Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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To Hans Wetzel,

I am looking for a new integrated amplifier. My Exposure RC-XXV (purchased in 2000; RC = remote control) is an upgraded version of the XX, [but it] has problems and parts are no longer available. These are the amps I’m considering: NAD Masters Series M32 DAC-integrated amplifier (read your review), Hegel Music Systems H160 (read your review), Leema Acoustics Tucana II, Luxman L-505uX, and the Pathos Classic One Mk.III or Classic Remix.

I’m in a large powered wheelchair, which makes it difficult to access most high-end shops in Toronto. I was hoping for some advice, guidance, or anything to aid in my purchase. I have listened to the Hegel H360 for an hour last month, and the Pathos 15 years ago. I owned a NAD integrated amp for 11 years and it won an award back in the early ’80s.

I read the reviews on the Leema over and over for the last several years. It’s pricey, but I like British equipment. Have you ever auditioned this amp? The Hegel H360 seemed to have slightly slower pace (my foot was not tapping) than my Exposure, but could be wrong (as I can’t use mine). It was nice -- soundstage and overall sound. But how does the H160 compare? The major hitch is the lack of analog inputs. As for the others, again any help would be fantastic. My other equipment includes an Audio Aero Prima DAC, Nakamichi MB-10 CD player, Music Hall MMF 2.1 turntable with a Benz-Micro MC20E2-L cartridge, Epos ES22 loudspeakers, and DH Labs Q-10 speaker cables with Revelation interconnects. I listen mainly to classic rock, progressive rock, and blues.

Edward Holloway (SoundStage! reader since 2001)

Of the amps on your list, I’ve only heard the ones I’ve reviewed, though I have reviewed another of Luxman’s integrated amplifiers, the L-550AX (more below). No, I’ve never heard any of Leema’s amplifiers. With regards to Hegel, the H160 uses an older circuit design than the H360, but should still sound fairly similar in terms of its overall character, so if you didn’t fancy the H360, I doubt you’ll care for its older, less-powerful sibling.

It’s a little hard to tell what type of sound you like, but I think the fact that you owned an NAD integrated amp for so long means you appreciate a neutral, uncolored sonic profile. The NAD M32 might be the type of amp you’re looking for. It’s incredibly linear and clean sounding. It is also very revealing -- it has a wide-open, super-transparent sound that allows you to hear clear through to the back of a recording. What it does not have is much in the way of midrange body or bloom. There’s little warmth on offer, but I suspect that your turntable will help to richen up the proceedings. If you wanted an amp that’s a little more musically engaging in a traditional sense -- think vacuum tubes and class-A topology -- I’d steer you towards the Luxman. While the Luxman L-550AX I reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi was a class-A design, and the L-505uX that you mention uses a class-AB architecture, I would bet that the Luxman house sound is ever-present. Considering the L-550AX not only won a Reviewers' Choice award, but also a Product of the Year award back in 2015, I’m betting the L-505uX is seriously good as well. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I just want to know what you think about pairing Monitor Audio’s Silver 8 [speakers] and Hegel Music Systems’ H160 [integrated amplifier]? Would it sound too bright when playing rock and metal? The speakers I use today are way too bright with the H160.

Thanks and have a nice day,
Daniel Johansson

Having previously owned Monitor’s Silver 10, which is larger but I believe uses an identical tweeter to the Silver 8, I feel confident in saying that I don’t believe the Monitor/Hegel combination will sound bright through the treble. Unlike the company’s less-expensive Bronze line, whose tweeter is a touch edgier and sharper in its delivery, the Silver tweeter is both highly resolving and quite smooth. I partnered my Silver 10s with the larger Hegel H360 DAC-integrated amp and never felt that the pairing’s high-frequency performance was too strident or harsh. Our own Philip Beaudette, who reviewed the smaller Silver 6 a couple years back, described the tweeter as sounding “crisp,” but took pains to explain more by also stating, “using a word like crisp to describe a speaker’s sound might seem to imply that that sound was bright. The S6 was not bright.” In sum, I think a pair of Silver 8s will partner fine with your Hegel H160. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Currently I’m running an eight-year-old Lyngdorf TDAI 2200 [integrated amplifier] and am looking for something better. As I’ve only digital sources (Aurender X100, satellite radio), Devialet’s Expert 130 Pro and NAD’s Masters Series M32 are on my preference list. What do you think?

