Ultra Audio's site platform was changed in August 2010. For equipment reviews previous to that, use this link to transfer to the old site.
History, development, and technology
As an aviator and audio reviewer, it never ceases to amaze me how many luminaries in hi-fi have an aviation background. SME’s CEO, Stuart McNeilis, spent decades as a senior aeronautical engineer at British Aerospace; and for many years, SME has supplied components for the Martin-Baker ejector seats used by air forces worldwide. John Franks, founder and chief design engineer at Chord Electronics, previously worked on aircraft electronics for Marconi Avionics. John’s specialty was ultra-high-frequency power supplies, and he used his expertise in this area to develop the concept of dynamic coupling: linking an amplifier’s power supply rails together in a specialized high-frequency transformer. The strong magnetic flux in this arrangement prevents the short-term distortions associated with high currents feeding back into the ground loop of an amplifier. The result is a fast and agile amplifier with a transparent sound. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to find so many aerospace engineers in audio, given that aviation demands the very highest standards—such skills transfer very well into designing and building high-end audio equipment.
It’s been a little more than three years since Perlisten Audio sprang into existence, and in that time, it has gone from obscurity to prominence. I’ve written about the company three times before: a profile of its founder and CEO, Dan Roemer; a review of the flagship model of its Reference line, the R7t ($9990 per pair; all prices in USD); and a blog piece on one of its big subwoofers, the D15s ($5995). I wouldn’t say I’m a Perlisten superfan, but I do have much respect for the company’s technical achievements and for their no-nonsense communications. Roemer, with decades of experience in audio engineering and an obvious passion for making high-value, high-performance loudspeakers, is insightful on all things hi-fi and a hoot to talk to.
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click here.
I don’t usually find myself drawn to old-school gear that’s heavy on nostalgia. Maybe it’s because, as an older millennial, I didn’t cut my audio teeth on components with VU meters, knobs galore, and healthy dollops of brushed-silver hardware. But back in 2015, I reviewed Luxman’s L-550AX integrated amplifier ($4990 when available; all prices in USD) and fell for it hard. In many ways, that amplifier was the antithesis of the type of gear I ordinarily liked. Vintage looks, yellow-tinted VU meters, flyweight power (a mere 20Wpc into 8 ohms), and space-heater levels of thermal output from its pure class-A topology—that’s not a recipe I’d normally warm to on paper. But listening is believing, and I was so enchanted with the L-550AX’s sound, I declared it “outstanding” and “the best-sounding integrated amplifier for under $5000.” So, when I was offered the opportunity to review Luxman’s newest integrated amplifier, the L-507Z ($8995), I jumped at it.
Engineering and philosophy
In the pantheon of British audio companies, Rega Research is surely one of the greats. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023, Rega has for decades been at the top of the list for those on a modest budget who want a record player designed and built in the UK. For many years, the go-to recommendation was the company’s iconic Planar 3 turntable. But as its price crept upward, Rega introduced more affordable models, like the Planar 1 and Planar 2. Both turntables offer many of the Planar 3’s virtues at a more affordable price.
In my mind, home-stereo loudspeakers can be grouped into three classes. Class One fulfills the primary goal of speaker design: this class of speaker just has to make music. All other goals are secondary. So they have to sit there, generally in front of the listener, and play sound through their drivers. These speakers should be, and generally are, dressed up somewhat, either in a nice wood veneer or a lacquer finish. But beyond that, they’re two MDF pillars, upon which you wouldn’t be remiss in resting a doily and a lamp or a potted plant. Or if you’re like me, the record sleeve from whatever’s playing on the ’table at that moment.
The Professional Monitor Company, aka PMC, is a major hi-fi loudspeaker manufacturer, with its roots in studio monitoring. PMC was established in the UK in 1991 by Peter Thomas, an ex-BBC engineer, and his business partner, Adrian Loader. The company’s first product was a large studio monitor: the BB5-A. The British public service broadcaster was one of PMC’s first customers, and still uses those monitors at the BBC Maida Vale studios in London, England.
Back in the 1970s, I lived in Japan for a year, ostensibly to study Buddhism and the Japanese language; in reality, I was knocking around Kyoto as much as I pleased. I was living with my girlfriend in a small eight-mat room, watching kabuki plays at the Minami-za theater, reading poetry in coffee shops, and hanging out at a blues club on weekends.
Rightly or wrongly, Germans have a reputation for being an exacting bunch—often concerned more with function than form. For this car-loving reviewer, automobiles are a prime example of what fuels this stereotype. If you want a high-end sports car that you can run ragged day in and day out, buy a Porsche 911 GT3. This car’s beauty has been honed through decades of refinement of the underlying 911 body shape. If, on the Freudian continuum, you tilt less towards the ego and more towards the id, and tend to forego Teutonic pragmatism in favor of more primal urges, then the sensual lines of a new Ferrari F8 Tributo would be a better choice. While significant engineering resources have been poured into each of these automobiles, the German model is the dedicated workhorse compared to the Italian show pony.
I used to be a large-speaker kind of guy. Early in my audiophile life, I figured going bigger would be more satisfying in the long term, not necessarily because size on its own makes a difference, but because speakers tended to get larger as you progressed from the bottom to the top model of any given company’s lineup. Come to think of it, I can’t come up with a single example of a company whose speakers actually get smaller as you move up the line. As a result, I equated bigger with better because, well, that’s what I was told was the case by almost everyone who made speakers.
Kharma is a brand I’ve admired for a very long time. I first read about their successful Ceramique line of loudspeakers back in the late 1990s, which—as you may have guessed from the name—featured their signature ceramic midrange driver. Way back in the mid-1980s, the pioneering Dutch firm was the first audio company to employ ceramic drivers. And in more recent years, I’ve seen and heard their offerings at trade shows, like Munich’s High End, and appreciated their distinctive designs and fastidious attention to detail.