• SoundStage! Shorts - Estelon Extreme Legacy Edition Loudspeaker (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion Overview and Technologies (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! Insight - Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker (June 2017)
  • SoundStage! Encore - The Cowboy Junkies'
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Anthem's STR Integrated Amplifier (May 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- What's a Tonmeister? (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - AxiomAir N3 Wireless Speaker System (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Gryphon Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Dynaudio History and Driver Technology (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - The Story How Gryphon Began (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Devialet History, ADH Technology, and Expert 1000 Pro (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Devialet's Phantom Loudspeakers (August 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh Home Theater and Streaming Audio (July 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh MC275 Stereo Amplifier (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh History and Autoformer Technology (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - NAD Viso HP50 Headphones (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - GoldenEar Technology's Anechoic Chamber (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - PSB's M4U 4 Earphones (April 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two+ and Three+ Loudspeakers (March 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- KEF's LS50 (February 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio's Platinum II Series (January 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Pryma 0|1 Headphones (December 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF's Blade Two Loudspeaker (November 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF and the Uni-Q (October 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio Acoustics & Aesthetics (August 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- PSB's Imagine T3 Loudspeaker (June 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Hegel's H160 Integrated Amplifier-DAC (April 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- MartinLogan's Neolith Loudspeaker (February 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Prestige Series (December 2014)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Vivid Audio's Giya Series (October 2014)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Totem Acoustic's Torrent Technology (August 2014)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Axiom Audio's M100 v4 Loudspeaker (May 2014)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Muraudio's Domain Omni Series (March 2014)

Please send all questions to feedback@soundstageaccess.com. All questions sent to this e-mail address will be replied to online. If you do not wish to share your e-mail with other readers, please do not send it. But if you have a question, chances are others are wondering the same thing. Therefore, you will be helping not only yourself, but other readers as well when your question gets answered here.

To Roger Kanno,

I am writing to ask for your professional advice as I am in the market for a new 5.2-channel speaker system. Below are my options and I need you to select the best one based on your experience:

Option 1: Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L (four towers plus CS-8080HD)
Option 2: KEF R900 (four towers plus R600c)
Option 3: Paradigm Reference Prestige 95F (four towers plus 55C)

Any of the selections will be combined with SVS PB13-Ultra, SB13-Ultra, or GoldenEar SuperSub XXL subwoofers. (I will also need your advice on that.)

As for my home setup, it will be mainly for home theater (80%) and less for music listening (20%).

Kind regards,
Hany Kabeel
Kuwait

In my opinion, each one of the systems you mentioned would be excellent for both movies and music. Of course, a lot of that will depend on the electronics that you use, but I’ll assume that you are using at least a very high-end receiver or good separates. That being said, there is no “best one,” as they are all excellent, but there will be differences between them.

The Definitive Technology system has the advantage of having built-in subwoofers, which will make that system more forgiving of lower-powered receivers and amplifiers. They are also very slim towers that should be easier to place and, in my opinion, look the best of the ones you mentioned (even better than the Paradigm Prestige in its gorgeous Midnight Cherry finish). One of the disadvantages is that the CS-8080HD won’t be a perfect match as a center-channel since it uses midrange drivers more similar to those in their BP series of speakers.

On the other hand, the KEF system has a very nicely matched center-channel speaker and a very smooth sound overall, but the R900 lacks some of the bass of the Mythos ST-L, especially if you do not have a powerful amp (an advantage of the Mythos ST-L self-powered bass section). The R900 is not super power hungry, but does require an amp that can ably control the bass.

I have not had the Paradigm Prestige system in for review, but have really liked what I have heard from them at shows. I suspect that the 95F is not that hard to drive either, but again would require good amplification to deliver the best peformance.

As for subwoofers, the ones that you have mentioned are excellent and have impressed me at shows and demos, but I have not spent any time with them in my own system, so it would be difficult for me to comment more directly on any model. I would also add JL Audio subs to that mix since they now have their reasonably priced E-Sub and Dominion models available. Also, a system based on the Revel Performa3 F208s, with the excellent matching C208 center-channel speaker, would be at the same high level of performance as the other systems you mention, for around the same price.

