC+ digital-to-analogue converter

42 Ming Da

Dynasty Duet 300 Plus valve integrated

amplifier (Exotica)

46 Tannoy

Mercury 7.2 standmount speaker

50 VPI

Scout Jr belt-drive turntable


Zensor 5 AX floorstanding active speaker

56 KEF

EGG wireless digital music system

58 Onkyo

TX-8150 network stereo receiver

88 Sony

SS-5050 Carbocon speaker (Retro)


Headphones £220-£350

27 B&O BeoPlay H6

29 Hifiman HE400S

31 Meze 99 Classics

33 Oppo PM-3

35 Philips Fidelio X2

37 Sennheiser Momentum 2.0


Cartridges £250-£395

106 Audio-Technica


107 Clearaudio

Performer V2

107 Hana EH

108 Goldring 2400



111 Arcam

MusicBOOST iPhone 6

headphone amp & DAC

113 Pro-Ject

VC-S record cleaning machine

115 Atlas Cables

Zeno 1:2 headphone cable

115 Spec Corporation

RSP-501EX Real-Sound Processor

117 PAB

Ceramic FS equipment feet

117 Titan Audio

Tyco and Helios mains cables

Never miss an issue – turn to p14 for our latest subs offer

MAY 2016 5



Z stars

Distinguished British hi-fi brand introduces

Z Series loudspeaker range as part of a host

of new products set to mark its 80th year

PRICE: £ 1,200-£3,200 AVAILABLE: NOW CONTACT: 01480 447700 WEB: QUAD-HIFI.CO.UK


world's greatest audio brands

is largely based on its iconic

electrostatic loudspeakers, which

first set the hi-fi scene alight in 1957.

Any Hi-Fi Choice reader will know all

about Quad's impressive legacy, and

successive loudspeaker models from

the Cambridgeshire-based company

have been able to justifiably boast

that its approach gets closer to the

original sound than its challengers.

Like the company's S Series released

last year, the new Z Series combines

advanced Kevlar-coned bass and

midrange drivers with a specially

designed ribbon tweeter. The new

lineup comprises two standmount

models and two floorstanders. The

Z-1 standmount (£1,200) – pictured

right – is 383mm tall and utilises a

150mm mid/bass driver, while its

larger Z-2 standmount sibling

(£1,500) uses a 175mm mid/bass

driver. Both floorstanders utilise a

three-way configuration, coupling a

150mm midrange driver with two

175mm bass drivers in the Z-3

(£2,500), and three 165mm drivers

in the Z-4 (£3,200), pictured above.

Each Z Series model sports a

bespoke 90 x 12mm ribbon tweeter

design by Quad's parent company

IAG. Like the ribbon unit developed

for its S Series, the composite

sandwich construction of the Z Series

ribbon ensures it is robust enough to

handle high-powered amplifiers,

delivering greater sensitivity and

bandwidth for even better dynamics

and smoother integration with

midrange frequencies, says Quad.

Bass and midrange drive units

throughout the series feature a unique

double-roll Kevlar cone surround said

to enhance accuracy and transparency.

Commenting on the Z Series, Peter

Comeau, director of acoustic design

6 MAY 2016

for IAG said: “The Z Series is the

pinnacle of Quad’s enclosure speakers

and features the largest ribbon treble

unit that I’ve ever used, giving the

Z Series a clarity and definition

throughout the upper midrange and

treble that is utterly beguiling. This

combines with the acoustic filter bass

reflex system and low-coloration

enclosure to deliver the perfect

embodiment of the natural sonic

realism that is the hallmark of Quad."

The Z Series is launched as part of

Quad's 80th anniversary celebrations

and is available in black, white or

rosewood piano lacquered finishes.

Z-1 standmounts in

sumptuous rosewood




Over the years, HFC has proudly

championed the vinyl format – at times

being a lone voice crying out in the

wilderness among the naysayers that

favour digital over the pure pleasure that

comes from the black stuff. And now,

it would appear that our out-dated,

old-fashioned thoughts on the matter

have been adopted by the mainstream

as records have once again become the

format de jour. But while we're delighted

that the general public is realising

something that we've been banging on

about for years, we can't help but feel a

sense of dismay about what the popularity

of vinyl means for the independent record

labels that stayed true to the format. And

nowhere is this better illustrated than by

Record Store Day.

In the past we've been a big supporter

of the annual event, but we can't help but

feel that it has rather lost its way. As we

write these words, RSD 2016 is a couple of

weeks away and we can predict how it will

go. Like previous years, on the morning of

Saturday 16 April stores will open to find

queues of punters eager to get their hands

on the exclusives. And like previous years,

most of these people will be making their

one and only trip to the store until next year.

It's difficult not to draw similarities between

these 'bargain hunters' forming an orderly

line and those that camp out for days

outside an Apple store to be first to get a

the latest iPhone. These are not the sort of

people that support their local record store

during the other 51 weeks of the year.

They're not the supporter of the indie label

that can't get it's records pressed in the lead

up to April, as the plants are getting Justin

Bieber or Ghostbusters discs cut for the

ebay dealers and johnny-come-latelies

willing to splash the cash on novelty discs.

Back when RSD started, its goal was to

draw people back into record shops, and to

keep them coming back. In an era where

supermarkets are stocking the black stuff

again, the old strategy no longer works and

is actually having a detrimental effect on the

very labels, stores and fans that it should be

supporting. It's time for a serious rethink.

MAY 2016 7




Exceptional sound at affordable prices is the goal

for the all-new LX-2 and LX-3 entry-level speakers




the LX-2 and LX-3 (shown) are the

debut models from Mission’s latest

entry-level loudspeaker range, the LX

Series. Despite their affordable price

tags, Mission informs us that the new

models have been designed to deliver

compelling musicality. For the LX

Series the company has produced a

tweeter with a neodymium magnet

(selected for maximum magnetic

force in such a small space) and a

25mm microfibre dome. This is

partnered with the 130mm mid/bass




driver unit (one in the case of the

LX-2 and two for the LX-3), sporting

cones fashioned from an advanced

fibre formulation apparently selected

for its superior self damping and

excellent stiffness. The standmount

LX-2 has a claimed sensitivity of

86.5dB, while the floorstanding LX-3

claims 89.5dB. Both models will

initially be available in black, with

further colour options to follow. A

smaller standmount (LX-1) and two

larger floorstanders (LX-4 and LX-5)

will join the series in the summer.

Clearaudio record cleaner



● The Elements Pre-Amp is Leema

Acoustics’ latest addition to its

space-saving range of components.

Retaining the same half-width chassis

for which the range is famed, the

Elements Pre-Amp also boasts an

onboard digital-to-analogue

converter. The result is a S/PDIF

coaxial input, three S/PDIF optical

inputs and an asynchronous USB port

all capable of handling files up to

24-bit/192kHz resolution. Analogue

inputs include three unbalanced RCA

inputs, a pair of balanced XLRs and a

3.5mm input jack on the front panel.

Leema’s proprietary communication

system (LIPS) is also onhand for

system integration with other Leema

products. The Pre-Amp is available to

buy now and costs £1,395.


There can be few things more

frustrating than sitting down to

listen to a favourite record only to

find that it’s filthy. Giving your vinyl

a proper wet clean can be a time

consuming and at times messy job.

Enter Clearaudio with what it’s

describing as its best solution for

cleaning records yet – the Double

Matrix Professional Sonic.

Integrating both sonic and

vacuum cleaning elements, the

Double Matrix Professional Sonic

record cleaner is claimed to deliver

a deep, but importantly, gentle

cleaning of pressing residues and

persistent dirt that’s deep within

the grooves of your vinyl – enabling

you to listen your music as it really

should be heard.

The Double Matrix Professional

Sonic is able to clean LPs, EPs and

7in singles, thanks to its range

of adaptive cleaning brushes,

which have been designed to

automatically adjust to different

record diameters and thicknesses.

The bi-directional rotation means

that discs are cleaned in both

directions and because the cleaner

is double sided, both sides of your

album will be given a clean up

simultaneously. Much like a regular

washing machine for clothes,

there’s a wide selection of different

cleaning pre-set programmes

alongside a fully automated super

clean that can be accessed at

the press of a button or you can

manually adjust your own personal

parameters to suit your needs. A

Clearaudio ‘Seal’ clamp is bundled

to hold discs in place, while a LED

light indicates the level of cleaning

fluid in the reservoir. It weighs 16kg

and is described as being quiet in

operation. The Clearaudio Double

Matrix Professional Sonic is

available to buy now and is being

distributed by Sound Fowndations


8 MAY 2016


State of the art design for

reference level reproduction

The Nu-Vista series is a passionate labour of love for all of us at Musical Fidelity.

We hope that at least you get a chance to hear this combo because we

consider it the ultimate expression of our art.

Experience it for yourself at your local Musical Fidelity dealer.


ATC Signature edition

The SCM10SE celebrates a life in sound



WHAT BETTER WAY to mark the 70th birthday of

your company’s founder than to launch a luxury edition

of a timeless favourite loudspeaker? That’s precisely

what ATC has done in honour of founder and managing

director Billy Woodman. Taking the classic design of

the SCM10 mini monitor from the nineties, the new

SCM10SE comes with a lustrous blue piano finish, with

silver detailing and a fine-grain blue leather baffle. The

original SCM10’s soft dome tweeter has been updated

with the recently developed SH25-76S ‘S-spec’ 25mm

dual-suspension design alongside the SB45-1255C

125mm mid/bass unit with integral soft dome. In turn

the crossover has been reworked for the new units

using ATC’s hand-wound air-cored inductors and

polypropylene capacitors throughout. The result is

a crossover frequency at 2.5kHz and sensitivity of

82dB/1W/1m. Around the back the SCM10SE have

4mm plugs/binding posts for bi-wiring and the mini

monitors also come with a six-year warranty.




M6 Encore 225



● With JJ Electronics Europeanproduced

valves, the Blackline V40

is claimed to provide the warm,

luxurious sound that’s so commonly

associated with tube amplifiers.

Output is quoted as 30W with an

impedance of 4 or 8ohm, and the

V40 is the first product in the

Blackline range to offer Bluetooth

4.0 connectivity – aptX no less.

Additional socketry includes RCA

phono inputs and a micro USB port.

With a piano black finish, the

Blackline V40 is available to buy now

for £449. Meanwhile Blue Aura

founder, Nick Holland, tells us that

the company will be launching

sonically matching loudspeakers to

accompany the V40 amplifier

“towards the end of April”.


Described by Musical Fidelity as a

complete solution allowing you to

keep all of your music in one place,

the M6 Encore 225 is essentially

a streaming audio player with

an impressive selection of

connectivity options.

At its heart is a dual-core 64-bit

Intel CPU with 2GB of RAM to

ensure that operation is fast and to

allow for upgrades as time goes by

in an effort to ensure that it remains

futureproof. The internal 1TB

storage is claimed to be able to

hold as many as 2,500 CDs (using

the built-in CD drive’s bit-perfect

ripping), but is also upgradeable

should you need to add more

as time goes by. Power output,

meanwhile is quoted at 225W per

channel into 8ohm and the M6

Encore 225 has the same power

amplifiers under the hood as the

Recommended badge-winning

M6si (HFC 400), while a

32-bit/384kHz chipset is onhand

for digital-to-analogue conversion.

Connections include three

line-level RCA analogue inputs, two

optical and two coaxial S/PDIF

inputs (both capable of handling

signals up to 24-bit/192kHz), a USB

3.0 A port, USB 3.0 B and three USB

2.0 A ports alongside an Ethernet

for network hook up. Outputs

include a line-level analogue out,

optical and coaxial S/PDIF (again

capable of handling 24/192 signals),

a line-level preamp out, headphone

out (for headsets with an

impedance of 8ohm) and speaker

terminals. The M6 Encore 225 is

also compatible with network

speakers – such as those

popularised by Sonos, while

operation can be handled by the

bundled remote control or an app

for either Android or Apple devices.

It is available in a choice of silver or

black finishes and comes with a

large, hi-res full-colour display.

10 MAY 2016



Andrew Simpson checks out the best hi-fi

websites, social media and online content

Behind the Blade

As one of the most striking speakers

of our age, KEF’s Blade models reveal the

company at the top of its game. In this video,

KEF’s head of acoustics Jack Oclee-Brown

talks us through the speakers’ groundbreaking

design. youtu.be/f-hF8hhIh4c

Pocket archive

Music database and marketplace Discogs has

recently launched its dedicated app for iOS

devices, with an Android version in the

pipeline. You can now discover new music,

build your own archive and hunt out that

elusive pressing all from your pocket device.


One-minute maker

Ever wondered what magic goes on

inside the The Vinyl Factory? This 60-second

film rolls up its sleeves to go behind the

scenes and show the company’s workings

as it presses some of the world’s most iconic

records ever to grace our platters. youtu.be/


New language

It is and always has been ‘vinyl’ right? But

the format’s new-found fame with young

Americans has led to this petition calling for

its plural form to be recognised as ‘vinyls’

in the interests of inclusiveness. Pledge

your support or not at: chn.ge/1SnIa4w

Sleeve notes

In its latest blog series, #SleeveNotes,

Bowers & Wilkins picks five music lovers

from the world of art and design to discuss

the album artwork and music that has

influenced their life and careers. First up is

art director Bruce Usher on @TheDangelo’s

Black Messiah b-w.social/bti

Oppo adventure

Good luck to the Oppo team who are

taking to the streets on two wheels for the

Giant Cause Bike Ride in aid of the Bath

Rugby Foundation. Follow their epic travels

on Twitter @oppoheadphones and via the

team’s personal diaries at @renwick4

@Newton0290 and ow.ly/ZLqBj





Hurrah our new catalogue is

here if you would like a copy then

please let us know. info@hifiracks.co.uk


Streaming now the biggest recorded

music revenue source in the United States:



This week’s Album Of The Week is Jethro

Tull’s classic fourth album, Aqualung, in

celebration of its 45th fb.me/17hYPaFp8



[#ICYMI] Set up your AT-LP60 #turntable

with this step by step guide: buff.ly/1RxhktC #vinyl



Listening to Blodwyn Pig ‘A head rings out’

classic album from the golden age of Island

Records and Joe Boyd


Check out the connectivity of our @MF_HiFi

Encore 225 ‘all in one’ #streaming #hifi

system bit.ly/1RDcyVm


Goldmund Telos 390.5 integrated amp

on demo at Absolute Hi End



Many thanks to Acoustica for inviting us to

their Hi-Fi Show in Chester. We had a great

time running the Titan fb.me/3UwMfr0Gw


Jeff Buckley had over a four-octave vocal

range. As a point of comparison, Adele has

just over a two-octave range.


A pair of British Racing Green DSP7200

Loudspeakers rolling off our production line

just in time for #StPatricksDay


Ready for our relaunched Music club with

this smashing @dCSonlythemusic

@WilsonAudio @RegaResearch combination!


Enjoyed very much listening to Luxman’s

new L-590AX Mark II pure Class A Integrated

Amplifier last night. #highend


The official list of UK #RSD16 releases will be

revealed here: recordstoreday.co.uk tmrrw

(8th March) at 6.15pm.


#SugdenSoundRoom Great mix of tunes

again this week. #AlGreen #ImperialDrag

#TheSoftMachine #TheSweet #JanJohannson

12 MAY 2016

Take a look at

legacy. Lovable

traditional, sounds


The new Dynaudio Emit series is the latest model range from Dynaudio and was conceived as an entry level high

end loudspeaker series incorporating extraordinary levels of performance and technical innovation in an attractive

Visit www.dynaudio.com

Listen to the new Emit Series.



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Second coming

David Price tries the new and updated version of Audiolab’s

excellent digital-to-analogue converter. Meet the M-DAC+

16 MAY 2016




Audiolab M-DAC+










247 x 114 x 292mm


● ESS Sabre32

9018 DAC chip

● PCM up to



● Digital inputs: 1x


1x USB-B, 2x coaxial,

2x optical

● RCA phono,

balanced XLR





01480 447700




nd so it comes to pass that

after nearly five years, the

Audiolab M-DAC finally

gets itself a bigger brother!

Rather like that famous difficult

second album that recording artists

battle with, it was never going to be

easy for Audiolab to improve on one

of the strongest products it has ever

released. When it came out, the

original M-DAC (HFC 359) had no

real rivals at its £600 price point.

Indeed, it got off to a good start

because it was essentially the digital

converter section of the 8200A CD

player – itself one of the best silver

disc spinners under £1,500, thanks to

designer John Westlake’s prodigious

talent. Also, interestingly, it was one

of the first DACs to use the (then)

new and highly regarded ESS Sabre

9018 DAC chips. Basically, the M-DAC

had a great start in life.

The new version is considerably

larger than the original, mainly on

account of the fact the power supply

has been brought inside the unit. It’s

a high-quality toroidal affair using

multiple windings to feed separate

analogue and digital rectification

stages. From there, multiple power

It brings worthwhile

improvements to

pretty much every

aspect of the M-DAC

supply sections feed the necessary

voltages to each area of the DAC,

keeping any crossover interference to

a minimum, Audiolab says. It makes

this new box quite a bit heavier than

its predecessor, and it stands taller

and deeper too. Beautifully made

from aluminium, its casework has

been updated visually to match the

look of the new 8300 series. Hence

a smoother and less crowded

front panel with two main controls

replacing the four buttons and one

knob of the M-DAC. One selects

volume, and the other is a multifunction

controller for source and

setup. It’s considerably nicer to use

than the original, although the central

OLED display is smaller than the

M-DAC and less informative.

As a package, the M-DAC+ feels far

more like a piece of budget esoterica,

than its predecessor. It’s much more

svelte and grown up, whereas the

M-DAC seems more of a buttonpushing

geek’s dream. Around the

back, there are more digital inputs

than ever, including an AES/EBU

socket and an additional USB Type A

input – ideal for connecting Apple

MAY 2016 17



M-DAC+ £800

devices – alongside the existing USB

Type B connection. These join the

M-DAC’s twin coaxial and twin

optical digital inputs, optical and

coaxial digital outputs, single-ended

RCA and balanced XLR analogue

outputs and the usual 12V trigger

loop. With the choice of fixed or

variable outputs, the J-FET Class A

output stage can feed an integrated

amplifier or a power amp direct.

The M-DAC+ now runs PCM right

up to its 32-bit/384kHz ragged edge

via USB, meaning it is unlikely to be

obsolete for a while. But the headline

news is DSD support (DSD64,

DSD128 and DSD256), which

Audiolab says: “has an important role

to play in the developing highresolution

downloading and

streaming scene”. True, but the

emphasis is very much on the future

because right now there’s still a

All of the power is

there as before but

it’s delivered in a

better finessed way

paucity of DSD files of any type. In

truth, most users will be using this

new Audiolab for a little bit of

high-resolution PCM file playback via

USB, and a lot of 16-bit/44kHz CD

playback via one of the coaxial inputs.

To this end, the company has

included a number of user-selectable

digital filters, letting people tune the

sound to their taste. The plus inherits

seven PCM filter settings from the

original, and adds four more for DSD

playback. It’s difficult to be definitive

about the sound of these because it

depends very much on your system

and ancillaries. I’d recommend new

purchasers spend a few weeks

switching these filters around to

find their favourites, although they

may find they vary from recording

to recording, or even track to track.

Sound quality

It wasn’t until the arrival of the

Audiolab M-DAC in 2011 that

cash-strapped audiophiles had a

genuinely flexible yet fine-sounding

DAC. It was so good at its £600

price point that it turned the market

upside down. The new M-DAC+

doesn’t do this – think of it as a

brilliant refinement, rather than the

reinvention of the hi-fi wheel. It

brings worthwhile improvements

to pretty much every aspect of the

M-DAC, from far superior operation

sophistication to a greater

musicality. If there was ever a

criticism of the original, then it

was the slight sense of musical

constraint. Although detailed,

powerful and commanding in the

way it made music, it was never

quite as lucid or as fluid as I would

have liked. The new DAC addresses

this to a great extent, bringing a

more natural and organic feel. It

sounds less mechanical and less

‘electronic’ and seems better than

its predecessor at disappearing and

simply letting the music flow.

For example, Badly Drawn Boy’s

Something To Talk About is a

fine example of a modern pop

recording; the original M-DAC

proved lots of fun with a bold and

explicit sound, but the new one

removes the slightly processed feel.

Tonally, the sound seems less

chromium plated, and the listener is

better able to immerse themself in

the music, enjoying its wonderful

singalong quality and honeysmooth

vocals. There’s less of a



For me, there are two

DACs to have under

£1,000 – the M-DAC+

and Chord Electronics’

Chordette 2Qute (HFC

402). The former is a

brilliant do-it-all digital

front end, with masses

of flexibility and a

superb sound. The

latter is a highly

eccentric ‘art piece’

that sounds even better.

The Chord certainly

wins no prizes for ease

of use; with its crazy

lens and coloured light

show, it is something

you’ve got to learn how

to operate. Sonically

though, it is superb; the

M-DAC+ is powerful,

detailed, clean and

crisp, while the Chord

is all of this and has a

wonderful rhythmic

gait too; music flows in

an enthrallingly natural

and liquid way. It also

has a slightly smoother

tonality to the Audiolab,

with a warmer, fuller

bass and sweeter

treble. Both are superb,

but you need to decide

exactly what you want

from your new DAC

before you buy.

sense that you’re listening to a budget

digital source, and everything sounds

more natural and less forced.

Percussion instruments play gently

but expressively without throwing

themselves at you, and the song lopes

along joyously.

Switch to some classic electronica in

the shape of Kraftwerk’s The Robots,

and you get the same effect. Even

though it’s not an acoustic track, it

still sounds less processed and more

natural through the new M-DAC+.

The vast size of the soundstage is just

as impressive as before, but it’s the

subtle details inside that make the

difference. The music appears to fall

back to a deeper, darker silence, and

the rhythm section seems less crisp

and better resolved – it’s more

nuanced and doesn’t simply just hit

you in a blunt fashion. All the power

is there as before but it’s delivered in

a more finessed and natural way.

Notes appear to decay gently and fall

off into space, rather than simply just

‘falling off a cliff’ as its predecessor

was prone to do before. It’s a cliché,

but this new box sounds so much

more ‘analogue’ than the original.

Pro Plus

You’d never say the Plus is

dramatically better, but it’s certainly

comprehensively so. This is most

noticeable when you move to

higher-resolution source material,

such as a 24/192 recording of REM’s

Texarkana. Once again it delivers a

great sound for its price, one that is

balanced and refined yet powerful

and immersive. There’s a lovely

rhythmic gate to the M-DAC+ and it

speeds the song along, focusing on

that great driving bassline from Mike

Mills. The rest of the mix isn’t bad

either, with the band’s distinctive,

crunchy Rickenbackers carried with









USB Type A and

B inputs

AES/EBU digital


Two coaxial digital

inputs and one out

Two optical digital

inputs and one out

Balanced XLR

analogue outputs

5 4


18 MAY 2016


M-DAC+ £800







transformer and

standby supply

Linear power



USB receiver

Class A active post

DAC filter stage


Tim Bowern

Audiolab Public Relations





The aluminium-cased M-DAC+ is remarkably well finished

for a product at its price, and is surprisingly sturdily

constructed too. Inside, its tall, half-width box is packed

tight with circuitry and other components – the most

obvious of which is the toroidal transformer, which is

shielded in its own enclosure. This is one of the key

differences from its predecessor, the M-DAC, which used

an offboard power supply kept out of the main casing.

The power supply section is well done, with numerous

smoothing capacitors, and this is kept separate to the

power and passion. The drum kit is

great too, with a super-tight, cutting

snare sound and some lovely cymbal

work. Indeed, the high frequencies

are very well resolved, sounding clean

and devoid of noise. This new DAC

still isn’t quite the most soulful

around, but it’s now certainly one of

the most transparent and has bundles

of life and energy too.

Indeed, it’s this detailed and neutral

character that makes it so good across

a wide range of music. It’s particularly

suited to acoustic programme

material, including classical. A

Phillips recording of Debussy’s

Submerged Cathedral is a joy. This

prelude is wonderfully ethereal and

atmospheric if properly reproduced,

and the M-DAC+ proves well able

to do this. Its handling of the subtle

dynamic accenting of the piano is first

rate and it skilfully delivers the

pianist’s rhythmic input too. Tonally,

it isn’t the sweetest and most

sumptuous-sounding digital converter

I’ve ever heard, but it is certainly an

improvement on its predecessor and

gives an unerringly balanced and

satisfying sound. The result is a

compelling rendition of this fine piece

of music, and the pattern continues

with a DSD file of Alex de Grassi’s

The Water Garden, which has a lovely,

lilting, unforced quality and the guitar

sparkles with harmonics in a way that

you simply don’t expect from digital.


This is a clear step forward from the

original M-DAC, and makes the

original look rather average value

for money. The Plus is way more

sophisticated operationally, and has a

usefully smoother and more subtle

sound that pushes it one rung up the

ladder. The only regret is the display,

which isn’t as informative as its

predecessor. Superb in pretty much

every other respect for its price, this

new DAC is an essential audition ●









DAC section, which has the USB board mounted above it

and located adjacent to the rear panel, obviating the need

for extra wiring. The Class A analogue output stage sits

right on the XLR and RCA socketry, for the same reason.

As you’d expect from a modern, state-of-the-art DAC

design, surface-mount devices are used to keep the

size down. Indeed, the M-DAC+ is a complex, seemingly

over-engineered product, and unlike some rivals is

certainly not a box full of air. As a result, it tends to run

a little warmer than some.

LIKE: Excellent sound;



DISLIKE: Display not

as comprehensive as

on the M-DAC

WE SAY: Quite superb

mid-price DAC packed

with the latest tech

DP: What is the new M-DAC+’s

raison d’être?

TB: It’s a precisely engineered rework

of the classic M-DAC. The aim of

the project was to update key areas

and enhance performance while

maintaining everything that

continues to make the classic M-DAC

such a popular product. It’s more

than just a cosmetic makeover of the

original, with an array of carefully

targeted improvements under

the hood. An obvious update is

the extension of PCM support to

32-bit/384kHz, as well as the addition

of DSD64/128/256 with associated

digital filter settings, thus ensuring

the M-DAC+ is fully equipped to make

the most of all forms of hi-res audio

now and in the future. The updated

digital processing associated with

the increased resolution at the

M-DAC+’s USB input delivers

additional sonic benefits with all

levels of digital audio, and the

power supply has been substantially

upgraded and fully incorporated

within the main chassis, bringing

further improvements to the

sound quality.

Have there been any changes to the

core circuitry?

Many elements of the original design

continue to lead the sub-£1,000 DAC

pack and are unchanged here – the

ESS DAC chipset, discrete master

clock, extensive time domain

isolation, high-spec JFET output

stage and so on.

Is DSD functionality of any real

practical use at the moment?

DSD files are available of course, but

whether end users wish to use them

is a matter of personal preference.

There is no doubt that DSD has the

potential to offer exceptional sound

quality, with a specification that can

push far beyond where SACD left off.

Going forward, we believe that DSD

will have a significant part to play in

the developing hi-res audio scene;

any serious DAC launching in 2016

should support it.

MAY 2016 19

Future music

Totally equipped for the latest music tech

trends – and those still to come – the

Denon DRA-100 is the complete ‘just add

speakers’ solution

here’s a lot of confusion

about the ‘computer

T music’ revolution: do you

download or rip your

music? Which format should you use?

Do you store your favourite tunes on

a USB memory device, Network

Attached Storage or just your home

computer? Can you play music from

your phone or tablet through your


about buying music and simply

stream it from an online service?

All of that’s before you even address

the ‘what else do I need?’ question,

but fortunately there is an answer

for all these concerns, and it comes

in the form of Denon’s DRA-100

Network Stereo receiver. Clad in

the sleek style of the Denon Design

Series, and much smaller than most

complete computer audio solution,

of use, and yet using all of Denon’s

technology, developed over more

than 100 years.

Forget about add-on bits and bobs

to bring Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth or

network streaming to your world of

entertainment: it’s all built into the

Since it was founded

back in 1910,

in the early days of

records and gramophones,


has been all about

the development of


recording and playback


Under its ‘Nipponophone’

brand it

was not only the

first record company

in Japan, but

also the first audio

manufacturer in its

home country!

As well as developing

one of

the very first CD

players, it was also

instrumental in

the design of the

digital recording

technology used in


DRA-100, along with high-quality

complete ‘just add speakers’ solution

for all your music needs. Yet it does

all this in a package just 28cm wide

and a little over 10cm tall, with Hi-Fi

Choice reviewer Andrew Everard

saying in the December 2015 issue

that it “proves to be quite a remarka-

some fairly ambitious speakers to

very good effect, and delivering a

Like the other models in the Denon

Design series – the DCD-50 CD

smallest of living spaces, and with

styling that’s both understated and

eye-catching, it’s still capable of

being partnered with everything from


models. What’s more, it’s as

at home playing gentle background

music as it is blasting out your

favourite tunes at party levels.

That’s due to the application of all of

Denon’s digital audio and ampli-

well as playing all the popular music


Hi-Fi Choice employs the most rigorous test and measurement

regime in the business. Here’s how we do it...

Unique group tests

Our Group Tests are supported by rigorous and

exhaustive listening tests carried out by experts



Questyle QP1 R, FiiO X3 II,

Apple iPod Classic


Chord Hugo, Oppo HA-2


THE PROCESS OF reliably auditioning six

headphones isn’t as straightforward as

conducting a single standalone review. Each

model is connected, with its supplied cable, to

a headphone amplifier and run-in for 24 hours

before any comparative listening takes place.

Levels are set by placing both earpads over

an SPL meter while a pink noise signal is

generated. The background noise level of the

room is also checked for consistency. This done,

the listening test programme is carried out using

two different headphone amplifiers and DAPs

to build a picture of performance. Headphones

supplied with a choice of cables are listened to

with each cable fitted in turn.

The testing period takes place over several

days. Numerous tracks are listened to, but the

sessions focus on four albums chosen to provide

a variation of musical styles, recording quality

and sample rate. Each track is played several

times until a definitive picture of the

headphone’s sound quality is obtained.

Two types of headphone are on test, open and

closed back, with each having their own relative

merits and weaknesses. Open-back models tend

to be more spacious sounding, while closed-back

ones have tighter bass and better isolation from

external noise. All models on test are over-ear

designs – widely considered to be the most

comfortable – and principally for indoor use.



Original Soundtrack

Overture 16/44.1 FLAC


Blues For Salvador

Blues For Salvador 16/44.1 FLAC



Brazilia 96/24 FLAC


This crucial process is very

carefully controlled so that we

get reliable and consistent

results in a relaxed and friendly

atmosphere. Our listeners must

not feel that they’re being tested,

despite being unaware of the

brand or price of the products

they are auditioning.

The session begins by setting

the volume level to an agreed

point, one that all three panellists

feel comfortable with, yet that is

high enough to make differences

easily discernible. Then the

choice of music is agreed – it

needs to be familiar, but also well

recorded and of sufficient variety

to give meaningful listening

comparisons. The chosen

selection of music is played, and

the panellists are encouraged to

discuss their impressions of the

sound of the product. This is then

repeated, and periodically the

panel listens to earlier products

for reference purposes. The

consensus, or otherwise then

forms the basis of our sound

quality section.

