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Under-$600 Phono Preamp Suggestions

To Doug Schneider,

I am rediscovering my LP collection. I am using the phono preamp section of an old Yamaha RX-1130 receiver connected to an all-Bryston electronics system.

I am looking to improve the sound with a dedicated phono preamp. Would you have suggestions for a budget of $600?

I am using an early-’80s turntable with an Audio-Technica moving-magnet cartridge.

Thanks in advance,
René Fortier
Canada

You actually have many options, but if I were in your shoes, the first phono stage I’d look at is the Simaudio Moon 110LP v2, which costs only $399. Thom Moon reviewed the 110LP v2 for SoundStage! Access last November, where he not only raved about it, he ended up buying one for his system. Furthermore, it had a Reviewers’ Choice award bestowed on it at the time the review was published, and was also chosen as one of our 2018 Products of the Year. Please read the review to learn how versatile the 110LP v2 is -- it has support for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, as well as numerous switches for adjustment -- and how good Thom found it to sound.

I also encourage you to check out our new SoundStage! Expert videos about phono stages that are on YouTube (there are six on this topic, all less than two minutes long). These were filmed at Simaudio’s factory. They should give you more insight as to what Simaudio knows about the product category. . . . Doug Schneider

Simaudio and Sonus Faber?

To Doug Schneider,

I don’t know if you remember the test of the Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamp some years ago. Here in Norway, there is some problem with hi-fi shops -- I can’t seem to hear this preamp and the loudspeakers I want together. My preferred loudspeakers are Sonus Faber Olympica IIIs, and I would love to hear from someone who has tried this preamp, and maybe hear if you believe that Simaudio and Sonus Faber will be a good match.

My preferred sound is open and airy treble with a good middle tone and a firm bass. And I love Pink Floyd music together with the Eagles and even Pet Shop Boys, and even Metallica and Motörhead.

So, if you could spare me some minutes answering this e-mail, I would be grateful.

Best regards,
Haakon B.
Norway

I am happy to. I not only remember the review, I still have that same 740P in my system, so I know it well. I don’t know if you’re aware that I also reviewed the Sonus Faber Olympica III speakers a few years ago.

The thing about the 740P is that it’s shockingly transparent -- it does not add to or subtract from the sound. It will simply pass through the music signal it's fed. As a result, if you’re looking for your preamplifier to add some sort of sonic signature -- a richness in the midrange, perhaps -- the 740P just won’t do it. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure you don’t want that. The Olympica III has a distinctive sound and the 740P will let you hear that, but without adding any colorations of its own. . . . Doug Schneider

EMM Labs XDS1 Update?

To Doug Schneider,

Loved your review of the EMM Labs DA2 Reference DAC. You demonstrate such a high degree of process methodology. It sounds like EMM was “testing” you by sending you the DA2 without explaining the changes.

I purchased the EMM XDS1 in 2011 after hearing it at RMAF with several other top SACD players. I had the unit upgraded to the V2 version in 2015. It’s been the centerpiece of my audio system ever since.

I do listen to digital downloads stored on a PC server connected to the XDS1, but I still prefer SACDs, partially because I prefer physical media I can collect, but I also believe I hear a sound improvement over FLAC files.

You appear to have a good working relationship with EMM -- I wonder if you know if these DA2 software changes are applicable to the XDS1 V2?

I’d very much appreciate any information you can provide.

Regards,
Len
United States

I’m not surprised you love the XDS1. Ed Meitner, EMM Labs’ founder and chief designer, has been at the forefront of digital playback technology for decades. He was also instrumental in helping Sony get the SACD project off the ground by building their first single-bit converters. I rarely talk to Ed Meitner, but I do talk to people who work at his company whenever I have a question about one of their products. When your e-mail came in, I fired another e-mail to them and they responded that, unfortunately, the firmware changes for the DA2 aren’t applicable to the XDS1. However, looking at their website, they do have a V3 update for the XDS1, so you might want to consider that. . . . Doug Schneider

Like the U-Turn?

To Doug Schneider

I take it you like [the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus] turntable? I am interested myself, but am not a vinyl junkie.

