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To Hans Wetzel,

Thank you for all of the valuable information you provide. I recently bought a pair of Dynaudio Special Forty loudspeakers and while I am looking forward to listening to them, they are only part of my stereo system right now. Next, I am in the market for an integrated amplifier. I am considering the following: the Naim Audio Nait XS 2, Hegel Music Systems H160, Raven Audio Nighthawk MK3, and Simaudio Moon Neo 340i.

My listening room is a somewhat cornered-off section of a large loft, and I think I enjoy a slightly warmer sound, but please don’t put too much stock in that assessment. Could you advise on which of the above you think would work best with my speakers, and, if you have time, why? Many thanks in advance for your thoughts. I can’t demo amps right now for obvious reasons, but would like to have a nice system to listen to while stuck at home.

Chris Jordan
United States

Hegel’s older stuff -- like the H160, which I reviewed, and the H300, which I reviewed and owned -- doesn’t sound very warm. In fact, it’s a bit forward-sounding, leaning towards the eager and dynamic side of neutral, so I’d rule that out. I’d actually never heard of Raven Audio before you mentioned the company, but their electronics, which seem to be all tube designs, look interesting. The Raven Nighthawk MK3 is a really neat integrated, but its power rating of 20Wpc into 8 ohms isn’t a lot to work with when your Dynaudios have a sensitivity of 86dB. With the system in a large loft, I’d have to imagine you’d really want to hammer your two-way Danes at some point, and I would worry that under those circumstances the Raven integrated might come up a little short. If you are more conservative with your volume control than I am, however, the tube-based integrated could work, depending on your listening material, and it will almost assuredly bring a touch of warmth and body to your system. I have no experience with Naim, unfortunately, but it’s listed as having 70Wpc into 8 ohms, which is plenty of power for your setup.

Finally, the Simaudio. Of the four amps you mention, it’s the one that instantly jumped out at me as a likely candidate. With 100Wpc into 8 ohms, and a really wide-open, yet neutral sound that isn’t as forthright as the Hegel, the Sim would make a great partner for your fancy new Dynaudio monitors. If I were in the shoes, I’d grab the Neo 340i and not look back. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Jeff Fritz,

Just a fantastic premise and content with regard to acquiring your new system [“Jeff’s Getting a New Stereo System: Part One”]. I too am a retired audiophile (2005) also looking to get back into it with “self-imposed” budget restrictions. I think what you are doing is actually taking things to the next level, trying to find the best deals in audio. I would liken what you are doing to the [original Stereophile] review of the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A -- getting a preamp on par or better than a $40k preamp for only $1895. Also, this is like a sommelier, being able to recommend a great wine for half the price of others.

I am planning on doing the DAC-preamp-processor thing as well, and was going to purchase the Auralic Vega G2, but noticed in your most recent review that you are using the Hegel Music Systems HD30. Also, with regard to these processors, I wonder: is there one that is most easily upgradable as technology improves?

Thank you,
JJ Prosser
United States

Thanks for the kind words about that series of articles. I really enjoyed writing each installment, especially considering that so many audiophiles, it turned out, were in the same boat as me: wanting something spectacular, and willing to pay good money for it, but not willing to spend the equivalent of a house.

Regarding your choice of DAC (with either full preamp functionality, or just digital-inputs only with integral volume control), there are some fantastic options available to you. The Hegel Music Systems HD30 ($4800) and Auralic Vega G2 ($5999) are still very competitive at their respective price points, but there are many more options. There are models from Benchmark Media Systems and Bryston that would fit the bill also, as examples. You’ll have to consider the features you want as you’re making your decision. For example, do you want streaming built in?)

As for upgradeable technology, I would not count on that. I’ve seen far too many products that were claimed to be “future proof” or some such term, but really weren’t. Buy something that has the features you want now and that you love the sound and ergonomics of, and enjoy it. I’ve found that worrying too much about what a product might or might not become in the future is not only fruitless, but can zap the enjoyment right out of the ownership experience. Good luck with your next stereo system and please let me know what you end up with. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

I was very interested in your Shunyata Hydra Alpha A12 review. I am about to undertake a home demo of the UK version here in England.

You didn’t mention trying your power amp via the Hydra, just [using it] straight from the mains. Did you actually try this, since the Hydra supposedly doesn’t restrict current at all? I appreciate that you mentioned that your Boulder was “silent” (so how do you improve on that?), but thought it might have been worthwhile to have just tried it, even to see if it was a backwards or sideways measure. Unfortunately, my power amps are remote from my speakers (ATC SCM300 active studio towers) due to their fan cooling noise, so I can’t try the amps and other system components at the same time (unless I buy two!).