At the end of the session,

there’s a final debrief when

panellists discuss their findings.

It’s an exhaustive process, but

carried out in this way is free

from prejudices based on brand,

price or appearance, while the

different sensitivities of the

listeners help to round out the

analysis in order to make it more

widely applicable.


Imaginary Day

Imaginary Day 16/44.1 FLAC

22 MAY 2016

Designed for


The new CM Series loudspeakers are undoubtedly beautiful,

capable of gracing any room with their clean lines and highquality

finishes. But as with all Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers

form must follow function, and thanks to our Decoupled

Double Domes and tweeter-on-top technology you won’t

believe how beautiful your music can sound.


Decoupled Double Dome tweeter

HEADPHONES £220-£350

Head rules heart

David Vivian tries out

six pairs of cans with

hi-fi cred and style…

LIKE THAT OTHER comeback kid,

the bicycle, headphones haven’t

changed their basic shape for over a

century. Nathaniel Baldwin started

the ball rolling by making what’s

generally accepted to be the first

recognisable pair on his kitchen table

106 years ago and selling it to the US

Navy as a communications tool. The

inventor neglected to take out a

patent, but the audio world hasn’t

looked back since.

Today’s headphones have imbued

that seminal design with seductive

tech, sexy materials and, of course,

the lure of celebrity-endorsed fashion

status. At no other time in history

have so many heads – especially

young ones – felt the gentle embrace

of pillowy ear pads and the gift of

pulsating bass while going about their

daily business. Some folk, a growing

number it seems, wouldn’t listen to

music any other way.

Sea change

Once considered a fall back if you

couldn’t afford a fine pair of

loudspeakers or – even if you could

– a way to enjoy music at decent

volume levels without annoying the

neighbours or room-sharing relatives,

headphones have become both an

essential lifestyle accessory and,

for a certain kind of audio fan, a

delicious shortcut to hi-fi nirvana:

true high-end sonics at more or less

earthbound prices. A selfish pursuit to

be sure, but one with great rewards.

The six models here veer strongly

towards the audiophile end of the

spectrum. No noise cancelling, no

wireless Bluetooth, no DSP – they

represent the pure breed with

circumaural (over-ear) ear cups and

cables of various lengths and hues to

connect to a source, be it smartphone,

hi-res portable player or dedicated

headphone amp. In deference to

sound quality and the engineering

required to achieve it, it’s bulk before

beauty. This isn’t to say style doesn’t

get a look in, though it’s true that

some try a little harder than others.

24 MAY 2016



BeoPlay H6

£279 p27

From the land that

pretty much all but

invented cool design

comes a headphone

so achingly stylish

that it’s a shame to

take it off. The fine

build is exceptional,

have a listen and you

might not want to take

it off either.



£220 p29

The only open-back

model with planar

magnetic drivers

and the largest

headphone in the

group, the Hifiman

has a reputation for

top-drawer sound that

precedes it, and the

HE400S consequently

has much to prove.


99 Classics

£260 p31

With its polished solidwood

ear cups, elegant

design and sparingly

applied bling, this

closed-back design

from Romania looks

like a true high-ender.


expectations are high

for its debut showing in

the UK.



£349 p33

Beautifully built but

pricey, the PM-3 is the

other planar magnetic

contender in the

group, though, unlike

the Hifiman, a closedback

design. This

compact design has

done well before, but it

could have more of a

fight on its hands here.


Fidelio X2

£230 p35

Representing a school

of design that thumbs

its nose at frilly

nonsense compared

with rivals, the openback

Fidelio X2 is

built like a battleship,

equipped with big

drivers, comfy earpads

and it promises one

thing: high quality.


Momentum 2.0

£270 p37

The original

Momentum was

arguably the perfect

blend of style that

doesn’t try too hard

and a signature sound

that doesn’t have to.

The mk2 version adds

foldability, comfort

and the promise of

even better sonics.

MAY 2016 25

Everything you need.

Nothing you don’t.

Music brings us so much joy. An audio system shouldn’t reduce music’s unique

nearest authorised Rotel retailer.






BeoPlay H6 £279

It has good looks and fine build, but can the H6 deliver

a sonic performance worthy of the price tag?



B&O BeoPlay H6




Over-ear closedback





● 40mm dynamic


● Quoted sensitivity:


● Detachable 1.2m

cable with 3.5mm


● Carrying pouch


B&O Play UK


0118 9692288




here’s something rather

wonderful about first

contact with the BeoPlay

H6. It’s a leather and

aluminium vision of exquisite

simplicity and confident good taste

that only gets better when you

appreciate just how light yet solid and

beautifully put together it feels. It’s

a fusion of pared-back design and

sumptuous luxury that might elicit

a little gasp. B&O at its best.

Of all the headphones here, it’s the

one you’ll probably look coolest

wearing if you want to venture

outdoors, so it’s a little disappointing it

doesn’t come with a zipped travel case,

though the velvety drawstring pouch it

is supplied with is more than big

enough to accommodate the fully

retracted and flattened ’phones with

their ear cups swivelled through 45°.

Accessories are basic and consist of a

single-input 3.5mm plug cable (1.2m

long) with a three-button iPhone-

compatible remote – which doesn’t

function with non-Apple products –

and a two-pin adaptor should you

want to plug into an airline

entertainment system. A useful feature

unique in the group is a second cable

jack on the other ear cup so that two

or more pairs can be daisy-chained

together. If it’s just the one pair, either

socket can be used.

Although relatively light at 230g, it

exerts a fairly firm grip on your bonce

as defined by the tension of the single

hoop headband. This is a leanly

dressed affair with a leather top and

Low frequencies

possess proper

timbral texture,

power and extension

section-padded fabric belly that

initially feels fine, but never quite lets

you forget about its presence over a

long session. While there’s nothing too

unusual or exciting about the tech spec

– 30ohm impedance, slightly angled

40mm dynamic drivers, closed-back

ear cups, 20Hz-22kHz frequency range

– you can be sure B&O will have

endurance-tested the design to hell

(frozen-over kind, too) and back.

Sound quality

This is a friendly and assuredsounding

pair of headphones. Any

suspicions that B&O blew the whole

development budget on aesthetics

and premium build tactility are

swiftly allayed with a presentation

that’s agreeably open, detailed, well

balanced and not skewed towards

any particular musical genre. The

bass issue – of prime concern to

many younger headphone users not

necessarily schooled in the ways of

traditional hi-fi values – is particularly

well served, maybe even educational

for anyone unaware that low

frequencies can possess proper

timbral texture and pitch as well

as power and extension.

What’s more, an overriding sense of

poise and control and finely judged


B&O has quite a reputation for

putting its products through the

wringer before they’re released for

sale, and it’s all done with a strong

nod to environmental responsibility.

In addition to the exhaustive

endurance tests (extreme cold, heat,

vibration, sunlight, dust and so on),

environmental thinking is on the

table at the design stage. The

company even has a name for this

approach: Environmental Design

Standards. It means every B&O

product not only has to comply with

existing statutory regulations, but

cope with ones no one else has

thought of yet. Each product also has

a product manager who can’t allow it

to progress to the next development

stage until the relevant

environmental design standards

specs are met. Tough call for a pair of

headphones, but there’s no doubting

B&O’s thoroughness and attention to

detail shines through at the end.

voicing makes Santana’s Blues For

Salvador a little less crowded and

overpowering than some of the other

models on test. This attests to an

easy-going nature that maybe doesn’t

dig too deep, but is good at keeping

competing elements in harmony – in

this instance some gloriously warm,

expansive, laid back synth pads and

Mr Santana’s especially energetic,

up-front guitar runs.

Those seeking a deeper dive into the

recording mix may find it falls a little

short on the finest details, but it isn’t

by much and it seldom sounds

anything less than comfortably in

command of the bigger musical

picture. Crucially, it seems particularly

adept at carrying the musical message

with a grasp of flow and tempo that’s

as good as any in the group. In short,

it sounds almost as lovely as it looks,

which can’t be bad ●







LIKE: Cool design;

build; approachable

sound that does

everything well

DISLIKE: Detail could

be a little sharper; not

the most comfortable

WE SAY: If looks matter

as much as sound, the

B&O is worthy of

serious consideration

MAY 2016 27

Enjoyed Worldwide.

“The Sigma SSP can be regarded as a superb stereo analog

preamp, and all the rest of its bells and whistles as a gift.”

Kal Rubinson, Stereophile, USA

“It combines the flexibility of a Swiss Army knife with the

precision of a surgeon’s tool in an easy-to-use package. There’s

simply not enough room here to even pretend to detail what you

can do with this processor. It’s just awesome.”

Theo Nicolakis, Audioholics.com, USA

“But most impressive is the sound quality. This is real

high-end at a price that must be considered reasonable.

And the step up from the traditional home cinema

receivers is nothing but huge.”

Ludwig Swanberg, HemmaBio, Sweden

“Oh my, what a wonderful system Classé has provided

with the Sigma range. It shows that audiophile sound is

not the sole preserve of stereo and equally that it is not

incompatible with reliable and convenient operation.”

Stephen Dawson, Audio Esoterica, Australia

“This Sigma system is a huge achievement

which everyone must absolutely discover.”

Adrien Rouah, Québec Audio & Video, Canada


Classé — every detail matters.





HE400S £220

This rising star brand delivers high performance at

increasingly lower prices. We like the sound of that



Hifiman HE400S




Over-ear open-back





● Planar magnetic


● Quoted sensitivity:


● Detachable 1.5m

cable with 3.5mm


● 6.35mm adapter


Audio Affair


0844 5040350




hinese brand Hifiman,

founded by current owner

Dr Fang Bian in 2007,

certainly seems to have

mastered the art of ‘trickle down’. The

HE400S takes its tech cues from two of

the company’s much more expensive

planar magnetic high fliers – the

HE560 and HE400i (HFC 397) – and,

rumour has it, sounds very nearly as

good, prompting Hifiman to claim that

its budget planar ’phone redefines

what’s possible in the mid-price class

represented by our group here.

Planar magnetic headphones have

traditionally had two drawbacks.

One, they’re big and heavy. Two,

they’re power hungry and need a lot

of driving. The claim for the HE400S,

however, is that it’s sensitive enough

to be driven by a smartphone alone

without the additional muscle of a

headphone amp. At 350g, it isn’t the

lightest planar magnetic design on

the market (that honour belongs to

the Oppo PM-3 which undercuts it by

30g), but it is a little less heavy than

Philips’ Fidelio X2.

Unlike the Oppo and in line with

Hifiman’s pricier models, the HE400S

is an open-back design which, on

paper, could give it an edge sonically,

but confers no favours aesthetically.

The soft-sheen silver finish, large,

perfectly round ear cups and sharply

angled headband frame are certainly

distinctive, but unlikely to woo

headphone fashionistas. No matter,

those jumbo ear cups permit a decent

surface area for the planar membranes

What we have here

is the headphone

equivalent of

Quad electrostatics

within and, lined with removable

velour-covered memory foam, sit very

snugly on the head, the generous

circumference distributing the

pressure generated by the metal frame

comfortably. No travel case is supplied,

but the split twin-plug 1.5m cable

looks both cheerfully snazzy and

durable and additionally comes with

a 6.35mm adaptor.

Sound quality

Despite the claimed smartphonefriendly

sensitivity, the FiiO X3 DAP

(HFC 382) requires quite a volume

push from the group norm – though,

admittedly, no more than with the

Oppo PM-3 – to reach a decent level.

That said, it copes, though the

Questyle QP1R (HFC 409) and Chord

Hugo (HFC 386) are needed to show

what the HE400S is really capable of.

Partly because it is open backed, the

HE400S is a little brighter and quite

a lot airier and, well, less closed-in.

Initially, at least, the sound seems

thinner and a tad undernourished,

with a significantly leaner bass. There

certainly isn’t the up-an-at-’em attack

and sense of joyful enthusiasm

displayed by the Meze offering,

but sticking with the programme

eventually reveals what the HE400S


Hifiman’s founder and boss, Dr Fang

Bian, is a firm believer that ‘high-end’

is an attitude and not a price tag –

an approach that is perhaps best

expressed with the HE400S, which

brings the benefits of planar

magnetic driver technology to a new

low price point and wider audience.

In fact, when it comes to headphones,

Hifiman’s entire lineup is planar

magnetic, for which Dr Fang makes

no apology. While conceding that

electrostatics offer the best possible

sound quality, he sees planar

magnetics as a very close runner up

for out-and-out sound quality but a

more practical proposition for the

evolving headphone market, not least

because they require less power and

can be driven by a smartphone. And

they play louder, too. Dr Fang,

perhaps unsurprisingly, predicts a

rosy future for the headphone

market, and especially hi-res portable

players, which he also makes.

is all about and yields deeply

satisfying results.

There is a weakness with the bass.

Agile, tuneful and articulate as it is,

it could really do with a little more

propulsive oomph. That apart, what

we have here is the headphone

equivalent of listening to Quad

electrostatics: ultra-low colouration,

beautifully rendered high frequencies,

superb transparency, whip-crack

timing and a powerful sense of

cohesion that lets the music roll in

a lucid, free-flowing manner. The

languid grace of Brazilia, the hi-res

track from Robert Len’s Fragile, is

exquisitely captured. And just listen

to Overture from the Whiplash

soundtrack. Of all the headphones in

the group, this is the only one that

truly pulls the piece together. Even

cinema’s angriest band leader,

Terence Fletcher, would smile ●







LIKE: Transparency;

detailed sound; timing


painting; bass needs

more beef; fairly


WE SAY: Revealing,

enjoyable and terrific

value, but a little more

bass would certainly

go a long way

MAY 2016 29





99 Classics £260

These cans are as much a product of art as science.

We’re not sure about the bling, but can they sing?



Meze 99 Classics




Over-ear closedback





● 40mm dynamic


● Quoted sensitivity


● Detachable Kevlarwrapped

OFC cable

with 3.5mm minijack

● Hard shell travel



Meze Headphones


+40 749 048138





nd now for something

almost completely

different. Meze, a small

specialist company working

out of Baia Mare in Romania, is clearly

the David in a group of Goliaths. On

the one hand, this means it doesn’t

have the resources and deep pockets

of its bigger rivals. But it also means it

can do its own thing and, in the case of

its most ambitious headphone design

to date, the new 99 Classics, spend

quite a lot of time doing it – see

boxout. Its appearance gives a strong

hint as to why. Wood.

Why wood? It isn’t just because it’s

pretty. Nor is it a unique material

among headphone makers, of course.

Despite being harder to source and

work with, Meze chooses walnut and

maple in the belief they give a brighter

and more balanced sound than other

woods. The artisanal nature of the 99

Classics is clear from the moment you

open the extravagantly lovely box

containing the equally OTT hard-shell

travel case it comes in.

Here are components you can savour

individually or as a rather beautifully

screwed together entity: the handfinished

and polished CNC-milled

wood ear cups, the cast zinc alloy

fittings with electroplated coating, the

stamped manganese spring steel

headband, the memory foam and

soft PU leather ear pads. It’s quite

something just to handle the 99

Classics for the first time. Meze doesn’t

anticipate it being a short relationship,

either. The headphone can be taken

Every musical

nuance has a

presence that you

can almost touch

completely apart for easy parts

replacement. Theoretically, you could

keep it forever.

The model on test has the ‘walnut

gold’ colour scheme. If that seems a

little too ostentatious (it is), there’s a

walnut silver alternative (better) or,

failing that, maple silver (very

tasteful). Accessories, curled up in a

separate zipped pouch, comprise two

sets of Kevlar-wrapped OFC cables,

one with inline microphone/media

controller and an in-flight adaptor.

Sound quality

The 99 Classics’ self-adjusting

headband isn’t quite as successful as

some in the group, applying a little

more pressure at the top of the ear

pads than spreading it evenly. It’s more

of an initial impression than a lasting

one, though, and as the headphone

is reasonably light, at 260g, it is

comfortable enough. Slightly

concerning is the bell-like ringing

should you accidentally flick the metal

part of the headband; the cables are

mildly microphonic, too.

Small company slip ups? Maybe. But

it doesn’t matter. Indeed, who cares?

The 99 Classics sound simply glorious

– uncannily spacious, brimming with

energy and vivacity and a cranked up


Making headphone ear cups out of

wood isn’t a guarantee of sonic

success, of course, but there’s no

denying Meze puts great store by

its properties, aesthetic and aural.

There’s an awful lot of curing and

drying of the raw material before

construction of the 99 Classics can

even start, but Meze is sure it’s well

worth the wait. The process of

shaping just a single pair of ear cups

can take up to 8 hours. And by the

time all the sanding, lacquering

and finishing is done, that’s over six

weeks gone. Any flaws detected in

the wood before final assembly, and

it’s shown the door. Walnut is the

staple for Meze, chosen for its

sturdiness and ‘acoustic properties’.

And the company would like it to be

known that all the wood it uses for its

headphones is harvested from trees

that have reached the end of their life

cycles, giving old trees a chance to

‘shine one more time’.

sense of performance that’s genuinely

surprising and frequently riveting.

Efficient and easy to drive, it comes

across like a pair of speakers that

have been ‘un-damped’ for greater

immediacy, impact and musical

communication. A starker contrast

with the smoothly composed and

controlled Fidelio X2 it would be hard

to imagine, and it’s a difference that

will prove divisive. If you want a

headphone to provide a gentle,

sophisticated background soundtrack

to accompany an activity (writing a

headphone Group Test, for example),

give the 99 Classics a miss as the task

won’t get done. If, however, you want

to hear Metheny’s Imaginary Day in

full-blooded stereo with every element

given unfettered dynamic expression

and every musical nuance a presence

you can almost touch, the Meze will

make your day. It does mine ●







LIKE: Highly musical;

expressive and

engaging sound; highend

looks and build

DISLIKE: Some of the

gold bits (we’ll take

maple and silver)

WE SAY: Simply more

enjoyable than

headphones usually

sound. A gem of a pair

MAY 2016 31


Find out more at www.unisonresearch.co.uk

Analogue Seduction

Peterborough, Cambs: 01733 350878

Audio T

Brentwood, Essex: 01277 264730

Audio T

Oxford, Oxfordshire: 01865 765961

Dooleys Hi-Fi

Macclesfield, Cheshire: 01625 264666

Hi-Fi Sound

Stockton-on-Tees: 0845 6019390

Peak Hi-Fi

Sheffield, Yorks: 01226 761832

The Audio Room

Hull, East Yorks: 01482 891375

Audio Destination

Tiverton, Devon: 01884 243584

Audio T

Cardiff, Wales: 02920 228565

Audio T

Portsmouth, Hamps: 02392 663604

Doug Brady Hi-Fi

Warrington, Cheshire: 01925 828009

Inspire Hi-Fi

Chesterfield, Derbys: 01246 472222

Rayleigh Hi-Fi

Rayleigh, Essex: 01268 779762

The Listening Suite

Dublin, ROI: +35316750974

Vickers Hi-Fi

York, Yorks: 01904 691600

Audio Lounge

London, W1: 0207 4874080

Audio T

Cheltenham, Glos: 01242 583960

Ceritech Audio

Cinderford, Glos: 01600 716362

Hi-Fi Gear Ltd

Hereford, Herefs: 01432 354921

KJ West One

London, W1: 0207 4868262

The Audiobarn

Nr. Bishops Stortford: 01279 454860

The Music Room

Glasgow, Lanarks: 01413 339700

Zouch Audio

Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leics: 01530 414128

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PM-3 £349

The current champ in this price bracket faces some

stiff competition, but can it hang onto its crown?



Oppo PM-3




Over-ear closedback





● 55mm planar

magnetic drivers

● Quoted sensitivity:


● Detachable 1.2m

cable with 3.5mm

mini-jack; 2x 3m

cables with 3.5mm

and 6.35mm jacks

● Carry case


Oppo Digital UK Ltd


0345 060 9395




ew headphones you can

buy for around £350 make

as convincing a case for

your money as the PM-3.

By any reasonable reckoning, it’s the

real deal, the complete package – an

assessment we haven’t been reticent

in expressing in these pages. Planar

magnetic drivers derived from the

PM-1 flagship, lavish build quality, a

comprehensive set of accessories

including three cables and a stylish

and sturdy denim travel case and

decidedly up-market sound quality

seem to close the argument on what’s

possible at this price. Affordable

high-end seems a fitting description.

The whole getting acquainted

experience exudes the kind of quality

vibe you might expect at twice the

price. It shouts luxury, from the

pampering softness of the earpads to

the lightweight precision engineering

of the framework to the ‘just right’

feeling when you don the headphone

for the first time. True, the Oppo isn’t

stylish in the way that the B&O,

Sennheiser or Meze are, but its

understated functionality is arguably

just as valid an aesthetic proposition.

Next to highly specialised electrostatic

tech, a planar magnetic driver –

essentially a diaphragm printed with a

conductor held between two magnets

– is theoretically the ideal solution for

headphone sound quality, delivering

greater accuracy and less colouration

than commonly used dynamic drivers.

What was once thought of as an

unacceptable weight penalty has been

mitigated by Oppo’s implementation,

Subtlety, speed and a


bass are definite

strong suits

which tips the scales at just 320g.

On-the-go ease of drive, previously

a problem for this typically powerhungry

type of headphone, has also

been overcome, making the PM-3 fit

for use with a smartphone, a phone

and pocketable headphone amp/DAC

or the emerging breed of hi-res DAPs.

Oppo admits getting this right took

around a year to crack. The company

is nothing if not thorough.

Sound quality

A five minute audition won’t work

for the PM-3. Despite the elevated

expectations set up by its planar

drivers, you might well feel tempted

to walk away – especially if you’ve

just listened to some of the more

exuberantly voiced models here. The

reason is what seems initially to be a

mildly muted top end and closed-in

soundstage. After a session with the

Meze 99 Classics, the Oppo appears

a tad lacklustre and boring. But give

it a longer go, and subtlety, speed,

transparency and a powerful but

well-proportioned and controlled bass

are definite strong suits. The longer I

listen the more seductive and virtuous

these qualities become, and the less

obvious the restrained top end seems.


Oppo was first to market with an

‘affordable’ and ‘easy to drive’ planar

magnetic design, no doubt

persuading Hifiman to get a move on.

When the company launched its own

flagship show-opener in 2014, the

PM-1, no one was greatly surprised

that such a large and luxurious

open-back design, intended purely

for home use, eschewed dynamic

drivers for planar tech. It cost £1,100

after all. A few eyebrows headed

north when, a few months later, Oppo

pulled off the same trick with the

built-down but considerably more

affordable PM-2 (HFC 402),

sacrificing little of the spacious,

balanced, ultra-low distortion sonic

performance that set the benchmark

at the £1k mark. The £350 PM-3 really

sets Felix among the featherweights,

though. Compact with over-ear

closed-back swivel-able cups, it hits

the spot combing planar magnetic

tech and high street wearability.

Indeed, once acclimatised to the

tonal balance, I find myself delving

instinctively deeper and deeper into

recordings that had perhaps seemed

superficially more impressive and

colourful on a few of the other models.

Overture from the Whiplash

soundtrack is a good example. This is

a fast and frenetic big band workout

with so many loud instruments and

constantly shifting dynamics pushing

the pace, the result can all too easily

sound overwrought and difficult to

follow. But the PM-3 does better. Not

only does it track every contribution

clearly, but it also presents a coherent,

tight and well-ordered ensemble

performance. Instrument pitch and

timbre are very well conveyed too

without tipping over into stridency or

sharpness. This is perhaps the most

natural-sounding headphone here, but

it takes a while to appreciate it ●







LIKE: Solid, finely

nuanced and natural

sound; great bass;

build and comfort

DISLIKE: Muted high

frequencies; rather

confined soundstage

WE SAY: A lovely

product capable of

very fine results, but no

longer the very best

MAY 2016 33

Designed in England by music lovers.

Enjoyed by music lovers all over the


The Chord Company Ltd, Millsway

Centre, Amesbury SP4 7RX, UK

To get more information and find your

nearest retailer, please call us on:

+44 (0)1980 625700 or visit:


“In short, this is a good value

and great-sounding cable”

Chord Clearway speaker cable

Hi-Fi Choice Dec 2015

“This interconnect handles complex music with ease, delivering a

performance that is lively and involving. It takes both classical and

modern music in its stride”

Chord C-line interconnect

Hi-Fi Choice Nov 2015





Fidelio X2 £230

This headphone won’t make much of a fashion

statement, but it is very serious about how it sounds



Philips Fidelio X2


Hong Kong


Over-ear open-back





● 50mm dynamic


● Quoted sensitivity


● Detachable 3m

cable with 3.5mm


● 6.35mm adapter


Gibson Innovations


0207 9490241




ou’d have to be brave to

venture down the high

street wearing Fidelio’s X2.

This is an unapologetically

big, beefy open-back headphone that

wouldn’t look out of place in a

recording studio. The vibe, of course,

is hardly accidental. Serious cans for

serious music lovers – that’s all you

really need to know. Besides, no

open-back headphone is really suitable

for use outside the privacy of your own

home. But that’s not a bad thing. The

X2 is designed for optimum sound

quality. Everyone’s on the same page.

An evolution of Philips’ highly

regarded Fidelio X1 (HFC 365), the X2

has new multi-layered diaphragm

drivers which, at 50mm, are still

around 10mm larger than the class

norm. In stark contrast to the rather

flimsy plain black box the X2 comes in,

the headphone is a thing of real

substance, sturdily built from quality

materials. The slightly retro studio

look is retained from the X1, which

means mesh open-back ear cups, a

two-tier ‘hammock-style’ self-adjusting

headband and arguably the plushest

and most comfortable ear pads in the

group, made from plump rolls of

memory foam covered with fine-nap

velour. They’re replaceable, too, which

is a nice touch.

Other parts have been upgraded as

well. The stainless steel accents on

each ear cup are now a low-sheen

black rather than silver, blending more

harmoniously with the similarly dark

leather headband and ear cups.

It’s hard to believe the X1 came with

just a 6.35mm plug, but, as part of the

Velvet-gloved it may

be, the Philips can hit

hard when the music

really calls out for it

thorough modernisation, it’s the

obligatory 3.5mm stereo mini-jack this

time, with an adaptor for slotting into

the larger socket. Just the one cable

is supplied. It doesn’t have an in-line

remote, but it does have a classy fabric

sleeve and is a generous 3m long. But

that’s your lot as far as accessories go.

No flight adaptor and, as these are

pretty much stay-at-home types, no

travel case either, sexy or otherwise.

Sound quality

The Fidelio X2 weighs a comparatively

whopping 380g – that’s twice as much

as the Sennheiser – but, although

you’re never quite likely to forget

you’re wearing it, it’s comfortable in a

luxurious, ear-coddling kind of way.

Comfortable is an apt one-word

description of the listening experience.

The sound the X2 produces is

effortlessly muscular and unerringly

refined with a spacious, precisely

delineated soundstage, deep but

well-proportioned bass and a relaxed

way with detail that encourages

insightful and remarkably un-fatiguing

listening sessions.

Tempted to swerve the obvious car

engine analogy here, but I can’t resist.

There’s a bit of the V8-powered Lexus


Super-sized 50mm drivers, eh?

Powerful neodymium magnets, too.

And since no one in their right mind

would be seen dead wearing the X2

outdoors, it can derive maximum

advantage from a fully open-back

design. Not only do open-back types

eliminate air pressure build up

behind the driver, allowing the

diaphragm greater free movement,

but they usually also have superior

transparency and smoother extended

high frequencies. Philips claims that

multiple layers of polymer encasing a

layer of damping gel form a flexible

boundary that absorb and dampen

any exaggerated frequencies,

resulting in a smooth frequency

response. The drivers are pre-tilted to

minimise sound reflections and work

in conjunction with ear cups that tilt

at 15°, the idea being that this is a

more natural fit with the ear’s natural

geometry, resulting in a better

dynamic performance.

limo about the X2. Much of the motive

character is masked by engineered-in

smoothness and hush, but the

all-important scenery-blurring thrust is

there when you really need it. The X2

has a similar two-speed personality.

Velvet-gloved it may be, the Philips

can hit hard when the music really

calls out for it.

Pat Metheny’s Imaginary Day most

definitely does. In places explosively

dynamic, in others quieter than a pin

drop and tonally more varied than just

about any other piece of music I can

think of, it’s a real challenge for any

item of hi-fi kit. The Fidelio X2 isn’t

fazed by any of it, capturing the loud

and soft and the highs and lows with

calm confidence. There’s more bite,

colour and expressiveness to be had

elsewhere in this group, but the X2’s

balance, refinement and unflustered

power is very appealing ●







LIKE: No-nonsense

design build and

comfort; effortlessly

smooth and spacious


DISLIKE: Some lack

of bite and sparkle

WE SAY: Not the most

exciting sound around,

but built for long-term


MAY 2016 35





Momentum 2.0 £270

Sennheiser’s Momentum headphone range is very

popular, but can the tweaked mk 2 shade its rivals?




Momentum 2.0




Over-ear closedback





● 40mm dynamic


● Quoted sensitivity:


● 1.4m cable with

3.5mm mini-jack

● Travel case


Sennheiser UK


0333 2408185





arrying classy design and

premium sound quality for

reasonable money was

what the original

Momentum had down to a degree that

must have made the opposition green

with envy. Hoards of headphone

enthusiasts obviously agreed.

Sennheiser reckoned it wasn’t beyond

improvement, though, and set about

designing second-generation models

with a few key tweaks.

Top of the list was easier portability.

Simple fix – add a couple of hinges to

the headband, allowing the ear cups to

fold in on themselves. Thus articulated,

the M2 doesn’t need the previous

model’s bulky carrying case and now

slips comfortably into a more modestly

sized zip-up faux suede pouch.

Ear cups have expanded in size and

changed shape to properly envelop the

lughole rather than pin down parts of

it. As well as enhancing comfort, the

larger, leather-covered memory-foam

ear pads also give better noise isolation

and reduce bass leakage. And while it

was at it, Sennheiser re-profiled the

leather-swathed headband to sit more

snugly on the wearer’s head.

The 1.4m twist-to-lock cable now

sprouts from the right ear cup instead

of the left, but features a smaller

in-line remote made from black rather

than silver plastic (Apple or Android/

Windows compatible, you choose

when you buy). Intriguingly, colour

schemes have been woven into this.

Android and Windows users get the

choice of black or ivory ear cups, while

Sounds as if it has

been voiced to

please a broad cross

section of listeners

for those of the Apple persuasion

there’s an additional brown finish.

Either way, the combination of

stitched leather and skeletal

aluminium framework looks great and

suggests a lightness and comfort that’s

entirely borne out in practice. At just

190g, this is the lightest in the group

and the easiest to forget you’re

wearing. To be fair, it also looks and

feels less robust than some of the

others – an impression reinforced by

the rather vulnerable exposed ear

cup-to-headband wiring.