Sorry I could not give you a more definitive recommendation, but these are all great systems and you will have to be the one who ultimately decides. . . . Roger Kanno

To Hans Wetzel,

I am replacing my old system and can use a hand in narrowing the field of amp and speaker pairings for my situation. My room is about 20’ x 25’ with a 12’ ceiling. Due to the room arrangements, I am limited to a speaker of 12” in height or less. Yes, not ideal, hence the request for some guidance.

My listening tastes run from jazz to vocals to classical to blues, as well as some rock’n’roll. I enjoy a warm, non-fatiguing sound; perhaps more musical than the ultimate in detail (heart or head?). At this point, I’ve narrowed the speakers to two; however, I am open to suggestions. The two: Harbeth P3ESR and Dynaudio Excite X14.

As for integrated amps, I am a bit all [over] the map. The ones I am considering include: Rega Brio-R, Hegel Music Systems H80, Bel Canto Design C5i, Rogue Audio Sphinx, and NuPrime Audio IDA-8. I’ve enjoyed reading the reviews of some of these on the SoundStage! sites, but would like a few suggestions as to pairings best suited for my situation.

Thanks,
Jim King
United States

Lot of variables there, Jim. Let’s start with your requirement for a “warm, non-fatiguing sound.” I like the idea of potentially one of your two components sounding a bit warm, but the other being as neutral as possible. Of the two speakers you mention, the Dynaudio will be the more neutral, faithful transducer, while the Harbeth will err on the warm, natural side of the spectrum. Both loudspeakers have a great reputation. Another no-brainer to consider would be KEF’s LS50 -- it is exceptional for the money, with a broadly neutral profile, and a flash of musicality in the midrange and upper bass.

I’m not entirely sure where to start with your amp suggestions, as two are analog-based integrated amp-DACs, two are pure analog integrated amps, and one is a digital-only integrated amp-DAC. Each comes from a manufacturer with a sterling reputation (NuPrime excepted, if only because it’s such a young company with a limited track record), and I don’t think there’s a “wrong” choice here.

That said, fellow reviewer Roger Kanno raved about the NuPrime IDA-8, and I have been eager to get my hands on one. If you can live without analog connectivity, that looks to be THE amp to have for under $1000, and would constitute my starting point for you. Rogue Audio’s Sphinx has a pair of Russian tubes in it, but they don’t manifest themselves in the way you might expect, with a really rich, warm, liquid midrange. Actually, the Sphinx has a livelier, exciting sound to it. Rather, the tubes offer the Sphinx a certain three-dimensionality that is difficult to find at its sub-$1500 price point. And you can’t go wrong with Hegel’s H80, but at $2000, I’m not sure it is twice as good as the NuPrime. I’m not familiar enough with the Rega or Bel Canto Design amps to offer meaningful advice on those models. The only other integrated amp I’d suggest in your price range that might meet your requirements is Arcam’s A19. It’s a sweet little amp with a dense, hearty sonic profile to it.

All that said, I’ll offer two suggestions. First, I’d try the NuPrime IDA-8 and partner it with the Harbeths (or alternatively, the KEFs). That combination should get you the warmth you’re looking for, with an abundance of resolving ability and power. If you’re leaning toward the Dynaudio, however, I’d partner it with the Rogue Audio Sphinx or Arcam’s A19. The Rogue isn’t exactly tonally warm, but it has a lovely sense of midrange presence. The Arcam, on the other hand, offers that velvety tonal density, which should complement the Dynaudio’s neutral sound. Good luck! . . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I enjoyed reading your reviews on the Rogue Audio Sphinx and the Parasound Hint [Halo Integrated] integrated amps. Those are the two amps I am most strongly considering purchasing. You didn’t mention one vs. the other in your reviews, so I was wondering how you thought they stack up? The Parasound is a complete system, but the Sphinx coupled with a high-end external DAC (probably the Arcam irDAC II for around $800) comes out to nearly the same price. Given the near price parity, would you give the edge to one of these setups in terms of sonics and longevity?