The rest of my system comprises Melco N10 music server and Jays Audio CDT3-MK2 CD transport front ends driving a Tidal Audio Preos preamp-DAC. My ATCs are 14 years old now but are still going strong. They can play at very realistic sound levels without distress in my room, which is 30’L x20’W x 9’H. I sit approximately 20’ from the speakers. My musical taste is very varied, but often (not always) I like to really crank it up.

The Vimberg Tonda is on my list of possible replacements. Although the ATC is basically a studio monitor, with the other gear in front, the pair never fail to impress me -- very musical with no hint of clinicity, so I’m a bit reluctant to make a change. I’ve heard the Vimberg Minos at the UK’s sole dealer, but his room was tiny compared to mine. Do you think the Tondas would A) be able to drive my room fully, and B) be a genuine improvement over the ATCs?

Hope you and your family are safe and well in these troubled times.

Graham Rush

In regards to your first question, no I did not try the Hydra with the Boulder 2060 amplifier. For me it was really a question of logistics. Had I connected the Shunyata to the Boulder, I would have had to disconnect it from the Hegel HD30 DAC. Perhaps I still will try the Boulder/Shunyata -- the Shunyata is still here -- but I felt having the source component connected to the Alpha A12 was my best bet in experiencing a system improvement, which turned out to be easily heard -- and quite an improvement it was. Good luck with your audition -- I suspect you’ll be adding an Alpha A12 to your system.

As for the Vimberg Tonda, you do have a very large room, and I’m not sure just how loud you listen (though you say you like to crank it). What I can tell you is that I heard a pair of Tondas at Munich’s High End in a room very similar in size to yours. When I was there one cut that was used during the demo was a very bass-heavy house music track played at a chest-thumping level. I was very impressed that the Vimbergs could drive the room easily and with a full, immersive sound. This was actually one of the reasons I chose a pair of Tondas -- I hate when I sense I’m going to break a set of speakers when I want to play something loud. I was listening to some classic Kiss tracks the other day and cranked it up and it sounded absolutely amazing -- super-clean highs and powerful, pounding bass. I loved it! I have not heard your ATCs, so I can’t make that comparison. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Howard Kneller,

I hope you don’t mind me asking you for your insight!

First, my setup:

  • PurePower 1500 power regenerator for all my components
  • NAD Masters Series M50 streamer/CD player
  • Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC
  • Esoteric A-03 amplifier
  • Onda Ligera Wave 168D speakers (also the smaller Onda Ligera Wave 16 and my very special 50+-year-old Yamaha NS-30s)

My system is now based on streaming. As you can see, I don’t use a dedicated preamplifier. Instead I use the preamp inside of the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DAC.

A couple of months ago I bought an Esoteric A-03 amp. I can hear the quality, but am not completely happy with my sound. My system’s sound doesn't grab me like it should. I presume some of my source equipment is now the weakest link.

I am considering a couple of next moves to try to get the sound to be better/more involving. I need to work hard to plunge myself into this crazy audio hobby of ours, so I am hoping for your advice!

Of course I am asking you because you had the A-03 yourself (did you sell it?) and have a lot of experience with the Esoteric brand! What is my best next move going forward?

  1. Buying an older Esoteric K-01 SACD player/DAC: I understand I can drive the Esoteric A-03 direct with the K-01. Will I lose a lot by not including a preamp? A big positive is that I can start to listen to SACD discs of very high quality!
  2. Buying an older Esoteric C-02 preamp: I will continue to use the Antelope DAC for the foreseeable future. This is a more expensive route to take and I am wondering if the Antelope DAC will not limit the sound.
  3. Buying an older Esoteric D-02 DAC: I think it will be possible to drive the A-03 direct.

What do you think of going direct to the A-03 from K-01 or D-02? Is the DAC inside of the K-01 of a lesser quality than the D-02? How big is the difference in your opinion? I am now focusing on building a system with Esoteric components, but maybe you have other suggestions?

I am very curious about your ideas what next step is best to take!

Kind greetings,

Thanks for writing. I did have an Esoteric A-03 amplifier. To say the least, that model is excellent and it was hard for me to let go of it. But, I ultimately did so and replaced it with the company’s S1 Grandioso amp, which in fact betters the A-03 in every way, albeit at a much higher cost.

