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To Howard Kneller,
Thank you for your audio reviews. They have been well written and much appreciated by me. I purchased a full set of Marantz Reference gear based upon your findings in SoundStage! Hi-Fi. And I have been thrilled with their performance.
Currently I am using these electronics with YG Acoustics Carmels. Cabling is Nordost Tyr and Valhalla. I feel I am approaching that level of sonic bliss that I have been chasing for over a decade. I will be trading up to the Kipod II Signatures soon, pending research concerning the soon-to-be-released passive subwoofer version.
Could you enlighten me on your thoughts about your Esoteric amplifier and how it may compare to the Marantz MA-9S2? I could happily live with the Carmels, but my undying audiophile desires lust for that last octave, hence the Kipod, and then possibly the Anat. My dealer will accommodate trade-ups, so I can slowly buy my way into audio heaven. Thank you for taking time to indulge me.
Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you are enjoying the Marantz and YG gear.
I think you will find that the Esoteric amps offer an increase in performance over the Marantz amp. They are both great amps. They sound rich and full-bodied, but the Esoteric amp also sounds a bit cleaner, faster, and more detailed.
I am currently using the Esoteric A-03 class-A amp in favor of the A-02 class-A/B amp that I reviewed. Other than the class-A/B amp's better leading edge, better grip overall on the drivers, and better microdynamic spark, the class-A amp outperforms the A/B one. The class-A amp is faster sounding, as well as more open, dynamic, and musical.
I think that trying the Esoteric gear would be fruitful. It certainly would not be a waste of time. On the other hand, the Marantz is probably one of the more underrated amps out there and is very good, too. Give a listen and see what you think. . . . Howard Kneller
To Jeff Fritz,
I appreciate your willingness to communicate with your readers through the Readers' Letters section. I find this to be as informative as the reviews.
Your Network recently gave the Vandersteen Treo a Select Component award, yet there is no mention of this speaker in feature articles such as "The Super-High-Value Products I'd Buy Today." The Treo seems to be natural competition for the KEF R series, which is frequently discussed. Has there been any comparison between the two?
You make a very good point. The Treo, at its price of $5995/pr., is close to the retail price of the KEF R900 ($5000/pr.). I would love to hear them side by side. I suspect they would both excel in different areas and would therefore attract different customers. Your question reminds me of the article I wrote titled, "Comparisons on Paper: B&W 803 Diamond vs. Tidal Contriva Diacera SE." It's fun and instructive to compare what products offer in terms of hardware and specifications. It can be a good starting point in your research and also give an idea as to what value proposition a certain product offers versus another.
Ultimately, of course, you have to listen to them to make the most meaningful comparison. And unfortunately I have not had the occasion to hear the KEF and Vandersteen together such that I could make that comparison. But nonetheless, your point is taken, and since I know enough knowledgeable people who really like that speaker, it probably should have been included. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Garrett Hongo,
I would like to first say how much I have enjoyed your articles and opinions. They are well written and honest and not full of the typical reviewer hype. I wanted to see if I could get an opinion from you. I am looking to upgrade to what I hope would be a permanent (20-plus year) speaker. Budget would be up to $30k but less would definitely be preferred. I'm writing because I'm hoping with your experience you might have a few recommendations for speakers that could survive young kids. I have always loved Magnepan-type sound but found their lack of oomph and narrow sweet spot a little off-putting. They are also not likely to go over well with my fiancé. I really like my current setup: Herron audio VTSP 3-A preamp and M1A amps, so they have to be 4 ohms or higher. I listen to all types of music. I've got plenty of time to audition but I'm not sure where to start looking. Any thoughts are really appreciated.
I've a few ideas for you, but your choice should partly depend on your room size, so I'll answer in categories and limit my recommendations to speakers I've listened to carefully. For a relatively small room (up to 8' x 15'), I very much like the Von Schweikert Audio UniField 3 ($18,000/pr. for current version), which I reviewed in its original iteration a couple of years ago. It's just wonderful with detail, midrange clarity, and clean bass response down to 25Hz. And the compact size and the fact it can be placed close to a back wall makes it so great for tight situations. At issue might be the separate midrange/tweeter box, which sits on sorbothane-like feet atop the larger woofer cabinet. A child can easily knock this over. For a warmer sound and a much more secure but still separate mid/tweet cabinet, I like the Verity Parsifal Ovation speakers ($24,995/pr.). These don't go as low as the VSA U3s, but they have a magical midrange and are easy to place in small rooms too.