Thanks,
Chris
United States

I really enjoyed my time with the Rogue Audio Sphinx, back in 2013. It was, and to my mind still is, a great integrated amp for the money. Your suggestion of partnering it with Arcam's irDAC II is also interesting, as I use the original irDAC as my standalone digital-to-analog converter of choice. I think the tandem would have terrific synergy together. The Sphinx has a lively, dynamic sound, but with a touch of midrange bloom and dimensionality that I can readily attribute to its pair of Russian vacuum tubes. And Arcam’s DAC (at least my original irDAC) is excellent for the money.

Here’s the rub, though. As I suggested in my review, Parasound’s Halo Integrated is THE integrated package to have for around $2500. Compared to the Sphinx, the Halo offers greater power, superior connectivity, balanced inputs, bass management, tone controls, and a headphone amplifier, among other features. It is also dead-neutral sounding and should be bulletproof when compared to the Sphinx, since its solid-state innards don’t have a limited lifespan like the Sphinx’s tubed preamp section does. In terms of resolving ability, I’d say the two options are broadly similar, but I’d ultimately give the nod to the Parasound.

Now, it could well be that you don’t fancy a dead-neutral sound, in which case, the Sphinx-Arcam pairing may well tickle your fancy -- that would be a seriously engaging midrange. But if you’re looking for a “set it and forget it” package, the Parasound is an easy choice. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

So glad to finally read a proper review of [Devialet’s Silver] Phantom, one that evaluates it critically in the context of high-end stereo systems. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I was getting a bit frustrated by the plethora of uninformative reviews simply rehashing Devialet’s claims without any critical listening, or declaring Phantom amazing because it sounds so much better than the reviewer’s Sonos [system].

This being said, on my side I’ve been quite disappointed by the Phantom story so far, and this from a guy who was (is?) really, really very favorably predisposed to the whole thing. Here’s why:

Hyperbole: Devialet is never shy when it comes to promoting the virtues of its own products, but with Phantom they overdid it. They pegged Phantom not just as great sounding for its price, but as a speaker that could go head to head with state-of-the-art speakers costing much more. Remember the whole “the best sound in the world” thing? Well, maybe I was naive in getting my hopes up, but it’s now clear that Phantom may sound competitive for a $5000/pair system, but it does not sound remotely as good as a top Magico or Vivid.

Lack of multichannel capability: Frankly, I have yet to understand Devialet’s logic when they decided it would be more useful to sync 24 Phantoms in mono or stereo mode, than to have five of them playing multichannel (MC) audio. Yes, I know, the guys at Devialet told you MC is part of their future plans, but they’ve been saying this since day one, and we are all still waiting. Moreover, Devialet has been saying their MC solution will be software based. As far as I know, there isn’t a single Blu-ray player that will output MC audio content at full resolution via USB or TosLink. They all do it via HDMI. In other words, there won’t be useful MC capability if Devialet does not add HDMI to Dialog, or an analog input to the speaker (which many of the new digital speakers have).

Bugs: You mentioned some, but quickly dismissed them. On my side, I have read too many reports of too many people spending too much time chasing after hiss, “un-freezing” Spark, getting Dialog to work when the audio system that is connected to it is some distance from the Wi-Fi router, etc., etc. When I buy a music system, it is to relax into the music, not to [go all] OCD about the system.

In short, I see Phantom as a somewhat missed opportunity. The product could have been revolutionary, but in the end it promised more than it delivered on the performance, functionality, and user experience fronts. The new Kii Audio Three or Dynaudio Focus XD [models] may be a bit pricier, but they have all of the advantages of Phantom with better sound and greater functionality. Color me disappointed.

Jacques
United States

I am glad that I could deliver the first “proper review” on the Silver Phantom, and many thanks for your thoughtful response. Like you, I have been quite disappointed with the press coverage of Devialet’s baby, but as I posited in my January editorial, that might be attributed more to the French firm’s public relations decisions than anything else. Also like you, I have been predisposed to the Phantom since its announcement at the tail end of 2014.

Regarding hyperbole: I agree. It’s worth noting, though, that just about every audio company in the high end lays claim to something “revolutionary” or “groundbreaking” that no one has ever done before. I’m sure, like me, you can think of several high-dollar class-AB amps and folded-cabinet loudspeakers with off-the-shelf drivers that promise to fundamentally alter your worldview and offer you glimpses of divine clarity. I don’t like these kinds of grandiose claims any more than you do, but, unfortunately, I think it’s part and parcel of this industry.