From the upgrade choices that you laid out, I think that you should add an external preamplifier, either the C-02 or even the less expensive C-03. Upgrading your source will almost certainly improve the sound, but I don’t believe that is where your issue lies or where you will get the best bang for your buck (or in this case, euro). Also, in my opinion, while the ability to play SACDs is nice, it’s not crucial given the somewhat limited availability of titles, the premium price that many SACDs still fetch, and the availability of DSD audio files.

In my experience, preamplifiers that are built into other components such as DACs, or relying on a DAC’s digital or analog volume control, are good if you need to use them in a pinch, but they will not come close to performing as well as adding a high-quality external preamp. That’s not to mention the extra connectivity options that an external preamp often brings. Also, for reasons beyond the scope of this response, I am not a fan of going sans preamp, although there are some people who may disagree.

I have extensive experience with the preamp that is built into the Esoteric K-01 disc player -- its performance does not in the least change my view on this issue. Although I have not tested the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, I would be surprised if its built-in pre performed at a level that would affect my thinking. This is especially true in light of your dissatisfaction with your system’s sound.

Finally, I am not a big fan of buying older DACs, although cost is certainly a part of the analysis necessary in deciding on any such purchase. They usually do not perform as well as newer models. In any event, I believe that changing your DAC at this time would likely be going in the wrong direction. If you are aspiring to build an all-Esoteric system, you might want to sell the Antelope at a later date, but I would first add the external preamplifier.

I am sorry to recommend to you what might be the most expensive option, but I feel confident in my recommendation. As noted, there is always the C-03 preamplifier, which is less costly than the C-02 and can be very reasonably priced in the used market. . . . Howard Kneller

To Jeff Fritz,

I currently own a pair of the B&W 802 speakers with a McIntosh Laboratory amp and preamp as my at-home sound system. I am a seriously passionate music fan and love watching concerts (Coldplay, Eric Clapton, Santana, Adele, Billy Joel, etc.).

I have been advised that it would be a life-altering, valuable investment -- and would make a substantial difference in the sound quality I so enjoy -- if I upgraded my current system to the Magico M6 [loudspeakers] with an MSB DAC and MSB M500 Monos at a cost of around $350,000.

I read your articles on the SoundStage! Network and am looking for advice (mainly on the sound-quality difference) and wondered if you would have time to give me your opinion?

So, with that background and if you were me, would you keep the current system and just buy the MSB DAC, or would you switch out the entire music system, take the plunge, and go for the Magico M6 speakers?

Really appreciate your thoughts,
United States

You’re considering a monumental upgrade to your stereo, not to mention a massive investment financially. I obviously can’t advise you on the second point and would never attempt to do that.

I can tell you that you’re contemplating owning one of the highest-resolution audio systems an audiophile is capable of assembling. I’ve listened to Magico/MSB-based systems many times at shows and can attest that the pairing can be pure magic. You’re also looking at the top models from those companies, so there is no question that with expert setup (which obviously you should get with such a purchase), the sound quality you should obtain will be beyond what most audiophiles will ever have a chance to hear. No doubt better than what you have by a substantial margin.

Sound quality is hard to quantify, though. A massive improvement to one guy is a moderate step up to another. So, ultimately, you need to hear what you’re buying to know if the sound quality on offer is “worth it” to you. What I can tell you is that you’ll have arguably one of the finest stereo systems money can buy. The rest is up to you. . . . Jeff Fritz

To Jeff Fritz,

As of late, I’ve been pretty disappointed with a lot of the high-end equipment that’s being put out. It’s not that it’s not good, but that it’s not good enough.

Seeing the quality of the stuff that Benchmark puts out for a few thousand dollars, I find it amazing how companies offer and reviewers can think so highly of high-dollar equipment that underperforms.

I can understand paying for a Bentley. It’s about more than performance. With audio equipment, though, it should be all about performance, but that no longer seems to be the case. You can’t get away with this type of bullshit with TVs, but, with audio equipment, sure. It’s insane.

Last year, Stereophile did a review of a BorderPatrol DAC that John Atkinson said, in no uncertain terms, was crap. The reviewer that listened to it loved it.

Personally, I take reviews without measurements with a grain of salt.

Not everything audible can be measured, but everything you can measure can be heard. Noise and distortion are not good things unless you’re talking about a guitar amp.

All the best,
United States

To Hans Wetzel,

As an avid reader of SoundStage! Ultra for several years now, I’m greatly looking forward to another voice in high-end reviews! And a request: [Please] review any speaker using Voxativ’s field coil driver! Whether from PureAudioProject or Voxativ itself, this modern interpretation of the field coil driver appears to bring something new to the table.

