Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

If you’ve never heard of Paul Hales and his Hales Design Group, you’re probably younger than 40, or weren’t into audio in the 1980s or ’90s. I was in my 20s in the ’90s, and in my budding-audiophile stage. I religiously read Stereophile and other audio magazines, and I lusted after the latest and greatest high-end speakers. Some of those speakers were made by Hales—I remember listening to their Revelation and Transcendence models at audio shows and local audio shops. At the time, their sound quality was some of the best available.

Reviewers' ChoiceFew audio companies have fanbases quite so vociferous as that of Franklin, TN-based Emotiva Audio Corporation. Whenever the company announces a new A/V preamp or high-current monoblock, the Internet chatter that follows resembles nothing so much as the impending birth of a royal spawn or the next big Marvel movie. And yet, for whatever reason, that fervor rarely extends to the company’s subwoofers, although I have a sneaking suspicion its new Airmotiv RS13 Reference subwoofer might represent something of a sea-change in that respect.

In the past, Audio-Technica has made some good low-end turntables, as well as some toward the upper end of entry level—such as the AT-LP7, which I reviewed in March 2020. Some recent additions nicely fill in the gaps in the line: the AT-LPW30TK ($249 USD) and the subject of this review, the AT-LPW40WN ($299). They differ from each other mainly in that the ’40 has a motor with a speed-stabilization circuit, a carbon-fiber tonearm (the ’30’s arm is aluminum), and a better cartridge—Audio-Technica’s AT-VM95E, with elliptical stylus (the ’30 has A-T’s VM95C, with conical stylus). There are cosmetic differences as well: the ’40’s plinth is covered in walnut veneer, and its tonearm and 33⅓/Stop/45 control are black; the ’30 is finished in teak veneer, with silver arm and knob.

My wife walked past the credenza in our bedroom the evening after I installed DALI’s Oberon 5.1-channel home-theater speaker package, ran her hand delicately across the Light Oak vinyl finish of the Vokal center speaker, and confidently proclaimed, “We’re keeping these.” Not a question. Not a request. A statement of fact.

I was introduced to Schiit Audio a few years ago, as I looked for a headphone amp to power my notoriously inefficient HiFiMan HE-500 ’phones. Again and again, one amp kept coming up as a price/performance champ: Schiit’s 1Wpc, class-A Asgard 2 ($249, discontinued, all prices USD). The price was right, so I took a chance. It paid off. Class-A amplification is kind of addictive.

Reviewers' ChoiceFew turntables come with names longer than Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon Evo, but much information is encrypted in that long handle. Pro-Ject, of course, is the Austrian firm that makes turntables in its factory in the Czech Republic. Debut indicates that this model is a member of Pro-Ject’s wide entry-level line, Carbon that its tonearm is made of carbon fiber, and Evo that it’s the latest generation of the Carbon arm. Pro-Ject describes the turntable as embodying “the epitome of Pro-Ject’s philosophy: high performance, clean aesthetics, and superb value.” Strong claims -- but Pro-Ject has a long-established rep for making turntables that have all those qualities.

For more than two decades, Amphion has designed and built loudspeakers in Kuopio, Finland. Their stated goal is to offer affordable speakers for the home and the recording studio that are sonically truthful rather than imposing on the music any sort of “house sound,” and that are also of timelessly tasteful appearance.

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

GoldenEar Technology, founded in 2010 by Sandy Gross and Don Givogue, is known for offering superb-sounding, high-value loudspeakers based on, er, sound engineering principles. Recently, GoldenEar was sold to the Quest Group, run by Bill Low, which also owns AudioQuest, a company that sells mostly speaker cables, interconnects, and power-related products.

Though best known for such premium luxury speakers as the models populating its Utopia and Sopra lines, France’s Focal offers speakers in many price categories. In September 2019, Focal introduced the Chora line with the release of the 806 minimonitor and the 816 and 826 floorstanders. The Choras comprise Focal’s newest series of affordable speakers, slotting between the Aria 900 and Chorus 700 lines. The Choras’ main-speaker prices start at $990/pair (all prices USD), for the Chora 806.

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

Italy’s Sonus Faber has a well-earned, decades-old reputation for producing speakers that not only sound great, but are some of the most beautiful and luxurious-looking in the world. Unfortunately, not every audiophile has pockets deep enough to experience the upper echelons of Sonus Faber’s model range.