Regarding a lack of multichannel capability: Multichannel may have been a hot segment back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but for the average consumer, I don’t think it’s a priority these days. That “average consumer” bit is important, because I think it’s pretty clear that Devialet is emphatically not gearing the Phantom towards audiophiles. Rather, I think they’re pitching it as a luxury consumer-audio product. In light of its gulp-worthy price for the average consumer, $1990 or $2390 each, for the Phantom and Silver Phantom, respectively, I’m guessing it was important for them to keep the price of entry reasonably accessible.

I can’t speak to the technical hurdles that Devialet may be facing in bringing multichannel support to market, because, frankly, I’m not well-versed in home-theater equipment and formats. I may sound like an apologist for saying this, but considering the progress in functionality that Devialet has made with its Expert line of amplifiers, through software alone, I would bet that the company will deliver on its promise(s) eventually. The question, of course, is when. If I had a home-theater setup, I’m sure I would be just as antsy as you, and no doubt many other potential buyers out there. Five Phantoms in a surround-sound setup is a delicious prospect, and kind of obviates the need for a subwoofer for all but the most bass-hungry listeners.

Regarding bugs: I can understand you feeling a bit dubious about my user experience, especially if one glances at some of the Devialet forums. From the looks of it, early firmware was far from smooth and reliable. That said, I stand by what I wrote in my review. Prior to Spark version 1.4 being released, the Spark app failed to find Devialet's Dialog on my Wi-Fi network on two occasions, resulting in my having to set the whole system up again. I wasn’t happy. But after installing the latest firmware update, I had three weeks of flawless operation, running Spark from a laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad, as well as running my television (with connected cable box, Xbox One, and Apple TV) through Dialog. Like you, I don’t want to have to fight with something to make it work, and with the latest firmware, I did not encounter a single blip. Take that however you’d like. I’ve been direct in some of my product criticism over the past couple of years, and don’t intend on softening my stance soon. And, for the record, my review samples were sent back to Devialet weeks ago, so they could move on to another reviewer, so I can’t speak to any longer-term software reliability.

Finally, regarding a missed opportunity: I actually disagree with you on this one. There is no question that Devialet promised a world-beating experience for a couple of thousand dollars, and fell short. But it’s worth re-emphasizing the assertion that I made in my review, which is that a pair of Silver Phantoms are, on sonic aggregate, as impressive to my ears as any pair of loudspeakers around the $5000 price point.

The Kii and Dynaudio loudspeakers you tout as having “all of the advantages of Phantom with better sound and greater functionality” are more than twice the price of a complete Silver Phantom system. I can’t speak to the sound quality of either the Kii or Dynaudio offerings, though I’ve read strong reviews on each, particularly the former. In terms of traditional functionally, I think you’re right, the Phantom clearly lags behind. But when you look at, and more importantly, listen to, what a pair of Silver Phantoms can do, I think it must be acknowledged as revolutionary. I can’t tell by your comments whether you have actually heard a pair or not, but if the answer is no, I’d suggest trying to hear a pair. I won’t (and didn’t) tell anyone that it’s perfect, that it’s a world-beater, or that Devialet should unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Clearly they have some more work to do on the software front to make the thing bulletproof for all users, and to bring additional functionality online, such as multichannel support, Spotify compatibility, and pure NAS compatibility, among others. That Kii Audio Three speaker, in particular, may well prove to be a better fundamental loudspeaker, but for a variety of reasons it won’t find its way into a fraction of the homes that Devialet's Phantom models will. Make of that what you will. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I was very happy to learn of your upcoming review of the [Devialet Silver] Phantom. I’ve been following the product since I first heard about it, but, as you say, all the reviews have been of a single Phantom, and not by audiophiles. It seems it could be just what I’m looking for, but I was reluctant to take a chance on it because, as you also say, there’s nothing else like it, so I just didn’t know what to expect. When a local dealer finally got a pair, the audition didn’t go well because of problems with the Spark app. So I’m very eager to read your review, particularly because you plan to make it so thorough.

