Stello still "a top buy"?

April 30, 2009

To Doug Schneider,

I am in the process of buying a Stello DA220 Mk II, and having read your expert review, I wonder if you still recommend this as a top buy at this price level new or used.

Mike Tuan

I think that the DA220 is still an excellent DAC, but it's certainly not the only DAC to look at. In that price range, I would also consider the Benchmark Media products, which I've had some experience with and think highly of....Doug Schneider

Preserving LPs

April 29, 2009


I realize to the outside world that we audiophiles are nuts. But this is really nuts. I just read where people replace the standard record sleeves with some sort of “plastic” sleeve. I mean, come on now. Some of the records I will be playing have been in their sleeves for 15-20 years. Do I really need to budget for new sleeves at some point?

Michael Doukas

Consider me one of those who are "really nuts."

There are very good reasons to replace the inner sleeves of your LPs, especially if you own and use a good vacuum cleaning machine. Paper inner sleeves shed bits of themselves over time, and these are left on the record, or are even ground into the record's surface, causing noise. Replacing the sleeves with ones that have no paper means you will avoid that shed of material. Also, paper sleeves can be abrasive to your albums when you remove and insert them, and "plastic" (actually, polypropylene) sleeves are not.

Once you've cleaned a record and resleeved it in a poly sleeve, if you store it right (away from sources of dust), you probably won't have to clean it again. With a paper sleeve, you will see residue each time you remove the record from its sleeve, and you risk scratching its surface.

I also go one step further -- storing each album in a poly outer sleeve as well to protect the cover. These also accumulate dust that the cover otherwise would.

All of this amounts to several cents per LP -- often more than I pay for the LP and about what it costs to clean it with a vacuum machine. But each one of my clean LPs stays that way and only requires a light brushing -- or nothing at all -- before play.

You won't regret taking good care of your albums. You'll preserve their cleaned state, their sonics, and their value....Marc Mickelson

Audio Research or Lamm?

April 27, 2009


As always, I enjoy very much reading your reviews. They, and your answers to my question from time to time, have helped me build my current system, which I enjoy in a way that sometimes connects my two ears with the line of my smile. Just lately I've ordered the TW-Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable with a Graham Phantom 2 tonearm and added the new Hydra V-Ray Version II with an Anaconda CX Series power cord based mainly on your reviews and answers to some readers, and since I already own Wilson Audio MAXX 2s, an Audio Research Reference 3 preamp and a Reference CD7 CD player, I see your preferences are close to mine. For me, now is the time to consider the next step -- the amps -- and there is no recommendation I appreciate more than yours, and I mean it!

I'm considering the Audio Research Reference 110 or Reference 210s and from Lamm the M1.2 Reference or ML2.1, which all seem to have great synergy with the Wilson speakers. I would consider any of them for the long run since I'm not the usual restless audiophile.

I don't like a dark character, but bright sound is not the other option. I look for realism and musicality without the suffering from the modern audiophile illness of excessive resolution. I'm thrilled when I'm exposed to clear soundstaging and richness of the tonal colors when performed realistically, and I do want to get excited when the music calls for slamming bass and I get a notion of it.

The problem is that I can't audition any of the amps I mention, so as usual I tried gathering some information on the Internet and from reviews. Confusion is still my situation. Some owners say the ML2.1 is too weak for the MAXX 2, at least when considering bass control and slam. Some consider the M1.2 to be too anemic and even unmusical. And then, on the other hand, there are rave reviews for the both. In relation to the ARC Reference 210s, some say they have a "cold" character and maybe only the Reference 110 seems to get away with more high praise, but then only "limited" to the $10,000 range, implying you can do much better for higher price.

I saw that you enjoy the Reference 110 in your system and even sold the ML2.1s. You have recommended the Reference 110 over the 210 to me. Should I consider the Reference 110 or the M1.2? Only you can say.

So my confusion is again waiting for your solution. Which amp would be the best (dare I say "ultimate"?), with no "pits and holes" excuses, for the long run.

Mike Cohen

The four amps you've chosen for consideration are all very good, but I think one doesn't make sense for your system and the other three do to a similar degree. The Lamm ML2.1 is, under prime circumstances, my favorite amp of the bunch, but I don't recommend it for use with the Reference 3 preamp. I speculate that the two of them together don't possess enough gain to make the music come alive, so even with sensitive speakers like yours the sound is soft and lacking in dynamic agility. With a Lamm, CAT or VTL preamp, however, the ML2.1 is wonderful driving MAXX 2s.