Sound quality

Rather like the B&O, first impressions

are of the smile-inducing kind. The

Sennheiser sounds as if it has been

voiced to please a broad cross section

of listeners, from audiophiles who love

to scavenge detail deep within the

mix to people who simply appreciate

good quality sound and can tell the

difference between properly defined

and pitched bass performance and a

bloated thump.

Immediately appealing is a spacious

soundstage that has the happy knack

of placing vocalists and players outside

the head rather than using your

cranium as a rather claustrophobic

auditorium. The M2 manages this


The Momentum family contains a

wireless version of the full-sized

over-ear models here and a smaller

and less conspicuous on-ear version,

which costs about £100 less and

has also undergone a number of

improvements in mk2 guise mirroring

those granted the over-ear model.

Go wireless and the cost of owning a

Momentum jumps considerably, but

then so does the convenience factor.

With battery, aptX Bluetooth and

active noise cancellation on board

you can expect over 20 hours of

music playback with the NC engaged

and even when the juice runs out, just

plug in the supplied cable and you

can continue listening, albeit only

passively. The right ear cup hosts

the music and power controls. A

multi-function button takes care

of volume adjustment as well as a

selection of other functions, which

can be fiddly and confusing until you

have had a chance to get used to it.

more successfully than the Oppo, for

example, and is unusual in this respect

for a closed-back design.

There’s an impression, not

unpleasant at all, that the sun shines

on everything the M2 plays. It isn’t

spotlighting so much as an early

evening glow that picks out the

necessary beauty of the music and its

timbral character without the need to

be stringently analytical. Take Brasilia

from Robert Len’s Fragile. This

hauntingly beautiful 24/96 FLAC

builds slowly from delicate solo

clarinet to the baleful swell of a full

horn section. Handled by the M2,

the piece has space to breathe and

proceeds with a melancholy grace

that’s perfectly judged. Open, clear,

musically supple and tuned to please,

this might not be the most accurate

headphone in this group, but it gets an

awful lot right ●







LIKE: Brings out the

best in music; light and

portable; great design

DISLIKE: Not as robust

feeling as some

WE SAY: The original

Momentum was a big

hit and this model is

even better still

MAY 2016 37




Group test verdict

Emerging from the listening room with a flattened hairstyle, David Vivian

ponders the relative merits of six good-looking headphones with a lot to offer


headphone is a deeply personal

business. Serious headphones simply

have to be the perfect fit: physically,

aesthetically and sonically. So that’s

how I’ve approached this round up.

The winner is the one I’d buy having

been in the fortunate position to give

them all a very fair crack of the whip.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll know

they all impressed in different ways.

Placing the B&O BeoPlay H6 last

was a tough call. It’s a lovely thing

with off-the-charts style and build and

a beautifully judged, even-handed

sound that never grates. But fine

detail falls a little short and, although

generally comfortable, ear cup

pressure and a hard headband, knock

off a few more points.

That’s not something I could level at

the Philips Fidelio X2 which, although

bulky and heavy, has limo levels of

plushness and comfort. I really like

the spaciousness of the sound, too,

and the truly great bass – probably

the best of the group. But its

smoothness is a bit of a double-edged

sword, easy to live with but lacking

the last few degrees of insight.

Separating the Sennheiser

Momentum 2.0 and the Oppo PM-3

isn’t easy, not because they are

so similar but so different. The

Momentum has lots going for it

– style, comfort, fold-up portability

and musical bones. But, in the end,

it’s the sheer class of the Oppo that

snatches third spot, not least for

its terrific build and comfort and a

beguilingly natural sound. But, on

that score, it suffers in comparison

with the other planar magnetic

headphone, the Hifiman HE400S.

It really presses home its open-back

advantage, creating a stunningly

transparent, detailed and coherent

sound and is a worthy runner up.


And so the Meze 99

Classics, the dark horse

from Romania, romps

home to victory. It’s a

thing of beauty with

wood and gold bling,

but more importantly it

has a love of musical

performance that

makes even the best of

the rest sound a little

dry and po-faced.


B&O Hifiman Meze Oppo Philips Sennheiser

BeoPlay H6 HE400S 99 Classics PM-3 Fidelio X2 Momentum 2.0





Ease of drive


Price £279 £220 £260 £349 £230 £270

A marriage of style

and sound in the true

B&O idiom and

lovely to behold

High value planar

magnetics with speed

and transparency

to die for

Style and sonics at a

great price. Musical

and wonderfully


Closed-back planar

magnetic design

that gives a real taste

of the high-end

Built for comfort,

the X2 is no slouch

sonically, but a bit

of a smoothie

A great all-rounder

and sound quality

that competes with

the very best

Key features

Open back No Yes No No Yes No

Closed back Yes No Yes Yes No Yes

Carry case Pouch No Yes Yes No Yes

6.35mm jack No Yes Yes Yes Yes No

Detachable cable Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No



Qobuz, HDTracks, HighResAudio

There are now numerous online music stores in

the UK providing legitimate high-resolution

lossless downloads of recordings both new

and old. Each has its focus and you may need

to hunt around for a particular album, but

some of our favourite sites to explore and

try out include qobuz.com, hdtracks.co.uk

and highresaudio.com.


Acoustic Research AR-M2 £900

HFC 399

The AR-M2 is the standout digital

audio player of the moment. It looks

great, has a smooth touchscreen

operating system and manages to

extract every last nuance from all

your recordings. It’s an ideal source

for any headphone.


Chord Hugo £1,400 HFC 386

The Chord Hugo is an extremely

talented headphone amp and

DAC in a small, beautifully

finished box. It will make a fine

partner for any of these

headphone designs, with

enough power on tap to drive

them to the level you see fit.

38 MAY 2016



Hear it today at Sevenoaks - the experts in hi-res audio















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NEW £449





The irDAC-II is designed to be the heart of a digital system and

can be connected to a host of different types of digital sources

and connections including asynchronous USB and Bluetooth.

Up to 24bit/384kHz is supported via USB plus DSD128 support.


The PS-HX500 is equipped with a high-quality A/D convertor.

So just connect it to your PC with a USB cable and record

your vinyl as High-Resolution Audio tracks. This is a great

way to backup your precious vinyl collection.



Combines an integrated amplifier, CD player, DAB/FM tuner,

internet radio, iPod dock, digital-to-analogue converter and high

resolution 24bit/192kHz capable network stream player.

Features TIDAL, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth aptX connectivity.





NEW £595









The PULSE MINI delivers true hi-fi to any nook and cranny of

your home. Includes digital and analogue inputs and supports

files up to 24bit/192kHz. Bluetooth aptX capability is built-in.



New compact wireless music

system. Its advanced yet simple

to use connectivity includes

Spotify Connect, TIDAL, UPnP,

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digital inputs. Supports WAV, FLAC

and AIFF files up to 24bit/192kHz.



OR ORANGE. £49.95





With its advanced WiFi antenna design and blazing ARM Cortex9

Processors, the POWERNODE 2 ensures a solid connection

even when streaming high-res audio files around your home.


NEW £269


NEW £399


NEW £499




This ultra-compact wireless speaker

will change the way you think about

personal audio, delivering up to 8

hours of Hi-Res streaming with its

optional battery pack.








The AK Jr gives everyone the

opportunity to comfortably listen to

high resolution audio, supporting

24bit/192kHz and DSD files while

fitting comfortably in your pocket.



The Hi-Res XDP-100 digital audio player

from Pioneer is the right travel partner

for demanding music fans. It plays

Hi-Res WAV and FLAC files with Studio

Master resolutions of up to 24bit/384kHz

and DSD files of up to 11.2 MHz.



click &








NEW £499





Entry-level “plug’n’play” two speed turntable with single piece

aluminium tonearm and pre-fitted Ortofon OM5e cartridge.


Time to enjoy vinyl collections with extraordinary quality!

With a minimalist design, the C 556 turntable offers accurate

reproduction by using performance-focused parts and

components that put music first.


Introducing the Zeppelin Wireless. The instantly recognisable

silhouette may be the same, but every element of the speaker has

been redesigned to deliver superlative audio performance; once

again redefining what is possible from a single speaker system.








Gives the best-of-both-worlds: an excellent record player that’s

easy to use and can be simply integrated into a streaming system.




With its Carbon armtube and supplied Ortofon 2m Silver cartridge,

the 1 Xpression Carbon UKX sets new standards in its price range.


The Viso 1AP offers Wi-Fi network capability and supports

Apple AirPlay, as well as high fidelity aptX Bluetooth. Includes a

USB input and a 24/96 capable optical input.



NEW £899







Introducing Arcam’s audiophile Class G integrated amplifier

and SACD/CD player with Network streaming up to 192/24

for class leading sound quality.

NEW £999



The 8300CD improves upon its illustrious predecessor and delivers

even better performance while the 8300A includes radically

redesigned circuitry and a high-performance phono stage.



Play your music and discover new music in a variety of convenient

ways. Spotify Connect lets you select R2 as your player and

then control playback using the controls on R2 itself.













Replacing the 6004 models, the 6005 amp gains digital inputs

using the same 24-bit/192kHz DAC as the CD player which now

features enchanced USB playback and improved performance.






Received an outstanding product award from Hi-Fi News

magazine who descrided the C 316BEE is an “absolute barnstormer

of an amplifier”. The C 516BEE is the perfect partner.




Step up to the all-new PLAY:5; the powerfully smart speaker

that fine-tunes its sound to bring you all the energy and emotion

the artist packed into the original recording. Music that’s pure,

ferocious, tasty and true.



NEW £1299




GRADO • SR325e











CD5 XS uses developments from Naim’s more costly CD players

and when combined with the SUPERNAIT 2 it simply delivers

dynamic, detailed and engaging music that can’t fail to move you.


New integrated amplifier with aptX Bluetooth, a phono input plus

five additional line inputs for other sources. The K3 CD Di player is

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£379 .95



With better connectivity, including an additional optical input,

along with performance upgrades to its main components,

the D-M40 improves on its award-winning predecessor.


The M-CR611 is a superb performer, reproducing excellent CDaudio,

FM, DAB/DAB+ and Network files. Supports 192kHz / 24-bit

high-resolution files, 2.8MHz DSD files and Gapless playback.

click &





At home on a stand, wall or bookshelf,

the versatile 685 S2 is ideal

for stereo and home theatre uses

in most rooms. And performance

is enhanced with the addition of a

Decoupled Double Dome tweeter.



Price excludes stands


The first and overwhelming impression

of the Twenty.23 is an open,

engaging and communicative speaker.

Its size defies both the depth of bass

and scale of presentation by taking

any music or film material in its stride.

The sound is vivid and dynamic and

delivered with authoritative bass.




The flagship 3050 is the perfect

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speakers costing three or four

times its price.



3050 Standard finishes • Premium finishes £649


CM10 S2

The flagship floorstanding

speaker of the CM Series sets a

new standard for performance.

It combines technologies

taken from across B&W’s

ranges. The result simply

sounds and looks beautiful.



KEF • LS50

An innovative concept derived

from the legendary LS3/5a.

Rarely the case in such a

compact design, the LS50

monitor delivers a rich, multidimensional


experience’ that is out of all

proportion to its size.


GOLD 200

Amazing scale and impressive

dynamic control are available from

this slender three-way design,

comprising ribbon tweeters, twin

5.5” bass drivers and a 4” midrange

driver, which is housed in a

dedicated enclosure.





The Bronze 2 builds on the

strength of its predecessor’s

audiophile credibility with a

neutral tonal balance and high

detail resolution combined

with high overall efficiency and

power handling.



A deceptively slim and discreet

floorstanding design, the Imagine

X1T has wide bandwidth and high

SPL output capabilities that defy

its modest size. Features identical

5 1/4” woofers plus a one-inch

pure titanium dome tweeter.







Replacing the award-winning

2020i speakers, the 3020

incorporates numerous

improvements including a

revised cabinet with wool fibre

damping plus new bespoke

drive units.

NEW Special edition finishes.

Titanium Grey, Racing Red & Frosted Black







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Ideal for large areas or where volume is required to make an

impact, the MiniPod can be placed on a desk or shelf using the

supplied spikes or wall mounted with the optional bracket.



The Sonos Wireless HiFi System delivers

all the music on earth, in every room, with

warm, full-bodied sound that’s crystal clear

at any volume. Sonos can fill your home

with music by combining HiFi sound and

rock-solid wireless in a smart system that

is easy to set-up, control and expand.













Introducing the MicroPod Bluetooth. These stylish speakers

are ideal for tablets and smartphones are are simple to

connect without the need for unsightly wires.

HiFi for a wireless generation

Take hi-fi to new heights with

Bluesound’s next generation.

Features improved wi-fi

performance, more digital and

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Bluetooth aptX along with support

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Tidal and Spotify. PRICES FROM £269





Bishop’s Stortford 01279 506576

Bristol • 0117 974 3727

Brighton 01273 733338

Bromley 020 8290 1988

Chalfont St Peter • 0845 5046364

Cambridge 01223 304770

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of glass

Chris Ward samples the latest integrated

valve amplifier offering from Ming Da and

discovers a sweet and dynamic sound


ing Da has been producing

valve amplifiers for over

22 years and is gaining

fans worldwide.

Furthermore as with this example

here, after the amp’s arrival in the UK,

Malvern Audio Research upgrades

key internal components, swaps in

higher quality valves and adds a three

year warranty. Taken altogether, this

China/UK partnership feels highly

compelling and without compromise.

This Dynasty Duet 300 Plus is an

incarnation of an existing Duet 300B

triode amp design, but now employs

zero feedback and claims many other

audio improvements. Lifting its

considerable 32kg into place confirms

that this is a whole lot of amplifier.

With this ‘Plus’ version weighing an

extra 8kg over the existing Duet 300,

it’s clear there must have been

considerable extra attention to meaty

transformers and beefy chassis work.

With eight large and lavish tubes on

show, this is an amp for conspicuous

visual consumption. I’m a fan of its

function-first, slightly ‘steam punk’



Ming Da Dynasty

Duet 300 Plus




Single-ended 300B

valve integrated






430 x 220 x 340mm


● Quoted power

output: 2x 9W

(into 8ohm)

● Inputs: 4x RCA

line level

● Single-ended


● Zero feedback


Ming Da UK


07831 197019



styling, but some may find it a tad

utilitarian. To me, the black finish,

rounded corners, chunky controls and

slightly retro dials lend it a certain

Cold War charm. Add the beautifully

finished acrylic tube guard (not

shown), however, and the amp takes

on a far fresher, 21st century vibe, so

the aesthetic choice is yours. Mark

Manwaring-White at Malvern Audio

Research even hints at bespoke

coloured options in the future.

Operationally, it has four line-level

inputs selectable by the front right

dial. Ming Da offers an optional

built-in Wolfson DAC for an extra

£200, enabling coaxial and USB

inputs for those with digital sources.

Volume can be controlled by hand

or remote control that operates the

motorised volume potentiometer. As

with many rather fetching VU meters,

these are possibly more for retro

appeal than meaningful data, but

they lend it a personable face.

The amp has been hand built within

a well-finished cast aluminium chassis

using high-purity copper point-topoint

wiring throughout for quality

audio connections and near infinite

serviceability. Ming Da claims all

42 MAY 2016




materials have been selected for

maximum audio quality and

reliability. The transformers are hand

wound using enamelled, low-oxygen

wire around especially sourced

Japanese steel laminations, made of

an alloy chosen explicitly for sound

quality. Even the amplifier’s feet

are made inhouse from turned

aluminium. Sometimes in the rarefied



A mixture of

steam punk chic

and Cold War

charm make the

Ming Da a highly

desirable amp


world of high-end valve amplifiers,

sound quality can come at the

expense of build, but not here. The

attention to detail fills me with

confidence that a superlative

engineering-led ethos extends

through the entire signal path,

even to the robust remote control.

The quantity and types of tube is

noteworthy. A 6LP is an unusual and

very powerful driver valve for 300B

triodes and this could well create a

differentiated sound quality from

other similar 300B designs. Ming Da

has also opted for valve rectification

and cathode bias over fixed bias, so

I get all the power

of the orchestra

but can still pick out

individual musicians

the benefit for owners is that this

amp doesn’t require constant

tweaking. Bias should never need

adjustment and you’re free to swap

in alternative tubes of the correct

specification to tune or ‘tube roll’ the

sound to your liking.

Connecting up my 91dB quoted

sensitivity Cadence Arca speakers, a

Shanling CD T-100 HDCD player and

Timestep T-01MC phono stage (HFC

371) via Black Rhodium Sonata VS-1

(HFC 398) and Chord Company

Shawline RCA interconnects, I switch

on and let everything warm through

ahead of serious listening.

Sound quality

Starting things off gently with Roxy

Music’s Rain Rain Rain on HDCD, the

opening bass line and synthesiser

reveals this modest 9W amp is

punching beyond its specification.

Bass notes are far deeper and more

defined than a single-ended triode





RCA analogue


IEC mains

input socket

4 and 8ohm

speaker taps

amp has any right to achieve. The

drum kit kicks in and this track has

much greater drive and punch than I

expect from just 9W. Bryan Ferry’s

vocals are portrayed with a superb

blend of richness and ethereal

airiness. Soundstaging is strong with

the sonic image extending very wide,

but with possibly a little less front-toback

depth than class-leading preamp

sections. Pace, rhythm and timing

is a beguiling quality in amplifiers

and lower-powered triodes can

occasionally be criticised for being

too laid back, but here the Ming Da

is grooving beautifully and exhibiting

a speed and agility that perfectly

communicates the track’s lilting,

funky vibe.

Spinning the glorious Sheffield Lab

‘direct cut’ vinyl of the Los Angeles

Philharmonic playing Wagner’s Ride

Of The Valkyries, I’m really struck with

its masterful authority. 300B triode

output valves in a single-ended

arrangement are often celebrated

for a highly transparent portrayal of

more intimate music and voices, but

given the modest power on tap, they

are rarely known for their drive,

especially around more dense music.

Consequently, single-ended 300Bs

can sometimes struggle to portray

the full scale and dynamics of larger

orchestral works and can occasionally

err on the side of a little extra

creaminess, a slight smoothing of

punchy dynamics and potentially a

narrowing of the soundstage. Here,

however, the Ming Da 300B tubes

sound like triodes on steroids. This

is a track that could embarrass a

featherweight amp, but Wagner’s

huge dynamic swings are handled

with majestic ease. In particular, the

power and detail in the orchestra’s

bass instruments have a really

forceful drive and a speed of attack

that catches me off guard. This

perceived speed is most likely the

benefit of zero feedback being

employed on this ‘Plus’ version

of the amp. As a result, Wagner’s

most complex, dense and dynamic

passages sound more open and less

congested and I’m getting all the

power of the orchestra, but in a way

that enables me to still pick out the

timbre and virtuosity of individual

musicians. Stereo imaging is again

excellent, especially in width, with a

highly focused and sweet triangle

ringing high and bright above the

other musical instruments.

Coming bang up to date playing

Låpsley’s Station on CD and the

track’s evocative mix of stripped-back

instrumentation, sound effects and

haunting vocals is presented by the

MAY 2016 43




Mark Manwaring-White

Owner, Malvern Audio Research


1 2


Audyn Reference


Input and driver


300B output


Choke filtered

power supply





5 Twin rectifier


CW: What are the main differences

between this amplifier and the

standard Duet 300?

MMW: The increased size and

superior design of these output

transformers allows far higher DC

current, enabling more power with

zero saturation on heavy bass peaks.

The coupling capacitors are of a

higher quality and we use a much

larger mains transformer with twin

rectifiers for increased longevity,

along with a hefty smoothing

capacitor bank. The 6L6 driver tubes

also offer a powerful and unusual

driver for the 300Bs that yields

great results.

Build quality seems very high. How

are standards maintained?

Ming Da has been manufacturing

valve amplifiers for over 22 years, and

the owner Mr Jigui Xiou is extremely

passionate about sound and build

quality. This is a family-run business

where Mr and Mrs Xiou take the

welfare of their staff very seriously,

with many of them having been there

since the beginning. This mutual

appreciation results in very high build

standards and real attention to detail.

I personally aim to visit the factory

once or twice a year, and all the staff

know me well. I work closely with

them in exploring new product ideas,

new design work and experimenting

with circuit changes to improve these

excellent products still further. Prior

to shipping, products get a 60-hour

burn in and re-test at the factory.

Upon arrival in the UK, we inspect

every amplifier, undertake any

upgrades, then each amplifier is soak

tested for a further 24 hours, along

with some power cycling to test

the whole power supply. I have

complete confidence in giving a

three-year warranty.

What speakers are best suited to

this amp?

This amp has far more drive than one

might expect, but we generally

recommend speakers of 90dB or

more. The Ming Da MD-009

standmount speakers at £1,300 are

well suited, but visitors to Malvern

Audio Research can sample many

excellent choices.



Icon Audio’s integrated

amplifiers deserve

consideration and the

Stereo 40 MkIII 2A3

(£1,999) represent’s

excellent value, but to

me the Ming Da has

greater sonic

refinement and

superior build. At a

similar budget,

Audion’s Silver Night

300B Anniversary and

‘Special Edition’ (HFC

402) have similar high

transparency, speed

and bass grip that

belies their power

output. Audion’s more

svelte aesthetics may

also have greater

appeal to some. Audio

Note’s Oto line SE

Signature amp (£3,450)

has a very different

compliment of valves,

but achieves a superb

blend of lightness of

touch and control and

offers similar inputs.


Dynasty Duet 300 Plus with

sumptuousness and a sprightly

snappiness. A heavily chorused,

mournful keyboard sits at the back

of the soundstage, rich, round and

lusciously organic. Låpsley’s voice has

the perfect balance of hear-through

transparency alongside a honeyed

richness, such that tiny nuances in

her delivery are exquisitely revealed

but aren’t served up desiccated. The

quality of the bass kick is noteworthy

again for its speed and impact and it’s

hard to equate this dynamic agility

and punch I’m listening to with just

nine single-ended integrated watts.

The track builds with unusual,

pitch-shifted vocals, extra percussion

and potent rhythmic hand claps

and the Duet 300 Plus strikes a

consummate balance of intimacy with

scale, rich tone with crackling detail

and razor sharp timing with an easy

going, highly musical fluidity.


If you are in the market for an

integrated valve amplifier, but are

undecided between the intimate

transparency and silky airiness that

can come with lower-powered,

single-ended triodes, or the weight,

control and scale from meatier,

push-pull valve amps, auditioning the

Dynasty Duet 300 Plus could be music

to your ears. It’s rare to get weight,

detail, transparency and lively

dynamics so well balanced, but Ming

Da (with Malvern Audio Research’s

sonic tweaking) has nailed it.

Increasingly, I’m hearing a new

breed of quality valve amps throw off


any remnants of a stereotypical,

cuddly, ‘pipe and slippers’ sound

and instead create real drive, speed,

agility and bass weight alongside

their dependable transparency and

sweet treble. This is a product that

has clearly had a lot of love and

attention to detail laboured on it and

£3,499 feels like exceptional value for

a hand-built integrated amp of such

novel design, exquisite build quality

with the convenience of auto bias and

remote control. If you have digital

sources and you haven’t got a DAC,

the ability to integrate a built-in one

could also be a smart option. This is

a lot of amplifier for the money and

the combination of a dedicated and

highly experienced, family-run

team in China alongside extra

knowledgeable service and technical

expertise in the UK feels highly

compelling. This is an extremely

well-built, superbly voiced amplifier

that could last a lifetime ●







LIKE: Transparency;

strong bass; sweet

treble; build quality


available in black,

for now

WE SAY: Well-built,

beautifully voiced

integrated valve amp

that punches way

beyond its output

44 MAY 2016



46 MAY 2016


MERCURY 7.2 £230




David Price auditions the latest in a long

line of extra terrestrial Tannoys, the Mercury

7.2 standmounting speaker


long time ago, in a galaxy

far, far away, Britain’s most

long-established speaker

company launched a range

of affordable, high-performance boxes

called the Planet Series. This proved a

big hit in the early eighties, especially

the entry-level Tannoy Mercury,

which offered an unexpectedly big

sound from a medium-sized box.

Despite its low cost and modest

construction, it had an uncanny

ability to get to the heart of the music

– I should know, I owned a pair.

The original Mercury of 1982 had a

distinctly unlovely vinyl wrap over its

The Mercury 7.2’s

obvious transient

speed makes it great

for pop, dance or rap

large, thin MDF cabinet, but the new

ones are obviously better turned out

and come in a choice of walnut, light

oak or black oak wood grain effect

finishes, with dark cloth grilles. The

7.2 here is the larger of the two

standmounters, but is still tiny in

comparison with the original.

Tannoy’s Dr Paul Mills was the main

driving force behind the 7.2, but he

credits “significant input from our

rising star engineer Ryan Sheen and

tuning input from Tannoy’s pro-audio

director of engineering, Phillipe

Robinaeau”. The boys have been busy,

because it’s touted as the most

significant overhaul of the Mercury

since the original, back when New

Romantics roamed the earth.

Interestingly, it has a larger mid/

bass driver than you’d expect for its

cabinet size and it’s wider than many

rivals, countering the ‘small footprint’

philosophy so beloved of 21st century

speaker designers. Either way, it’s a

win-win situation because the larger

the drive unit and greater the internal

volume of the cabinet, the more

chance it has to sound good. The 9.4

litre cabinet is connected to the

outside world by a single rearmounted

bass port with the option of

using the (supplied) foam bung. It

also sports a new 28mm soft dome

tweeter, with a high-tech dome

lamination process and powerful

neodymium motor.

The good doctor says the mid/bass

unit features a stiff, lightweight cone

and new roll surround – a proprietary

multi-fibre cone material with a

smoothly sculpted profile is used. The

tweeter employs soft woven polyester

with a micro layer of nitro-urethane

internal vibrations.

The result is a quoted efficiency of

89dB, which is good for a smallish

speaker but not outstanding. Just

about usable with low-powered tube

amps, it also works with muscular

solid-staters and has a 200W peak

power handling capacity. Quoted

frequency response is 42Hz-32kHz at

-6dB. I find it fairly easy to drive by a

solid-state amplifier, and it also works

very well close to a rear wall if you fit

the supplied bass port bungs. It’s at its



Tannoy Mercury 7.2




2-way standmount






193 x 292 x 266mm


● 28mm polyester

dome tweeter

● 152mm multi-fibre

mid/bass unit

● Quoted sensitivity



Tannoy Ltd


01236 420199



It may look very

similar to its

predecessor, but

the difference

is clear to hear

best about 30cm from the back wall

on 24in stands, slightly toed-in,

without bungs.

Sound quality

In absolute terms this isn’t a strictly

neutral loudspeaker. There’s a subtle

upper bass warmth – due in part to

cabinet coloration – and the treble is

well lit where it meets the upper

midband. The speaker gives a bright,

upfront sort of sound – one that’s

bound to attract your attention.

Cleverly though, Tannoy has avoided

the temptation to overdo it, and the

Mercury isn’t a wildly unbalanced

design. Instead, you might call it a

characterful one, which brings a little

extra zest to the proceedings, – this

doesn’t obstruct the music, but rather

makes it seem a little more dramatic.

This speaker is more than just a

fulsome upper bass and lively lower

treble though; it’s fast, thanks to what

are obviously a very agile pair of drive

units. It has excellent transient

response, and it makes for a

wonderfully snappy sound that

renders any music you play dramatic

and involving. This, allied to its

best-in-class dynamics makes for a

great baby box. That larger mid-bass

driver, with the slightly bigger

enclosure, means it doesn’t compress

peaks quite as much as most rivals.

It’s still a small box with a modestly

sized mid/bass unit, but it certainly

feels less constrained than many. This

useful trait makes for a bigger, ballsier

and more expansive sound.

Cue up Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ King

Of New York, and you’re instantly

greeted with a sound that is far bigger

than you’d expect. Punchy, bouncy

and uplifting, you can almost forgive

the lack of low bass, because the

upper bass is wonderfully fluid and

gives the song a great sense of

MAY 2016 47



MERCURY 7.2 £230


Dr Paul Mills

Director of development, Tannoy





28mm polyester

dome tweeter

Bass reflex port

(bungs supplied)

4mm binding


152mm multi-fibre

mid/bass unit




DP: What would you say is the

Mercury 7.2’s raison d’être?

PM: It has been our entry-level ‘real’

hi-fi loudspeaker for three decades.

We have always put a great deal of

effort and resource into ensuring

each generation of Mercury has

lead the field for technology and

performance. Mercury 7 is no

exception and we have undertaken

a major design overhaul, with

completely new, larger drivers and

improved electronics, to ensure

class-leading performance at the

price. Ironically, being at the cutting

edge of technology and performance

does not go hand in hand with very

low price points, so we have

developed the forthcoming Eclipse

series for audiophiles on an even

tighter budget.

In what way is the new generation

better than the last?

Mercury Vi, with its metal dome

tweeter, had a very upfront and

energetic sound that was not overly

tolerant of hard-sounding amplifiers.

The goal with Mercury 7 was to make

it the best all-round budget speaker

available today. It is smoother and

more refined, but loses none of the

energy and impact required for more

dynamic music. Its key strength is

in its ability to communicate the

power, passion and emotion of

music, without adding its own colour

to the mix.

What’s the ‘multi-fibre’ cone

material exactly?

The actual fibre mix is a closely

guarded secret, but the base mix is

purely organic, being a ‘paper’ pulp.

We have tried literally thousands of

cone material mixes over the years,

from plastics and polymers to carbon

and even Kevlar fibres, but the best

price/performance ratio keeps

coming back to organic fibres

embedded in a doped paper pulp.

The new Mercury 7 driver cones have

the stiffness for well controlled bass,

excellent midrange damping for

pure, uncoloured vocals.



ELAC’s Debut B6

standmounter (HFC

406) is a close rival to

the Tannoy Mercury 7.2,

albeit pricier at £299.

It’s similar, offering a

slightly wider front

baffle and a fractionally

larger diameter mid/

bass unit than the group

norm. Both speakers

are quite similar

sonically – both major

on musicality and have

more welly than you’d

expect from their size.

The Tannoy is a little

less punchy and

powerful, but sounds

fractionally tidier

across the midband, yet

has a subtly brighter

low treble and a slight

lack of high top end.

The ELAC is marginally

smoother tonally, but

like the Tannoy places

musicality above strict

neutrality. Both are very

strong designs, and

deserve auditioning.


motion. It’s also surprisingly weighty

for such a small box. Move up the

frequency spectrum and it throws out

plenty of detail, although by the

standards of more expensive speakers

it’s rather opaque. The point is that

there is just enough to work with, and

I’m drawn into the recording.

Unsurprising for a Tannoy is the

excellent soundstage. It images wide,

throwing elements of the mix far left

and right, giving an immersive feel

that belies its size. True, it doesn’t

hang instruments back as accurately

as some, but it still has a good stab at

recreating the recorded acoustic or

studio mix. Factor in its obvious

transient speed, and this makes it

great for pop, dance or rap music.