Regarding thoroughness, could I please ask you to address some issues that are very important for me (and, I suspect, other readers)? First, I’m interested in reducing cables and boxes, so what’s the simplest way to store, connect, and play local files? Second, I want to use Roon to integrate my local files with Tidal, but I’ve heard it isn’t compatible with the Spark app, which is required to use the Dialog. Is there a way to make it work? Finally, how’s the sound quality at low volume? I live in an apartment, so I can’t listen at loud levels.

Another point while I have your attention: I’m happy to see a site dedicated to reasonably priced gear. I consider $5000 a lot to spend (two Phantoms, Dialog, and two Branch stands), so I’m grateful for your site’s focus. Fewer boxes and cables reduce clutter and complexity, but can also lower prices, and it looks like we’re seeing more of those options -- active speakers paired with minimalist sources, wireless systems, etc., so please keep us informed of their quality.

Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to reading your review.

Brian
United States

My review will be thorough, but I am happy to answer some of your questions now.

Regarding the reduction of cables and boxes, and what the easiest way is to store local files, Devialet promises NAS support at some indeterminate point in the future. Long term, that seems like the best solution.

Given the Phantom’s (and Silver Phantom’s) current functionality, you’re limited to whatever compatible content currently resides on devices that can run the company’s Spark app. Currently, there are Mac, PC, iOS, and Android applications available. In my case, that meant that when Spark was up and running on all of my devices, I could wirelessly access and play all local content on my iPhone 6, iPad Air 2, older MacBook Pro with external USB HDD, and my newer MacBook Pro. In short, if there is content on (or attached to) a computer or mobile device, you should be able to seamlessly see and play such content through the Spark app. At one point during the review period, I was sitting on my couch playing music off the laptop in my hands, and within the Spark app on that computer, able to queue up and play content from my iPhone, iPad, and older MacBook Pro, all from the original Spark client. I have heard that Spark was buggy when it was initially released, and it was not quite perfect during my time with it, but after the latest firmware update, I can confirm I haven’t run into a single issue with it. I found it to be an intuitive, competent, and reliable software client.

Roon might be an issue. I can’t be 100% certain, but I don’t think Roon and Spark will play nicely together. That said, with Spark it was easy to navigate between local content on my networked devices, and my Tidal subscription. With a single, unified playlist across all Spark clients, it was a breeze to add songs from multiple sources. Spark does not offer the complete integration of Tidal content with local content the way that Roon does, but going back and forth between the built-in Tidal interface and local content was a one-step process. I’m generally highly critical of a product’s user interface and the end-user experience. To me, Spark is not quite perfect, but I have happily lived with it on a daily basis for the last few months. The thing to remember, though, is that Devialet releases software and firmware updates on a consistent basis, so I would expect continual, iterative improvement on that front.

Low-volume sound quality is excellent. Broadly speaking, I think the Phantom or Silver Phantom is most at home as a stereo pair attached to a television (and its associated devices, such as a cable box, Blu-ray player, or game console) in up to a moderately large living space. When your neighbors are royally annoying you, however, rest assured, two Phantoms or Silver Phantoms are up to the challenge of keeping them wide awake into the early morning hours. Like you, I value consolidation, minimalism, and high-performance products that are plausibly attainable by the average, hard-working audiophile. To my mind, Devialet is definitely heading in the right direction – more to come. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Great review on the [Monitor Audio] Bronze 6! Since you mentioned the [Parasound] Halo Integrated, can we expect a review soon? I have mine matched with the [KEF] LS50s as well, and cannot go past quarter volume without my wife giving me a dirty look. Looking into the Auralic Aries Mini to complete my system, too. Have you had a chance to play with that one? Keep up the good work!

Cheers,
Tiago
United States

Thanks for the kind words on the Bronze 6 review; it is a heck of a speaker for the money! As for the Halo Integrated, my review will go live here on January 1. I have inquired about a review sample of the Auralic Aries Mini, but didn’t get a response from their North American distributor -- tough crowd. Can't win ’em all! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I’m from Thailand and have read your reviews of speakers on SoundStage! Access. Right now I’m looking to buy [a pair of] speakers and it comes down to Magnepan’s 1.7, or MartinLogan’s ElectroMotion ESL. Which one do you think is a better speaker? Or if it’s not clear cut, at least please help tell me in what area one does better than the other so I can decide which one to get.

