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To Hans Wetzel,
Thank you for your well-thought-out and equally well-written reviews. I would like your take on some integrated amps.
First, I will give you a few details. I am using Bryston Middle T speakers and have an Apple MacBook Pro with Audirvana as a source running through a Chord Chordette Qute EX DAC. I listen to/enjoy all types of music, leaning mostly to rock, pop, jazz, blues, and some classical. I like to listen at loud levels; however, it’s mostly moderate and just above. Listening space is acoustically treated and approximately 14’x 20’.
I am enjoying the Hegel Music Systems H160 a lot. So if it wasn’t about cost, would you take the Hegel H160 or the H300? Also what do you think of the Naim Supernait 2 and the Moon by Simaudio Evolution 600i? Please keep in mind money is not THE most important factor. I imagine all of them are near the same price. I realize it is figurative, but I highly regard your experience and time spent evaluating these products. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Hans, and good day, sir!
That is a good position to be in, Brad! Of the two Hegel integrated amplifier-DACs you mention, I would take the H160. It is awfully close to the H300 in terms of transparency and resolving ability, for about $2000 less. You might also have interest in its native AirPlay functionality, which I found to be faultless. You should know, however, that Hegel is just now beginning to ship its replacement for the H300, the H360, which Doug Schneider recently wrote about on our sister-site SoundStage! Global, and which Philip Beaudette currently has in for review. It is a mere $200 more expensive than the outgoing H300, but is alleged to be a massive improvement over my old reference amp.
I can’t speak to the Naim integrated, but I do note that your Bryston speakers are 88dB efficient, and the Naim only puts out 80Wpc into 8 ohms. While that is certainly enough for moderately loud playback, with certain rock and classical pieces, you might find the Naim running out of steam during the most dynamic passages. I have only briefly heard the Moon Evolution 600i, but Philip Beaudette has gone on record -- albeit five years ago -- saying, “If audio reproduction gets any better than this, I haven’t heard it.” I spent time with the Canadian company’s less expensive Moon Neo 340i and found it to be excellent, so I have little doubt that the 600i is a top-flight integrated.
Overall, I’d say that Hegel’s new H360 and the Simaudio should be at the top of your list. Insofar as sub-$10,000 class-AB integrated amps go, they are likely the cream of the crop. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I’ve been following your audio journey lately since we share some of the same equipment. My current system is: NAD M51 DAC-preamp, PrimaLuna Prologue One [integrated amplifier], KEF LS50 [speakers], a Consonance CD player, Hegel Music Systems H80 [integrated amplifier-DAC], and PMC GB1i loudspeakers. My latest purchase was the Hegel, and I was so very impressed by it that I initially looked at buying the H160 until I read about the Benchmark AHB2. I would like to ask your opinion, purely on the basis of sound quality (no doubt the Hegel H160 has very attractive features), which would you pick between the two? If going with the Benchmark, I’m thinking of the following pairings: NAD M51 DAC-preamp, Benchmark AHB2, PMC GB1i (i.e., using no preamp). Thank you.
You’re probably expecting me to go with the Benchmark, here, and you’d be right. The AHB2 is a power amplifier only, so you need to use a preamplifier with it. When I did, I found it a cut above every integrated amplifier I’ve reviewed, a list that includes: Hegel’s H160 and H300, Linn's Majik DSM, Musical Fidelity's M6 500i, and Luxman's L-550AX. Devialet's 120, which is more appropriately classified as a power DAC, is the only thing I’ve heard that comes close to the Benchmark’s noise floor, resolving ability, transparency, and ease.
For the purposes of your question, that pretty well rules the H160 out of contention. I do think you’ll find great synergy between the Benchmark and your NAD M51 DAC-preamp, and I’m betting you'll hear pretty quickly why I rate the little amplifier so highly. If you do follow through with purchasing the Benchmark, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I just read your excellent review of the Benchmark Media Systems AHB2 amplifier, and l am impressed enough with your conclusions (and those killer specs you listed) to seriously consider buying this little “giant killer” of an amp. But I am also interested in the Parasound Halo Integrated amp as a purchase. However, I have seen no reviews of this new amp yet. Maybe you should take a shot at reviewing this amp; I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Keep up the good work. You’re one of the best young audio reviewers out there doing thoughtful, honest reviews on audio equipment affordably priced for working stiffs like me.
Many thanks for the kind words, Eric, though I still have quite a bit to improve on! The Benchmark, frankly, is ridiculous. The $3000 it costs is hardly chump change, but I maintain that it is a true giant killer. Provided your loudspeakers are not too demanding, I cannot imagine that anyone would dislike the sound it produces, unless they favor the bloom or warmth of a tubed or class-A amplifier. That leads me to the Parasound Halo Integrated. I’ve been eyeing that thing since it was announced, but have not had the opportunity to follow up with Parasound about a review sample -- I'll see what I can do for you about that.
