Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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To Hans Wetzel,

I enjoyed your review of the KEF R900. I hope you are still enjoying them. I heard them at the recent New York Audio Show and really enjoyed them. In fact I enjoyed them so much, that my pair will be arriving Monday.

I was hoping you might share some thoughts on driving them. Currently I have an Arcam A32 and a P35 to passive biamp them. The more I read, the less I think of passive biamping. As funds become available I am considering my upgrade options. I'm thinking of getting an integrated with less than 200Wpc. Considering Hegel -- read your review -- or maybe Plinius. Appreciate any thoughts.

Mike Breunig

Arcam makes some great, neutral-sounding stuff. I actually have the A19 integrated amplifier in for review right now. Given the age of your components, however, I can understand the desire to upgrade. While I can definitely recommend Hegel's products, as I own the H300 integrated and have spent some time with their P20 preamplifier, I am not familiar with Plinius's products. But the Hegel H100 would be a solid start.

Arcam's A38 might be a good replacement, given your Arcam experience, and I have found that Rogue Audio's Sphinx integrated amplifier (GoodSound! review to come) works well with my KEFs. This is just a smattering of suggestions, and all are good products. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Thanks for your review of the KEF R900s. I have them too, and like them very much. They are the biggest and best I could find, and I like to listen to them. My daughter had a sweet-16 party last week and we enjoyed them at maximum volume!

Dick de Jong
The Netherlands

I am not surprised that you're so enjoying the KEF R900s. Despite having had more expensive speakers here over the past few months, I don't feel that I'm taking a big step back when the R900s get hooked up again. And I don't doubt that they sounded clean at maximum volume. I would bet they'd fill all but the very largest room with clean, undistorted sound. Enjoy! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

After reading many reviews, including yours, of the Hegel Music Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC, and seeing that you've chosen it for your reference, I purchased one. I have KEF LS50 monitors, which are very much like the KEF R900s you now have as well, in character if not kind. My only source currently is an Apple iMac into the USB DAC on the Hegel, so it is a simple and elegant system.

This is my first experience with higher-end audio and since your system (or parts of it) is so like my own I wonder if I could ask your advice? I have two questions really. The first is to ask your experience with speaker cables. I purchased a pair of Kimber 4PRs to run things in for a few weeks to get a feeling for what the system really needed. I love the high-end detail they bring out, but the low end is overly lean and they can be quite harsh with poor recordings, of which there are many more than I realized. I am presently assessing the Acoustic Zen Satoris, which bring out the lovely liquid midrange in the H300 that the Kimbers only hint at and a substantial body they lack entirely. Perhaps overly so? Still, they make acoustic instruments like piano and those in orchestras very real and present in a way that's hard to fault, and the Kimbers never made me want to get up and shake my ass the way the Satoris do. Unfortunately all this comes at the cost of the midrange and upper detail the Kimbers offer. With the Kimbers I can clearly hear lyrics I had trouble understanding before and with the Satoris, though the voices have weight and presence, I can't hear what the hell they are saying too often for my liking. Also, perhaps rather oddly, although the Kimbers have more "air" (i.e., separation and clarity), the Satoris give a more realistic sense of the physical recording space. With the Kimbers, I can hear more overtones in an acoustic guitar and when playing Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," there are second voices above and behind her and it sounds like she's whispering the song into my ear with intimacy and immediacy. On the other side, with the Satoris the plane at the opening of "Back in the U.S.S.R." sounds like an actual jet. Also, much to my shock, listening to the rest of The Beatles, aka "The White Album," for the first time ever the Beatles sound like real flesh-and-blood people rather than the slightly angelic voices I've always heard before.
I guess you could say the Satoris bring the body and soul where the Kimbers have a spiritual, if slightly disembodied, quality.

I'm looking for the holy trinity I suppose. Have you any suggestions? I've been reading good things about the Magnan Signatures (5"-wide copper-ribbon cables), but I gather the founder has retired and the company has closed down. There's a set of Inakustik LS1602 demos listed on Canuck Audio Mart that are highly touted. It seems crazy to put $5000 cables on a $1500 speaker, but they are great speakers and the cables are listed at 70% off. There is also a set of Stealth Hybrid MLT demos listed on CAM as well for $1400. If these or anything else perhaps closer to earth come to mind, please let me know. (I've heard the DH Labs Q-10 Signature is inexpensive and very good, but have been cautioned against mixing silver cables and metal drivers. The Stealths have some silver as well.)