Many thanks for your support,
Manfred Benz

I think that both are excellent products in their own way, and while neither offers room correction like your Lyngdorf amp, I bet that you’ll find each offers immediate sonic improvements over your current setup. Of the Devialet and NAD, I think the Devialet is the amplifier through which you’ll hear more of your digital music. Its stereo imaging and analog-like smoothness are beguiling. If you’re fond of a more traditional “digital” sound -- super clean, super transparent, and highly articulated -- I think the NAD will be more to your liking. In either case, the Devialet and NAD are topflight amplifiers that will serve you well into the future. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I saw you had the Sonus Faber Venere S [loudspeaker in for review] when you reviewed Magico’s S1 Mk.II. How did they compare? I actually have heard the Sonus Faber Olympica III, which I was considering and looking for alternative contenders. I am looking for imaging and soundstaging like Verity Audio’s speakers. (Yes, I know price difference, but . . . ) Which do you consider better at disappearing, the Magico or Sonus Faber? My system is a California Audio Labs CD player, Conrad-Johnson Premier 14 valve preamp, and Perreaux solid-state power amp with 250Wpc, which is a New Zealand-built class-A design. Room size is 30 square meters, mostly [listen to] jazz and female vocal, but also love electronic music like Photek, Groove Armada, etc. Current speaker is the Vandersteen Model 3A Signature; it doesn’t disappear and not so much separation between instruments and voices. Appreciate your help and advice for alternative speakers to consider -- Magico is top of the budget price. Thanks very much.

Best regards,
Nigel Murphy

This is pretty straightforward. Of the two loudspeakers that you mention, the S1 Mk.II will definitely give you more delineated imaging and broader soundstaging. A pair should have no problem “disappearing” in your room. They won’t offer a ton of bass, however, and I wouldn’t recommend cranking them super loud -- a pair of Venere Ses would be the better option in those respects. You might also consider Focal’s Sopra No2 and KEF’s Reference 1 or Reference 3, each of which is a three-way design that will offer more bass when you’re blasting electronic music. While a very good speaker in its own right, the Venere S isn’t quite up to the level of the Magico you inquire about, or the Focal or KEFs that I mention. However, it’s also priced much lower.

While you didn’t specifically ask about this, I’d highly suggest taking a listen to a modern CD player and A-B it with your CAL CD player. CAL definitely made great equipment back in the day. In fact, both of my brothers owned CAL CD players way back when. But digital-to-analog conversion has advanced in leaps and bounds since the early 1990s, and I think you’d be pleasantly surprised how much more detail you’ll hear from your CD collection with a newer player. You might even find that your Vandersteens will have a new lease on life! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

The NAD M32 is very intriguing to me with its combination of features and cutting-edge technology in a single, attractive, well-integrated component. I want to assemble a modern system and minimize the number of separate components with lots of interconnects. I also listen to a lot of vinyl.

Did you let the M32 break in before you did your extensive listening tests? If it wasn’t broken in for very long, could that have been the cause of the relative reduction of “lifelike” midrange compared to your Hegel H360, which has had plenty of time to break in? I am currently using Revel Performa3 F206es, which are very revealing.

Ira Dankberg
United States

It’s possible that break-in time may have been a contributing factor, Ira. I can’t definitively rule that out. However, I don’t pay much mind to electronics manufacturers’ suggestions about arbitrary 50-, 100-, or 500-hour break-in periods. Loudspeakers have moving parts, and breaking in fresh diaphragms and their stiff, unused surrounds over 10-20 hours of listening makes perfect sense. I don’t necessarily share a similar view on solid-state amplification. So long as the amp is up to operating temperature -- which may admittedly take 15-30 minutes -- there’s no reason it shouldn’t be ready for serious evaluation. Rest assured, though, my NAD M32 review sample had well over 100 hours of listening mileage on it before I sat down to write up my review.

I think the M32 would be a terrific partner for your Revels, which I know to be excellent loudspeakers. For the money, I’m not sure you could buy a more resolving and transparent system. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Al Griffin,

I recently went shopping for a replacement for my Peachtree Audio Nova 125SE integrated amp. I’m still searching and will not have a chance to demo in-person. I’m driving a pair of Tannoy Revolution XT 8F speakers. Do you have any recommendations? I noticed your review of the Hegel Röst [on SoundStage! Simplifi]. Do you think that would be an upgrade over the Peachtree? Are there other products I should consider that would provide a significant sound quality upgrade?