While I have not heard the Halo Integrated, my brother Erich reviewed their Halo A 23 amplifier and Halo P 5 preamplifier last year and loved both of them. For $2495, I am betting that the Halo Integrated is just killer, what with its 160Wpc into 8 ohms, Sabre Reference DAC, DSD compatibility, and raft of rear-panel connectivity. As a one-box solution for under $2500, I struggle to come up with anything that can compete with it. That said, I am equally confident that the Benchmark amplifier blows it, and every other class-AB integrated I have heard over the past few years, away. Yes, it is $500 more, and you are only getting a power amplifier for your money, but you are also getting one of the best-sounding amps I have ever heard. It’s that good. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I enjoyed your thorough review of the Rogue Audio Sphinx. Wondering if you’ve spent any time with the Peachtree nova220SE? The latter recently fell into the price range of the Sphinx and getting them side by side is futile. I think I understand the technical differences, which keeps me leaning towards the Sphinx as I plan on using it primarily for record playing. I have a pair of decade-old Vienna Acoustics Mozarts (I understand their current model is far more advanced) and Pro-Ject's Debut Carbon [turntable]. Currently using an old Denon AVR-3802, which we can both agree is fueling my desperate search (I’m in audio resurrection mode). Any insight is appreciated. Cheers.
The Rogue definitely has a phono input, while the Peachtree requires an external phono preamp to be record-friendly. That alone might swing your decision. Certainly, you'll get a lot more power out of the Peachtree (220Wpc into 8 ohms for the Peachtree compared to 100Wpc out of the Rogue into the same load), and that current might be required for those Mozarts of yours, which, at a glance, do not look to be the most efficient speakers out there. But provided you're not going to pound your speakers to outrageous volume levels, I suspect that the Sphinx will have no trouble keeping up with you. Should you require an external DAC, there is a litany of them between $300-$500 that should more than suit your needs. The Rogue is certainly a bit utilitarian, but, as you can tell, I loved its sound. Accordingly, the Sphinx seems an easy answer here. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I so enjoyed your article “One Step Forward . . .” that I laughed so hard. It mirrors my life “to a T.” We even shared the Krell! I was lucky, however, to have been able to put anything wherever I wanted. I would have those Mythos [ST-L speakers] by the entry door facing the kitchen and you would have seen me sitting uncomfortably on a tiny stool while hoping no one would come in the front door and knock the speakers off. When I ended up in a so-called “relationship,” I had to adapt and I actually searched for speakers designed to be placed against walls. Did I end up with a system that sounded like I had envisioned my system would sound? No, but I did have a very good sound system that impressed most people. The speakers back then were Allisons. Try some current modern boundary speakers.
In any event, there is one more joke awaiting for you -- your ears. I now have a living room that is 22’ x 37’ with insane vaulted ceilings. A dream, but, although I kept my hearing clean to 17kHz all the way to age 48, now I have one ear that can go to 16kHz and one that is down to only 14k, so you guessed it, the cymbals are shifting to the left once again like 30 years ago. Damn it! Enjoy your listening!
So much to look forward to, Nick! Well, thanks for reading. I can only hope that one day I will have a dedicated listening room the way most of my SoundStage! colleagues have. Perchance to dream. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I read your review of [the] KEF R900. Excellent review, by the way. I own a stereo system (no movies or 5.1) with KEF R700s, Parasound A 21 and P 5, Marantz SA7003, Marantz 6350Q, and Wireworld Equinox cables.
I’m considering changing the R700s for KEF’s Reference 201/2 bookshelf speakers. I would like to know your opinion (and advice) about [the 201/2] if possible. My room is 4.5m x 4m (18 meters square), and I have my doubts about the bass/low frequencies most of all, because I like music like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, Beatles, Queen, jazz, etc. I like a sound that “moves” me. Should I change my R700s for 201/2s? Do you recommend that upgrade? Any advice or comments you can give me will be of great help.
I think the R700 is likely your best bet. With it, you’re within a stone’s throw of the R900 in terms of bass depth and weight. I think in some ways the older KEF Reference model that you mention, the 201/2, will be slightly better in terms of absolute transparency, but at the expense of deep bass. Since bass is important to you -- I, too, am a Genesis and Dire Straits fan -- I think sticking with the R700 is ideal.