My second question is about the Hegel's power requirements. With its proprietary feed-forward Sound Engine circuitry, is it as sensitive to A/C noise as other systems? I am in an apartment building with notoriously dirty power, have dimmers on many of my lights, and we're coming into air-conditioner season. And yet, when I crank up the volume full and stick my ear to the speaker without a signal all I hear is silence. Do you recommend specialty power cords or line filter/conditioners with this setup?

Thanks for your time,
Brett Lisk

Brett, that's a delicious little system you have there. I find the Hegel/KEF tandem to be a deeply resolving one, and it sounds like you're enjoying the twosome as well. While I think that cables definitely do make a difference as far as sound quality goes, I don't zealously affiliate myself with one brand or another. I do not have experience with either of the cables that you mention or the respective companies that make them. I can identify with your experience, however. My first pair of reviews for GoodSound! were of Nordost Blue Heaven LS cables, and a loom from Britain's Dynamique Audio. I found the Nordosts to sound more expansive, and a bit more extended at the top end, while the Dynamiques impressed with their outright resolution and bass. I admired the qualities of both. In hindsight, I would say that the Nordosts are a bit "tipped up" at the top end, and perhaps a hair lean through the bass. This seems to be the company's signature sound, of sorts. The Dynamiques, on the other hand, weren't bass heavy, as I originally thought, but simply produced the bass that the Nordosts did not. I suspect you might be running into something similar. If you're not satisfied with either of the cables you're currently using, I wouldn't think you'd find the tonal solution you're looking for by going up the respective product lines.

Your suggestion of DH Labs' Q-10 is probably a good one, as I, too, have heard very good things about that modestly priced cable. You get silver-plated OFC conductors for around $500/pr., which is pretty good value. I can personally attest to the quality of Dynamique Audio's Caparo hybrid speaker cable, which uses 4N (99.99%) silver conductors and 7N (99.99999%) silver-plated copper conductors. They're handmade in England, have a 30-day refund policy if you're not satisfied, and they sound terrific.

Beyond this, however, I can't speak of other brands. What I can tell you is that the notion of silver cables and metal drivers being problematic is utter nonsense. Oh, and no need to go overboard on cables -- $1500 should buy you a great pair of speaker cables and a USB cable that you should never feel the need to replace. Your audio money is better spent on other equipment -- or better yet, your bank account.

As to the Hegel's power requirements, I, too, live in an apartment building, though I'm lucky enough to not have any power issues. If you're hearing nothing but silence out of your KEFs when the Hegel's volume is dialed up, I think you've answered your own question. If truth be told, I am skeptical of the purported benefits from power cords and conditioners. Many believers are fervent in their defense of "clean power" and how significant a change it can have on sound. I bought the Nordost power cords that I currently use along with the rest of my original review set, but only out of a belief that it somehow made sense to keep everything made by the same brand. I probably wouldn't do so again, and won't advocate it until I read of a double-blind study that demonstrates a difference, or hear a product that, to my ears, sounds better than a stock cable into a wall outlet. At least with double-blind tests of speaker cables, listeners can hear differences, even if there's not agreement on which is better. But that's hi-fi audio, then, isn't it? Go listen for yourself, and if you hear improvement then I say, why not? Truth is in the ear of the beholder. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Nice review on the KEF R900. Do you have any experience with PSB's Synchrony One? Any idea how it would compare? I also noticed the Hegel Music Systems H300 in your system. Have you heard the Hegel separates?


I do not have any experience with PSB's flagship Synchrony One, but I know that it was one of the best speakers that the SoundStage! Network has ever measured in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council (NRC). We have also measured the KEF R900's little brother, the R500. There is not much of a difference between the two sets of graphs, and that is very much a good thing. The Synchrony One looks to offer a bit of a difficult load for an amplifier to handle, so having a heavy-duty amplifier on hand isn't a terrible idea. Its pickiness is offset by being terrifically linear in its frequency response. The R500 has an averaged frequency response (via the "Listening Window" graph) that is a bit more contoured -- notice the more pronounced depression in the 700Hz to 4kHz range -- that should manifest itself in the form of the speaker sounding slightly relaxed. I heard this quality in the R900, and I suspect it will measure largely the same, but with greater bass extension, a more benign impedance range (making it a suitable partner for many more amplifiers), and less distortion in the bass (via the "Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise" graph). In all, I think the PSB looks quite a bit more attractive than the KEF, and may approach the R900's performance from the midbass on up, but will not have quite the low-end extension that the British speaker does. This is just a supposition, though -- go and listen for yourself, if possible. I know both are very well designed.