Regards,
Tim
United States

For someone who’s on a budget and wants to play vinyl, they’d be hard-pressed to do better than a U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus for its $289 asking price. It comes complete with the turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and interconnect cables; its build quality is good for what you pay; it’s a snap to set up; it looks really good (I have the blue one, but almost wish I’d gotten red, since it looks so sharp in pictures); and it sounds pretty darn good for the price. What’s more, they sell it with a 30-day money-back guarantee. It’s hard to beat all that. In fact, it offers so much that I wound up buying the one they sent me and will keep it as a reference component for my “System One” column. . . . Doug Schneider

Siltech 330L Speaker Cables Still Recommended?

To Doug Schneider,

I just read your review of the Siltech 330-series cables and as I’m looking to upgrade my speaker cables and may have a deal on a pair of 330Ls, I thought you might be the ideal person to ask! I’m listening to my 40-year-old Dahlquist DQ-10s, rebuilt by Regnar about ten years ago, driven by my Bryston 4B3 amp and Ayre KX-5 Twenty preamp. I’m currently using Nordost Red Dawn 2 cables, while the Heimdall 2s have been a recommended upgrade, and so I’m wondering how the Siltech 330Ls might compare?

Any and all advice appreciated!

Thank you,
John Boros
Canada

I’ve never compared the Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L speaker cables to any Nordost cables, but even if I did, I’m not sure it would help you that much -- for an upgrade like this, you’re really going to have to try them both to know if they’ll work well in your system and if you’ll like them for the long term. The best that I can do is to say this: I began using the 330L speaker cables in my reference system about eight years ago and haven’t ever considered replacing them with anything else. It’s important to also note that in that time there have been dozens of amplifier and loudspeaker swaps, yet the 330Ls have remained constant. That’s not to say someone else might not like some other wires more -- I can’t, by any stretch, say they’re the best speaker cable out there -- it’s just that I haven’t found anything I would rather have in my system. I hope that helps. . . . Doug Schneider

PSB Alpha P3: The Question of a Subwoofer

To Doug Schneider,

Thanks for penning such a nice, compact review of a pair of small and predictably competent $200 speakers from PSB. Before reading, there was no question in my mind that this review would be about pleasant overperformers that rolled off around 60Hz, with all that’s entailed in that. The question you hinted at that’s dying to be answered is whether it’s better to pair these little standmounts with a commensurate sub (~$399?), or just buy a bigger pair of standmounts for $500-$600? In other words, does extending the bass of the Alpha P3 down to the 30s make a three-box solution a clear winner over a two-box solution for similar money? For your series of reviews of cheap-’n’-cheerful kit -- bravo, by the way -- having an inexpensive sub on hand would allow readers to make an even more informed purchase decision.

An interesting layer to these reviews would be to test your little system both on a bookshelf and nearfield on a desk, the latter of which is gaining in popularity for people who work at home or otherwise listen at their computers.

Best,
Brad P.
United States

I’m glad you brought that up, because a subwoofer is on the way for future “System One” installments. Whether I can pair that with the P3s is yet to be seen -- they might not be here still. But it should help to answer whether or not a three-box speaker system can outperform a two-box one in some instances. . . . Doug Schneider

NAD D 3045 or C 338?

To Doug Schneider,

Both the NAD D 3045 and the NAD C 338 are very similar and are only $50 difference in price. The D 3045 is 10Wpc more powerful and has two-way Bluetooth with aptX. The C 338 has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Chromecast Built-in. What do you think is the future of amplifiers with Chromecast Built-in now that Google has discontinued Chromecast Audio? I’ve been thinking of getting the C 338, but now I’m more inclined to purchase the D 3045.

Thanks,
Ron
United States

As far as I know, Google isn’t abandoning their Chromecast technology -- they only abandoned the Chromecast Audio streaming device, which originally sold for $35, but they blew out for $15-$20 a few weeks ago and have now officially discontinued. It’s unfortunate. With the addition of the optional TosLink cable, the Chromecast Audio dongle was a godsend for streaming bit-perfect digital audio at resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz to any component with a TosLink input. It was also an inexpensive way to set up multiroom audio in a home. In fact, it’s in use in my system that forms the “System One” column on this site. Shortly after the announcement, I went shopping to buy additional Chromecast Audio streamers, but they seem to be sold out everywhere. Google now only sells the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra devices, which, with their HDMI connectors, are meant mainly for video streaming.