As for a sub, certainly that is an option, though keep in mind it can be difficult to seamlessly integrate a sub into a stereo setup. Our own Roger Kanno currently has KEF’s R400b subwoofer in for review, which would be a perfect partner to the R700s if you decide to go that route. If you want to stay within the KEF line in the long run, the new Reference line, especially the Reference 3 model, should be your target. If I had to choose a cost-no-object loudspeaker of my own, that would be my choice -- all the bass of your R700, aligned with reference-level linearity and resolving ability. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I’m actually looking to purchase an amp and have been thinking about the Benchmark Media Systems AHB2 and the NAD Masters Series M22 (with Hypex Ncore class-D circuit) amplifiers. Your review of the AHB2 is great and I’m wondering if you have had any chance to compare the two. I’m highly interested to know which one you believe sounds better. Many thanks in advance!
Those are two good choices, Adrian. Personally, I think the Benchmark is a class apart from the NAD, and, indeed, just about everything else I have heard. The only other amps that are in the same league in terms of pure sound quality are Devialet’s various amplifier offerings. That isn’t to say that the NAD doesn’t have its virtues, and may well be more appealing to some listeners. But in terms of outright resolution, transparency, and speed, the Benchmark is just fabulous. Benchmark offers a 30-day risk-free trial for many of their products, including the AHB2, so I would suggest giving the little amp a go, and if you don't love what you hear, just send it back. Doesn't get any better than that. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I enjoyed your review of the KEF R100, and then reread your review of the KEF LS50. How would you compare the two speakers, their strengths and weaknesses? They are similar in drivers and construction, and also similar in price. Thank you.
True story, I didn't write either of the KEF reviews that you mention! Jeff Stockton wrote up the former for this site, and Doug Schneider the latter on our sister-site SoundStage! Hi-Fi. That said, I own a pair of LS50s, and previously owned a pair of R900s. I have not heard the R100s, unfortunately. There are a few points to note when comparing the two models, however.
The major difference is the cabinet. The additional dollars for the LS50 get you a more robust, more attractive (in my opinion) loudspeaker, one that has a curved polymer front baffle to mitigate diffraction, and a spongy, elliptical port on the rear to minimize resonance and "chuffing." Don't underestimate the effect that a cabinet can have on resultant sound -- there is a reason KEF's flagship Blade model looks the way it does. I can assure you that it wasn't designed to (just) look good, but, rather, to maximize the speaker's sonic performance. You might also have noted that the R100 and LS50 have slightly different frequency-response specs, as well as differing crossover points and efficiency ratings.
This is a bit of speculation on my part, but here are my reasons. The R100 is part of the R series, and like any major manufacturer, KEF takes great pains to make sure that each model sounds like its siblings. In other words, there will (or at least should) be a strong resemblance from something like the R100 on up to the R900, which I owned and loved for several years. If I had to describe the R900's sound in two words, it would be linear and balanced. It sounded coherent from top to bottom, with nothing accentuated or relaxed. As Jeff Stockton said of the R100, it just sounded kind of "right." When I purchased my LS50s, I heard a speaker that was very much cut from the same sonic cloth as the R900s, but was subtly different. I think KEF ever so slightly tailored the LS50's sound to have a slightly richer, more golden midrange, as well as a more prominent bottom end. I am always surprised when I play the LS50s at how much oomph they have down low. I am guessing here, but I would bet the R100 doesn't have quite the extension that the LS50 does, but may be a tad tighter in terms of its bass clarity. Personally, I think the LS50 is worth the extra money. I don't think anyone would argue with the assertion that it will be a hi-fi classic. How often can you say that? . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Really enjoyed your review of the Paradigm Reference Prestige 95F speakers. How do you like the Luxman L-550AX [integrated amplifier]? I have an older Luxman L-503s, one of the last hand-built in Japan before the now-current 505 and 507 series. It is 65Wpc, but outperforms my Simaudio 4070se amp in every way. The bass is just shockingly good, and more flesh on all things -- more real. I use the Gershman Acoustics LVC devices under the unit. Highly recommended. My speakers are the Cambridge Audio Aero 6es sitting on IsoAcoustics stands, with a little weight on the top of the cabinets. This tames the boxes a great deal. I’m sorry I hadn't waited and got the Cambridge Audio Aeromax 6es, but they came out after. The midrange on these speakers is to die for, just ask Doug Schneider.
Lloyd, my review of the Luxman L-550AX will be posted on SoundStage! Hi-Fi on May 1. Check back then to read my full impression, but I can say that I was very impressed with the materials, build, and sound on offer. Class-A topology certainly has its benefits . . .
I know that Doug was quite impressed with the Cambridge Aeros that he reviewed. I haven’t had the pleasure to hear them yet, unfortunately, but I did just receive their flagship streamer, the Azur 851N, and early signs point to it being a super-flexible and -connective product. Seems like Cambridge is one of the few companies that has success in making their own speakers and electronics! . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
[I] really enjoyed your KEF R900 review -- thanks.