With regards to Hegel, I have only heard the $2900 P20 preamplifier, as my brother Erich just finished up his review of it for our sister site, SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Hegel really, really knows how to make a preamp. I heard the P20 in his system for no more than about 15 seconds before realizing that I was hearing a great deal more micro and macro detail than his older, but still very capable Audio Research preamp. Given how resolving the amplifier section of my H300 is, I wouldn't be surprised if their power amplifiers are just as impressive. If I were you, though, I wouldn't make the assumption that the separates are necessarily better than the H300. The Hegel folks told me that the power and pre sections of the integrated are eerily close in performance to their flagship H30 and P30, respectively. With the convenience of a highly capable built-in DAC, I'd suggest starting with the H300, then see if you can justify the (significant) additional outlay that will be required to outperform it. It's really quite good. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

A simple question: What would be the best Benchmark Media Systems DAC for my system, which consists of an Adcom power amp and a Sony ES CD player? I am not interested in computer audio or home theater whatsoever. All I want is the best possible sound between my CD player and my power amp.

Edward J. Roell

While I think Benchmark's DAC2 HGC is a really terrific DAC, as I wrote in my February review, at $1995, I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for your system and needs. If you are not interested in computer audio, I would go with Benchmark's base DAC1, which sells for $995. Despite its age, I think it is a solid-performing DAC that will offer an audible improvement over the digital-to-analog circuitry in your Sony ES CD player. The only caveat would be that, since you don't mention a preamplifier in your system, you would be forced to use the volume control dial on the DAC1 to change the volume of your system, as the base DAC1 does not come with a remote control. If this is an issue for you, then the decision becomes more difficult, for with the DAC1 HDR priced at $1595, which comes with a remote control, the DAC2 HGC would be just $400 more expensive. At that point, I would probably spring for the DAC2 HGC. I hope this helps. . . . Hans Wetzel 

To Hans Wetzel,

I see that you own the Hegel Music Systems H300, which has a built-in DAC. I'm trying to decide if I want an integrated amplifier with a DAC built into it or if I should buy an external DAC. Since you own the H300, I'd like to know your thoughts.

Thank you in advance,

Jerry, there used to be a time that integrated amplifiers were looked down upon by most audiophiles. I don't think there was ever a good argument for why this was, but I suspect it was a status thing -- someone who bought an integrated was too poor or ill-informed to buy conventionally excellent separates. These days, I think that stigma has largely vanished, and with good reason. It's because integrated amps usually sound just as good as the separates on which they're based, while costing less money.

In the Hegel's case, $5500 for just the amp and preamp in the H300 strikes me as very reasonable. Having a built-in DAC tips the package into "flaming bargain" territory. Yet the DAC section of the H300 is hardly an afterthought. I was told by folks from Hegel that its quality exceeds that of Hegel's $2000 HD20, and comes close to matching the performance of Hegel's flagship $2500 HD25. Jeff Fritz recently reviewed that DAC on our sister site, Ultra Audio, and found it held its own against far more expensive gear. In my experience, the H300's DAC is very good, and combined with the amp and preamp section, make it an easy recommendation.

But you sound like you may be considering other integrated amps that may or may not have a built-in DAC. Here's what I'll say: Most companies have a certain type of sound that pervades their various product lines. If you like a certain sound, and can find an integrated-DAC that fits your desires, I say go for it. However, if you want to strike a balance between, say, the musicality of a Musical Fidelity product and the sheer resolving power of a Hegel DAC, then buying a separate DAC makes sense. For many this kind of "system tuning" is what hi-fi is all about. For me, I want the best balance between maximum utility and maximum sound quality. Hegel's H300 just so happened to fit the bill for me. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Thank you for the sane and thorough review of GoldenEar Technology's Triton Three. I was curious about the lack of ±3dB and you addressed it nicely. I wish more reviewers would shed more light than heat, as you did in your review.