Moving to something that’s far

better recorded – I drop Steely Dan’s

Aja into my CD spinner. All of the

Mercury’s fine qualities continue to

impress on the superb title track, but

I begin to get the measure of the

speaker better. The tweeter begins to

announce its presence – Tannoy has

obviously voiced the speaker for bite

and speed with pop, but with the

deliciously subtle and sonorous hi-hat

work on this classic rock album, it

sounds slightly coarse. Admittedly,

its price rivals aren’t obviously any

better, but you’re definitely reminded

that you’re listening to an entry-level

model. Even though it’s highly

musical, you’ll need to spend more for

the last word in refinement. The lack

of air and space right at the top end

of the treble is another reminder of

the Mercury 7.2’s mortality.

Overall, this speaker’s excellent

breeding gives it an instinctively

musical gait. Even with far less well

recorded sixties rock music – such as

The Kinks’ Arthur – it proves a joy to

listen to. It gives a big-hearted


performance, full of life and

happiness. It captures rhythmic

nuances brilliantly, and again proves

dynamic and unconstrained

considering its size. It’s a little speaker

with a big sound, if it is anything. Ray

Davies’ voice is beautifully carried,

with a very emotional rendition of

Victoria, complete with soaring guitar

work and drums.


Most small speakers give a rather

downsized, diminished and partial

account of the music they’re asked to

play. So often when buying a budget

box, it’s a case of trying to find the

least bad compromise. Not so with

Tannoy’s Mercury 7.2, which is an

enjoyable and engaging little

loudspeaker in its own right. Indeed,

it’s the sort of thing you could happily

live with after spending time with

substantially more expensive

transducers. Of course it’s not perfect,

but Tannoy has cleverly ensured that

its sins are those of omission – it

doesn’t add anything unpleasant that

gets in the way of enjoying the music.

Heartily recommended ●







LIKE: Highly tuneful,

musical sound; fine


DISLIKE: Nothing at

the price

WE SAY: Charming

small speaker with

huge appeal

48 MAY 2016

Revolution starts

from within.

Look at our new range of power amplifiers

and you’d be forgiven for thinking not

much has changed. Only the DR badge on

the rear panel hints at the revolutionary

technology within. Inside, our new Naim DR

(Discrete Regulation) power supply circuitry

and the radical new NA009 transistors

developed for our flagship power amplifier,

the Statement NAP S1, enhance the

fundamentals of pace, rhythm and timing

for which the originals are so renowned.

The result is an even more immersive and

involving music experience. Listen and

you’ll feel the difference immediately.

Discover more and book a demonstration

with your nearest specialist retailer at


Go Deeper



SCOUT JR £1,650


for boys

The smallest member of VPI’s Scout range

pitches into a competitive market. Ed Selley

thinks it deserves a merit badge


f you’re in the market for

a turntable in the price

range of £1,500-£2,000 at

the moment, you are truly

spoilt for choice. This price point has

become keenly contested and

manufacturers have been pulling out

the stops to produce options that

reflect their philosophy while offering

simplicity and convenience in terms

of setup and use.

For VPI industries, competing at

this price point has required some

evolution of its existing models. The

original, long-running Scout turntable

has evolved into the Scout 2, but has

seen commensurate price rises taking

it above £2,000. The answer has been

to take the Scout design and refine

aspects of it to become the Scout Jr

– available for £1,600 without

cartridge or £1,650 with an Ortofon

2M Red (HFC 345), as seen here.

In keeping with the VPI philosophy,

the Scout Jr is an unsuspended,

belt-driven design and VPI has been

able to keep a number of Scoutspecific

design attributes. The Jr has

a separate motor, which sits in a

recess on the left-hand side of the

plinth. This is a 500rpm AC design

chosen for the EU market and it sits

on chunky rubber feet for isolation.

The motor has a full-size IEC mains

input and speed adjustment is made

by changing the belt over two pulleys.

The plinth is non-resonant MDF

coated in the traditional VPI black

crackle finish. It is mounted on four

large metal spiked feet with rubber

tips that lend the Scout Jr a degree of

isolation. The plinth contains an oil

bath bearing and a steel shaft with

Jacobs taper onto which the platter

sits. This bearing comes supplied

pre-assembled and lubricated so it is



VPI Scout Jr





Belt-drive turntable





500 x 180 x 380mm


● 33 & 45rpm

● Machined

aluminium platter

● Ortofon 2M Red


● 9in vertical yoketype



Renaissance Audio


0131 5553922





a simple matter of dropping the

platter onto the spindle when you

unpack the deck. The platter itself is

a 1in-thick piece of machined 6061

aluminium that comes with a rubber

anti-slip mat.

Where the Jr differs most

significantly from the more expensive

Scout model is the tonearm. By

preference, VPI tends towards

unipivot-style designs that are freely

suspended on a spike-type mount.

These are relatively costly to produce

and can be a little intimidating to less

experienced users. As such, the Jr

makes use of an arm that is captive

in the horizontal axis, but acts as a

unipivot in the vertical to try and give

some of the performance traits of a

true unipivot.

One area where the arm is clearly

a VPI design is the way the wire does

not exit through the pivot axis, but

instead arcs in a loop out the top of

the arm and into a terminal block. By

applying a twist to this cable, the

force it applies back onto the arm acts

as an anti-skate mechanism. This is

resourceful, but not without some

rather testing quirks.

Out of the box, the arm is rather stiff

and can ‘stick’ at points on a record

until loosened up. The loop anti-skate

is effective in operation, but the

exposed cable is very vulnerable

to outside interference from other

nearby electronics.

These quirks aside, the Scout Jr feels

solid and very well thought

out. The hefty platter and smooth

movement of the arm give the deck

50 MAY 2016


SCOUT JR £1,650


Setting the

Scout Jr

up is a breeze

a feeling of solidity and quality and

the Scout Jr can be assembled quickly

and easily in a few minutes. Like a

number of rivals, there is no form of

dust protection which may or may not

infuriate, but the footprint is small

enough that a number of box covers

will fit.

Sound quality

Left to run for a few hours and with

the arm loosened up, the Scout Jr gets

an awful lot right. In presentation

terms, it is an interesting counter to

strong rivals in the category. Kicking

off with St Germain’s Tourist, it

sounds quick and lively but without

losing any sense of scale or impact.

A common accusation that’s often

levelled at unipivots is that they are

lacking in bass response, but the

‘quasi unipivot’ design on the Scout Jr

has a very pleasant shove to it with

plenty of low-end impact and

excellent fine detail.

Effortlessness and spaciousness are

traits often associated with unipivots

and are very much part of how the

Scout makes music. This is most

noticeable with recordings that can

sound a little congested and confused

like Ritual by The White Lies. Where

at times the music can sound a little

dull and muddy, the VPI is able to

introduce a subtle but appreciable

level of top-end sparkle. This adds



Analogue Works

Zero+ (HFC 407)

remains one of

the most fluid and

engaging turntables

under £2,000. It is

consistently able

to find the beat in

whatever it plays.

Against this, the

VPI can be less


engaging, but

hits back with that

spaciousness and

refinement that can

elude the Analogue

Works. In value

terms, the Zero+ is

slightly cheaper and

the Audio-Technica

cartridge it is

supplied with offers

higher performance

than the Ortofon on

the VPI. However, the

VPI offers a more

solid build quality

and greater upgrade

potential. Choosing

between the two is

hard, but any wouldbe

owner is unlikely

to be disappointed

with either option.

to the sense of effortlessness that it

brings to almost everything it plays

and while superficially less exciting

than some rivals, it is nonetheless

extremely enjoyable and easy to listen

to and never goes so far as sounding

slow or languid.

Further listening reveals that while

the upper registers are detailed

and reasonably refined, there is a

graininess to them which is present

even on very good pressings. It turns

out that the culprit is the Ortofon 2M

Red supplied with the turntable. As

part of the package, it acquits itself

better than you might reasonably

expect an £89 cartridge, but it is

unquestionably the weak link in the

performance chain. Poor recordings

The even handed

way it handles poor

recordings makes it

a decent all-rounder

in particular can sound thin and

scratchy in the upper registers and

the Scout Jr also seems to show some

susceptibility to surface noise with it

in place.

UK distributor Renaissance Audio

has clearly seen this eventuality

coming and as noted, the turntable

can be ordered without a cartridge

for a £50 saving. Unless you are

particularly strapped for cash, this

would strike me as the best way

forward as it is fairly clear that the

design can handle rather more

cartridge than the 2M Red. Of course,

charging £50 for a 2M Red is itself

good value and any Red can be

upgraded at a later date with the

stylus from a 2M Blue, but it is fairly

clear that the Scout Jr can offer more

performance if you want it.

Substituting a Hana EH from this

month’s Mini Test – starting on page

106 – (a process that is entirely

painless) yields a considerable

improvement in the treble

performance with a much smoother

and effortless presentation that loses

none of the positive qualities it

displayed with the Ortofon, while still

keeping the all-important price under

£2,000 and retaining compatibility

with moving-magnet phono stages.

With the Hana in place, the VPI is

a deeply impressive turntable.

That same wonderfully unforced

presentation moves up another notch

and the tonality becomes more natural

and convincing at the same time.


Quibbles over the cartridge should

not detract from the extremely

positive qualities that the Scout Jr

displays as a whole. This is a very

impressive piece of design that

manages to give a good taste of what

the VPI brand is about without doing

anything to scare new customers

or make life difficult for them.

The wonderfully even handed and

spacious way it handles even poor

recordings makes it an impressive

all-rounder and yet another seriously

capable turntable to add to the

shortlist at this price point ●







LIKE: Spacious

presentation; solid

build; easy setup

DISLIKE: Tonearm is

a little quirky

WE SAY: An assured

turntable that offers an

extremely impressive

performance in a well

thought-out package







9in vertical yoketype


Ortofon 2M

Red cartridge

Speed changing


Phono outputs

Earthing post






MAY 2016 51



ZENSOR 5 AX £800

52 MAY 2016


ZENSOR 5 AX £800


A sound


Does the relentless march of the wireless

speaker spell the end for the floorstander?

David Vivian reckons DALI has the answer


he more things change,

the more they stay the

same. The old French

proverb seems particularly

apt in the world of consumer audio

electronics these days. For all the

advances in wireless, streaming and

hi-res technologies, all most people

buying a music system want is what

they’ve always wanted: maximum

satisfaction for a reasonable outlay

with minimum messing around. A

plug ‘n’ play solution that sounds

great, in other words.

Equally, there’s no getting away

from the impression that while it’s



but always rhythmic,

fun and engaging

never been easier to buy just such a

solution off the shelf – subsequently

to be placed unobtrusively on a shelf

in the home – there’s been a bit of an

excursion down the garden path by

marketing folk when it comes to the

sonic goodies on offer. Solo wireless

speakers that use closely coupled

drivers and Digital Signal Processing

to unpack a stereo image can be good

at what they do, but even superstars

like the Naim Mu-So (HFC 391)and

Geneva AeroSphère Large (HFC 407)

struggle to compete with conventional

components for real hi-fi sound quality.

The beauty of progress, however, is

that manufacturers can create new

niches that meld tradition with

cutting-edge tech – in theory, nailing

what, to some, will be the best of both

worlds. Let’s say what you really

want is the uncluttered plug ‘n’ play

convenience and wireless/streaming/

decoding capabilities of a modern

single-box wireless speaker, but with

the sonic reach and flexibility of two

established classy floorstanders that

you can position precisely where you

want for the best performance.

Not such a big ask when you think

about it and one already addressed

by German brand Raumfeld with its

bulky three-way Stereo M standmount

speakers (HFC 399). Now Denmark’s

DALI is serving up a similar proposition

with the self-powered Zensor 5 AX

floorstander. As with the Raumfeld,

it isn’t a true active design, but one

where the crossovers are kept passive

and the stereo integrated amplifier

and wireless electronics are housed in

the left-hand cabinet. This is linked to

the other cabinet – essentially a regular

Zensor 5 – by a single run of speaker

cable, supplied or of your own choice.

Cool runnings

In common with the standmount

Zensor 1 AX that completes the range,

power is provided by a lightweight,

cool-running Class D amplifier rated

at 50W per channel. There are two

physical input connections located

on the back panel of the left-hand

cabinet, plus an output for a

subwoofer. The optical input reads

signals up to 24-bit/176.4kHz, which

gets passed on to the DSP section and

finally the amp. A pure digital

pathway. The other connection is

via a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. The

analogue feeds supplied by this and

wirelessly by Bluetooth are changed

to a 24-bit/96kHz digital signal by an

A/D converter and routed through to

the DSP, which delivers a PWM signal

at 384kHz to the open loop amp. The

amplified signal is then received by

the passive crossover that splits it up

for the drivers.

DALI says that the wide dispersion,

25mm ‘ultra lightweight’ fabric dome

tweeter (no speaker toe-in required)

is derived from the design used in its

more expensive models. It features a

vented voice-coil former and damping

material under the dome to minimise

reflections from the pole piece. Also



DALI Zensor 5 AX




2-way floorstanding

active loudspeaker





212 x 840 x 282mm


● 25mm fabric

dome tweeter

● 2x 133mm wood

fibre mid/bass


● Quoted power

output: 2x 50W




0845 6443537



They might not

be the biggest


but they still

have the grunt

where it counts

familiar are the distinctive ruddy hues

of the 133mm woodfibre-coned

mid-bass drivers. DALI contends that

the blend of fine grain paper pulp,

reinforced with wood fibres, creates a

stiff yet lightweight and well-behaved

structure that, in combination with

a low-loss surround and spider

suspension, reproduces the smallest

details of the signal fed to it. What

you can’t see are the four-layer voice

coils and the rigid metal baskets – the

combined effect of which is claimed

to improve bass authority and the

reproduction of transients.

The slim, elegant, front-ported

cabinets are well constructed from

CNC-machined MDF and partially

dressed with a glossy laminate plate

for the baffle. They look impressive

despite their modest dimensions.

Confronting resonance is internal

bracing and acoustic damping

material on all the inside surfaces

except the back of the baffle, this

is to create a more direct connection

between the mid-bass drivers and the

reflex port and, claims DALI, achieve

better bass precision and increased

‘attack’ in the midrange. Each speaker

enclosure is hoisted an inch into the

air on a rather wonderful minimalist

integrated aluminium plinth, which

has slim foam pad ‘treads’ to protect

solid flooring and machined threads

to accommodate spikes or the

somewhat more surface-friendly

screw-in rubber bobbles supplied.

MAY 2016 53



ZENSOR 5 AX £800


Lars F Jørgensen

Product Manager, DALI A/S

DV: What inherent advantages do

the self-powered Zensor 5s have

over a standard pair driven by a

separate amplifier?

LJ: In a word, simplicity. There is a

growing demand from the market

for speakers that don’t need an

accompanying stack of electronics.

The goal of the Zensor AX models

was to create loudspeakers that were

easy to set up and convenient to use,

but at the same time could provide

the same level of audio performance

as our traditional passive speakers.

The Zensor AX models give you that

freedom without losing the ability to

deliver great audio experiences.

Class D amplification is improving

all the time. Did you have to wait for

it to get ‘good enough’ before

designing the AX range?

Absolutely. The decision to launch

the Zensor AX series was closely tied

in to the significant improvements in

Class D technology over the last

couple of years. We needed an

amplifier that had the audio quality

to drive the Zensor models, but which

was also affordable enough to keep

the pricing in line with the Zensor

ethos. Finding the right amplifier was

a long process. In the end it came

down to a LOT of listening. We

already knew how good this speaker

can sound with a standalone

amplifier so we had to make sure

that the AX sounded just as good,

or even better.

Are you planning any more

self-powered or, indeed, fully

active designs?

DALI is fully committed to the active

speaker segment. The success of the

Kubik and Zensor AX series shows us

that there is a great demand for highquality

amplified speakers in the

market and there is no doubt that

DALI will launch more speakers into

this segment. Expect to see both

brand new and more traditional

products from us in the near future.





For almost exactly the

same money, you can

have a Naim Mu-so

(HFC 391), arguably the

best one-box wireless

speaker around and an

easy win for anyone

who wants great sound,

design and connectivity.

Plenty of power, too, so

it will drive a large room

with ease. Sonically,

the bijou DALI towers

batter the nuggety

Naim but need quite a

lot more space and an

acceptance of that ‘old

school’ hi-fi look to do

so – albeit without the

accompanying clutter.

However, a pair of

Monitor Audio Bronze

5s (HFC 402) driven by

the company’s slim yet

talented A100 (HFC

388) streaming amp

will save you around

£50 and deliver a yet

more full-blooded and

transparent sound.




An LED just below the drivers on the

left-hand speaker of thankfully muted

brightness with the grilles off (and

just visible with them on), signifies

the input in use. Green is for the

analogue line-in, pale orange for

digital optical and blue for Bluetooth.

The remote is tiny and plastic, but

covers all the bases: power, volume

and input selection.

Sound quality

If it looks like a DALI Zensor 5, walks

a bass line like a Zensor 5… well,

you get the idea. Assuming a fondness

for the Zensor sound – clean,

well-articulated, sprightly, not-quiteneutral

but always toe-tappingly

rhythmic, fun and engaging – the

self-powered version isn’t going to

spring any major surprises.

What’s clear, however, is that the

matched amplifier and decoding

electronics have honed and polished

the presentation to the point where

the 5 AX sounds classy and cohesive

across all inputs. This is no accident,

of course, when you consider the

‘digital unification’ processing

protocols used.

Pleasing straight away is the sense

of structure and clarity that’s often





25mm fabric

dome tweeter


reflex port

Terminals to link

passive speaker

2x 133mm

wood fibre mid/

bass drivers

a hallmark of decent Class D

amplification. The sound is very well

balanced, with no obvious tonal hot

spots or depressions but a ready

penchant for resolving detail and

ambience. This provides a good

impression of space and venue within

which performers and instruments

are well focused and positioned,

affording a dimensionality to the

soundstage that works particularly

well with live recordings.

The 5 AX sounds deftly dynamic,

too, doing the punch and delicacy

thing with a sense of proportionality

that’s usually the preserve of more

expensive designs. This is all

showcased to good effect with a spot

of Larry Carlton live in Tokyo with

David T Walker. On the funky jog

The Well’s Gone Dry, the relaxed

groove is beautifully carried, the

interplay between drums, bass guitar,

The sound is very

well balanced, with

no obvious tonal hot

spots or depressions

saxophone, keyboards and Carlton’s

lead sounding effortlessly lucid and

empathetic. Musicianship and the

atmosphere of the venue are pushed

right to the fore, hi-fi histrionics a

largely forgotten concern.


Let’s be clear. If you can accommodate

a compact and smartly designed pair

of floorstanders and you keep your

music on your phone, tablet or hi-res

personal player, the DALI Zensor 5 AX

will be more musically rewarding

than any single-box wireless speaker

you can buy. And, unless you

overspend on the amplifier, the

speakers will sound better than a

more conventionally driven pair of

regular Zensor 5s, too. Best of both

worlds? Close enough ●







LIKE: Fine sound;

elegant floorstander


control is naff

WE SAY: A smart

solution for people

who want to cut

the clutter without

sacrificing the sound

54 MAY 2016

Apprentice MM

Phono stage



SP2 floor standing

Speakers - gloss

HFC Recommended

jan 2015

IA 1 & 2 Integrated


TT2SE turntable

HFC Recommended

April 2016

TALK Electronics Ltd

Unit 2 Stroude Farm

Stroude Road

Virginia Water


GU25 4BY

01344 844204


Turntables:- from £250 - £900

Phono Stages:- from £90 - £1500

Headphone amplifiers:- from £120 - £650

Integrated amplifiers:- from £400 - £900

Loudspeakers:- from £400 - £1700

Interconnect cables:- from £65 per pair

Speaker cables:- from £4 per metre

NEW - MC1 Mk2

Phono stage



EGG £350


of love

The latest member of KEF’s EGG family

updates the iconic speaker design.

Ed Selley enjoys some over-easy beats


s the revival in the fortunes

of two-channel audio looks

set to continue, we’re

seeing companies adapt

products that were originally intended

for multi-channel use to more

traditional stereo-orientated designs.

In the case of KEF, the company has

taken its long standing ‘egg’ satellite

speaker – a benchmark in the compact

home cinema multi-channel

loudspeaker market – and given it a

thorough overhaul to turn the design

into the active stereo setup you see

before you here.

The EGG digital music system is

derived from KEF’s latest 5.1-satellite

and subwoofer system and makes use

of the same Uni-Q driver that

originally gave the speaker its shape.

In this case the Uni-Q is a 115mm

aluminium mid/bass driver with a

19mm tweeter placed at its centre.

This version incorporates the latest







Wireless digital

music system


2.2kg each



136 x 274 x 172mm


● 19mm vented

aluminium dome


● 115mm Uni-Q


● Quoted power

output: 50W

● 24-bit/96kHz

capable USB and

optical inputs


GP Acoustics Ltd


01622 672261



refinements of the design such as the

‘tangerine’ waveguide in front of the

tweeter and the ‘Z Surround’ system

that allows for more controlled driver

excursion. Each enclosure has a small,

front-mounted bass port, which along

with the drivers is concealed behind

the grille.

The conversion to a stereo product

has also led to some alterations. In

order to accommodate the ‘active’

amplification, the base of each speaker

has been enlarged – with a selection of

controls being added to one – and the

leg that connects the speaker enclosure

to the base has been beefed up as

well. A 50W-rated Class D amplifier is

inside each speaker, which is unusual

because while the practise of powering

a driver with a dedicated amp is

relatively common, this makes the KEF

a true dual mono design, meaning that

each speaker runs independently.

Despite the twin amplifiers, it

requires just a single mains socket for

power. Along with audio signal inputs,

the power connection is made on one

speaker, which is then connected to

the second via an umbilical cable to

56 MAY 2016


EGG £350


carry power and audio signals. This is

an elegant solution, but the umbilical

cable is a little on the short side at just

1.5m. While you are unlikely to want

the speakers to be positioned much

further apart than this, getting

anywhere near to this distance does

mean that the wire will be stretched

tight between them.

A good selection of inputs are on

hand and include a USB connection

with 24-bit/96kHz support as well

as a 3.5mm jack socket that works

as both an analogue or digital optical

connection that also supports 24/96

formats. Wireless streaming is via

aptX Bluetooth connectivity when

paired to a compatible device. In

keeping with the speaker’s home

cinema roots, there is also a

subwoofer pre output.

The KEF impresses with its looks

from the moment it’s extracted from

its excellent packaging and it certainly

looks like a serious piece of audio

equipment perched on a desktop.

Some of the elegance of the original

EGG has been lost in the conversion

to active stereo speaker, but judged on

its own aesthetic merit, this is a great

piece of design. Build quality and

finish are of a very high standard

and the speaker enclosures feel

impressively solid and well

implemented. A small remote

control is also supplied.

Connecting the KEF to my laptop

running Windows 7 and jRiver, has

me up and running in a little over a

minute with no issues. Given that the

EGG is closely derived from

a multi-channel system that

is designed to work with

a subwoofer, it isn’t

unreasonable to wonder

how effectively it will work

without one.

Sound quality

As you might expect, with

only a pair of 115mm mid/

bass drivers housed in

rather small enclosures,

this is no bass monster.

The amount of energy

that it produces below

100Hz is fairly negligible.

But this doesn’t seem to

have as dramatic an effect

on performance as you

might anticipate, and while

it is unlikely to vibrate your

internal organs, the EGG is

able to generate a stereo

image that is outstanding.

The level of immersion

that this soundstaging

attribute generates is not

to be underestimated, and



The closest match to

the KEF EGG in terms

of design is the £999

Eclipse TD-M1 (HFC

390) system that also

makes use of two

active speakers. In

terms of inputs, the

KEF is impressively

close to the Eclipse

with USB, a digital

input and analogue

connection, but the

TD-M1 offers AirPlay

instead of the EGG’s

Bluetooth. For the

extra outlay the

Eclipse offers 192kHz

support and a nonupsampling


Both units are well

built and stylish, but

the Eclipse possibly

looks a little sharper.

Audio performance

of the two is close

too. The Eclipse has

better bass response

and a greater sense

of urgency, but lacks

the KEF’s refinement

at the frequency

extremes. If you can’t

stretch to the TD-M1,

the KEF makes a

more than convincing

case for itself at less

than half the price.

it does a fine job of appeasing the

brain more than any loss of bass does.

This is further aided by it being

punchy, well integrated and

entertaining to listen to. Choosing

White Bear, the latest release from

The Temperance Movement, it

manages to capture the intent of the

piece extremely well with plenty of

energy and drive. The heady rock of

Oh Lorraine has enough of the punch

of the original recording to negate any

sense that the KEF is cutting off any of

the bottom end. This is further aided

when positioned in a near-field

configuration when used as speakers

with a computer.

It has an extremely

wide sweet spot and

decent, believable

stereo image

Further up the frequency response,

the EGG is more assured. The Uni-Q

system has superb integration between

its two drivers, resulting in a seamless

performance from 100Hz upwards.

There is plenty of space and presence

to vocals and Regina Spektor’s

Consequence Of Sounds is deeply

impressive. The speaker manages the

neat trick of having an extremely wide

sweet spot that means a decent and

believable stereo image can be had,

even when used at a greater distance

from your listening position.

Poached, fried or

scrambled, you

can’t help but be

impressed by


One of the more impressive aspects

of the EGG is that despite the fairly

reasonable price tag, it responds

positively to high-resolution material.

As you might expect, the bass response

doesn’t change significantly but with

the 24/96 download of Joe Satriani’s

Shockwave Supernova, the almost

liquid quality of the guitar work is

handled impressively well.

Where the system further impresses

is that this ability to respond to

higher-quality material doesn’t impair

the KEF from sounding perfectly

listenable with Spotify and more

compressed material. It is only when

you wind the bitrates down to very

compressed material that it starts to

sound in any way strained or brittle.

Switching to Bluetooth does not

really change any aspects of the

performance that the speakers

demonstrate via the USB port. Making

the connection itself is simple and

painless and in the case of the Android

devices that I use for testing,

reconnection is automatic.

Listening to My Wild West by Lissie

on Tidal over USB from the laptop and

over Bluetooth via a phone, reveals

little noticeable fundamental change

in the way that the KEF is able to grab

the vocals and generates a meaningful

and engrossing soundstage with them

carefully placed over the top.


The KEF EGG active speaker system

is an effective refinement of the

multi-channel home cinema original.

While perhaps not quite a perfect

replacement for a more conventional

separates system, it is more than up

to the task of replacing an all-in-one

dock-type speaker system, providing

significantly improved functionality

and a far superior sense of stereo

soundstage. The useful selection of

inputs combined with the excellent

build quality and unfussy placement

makes this an impressively flexible

audio system ●







LIKE: Involving and

lively sound; useful

inputs; solid build

DISLIKE: Limited bass

performance; nothing

else at the price

WE SAY: A clever use

of KEF’s longstanding

home cinema champ

makes an excellent

desktop stereo system

MAY 2016 57



TX-8150 £549

Stereo type

David Price looks back to a simpler time as

he auditions Onkyo’s ultra-modern take on

the classic stereo receiver, the TX-8150


h yes, the stereo receiver,

how quaint! The last time

the breed was really

fashionable, many of us

were wearing flared trousers and

dreaming of buying our first Ford

Capri. Once upon a time, receivers

sold like hot cakes from dealers’

showrooms. Audiophiles generally

regarded them with derision because

some were pretty poor, but others

were simply the same circuitry used

in a company’s high-quality separates,

put into a single, neater-looking

package. Beyond the rarefied world

of seventies hi-fi magazine reviewers,

they had really wide appeal.

Receivers enjoyed a renaissance in

the early noughties. This time they

had the prefix ‘AV’ and at least five

channels of power amplification built

into them. And, now, it’s time for the

rebirth of the stereo receiver – in the

crisp shape of Onkyo’s TX-8150.

You can be reassured that this

machine is designed to do what your

average 21st century stereo-type will

want. Which is to say, it plays vinyl

(there’s an op-amp based MM phono

stage, with a pretty standard

sensitivity of 3.5mV/47kohm), it

handles line sources (of which we

all now have many; it has six), it has

a radio (DAB/DAB+, FM and internet

variety via TuneIn) and it is networkcapable

so you can play music from

your NAS. It has (four) digital inputs

too, so you can plug your swanky new

telly or Blu-ray into it, and enjoy far

superior sound. It’s AirPlay and

Bluetooth equipped (although sadly

not aptX), and there’s a USB socket so

computer audio files can be piped in

direct. Then, via wi-fi, there’s Deezer

and Spotify. And there was me

thinking that my old seventies Sony

receiver, with its twin tape monitors

and aux input was versatile!



Onkyo TX-8150




Network stereo






435 x 149 x 328mm


● Quoted power

output: 2x 135W



tuner with 40


● Inputs: 6x RCA

line-level; 2x

coaxial; 2x optical


● Bluetooth, AirPlay

and wi-fi network


● MM phono stage


Onkyo UK


08712 001996



The power output is quoted as

135W (into 6ohm), which translates

to 94W RMS per channel into 8ohm.

That’s a lot for a product of this price,

and of course in another league

to stereo receivers of yesteryear.

Interestingly, it’s Class AB too – so

doesn’t take the Class D road to cheap

power. Project leader Takao Ogawa

says the circuitry isn’t based directly

on any of its amplifiers, but “uses the

same design concept” with Onkyo’s

proprietary Wide Range Amplifier

Technology circuitry. Inside, you

see the familiar Onkyo EI toroidal

transformer and two custom-made

8,200μF high-current capacitors in

the power supply. The digital heart

of the TX-8150 is the Asahi Kasei

AK4452 DAC chip. This is placed on

Onkyo’s anti-vibration Oval Chassis;

for the price the unit feels sturdy. The

brushed aluminium fascia is a thing

of beauty, even if the pressed steel

casework is a little resonant and

there’s a plastic volume knob.

The DAC is 32-bit/384kHz capable,

but this doesn’t extend to all inputs;

the front panel USB handles 24/96

PCM and DSD 2.8MHz. The fascia

also sports a large fluorescent display;

although it has a three-stage dimmer

it isn’t particularly inspiring in these

days of crisp OLEDs. You get a

headphone socket, input selection,

speaker A/B switching, tone and

volume controls on the front, plus a

58 MAY 2016


TX-8150 £549



Pure Audio switch that defeats the

tone controls. One nice touch is that

the unit wakes up if it detects an

optical digital signal – perfect for

the aforementioned TV viewing.

The tuner has 40 nameable station

presets, and four quick-access front

panel presets which work across FM,

DAB and internet radio – another

pleasing feature.

Sound quality

Anyone familiar with Onkyo’s A-9010

(UK) entry-level integrated amplifier

(our Group Test winner last issue)

will notice the ‘house sound’ of the

TX-8150; although not the same, it’s

not a million miles away. This makes

for a smoother, richer sound than

some budget rivals, with a nice

rhythmic flow. It’s absolutely ideal for

the type of environment this receiver

is likely to find itself in, where a little

warmth doesn’t go amiss. There’s

definitely a subtle richness to the

upper bass, which leads up to a

smooth midband and sweet but

quite lively treble. The Onkyo has

a big-hearted personality with a

solid bottom end and confident

demeanour, but it’s only mortal and

so at high volumes it does begin to

lose some of its dynamic prowess.