For a moderate-sized room (up to 10' x 18'), I'm a big fan of the new VSA VR-44 speakers, whether Passive ($22,000/pr.) or Aktiv ($25,000/pr.) version. Since you've the Herron M1 amps, I'd say the Passive could be very well suited to your needs. These speakers, with cabinets both large and deep, are Albert Von Schweikert's response to the current revolution in speaker design, emphasizing high-resolution, transparency to source, control of cabinet resonance, and frequency extension. Another I like very much, of a more conventional size, is the Märten Django XL ($15,000/pr.). This speaker is capable of a very big sound but with fabulous detail and texture, able to scale symphonic music extraordinarily well and also render a lifelike sound out of the most intimate combo jazz recordings you can find. I also like the Wilson Sasha W/P ($29,400/pr.). It's been consistently great no matter what electronics I've heard it with. For large rooms, with your electronics, I like the Focal Utopia series of speakers. The Focal Scala Utopia III ($29,000/pr.) might do the trick. The sound is somewhat relaxed, but the music is presented in a way that puts you at ease rather than up on your toes. Other speakers in the Utopia line, which I feel better suited to the largest rooms, are all over $30,000 -- the Focal Maestro Utopia III ($49,995/pr.) and Focal Stella Utopias ($95,000/pr.). Good luck in your speakerquest! . . . Garrett Hongo
To Jeff Fritz,
I have been reading your reviews with a lot of interest and I greatly appreciate the fact that you do not shy away from doing frank comparisons of high-end components. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how the Magico Q3 compares to the previous model -- the Magico V3. I cannot afford the Q3 but I might be able to buy a gently used V3 at an affordable price (I am not in a position to audition either of the speakers). Any insights would be much appreciated. I will be using Pass Labs XA100.5 amps.
As much as I'd like to be able to tell you that a used V3 will get you close to the sound of the new Q3 while saving you $20,000 or so, it's just not so. While I do remember hearing the V3 at shows and noting to myself that it was a fine-sounding loudspeaker, it never had the impact on me that the Q3 had. Further, it is obvious how much more Magico has been able to accomplish by bringing the entire cabinet-making process in-house with the Q series. The truth is that the Q-series speakers are really the first Magicos that I'd personally own as a reference.
Having said that, I think the Magico S-series speakers are the highest-value products the company has ever made. I know the S5 might be more expensive than a used pair of V3s, but it does come in at about 12 grand less than the Q3s. If you have a smallish room, you might even consider the new S1, which is under $13,000/pair.
My hope is that an S3 will be coming to market within the next year to fill out that line -- time will tell. If you can save for the S5, however, I don’t think you'd ever regret purchasing a pair. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I enjoy reading your reviews -- they are thorough and more times than not I find that I agree with your conclusions. With that said, I do have a question for you that I hope you can answer. Can you tell me whether you still recommend the Coda brand, particularly the 15.0 power amp? Can you give me some idea of what competitors you would look at? I don’t want to spend Gryphon or Vitus money, but I still want something that is state of the art. My speakers will be either the Magico S5s or Wilson Audio Sasha W/Ps. Thanks in advance for your time.
Coda makes some of the best-sounding equipment on the market, and at prices that, although not cheap, do not rise to the stratosphere the way some of the more exotic brands do. The 15.0 stereo amplifier retails for $10,000, but for that price you get a lot of hardware and a sound that can rival anything at any price. It is a very good value in the high end and, yes, I still do recommend it.
As for alternatives, there are a couple of brands/products that I would consider. First is Ayre, based in Boulder, Colorado. I don't know if your budget would allow you to consider their $14,950 VX-R stereo amplifier, but it is a terrific product and I think would compete admirably with the Coda. Doug Schneider reviewed the VX-R back in January on SoundStage! Hi-Fi and raved about it. It is a solid alternative. At a lower price point you might also want to listen to the Hegel H20, which retails for $5750 and was reviewed by Michael Wright back in March of 2011 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Hegel is based in Oslo, Norway, and is making some of the best solid-state equipment out there right now, and at prices that are very attractive. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I love the candor in your recent response about superspeakers and Wilson not being among the cutting-edge speaker companies ("Magico Unlimited"). Seems other publications don’t want to say what can readily be discerned by listening. I can’t imagine Stereophile saying anything more critical about Wilson other than little nits. If the reviewers at Stereophile are rendering their honest opinion about Wilson products as SOTA, that’s even scarier.
The above feeds into your recent comment about why critical reviews don’t appear in many publications. If a magazine only reviews products that are worthy for fear of alienation, that isn’t that much help for the consumer. They always say the Recommended Components lists are not meant to be exclusive, but how does the reader know which unreviewed products are undiscovered/worthy of consideration and which have been discarded because they are flawed or unreliable. At that point, why not skip the publication entirely and go spelunking and see what you find.
Keep the candor coming and I’ll keep reading.
To Jeff Fritz,
I have been reading your work on Ultra Audio for several years now. I have greatly appreciated that you give readers your honest opinion. For instance, I know that you like Rockport and Magico speakers, Gryphon and Boulder electronics, and that you think the Ayre KX-R is the best preamp out there. I also like the two recent articles where you tell readers what you would purchase yourself. I do question how this honesty will play for you in the long run. Are you being too honest? Specifically, I wonder whether you'll put off some companies to the extent that they won’t send you products to review. Can you give me your thoughts on that? Anyway, count me amongst those that appreciate what you do.