That leaves us with the two Audio Research amps and the Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks. In terms of the Reference 110 and Reference 210s, the circuit is the same and so is the sound for most part at lower levels. Where the 210s will have an advantage is when you want to goose the volume some, or your music is especially dynamic and the extra power is needed. I'm also sure that the difference in power-supply energy storage between the amps translates to a more resolute and forceful sound for the 210s, especially into the bass. Of course, either amp works very well with the Reference 3, and adding the Reference CD7 only extends the sonic signature from the source to the speaker.

The Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks also work very well with the Reference 3 -- they are what I own. They have an abundance of gain, and their power output is actually greater than Lamm indicates: more than 150 watts. Their sound is not quite as smooth and big as that of the ARC Reference amps, but it's certainly as natural and neutral -- truly neutral, sounding rich and full like life itself. Their bass is more powerful and very well defined overall, and their treble is a touch more crisp, which leads to better leading-edge definition of many instruments. They are probably a hair lighter in overall character than the ARC amps, but certainly abundant in "musicality and realism."

Which should you choose? Without the possibility of an audition, either of the Audio Research amps is the safest bet, given your use of other ARC Reference products. However, the Lamm M1.2s are just as compelling. You honestly can't go wrong with any of these amps, so much do they overlap sonically, so well will they fit into your system and align with your professed tastes....Marc Mickelson

Belles 21A or...?

April 24, 2009


Are complete strangers allowed to ask reviewers questions? I don't know -- let me try. I read your great review of the Belles 21A with Auricap upgrade. Would you have any thoughts on a comparison of the Eastern Electric Minimax and the Belles preamp? Would recommend any good comparison products for either preamp? I'm sure you are busy, so I thank you in advance for your reply.

Steven Reitz

"Allowed to ask reviewers questions?" Absolutely! I answer e-mail from readers daily. With your letter, however, I don't have much to say. I obviously think very highly of the Belles 21A with the Auricap upgrade, which we named a Reviewers' Choice, but I haven't heard the Eastern Electric preamp you mention, so I can't give you any feedback there. Two other preamps I can suggest are the Audio Research SP17 or LS17 (depending on if you need a phono stage or not) and the Lamm LL2.1. All of them are tubed units, like the Belles and Eastern Electric preamps, and made by companies whose reputations for sonic purity are well established....Marc Mickelson

Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic woofer size, stands

April 22, 2009

To Doug Schneider,

Thanks for the Harbeth review. As a happy Monitor 30 user, I enjoyed reading it. I just wanted to mention that I'm pretty sure the RADIAL driver is 8" and not 6 1/2" as quoted in the review.

Also, on a personal note, I also found that using a much more solid speaker stand, in my case the excellent Skylan 24" four-pillar design, worked much better than the lightweight and rather unstable Foundation design, which I tried recently (both of which were 24" tall).

Philip Coombs

Good call on the driver size. I'm not sure why I put 6 1/2" without checking closely; however, I've since looked around an it's been described numerous times as being an 8-incher. Therefore, by the time you read this letter, the review will no longer say 6 1/2".

You're the second person to write me and mention the stands. Stands can make some difference with speakers, but in this case I wanted to evaluate the speakers with the Foundation stands, which are what the Harbeth distributor here recommended. Interesting comments on the Skylan stands, a brand I do know fairly well, having owned a Skylan equipment rack in the past....Doug Schneider

Amplifier for MAXX 3s?

April 20, 2009


I have read your review of the Lamm M1.2 Reference amps, and, as you say, it seems like Vladimir Lamm designs his products for use with Wilson Audio speakers. I spoke with him yesterday and he is using MAXX 2s. I have gone from WATT/Puppy 7s to MAXX 2s and now to MAXX 3s, which are great speakers. All the while I have been using the same amps: Mark Levinson No.336 for the MAXXes and a No.334 for the WATCH center-channel speaker. I am a diehard multichannel fan.

I have no reservations that I will like the M1.2s. My question to you is, will the Lamm amps be a big step up over the Mark Levinson amps or am I looking at more of a sideways move -- that the Lamms will just sound different? If your answer is no, the Lamm amps will not be a big step up, then would you recommend either a hybrid or solid-state amp that would move the MAXX 3s to the next level?