No matter which source you choose,

this receiver is an enjoyable music

maker that likes to get into the

groove. Via its phono input, the

TX-8150 sounds very pleasing indeed.

Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love via a

Technics SL-1210 deck fitted with a

Shure V-15VxMR cartridge is fun,

despite this not being the best

recording ever committed to disc.

There’s a lot of processing to the

sound, and the album from which it’s

taken does seem a little tonally dull,

yet the Onkyo delivers a large scale,

widescreen performance with lots of

space within. Some budget amplifiers

can sound tonally rather thin and

bereft of life, but this receiver gets

into the song and keeps me

mesmerised throughout. The

electronic percussion comes across

in a powerful and rhythmic way,

sounding far more animated than

one might expect at this price. Kate’s

voice is as icy and fragile as ever,

but is carried in an accurate and

immediate way. Impressively, things

never get harsh or brittle, yet it

doesn’t sound bland either. It has a

better phono stage than I’d expected

at this price too and is admirably

devoid of hiss and hum.

Via a line-level analogue input, the

sound opens up a touch more. I play

Prefab Sprout’s seminal Appetite from

an Audiolab 8200CD silver disc

spinner (HFC 370), and am greeted

by an animated performance with an

enjoyably fluid bass that underpins

A smoother, richer

sound than some

budget rivals, with

a nice rhythmic flow

the song, even on the crescendos

where on lesser amplifiers, it can be

overshadowed by other elements in

the mix. Midband is clean and carries

lots of fine detailing from the

recording right out to the listener.

Instruments are well placed spatially,

but again there is a slight two

dimensionality to proceedings, which

isn’t entirely unexpected at this price.

Switch to one of its digital inputs,

and it’s soon apparent the TX-8150

contains a decent DAC. True, it isn’t

going to render mid-to-high-end

digital sources obsolete, but it stages

an impressive attempt to carry the

power and the glory of any music

you care to play from silver disc. For

example, a CD of Gregory Isaacs’

Night Nurse proves lots of fun, with

an innate charm. There’s obviously a

slight softening of the lowest bass

notes (there’s plenty of them on this

track), but a little further up the

range the receiver really gets into its

stride, and bounces along beautifully.

True, the bass is a little loose, but

it’s excused because of its obvious

tunefulness. This syncopates nicely

with a clean, matter-of-fact midband

that carries a decent amount of detail.

In absolute terms, it does sound a

little ‘over-etched’ in the upper-mid,

with a subtle sense of chromium

plating – but it’s nothing to worry

about at the price. Treble proves

crisp, but it lacks any real sweetness

or delicacy in absolute terms.

Indeed, across all sources, the

TX-8150 proves itself to be an

accomplished if not earth-shattering

performer with real charm. Its

pleasing tonality includes a subtly

generous upper bass, which is ideal

for small standmounting speakers for

example, and there’s plenty of detail

in the midband and real life and

sparkle up top. Dynamically it’s

strong, and doesn’t run out of grunt

until your flares are really flapping;

rhythmically it will have you tapping

your feet. I am impressed by the FM

sound, which isn’t as poor as I’d

feared, and it does a sterling job with

DAB broadcasts. Indeed whatever

input you choose, it’s consistently

clean and glitch-free.


There’s a lot to like about Onkyo’s

TX-8150 – it offers an unusually

diverse range of sources and/or

inputs and sounds strong across them

all. It has plenty of useful features, is

built well and isn’t unattractive to

look at. In use, this budget box

doesn’t draw attention to its

affordable price tag. Overall

then, thumbs firmly aloft for this

thoroughly modern stereo receiver –

just like the good old days, but

without having to suffer polyester

shirts and kipper ties ●









digital inputs

Ethernet network


Speaker terminals

with A/B switching

Six analogue

line-level inputs

Optical digital







LIKE: Unerringly

musical performer;

facilities; flexibility



WE SAY: Keenly priced

do-it-all stereo receiver

with real appeal





MAY 2016 59


His master’s voice

HFC meets legendary master of the re-master, Sean Pennycook,

to discover what goes into breathing new life into a classic


ention the name Sean Pennycook

– AKA Sean P AKA P-ski – in

dance music circles and respect

is very much due, thanks to his

formidable reputation as a record collector

and DJ extraordinaire.

Sean has been described as the “black

music oracle” and is also known as The

Knowledge due to his mind-blowing music

library of thousands of records and CDs that

make up his enviably vast jazz, disco and

hip-hop collection.

Constantly in record shops as a customer

from an early age, he eventually made the

switch to the other side of the counter in

the eighties, and his musical knowledge

soon saw him supplying record labels with

information, records and sleeves for reissues,

writing sleeve notes and compiling soul,

disco and jazz LPs. His DJ sets are legendary,

his compilations an education and it will

come as little surprise to discover that his

hi-fi set up is also one of a kind.

A bit tired but certainly enthusiastic when

Hi-Fi Choice pays a visit to his London HQ,

Sean has just returned from a DJ set in

Manchester and his next re-mastering jobs

have just arrived: a parcel containing a

cassette from Michael Kasparis’ Glasgowbased

independent label Night School, with

whom Sean has worked his audio magic for

a couple of releases (see page 62) and some

LPs by an Italian composer for restoring.

“They look and sound like library records,

though I haven’t investigated them online

yet,” assesses Sean. Despite a busy workload

ahead, he graciously takes time out to pop

the kettle on and give us an exclusive tour

of his supremely complex-looking setup.

With a Holy Grail jazz platter on his

Clearaudio reference turntable, an instant

signifier that we’re in an audiophile’s lair,

one tonearm is carefully lowered… followed

by another. With two styli simultaneously,

elegantly navigating the grooves, it’s an

extraordinary sight – this is clearly no

ordinary kit. Each arm goes into a separate

phono amp – another indication of the

one-of-a-kind nature of this setup. “I may

be the only person who has this combination

of elements on that deck,” beams

accomplished, autodidactic, audio

restoration engineer Sean whose

commissioned work – both credited and

60 MAY 2016


uncredited – has seen him become

in-demand eyes and ears for artists and

record labels across Europe and as far

afield as America and Japan.

“That’s part of the fun, if not the focus, of

customising your setup,” Sean says. “It’s a

slow-moving work in progress, so every now

and then a carefully selected component

will be added and stand or fall by its

abilities. I imagine every hi-fi enthusiast has

a link in the chain they’re most particular

about. Mine is the cartridge: I still have

every model I’ve acquired since the eighties,

with the exception of the Karma, which I

sold along with my LP12. I’m constantly

buying and getting disappointed by them,

but I just love them”. Old favourites include

Clearaudio’s Sigma (“Tracks heavily at 2.8g

and doesn’t do inner grooves very well”),

Denon’s now discontinued DL-304,

Audio-Technica’s AT0C9 III (“Nice but

smooth and a bit laid back”) and its modern

classic, the AT440mla (“My first one cost

£75. They almost doubled the price when

they woke up to how brilliant a bargain it

was and, to be honest, still is”).

The dream setup

Typically, Sean uses a VPI fan-cooled record

cleaning machine, with home-made cleaning

solution; Milty gun; Clearaudio reference

turntable powered by the company’s

Accurate Power Generator, fitted with

Clearaudio Universal and Moerch DP-6 12in

tonearms; various cartridges, both moving

magnet and moving coil; various phono

stages, though usually Musical Fidelity X-LP2

monoblocs, older X-LP and the Micro

iPhono; E-MU soundcards; Tascam and

Pioneer DAT machines, if required; Cedar

Audio hardware for the declicking and

decrackling process; and Adobe Audition

and various software programs, along

with various custom cables. “The deck

– I’m constantly adjusting it and swapping

cartridges, experimenting with overhang

and azimuth,” Sean admits. “I still haven’t

found the magic formula yet. But I would

get bored with it if I did.”

The latter components are all bespoke

affairs, the most recent additions are tailor

made by online retailer Design-A-Cable,

which allows its customers to select specific

terminators and so on.

The iPhono is also a neat addition – this

£300 cartridge amp is as versatile as it is

diminutive: “Whether moving magnet or

moving coil, you can change several aspects

of a cartridge’s performance,” he says. “All

cartridges have different characteristics, so

depending on your setup, the ability to

change the gain, EQ and loading to your

liking is very handy. The tiny dip switches

are very fiddly, admittedly, but with a

steady hand, you can adjust them on the

fly and see if all the tinkering makes the

difference most pleasing to you”.

The source material from which Sean

works is mostly vinyl, although DAT and

various types of digital file and cassette

are not uncommon. “Sometimes audio

transferred from reels needs some kind

of denoising, due to degradation,” Sean

explains. “My only preference is for good

quality vinyl pressings, but that’s something

of a pipedream. There are very few pressings

I actually rate as being above average.”

When pressed on this subject, he elaborates

with the precision and detailing you’d expect

from some of the most in-demand ears in the

business: “When I bought the Classic

“It’s not unusual to

spend over an hour

trying to eradicate a

single problem click ”

Records’ edition of [jazz drummer] Dave

Bailey’s [1960 LP] One Foot In The Gutter, I

was surprised how quiet the playing surface

was. I later got the four 12in, 45rpm set of

[Miles Davis’] Kind Of Blue and brought it

round to a mate’s flat. This guy was using

an £8,000 cartridge at the time, whose

brand eludes me, but after a whole

afternoon playing both records and CDs,

So What came on… and laid waste to all

that came before it. The leap in scale,

presence and realism was an eye opener...

It was as if all we’d played up to that point

had been flat, two-dimensional.”

Bitten by the bug early, Sean started

collecting records when he was about 12 and

has been working in record shops since the

eighties. An early adopter, he bought his

first CD player in 1990 and still buys discs

There are few


that Sean

rates, but

this is one

regularly. “I have lost count of how many

records and compact discs I have. If

‘thousands’ is an estimate, I’m afraid that

will have to be it,” he admits, when asked

the inevitable question.

Hi-fi was also an early passion. “I used to

tinker with my father’s record player when I

was young,” curious-minded Sean explains.

“I found that doing things like altering the

height of the cartridge on this BSR deck

changed playback characteristics in some

surprising ways, things like that. I borrowed

a book from the school library called Sound

Recording and Hi-Fi, which was very

informative and easy to understand. The

club music I was into in the early eighties

involved a lot studio manipulation to get

that cutting-edge sound and, in awe of its

protagonists – largely New York DJs

recruited to mix disco records – I wanted to

be an engineer, either mix or mastering. In

fact, my first job interview after I left school

was for the tape library at Tape One Studios,

but I never got the job and didn’t have the

luxury of waiting for an opening in a studio,

so I went to college and studied computing.

It’s little more than a hobby, but still, I’m

doing a variant of something I wanted to do

from an early age – that’s enough for me.

“Occasionally, I will completely re-master

something just for my own personal

listening. I don’t do this much as it’s

extremely time consuming and gets in the

way of paid work if I have any on.”

And without further ado, Sean guides HFC

through the basics, beginning with a concise

definition of the process that defines his

trade. “Re-mastering is preparing a master

recording, usually for reissue,” he explains,

“Technology constantly improves, so

re-mastering an old track may improve

Sean’s Clearaudio deck fitted with Clearaudio

Universal and Moerch DP-6 12in tonearms

Cedar Audio hardware is used in the lengthy

declicking and decrackling process

Several phono stages are used including

Musical Fidelity’s X-LP2 monoblocs with X-PSU

MAY 2016 61


Sean is constantly adjusting

and swapping cartridges to

find the perfect formula

its sound quality. Sometimes it’s decreed that

a record or CD that’s currently available is

somehow flawed and needs adjustments.

If you’re into the minutiae of vinyl, you’ll

perhaps notice slightly different pressings of

the same release. This could have a number

of reasons behind it, including a re-cut

correcting fidelity issues [such as sibilance

and volume and maybe skipping].

“Plenty of reissues don’t need interfering

with, but get re-mastered anyway – and

occasionally to their detriment, as overcompensating

for perceived EQ or amplitude

deficiencies can ruin, not enhance audio.

“Brick-wall limiting [in which volume

levels are maxed out to the point of near

unlistenability] is still prevalent in CD

mastering and remastering can make the

music quite stressful to listen to, as it

hampers nuance,” Sean adds. “In these

situations, it’s a case of ‘I want my CD to

sound louder than yours’.”

Getting the mix right

Compression and limiting are beneficial

to a finalised mix, as they add sparkle and

presence, as well as levelling peaks. Music

on the radio sounds more animated and

bright as it’s put through these processes to

make everything sound consistent to the

listener. It’s only a problem when used

incorrectly, so when too much limiting is

applied (ie, ‘brickwalling’), the gaps between

the highest and lowest points of the audio

(dynamics) are reduced, or even closed

completely. “The end result can be really

stressful to listen to, as there’s no subtlety,”

says Sean, “because even at low listening

levels, the elements within the music are

battling with each other because they’re

all turned up to 11.”

Despite a record collection that the word

enviable scarcely does justice to, Sean is no

vinyl fetishist. “I’m not sentimental about the

format’s flaws – clicks, crackles, pops, hum

and various noises analogue playback

introduces,” he states. “I always wanted to

eradicate – or at least mitigate – these

distortions. For me, they get in the way of

enjoying the music.” Setting him apart

from many of his contemporaries, for his

legendary, eclectic DJ sets, Sean shuns vinyl,

preferring his own re-mastered CDs. “When I

record vinyl to put on CDs, I always do some

basic restoration first,” he explains, “which is

essentially a ‘lite’ version of the full process I

undertake for commercial jobs. I’ll usually

beef up some less punchy tracks, but more

often, I try to keep transfers flat.”

Sean began his solo flight into remastering

about 15 years ago. “I took the plunge and

Sean started collecting

records when he was 12

and has worked in record

shops since the eighties

invested in the Cedar system in the early

2000s,” he explains. The initial outlay was

considerable: his first two Cedar units cost

nearly £8,000, with the subsequent

investment in a third unit costing another

cool £4,000. For the uninitiated, the

Cambridge-based company pioneered digital

audio restoration, but for those in the know,

their first exposure to Cedar will most likely

have been the same as Sean’s – a feature on

the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in the eighties

in which the future was unveiled with the

demonstration of an analogue LP being

played through a computer.

Having finally learned the ropes with his

specialist kit, Sean began by offering his

services out to friends with labels and slowly

building his business from there.

Much rides on a successful project and

Sean always asks for records to be sent to

him so that he can clean and digitise them

himself. “I will accept files as a last resort,”

he explains, “but in such cases I sometimes


Sean’s two projects for

Michael Kasparis’

eclectic, Glasgowbased


label, Night School –

launchpad for

memorable releases

from The Space Lady

and Molly Nilsson –

have both involved cult

eighties act Strawberry Switchblade and founder

members Rose McDowall and Jill Bryson.

The first was Rose McDowall’s cover of Blue

Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper (shown below),

put out by Night School for Record Store Day in

2015, originally released as a single in 1988 and very

hard to track down on first issue. “Michael ordered a

copy of the 12in from the US which was poorly

graded, unfortunately,” Sean explains, “but

despite the vinyl’s challenging condition, it

came out pretty well after restoration, as did

the 7in version. The 3:30 vocal of Don’t Fear The

Reaper was stretched out to 5:30, incorporating

sections from the 12in instrumental and featured

as a bonus track on the reissue.”

The other was a 90-minute cassette of unissued

Jill Bryson tracks. “This was transferred using a

Nakamichi CR-7 [three-head cassette deck],” says

Sean. “Although the tracks appeared to have been

recorded to the cassette on different occasions and

possibly not on the same machine, there were

minimal phase issues. The TDK SA90 was in good

condition and, thankfully, the tape itself exhibited

no audible signs of stress or creasing.”

Once transferred, Sean de-clicked the audio,

as there were spikes at various points. The next

step was removing the hiss and noise. “This varied

from track to track, with some of the more demolike

tracks hampered slightly by higher noise levels

and generally lower fidelity overall than the others.”

The Jill Bryson recordings are scheduled for release

soon, at time of writing.

feel I could have done a better job, had I

started from scratch. I’ve had to work with

recordings sent to me, made on surprisingly

high-end gear that sound closer to AM radio

than anything approaching hi-fi, as well as

noisy records played back and EQed through

basic DJ setups. A good recording of a

bad-sounding record will always clean up

better than a bad recording of a greatsounding

record, so I’m set up for dealing

with problem vinyl when I am sent it. I have

a Technics 1200 with a Shure Pro-Track

1000E I got back in the nineties, which in

some cases, will provide a better transfer

62 MAY 2016


than the main deck as it plays back some

records with less background noise, although

it’s prone to sibilance.”

For a typical job, all vinyl is first cleaned

on the VPI – and Sean’s happy to divulge

the ingredients of his home-created cleaning

solution: “I use one part surfactant, scentless

medical soap, basically, and a bit of wetting

agent, which helps to break the surface

tension of the water, some pure alcohol, and

lots and lots of distilled water.” Alcohol is

used to help the solution evaporate from the

grooves and the surfactant – washing up

liquid can also be used – if used incredibly

sparingly, typically just a pindrop of soap to a

gallon of water.

Next, the record is ‘shot’ with the anti-static

Milty gun before the process of transferring

to PC begins. As the turntable has two

tonearms, two simultaneous recordings

are made of each record or track, using

cartridges with very different characteristics.

“The reason for this,” Sean explains, “is that

different stylus shapes affect playback in

several ways, so even the same cartridge will

track – and therefore sound – differently

when fitted with, say, a conical stylus, as

opposed to an elliptical one. Pretty much all

styli – the actual needle tips – will be either

conical, which is more common on cheaper,

usually moving-magnet cartridges, or an

elliptical variant, such as micro-line,

fine-line, Shibata, or others.”

I’ve had to work with

recordings that sound

closer to AM radio than

anything close to hi-fi

The differences in these variants can be

profound and all have benefits and

shortcomings, depending on the records they

play, he adds. “The reason I make two

recordings is simple: the better cartridge

reveals more of the imperfections in vinyl,

despite offering improved tracking,

groove-tracing, frequency response and

overall clarity. The lesser cartridge offers less

of the sonic benefits, but plays back with less

clicks, crackles and groove noise – in some

cases by a considerable amount.”

Once recorded levels are adjusted, loud

clicks are removed manually and Sean uses a

subsonic filter to regain some headroom –

essentially the audio palette. The audio is

then played through the Cedar process and

any remaining clicks, thumps and broadband

noise – such as rumbles and constant

background hiss – are removed manually.

This can take a considerable amount of time

and patience on Sean’s part: “It’s not unusual

to spend over an hour trying to eradicate a

single problem click,” he admits. “I once

spent over eight hours on something like

the first 90 seconds of a Brazilian LP. I sit in

front of a screen scrolling the waveform in

spectral view (the intensity of the sound

Sennheiser’s HD 600 – the only component

Sean has that he’s 100 percent happy with

elements are shown as colours, so ‘hot’

sounds like clicks will ‘light up’ against the

darker shades, making them easier to

identify and remove) playing back the audio

in bursts of as little as less than a second,

listening for impulse disturbances left

behind, as the real-time hardware Cedar

Declickle unit I use isn’t quite as thorough

as the more expensive offline processing

system, but still indispensable.

Headphone heaven

“I monitor on Sennheiser’s HD 600, which I’ve

had for a long time. They’re the standard I

judge everything by and the only component

I’ve ever had I’m 100 percent satisfied with. I

wanted a high-quality in-ear monitor I could

use for both my iPod and mastering, so I got

a pair of JH 13 Pros. They’re way better than

the boxy Shure SE535s I previously used for

portable listening, but nowhere near as

revealing as the HD 600.

All tracks are then topped and tailed. “If

the client requires, I’ll EQ the tracks and

apply some gentle limiting,” he says. “I’ll

even brick-wall when requested. If the end

product is for vinyl, I don’t use a limiter.”

“I feel I’ve gotten better at restoration

throughout the years, learning more from

trial and error than anything else,”

perfectionist Sean admits. “I would love to

re-do much of the earlier stuff, but that’s not

going to happen – I’m always looking at

ways to improve what I do. All I try to do is

take everything that is an adverse analogue

artefact out and leave the music unimpeded,

but I’m at the mercy of the source material.”

Thankfully, the results of all the hard work

carried out by Sean’s expert eyes and ears

speak volumes, and we can only expect even

greater accomplishments on a return visit to

this skilled audio-restorer’s unique setup ●


For a taste of Sean’s incredibly eclectic

collection, seek out these killer compilations,

which have been curated, compiled or

re-mastered by the man himself...

Eyes On The Prize


A nine-track set of US

12in club tracks centred

around the early eighties,

Some tracks were from

Sean’s personal vinyl

collection. No restoration

was available.

Prelude: The Sound Of

New York


“Unfortunately, an

oversight meant the

compilation couldn’t be

sold legally after a few

months and the remaining

copies were destroyed.”

Disco Not Disco – Vol. 1 & 2


Curated in conjunction

with producer, Joey Negro,

as Sean puts it these are:

“Collections of danceable

tracks compiled by two

dance music aficionados

who can’t dance.”

Destination Boogie

Z Records

“28 early eighties tracks

which were originally 12in

singles, indicative of the

disco/funk-infused soul

music of this period. This

type of sound has made a

comeback recently.”

“SupaFunkAnova – Vol. 1 & 2

Z Records

A selection culled largely

from independent, US

12in singles, focusing on

the funk end of disco and

R&B. The first volume was

recently issued on vinyl for

the first time.”

Originals Vol. 3

Claremont 56

“A 10-CD series of

compilations, each with a

track list selected by a DJ.

Sean’s killer funk and disco

selections appear on the

third volume. There was a

run of just 1,000 copies.”

Rock It... Don’t Stop It


“A set which brings

together early hip-hop

influenced records

from the 1979-1984

period. Sean compiled,

re-mastered and provided

the sleeve notes.”

Under The Influence Vol. 5

Z Records

“The latest in the edition of

a series, where collectors

and DJs show off some of

the lesser-known elements

of their record collections

worth showcasing.” Out

very soon on Z Records.

64 MAY 2016

+44 (0)118 981 9891



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Neville has an eclectic taste

for classical baroque. His

wife was forced to marry his

transmission line speakers in

the eighties and he collects

BBC test card music.



Editor of HFC from 1998 to

2001, Jason’s first turntable

was Rega’s Planar 3 and Elvis’

40 Greatest Hits was his first

vinyl, so don’t go stepping on

his blue suede shoes.



David’s love of hi-fi started at

an early age after a near-deaf

experience with a rubbish

Pye music centre and his

favourite prog-rock LPs. He

hasn’t been the same since.



Like his first kiss, Chris will

never forget the sound of his

first amp – an Aura Evolution

VA-100. War Of The Worlds

and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

were his first records.

More ways to get in touch:

You can also send your

questions to us via social media:



Email us at letters@hifichoice.co.uk or write to: Hi-Fi Choice Letters, AVTech Media Ltd, Enterprise House, Enterprise Way,

Edenbridge, Kent, TN8 6HF. Your letters may be edited before publication and we cannot enter into personal correspondence

Quad query

In your December issue David

Vivian wrote an interesting

article on the Quad S-1, which I

recently bought and am looking

for a suitable budget amplifier to

partner. David mentioned that he

tested the speakers with three

amplifiers, including the Monitor

Audio A100, but he only made

reference to how the Quads

sounded with two of them, both

of which are outside my price

range. It would be helpful if he

could comment on how the

speaker sounded with the A100,

especially its ability to drive

what is only an 84dB sensitivity.

Can you suggest any other

budget amp to fit the bill?

John Lawrence, Anguilla

DV: Fear not, John, the Monitor Audio

A100 (HFC 388) acquitted itself

admirably with the S-1. You don’t say

what your budget is, but if it doesn’t

stretch to Quad’s own Vena (HFC 390)

desktop amp at £600 (certainly worth

I’m after a cartridge

upgrade – any

chance you could do

a round-up soon?

considering as it sounds a little more

muscular than the A100), then the

slim-line Monitor Audio is a no-brainer

for the money – ie, comfortably under

£200 if you really shop around.

Ergonomically, it isn’t the best. Expect a

lot of fiddly tiny button pressing if you

want to set it up for streaming. But

sonically, it punches way above its

weight with a wonderfully spacious,

smooth and highly detailed

presentation. And it has easily enough

drive and control for the Quads and a

lovely supple, tuneful bass. One of the

great hi-fi bargains of the moment.

Not enough needle

Many thanks for continuing to

provide such an excellent

magazine and reviews of kit. Like

many of your readers I have

never given up on vinyl and have

a modest collection of dearly

loved records, which I play

regularly on my Pro-Ject

turntable. It has an Ortofon

Rondo Red cartridge, which

provides excellent results

Monitor Audio’s

slimline A100 is

a no-brainer for

the money

through my Arcam amp and B&W

805 standmounts. I have often

considered a cartridge upgrade,

but while your reviews of the

turntables available are excellent

there seems to be a paucity of

reviews of the types of cartridges

that would reward an upgrade

seeker like me. Please help.

Richard Vass, Gloucester

LD: Hello Richard, never let it be said

that we don’t listen to our readers!

Turn over to page 106 and you’ll find a

Mini Test featuring cartridges, I hope

you find it useful.

NR: I must confess to really loving the

sound of Ortofon cartridges and the

MAY 2016 69

‘I’ve made my decision,

I’ve chosen my religion,

it’s music...’


USB Filter

Quintet Black certainly comes to mind

as an excellent upgrade consideration

for you. However, if you fancy a change

of manufacturer, then the new Hana

SL (HFC 408) is a superb-sounding

cartridge with an extremely

competitive price tag. It offers a very

refined sound and will perform really

well in your setup.

Cassette boy

I would appreciate it if you could

give me some advice regarding

some gear. I am looking for a

component that would create a

typical tape signature sound. I

pretty much fell in love with the

sound of cassette in my old car

and I’ve been looking to enjoy

the same signature in my home

system. Can you recommend

something suitable?

Guillaume, by email

NR: Hi Guillaume, well, the obvious

choice is to look for a secondhand

cassette deck. As we said in our Guide

To Buying Secondhand Audio Equipment

in HFC 396, there are some real

bargains to be had and you are likely

to be able to pick up a Nakamichi or

similar for a fraction of the new price

as people are clearing space in their

hi-fi racks to accommodate new

equipment. Many items have been

sitting unused for many years and

some are in superb condition. High

quality cassette tapes are also still

readily available from all the usual

outlets, including Amazon.

Drunk and disorderly

I have purchased a pair of DALI

Ikon 1 Mark 2 speakers and I’m

more than happy with them.

For the price they offer a good

degree of accuracy and respond

well to my amplifier – the Rotel

RA-10. During a manic drunk

session last week the speakers

got accidentally turned up to

12 and this was too loud for my

stereo – in the space of a couple

of minutes the speakers had

started sounding fuzzy and old.

On the advice of a contact over

the internet – who informed me

that there was a residual charge

in the drivers, which was

affecting the performance – I left

the stereo off for three days. This

allowed the charge to naturally

dissipate and they magically

repaired themselves!

I’m so happy I still have a

stereo and I want to share this

information with everybody

I fell in love with the

sound of tapes in

my old car and want

it in my hi-fi system

because it could well save

someone from throwing out a

pair of speakers which could

have been reused had they been

given a little bit of a rest.

Alex Hampson, by email

CW: This is great news Alex, but you

may have been lucky. Very few

manufacturers give clear guidelines for

safe volume levels alongside associated

units of alcohol. Please drink and play

music responsibly. Other readers

should note that 12 is of course only a

‘theoretical’ volume level, with 11

being more widely accepted as the

maximum possible, as pioneered by

Spinal Tap in 1984.

Ethos excitement

I am writing to you from Sydney,

Australia. Although far away,

I have been getting my Hi-Fi

Choice every month for years.

I recently had a hybrid power

amp, which I used with a

PrimaLuna Prologue Premium

Can a £39 insect make all

your CD files sound better than


Yes and no: Using the same

equipment and a quality DAC, a 24/96

file (for example) will always sound

better than a CD 16/44.1 file … but,

even a single JitterBug will often

allow a CD file to be more musical and

more emotionally stimulating than

a Hi-Res file without the benefit of a


Noise is the problem. Real noise—

the kind you can’t hear directly. Most

often, the word “noise” is used to

describe tape hiss or a scratch on a

record, but these sounds aren’t noise;

they are properly reproduced sounds

that we wish weren’t there.

Problem noise is essentially random,

resonant or parasitic energy, which

has no meaning. It can’t be turned

into discrete sounds, but it does

compromise signal integrity and the

performance of everything it touches.

JitterBug’s dual-function lineconditioning

circuitry greatly reduces

the noise and ringing that plague both

the data and power lines of USB ports,

whether on a computer, streamer,

home stereo or car audio front-panel

USB input.

A single JitterBug is used in between

devices (i.e., in series) as shown

below. For an additional “wow”

experience, try a second JitterBug

into another USB port on the same

device (such as a computer). Whether

the second port is vacant, or is

feeding a printer or charging a phone,

JitterBug’s noise-reduction ability is

likely to surprise you. No, the printer

won’t be affected—only the audio!

While a JitterBug helps MP3s sound a

lot more like music, high-sample-rate

files have the most noise vulnerability.

Try a JitterBug or two on all your

equipment, but never more than two

per USB bus. There is such a thing as

too much of a good thing.

Buying a


tape deck on

ebay needn’t

break the bank




Pre; something went array with

the power amp and blew the

bass midrange cones in one of

my Opera Grand Mezza speakers

(now repaired). I will get the

power amp repaired, but do not

now trust it and have already

purchased a less expensive

power amp, the Roksan Kandy

K2. I can’t believe how much

more livelier my music sounds,

the old hybrid sounds heavy and

lethargic compared with the

Will electrostatic

loudspeakers like

MartinLogans sound

okay in my setup?

Roksan. Was it a case of too

many tubes? The PrimaLuna Pre

with the Roksan power amp

sounds lively yet still has plenty

of substance. I don’t know if I

was lucky to strike a great

balance in the combination?

Unfortunately in Australia it is

not practice for retailers to loan

out components for trial, as

appears to be the case in the UK,

so judging the sound from your

system with a new component is

down to chance. Which brings

me to my next decision…

I have heard and read much

about the MartinLogan Ethos,

Chris suggests



ESLs for Joe

yes it sounds great in store, but

once again there’s no telling if it

will suit my system. I listen

mostly to symphonic music.

I have an Audiolab CDQ,

Clearaudio Emotion turntable/

Graham Slee Reflex M,

PrimaLuna Prologue Pre,

Cocktail Audio server and

Roksan K2 power amp. Will my

present system do justice to the

Martin Logan Ethos, and what

differences could I expect?

Thanks for all the guidance and

interest your magazine provides.