Looking at the D 3045’s and C 338’s spec sheets, the inclusion of Chromecast Built-in on the C 338 is the only upside to that component. Admittedly, that’s a nice upside, too. As far as everything else goes, the D 3045 has it all over the C 338 -- it delivers more power and has more features. Unless having Chromecast technology built right into the C 338 is mandatory for what you’re setting up, the D 3045 is definitely what I’d recommend purchasing. Perhaps you’ll also get lucky and find some store that has those little Chromecast Audio streamers still in stock -- if so, buy a few, and also let me know where you found them so I can buy more. . . . Doug Schneider

An A/V Receiver or a Preamplifier and Power Amplifier for KEF Blade Twos?

To Doug Schneider,

I have a question about what equipment [I need] to power a pair of KEF Blade Twos.

Would I really be able to hear a difference if I powered the Blade Twos using a class-D3 receiver (e.g., Pioneer SC-LX901), compared to if I used a preamp and amplifier (components)? In other words, spending about $2000 on a receiver versus spending $20,000 on a preamp and amp setup?

You can assume the music being played is modern rock/pop/R&B (e.g., Top 40), so I assume we’re dealing with stuff that’s been digitally compressed (low dynamic range). In other words, source material that isn’t musically demanding to playback on a speaker system. You can also assume it won’t be played at very high volumes (e.g., >100dB).

Given the above listening conditions, would using a high-end receiver be more than enough to power the Blade Twos?

Mike
United States

I hate to brand an entire product category as poor performing, but to the get to the nuts and bolts of my answer quickly, that’s what I feel I have to do. So here goes -- while all-in-one receivers, such as the one you mentioned, are impressive in terms of how many features they have and the number of channels of amplification they pack into a single box, all the ones I’ve heard come up short on sound quality, as well as power output. I think that it simply comes from jamming too much stuff into that box -- everything gets compromised.

For instance, let’s take a look the SC-LX901 you mentioned: On Pioneer’s website, they claim that its power output into a 6-ohm load is 200W, but they’re also honest enough to say that’s with only one channel being driven and the test is not even across the audioband -- it’s for a 1kHz test signal. You can be sure that if they used 20Hz to 20kHz as their bandwidth and drove two channels, the power output would be considerably lower. What’s more, they say that its distortion level is 0.9% for that 1kHz test, which is high for a modern solid-state amplifier. I wouldn’t assume that the music you play will mask any of those deficiencies -- rock, pop, and R&B can be pretty demanding, particularly in the bass. Those musical genres also tend to sound best played fairly loud. Given that the Blade Two has a nominal impedance of about 4 ohms, I suspect that this receiver will not only have trouble driving a pair of Blade Twos to any decent volume level, its distortion will be rather high as well, so you won’t be getting the clean sound that you can get from better-quality amplification.

Have I talked you out of that receiver for the Blade Twos yet? I hope so. But before I finish, I don’t want to leave you thinking that you have to spend $20,000, as you mentioned, or that you even need separate components. If you do want separates, though, you might be surprised that companies such as Bryston, McIntosh Laboratory, and Parasound all have outstanding amplifier/preamplifier combos that would work that are priced under $10,000. You can spend more if you want to, but you really don’t need to. Alternatively, there are some super-high-performing integrated amplifiers to consider as well. For example, you could go with the Hegel H590 integrated amplifier-DAC, which Hans Wetzel reviewed for this site in October 2018 -- it is priced at $11,000 and more than surpasses it’s power rating of 301Wpc (8 ohms), with very low distortion. KEF used the H590 to power a pair of Blades at the 2018 High End show, in Munich, and the sound was great, even in a very big room. If it can power the Blades that well, it can power the Blade Twos. McIntosh has the 300Wpc (8 ohms) MA9000 integrated-amplifier DAC, which retails for $10,000. Jeff Fritz reviewed the MA9000 on SoundStage! Ultra one year ago and loved it. Those integrateds are at the high end of the price spectrum, so you could also get something suitable priced quite a bit lower -- even as low as the Pioneer receiver you are considering -- though they are not likely to have that kind of power output that the H590 and MA9000 have. All told, what I want to really stress is that if you’re going to the expense of getting KEF Blade Twos, get all you can from them with a proper amplification setup. . . . Doug Schneider

GoldenEar Triton Reference or KEF Reference 3?