I am planning to purchase a Hegel integrated product -- not sure which one just yet. I was considering KEF’s LS50 or R500 [to partner with it]. Funny you mentioned that you listened to both of these for about ten minutes and that was enough. Was it just the bass and scale that didn’t do it for you versus the R900?
I would respect your opinion on the KEF LS50 versus the R500. I plan to audition what I can but stores are few near me.
When I first considered KEF’s R-series speakers, it was always going to be the R900. I wanted a floorstanding loudspeaker with bass that was as full-range as I could get. My brief listening session to the LS50 and R500 was simply to confirm what every other reviewer up to that point had said about KEF’s Uni-Q driver unit -- it was, and is, pretty spectacular.
Since I wrote that review, I wound up moving from the R900 to the Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, which Roger Kanno reviewed last year. Rest assured, that move was purely lateral in nature, as I happened to prefer the DefTech’s powered bass section and svelte, Dark Knight-esque profile. At the same time, I bought a pair of LS50s that I will hopefully keep forever, so I’m staying in the family.
The LS50's Uni-Q is slightly different than the Uni-Q found in the R-series speakers (short of the R100 and R800ds), as it is a two-way bookshelf that is not supplemented by one or more woofers. As a result, it has a slightly different character, with just a touch of midrange bloom compared to the R500’s airier presentation. The bookshelf also benefits from a cabinet that isn’t just a folded box like the R500’s. If you're not dying for deep bass, and/or you have a smaller listening space, the LS50 is truly a steal at $1500/pair. But if you plan on pushing whatever you buy to high SPLs, the R500 is your best bet. Its three-way arrangement, combined with far more cabinet volume than the LS50, will make for the more dynamic loudspeaker.
As for the potential Hegel purchase, the H80 integrated amplifier-DAC is very good and will be a great match for either of the speakers you mention, but the H160 is the sweetheart of their range. Expect to see my review of it in the next month on SoundStage! Access. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Thanks for your write-up [of the Devialet 120]. I have the Devialet 200 driving KEF LS50s with a Sumiko subwoofer. Because of SAM I want to go full range.
It would not break my heart to be happy with the KEF R900 over KEF’s Reference 3. I’d also consider the Magico S1 and perhaps Focal.
You did not go into depth -- how much better did the R900 sound with SAM activated? Could you be happy with that combo or would you still be looking for better?
Thanks for any feedback.
There is a simple reason why I didn't mention SAM in my 120 review -- a profile was not available at the time for the R900! I have yet to hear SAM in action, but my views of the 120 itself remain the same -- it is the best piece of electronics I have ever heard. I’d imagine your LS50s positively sing.
That said, I can see you running into output limitations due to the fact that the little KEF is both a two-way loudspeaker and bookshelf type. And since SAM is volume dependent, with less overall bass output the louder the LS50 is pushed (to protect against over-excursion of the midbass section of the Uni-Q), you will really need a proper three-way, floorstanding speaker to maximize output and full-range bass response. As a result, the Magico S1, another two-way, is out of the equation. I love the way the S1 looks, and I know it sounds terrific, but like any two-way, it will have limits, even if it is a floorstander. Focal makes terrific loudspeakers, but since you did not mention a model, and seem to be a KEF fan, I will focus on the two options you mention from them.
So which KEF floorstander to buy: the R900 or the Reference 3? The R900 is one of the benchmarks at the $5000-per-pair price point. I owned a pair for over two years, and there are absolutely days I wish they were still around. R900s provide all of the treble and midrange clarity of your LS50s, plus bass that is far more taut and extended. The R900 is not quite full-range out of the box, but SAM should comfortably address that. The Reference 3 is a much more substantial loudspeaker: it has a more sophisticated Uni-Q driver, and it has a robust pair of 6.5" drivers that were designed specifically for the Reference range. The Reference-series cabinets also look to be noticeably more inert and dense (and, therefore, less resonant) than the R-series cabinets. It is safe to assume the Reference 3 is something like 90-95% of a "reference-level" loudspeaker for $13,000 per pair, while the R900 is maybe 80-85% for $5000 per pair.
If the cash isn't a huge concern, the Reference 3 is your answer. Paired with your Devialet 200, hand to heart, it is probably the system I would buy for myself if I didn’t have a huge conscience when it comes to the notion of value. But I do. And for that reason, if I were in your shoes, I would grab a pair of R900s, pocket the $8000 in price difference -- $8000! -- and be totally comfortable with the fact that I would have an incredible-sounding full-range system that punches way the hell above its weight. Good luck! . . . Hans Wetzel