Joe Defina, Sydney Australia

CW: Sounds to me Joe like you are

broadly happy with where you are. If

however, you are really hankering for

the virtues of a hybrid electrostatic, the

Ethos is an impressive product. Of

course, with an in-built Class D 200W

amplifier, this may rather negate some

of the amplification magic you’ve

stumbled upon. It may be worth you

also trying to audition the less

expensive (and passive) MartinLogan

ElectroMotion ESL speakers. These are

remarkably good value and may hit

your brief for far less outlay. Hybrid

electrostatics are usually great for

symphonic works, having the qualities

to portray large soundstages with

superb air around performers

alongside some much-needed bass

slam for large dynamic swings. Of

course many panels are more ‘beamy’

than the Operas you are used to, so

factor this in, especially if you listen

with others. Maybe also taking your

amplifiers to the dealers will enable

more contenders to be auditioned?

Ear for detail

These days to most

people – especially the

younger generation – hi-fi

as we know it or used to

know it is dead. By and large

floorstanding speakers the size

of small cupboards are not being

bought in the same quantities as

they were in years gone by.

My argument, or shall we say

observation, is this: yes,

44/96/192kHz resolution is

lovely, and no doubt with today’s

ever increasing numbers of

headphones in all guises it will

be possible to glean a clearer

more detailed sound with better

source product. But musical

reality, producing the illusion of

music being played virtually live

in your home is enhanced 100

fold by musical dynamics, deep

powerful bass and souring highs,

AND at substantial volume and





Turntable Cable

"I had planned to just play

a couple of tracks...

It sounded so good I

played several albums!

A Naunton, online





in this regard big and powerful is

beautiful and simply more real.

High resolution or no high

resolution, the detail is no good

without the bandwidth to create

the reality and this simply

cannot be reproduced through

the plethora of tiny speakers

currently marketed.

Yes, high-resolution sound is

desirable, bring it on, but don’t

let’s kid ourselves that the

smidgen of extra detail will

compensate for little or no

dynamic realism. It is this that

makes the hairs on our necks

stand up and creates a genuine

event every time the volume is

cranked up and the realism

makes a very welcome

appearance. Long live proper

hi-fi and proper dynamics. The

extra icing is no good when the

cake itself is only half baked!

Alan Whittle, by email

JK: You’re not wrong Alan but be

thankful that your neighbour is not

of the same opinion!

CW: You are touching on an

important nerve Alan. Resolution

mustn’t be an end in it’s own right.

This can be underlined by the

potential arms race over ever more

sophisticated DACs making the

previous year’s model appear

antiquated. There are links between

resolution, bandwidth and dynamic

range, enabling higher signal-to-noise

ratios on paper. In practice, advanced

components can have a superior

ability to resolve the quietest sounds

from the loudest dynamics and

extract more bass and treble detail.

Yet generally, analogue vinyl has a far

lower measurable signal-to-noise

ratio than most digital technologies,

but many prefer the dynamic delivery

of the black stuff. So we start to open

the digital can of worms around

dither, oversampling, quantisation,

compression and a world of

psychoacoustics that cannot yet be

fully explained. As you say, playing

music louder does enable greater

subjective realism to the dynamics we

hear in real life, but increasingly, the

When will people

realise hi-res is

nothing without

dynamic realism?

majority of people live in smaller

homes, with smaller rooms, separated

by thinner walls, often with more

people sharing that space and

neighbours in closer proximity. Add

up these demographic factors and

it’s easy to understand why so many

listeners are space constrained and

feel pressure to listen at lower volume

levels. Preserving bandwidth and

dynamics at lower volumes though

smaller, often less sensitive speakers

is a near impossible challenge. Add

in people having longer and longer

commutes and it’s unfortunately easy

to understand that music for many

is now experienced more quietly at

home, via a car system or increasingly

but more optimistically, through

sophisticated mobile players and

portable DAC/amps via quality

headphones. So, maybe the cake is


Back in HFC 408 we gave you the chance to win Tannoy’s fantastic Revolution XT 6F and XT 6

loudspeakers. The first prize of a pair of Revolution XT 6F floorstanders was won by Tim Klapproth,

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When we tested

the phono stage

capabilities of

the ADL and

Graham Slee in

HFC 407, the

latter came

out on top

often fully cooked, but potentially

mostly through quality

headphones or by audiophiles in

larger detached properties?

DV: A good system should be able

to retain the relationship between

the loudest and quietest sounds

whatever volume it’s played at.

‘Dynamics’ are scalable. There’s

usually something wrong with a

system if it has to be played loud to

sound any good. That said, when

power, bandwidth, resolution and the

right track come together at the same

time and place, something has to give

and it’s usually restraint.

Take centre stage

I’m looking for some advice on a

suitable phono stage for my

setup, which consists of an

Arcam FMJ A19 amplifier, KEF

LS50 speakers on Atacama

MOSECO 6 stands with a Graham

Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator

phono stage. I’ve just ordered a

Clearaudio Concept MM to

replace my Pro-Ject RPM 1.3

Genie turntable and am excitedly

awaiting its delivery. I would be

most grateful for your opinion

on my current Graham Slee

phono stage versus the Furutech

ADL GT40a.

I really like the idea of being

able to use it for recording my

vinyl to digital and it would be

used as a phono stage rather

than as a DAC as I have a

Cambridge Audio CXN with

built-in DAC which I use in

conjunction with a Cambridge

Audio CXC for CD playing or

streaming duties when not

listening to vinyl.

Would the Furutech be a

significant upgrade and suitable

for my set up or would you

recommend that I explore

another alternative? I’m pretty

relaxed on the budget, but it

needs to be appropriate to the

limitations of the rest of the kit.

Ian Riley-Brown, by email

NR: Hello Ian, that’s a very nice setup

you have there and the Graham Slee

Gram Amp 2 Communicator phono

stage (HFC 407) is certainly a great

little performer, as is the ADL GT40a

(HFC 399 and HFC 407). So it really

boils down to whether the extra

facilities that the ADL has to offer are

important to you. Obviously, the

Graham Slee is purely an analogue

Can you give me your

thoughts on ADL’s

phono stage vs

Graham Slee’s?

phono stage and only suitable for MM

cartridges, while the ADL has an ADC

and will give you the ability to digitise

your vinyl in high resolution 24/192

format. It also has a very respectable

headphone amplifier, which may also

be of value to you as neither the

Graham Slee nor the Cambridge

Audio CXN (HFC 399) has one. I

know someone who uses the ADL as a

dedicated phono stage in his high-end

system and is very happy with its

performance. However, the Graham

Slee also offers superb sound quality

and comes at a bargain price.


WORTH £56!

Letter of the Month winners receive

a Russ Andrews PowerMax Plus

mains lead worth £56. Write to us

at: letters@hifichoice.co.uk



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Cassette comeback?

Just as vinyl sales have risen to mass-market awareness, stories of a cassette revival

suggest a similar trend. Lee Dunkley gets nostalgic for tape, but doesn’t miss the hiss

The opinions expressed in the following pages are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of Hi-Fi Choice or AVTech Media Ltd. Picture credit: Shutterstock/Alextype


orget about the latest high-resolution digital

file formats hitting the headlines, the world is

going crazy for old-school analogue sound

complete with warts-and-all quality in a quest

for tangible music formats. Vinyl has long been

championed by HFC and even though we all knew the

format never really went away, its return to mainstream

popularity is well documented in these pages. But it’s not

the LP that’s currently catching the ear of the audio

hipster, but the forgotten compact cassette tape.

As the resurgence of vinyl reaches greater consumer

awareness – finding its way on to supermarket shelves –

with the biggest Record Store Day event so far held just a

few weeks ago, we’ve become accustomed to the idea of

an analogue format making a comeback into the heart of

our audio systems. But I confess to being more than a little

surprised by the reports of a Lazarus-like return of the

temperamental cassette tape as a serious music option.

Back in the format’s heyday I was very much a fan. Like

any music-obsessed teenager of the time – and despite

being aware of the BPI's Home Taping Is Killing Music

campaign – I was addicted to recording albums I owned

(and some I possibly didn’t) onto Super Ferric or CrO2

formulated cassette tapes from brands like BASF and TDK

so that I could play my favourite albums on my prized

Sony Walkman.

The RIAA has denied

any significant

upturn in tape sales

amid the reports

But it was my

introduction to the

compact format that

began my love affair

with music as soon

as I managed to

save up enough pocket and birthday gift money to

purchase my first radio cassette recorder. Routinely

listening to the Top 40 music chart was a rite of passage for

any teenager back in the seventies and eighties and like

many my age I sat beside my new machine poised to hit

the record button the instant the presenter stopped talking

over the intro of the song I liked so that I could capture it

for myself and endlessly play it back in the hours and days

that followed. It was a crude and mechanically

unsophisticated process on my Sanyo recorder, and one

that could seriously shorten the life span of the cassette

tape with all that cueing, rewinding and pausing and

easily result in a tangle of tape if it unspooled and

wrapped itself around the pinch wheel or the playback

head. But I loved it, and even more so when it eventually

brought portability that was unheard of with the first Sony

Walkman in 1979, and changed the way we listen to our

favourite music forever.

I'm not alone in my

fondness for tape, but

despite once owning a

three-head Sony cassette

deck in the early nineties

equipped with Dolby B, C

and S noise reduction

systems, I haven't played

a single cassette in more

than 20 years, and I

actually think the deck

found its way to the

municipal dump during a

recent house move after

years of being relegated to a dusty attic, although I held

onto my collection of mix-tapes.

In an era where retro is cool, it seems that cassettes are

collectable again as music fans discover the format that

was originally developed for dictation machines desirable

as a means for listening to the latest music, or so we're

lead to believe. In a recent story run by the Daily Mail

newspaper – and picked up by other publications as

evidence of the format's rising popularity – it's claimed

that much like the recent revival of vinyl, the cassette tape

is returning to prominence some 20 years after it

succumbed to the wholly more practical and hiss-free

silver disc. The report suggests that sales of cassettes are

growing so rapidly in the US that the Recording Industry

Association of America (RIAA) – the body that certifies

record sales – is looking for ways of tracking tape sales

for the first time since the nineties. But despite the rise in

music on the format from underground acts as well as a

handful of commercial releases from the likes of Justin

Bieber and Kanye West sold through Urban Outfitter

stores, the RIAA has denied any significant upturn in tape

sales amid the reports.

Obscure trend

Despite what only looks like some minor traction in sales

of cassette tape, the format clearly has plenty of loyal

supporters and even has an annual Cassette Store Day

much like the RSD event held in mid-April. As I've yet to

see any serious audio brands jump on the bandwagon in

the same way they have for vinyl with a range of new tape

decks and portable players, it does make me wonder what

tape fans are listening to the format on? Whether tapes

are just an obscure trend, or a chance to offer a reliably

tangible object in an age where music is more ephemeral

than ever is up for debate, but I can't quite see the hissy

format finding its way back into my setup just yet ●

Like so many of

us, Lee used to

sit and record

the Top 40 off

of the radio


Tape head

MAY 2016 79

Super Size Sound

End user’s experience with Maximum Supertweeters in his system.

For me the best placement was dead

center top, in line with my tweeters, and at

the main speakers.

With cables, connections and positioning

sat down for a listen..

..Wow.. The sound had changed, and not a

tiny change either, quite a discernible

change. The sound stage has grown, the

whole sound has matured not just at the

high frequency range but across the whole

range! Vocals sound fuller and more

correct, breaths on wind instruments were

real, violin and strings in general sounds as

real as I’ve heard on my system to date and

atmosphere on live recordings were more

perceptible. Without exception one of the

best purchases I have made within Hi-Fi. If

I could compare Hi-Fi to food it would be

like adding a little bit of salt to the food,

and adds a further dimension to the

That's what the Maximum Supertweeters

have done for my set up. Just as a well set

up subwoofer adds to the fullness and

roundness of the sound, the Supertweeter

does the same also, just tailor the level to

your preference and system matching and

away you go.

Removing them after a few days has made

dimensional. Was that really what I was

calling decent quality Hi-Fi a couple of

weeks ago?! What I had thought was a

pretty good sound was now without the

Supertweeters only mediocre in terms of

and day one. So obviously they were

welcomed with open arms and re-instated

into the system once I had established

play the smile returned to my face and I

earnestly started to rummage through my

music collection to get another playlist


At which point I should also tell you that I

night time listening levels, but it does need

a few decibels to be "magical".

My 15W per channel Leak valve amps had

no problems with the load on top of my

speakers and when using full range "horn"

speakers, these Supertweeters are simply a

must have item and being quite minimal

in operation they don't seem to destroy the

single driver sound of a good Lowther or

Fostex, rather adding to it to give a fuller

sound so long as you are careful with the

volume level. Discretion is the key, and

blending without over exuberance or

understatement is a must and worth

taking the time to tune in and get right

because when you do, the sound is simply


...In conclusion, my humble opinion can

only be used as a guide because we all

sound. The Townsend Maximum

Supertweeters are well executed, well

made, capable, very discrete super

tweeters. In my opinion in terms of user

friendliness and sound they are the best

passive super tweeters I have heard on the

market today and the fact I have

purchased a pair with my own hard

earned money is testament to how good

they are and the impact they have had on

the sound of my system. I am not going to

get into the "snake oil" debate because

they work within my hearing range and

with all of the formats I use. Lossless on the

MacBook, DAB, Cd and analogue, vinyl

more emotional sound.

I'm sure my hearing

doesn't extend much above 16kHz or so

and yet the super tweeters work and work

well for me.

I think transients, atmosphere, detail,

timbre between instruments, sounds and

especially vocals within the hearing range

due to less distortion, less smearing and

..A worthwhile investment and I will not

be returning them or selling them on.

Many Thanks and keep the music musical..

Patrick Thomas.

For more information and best advice on all Townshend products, please visit:


Email mail@townshendaudio.com or phone on +44 (0) 20 8979 2155.


Pipe dreams

A reader’s letter gets Chris Ward thinking about missed hi-fi opportunities, dream

products, mid-life crisis and going for a spin in a Lancia Stratos with Cindy Crawford

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images


reader recently wrote to the Letters page,

describing a deeply cherished hi-fi system

that couldn’t be surpassed. But they weren’t

describing their most recent or most expensive

purchases. Instead they talked about older pieces of kit

that had brought them the most pleasure. We hi-fi lovers

are often painted as a somewhat logical and unemotional

bunch, so let’s challenge that notion (in a logical way).

This reader was almost becoming dewy eyed describing

the impact of first hearing the components that meant so

much to them. Sharing this experience with others, it soon

became apparent that this is a common story, albeit with

some interesting sub-plots.

With many younger audiophiles there’s commonly a

‘money’ story, where a deeply hankered-for component is

financially out of reach. That is, until one day when the

yearning is matched with income from a new job and they

come out of a dealer’s, grinning from ear to ear. In other

instances, the story becomes a search for a holy grail, where

a ‘love at first hearing’ is followed by indecision not to buy,

that can go on to fuel year’s of regret, longing and a tireless

search for an unrequited love. I once heard an early

Tresham pre/power amp. It had a quality that was simply

sublime, but I didn’t snap it up at the time. Thereafter, I

regularly kicked myself, and only recently tracked down

another example

Hi-fi lovers are

afflicted with a

more expensive

quality threshold

on ebay. Happily, it

didn’t disappoint.

Many hi-fi lovers

describe hearing

a component at a

dealer’s or show that

blows them away, but they know they can’t afford it. These

pipe dreams lodge in part of the brain that neuroscientists

now recognise is reserved for lottery-win shopping sprees,

supercar ownership and fantasy romantic liaisons. Time

passes and savings build in ISAs, but the advent of mid-life

crisis can dislodge pipe dreams and savings. Before you

know it, a casual glance online reveals that pre-loved iconic

hi-fi items are now within your grasp. Previous performance

may well have declined and modern standards now exceed

your dream, but the ideals you locked away are untarnished

and remain alluring. So whether you idealised a Krell CD

player, Wilson speakers or indeed a Lancia Stratos driven

by Cindy Crawford, you are convinced that owning it will

scratch that mid-life itch. In some instances it works, but

sometimes those icons from your memory turn out to be

less satisfying than you might have hoped.

Many readers get most passionate when they describe

their greatest ‘leap’ in hi-fi performance. This can be from a

tired midi system

to your own

‘separates’. For

some, the greatest

leap is more of a

paradigm shift,

say from

solid-state amps

to valves, box

speakers to


panels, or movingmagnet



cartridges. One

insight that does shine through is that a ‘leap’ in

performance is often more important than any ultimate

measure of ‘quality’. So, the upgrade from an aged midi

system to hi-fi separates could represent a leap from a

notional 20 percent quality to say 60 percent, or upgrading

some tired standmounts to some modern, full-range

floorstanders might take you from 60 percent to 80 percent,

whereas a deep investment in cryogenically frozen lengths

of pure silver cabling can take one from a notional 80

percent to 90 percent quality.

Making the connection

Hi-fi (along with almost all purchases) is often proof

positive of a diminishing return on one’s investment, but

maybe the deeper and more interesting insight in hi-fi

ownership is for us all to recognise when and where along

our upgrade story we first connected with music in a more

impactful and emotionally rewarding way. For some, the

car radio sounds just dandy and feet start tapping simply

by spinning vinyl. Some ears only prick up when they first

buy a preamplifier, while others discover they need Class A

amplification. Some just needed to hear an idler drive

turntable, where others work out that zero-feedback

transforms their enjoyment of triodes. Some expensively

work out that they need two systems – monster transistor

power for nineties dance music, while chamber quartets

only come alive with vinyl and valves.

So, the final, more heartfelt insight might be that we hi-fi

lovers are in fact afflicted with a higher more expensive

quality threshold, before we can really become more

emotionally involved in the music. At least, this is what

I’ve explained to my partner…

Please write in to letters@hifichoice.co.uk and tell me

about your most cherished hi-fi components and the effect

they had on your experience of music ●



shopping is the

closest we can

get to owning

that dream



Misty eyed

MAY 2016 81




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Art of noise

As anyone who’s ever collected vinyl knows, the artwork that appears on the album

cover is a major contribution to the enjoyment of music. Rob Lane explains all


ne of the pleasures of recently rediscovering

my love of vinyl has been a re-acquaintance

with the record sleeves themselves. The cover

designs for myriad classic albums could

justifiably be called art, and even if this isn’t always the

case – or if ‘anti art’ is a more appropriate label (think The

Fall’s Totale’s Turns) – there’s invariably something about

an album cover that resonates with the true music fan.

Much like the reader of a good novel pauses mid-read to

return to the book’s cover, a record sleeve is something to

return to time and time again.

For me, album covers have always been intrinsically linked

with the accompanying music, meaning that vinyl’s original

demise and the rise of downloads/ripping has had an

adverse affect on my appreciation of music. There’s often

more than one contributing factor to one’s addictions, and

for me listening to music has parallels with a previous, long

since kicked smoking habit – very rock ‘n’ roll.

Where I only really enjoyed smoking when drinking

coffee, with wine/beer, after a meal and while listening to

music, my consumption and enjoyment of LP covers was

also rarely in isolation. The complete vinyl experience –

the sleeve; the touch and feel of the record; the ritual of

unsheathing disc, placing on platter and engaging stylus;

the eventual listening – was what had me hooked. It was

never quite the same

Does anyone care

what the artwork

looks like when

viewed on iTunes?

with tape or CD.

So my recent

reintroduction to

the beauty of vinyl

sleeves has not been

in isolation; it’s the

whole experience that I’ve reengaged with. Of course, it is

possible to appreciate the album covers in isolation, as art,

without putting the needle on the record – and there are a

number of iconic sleeves that are instantly recognisable,

whether or not we’ve owned or have even listened to them.

Many – Dark Side Of The Moon, Unknown Pleasures and The

Velvet Underground to name just three – are widely regarded

as iconic works of art in their own right.

Generally, appreciation of a particular album’s artwork is

accompanied by a love of the music, and is most effective

when it’s in 12in wall-hang-friendly packaging. Sure, there

are loads of CD album covers I appreciate, but each and

every one of them would have had a much greater impact

upon the way I feel about both the artwork and the music it

sheaths had I purchased them on vinyl. Think Definitely

Maybe and Dog Man Star, by way of example. And when it

comes to downloads, does anyone really care what the

artwork looks like when viewed on iTunes?

Some of my favourite

sleeves – some mounted on

my walls – are instantly

recognisable and need no

introduction: Rubber Soul,

Parallel Lines, Rio, The

Stone Roses, Blue Lines,

Violator, Screamadelica.

Others might need more

explanation: The House of

Love (iconic band photo),

Doolittle (monkey going to

heaven collage), Gentlemen

Take Polaroids (David

Sylvian, rain, lightning,

umbrella), Bummed (by

influential Manchester

design studio Central Station), Technique (Peter Saville’s

guitar cherub, above), Penthouse And Pavement (eighties

avarice writ large), Strange Times (Dali-esque nightmare by

Chameleons’ guitarist).

And more recent faves include Yoshimi Battles The Pink

Robots (crazy robot nightmare by Flaming Lips singer

Wayne Coyne), Music Complete (Peter Saville’s cubist

statement) and AM (which references Saville’s Unknown

Pleasures design in terms of its radio wave simplicity).

Is there a pattern to the album sleeves I covert the most?

It would appear not: they’re a mixture of painted art, band

photography, iconic arty ‘statements’ and collage. But all

would look great on most living room walls, and each and

every one of them protects and augments a great record.

Indeed, bands and the artists they commission continue to

innovate, providing works of art to accompany the music.

Alongside that iconic new work from Peter Saville for New

Order, the sleeve for 2013’s Paradise Filter from seventies

jazz/prog combo Caravan was extracted from the incredible

painting Trapped And Untrapped by renowned artist Sean

Hewitt. And Dave McKean – an artist perhaps best known

for his book illustrations, films, photography and comic

books – has produced over 150 stunning ‘collages’ for bands

as diverse as Front Line Assembly and Counting Crows.

The last word on album artwork should probably go

to David Bowie. After over 40 years of innovative, ground

breaking and sometimes shocking sleeves, all featuring

images of the artist, his swansong replaced the man with a

black star. Blackstar – the perfect musical epitaph for an

incredible career – also produced arguably his most

memorable and iconic cover. If another excuse was needed

to buy this excellent piece of musical innovation on vinyl

rather than other formats, this is it ●

New Order’s

Technique is just

one of many

iconic album

covers. Tell us

about your

favourites on

our Letters page


Art lover

MAY 2016 83

‘The Audiobarn is an impressive place in which

to demo hi-fi equipment, and I was impressed

with the comfortable, intimate feel of the

venue in amongst a very relaxed rural setting.’

Matthew T

‘I really can’t remember a more pleasurable audition

– it was great to be given as long as we wanted,

to just listen to music without any pressure.’

Kristian W

01279 454 860



Vinyl, how cool is that?

With all the talk about the vinyl revival, is the black stuff really cool or is it just a current fad

that will fade into the background once again? Neville Roberts gets into the groove


think the subject of the revival of interest in

the humble LP is getting rather passé now.

Granted, modern teenagers, who a few years

ago derided their parents’ record collections,

are now queueing up to get the latest releases carved into

a couple of grooves in the magic black stuff. However,

have we really created a modern generation of audiophiles

or are they coveting records for other reasons?

A while ago, having nothing better to do one evening, I

was channel hopping and alighted on a chat show. Elton

John was being interviewed by Graham Norton and had

clearly been invited onto the show to promote his new

album Wonderful Crazy Night. During the interview,

mention was made that the album was being released on

vinyl, as well as in the usual digital download formats and

on CD. The discussion then moved onto why vinyl is

becoming popular again. Photos were shown of Elton in the

seventies signing album covers for the hordes of enthusiastic

teenage rockers, who were keen to get a personalised

signature on their latest purchase. Elton then commented

that his new release had prompted him to dig out his own

set of LPs and he acknowledged that, to his surprise, they

actually sounded better than his CD collection. “That’s what

I’ve been telling everyone for ages!” I yelled at the TV

screen. Neither Graham nor Elton took any notice and I sat

back in my chair

I believe that people

are choosing vinyl

for the better audio

quality it offers

deflated with

my enthusiasm

flickering, much like

a candle in the wind.

This got me

thinking – are

people jumping on the vinyl bandwagon simply because

it’s trendy and is the so-called revival being driven by

marketing hype? Certainly, there are now many collectors

who seek rare copies of albums from the fifties through to

the eighties, but that doesn’t explain why there is a market

for brand new material.

In fact, how many modern record collectors actually own

a turntable? Well, actually I suspect most, if not all, given

the dramatic increase in the number of new turntables

being launched in recent years. Such investment in design

and manufacturing costs wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t a

real market for it. Furthermore, there is now an established

range of turntables, which not only incorporate a phono

stage to enable the deck to be plugged into a spare line

input on an amplifier, but also a digital interface. This can

feed an external DAC or PC, often in resolutions that are

higher than CD. To me, this indicates that the renewed

interest in the medium is not simply its death throes with

the establishment of digital

media, but a genuine move

to embrace digital

technology and work

alongside it.

As a lover of classical

music, I was very sad when

classical LPs were the first to

go at the start of the digital

revolution in the early

eighties. What a delight for

me to now see new releases

starting to reappear.

A friend of mine has

commented that many

of the music shops he

frequents have started

having a proper vinyl section alongside the racks of CDs on

sale and these often include a section for classical music.

Another clue as to why there is renewed interest in record

collecting is the number of audiophile recordings that are

being released, often on 180g virgin vinyl. Also, we’re

once more seeing several direct-to-disc recordings being

produced, such as the range of classical and big band

records from Mike Valentine’s Chasing The Dragon label.

One of these is a set of two LPs of the Syd Lawrence

Orchestra where one is a direct-to-disc version and the

other identical recording was made more conventionally via

a multi-track tape recorder. Interestingly, even though the

conventionally recorded LP sounds fantastic and would be

superior to a CD version, if one had been made, the

direct-to-disc version has that extra dimension of realism.

Investigating the evidence

For me, the final clue that this revived interest in vinyl is

not just a flash in the pan is the fact that LPs are not cheap

– the latest Elton John album costs over £20, compared

with £12 for the CD. That is quite a premium to pay for

some nice 12in square artwork and I believe that people

are choosing vinyl for the improvement in audio quality it

offers. Nor should we ignore that weird pleasure that is to

be had in the process of removing a record from its sleeve,

placing it on a turntable, lowering the stylus and then

sitting back to enjoy at least an entire side, rather than the

odd one or two tracks downloaded from a website.

The mention on prime time TV is certainly good for the

cause. Suddenly a whole new generation of music lovers are

discovering there is so much more to enjoy when listening

to their music on vinyl – not least the high quality and

atmosphere that you only get from an analogue medium ●

Mike Valentine’s

Chasing The

Dragon label

has released a

number of


classics to feed

Neville’s passion

for vinyl


Spin doctor

MAY 2016 85


All white on the night

Music shouldn’t be about colour, right? Nigel Williamson can’t help but wonder where

all the black, asian and ethnic minorities are when it comes to awards ceremonies

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Tinseltown


uddenly race is back on the cultural agenda.

The reality, of course, is that despite the

lip-service we pay to multi-culturalism, racism

never really went away and has remained the

elephant in the room. First the Oscars set everyone talking

about the inherent racism of Hollywood and now the same

argument has broken out in the music industry.

At the Grammy awards in February, the most prestigious

award, the album of the year, went to Taylor Swift who

beat off Kendrick Lamar and Alabama Shakes to make it

eight years in succession that the winner has been a white

artist. The other main ‘prestige’ award, best new artist,

went to Meghan Trainor, the ninth time in the last 10 years

that a white performer has won.

A similar thing happened at the Brit awards, where only

two non-white acts even received nominations. The event

was lambasted for ignoring black British music and a

number of artists – including Lily Allen and Laura Mvula

– spoke out about the failure to recognise such black

British success stories as grime king Stormzy. The

controversy generated its own Oscar-style hashtag,

#BritsSoWhite, and Stormzy went on to express his

frustration in his tune One Take Freestyle.

Then you can add in the fact that the biggest music

companies in the world including Live Nation, Apple,

Spotify, AEG, Warner Music Group, Clear Channel and

Black musicians

gave us disco, which

made millionaires

of the Bee Gees

Universal Music

Group are all lead

by teams of


white executives.

As a pale male, I

find this disturbing.

Some will say that I am showboating my liberal conscience

and claim that good music is good music regardless of the

social, cultural or racial background of those making it.

I’d like to believe that is true, but that doesn’t mean there

isn’t a problem – and in an art form that’s supposed to be

breaking down barriers, the stats aren’t good enough.

Nobody in a position of authority in the British music

industry is prepared to use the ‘r’ word. But they do

acknowledge a “lack of diversity” and something positive

may yet come out of the rumpus surrounding this season’s

award ceremonies and Ged Doherty, chairman of the

British Phonographic Industry, the body which organises

the Brit awards, has moved swiftly to promise changes.

For many years I was a member of the Brits voting

academy and the Mercury Music Prize judging panel and

both were overwhelmingly white in composition. Doherty

is now committed to establishing an advisory committee

comprising “members of the black and minority

ethnic music [BAME] community” and has

pledged that in future the Brits voting college

will have at least 15 percent BAME participation,

in line with national population trends.

History shows us that almost every

successful rhythm in popular music was

first invented by black musicians and then

appropriated by white musicians. When Sam

Phillips was recording black r&b singers at

his Sun studio in Memphis in the early

fifties, he famously opined: “If I could find a

white man who had the Negro sound and

the Negro feel, I could make a billion

dollars.” The result was Elvis Presley and

rock ’n’ roll.

Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf invented

the electric blues, but it was the likes

of Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin who

reaped the greatest rewards. Black

musicians at labels such as Motown,

Atlantic and Stax went on to create

soul music, which has since been

copied by generations of

blue-eyed singers starting

with Steve Winwood, Van

Morrison and Joe

Cocker, followed by

Simply Red through

to Amy Winehouse

and Adele.


the balance

It was black musicians who gave us disco which made

multi-millionaires of the Bee Gees and a black Jamaican

rhythm called reggae that created hits for the likes of The

Police, Eric Clapton and 10cc. It was black artists who

created hip-hop for the likes of the Beastie Boys and

Eminem to exploit. And more recently it has happened all

over again with dubstep and grime.

None of this appropriation has been wrong or directly

racist in intent, and white musicians borrowing from black

forms and styles has given us some great music. But the

originators can be forgiven for wondering if they have

received their full dues. Ged Doherty is to be commended

for admitting that the Brits “have somehow become

disconnected from this heritage of diversity”. But that’s the

easy bit. Now comes the part of translating those

well-meant words into a meaningful outcome ●

Taylor Swift

at this year’s


continued the

long run of

white ’prestige’

award winners



Colour blind

MAY 2016 87


Turning Japanese

David Price spends time with one of the most innovative

loudspeakers of the seventies, Sony’s SS-5050 Carbocon


he seventies was a

fascinating time for

speakers. Most designs

were pretty crude, but

there were still some breathtaking

boxes on sale, using state-of-the-art

technology. There was a far larger gap

between run-of-the-mill products and

leading edge ones then – standard

speakers weren’t that different from

the sort of fare you’d see in the fifties,

whereas the best aren’t far off today’s

top designs in technological terms.