To Doug Schneider,

A couple of years back I bought the KEF Reference 1s blindly based upon your review, and I sure have been pleased with the speakers, but I am eager to try a full-range speaker. I am considering the Reference 3 or the GoldenEar Technology Triton Reference. What I am wanting is a clean, fully transparent sound, with a fantastic soundstage. My room is only 200 square feet, and the speakers will be powered with an Anthem STR Integrated Amplifier. Do you have a recommendation?

Thanks,
Jared
United States

That’s an outstanding integrated amplifier you have that will work well with either speaker, particularly since it has Anthem Room Correction (ARC) built in, which helps mate any speakers to any room. The thing is, I can’t tell you which speaker to buy exactly, but I can give you some guidance since I have reviewed both.

I am sure that if you love your Reference 1s, you’ll love a pair of Reference 3s just as much. Within a series, but even from series to series, KEF’s speakers sound similar. What you normally get as you go up in price from one model to the next is deeper bass, as well as slightly higher sensitivity and output capability. With your small room, the increased sensitivity and output capability won’t matter much, but the deeper bass that the Reference 3s deliver will definitely flesh out the bottom end. Insofar as soundstaging goes, I suspect the Reference 3s will perform similarly to the Reference 1s, but with the deeper bass they can give, you might find that gives you a sense of larger soundstage spaces and a more enveloping overall sound.

GoldenEar Technology’s Triton Reference is an outstanding loudspeaker that, at about $9000/pair, is something of a bargain as far as full-range speakers go. Right now, I’m actually reviewing the new Triton One.R, which, at about $6000/pair, might be an even greater bargain, so you could also consider that model, particularly since your room isn’t that big.

With its three woofers driven by a high-powered, internal amplifier and augmented by four passive radiators, the Triton Reference will go much deeper in the bass than the Reference 3 can -- or probably even what the larger Reference 5 can. You’ll be getting true full-range sound. Thankfully, with ARC and the Reference’s own control to adjust its bass output, you shouldn’t overload your room if all that bass energy proves to be too much -- you can turn it all down. All GoldenEar speakers are known for producing wide, deep soundstages, so that shouldn’t disappoint should you go with a pair of References. The Reference is very neutral sounding and with fairly low distortion, so that should help provide the clean and transparent sound you desire. But a pair of Triton References won’t sound exactly like KEF Reference 1s or 3s, so it’s impossible for me to say if you will like the move to GoldenEar as much. Only you can decide that -- unlike with your Reference 1s, I suggest you listen before you decide. . . . Doug Schneider

Can You Direct Connect a USB Drive to the NAD D 3045?

To Doug Schneider,

I have over 2TB of high-res FLAC and MQA files on a USB drive that won’t fit on my PC anymore.

I prefer a minimal stereo system (no separate DAC, amp, preamp, network player, NAS, PC, etc.) and wondered if the versatile NAD D 3045 with speakers is the solution I am looking for. Can the NAD D 3045’s USB input read my portable drive’s music files, with a mobile app as a remote?

I prefer not to power up so many components (esp. a PC) just to hear a song.

Thanks and regards

David,
Canada

I hear you on wanting to keep components to a minimum. Unfortunately, the USB Type-A port on the NAD D 3045’s backside won’t allow you to hook a portable hard drive to it and play music. Instead, that connector is labeled Service and is used to apply firmware updates to the D 3045. As a result, you’re going to need some sort of computer-type device (e.g., a desktop or laptop computer, or a standalone music server) that the drive can attach to and can decode the files and deliver them to the D 3045, probably via the USB Type-B connector that’s there for that purpose, or through one of the other digital connectors. The D 3045 can do a lot, but not everything.

If you are willing to look at a computer, don’t think you need something big and cumbersome. Hans Wetzel, who runs our SoundStage! Access site, took the plunge and bought an Intel NUC computer as a music server -- he wrote about it last September. NUCs are small, fast, and relatively inexpensive (really inexpensive if you buy one used, like he did, though if I were buying, I would get something new). In my opinion, that’s a really good way to go if space and speed are your concerns. . . . Doug Schneider

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