John Weitner

Based on many years of experience using Lamm amps with Wilson Audio speakers (a great combination), I would say that the difference between the M1.2 Reference hybrid amps and your Mark Levinson amps will be profound in many ways. You will certainly realize more natural timbres, along with a more relaxed and multi-dimensional spatial presentation. The M1.2 Reference amps offer realistically weighty bass, though it may not be as tight as with your Mark Levinson amps, which, based on my experience with other Mark Levinson models, will sound tonally dryer as well. I think the M1.2 Reference amps would represent a major step up, but if you're wanting or needing the bigger power output of the Mark Levinson amps (the M1.2s are certainly not deficient here; our measurements show that their output is in excess of 150W at 8 ohms, which will make for very loud listening with your MAXX 3 speakers), perhaps another solid-state amp, like a pair of the big Luxman B-1000f monoblocks, would be a better choice -- at almost three times the cost of the Lamm amps, however. In most ways, the M1.2 Reference amps represent a deft combination of solid-state power and drive along with the naturalness of tubes. If that's what you're hoping for with a change of amplifier, you will likely find none better than the M1.2 Reference....Marc Mickelson

Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic

April 17, 2009

To Doug Schneider,

You did describe the Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic correctly. This speaker seems to have a certain optimized nearfield listening position. I noted that you put the speakers on Foundation stands, and these have a very small surface area. At maximum volume, the Monitor 30 would shake violently, and this could contribute to the poor bass. Using Blu Tack to affix the speakers to the stands may help a little, though you may lose some bass definition. If you do not use Blu Tack, the speakers could fall off the stands when you play the music loud.

Johnson Lee

You are correct that I used stands from Foundation, a company owned by Planet of Sound Distribution, which handles Harbeth in Canada. This was the company's recommendation for the speakers. I did not use any Blu Tack or a similar substance; however, I never found that the speakers would shake, nor was there ever any fear of them falling of the stands. There was a resonant quality, but it was never extreme. I'm glad you found the description of the sound accurate, though....Doug Schneider

"Which speaker do you think is better for pure two-channel listening?"

April 15, 2009


I took your advice after our last chat and replaced my Anthem Statement P2 amp with an Audio Research VS115, and I am very happy with the result. My ARC LS26 preamp is the perfect match for the amp. I currently have Paradigm Signature S8 speakers, and I am not very happy with them. I am considering replacing them too. I am considering the Magnepan MG20.1, which I can demo. I see you gave a good review to the Thiel CS2.4. Which speaker do you think is better for pure two-channel listening? As always, love your reviews.

Ananth Desikacharlu

Congratulations on your new amp. If you end up with Magnepan MG20.1s, you'll have even more congratulations coming your way. They are $13,000-per-pair speakers masquerading as $50,000 statement models. Even at their five-figure price, they are one of the bargains of high-end audio. Your VS115 will drive them well and should fill just about any room in which your system would be situated. The Thiel CS2.4s are very different from the MG20.1s, presenting the music with great detail and pinpoint soundstage specificity. The MG20.1s are no slouches when it comes to these things, but they present the music with a more realistic sense of scale and a unique kind of immediacy that brings the musicians into your listening space. Of course, the '20.1s are very large, and you'll need a room that can accommodate their size, but when all things are right, you will be hard-pressed to find a better speaker for many multiples of their price....Marc Mickelson

Solid-state amp for WATT/Puppy 6 speakers

April 13, 2009


I have read your reviews of the Lamm ML1.1 and ML2.1 together with Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers with great interest and pleasure. I am looking for some advice in the process of selecting an amplifier for my WATT/Puppy 6 speakers. As the Danish market for high-end hi-fi is very small, it is difficult to get at lot of firsthand experience with different products. Therefore, I would be very grateful if you could help me with a couple of recommendations. My own experience with my speakers is with the Lamm M1.1, and I am considering purchase of either a pair of ML1.1s or ML2.1s, but my wife and I have agreed to find a more child-friendly and living-room-friendly solution. Therefore we need a couple of recommendations for a solid-state solution that size wise is not too dominant in our living room. We primarily listen to jazz and folk music. I am looking in the range up to $25,000.