Richard Pissillo

Richard, thanks for writing. I am glad that you appreciate our approach here at GoodSound! We think it's more helpful and illuminating for our readers than simply waxing poetic on a product. I can only hope that what our other contributors and I write correlate with what listeners are likely to hear in their own listening rooms, nothing more, nothing less. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I am buying new speakers and don't want to spend much more than $2000 unless I need to. They need to go on stands. I would like to know what your favorite speakers are from this list: GoldenEar Technology Aon 3, KEF LS50, KEF R300, Monitor Audio GX100, Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf. If there are others I should know about, let me know.


Troy, you’ve singled out some great speakers in this list. If you’re definitely limiting yourself to bookshelf speakers, the KEFs are standouts in this group. The LS50 has received wide acclaim, including from our own Doug Schneider, while the R300 is the smaller brother of my reference R900 loudspeakers (review to be published on GoodSound! in May). The R300 has the benefit of a dedicated bass driver to complement its Uni-Q driver, and this allows for not only deeper bass, but also less distortion through the midrange, as the R300’s Uni-Q is not saddled with the burden of producing full-range sound. Personally, I find the LS50 to be the cooler design, but I’d bet the R300 will play louder, cleaner, and ultimately better than the LS50 for just a little more money.

The GoldenEar Technology Aon 3 should produce a broad, smooth sound for under $1000/pair, as would Aperion Audio’s Verus Grand Bookshelf. The GoldenEar will have greater low-frequency extension than the Aperion, but in the case of both companies, floorstanding models can be had for less than $2000 that bring significantly more to the table.

I can’t be sure why you’re limited to using stand-mounted speakers, but you should seriously consider GoldenEar’s Triton Three and Aperion’s Verus Grand floorstanders, both of which retail for just under $2000/pair. Both of these options will produce more bass than any of the speakers you’ve listed, and probably by a wide margin. I have not taken a good listen to anything made by Monitor Audio, but the GX100 was reviewed on our sister site, SoundStage! Hi-Fi, last year, receiving a Reviewers’ Choice award. I have also seen the GX100 at recent audio shows, and I have to say they are very pretty, and seem well-built. Though their fit and finish might be better, I suspect the GX100s will come up just a little short of KEF’s R300 in sound quality, as the KEF is a three-way design using the crazy-good Uni-Q. You may find the Monitor’s ribbon tweeter to be pretty intoxicating, however.

The only other suggestion I would have is Sonus Faber’s Venere 2.0. At $1699/pair, the stylish Italian bookshelf speakers would arguably be the best looking of this group, with the Monitor Audio a close second. With their matching stands, the price would be right around $2000.

Which is my favorite? By default it would have to be KEF’s R300 since I own its bigger brother, but every speaker here makes a compelling argument for itself in some form or another. The question is which fits your wants and needs, and you can only answer that by taking a listen to them all. Let us know which direction you wind up going. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I am the proud owner of a Rogue Audio Sphinx, so I’ll be interested in your review of it in the near future. Due to “environmental” issues -- very bad AC and RFI -- I replaced the included cheap power cord with a Pangea Audio shielded cord with good results. I also went all out and bought a PS Audio P3 Power Plant to protect all my electronics. This “hobby” can get expensive!


Vic, glad to hear that you like the Sphinx -- which I mentioned in an editorial earlier this year -- so much. I think it’s a very interesting piece, and quite affordably priced. I’m hoping to write up the review in the next six weeks or so, with a likely June or July publication date here on GoodSound!.

As for your investment in a power cable and power conditioner, I’m not exactly shocked, but I’ll wait to say more until the review is published. And while this hobby can certainly get expensive, I think the Rogue, on its own, offers quite a bit of quality for its rather approachable asking price. I’ve never been a fan of tubes, as I explained last summer, but I do think the folks at Rogue are on to something with this hybrid vacuum-tube/class-D topology. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I’m e-mailing you to let you know that I find your articles and equipment reviews really enjoyable, and quite refreshingly honest, as well. Your complete lack of pretense, artifice, and common, unrehearsed honesty that comes across in your writing is unique and just a kick to read.

Your latest article prompted this e-mail; not sure why except that it struck a chord like many others. A lot of other reviewers take pains to always be reminding us that “. . . of course, it’s really all about the MUSIC,” and then continue to go on about some $20k speakers, or preamp, or whatever. And I’m thinking, “and just how many CDs (or downloads, or whatever) and concert tickets could I buy for 20k?”