Gerald G.
United States

SoundStage! hasn’t reviewed the Nova 125SE on any site, and I haven’t listened to it personally, so I can’t comment on the performance of Peachtree Audio’s integrated amp. But the fact you’re replacing it clearly means you’re on the lookout for something different and/or better. The specs for your speakers (nominal 8-ohm impedance, 91dB sensitivity) indicate that they’d be compatible with a wide range of integrated amps. My experience with the Röst has been that it makes any speaker sound great. The Röst costs $3000, however -- a big price jump over your Peachtree. If you’re looking for a basic, good-sounding integrated amp that doesn’t provide network/streaming features, I’d suggest the $899 Rotel A12 I recently reviewed on this site. It only puts out 60Wpc, but that should be enough to drive your Tannoy towers. If you do require network/streaming capability and are willing to pony up $3000, then also consider the Röst, since it really does sound great. . . . Al Griffin

To Hans Wetzel,

I was wondering if you had a moment to help me make a decision. The used prices of a Devialet 200 and Hegel [Music Systems] H360 are somewhat converging, making them an option for somebody like me. Doug Schneider wrote that you had both a Devialet 200 and the H360, making you uniquely qualified to share your insights. I was wondering what your feeling is about these two after having lived with them for a while. I love the detail and precision of the H360, though it is a bit drier than I would like in a perfect world. I listened to the Devialet 200 a year ago, and, while I loved the detail, I remember it being a bit like a disembodied musical experience, maybe more cerebral than visceral. What’s your verdict?

Sonja J.
United States

That’s a tough call, Sonja. Objectively, the Devialet is the better amp. Its utter lack of distortion and super-low noise floor make it a state-of-the-art one-box solution. The Hegel’s more traditional architecture means that it falls a bit short of the Devialet in each of those respects. That said, I find the character of their sounds to be fairly similar, so I can appreciate your finding the Hegel a little “dry” and the Devialet more “cerebral.”

For me, I’ve kept the H360 and will likely continue to do so until Hegel replaces it. The Hegel’s flexibility makes it a useful tool for a reviewer, and more importantly, I think that the Hegel sound hits all the right spots for me. However, if I were to retire my laptop and give up the reviewing game forever, I would probably go with the Devialet -- the sound, the remote, the network control using Devialet’s AIR, all makes plenty of sense to me.

Since the above probably isn’t of all that much help to you, I’d highly suggest you read my review of the Devialet Expert 130 Pro, which will be published on SoundStage! Hi-FI soon. It might prove illuminating. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Roger Kanno,

I just read your review of the Parasound A 31 amplifier and it sounds as if it’s quite the amplifier.

I purchased a used Anthem Statement A5 on eBay recently only to have what appeared to be a mint unit to arrive; I was very suspect of some strong odor coming from the inside upon unpackaging it. I removed the top cover to find a burnt circuit board and as such returned it.

This episode prompted me to look at other potential offerings (new not used) and I was narrowing my search to the ATI Signature AT4005 at $4000 and the Parasound A 51 on a suggestion by my audio dealer, who I really trust. He said the smooth, warm sound of the A 51 is quite nicer than the Anthem A5 and he said that from what he knows of the ATI amps, they tend to be bright and somewhat sterile sounding. My room is a very large room with wood floors, stone wall on one side, and lots of glass on the other wall. He said I need warmth, not bright.

The speakers are new SVS Ultra Towers, which can be biamped. My dealer said that if I were to get the five-channel Parasound vs. the three-channel model, I could biamp the speakers, sending 250W to each section. He said that would make a huge difference vs. just sending 250W to jumpered speaker terminals.

My question to you is: Since you have used the A 31 and, of course, your Anthem monoblocks, do you feel it is worth spending another $1000 to buy the five-channel version to do the biamping? Will it round out the system better vs. just running a three-channel system?

My plan is to use this for two-channel stereo with dual subwoofers and have a center speaker for when I wish to watch a film. I am 80/20 music to HT. I really want a very full two-channel music system. The preamp is going to be the new Anthem AVM 60 with the latest ARC-2, which I tested and it’s amazing!

One of the subs will be a new SVS SB16-Ultra (not the ported one), which has a 1500W class-D amp built in. Any thoughts on your part would be welcomed.

Thank you,
Bruce Marton
United States

I am assuming that when you say biamping, you mean that one amplifier will drive the upper frequencies of a speaker, another the lower frequencies. Some refer to this as “vertical biamping.”

This is an interesting question since a speaker that is biamplified can sound better than if it is singly amplified (one amplifier to drive the highs through the lows), but the level of improvement will depend on both the speaker and the amplifier(s) used. In the case of the SVS Ultra Tower, I have not heard it, but understand it is a very high-value floorstander, so I suspect that the Parasound Halo A 31 should have little trouble in driving a pair. Of course, more power is never a bad thing, but the question then becomes: Should you biamp, get a better two-channel amplifier, or possibly even just get better speakers? It’s hard to know without actually trying the various options.