The average audio buyer of that era

would likely end up with a pair of

two-way Wharfedale Dentons or

suchlike, and consider it £50 well

spent. Meanwhile, serious listeners

thought a three-way to be the badge

of hi-fi respectability, because they

were what professional sound

engineers used, weren’t they? In the

great scheme of things then, Sony's

SS-5050 was right at the top of what

mere mortals could afford, costing a

cool £800 (RRP) per pair in 1976.

Price aside, one of the biggest

obstacles to commercial success was

the received wisdom of the time – that

Britain built the best loudspeakers. We

had illustrious brands such as KEF,

Tannoy, Celestion and IMF, plus a new

wave of BBC speaker builders, from

Chartwell to Rogers and Spendor,

producing boxes that often had the

same (often KEF) drive units inside.

What chance did this relatively new

company, best known for transistor

radios and televisions, possibly have?

Although Japanese hi-fi was selling in

vast quantities, there was still a lot of

snobbery surrounding it.

The upshot of this was a kind of

parallel audio universe – British

companies tended to sell their wares

Sony's seventies loudspeakers



Sony unveils the SS-8150 as

Simon and Garfunkel release

their final album together

Sony's SS-7600 is released and

George Harrison's My Sweet

Lord is the best-selling single


The SS-5050 is launched in Tokyo

in October, while in the UK Peter

Gabriel leaves Genesis


The SS-5050 is the flagship speaker in

Sony's range as Brotherhood Of Man win

Eurovision and have the best-selling single

88 MAY 2016


through specialist hi-fi dealers, and

these would not in turn sell much (if

any) Japanese kit. If you wanted this,

‘sir’ was asked to leave the dealer in an

orderly fashion and pay a visit to the

local Lasky’s, Dixons or Comet, where

he could find the sort of thing that

better suited him.

The Japanese Yen’s value relative to

the UK Pound was three times lower

back then, yet still the SS-5050 sold

for more than most high-end British

boxes. This was reflected by its

battleship build – and also the

technology inside. By this time, Sony

had a vast research and development

budget compared with the average

British specialist hi-fi manufacturer.

Like every range-topping product

from this company, the SS-5050 was

built without compromise and was

surprisingly complex for a seventies

speaker. The three-way design

weighed in at 20kg per box, quite a lot

for its 365 x 630 x 318mm (WxHxD)

dimensions. Although large, it is

effectively a standmounter – requiring

a serious frame stand (think Linn

Isobarik) rather than the spun chrome

There’s none of the

time smearing that

you get from a reflexported


affair on castors that it often ended

up on. Inside its largish, well-braced,

beech-ply cabinet were three drive

units all built and designed by Sony

– a 25mm cone tweeter, a 35mm

midrange driver and a 300mm woofer.

The two upper drive units featured

special protectors, which also aided

dispersion; that big 12in bass unit

needed no extra assistance in its task.

All three were screwed into the wide,

thick wood front baffle and had their

own air-tight sealing gaskets.

By the mid-seventies, the Sony

Corporation had become very

interested in materials technology.

For the SS-5050, the bass driver cone

was a carbon-fibre/paper hybrid

(something that Sony called

‘Carbocon’); this was a technology that

the big Japanese company was very

proud of and it appeared in all its

subsequent high-end speakers. (The

SS-5050’s replacement, the SS-G7,

sold 20,000 pairs around the world,

a remarkable number for such an

expensive speaker.) The midband and

treble drivers were also carbon coated,

and all drive units had diecast frames

and high-quality wiring terminals.

The drivers crossed over from one

another at 800Hz and 8kHz, which

makes the midband driver the star of

the show, keeping its breakup regions

well away from the human ear’s most

sensitive area of 2-5kHz. The result

was a claimed 40Hz to 20kHz (-3dB)

frequency response, which was an

excellent result for that time. The

SS-5050 also had an amazingly high

power handling by the standards of

the day. When an average budget box

would be torn apart by anything more

than 25W RMS, the Sony took 80W

before doom came its way. It had a

quoted impedance of 8ohm, and

very high sensitivity for a seventies

three-way speaker: 91dB/1W/1m.

Considering its 73 litre cabinet was a

sealed infinite baffle design, this was

a great result – all the more so when

you remember that most seventies

speakers were stupidly power hungry.

Modern romance

It's fascinating to hear a wellpreserved

SS-5050, four decades after

it first reached British shops – you'll

be surprised how modern it sounds.

That infinite baffle cabinet and its

lightweight, high-power drivers make

for a fast, tight, punchy sound which

is far less coloured than most speakers

of its time. We’re told narrow baffles

are better for imaging, but it works

just as well as a far smaller bookshelf

in this respect. And what really strikes

you is the bass – which switches on

and off like a flashing LED. There’s

none of the time smearing or slurring

of bass notes that you get from a

reflex-ported speaker, and this is

aided and abetted by the obvious

strength and rigidity of the box.

Even though it looks old school, it

interferes with the sound relatively

little, even at high volume levels.

Interestingly, if there’s any modern

loudspeaker you can liken it to, it’s

models from ATC. This company is

fond of sealed cabinets and big

three-ways, and the Sony is a textbook

example of the concept done well. Its

Decent stats

for the time

added up to an

impressive sound


Prices for the SS-5050 range from around

£90 per pair to £300 and because of their

relative scarcity you have to wait your turn

for a pair to come up in the classifieds.

Unlike many things on ebay, though, they

haven’t been seized upon by sellers with

vivid imaginations just yet. Some Japanese

high-end products that used to cost £100 a

few years ago are now being advertised for

£1,000 or more, in a wild exercise in greed

and wishful thinking, but the SS-5050

remains sensibly priced.

Buying any old speaker secondhand is a

punt, so it’s wise to try before you buy; if

necessary bring your own amp and source,

and push the volume up while they’re cold,

in search of random buzzes or booms

which shouldn’t be there. The contacts

inside the treble and midrange level pads

respond well to a squirt of Servisol, so this

is always worth doing before any more

serious surgery. Once you’ve got a good

pair, it doesn’t hurt to tighten the drive

units up in the front baffle and clean the

rear terminals either. This done, some

20cm-off-the-ground tubular steel frame

stands will get the best out of them.

ability to move air quickly and without

fuss, allied to a powerful punch when

called upon is pure monitor speaker

territory. Despite this, the Sony still

sounds completely unlike the BBC

designs of its day with Bextrene cones,

or even the (then) ultra-modern

polypropylene-coned Mission 770 that

arrived a year or two later. Feed the

SS-5050 some well-recorded period

rock music and you’re immediately

struck by just how dry, crisp and clean

it sounds.

Missing in action

This big speaker is superb, but play

some beautifully rich and sumptuous

sounding music from Isaac Hayes

– Bumpy’s Lament – and you’re soon

aware there’s something missing. It’s

a riot of strings, brass and flutes, yet

the SS-5050 sounds dry and analytical.

Sure, it’s very tidy and composed with

no harshness or grain, but things

sound just a little too forensic and

antiseptic to really pull the listener in.

It does brilliantly on the hi-fi aspects

of the track – powering the beat

along, serving up dramatic dynamic

peaks and giving a pleasing low-end

wallop – but it sounds a tad

dispassionate to these English ears.

More pairs of Sony SS-5050s were

sold in the UK than you might think,

so they’re still around and relatively

cheap on the occasions that they

surface secondhand. It’s a fascinating

‘time warp’ transducer and an

intriguing reminder of a largely

forgotten hi-fi past. Japanese high end

isn’t common in this country, but it still

soldiers on uncomplainingly, doing a

surprisingly competent job ●

MAY 2016 89





AK380 AMP £3,000/£500

Flagship of the Astell&Kern portable

range, the AK380 packs state-of-the-art

decoding and processing into a striking

all-metal chassis that can be augmented

with the external amplifier.

AUDEZE LCD-3 £1,500

Audeze’s hefty LCD-3 headphone

features a pair of large planar magnetic

drivers in circular mountings with

double-sided magnetic driver elements.

The enclosures are heavily padded for

comfortable long-term listening.

90 MAY 2016





Can a portable system be truly beautiful? Ed Selley

ventures into the great outdoors to find out


iven the notionally simple

premise of Beautiful

System, it might come as a

surprise to learn that it is

periodically a source of angst to its

creators. Rather than simply serve up a

stack of kit made from exciting corners

of the periodic table over and over

again, we seek to find beauty in more

unexpected combinations and routinely

ask ourselves what a beautiful system

really can be. In the course of a recent

discussion we realised that we had

never featured a completely portable

setup, so our thoughts swiftly turned

to the mechanics of such a thing.

Are portable systems beautiful?

They’re frequently extremely clever

and they’re unquestionably a godsend

at drowning out the inanities of fellow

commuters and workmates, but

in themselves they are generally

utilitarian rather than beautiful.

Like most rules though, there is an

exception and that – as so often is the

case with portables – comes courtesy

of Astell&Kern. The company has

produced an impressive range of

portable audio players that are

unconstrained by the normal

restrictions of the breed.

Sitting at the top of the pile is the

AK380, a portable player that features

the sort of specification you’d be

impressed with in a full-size digital

source, let alone one that fits in a

MAY 2016 91



pocket. Built around a pair of AKM

AK4490 DACs and a precision clock

accurate to the femtosecond, the

AK380 can handle files up to

32-bit/384kHz without compression

or conversion. It can also handle DSD

with no conversion taking place during

the decoding process, which requires

serious processing horsepower.

Come fly with me

All this is coupled to a DSP-controlled

20-band parametric EQ system that

can be adjusted on the fly. If you find

yourself disdainful of such a thing,

you can of course switch it off, but

you’ll be missing out on the ability to

perfectly match the AK380 to the

characteristics of the headphones or

earphones you’ve partnered it with.

Furthermore, although the technology

behind the EQ is undoubtedly

frighteningly complex, using it is

simple and entirely straightforward.

To make sure, you are left in no

doubt as to the AK380’s flagship

status, Astell&Kern has wrapped it in

a chassis that looks and feels utterly

unlike anything else that’s currently

available on the market. Constructed

from duralumin (an aircraft-spec

aluminium), it is extremely solid and

substantial as you might expect. What

you might not expect, however, is that

the design itself is far bolder than it

may seem on a cursory inspection.

The whole chassis is partially

staggered so that while the display

is vertical, the outer edges run

diagonally to it. Combined with the

deep, angled indentations around the

rotary volume control, the AK380

feels like the sort of thing that

architect Frank Gehry might come up

with if he ever fancied trying his hand

at designing an audio player.

Delivers a sound that

stretches the limits

of what near-field

listening can achieve

This particular AK380 comes

bolstered with a matching external

amplifier (AK380 AMP) for greater

battery capacity and a more powerful

headphone amplifier. This shouldn’t

be taken as a critique that the basic

unit is underpowered, but more that

this sample has been supplied with a

pair of headphones that would cause

most portable players to give up and

go home. The Audeze LCD-3 is part of

the upper echelons of its range and

makes no concessions whatsoever to

being used with portable devices.

The LCD-3 is built around a pair of

planar magnetic drivers mounted in

Above left:



lends extra

power and

battery life

where needed

Above centre:

The LCD-3 is

capable of

making you

forget you’re



Above right:

Exquisite details

separate the A&K

from more


portable players

large open-backed enclosures. As each

driver is no less than 106mm across

and given that planar magnetic

designs aren’t terribly sensitive at the

best of times, it represents a fair show

of confidence on the part of

Astell&Kern to select it.

Aesthetically, the pairing makes

much more sense. The LCD-3 is less

overtly modern than the AK380, but it

is still a striking and rather handsome

piece of industrial design. Everything

is there for a reason (with the possible

and wholly noble exception of the

wood trim) and the attention to detail

that has gone into the design is

seriously impressive.

Great expectations

The pairing of AK380 and LCD-3

packs state-of-the-art technology and

enough design flair to certainly

warrant consideration as beautiful,

but can they honestly deliver a

performance to move them beyond a

convenience feature to something

more? Beautiful System is above such

considerations as value, but this is a

significant amount of money for a

portable system and this combo has

a lot to live up to.

Perhaps the best way to answer

these questions is with my own state

of mind after 10 minutes of listening

to a 24-bit/48kHz download of Peter

92 MAY 2016



Gabriel’s So. I’ve heard this album

hundreds of times. It acts as a fixed

point of reference to allow me to

determine what the electronics are

really doing. Tellingly, my notes for

this period could be transcribed on

the back of a postage stamp. Not only

does this duo entirely bypass the

analytical side of my brain, it does a

convincing number on the sensory

side too as I also rapidly forget that

I am listening to a portable system.

Disappearing act

What this pairing does is effortlessly

convert its impressive engineering

and technology into a visceral musical

experience. The Audeze simply

ignores the supposed limitations of

headphone listening in a way that

makes going back to any other pair

of cans as claustrophobic as being

shoved into the boot of a car. The

LCD-3 is so completely free of any

constraint in the scale and space of

its presentation that it completely

vanishes. Sound arrives at the ear

without anything so crude as a

physical speaker in the way.

It is aided in this neat conjuring trick

by the AK380, which manages to take

its highly sophisticated decoding and

sound – more than anything else – like

analogue mastering tape. The sound

is unfailingly accurate, detailed and




Computers Unlimited


0208 2008282




tonally even, but it is completely free

from any sense of digital processing. It

is at times startlingly vivid too. Listen

to Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos and

the vocals are as tangible as if they

were being sung live into your ear.

There’s plenty of grip on offer for

more high-energy material as well. If

you decide to stop playing nice and

stick on Art Angels by Grimes, the

The AK380 feels like

the sort of thing that

architect Frank Gehry

might come up with

AK380 hammers its way through

California with the bass, the swagger

and above all, the sense of fun that is

really needed to make this track work.

This is a system unfazed by any genre

you can think of and which can

then play it back at pretty much any

volume level you fancy. In keeping

with any good system, this duo

sounds good with excellent

recordings. It is the mark of a truly

great system that it also sounds

fantastic with less than perfect

material as well.

And like all really great systems,

it makes no great demands of the

listener. The interface of the AK380 is

slick and totally self explanatory and

the album cover collage option for

browsing is gorgeous. Meanwhile,

the LCD-3 is a big headphone but

the well-judged weight distribution

and very high comfort levels help

it disappear when wearing. The

additional amplifier adds a little more

bulk to the portable player, but not so

much that it won’t fit comfortably into

a trouser pocket.

Control freak

Above all, the AK380 has the control

and headroom needed to run this

demanding headphone. I’ll head

off any thoughts about just how

‘portable’ this pairing really is by

adding that you could just as easily

use the AK380 on its own with any

earphones during the day and come

home, attach the AK380 AMP and the

LCD-3 headphones and achieve your

very own personal hi-fi nirvana.

This is a pairing that delivers a

sound that stretches the limits of what

near-field listening can achieve and

does so from equipment that is built

to an incredible standard and

exactingly thought out. Above all, it

feels special enough to comfortably

warrant inclusion as a Beautiful

System ensuring that life on the move

doesn’t mean that you need to forgo

some serious audio brilliance

MAY 2016 93



All you need is connections in this business, right? Simon Berkovitch introduces

the industry of human happiness, where heavy hitters are two a penny


appy To Be A Part Of

The Industry Of

Human Happiness

runs the tagline of

Immediate Records. But in the

shadows of this memorable,

optimistic phrase lie intrigue,

crippling debt, bribes, mistruths,

flag burnings, outrage, shady

deals… and an impeccable

soundtrack from some of the key

players of the sixties.

Its roster speaks for itself:

heavy-hitters Fleetwood Mac

(one epic 45, Man Of The World,

while Peter Green’s group was

between contracts), Amen

Corner and The Nice (pre-ELP

Keith Emerson) are joined by

lesser names as the exotically

named The Apostolic

Intervention, songwriter Billy

Nicholls and freakbeat legends

The Poets. Flop acts the latter

trio may have been during the

label’s brief existence – it was

game-over and bankruptcy by

1970 – but hindsight has

afforded them cult status.

The label was formed in 1965

by Tony Calder and Andrew

Loog Oldham, armed with

impeccable pop CVs despite

their tender years. The tuned-in

pair met doing press for an

obscure Liverpool group by the

name of The Beatles. The

super-connected Oldham

became manager of another

little-known R&B combo, The

Rolling Stones, aged just 19.

Following the advice of producer

Phil Spector to lease your own

recordings to get a larger

financial cut instead of signing

to a label, the logical step was to

set up an independent record

company, branching out to

include hip subsidiaries

Revolution Records and Instant.

The Jagger-Richards-penned

classic Out Of Time provided the

label with its first major hit, a

showcase for the fine lungs of

Chris Farlowe. Immediate was a

haven for powerful voices, with

PP Arnold and white-soul singers

Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott

of Small Faces on the books.

Immediate’s house band after

their defection from Decca

Records, once freed from a

punishing gigging schedule,

Small Faces evolved from

rugged, organ-drenched, mod

R&B to the studio-based

psychedelia of 1968’s classic LP

Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.

Of course it was money – or a

lack of it – that eventually sank

Immediate. Royalties went

unpaid, as were songwriters…

bills begat bills… accusations of

embezzlement abounded… the

spending continued… And then,

despite one last hurrah from

Marriott’s new, post-Small Faces

project with The Herd’s Peter

Frampton – Humble Pie – the

plug was finally pulled.

The rights to Immediate were

acquired by NEMS in the late

seventies, Castle in the nineties,

and today the catalogue is in the

hands of Chrysalis Music and its

diverse, life-affirming sounds of

human happiness are readily

available to explore.

94 MAY 2016


Small Faces

The label’s house band and one of the cornerstones of UK psych-pop

Released from record

company Decca and

formidable manager Don Arden,

Oldham wasted no time in

signing Small Faces to Immediate.

Although the thorny issue of

cash would eventually be part of

the group’s undoing, at the time,

the creative freedom the label

gave songwriters Steve Marriott

and Ronnie Lane was priceless.

Small Faces’ first flowering of

their new direction was infectious

45 Here Comes The Nice. The

Small Faces LP followed: the

group’s second album, it barely

puts a foot wrong, home to

perfectly formed cuts such as

Get Yourself Together, My Way of

Giving and Green Circles. Retitled

There Are But Four Small Faces for

the US, follow up single Itchycoo

Park was added, along with

arguably the greatest Marriott-

Lane composition: Tin Soldier.

The follow-up album flew even

higher: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake

fused psychedelia, folk, music

hall and English whimsy –

courtesy of narrator of

gobbledegook Stanley Unwin –

and wrapped it up in an

innovative, fold-out circular

sleeve, which must have cost a

fortune to realise. This was a

major artistic leap forward and a

chart-topping LP but, unable to

shake their pop image, Small

Faces were no more by 1968:

Small Faces

enjoyed the label’s

creative freedom

Marriott unveiled his Humble Pie

project while the remaining

members joined ex-Jeff Beck

Group stalwarts Ronnie Wood

and Rod Stewart as Faces.

An excellent posthumous album

The Autumn Stone was released in

1969, rounding up key cuts, live

recordings and unreleased gems,

with final epic 45 Afterglow (Of

Your Love) a fitting full stop for

one of the swinging sixties’ most

fondly remembered groups.

The other fab four’s debut for Oldham’s imprint

overflows with infectious pop goodness

PP Arnold

The spectacularly groovy voice of The First Lady of Immediate

Patricia Ann Cole, otherwise

known as soul vocalist

extraordinare PP Arnold, began

her singing career in America,

joining the Ike & Tina Review

in 1964, but dropped anchor

in London in 1966 to go solo,

thanks to the encouragement

of one Michael Jagger.

She cut two excellent albums

for Oldham’s imprint: The First

Lady of Immediate, closely

followed by Kafunta, both 1968.

The former hoovers up her

most well-known recording –

soulful 45 The First Cut Is The

Deepest, also made famous by

Cat Stevens, among others – and

inexplicable near miss (If You

Think You’re) Groovy. An

explosive mod classic written

by and featuring Small Faces’

Marriott and Lane.

Kafunta sees Arnold placing

her distinctive stamp on some

of the biggest acts of the sixties,

including interpretations of The

Beatles (Eleanor Rigby), The

Stones (As Tears Go By) and the

Beach Boys (God Only Knows),

but the standout cut is her

irresistible cover of Evie Sands’

Angel Of The Morning.

Following the crumbling of

Immediate, Arnold released

a couple of strong singles on

Polydor, produced by Bee Gee

PP Arnold began

her career on the

Ike & Tina Review

Barry Gibb, and then threw

herself into stage and session

work – memorably contributing

backing vocals to Nick Drake’s

Poor Boy on his cult early

seventies LP Bryter Layter. More

recently, she collaborated with

Primal Scream as PP & The

Primes for a cover of the Small

Faces’ Understanding and

recorded an album with the

Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert,

2007’s Five In The Afternoon.

Kafunta sees PP Arnold placing her

own soulful stamp on sixties classics

MAY 2016 95


The Nice

Their inventive musical mix lay the groundwork for progressive rock

Emerging from the shadows

of PP Arnold’s backing

group, The Nice had a

reputation for controversial

stage antics. Their virtuoso

organist, the late Keith

Emerson, was the main

offender, fond of attacking his

feedbacking Hammond with

WWII daggers, but burning

the American flag on stage

while deconstructing Leonard

Bernstein was a step too far.

Christened The Nice by

manager Oldham, this

inventive yet often overlooked

group hit the ground running

with its ambitious blend of

psych, pop, jazz and classical,

paving the way for seventies

prog rock, a genre in which

Emerson would find major

league success as part of ELP.

The Nice recorded three

albums for Immediate

between 1967 and 1969: The

Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack;

keyboard-heavy Ars Longa Vita

Brevis and Nice.

Released in 1968 on

Immediate’s subsidiary

Instant, the soundtrack to Peter

Whitehead’s cult movie is one

of the most important vinyl

documents of the capital’s

acid-rock scene for the

inclusion of Pink Floyd.

The three-minute version of

Interstellar Overdrive that

opens proceedings is a wilder,

more exploratory journey into

the avant garde than was

permitted by Columbia’s top

brass on debut The Piper At The

Gates Of Dawn.

The original issue of this

LP is a fantastic mix of

Immediate’s best-known acts

and more obscure gems. Chris

Farlowe (Out of Time) and

Small Faces (Here Come The

Nice) are ably supported by

atmospheric pop classics from

Vashti, aka acid-folk singer

Vashti Bunyan, and Twice As

Much. Throughout, the voices

of sixties faces such as Allen

America (1968) is the group’s

15 minutes of fame. A radical

reworking of the West Side

Story song, The Nice

performed it at the Royal

Ginsberg, Mick Jagger and

David Hockney are heard,

interspersed with the music,

giving the soundtrack an

intimate, mix-tape feel.

Albert Hall while setting the

Stars and Stripes alight, an act

that outraged composer

Leonard Bernstein, who tried

to block the single’s US release.

Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London

The soundtrack to the defining documentary of the swinging sixties

Unavailable for decades,

the LP was finally reissued

in the early nineties by the

See For Miles label in

gloriously expanded form.


Stacking the HFC Dansette high,

here’s our selection of highlights

worth hunting down from one of

the UK’s grooviest indie labels.

The Apostolic


(Tell Me) Have You

Ever Seen Me

This Small Faces

cover is one of

the rarest – and

most expensive –

Immediate cuts.


I’m Not Sayin’

This Gordon

Lightfoot cover’s

flip, The Last Mile,

is overseen by

future-Zep Jimmy

Page, session

gun for hire.

John Mayall & The


I’m Your



overdriven guitar

voodoo courtesy

of Eric Clapton on

this 1965 7in.

Mick Softley

I’m So Confused

Strident debut

from the cult

peacenik folk

singer. Donovan

went on to cover

Softley’s seminal

The War Drags On.

The Poets

Baby Don’t You Do It

This propulsive

cover of a floorfilling

Marvin Gaye

number by the

raucous Scottish

R&B group is a

freakbeat classic.

Chris Farlowe

Out Of Time

Stones gem given

the orchestral

treatment by

producer Mick

Jagger. Hit the top

of the charts in

summer 1966.

Les Fleur De Lys


Another helping

of hard-edged

freakbeat with this

rough diamond

from 1966, written

by kindred spirit

Pete Townshend.

Fleetwood Mac

Man Of The World


Gonna Get Their

Head Kicked In

Tonight, credited

to Earl Vince and

the Valiants, is on

the flip of this 45.

Shopping List sleeves courtesy of 45cat

96 MAY 2016

HFC_A4_Ad_blank.indd 1 10/03/2016 11:36

O’Brien Hi-Fi



Pro Audio Bono

Very effective anti-vibration feet

made of nickel-copper alloy,

with ceramic bearings

Analogue Seduction are dedicated towards

two channel Hi-Fi, specialising in vinyl replay.

As well as our on-line shop we have dedicated demonstration

retail facilities based in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

and we can offer our customers home demonstrations.

We stock the finest in amplification, analogue, digital replay and speakers.

We also specialise in a cable termination and cable burn in service.

tel. 020 8946 1528



Please visit our website www.analogueseduction.net to browse

or purchase products that are not easily available elsewhere.

New vinyl records now stocked

Tel: +44 (0)1733 350878






Analogue Seduction, The Manor House, Manor www.lotus340r.net


Whittlesey, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, PE7 1TF

100 White Lung


101 Accademia Bizantina

Haydn Symphonies

101 Xiayin Wang



piano concertos

BACK IN THE nineties, Carlos Santana appeared

to be a spent force. His records had stopped

selling, the inspiration had dried up and he was

dropped by Columbia. Then in 1999, and already

into his fifties, he teamed up with a star-studded

cast of young singers including Lauryn Hill, Cee Lo

Green and Wyclef Jean to record Supernatural.

It seemed like the last throw, but it worked

spectacularly. Supernatural gave him his first

number one since 1971 and won nine Grammy

awards. Further hit albums repeated the all-star

guests formula. Yet although his guitar playing was

as burnished as ever and the youthful collaborators

felicitously contemporised his sound, for long-time

fans it was no substitute for the Afro-Latin rock

fusion which set alight the 1969 Woodstock festival.

Now for the first time in 45 years Santana has

reunited with Woodstock survivors Gregg Rolie on


Santana IV

keyboards and vocals, guitarist Neil Schon and

percussionists Michael Shrieve and Michael

Carabello. Only bassist Michael Brown, who died in

2000, and conga player Jose ‘Chepito’ Areas are

missing, replaced by Benny Rietveld and Karl

Perazzo respectively.

The classic lineup which Santana put together in

the late sixties stayed together for just three

albums, hence the title of their ‘reunion’ album,

which sounds gloriously like you might have

expected Santana IV to sound if they had made it in

1972. If that seems conservative, then bear in mind

how radical and quite unlike anything else in the

rock firmament Santana sounded at the time. The

group’s combustible fusion of Latin rhythms,

Afro-percussion and electrifying psychedelic-blues

guitar solos was revelatory, a thrilling hybrid of

global styles two decades before the term ‘world

CD Thirty Tigers

music’ had been invented. The band are now all in

their late sixties, of course, although they play with

an energy that effortlessly rolls back the years. The

opener Yambu swirls around Hammond organ,

crunching guitars and an African chant to sound

like a first cousin to Jingo from the group’s 1969

debut. Anywhere You Want To Go has a Latin-soul

rhythm reminiscent of Oye Como Va from 1970’s

career-defining Abraxas. Fillmore East is a spacey,

acid-rock instrumental jam, All Aboard is a

contemporary update on their Woodstock

showstopper Soul Sacrifice, the moody Latino

tones of Sueños evoke the slow burn of their classic

Samba Pa Ti and Blues Magic delivers exactly what

its title promises. You cannot recreate the past. But

Santana IV is living proof that when nostalgia is

celebrated with such freshness and energy it can

be jubilantly irresistible. NW

MAY 2016 99


Chris Rea

La Passione


Bailey Rae

The Heart Speaks

In Whispers

CD Jazzee Blue CD Good Groove/Virgin EMI

20 YEARS AGO, Rea composed a soundtrack for

a semi-autobiographical film he’d made about a

boy who develops a lifelong obsession with motor

racing. But his record company were unconvinced

and the project never saw the light of day in the

form he had envisaged. He’s now re-recorded the

soundtrack, a wonderfully evocative soundscape

combining sweeping orchestral arrangements,

shimmering lead guitar and wistful, lyrical songs

sung affectingly and with heart-felt conviction. Rea

regards La Passione as his magnum opus, which is

opulently presented here as a two CD/two DVD set

housed in a lavish 70-page coffee-table book. NW


SONGWRITER Corinne Bailey Rae releases her

third album, and it starts off in soaraway soul pop

fashion with The Skies Will Break, which pushes

dancey piano stabs to the forefront. But then, as

the album progresses, you get a feel for Bailey

Rae's diversity. Hey, I Won't Break Your Heart is a

soulful lament, while Been To The Moon is a sassy

funk roller and Tell Me is a dancefloor-friendly tush

waggler with some pleasing bass notes. So there's

a lot going on for your hi-fi to digest, but it's all

beautifully contained without ever feeling that it

will burst out of the box at you. PH

Kel Assouf


White Lung





nomadic Tuareg guitar band Tinariwen,

who came roaring out of the Sahara

desert a few years back to conquer rock

festivals around the world, has resulted

in a spate of copycat bands. Led by

guitarist/singer Anana Harouna, who

left Mali 10 years ago for Brussels,

exile has lent a distinctively urban

edge to Kel Assouf’s take on the

timeless rhythms of the endless sands

to make them the hardest-hitting

desert-rockers of them all.

Do you agree with our reviewers?

Decide for yourself and listen to

some of this month’s tunes at




LIKE THEIR PREVIOUS efforts, White Lung's

fourth album is a short, sharp blast of catchy rock

that sweeps you off your feet. And the good news

is that it's perfect for a decent system as the band

like to add effects to their melodic, metal-tinged,

anthemic pop rock. And we're talking a lot of

effects. Guitars are spangly and outlandishly

processed, the vocals are multi-layered and often

have a touch of the Courtney Loves about them.

Listening to this, you could imagine White Lung

being an excellent festival band because they

attack every track as if their lives depended on it.

Paradise it isn't quite, but it's fun, in your face and a

short, sharp jolt of an album. PH

Kel Assouf's timeless

rhythms make them the

hardest-hitting desert

rockers of them all


The Groundhogs

Scratching The Surface

180g vinyl

Pure Pleasure/Liberty

Think Tinariwen with added rock heft

as a European rhythm section shakes

and pounds like a cross between Black

Sabbath and Queens Of The Stone Age.

Keyboards add further textures seldom

heard in desert blues and Harouna’s

guitar playing combines quicksilver

lead lines with a tougher, riff-based

approach. From the jagged rock thump

of Europa to the militant stampede of

Medden, Kel Assouf takes the desert

blues to places it has never previously

been before. NW


CAME out of the

British blues explosion

that spawned

Fleetwood Mac and

Chicken Shack. They

were fronted by the

guitar and vocals of

Tony McPhee and for this debut the lineup

included harmonica player Steve Rye. It’s the

latter’s playing that marks this 1968 album out

from those that succeeded it, it has a raw, vivid

and extremely authentic sound that gets as close

to that of its inspiration as any British act. The

sound is particularly appealing because of its

apparent simplicity, a result of live recording at

the Marquee Studios over just two days. Despite

this it is also clearcut, the drum recording is

particularly strong and despite the lack of deep

bass manages to deliver energy in abundance.

