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Published September 1, 2005



Onix SP3 Integrated Amplifier, XCD-88 CD Player, Reference 1 LE Speakers

Onix electronics and speakers are distributed exclusively by AV123 via their website, By selling only direct to consumers, AV123 believes it is able to offer better products at lower prices than it could via a traditional dealer network. Because consumers cannot hear these products at their local dealer, AV123 offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee. If you audition a product and decide it isn’t right for you, it will cost you only the shipping charges to and from AV123’s Colorado location. Obviously, this will cost you more than a visit to your local dealer, but if you’re seriously considering Onix components and decide that their quality is much better than similarly priced gear at a bricks-and-mortar store, then it might make sense to pay the postage and take your chances.

The Onix system AV123 sent for review consisted of the SP3 tube integrated amplifier, XCD-88 CD player, and a pair of Reference 1 LE loudspeakers. The special system price is $1449 USD.

The whole package

The Onix system is one of the best-looking systems you can get for the money, and the SP3, made for AV123 by Onix-Melody (an Australian firm), is one of the most attractive and heavy integrated amplifiers I’ve seen at this price. Designed in Australia and built in China, the SP3 delivers a manufacturer-rated 38Wpc and has only two inputs, which is at least one fewer than I’d like -- I like to be able to connect a turntable, a tuner, and at least one digital player. I’m sure that limiting the inputs to two allows Onix to cut costs and keep the price low, but this is something that potential customers should consider. Thankfully, Onix has broken away from the standard black-box design and offers the amp in a beautiful silver art-deco-meets-science-fiction design that would not look out of place in an old Flash Gordon serial. One visitor described it as looking like a hot-rod engine.

The compact (12"W by 8"H by 13.25"D) SP3 weighs nearly 50 pounds. On its front it has only a large, central volume knob and a blue LED. On the right side are a switch for choosing between inputs and vents to cool the innards; on the left are a matching power switch and more vents. On the middle of the rear panel is a power-cord receptacle, and on each side of that are three speaker terminals and two RCA inputs. There are three speaker terminals on each side because there are separate taps for 4- and 8-ohm speakers. The RCA inputs are separated so that each component’s right input is on the right side of the amp, its left input on the left. I would have preferred that the left and right inputs were kept together for each component, but I understand the logic behind this design. It bothered me only because it made using 0.5m interconnects a little tricky; most people probably have 1m pairs, a common length.

The SP3’s complement of ten tubes are all on the top of the amp. In the front center is a tube cage that connects to the chassis with banana plugs. This fantastic design allows easy access to the tubes, either to change them or to admire them. If you enjoy the glow of tubes, you can easily remove the cage, then replace it to keep kids and pets away from the tubes, as needed. Inside the cage are four 5881 tubes; on each side of it, three spring-loaded covers protect one 12AX7, one 6922, and one 12AU7 tube. Like the cage, these covers are easy to remove and replace. In contrast, all of the tubes of my Rogue Audio Tempest integrated amp are under a cover that must be screwed down, which makes changing tubes a bit more difficult. This doesn’t have to be done often enough to make it a big deal, but the SP3 does make it much easier to admire the warm glow of tubes at night.

The Onix XCD-88 CD player has a dark-gray finish. The faceplate has the power button, the disc tray, a clear display that can be read from across the room, and five buttons: Open/Close, Play, Stop, Rewind, and Fast Forward. These buttons have a nice touch to them, but most people will probably use the supplied remote. The remote control is an attractive silver color with lots of small buttons logically laid out; though there are only two different sizes of buttons, you can use it blindfolded once you’ve glanced at the layout. On the rear the XCD-88 has one set of RCA outputs, two digital outputs (one coaxial, one TosLink), and a power-cord receptacle. Under the hood are a Burr-Brown 1732 24-bit/96kHz DAC, HDCD decoding, and a Philips CDM-12.1 transport controlled by a CD-7 Mk.II servo. The Philips transport helps the XCD-88 have one of the quietest disc trays and fastest reading times I’ve seen. A pair of interconnects and batteries for the remote control are included.

The Onix Reference 1 LE is a two-way, rear-vented speaker measuring 11"H by 8"W by 14.5"D. The drivers are a 1" Vifa XT Concentric Ring Radiator tweeter and a 5.25" Atohm woofer. On the rear are two high-quality speaker terminals, but no way to biwire or biamp. The Reference 1 LE comes in a handsome rosewood finish better than most I’ve seen, with black grilles. The speaker’s size and weight (about 20 pounds) means you’ll want some decent stands to put them on.