That said, the SB16-Ultra is a beast of a subwoofer (I just received one for review, but have not set it up yet). Furthermore, it sounds like you have more than one sub, which will give you plenty of bass. Combined with the AVM 60 and its excellent ARC-2 room correction, the Ultra Towers (and the amplifier) will be doing less work since the low bass will be reproduced by the sub(s), meaining even less of a need to biamp. In short, the system should sound excellent the way it is with just one amplifier channel per speaker. However, an A 51 doesn’t cost all that much more than an A 31, so you could get one and try biamping and if it doesn’t make much of a difference, use the extra channels of amplification for additional surrounds or height channels later on. Either way, you have some excellent components, so I think your system will sound fantastic whichever way you go. . . . Roger Kanno

To Roger Kanno,

Thanks for the review of the Anthem AVM 60.

I have an Anthem MRX 700 [receiver] from 2011, which was a departure from my music-system journey. I now own a Hegel P20 [preamplifier] and Hegel H20 [power amplifier], with an Auralic Vega DAC that I use for music, and on its way is a pair of PMC twenty.26 speakers that will arrive sooner or later. I’m very excited about that.

I still use the Anthem MRX 700 connected to the HT bypass on the P20 preamp for TV and movies, and, to my surprise, when I set my Mac Mini with Audirvana Plus or Roon to HDMI where the Anthem is connected, the performance of the Anthem MRX 700 with the Hegel H20 is quite good. It has a more forgiving nature that sometimes I find to be more enjoyable than with the Auralic Vega with both Audirvana Plus and Roon when I am using the whole audiophile chain (Vega, P20, and H20); perhaps there is with a little more noise in the Anthem. But when I see that this comparison between the Vega, P20, and H20 is not a night-and-day difference versus the Anthem and H20, I wonder if maybe having just the AVM 60 could do a better and simpler job than the Vega/P20 combo and may actually let me sell the Vega, the Hegel P20, and the Anthem MRX 700, and just get the AVM 60 with my H20 in my audio chain.

Or maybe I am not hearing what the H20, P20, and Vega can really do because my speakers are modest Paradigm Monitor 7s from 2005.

Best regards,

I have not had any of the Anthem MRX receivers in my system, but understand what you mean when you say that a “more forgiving nature” can sometimes sound more enjoyable. One thing I have found with Hegel components is that they do have a bit of a characteristic of sounding very clean and a little forward. They are certainly not harsh sounding, but things like vocals get pushed to the front of the soundstage, making them very present and giving a lively sound that I find very engaging. However, their clear and transparent sound does nothing to hide imperfections on less-than-pristine recordings, which is probably why the more forgiving sound of the MRX might sometimes sound better.

You do mention that you have some older and relatively inexpensive (when compared to your electronics) Paradigm Monitor 7 speakers and are expecting some PMC twenty.26 speakers, so I would definitely hold off on making any decisions until you hear your system with the new speakers. Also, I find that Anthem’s room correction system, ARC, not only makes multichannel movie soundtracks sound better, but also stereo recordings on most speaker systems with subwoofers, so that might also be some of what you are hearing with the MRX in your system. Once you get the PMCs, I am sure that you will be able to make a more fulsome assessment of whether you prefer the sound of your system with the MRX (and then possibly consider the AVM 60) or if you prefer the Hegel preamp and Auralic DAC. Based on my experience with Hegel’s components, I think that you will find that your system sounds better once you get more highly resolving speakers like the PMCs.

I look forward to hearing back from you on your impressions you once you get your new speakers. . . . Roger Kanno

To Hans Wetzel,

These [Monitor Audio Bronze 6] speakers I’ve considered buying, but I cannot audition them in my area. Their price recently came down into the mid-$800 range. There are many good options in this upper mid-fi range. There are only a few customer reviews of the Bronze 6 at Amazon and I have no place to audition them in the Tacoma, WA, area. Traveling to Seattle is too much for me (I’m disabled and housebound and do not drive).

Your review provided helpful info, but left me frustrated. First, you test $1000 speakers on amps that cost 2.5 to 4.5 times the speakers’ cost! That is not realistic. If I had an integrated amp that cost $2500, it would be paired with speakers costing at least $2000. Second, you provided no comparisons to speakers at similar price levels ($800 to $1200). Comparing floorstanders to small, expensive bookshelf speakers is at best comparing apples to oranges.

Best regards,
Lance Fredrickson
United States

Most of your points are well taken. I agree that reviewing the Monitor’s Bronze 6 with my Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amp-DAC wasn’t ideal given the sizable price difference, and that comparing a big floorstander to a more expensive two-way bookshelf design isn’t the choice most buyers will be faced with. Totally fair. I do disagree with the common audiophile perception that a system should be “balanced” in terms of cost. Why is that? Cost isn’t necessarily correlated with performance. Moreover, you could make the argument that using a more expensive, higher-performance piece of electronics is actually more beneficial and revealing than using a less accomplished, but similarly priced amp. The more revealing the amp, the better it will highlight a speaker’s strengths and weaknesses, and in my humble opinion that’s the ultimate point of a review.