The material is a mix of classics, including a

fabulous version of Rosco Gordon’s No More

Doggin’ and an inspiring choice of opener in Fats

Domino’s Rocking Chair, alongside originals by

McPhee and Rye with the harp player’s work

being particularly strong. McPhee’s guitar is the

most powerful instrument in the mix, his chops

on Married Man being properly scorching, it’s no

surprise that he remained the sole original

member until the band’s very recent demise. JK

Kel Assouf image courtesy of: Fabienne Pennewaert

100 MAY 2016



Harry Belafonte

An Evening With


Ray LaMontagne



Doug Graham, sales

director at Naim Audio,

reveals the music he

uses to demo the

company’s products

FLAC 24-bit/96kHz hdtracks.co.uk FLAC 24-bit/96kHz hdtracks.co.uk


originally released in 1965, is a proper studio

album, made in collaboration with South

African singer Miriam Makeba. It's an

extraordinary collection of songs, fusing

Belafonte's infectious Calypso numbers with

Makeba's traditional South African songs. The

fact that this is a hi-res version gives each track

real clarity and depth, which delivers a joyous

listening experience. PH


album into eight songs. The first part, or four

songs, are heavier than we've come to expect

from LaMontagne – full of sweeping, dusky

fuzzed-out soundscapes, all infused with his

trademark, breathy vocals. The second half –

starting with the too-twee Another Day, goes on

a much more mellow journey. And, of course,

this ambitious album benefits hugely from

being a hi-res recording. PH

Accademia Bizantina

Haydn Symphonies 78, 79, 80 and 81

Ottavio Dantone (conductor)

Grateful Dead

Terrapin Station

This is something that

I go back to time and

time again. Fantastic

arrangement, guitar

noodling and riffs.

Sweet vocals too. If you

like West Coast rock

this is just perfect.

Tom Waits

Mule Variations

Not ‘music for

hi-fi‘ for most


Wrong. It’s just a

different approach

to how things can

sound. Tom Waits is

scary. Scarily good.

2 CDs Decca

A lively sound, with clean

articulate strings and crisp

low horns – what's not to like?


make for an interesting and highly entertaining

disc. Accademia Bizantina play on original

instruments and make a lively sound, with clean

articulate strings and some crisp low horns. Decca

claims these are the first recordings of these works

to employ period forces, and the symphonies

are among those omitted from Christopher

Hogwood’s incomplete L’Oiseau Lyre cycle, which

stopped at 77. Clean immediate sound, with

excellent clarity and detail, makes this is a good

release. It’s just a pity it isn’t the start of a new

complete cycle from these forces! JH

David Bowie

Black Tie

White Noise

A mixed bag, but in

my experience there

is always something

great in a Bowie

album. Don’t Let Me

Down & Down is a

real stand out.


Is A Woman

Kurt Wagner can’t

sing, but that’s not the

point. It’s storytelling

that makes no sense

but somehow impacts

heavily and you don’t

think about lyrics. It's

just part of the music.

Xiayin Wang


Khachaturian piano



The Who

Live at Shea Stadium 1982

Bernard Herrmann

Twisted Nerve Original

Motion Picture



Eagle Vision




a brilliant festive account of this ebullient

warm-hearted work. Her playing is powerful and

full-blooded, but not bombastic, and the recording

produces a beautifully clear natural sound that

avoids tonal hardness and congestion. The

Khachaturian concerto is a fairly loud bombastic

piece, but once again Wang and Oundjian seem to

avoid the worst excesses. The slow movement –

featuring an instrument called a flexatone – creates

a wonderful effect that simply has to be heard. The

SACD recording is excellent – refined and detailed

– while sounding smooth, natural, and dynamic. JH

It’s a shock to see Pete

Townshend with a quiff

wearing new romantic attire in

the sort of video quality that

cut it in 520P but looks crude

today. He still looks miserable

though, barely scrapes a smile

over a long set. But the band in its longest-lived

lineup are in top form, belting out the classics

alongside contemporary numbers and proving

to a rain-soaked crowd that they still had the

power. The sound is appealingly unpolished

with restrained use of compression and a

natural balance that sounds real even if crowd

noise is well down in the mix. JK

180g vinyl


THE PROBLEM WITH Twisted Nerve is that once

you've heard it you won't be able to get it out of

your head for the rest of the day. The rising/falling

whistling motive that Quentin Tarantino 'borrowed'

for Kill Bill is so damn catchy that you'll be whistling

it to yourself long after you've put the record away.

The soundtrack includes a mix of more traditional

orchestral scene-setting fair along with a jazz

version of the catchy ditty that sounds just

fantastic – making a decent low-end vital to enjoy

those menacing cellos and kettle drums.

A beautifully put together package from this new

UK label specialising in classic soundtracks. JDW

MAY 2016 101



Bob Dylan

Voice of his generation

Nigel Williamson looks

over the career of the

songwriter’s songwriter

that dared to go electric


hen The Who’s Pete Townshend

was asked how he had been

influenced by Bob Dylan, he

replied that the question was “like

being asked how I was affected by being

born”. Dylan’s impact on popular culture has

been all-pervasive and there can surely not be

a songwriter on the planet who hasn’t been

influenced by him. Dylan changed our world

and remains the yardstick by which every

other songwriter is judged and measured.

But the genius of his songwriting is only half

the story. Dylan was the first of the modern

singer-songwriters and his artistry as a

performer, both on record and in concert, has

been immense and charismatic, singing not

only his own compositions, but a vast

repertoire of traditional blues and folk ballads

and, on his most recent release, reinterpreting

the Great American Songbook of Irving Berlin

and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Throughout his long career Dylan has

regularly excited, often causing furious

controversy. His early folk fans denounced

him as Judas for going electric. Others were

offended when he began using his songs to


Bob Dylan (1962)

A debut of mostly blues

and folk covers, but sung

with a poise and maturity

way beyond his 20 years.

The Times They Are

A-Changin’ (1964)

The high tide of the protest

movement, featuring potent

anthems such as the title track,

The Lonesome Death Of Hattie

Carroll and Only A Pawn In

Their Game.

Bringing It All

Back Home (1965)

Along with the Byrds’

Mr Tambourine Man,

the album that invented

folk-rock as Dylan plugs in

on Subterranean Homesick

Blues and Maggie’s Farm.

1962 1963 1964 1964 1965 1965

The Freewheelin’

Bob Dylan (1963)

The ‘voice of his generation’

emerges, with his first truly great

compositions including Blowin’ In

The Wind, Masters Of War and A

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

Another Side Of

Bob Dylan (1964)

Still acoustic, but the lyrics are

growing more poetic and the

imagery more complex on

songs such as Chimes Of

Freedom and Gates Of Eden.

Highway 61

Revisited (1965)

The rock ’n’ roll messiah

fuses raucous blues-rock

with inspired lyrics, kicking

off with the tumultuous

Like A Rolling Stone.

102 MAY 2016



Picture credits: Dylan with dartboard: Daniel Kramer. Graffiti: Shutterstock/Steve Lagreca

preach a born-again Christian agenda. Some

could not get beyond his voice, which David

Bowie described as sounding “like sand and

glue” and which grew croakier and more

uncertain in its ability to hold a tune as the

years went on.

But if you want to know the extent of his

influence as both a performer and a writer,

ask the other great singer-songwriters of the

age. Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bruce

Springsteen will all tell you that Dylan is the

master and they are merely disciples.

His music has drawn liberally on the rich

vernacular traditions of folk, country and

blues. But he dramatically extended the

cultural, political and social remit of popular

music and broke new ground in the subject

matter it might cover. As Paul McCartney

noted, after Dylan it became possible to

write about almost anything in a pop song.

His greatest compositions have operated as

anthems for our times, from The Times They

Are A-Changin’, Blowin’ In The Wind and A

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to Mr Tambourine

Man, Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like A

Rolling Stone.

Sixties shaper

It is often said that along with The Beatles,

Dylan invented the sixties and certainly

the decade might have been very

different without him. But his artistry

cannot be confined to the era that

spawned him and over half

a century and more he has

remained restlessly creative,

consistently surprising his

audience and often swimming

against the tide.

His songs and utterances

have been forensically dissected

for hidden meaning by a school

of ‘Dylanologists’, obsessive fans

who have generated a scholarly

industry of books, lectures, papers,

symposiums, dissertations and

doctoral theses, analysing every

aspect of his work.

Yet despite his ubiquitous influence,

Dylan has remained an enigmatic

figure who shuns celebrity, the JD

Salinger of popular music who seems to be

saying to his public: “You know my songs, but

you don’t know me”.

He gives little away in his rare interviews,

which he conducts as metaphysical jousting

sessions. Those who have worked with him

attest to a highly developed sense of humour

and an enjoyment of practical jokes. But the

jealousy with which he has guarded his

privacy means we still know surprisingly little

about his true character beyond his music.

His 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume

One, was a vivid and fascinating read, but

Between 1989 and 2015

he played more than

2,700 shows averaging

100+ concerts per year

ultimately a perplexing one, which posed

more questions than it answered.

This, of course, has all contributed to his

mystique, perhaps deliberately so, for evasion

and self-mythologising have always been an

integral part of the face Dylan has presented

to the world. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman

in 1941 into a middle-class Jewish family, he

grew up in the dull conformity of middle

America and like millions of other teens

in the fifties found escape from his

monochrome surroundings in rock ’n’ roll.

After he enrolled at university in

Minneapolis in 1959, he added an

interest in American folk music

to his love of Elvis and Little

Richard and became obsessed

with Woody Guthrie.

By early 1961 he had made

his way to New York, where he

began singing in the folk clubs of

Greenwich Village, and made regular

visits to the bedside of the dying

Guthrie, who gave him his blessing.

He changed his name and fabricated

an improbable backstory, claiming to

have been an orphan from New Mexico

who had hoboed around America and

spent years travelling with a carnival.

Playing an acoustic guitar and blowing a

harmonica, his early recordings were

derivative of Guthrie. But he was learning

fast and by his second album in 1963 he was

already the smartest, sharpest songwriter on

the block, leaving the likes of Phil Ochs, Tom

Paxton et al trailing in his wake.

An affair with Joan Baez, who was already a

star, boosted his career and for a brief while

they became folk music’s king and queen.

It was the civil rights era and Dylan swiftly

became a youthful spokesman for the cause,

the ‘voice of his generation’, penning some of

those most potent and effective protest songs

written and sitting at Martin Luther King’s

feet as he made his “I have a dream” speech.

But he soon left Baez, the protest movement

and folk music behind. Tired of all the

responsibilities that came with being a

spokesman, he set about crafting a more

abstruse and personal form of poetry. And

when he added a rock ’n’ roll backbeat, he

John Wesley Harding (1967)

The Old West meets the Old

Testament on a collection of

austere and allegorical songs

that are about as far removed

from Blonde On Blonde as it

was possible to get.

Blonde On Blonde (1966)

Rock music’s first double

album and the climax

of Dylan’s hipster phase

and the swirling electricity

which he dubbed “the wild

mercury sound”.

Self Portrait (1970)

A deliberate act to subvert

his own celebrity or an

honest homage to the music

that influenced him? Either

way, this collection of

slushily arranged covers left

many fans perplexed.

Nashville Skyline (1969)

Dylan invents country-rock on

an album of heartfelt songs

such as Lay Lady Lay and I

Threw It All Away full of

simple but timeless verities.

Pat Garrett & Billy

The Kid (1973)

An evocative soundtrack for

Peckinpah’s movie in which

Dylan also starred, featuring

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

as the main highlight.

New Morning (1970)

Shocked by the anger that had

greeted Self Portrait, Dylan

hastily put out this collection

of a dozen new compositions

to prove that he was still a

creative force.

1966 1967 1969 1970 1970 1973

MAY 2016 103



Dylan (1973)

After Dylan briefly left

Columbia, his old label

released this ragbag of

out-takes and rejects that

hadn’t been good enough

for Self Portrait.

Blood On The Tracks (1975)

Dylan dips his pen into his

own veins on a set widely

and justifiably dubbed “the

greatest break-up album of

all time”.

Desire (1976)

Theatrical storytelling,

a couple more great

divorce songs in Isis

and Sara and a return to

protest on Hurricane.

1973 1974 1975 1975 1976 1978

Planet Waves (1974)

Prior to going back on the

road for the first time in eight

years, Dylan went into the

studio with The Band to cut

this absorbing collection of

10 new songs, including the

perennial Forever Young.

The Basement Tapes (1975)

Culled from sessions with

The Band in Woodstock in

1967, a potpourri of down

home roots songs that

virtually invented the genre

that would later become

known as Americana.

Street-Legal (1978)

Melodically strong and

lyrically interesting songs

poorly recorded and badly

mixed, which sounded much

better after remastering in

5:1 surround sound.

recorded perhaps the most acclaimed and

influential trilogy of albums in rock history,

with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61

Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

Astonishingly, all three were released over

an extraordinary period of just 14 months,

indicative of the extraordinary creative

velocity at which he was travelling. Fuelled

by a cocktail of drugs, it couldn’t last and

running on empty, in the summer of 1966

after completing a tumultuous world tour, it

was reported that he had suffered a near-fatal

motorcycle accident in Woodstock.

Fact or fiction

Like so much in Dylan’s life, the truth is

difficult to disentangle from the fiction and it

appears that the seriousness of the crash was

much exaggerated. He needed to step off the

merry-go round and the incident may have

been an arrangement of convenience that

provided the excuse to take 18 months out

of the public eye. Arguably, this saved him

from joining the ranks of the live-fast-dieyoung

‘dead rock stars club’; Dylan himself

later noted: “I’d been hurt and I recovered.

Truth was I wanted to get out of the rat race”.

When he returned, he looked and sounded

radically different. John Wesley Harding was a

stripped-down, semi-acoustic back-to-theroots

album and was followed by 1969’s

Nashville Skyline, a journey into country

music which helped to invent country-rock

and made hip a genre that at the time was

Dylan remains the

yardstick by which

every other songwriter

is judged and measured

regarded as nothing more than deeply

unfashionable music for rednecks.

As a new decade dawned, Self Portrait

seemed a further retreat from the front line,

a bizarre, ragbag of covers that provoked a

front-page review in Rolling Stone that began

with the words, “What is this sh**?”. Dylan

later claimed that the record was a deliberate

act of abdication to free himself from his past,

“to get people off my back, so people would

just stop buying my records”. Certainly many

of his fans felt betrayed, although he won

most of them back when he returned to the

road for the first time in eight years with The

Band on the ‘Before The Flood’ tour in 1974.

That was just the warm up for one of the

finest albums of his career, 1975’s Blood On

The Tracks, inspired by the break up of his

marriage to Sara Lownds, and described by

one critic as: “The most savagely remorseless

examination of the downside of love ever

committed to record”.

Losing his way

Then he seemed to lose his compass as he

sought salvation in some unlikely places.

After joining an evangelical Christian sect

called the Vineyard Fellowship, Dylan

transmogrified into an eschatological zealot

on a mission to save his fans from the devil,

hectoring them that they were going to burn

in hellfire unless they changed their ways.

That he was Jewish made this conversion

surprising enough; but his role in the sixties

as an eloquent critic of dogma meant that his

transformation into a hardcore evangelist

was too much for many of his fans to take,

particularly given its timing at the end of

the seventies, just as the Reaganite ‘moral

majority’ of Christian conservatives was

mobilising its takeover of American politics.

Yet if the onset of the eighties found him

with a new sense of purpose as a born-again

religious preacher, it did not last. As his

fervour waned, by the middle of the decade

he appeared to be drifting into an early

mid-life crisis, drinking heavily, stumbling

Picture credits: Dylan left: Shutterstock/Christian Bertrand. Dylan right: Shutterstock/Rena Schild

Down In The Groove (1988)

More like down in the dumps.

Desultory covers and

lightweight compositions

on an album that lacks

cohesion and purpose.

Under The Red Sky (1990)

Dylan usually eschewed the

‘celebrity guests’ route – but

this is the exception with

George Harrison, Slash, Elton

John and David Crosby making

contributions to songs like God

Knows and Cat’s In The Well.

World Gone Wrong (1993)

A second album of

traditional and acoustic

folk and blues tunes,

delivered as deathlessly

as its predecessor.

1988 1989 1990 1992 1993 1997

Oh Mercy (1989)

Just when Dylan seemed

spent, he comes up with his

best album of the decade,

given an ethereal,

swamp-like sonority by

Daniel Lanois’ production.

Good As I Been To You (1992)

Digging deep into the well

of American vernacular music,

13 traditional folk and blues

songs interpreted solo and

acoustic with Dylan’s own

unique tone and phrasing.

Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Another renaissance as

Dylan confronts his own

mortality on songs such

as Not Dark Yet and Tryin’

To Get To Heaven.

104 MAY 2016



Slow Train Coming (1979)

Born-again Bob, but

whatever you thought of

the religious nature of the

songs, sonically this is one

of Dylan’s most glorioussounding


Shot Of Love (1981)

The final born-again album

finds Dylan retreating from

his self-righteous certainty

and embracing a more

universal spirituality,

heard at its best on the

lovely Every Grain Of Sand.

Empire Burlesque (1985)

Seduced by the voguish

technology of synths and

programmed drums, Bob

handed over some rather good

songs to dance producer

Arthur Baker. Big mistake.

1979 1980 1981 1983 1985 1986

Saved (1980)

The sermonising continues,

but Dylan sounds urgent and

animated and there’s no

disguising the quality of

songs such as Covenant

Woman and In The Garden.

Infidels (1983)

A curate’s egg, but lifted

by the Jamaican rhythm

section of Sly and Robbie

and the sparkling guitar

work of Mick Taylor and

Mark Knopfler.

Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

Dylan gets writer’s block

with Brownsville Girl the only

major new composition.

What made him record a

reggae version of Precious

Memories remains a mystery.

around on stage and his songwriting

inspiration on the wane. The nadir perhaps

came when he closed the Live Aid concert in

1985 and in front of millions of television

viewers around the world busked his way

drunkenly through a couple of dire songs for

which his accompanists, Keith Richards and

Ron Wood, were unrehearsed.

Turning the corner

Fortunately, help was at hand. After a good

natured chart-topping diversion in 1988 as

part of the Traveling Wilburys with Jeff

Lynne, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy

Orbison, there was a marked return to form

with his finest set of songs in a decade with

1989’s Oh Mercy. More significantly, Dylan

found redemption in a new-found belief that

music is fundamentally a live experience and

its unique power can only be fully realised

in communion with an audience – the

philosophy that inspired what came to be

known as ‘the Never Ending Tour’.

Over the years he had tried mind-bending

drugs, domesticity, born-again Christianity

and reembracing his Jewish roots. When

none of them provided the answers he was

looking for, he might have retreated to his

own Elvis-style Graceland and rotted in

isolation. Instead, he took to the road. “It’s the

only place I’m happy,” he said. “The only

place you can be who you want to be.”

Between 1989 and 2015 he played more

than 2,700 shows averaging more than 100

Bob Dylan receives

the Presidential

Medal of Freedom

By his second album

in 1963 he was already

the smartest, sharpest

songwriter on the block

concerts per year, playing songs both old and

new. Even a near-death experience in 1997

with a life-threatening infection could not

derail him. “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis

soon,” he said.

But he was back on his never ending tour

within weeks, taking as his theme the song

It’s Not Dark Yet, from 1997’s Time Out Of

Mind, a rich and mature album that ranks

among his very best. That same year he sang

for the Pope in the Vatican; photographers

caught the pontiff apparently sound asleep

during Dylan’s performance of Knocking On

Heaven’s Door, although he awoke later to

deliver a short sermon based not on a

traditional biblical text but on Dylan’s

Blowin’ In The Wind.

Still going strong

The arrival of the new millennium and his

60th birthday only seemed to reinvigorate

Dylan. The last 15 years has seen a flurry

of activity that has included half a dozen

studio albums; numerous archive releases

in his ongoing ‘official bootleg’ series; a

documentary film about his early career

directed by Martin Scorsese; and a

remarkable satellite radio show, which he

hosted for 100 compelling episodes between

2006 and 2009.

“I’m a firm believer in the longer you live,

the better you get,” he said at the peak of his

powers back in the sixties. Inevitably the truth

is a fair bit more complicated and the

trajectory of his career has been one of ups

and downs as he has thrilled, confounded,

bewildered and delighted in perhaps equal

measure. But it would be impossible to

imagine what popular music would sound

like without Dylan and the songs with which

he helped to make our world ●

Modern Times (2006)

The muse is still strong,

evidenced by the fact that all

nine songs here became

concert staples, often

displacing his sixties classics.

Love And Theft (2001)

Dylan sounds like he’s

having fun again on an

album of rockabilly,

vaudeville and barroom

boogie flavours.

Christmas In

The Heart (2009)

Was Dylan joking as he

croaked his way through

Little Drummer Boy and

Winter Wonderland? If so,

it wasn’t especially funny.

Together Through Life


Rollicking blues grooves and

lines borrowed from such

highbrow sources as Ovid and

Chaucer, gloriously delivered

in a cracked, leathery growl.

Shadows In The Night (2015)

Dylan does Sinatra. He

claimed he wasn’t covering

the songs but rather

‘uncovering’ them as he

reinvented the Great

American Songbook as a

set of rootsy folk tunes.

Tempest (2012)

Dylan turns into everyone’s

favourite grizzled rock uncle

on an album hailed by critics

as a mature masterpiece.

“I’m not dead yet, my bell

still rings,” he sings.

2001 2006 2009 2009 2012 2015

MAY 2016 105

CARTRIDGES £250-£395

Needle craft

Looking to take your vinyl performance up a notch? Ed Selley

lines up four cartridge maestros for your consideration


pgrading a phono

cartridge can prove to

be one of the more

challenging tasks for vinyl

fans, with tiny screws, fiddly wires

and careful alignment to contend

with. There is no shortage of models

to choose from, but due to their

fragile nature, demos can be hard to

secure and performance can be

radically affected depending on the

tonearm, turntable or phono stage

they are partnered with.

At the £250 to £400 price range,

moving-magnet designs are the most

commonly encountered cartridge type

but there are also a small number of

moving-iron and moving-coil models

available. Of the latter, some are highoutput

designs that will work with a

moving-magnet-style phono stage.

The models here are a mix of

magnet, iron and high-output moving

coil. They all work with any movingmagnet

phono stage and can be

partnered with a variety of tonearms.

Testing is carried out using an Audio

Note Arm III hooked up to an Avid

Ingenium turntable (HFC 379) with a

Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage

(HFC 408). Levels are set with a setup

record playing a 1kHz test tone and

SPL meter. Once correctly aligned

and set, each cartridge plays a test

program including Låpsley’s Long Way

Home, Little Feat’s Time Loves A Hero,

Wild Beast’s Present Tense and

Fontän’s Winterhwila. Enough talk,

it’s time to get to the point.



PRICE: £300 TELEPHONE: 0113 2771441 WEBSITE: eu.audio-technica.com











Shibata type stylus;

fixed stylus guard;

4.0mV output


Audio-Technica UK

A NEW DESIGN and the flagship

moving-magnet offering from A-T, the

AT150Sa stands out from rivals thanks

to its super-fine Shibata stylus which

first saw use in the moving-coil

AT33Sa. This is designed to offer

superior high-frequency response and

improved fine-detail retrieval and is

attached to an attractive alloy body

wired with Pure Copper by Ohno

Continuous Casting (PCOCC) wire.

Horsing around

This is easily the most challenging

cartridge of the group to fit. Audio-

Technica does not use threaded

bodies on its cartridges and the

horseshoe-shaped mounts combined

with the irregular shape of the body

and the presence of a ‘roll bar’-style

stylus guard make it rather awkward

to mount the AT150Sa onto a fixed

headshell tonearm.

Once done, the healthy 4mV output

will work well into most phono

stages. Sonically, it’s worthwhile

persevering with the fiddly

installation as it rewards with a

punchy and confident performance.

The bass response with all of the test

material is deep and well defined and

the top end is largely realised with a

refined sound that works well with

the vocals of the Låpsley and Wild

Beasts tracks in particular. There is

plenty of space and separation to

the presentation and even the

complex and congested Fontän track

is intelligible and composed with an

excellent soundstage.

However, it never quite manages the

sense of immediacy that some of the

other cartridges here offer, and it

seems more affected by less than

perfectly clean vinyl. Ultimately

though, this is a seriously capable

cartridge for the asking price and

worth seeking out for an audition ●


It’s rather tricky to fit, but is worth the effort as

it’s capable of excellent results once installed

106 MAY 2016





Performer V2

PRICE: £250 TELEPHONE: 0118 9814238 WEBSITE: clearaudio.de




Performer V2








cantilever; ebony

wood body; 3.3mV



Sound Fowndations

THIS IS THE second most

affordable model in Clearaudio’s

range of cartridges and also the most

affordable design here. In keeping

with its more expensive brethren, the

Performer V2 shuns metal or plastic

for the body in favour of ebony wood.

The cantilever is aluminium and like

a number of Clearaudio cartridges is

fairly long, meaning that it will work

best in an arm with VTA adjustment.

Right said thread

Assuming this is the case, installation

is a breeze. The body is threaded and

the V2 cartridges have moved to

using allen bolts instead of screws,

making things easier. The pins are

well spaced and logically laid out and

everything feels like it’s finished to

a high standard. The recommended

tracking weight of 2.2g is the heaviest

here, but not particularly hard to set.

The output of 3.3mV is lower than the

other moving-magnet models on test,

but nonetheless perfectly functional

into any MM phono stage.

The V2 goes about making music in

a consistently impressive way. With

the Låpsley track in particular, it is

extremely even across the frequency

range, marrying excellent bass, an

impressively detailed midrange and a

punchy yet detailed top end. Vocals

are consistently well handled and it

reproduces the relatively noisy Fontän

pressing with reasonable refinement.

A little like the Audio-Technica

offering, the only slight limitation is

that it presents information in a

slightly matter of fact manner that

might not be to everyone’s taste. The

Little Feat track doesn’t have the same

emotion as with some others here. If

you have a slightly warm-sounding

deck this could be a superb and very

cost-effective choice for you ●


A very good-value cartridge with a generally

excellent performance



PRICE: £276 TELEPHONE: 01491 629629 WEBSITE: airaudio.co.uk



Hana EH









cantilever; plastic

body; 2mV output


Air Audio

HANA MAY BE A relatively new

name, but parent company Excel has

been making cartridges for a variety

of manufacturers for decades. The EH

is the high-output version of the more

affordable of its two current models

and is the only high-output movingcoil

here. The coils are mated to an

aluminium cantilever and elliptical

stylus to generate an output of 2mV,

which is the lowest in the test but not

too far behind the Clearaudio.

Space oddity

The Hana does without a threaded

body which can make it fiddly to fit,

although the deep mounts for the

bolts and flat-sided body help

alleviate this problem – the only slight

oddity being that the stylus guard

has to be removed to get the bolts

in. The pins are well spaced and the

2g tracking force is easy enough to

achieve in most arms, making the

cartridge and its smart packaging

look and feel well worth the price.

Sonically it delivers a performance

that combines most of the virtues

of the other models here with few

obvious vices. The output, while

lower than the group is perfectly

sufficient into most moving-magnet

stages. The EH balances a rich,

detailed and refined presentation

with impressive tonal accuracy. The

rendition of Låpsley is emotionally

engaging and has a sense of air and

space that’s unusual at the price.

Perhaps just as importantly, the

Hana manages to sound fun as well.

Both the Little Feat and Fontän

tracks have a simple, unapologetic

sense of energy and joy to them that

is a great pleasure to listen to. It

might be slightly harder to fit and

require a little more gain, but it’s

worth the effort as it rewards with

an exceptional sonic performance ●


Hard to fit, but an exceptionally capable and

extremely keenly priced cartridge

MAY 2016 107






PRICE: £395 TELEPHONE: 01279 501111 WEBSITE: goldring.co.uk



Goldring 2400







Low mass

cantilever; metal

and plastic body;

6.5mV output


Armour Home



expensive cartridge of the group, but

if you shop around it can be found for

closer to £300, which narrows the

gap somewhat. The 2000 range is

built around moving-iron principles

where the end of the cantilever has

a small piece of iron rather than a

magnet on the end of it.

Heavy hitter

The extra money manifests itself in

a nicely constructed and designed

cartridge that thanks to a threaded

body and relatively flat sides is easy

to mount. The only slight caveat to

using the Goldring is that it is a

relatively big and heavy cartridge and

this combined with the optimal

tracking weight of 1.75g means it

could be a little too much for some

tonearms but otherwise it is easy to

accommodate. The healthy 6.5mV

output should provide more than

enough gain in most systems too.

The high output is not as noticeable

as you might expect in a consistently

musically satisfying performance.

The Goldring is adept at retrieving

considerable detail from recordings,

but perhaps more importantly it also

manages to consistently find the

human quality too. Låpsley’s vocals

have a texture and energy to them,

which makes them more believable

and enjoyable.

There is also a sense of pace and

drive to the performance that is

extremely welcome. The low

electronic notes of the Wild Beasts’

track are rendered with impact and

impressive texture, but there is also

a speed and sense of energy that

enables the Goldring to draw you

in to the performance. There is no

getting away from the higher price,

but the 2400 goes a long way in

letting you know where the extra

money has gone ●


It might be a little pricey, but the Goldring is

certainly a talented performer

Mini test verdict

THE STRENGTH OF this quartet of

cartridges is such that all of them

have a great deal to offer and any of

them could be the perfect fit to a vinyl

playback system. The Audio-Technica

and Clearaudio cartridges have to be

content with third and fourth place,

but are nevertheless still seriously

good options. The Audio-Technica

AT150Sa is an assured performer with

a smooth top end and tremendous

bass. It is very tricky to fit, though,

and can sound a little sterile in

comparison with its rivals.

The Clearaudio Performer V2, is

well built, simple to fit and extremely

well thought out in terms of

packaging and design. Provided you

can set the correct VTA, it is also

capable of an exceptionally detailed

and revealing performance that never

trips over into harshness or

aggression. Throw in the lowest price

in the test and you have a very

convincing cartridge indeed. Only the

slight lack of emotional involvement

and the strength of the competition

here count against it.

The Goldring 2400 is the most

expensive model here (although, as

noted, it can be found for a good bit

less if you shop around), but it does a

fine job of showing what you can get

when you spend that bit extra. It is

a very capable cartridge indeed,

balancing excellent accuracy and

tonal neutrality with a sense of fun

and emotional engagement that sets

it apart from some of the others here.

Only the higher price and the

strength of the competition robs

it of the top spot.


The Hana EH doesn’t manage to offer much more

than the Goldring does in sonic terms and it is

slightly harder to set up and will need more gain

in your system to deliver the same levels. But it

rewards with a fantastically involving performance,

excellent build and the