Henrik Holst

Given that you are interested in the Lamm sound but want solid-state amps instead of ones that use lots of tubes, one obvious choice is a pair of Lamm M1.2 monoblocks, which are hybrids that use only one tube per amplifier, and it is hidden away inside the chassis, so probing fingers can't reach it. These are fully class-A amps that will provide more than enough power (110 watts each) for your WATT/Puppy 6 speakers, and they certainly display the characteristic Lamm naturalness. A fully solid-state amp that I can enthusiastically recommend is the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350, which offers 350Wpc and sounds very sweet. I understand that this amp has been discontinued, but you may be able to find a dealer-demo or used unit. One final suggestion that's not based on firsthand experience is a pair of Ayre M-XR monoblocks. I have heard these amps only at shows, where they have impressed me greatly. They are rather small, so you could probably tuck them in an out-of-the-way spot....Marc Mickelson

Electronics for MG3.6es

April 10, 2009


I have read your SoundStage! reviews for years and enjoy your feedback on different equipment. I am considering some Magnepan MG3.6 speakers to go with one of your Reviewers' Choice amps: Monarchy Audio SE-Deluxe 100 monoblocks. I am using a basic DVD player for playing CDs, but I was curious if you thought the Magnepans required a high-performance DAC to make full use of their strengths. I have read that Maggies are often demo'ed using only basic audio gear like Pioneer receivers and DVD players and sound fantastic with only that level of associated gear. It seems to be a strange paradox that such high-performing speakers don't require high-performance upstream equipment. Is this the case? Any thoughts from your experience with these planar-magnetic speakers would be greatly appreciated.

Jason Smith

I've heard Magnepan speakers at the company's factory and at shows driven by rather inexpensive electronics from NAD and Parasound, by mid-level Bryston electronics, and with some of the best products that Audio Research makes. As I can attest from my time with MG3.6es, which I drove with Lamm mono amps that cost five times what the speakers did, even the very best electronics are not wasted on these speakers. Their speed and the refined treble from the company's ribbon tweeter will reveal whatever is in front of them. However, you don't have to spend a fortune to obtain very good sound; just pick products that do not sound lean or have ragged upper-midrange and treble regions. The Monarchy amps you're considering should mate very well with the '3.6es in sonic terms, and they will certainly have enough power for the speakers....Marc Mickelson

CAT and Lamm preamps

April 9, 2009


What a wonderful review of the CAT SL1 Legend preamplifier. I will have place that preamp on my short wish list. I see where you have an upcoming review of the Lamm LL1 Signature preamplifier. Will this be a replacement of the L2 or an additional Lamm preamplifier that will complement the ML3 Signature amps? Do you have an idea where it will be priced?

Alan Farris

The Lamm LL1 Signature is a new product -- Vladimir Lamm's best preamp yet and a match to the ML3 mono amps. It comprises four separate chassis: a control unit and power supply per channel. It costs $42,690....Marc Mickelson

New preamp or CD player?

April 7, 2009


My current system consists of a Mark Levinson No.390S CD player, an Audio Research Reference 3 preamp and Lamm M1.2 Reference mono amplifiers, with a CAT JL2 Signature Mk 2 amp as alternate, driving Peak Consult Speakers. The system is wired with Stereovox Reference cabling, which is also the internal wiring of the speakers.

While I enjoy the sound a lot, I always felt that the system was somewhat dark, with all the components sharing a similar sonic signature of slightly rolled-off highs. The soundstaging and timbres have been always top notch and to my liking. In my quest for a perfect sound, I was looking for either a replacement for the preamp or the CD player. I recently tried a Dartzeel 18 preamp with excellent results. My system opened up in the highs significantly without losing the timbre and soundstaging characteristics. Another component I am looking at is the CAT SL1 Legend preamp that you recently reviewed. For a CD player, my short list is the Audio Research Reference CD8, the Mark Levinson No.512, the Ayre C-5xeMP and the Nagra CDP.

I wanted to hear your views (since you have intimate experience with most of  components I use) on whether the preamp change or the CD change would be more crucial in achieving my goals. Also, your experience of synergy with the CAT SL1 Legend and Lamm M1.2 amps (and the CAT JL2 Signature Mk 2) would be greatly appreciated.

Thimios Bouloutas

"Somewhat dark" is what I've always thought about Peak Consult speakers. The always sound full-bodied and powerful but subdued in the high frequencies. You might want to audition some different speakers to see if they give you what you're after.