Best regards,
Kitipat Kangwannithipong
Thailand

That’s a tough call, Kitipat. I have reviewed the MartinLogans and admired the Maggies at a show a few years back. While I generally liked the ElectroMotion ESL, I do recall that the dynamic bass driver was not as well integrated with the electrostatic panel as I hoped that it would be. Unlike the larger MartinLogan electrostatic designs that make use of built-in bass amplification and digital signal processing, the ElectroMotion ESL’s 8” bass driver is passive, and sounded a little loose and disconnected from the main panel. I only heard Magnepan 1.7s for around ten minutes, but I was very impressed with what I heard. As a matter of fact, I recall being particularly enamored with the bass performance, which is handled by a large ribbon, not a dynamic driver. A ten-minute listen in a crowded hotel room, however, is no substitute for a proper review. Based on what I’ve heard, though, I'd grab a pair of Maggie 1.7s. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I just bought a Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC, which for the time being will be connected to an Arcam CD37 (doing transport duties) via a Nordost coaxial cable. I understand that you own a Hegel H300, which may be an H360 by now. Here’s the question: I’m looking for speakers to pair to this and before I go on an extended search, I thought I’d ask you about possible matches. I’ve got the following list so far: Revel Performa3 F206 and F208, Focal Aria 936 and 948, Dynaudio Focus 340, and at a higher price (at least here in Canada), the Aerial Acoustics 6T. Any of these strike you as having any particular synergy with the Hegel? Any other recommendations at a comparable price point? Thanks for your time.

Laurence
Canada

As you suggest, I have made the jump from the H300 to the H360, so I am going on greater than three years with a Hegel product as my reference amplifier. During that time, I have partnered the Hegel amps with a wide variety of speakers. Given the H360’s output of 250Wpc into 8 ohms, and substantial power supplies, I think the number of speakers that wouldn’t work well are few.

That said, I believe you have compiled a great list here. The Revel Performa3s, for instance, are superb, and a couple of our writers use the F206es as their reference loudspeakers. I haven't heard the Dynaudios or Focals that you reference, but other SoundStage! writers have reviewed products from the Focus and Aria ranges, respectively, and Reviewers’ Choice awards were bestowed on each of them. Aerial Acoustics also has a very good reputation. 

I do have several suggestions to add to your list, however. GoldenEar Technology’s Triton One is a monster of a loudspeaker for the money, and truly full-range, if you can get past its somewhat pedestrian appearance. KEF’s R700 and R900 offer the top-to-bottom neutrality and high performance akin to Revel’s Performa3 line, via a slightly different approach and design aesthetic. Finally, Monitor Audio’s Gold 300 and Paradigm's Reference Prestige 85F and 95F are all solid options from two companies with decades of experience between them.

The takeaway is that you have many options in the price range that you are looking at, and each of them is excellent in their own way. Try and listen to as many of these as you can and trust your ears. I assure you, there is no wrong choice here. . . . Hans Wetzel 

To Hans Wetzel,

Based on, among other things, your test of Hegel Music Systems’ H300, and also after listening to it, I bought the H300 shortly after it came on the market. And I do agree with you, it was indeed a good amplifier, although a bit clinical sounding on my Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.5 loudspeakers.

The H300 has now been changed in favor of the new H360. And what an amplifier this is. I would say it outclasses the old H300 in absolutely every possible way: it has a much more easy, floating sound; and its high frequencies are absolutely glass-clear. And the bass it produces is just fantastic. The overall sound is warmer from the H360 compared to the H300, which makes the H360 more enjoyable to listen to for a longer time.

I am running the H360 together with Hegel's HD25 DAC (using the Hegel’s DAC-Loop feature, the same way as with the H300). The sound this combo is producing is just fantastic, so open and spacious, it is a pure joy to listen to. I do look forward to your or one of your colleague's test of the Hegel H360. You are the professionals in this area of testing sound equipment, so I am eager to see if you value the H360 the same way as I do.