To evaluate the system, I connected the XCD-88 to the SP3 using a pair of Analysis Plus Silver Oval cables. Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cables connected the SP3 to the Reference 1 LEs.


I began my critical listening with David Johansen and The Harry Smiths’ Shaker [Chesky JD236]. The Onix system provided great separation of the instruments, each taking a unique place in the soundstage. During "Deep Blue Sea" I was impressed with the dynamics and thought that details were articulated well. The system’s ability to extract detail was also evident on Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel [Nonesuch 79669-2]. A tick-tick sound near the beginning of "I Am Going to Break Your Heart" came through loud and clear; through other systems, this detail is missing altogether. During both the Johansen and Wilco discs I thought the bass was tight -- it didn’t have deep, physical oomph, but it was plenty satisfying. The Onix system’s bass can be augmented by the addition of a subwoofer, but because the SP3 lacks a subwoofer output, you’ll need to run speaker cables from amp to subwoofer and on to the speakers. Whether that would be worth the effort, I don’t know, but bass-heads should take note.

When I put the Nashville Chamber Orchestra’s recording of works by Aaron Copland [Naxos 8.559069] in the XCD-88, the player’s blue HDCD light came on, indicating that the disc is so encoded. Some people really appreciate HDCD processing, but I have discs that sound great without it and discs that sound mediocre with it, so I don’t put much stock in it. It’s nice to have it, but I wouldn’t buy a player or CD simply because it has HDCD. During Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches I was impressed with the delicate percussion that I could hear clearly among the more prominent instruments, though the horns sounded more subdued and the frequency extremes less extended than I’ve heard with other players.

I then listened to Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.1 in E Minor, Op.38, from the two-disc budget release Brahms, Chopin, and Franck: Cello Sonatas [EMI 5 86233 2]. In general, the high frequencies seemed softer than the crisp, clear sounds at lower frequencies. As I listened, it seemed as if the very beginning and end of each piano note was missing a smidgen. These concerns shouldn’t be overstated: I listened with pleasure to these discs through the Onix system, which continued to do well at separating instruments from one another and illustrating lots of detail in a musical presentation.

I got the best sound from the Onixes while playing the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam [Marsalis Music 11661-3310-9]. Once I began playing this disc, I just couldn’t stop. It didn’t have the three-dimensional realism I hear when I play it on my reference system of Rotel RCD-1070 CD player ($700), Rogue Audio Tempest integrated amp ($2195), Quad 21L speakers ($1300), and Analysis Plus Silver Oval cables, but that’s understandable -- the entire Onix system costs just slightly more than the Quads alone. That this system can even be compared to my reference is downright astounding.

My reference system also has a much less forward presentation than the Onixes, whose soundstage appeared well in front of the speakers. The Reference 1 LEs did "disappear" nicely -- I was unable to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. But in absolute terms, my reference system created a much larger three-dimensional space both in front of and behind the speakers.

I didn’t have any other single-manufacturer system on hand to compare the Onixes with, but set against the Dared Mini SL-2000A preamplifier and Mini VP-300B monoblock amplifiers ($1379 for the set) I reviewed recently, the Onix system came out way ahead in terms of build and sound quality, and therefore value. The Dared electronics may suit some users better, but the quality, price, and sound of the Onix system are hard to beat. In any of the system configurations I used, the Onixes provided better dynamics and a crisper, more detailed presentation than the Dareds. In fact, of all the equipment I’ve reviewed or had experience with, I couldn’t put together a more satisfying system at the Onix’s price. That says a lot.


Often when I’m reviewing something, I’m eager to return to my reference system. But the Onix components entirely replaced that system for a couple of weeks while providing me with constant enjoyment. I tried to come up with a reason to keep the Onixes around, but couldn’t justify it -- my wife was adamant that Galileo, our five-year-old son, doesn’t need such a system in his room, and I grudgingly agreed. The Onix combo is best suited to someone who wants a great tube-based music system that he or she can just "set and forget." If you don’t like to tweak and tinker, then you can get this system and some decent cables and sit down to enjoy music for years to come. It performs very well and, purchased as a package, delivers fantastic performance at a price that defies reason. The bottom line is that the Onix system’s sound is musical, detailed, and robust. If I knew someone looking for a bargain-priced music system, I would do what I could to make sure they heard the Onix before buying anything else. It’s that good.

...Eric D. Hetherington

Price of equipment reviewed

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