I’d also point out some harsh realities about being a modern audio reviewer. I write roughly one review a month, and have to be flexible about what products I get in for evaluation so that we can adequately cover the products and price points we target. With only so many review slots and only so many writers on staff -- almost all of whom have day jobs, I might add -- sometimes a product lands with a writer whose system perhaps isn’t a perfect fit on paper. That’s arguably the case with Monitor’s Bronze 6.

The fact remains, however, that I’ve probably had greater loudspeaker exposure over the last couple of years than the majority of professional reviewers out there (and at many different price points, from well less than $1000 per pair up to $30,000 per pair), and so I felt comfortable in being able to fairly evaluate the Bronze 6’s talents. I’m guessing that most buyers would not be cross-shopping the floorstanding Monitor with KEF's LS50 bookshelf loudspeaker, but a pair is what I own, it’s highly regarded among the hi-fi press, and is an incredibly popular model in terms of sales, so a reader such as yourself could potentially listen to both models in the same dealer and hear what I’m hearing. Sure, it would have been better if I had another similarly priced, similarly specced floorstander in-house to compare to the Bronze 6, but if I took that approach with each and every review I wrote, I’d either be very poor from having bought and sold so many products to serve solely as points of comparison, or I’d be imposing on a variety of manufacturers to loan me equipment that I’d be directly comparing to their respective competitors, which I’m not sure they'd be thrilled about.

In an ideal world, we’d have reviewers who specialize in a couple types of products; however, it turns out that reliable, high-quality writers with a passion for hi-fi are terrifically hard to come by. If you see a workable and affordable solution to our dilemma, I’m all ears. I hope that you were able to gain some insight into Monitor’s fantastic loudspeaker from my review. If not, I appreciate the time you took to read my work and to write in about it. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Interesting article [“The Unhappy Audiophile: What I Want But Can’t Bring Myself to Buy”]. I can relate. I was wondering what it is that I’ve been chasing, trying to find the “best” equipment I can afford. I thought what I wanted was the best sound quality, but now I’m not so sure.

Because if it were sound quality, then I should be happy today. Yesterday I received a Parasound Halo Integrated. I only ordered it because for some reason it’s in Stereophile’s recommended equipment list. I thought it would likely be a return, I didn’t even want to open the box, because at that low price, you know . . .

I also have a Hegel H360 sitting in the other room, and an $8000 Audio Research VSi75 with KT150 tubes. I have decent speakers: Aerial Acoustics 6Ts. I bought a Chord 2Qute to make sure I had a baseline for a good DAC to compare. I auditioned a Devialet Expert 200 at home. I bought and sold a McIntosh MA5200, then a McIntosh MA7900. Rotel. Marantz. NAD. Sonos. Bose. Not in that order. The last one I bought was the H360.

I don’t know how to describe the strange combination of disappointment, excitement, uncertainty and annoyance as I come to the unpleasant conclusion that of all those fine pieces, the Parasound sounds the best in my house. One of my audio litmus tests is when I use the amp to watch TV. That’s when the truth is revealed. Music can sound great in many ways. But are the voices tonally correct and intelligible? Can you hear the ambient sounds mixed into the background? That’s where the tube amp -- the most expensive, high-end, and musical piece of gear -- falls short. So, I’ve spent $8000 and I still need subtitles or a soundbar?

The Devialet sounded all brains and no octane. McIntosh sounded like a Harley-Davidson gathering. Hegel was clean and orderly, but strangely “off” with an unnatural, hard bass. Kind of like a Norwegian, not a natural-born dancer.

The slightly tacky and old-looking Parasound delivers the goods. Even its DAC is better than the Chord, which rolls off the treble. How disappointing this all is! In a few days I’ll probably change my mind.

Sonja J.
United States

If you've seen my review of Parasound's Halo Integrated, you know how highly I regard that product. Regarding your journey of discovery, I think your case perfectly illustrates the need for every audiophile to listen to gear before buying, whenever possible. Obviously, that’s proving more and more difficult to do these days, but even the most well-reviewed electronics won’t appeal to everyone. There are many competently designed, high-performance amps available, so finding what speaks to you personally is really all that matters. I’m glad that you’ve had your eyes (and ears) opened to the fact that price and performance aren’t always correlated! . . . Hans Wetzel