At the moment, my system has evolved (and simplified) over about 30 years to a Bryston integrated amp, MartinLogan Vantage electrostatic speakers, two HSU subs, an Oppo BDP-105, and a Magnum Dynalab Etude FM tuner -- I’m lucky enough to have two good classical FM stations nearby. I also listen to ‘80s/’90s rock as well as deep-space electronic ambient, and organ music, as well -- my wife is a church organist. So, not a cheap-crap system by any means, but, relatively speaking, fairly modest. I make my own interconnects and speaker cables from decent wire and connectors, mostly because it’s easy and fun. At one point I had about a dozen boxes in my system -- separate everything. I simplified as I upgraded over the last seven years or so.

It is of course a truism that very, very few people appreciate spending even this kind of money on a stereo audio system. So your point is hardly new. It is just as much a truism that very few people appreciate any obsessive, niche hobby. It doesn’t make us particularly elite, or discerning, just a little weird. But I’m okay with that.

A friend of mine at work thinks I’m insane, and teases me about it. However, he’s taken up flying private planes as a hobby, owns his own plane, and has spent more in five years than I’ve spent on audio in my life. He is just crazy about it, so, money well spent. I don’t begrudge buyers of $250k+ audio systems -- they're fun, and I do like reading about really expensive equipment.

One closing observation: we read a lot of hand-wringing about two-channel enthusiast-audio dying, dealers closing, etc. So how to explain the mind-boggling variety of equipment available, at all price points? Compared to 30 years ago, when I started, the number of choices is just incredible. Not just that, but real improvements have been made in power amps and speakers, not to mention high-resolution digital audio. DSD is really appealing, except that the selection is so limited now. Handy that the Oppo has a flash update to support DSD.

So, thanks for all the good writing and interesting ideas, and I expect you’ll keep at it.

Best regards,
Doug Burkett

Thanks for the kind words, Doug. I plan on writing as long as readers are able to stomach my monthly efforts. I only hope to contribute to the discussion on this audio hobby of ours beyond the banal “be sure to audition this product” or, as you suggest, “it’s all about the music.” There’s a lot of worthy conversation to be had about equipment, formats, cost, and even forays into psychology/philosophy, as I’ll touch on in my May 1 editorial. I imagine that it will resonate with many readers, if not all, to one degree or another.

As for your “deep-space electronic ambient” music, color me curious. About one third of my music collection is comprised of electronic music, so it’s nice to hear that others dabble in the abstract and esoteric! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I just read your latest editorial. I was once the crazed, obsessed "audiophile" (I do have the addictive gene, I believe.) I would lust and spend above my means for the next, best flavor of the month.

Eventually, doing that lead to having very little money left to spend on new music. Listening became more like work, less like pleasure. Well, times and priorities have changed. The "audiophile" system is gone. It’s been replaced with a PC, some powered speakers, a headphone amplifier-DAC, and headphones. This is located in the family room, and the family uses it. Decisions on equipment purchases are not based solely on how something sounds. Sure, I want good sound, but will the wife, daughter, and son be able enjoy the system as well? The major considerations are ease of use, features, price, and sound, in no particular order. Now having said all that, I can still get a little crazy over this piece or that thingamabob because of something the audio press has written. When I feel that craziness coming back, I remember back a few years ago when I served the equipment. Those weren't really fun times. The pleasure truly comes when the music serves me!

Great read and keep up the good work,

Jay W.

Jay, glad to hear that I'm not alone. I was really looking forward to reviewing the Cabasses that are mentioned and pictured in the article (you’ll be able to find my review in Ultra Audio, our sister site, on the 15th of this month). But after seeing those (beautiful) 124-pound beasts leave my listening room, I never want to review something that big again. They're huge! If I had that dedicated listening room, perhaps, but not for a normal city apartment.

I'm finding that I derive the most pleasure from products that sound good and are thoughtfully designed. For that reason, Audioengine's little A5+ remains a favorite of mine, despite the fact that a pair only costs $399. My bamboo review samples looked great, had everything one needed right in the box, and sounded pretty good, to boot. They weren't the best in any individual respect, but as a package, it was so livable, as I wrote in my review. It's no surprise to me that you've replaced your traditional hi-fi setup for a computer-based setup with powered speakers. We have at least one powered desktop speaker review in the pipeline, and possibly another, so stay tuned. It's pretty crazy just how good some of these small desktop solutions can sound. . . . Hans Wetzel