In terms of a preamp and CD player, the CAT Legend is a great choice, especially if you are also playing LPs or think you might begin. In terms of a CD player for use with it, among the ones you mention, the Nagra CDP would be my first choice. First, its sound would complement the CAT preamp's and be consistent with what you're seeking. Second, it's not fully balanced, like the others you mention, which would sound best used that way. The CAT SL1 Legend is single-ended only, and you'd be paying for extra circuitry you wouldn't take advantage of by using those other players with the CAT. The Legend will work well with both of your amps; however, you will have to adjust its gain downward when you use it with the Lamm M1.2s because of their very high voltage gain. If you don't do this, you'll undoubtedly hear background hiss through your speakers....Marc Mickelson

"Perhaps you need to set the record straight."

April 6, 2009

To Doug Schneider,

I read your article on TWBAS 2009, where you claim that this is the "first" TWBAS, whereas, in reality, Jeff did the very same TWBAS several years ago using Wilson X-2 speakers. I am somewhat surprised by the fact that you infer this to be the "first" of many, whereas, in fact, it was the second. Perhaps you need to set the record straight.

Stephen A. Williams

Ever heard the saying: "the same but different"? It applies here. In 2004, Jeff hosted a similar kind of get-together that brought together a number of companies and created a similar kind of "super system." That's the "same" part. Where it's "different" is that while this was structured as a get-together like that, the intention is for it to lay the groundwork for an ongoing event. Therefore, things were much different this year in how it was covered (multiple articles as well as video, which is forthcoming), and the kind of planning that went into it that not only applies in 2009 but also beyond.

So, while the 2004 version was the first get-together, mostly to kick off Jeff's original "The World's Best Audio System" column, this one was the first planned event that we'll see more of in the years to come....Doug Schneider

CS2.4SE placement

April 3, 2009


I read your review of the Thiel CS2.4s. I just bought a pair of the '2.4SEs. I'll power them with the new Krell S300i integrated amp and use a Linn Unidisk 1.1 as the source. When you positioned the '2.4s for your review, I understand that the distance from the speakers is important. As long as you achieve that distance (say, 8-10 feet), how much does the distance from the speakers to the wall behind them matter? I have heard they need to be at least three feet from the wall, and that is not possible in my listening room. Please share your thoughts.

Michael Dubrow

The CS2.4SEs are not rear ported -- or ported at all -- and that means the distance to the wall behind the speakers is less critical than it would be if there was output coming from a port located on the back of each cabinet. The distance you sit from a pair of Thiel speakers is more important to the ultimate sonic outcome than the distance to the wall behind. The drivers' output needs some distance to integrate at your listening position. I used the CS2.4s in two very different rooms, having to put them near a wall in one, and the distance to the listening seat was clearly the more critical. You have to work with what you have, and I suspect that you will achieve very good sound with your speakers in your room....Marc Mickelson

Energy speaker distortion

April 2, 2009

To S. Andrea Sundaram,

About the measurements for your Energy RC-10 review, I can see that the speaker has quite high THD between about 400Hz and 1kHz. But the RC-70 measurements demonstrate that it doesn't have such a distortion at all, even though it uses the same driver for those frequencies.

So I wanted to ask you if you think that the RC-10 midrange distortion is caused by very low frequencies (maybe that small bookshelf speaker can't handle the low frequencies perfectly), as the RC-70 has different (and bigger) drivers for the low frequencies.

Do you think that adding a subwoofer to the RC-10 (with the crossover set at 80Hz) would lower the distortion at very low and midrange frequencies?

Andrea Spero

There are a number of difference in the measured performance of these two speaker designs, even though, as you point out, the midrange driver is the same. In the 400Hz to 1kHz frequency range, you'll see a little unevenness with the RC-10 that is not present with the RC-70. The impedance plots show the same. Such differences may be cabinet resonances. They may also result from the crossover in the RC-70 being at 600Hz -- though crossovers more often create wrinkles than eliminate them. Our frequency and impedance measurements are done with a swept tone, so other frequencies have no affect on what you see in a particular range.

Examining your specific question about THD, if you read "How We Test Loudspeakers," you will find that THD is calculated in discrete frequency steps. I am investigating more specifics about that test, but it suggests that lower frequencies should not be affecting the measurements of higher ones. Putting a subwoofer crossover in front of the RC-10s will, therefore, not likely change their distortion characteristics. I must stress that these measurements are taken at 90dB, which is very loud indeed. At normal listening levels, distortion will be far less....S. Andrea Sundaram