By the way, thanks for the SoundStage! Hi-Fi review of the Revel M126Be loudspeakers. We bought them for our listening room a few months ago!

Pauline N.
United States

Voxativ is interesting. I’ve been aware of the company for quite some time, and know they have a fervent following. I also know that field-coil loudspeaker designs are inherently compromised in certain ways. You’re simply not going to get linear extension down through the bass, or up through the treble, in the same fashion as you would with a well-executed two-way or three-way design that uses a traditional crossover. Yet, I’m also keenly aware that eliminating the crossover is kind of the whole point, and that our sensitivity to frequencies above 15kHz or so dramatically decreases with age. So, with certain types of music -- and more importantly, with certain low-powered amplifiers (due to Voxativ’s high-sensitivity designs) -- they could make for a sweet match. We’ll be sure to take a closer look at their offerings going forward. As someone who’s focusing on bookshelf speakers and modestly sized floorstanders, the Zeth looks particularly interesting. By the way, glad we could help with the Revels! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Jason Thorpe,

I just finished reading your Rush reviews and found it interesting when you got off the train. I will say, up front, that I am nowhere near the Rush fan that you are. I do agree that the later albums just don’t have what the earlier albums have. My problem with the later albums is that -- to my ears -- most of the music sounded the same. Especially Alex’s guitar sound. I found out about Neil’s death when I was listening to Jim Ladd on SiriusXM and he played three or four Rush songs in a row. Not that Jim never played Rush, but this was rather unheard of. A quick look online announced the news.

Great article. Makes me want to look into buying the reissues.

Keep up the good writing.

Ken Kistinger
United States

To Hans Wetzel,

I’ve been reading your great reviews for a while now and see you have a pair of Focal Diablo Utopia Colour Evos in for review. I’ve had a pair [of the original Diablo Utopia] now for four years and am very intrigued to hear what you make of them, as every time I’ve auditioned double- or triple-the-price floorstanding speakers, I still find my Diablos are noticeably better -- so far, to me, they are giant killers. Are the Evos really that much better? I strongly urge you to find a Devialet Expert [integrated amplifier-DAC, which I own] to try with them -- you might be astounded.

Lee Clark
United States

I can’t go into too much detail about Focal’s Diablo Utopia Colour Evo since my review has yet to be published, but there are a couple things I can mention. The big one is this: The Diablo Utopia Colour Evo is functionally identical to your Diablo Utopia, with the “Colour Evo” upgrades being entirely cosmetic. So, the Colour Evo version should perform identically to the pair that you’ve enjoyed over the past several years.

A benefit of being one of the biggest names in audio is that Focal’s Utopia loudspeakers can remain untouched for a long period of time and still be competitive with newer competition. Revel has adopted a similar approach with their Ultima2 line, which includes the highly regarded Salon2 and Studio2 models. Performance-wise, I don’t think they’re outclassed or left in the dust by any speaker that I’ve heard in recent memory. Is the Focal a “giant killer,” and does it still represent the state of the art in loudspeaker design? You’ll have to read my review to find out.

By the way, having reviewed Devialet’s Expert 130 Pro, I don’t doubt that your Focal/Devialet tandem is flat-out fantastic. Despite being a few years old, I still believe that Devialet makes state-of-the-art amplifiers, and I’d probably own a pair of Devialet monoblocks if I were exiting the reviewing game today. If I were in your shoes, I would be in zero rush to upgrade either my speakers or my amps. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Jeff Fritz,

I have read with great interest your reviews of the T+A PA 3100 HV [$23,500], McIntosh Laboratory MA9000 [$10,000], and the Luxman L-509X [$9450] integrated amplifiers, and thank you for the comparisons. Very helpful.

I have Wilson Sabrina loudspeakers and use a Bricasti DAC with network board to drive my amp directly. After some mechanical breakdown of my amp, I am in the market for a new integrated.

Which of the three that you reviewed might be the best match for the Sabrinas please?

Appreciate you comments.

South Carolina
United States

These are all fantastic products and each model has strengths. Based on price, the Luxman and McIntosh are the two that would attract me most. From there, it is really a question of taste. Both should drive your Sabrinas with no issue, though the Luxman, at 120Wpc into 8 ohms, is much less powerful than the McIntosh, which will give you up to 300Wpc into the same load. Although these two integrateds do sound different -- which I detailed in my Luxman review -- they have much in common. The only way to decide is to experience them yourself, though I know that is sometimes easier said than done. The good news is that, either one you pick, you’ll have a fantastic amp that should give you many years of pleasure. . . . Jeff Fritz