Best regards,
Bjørnar Berg
Norway

Since I wrote reviews on both the H300, and its little brother, the H160, Philip Beaudette will be handling the upcoming review of the H360. Seeing as his reference system includes Bryston’s excellent B135 SST2 integrated amp and BDA-2 DAC, I am very curious to hear Philip’s impressions. That said, I replaced my H300 with an H360 in the last few weeks, and have zero regrets. I generally agree with your comments about the H360’s sound. I never had an issue with the H300’s performance -- I loved it, actually -- but the H360 does sound like a clear step forward. I don’t want to say more since Philip’s review will be published in the next couple of months. I am glad to hear that you are enjoying the H360 as much I am, however! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Thanks for your interesting reviews of the Hegel Music Systems H160 and Benchmark Media Systems AHB2. Reading between the lines, I think you will soon be replacing your Hegel H300 with the H360. But, your reply to Pohan’s query (“Benchmark AHB2 or Hegel H160”) places the latter "a cut above" the Hegel and others. Does this mean that you might be rethinking your H360 upgrade and instead decide to buy the AHB2 as your reference gear?

I’m in somewhat of a dilemma, too. I was actually intent on the H160 -- until I read your reply, and now I don’t quite know which way to go! Buying decisions are either vindicated or condemned with the passage of time! How often have I bought the lauded “best” in haste, only to find that the “close but second best” would have been a more prudent decision, with the test of time? I don’t want to buy something that is the rave, only to find that it quickly loses its appeal once you’ve spent more time living with it, while the “sleeper” would have turned out to be the better buy and long-term keeper! Could you help me with my dilemma?

Best regards,
Siew
Singapore 

I totally appreciate the quandary that you find yourself in. Let me preface my response by repeating that hated audiophile adage, “Try to listen to [fill in the blank] before buying it.” There is no true substitute for making your own determination about whether one amp is better than another. You are going to be the one who has to live with your purchase, after all, and not some clown of a reviewer who has the ability to play with a review sample for months on end without any financial interest in play. Of course, the reality is that it is difficult to track down a dealer that carries either Hegel or Benchmark products, let alone both!

To get right to it, yes, I recently replaced my reference Hegel H300 with its replacement, the H360. I think it is quite good, but Philip Beaudette will actually be reviewing the H360 for us later in the year, so watch out for that. What I will say is that I have no regrets about my purchase. As an integrated solution with plenty of power and built-in AirPlay support, it fits my needs perfectly. Bluntly, the H160 would equally fit my needs, though I don’t think its sound is quite as refined as the H360's is -- you get what you pay for in that respect.

Deciding between the $3500 Hegel H160 and the $2995 Benchmark is difficult. The former is a full-on integrated amp-DAC, with built-in AirPlay, while the latter is just an amplifier. If you went with the AHB2, you would then need a preamp and a DAC, a combined preamp-DAC, or just a DAC with a built-in volume control. Trying Benchmark’s matching DAC2 DX, for instance, brings your outlay to about $5000, which is quite a bit more than Hegel’s one-box solution, to say nothing of fancy interconnects and/or power cords, if you are into that kind of thing. Perhaps the first question you need to answer is, "Do I want the best possible sound, or do I want something that’s really good, convenient, and comfortably within my allotted budget?"

For $3500 or less, the Hegel is excellent, and I’m not sure how much better you can do for the money, short of Parasound's $2500 Halo Integrated, which is an integrated amplifier and DAC (expect my review on this site in December), so roughly comparable, short of a few features. My new H360 is a bit better, but, in my opinion, there are only two amps that offer true reference-level sound for under $10,000: Benchmark’s AHB2 and the $6495 Devialet 120. They’re both on another level, Siew. But $5000 for the Benchmark tandem, and $6495 is a heck of a lot more money than the H160 costs, to say nothing of their looks and functionality, which are quite different than the Hegel.

Personally, I went with the H360 over both of those options because it fits my needs as a reviewer; I like the way it looks, feels, and works; and I like the way it sounds, even if it’s not “the best.” You won’t have any buyer’s remorse here. Hand to heart, I could happily live with the H160 on a daily basis. . . . Hans Wetzel

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!

Kind regards,
Bradford Scarlett
Canada

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