San Francisco, California
Thanks for the kind words and for reading my work carefully. Here is the way I see it: The real threat to wide-ranging credibility and writing relevant opinions is clearly misleading the consumer into thinking that everything is very good to great and nothing is ever bad. This type of writing won't offend anyone and is what appears in most publications today, print and online. That is the norm, right? Ten years ago that is how I wrote, I'm sorry to say, simply because I didn't know better. I guess I thought that was what was expected from audio reviewers.
The reality is that all of these products are not created equal. If you read a publication where it seems that that is the case and everything the writer writes about is at least very good, you must ask yourself whether you can ultimately trust their opinions.
Although there will be, occasionally, a manufacturer that does not want to send a product to me for review, what this tells me is that they are not confident that their product can stand up to the scrutiny that the best products do. I'm not happy about that, but, oh well. What is the real threat in my line of work is writing irrelevant opinions because of being afraid that someone might take offense. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I just read your answer on the letter "Magico Unlimited." I have to say that I completely share your thoughts, on all the speakers you mention, and I find it refreshing to see one reviewer who has the courage to state so openly his opinion, both positive and, more important, negative. Even if we may not always agree in the future, I will always respect you as a great reviewer who has the courage to speak his mind, even if it implies criticizing the top product of a very famous manufacturer.
This is invaluable in a "pseudo reviewer world" where all products are "great." Please keep on. I am a big fan.
Thank you for the very kind letter. What I have found is that some reviewers do not tell the whole truth, or are willing to overlook obvious flaws, and there are a number of reasons why this happens: some writers are not confident in their own opinions; some do not wish to offend manufacturers, often fearing they will be blacklisted from getting review samples in the future; others don’t want to offend the readers who they perceive are endeared to a particular brand; some simply don’t have a broad and deep enough knowledge base, including a solid neutral reference, to be able to accurately judge what is good and what is not. Lastly, and I'm sure I'll get hammered for saying this, some reviewers are simply crooked (I've seen this with my own eyes).
I recently read a review in a well-known British publication of an ultra-expensive (six figures) loudspeaker. I was perplexed. The technical measurements were horrendous; I've seen speakers for two grand that measure better. The measurements that were taken we know correlate well with sound quality, and in this case they could describe nothing other than a poorly designed product. The description of the sound, however, was otherworldly, as if there were musicians magically appearing in the listening room. Now, some will say that the measurements were flawed, or don’t really matter, or whatever. I have other ideas about the contradictory result. But regardless, the consumer is the one that loses here. If the measurements are correct, then the product stinks, pure and simply. If the measurements are wrong, then the magazine has no credibility or else why did they publish them?
Forgive me if I seem overly negative on the subject of reviewers. We work very hard at the SoundStage! Network to publish accurate reviews, properly edited, along with, when logistics allow, the best speaker measurements in the industry (see www.speakermeasurements.com). It does not seem that all audio reviewers take the "job" seriously, and some are corrupt, or are incompetent. I know a number of reviewers at other publications besides ours who are very good, but it seems with every passing day they are fewer and farther between. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
I greatly enjoy reading your writing on Ultra Audio. It has informed several of my purchase decisions for my own system. I am now going to look into auditioning the Ayre KX-R preamplifier due to your glowing recommendation. In your most recent article, "The Super Products I'd Buy Today," there was one line that I need to ask you about. It's about the Magico Q7, when you wrote, "I think the Q7 is the first unlimited-performance loudspeaker ever made because, for the first time ever in 15 years of evaluating speakers, I was unable to find their performance ceiling in my room." I'm bothered by the "unlimited performance" line. How do you justify saying this? Do you really feel the Q7 is that much better than speakers like the Sonus Faber Aida and Wilson XLF? What about the Rockport Arrakis that you had in your room? It just seems a little over the top to me and so I am writing in hopes of getting a further explanation. For what it's worth, I heard the Magico M5 a few years ago and it was one of the best sounds I've ever heard.
Thanks for writing in and reading my work. I'm glad it has been beneficial to you. Regarding the statement I made about the Q7, let me give you some further explanation. First off, in the Superspeaker realm there are a number of products that purport to be state of the art but that really are just mediocre speaker designs with lots of drivers and huge cabinets that will play loud, but that have no business being called "state of the art." Perhaps the nicest thing I could say about these speakers is that they are big and nicely finished. No need to go into further detail. Clearly above those pretenders are speakers such as the Sonus Faber Aida, which couple good engineering with high style and a luxury feel to produce something many audiophiles covet. I really like the way the Aida sounds and looks -- all in all, a very good product.
The few speakers in the world that can actually lay claim to the mantle "state of the art" with regards to performance are at an altogether different level. The Rockport Arrakis is certainly in that select grouping and in the right environment can challenge for being called the "world's best." Without question, Rockport's Andy Payor is one of the industry's top speaker designers. The Arrakis, ultimately, was not the best fit for my room, however -- my space is vertically challenged and the eight-foot Arrakis needs breathing room up top. As for the Wilson XLF: in my opinion it's not in the conversation . . . I don't think it's even close to state of the art for a number of reasons, so I won’t go into any further explanation here.
The Magico Q7 is a different animal. Here's the scoop on my statement: In my room, for the first time in my audiophile life, I was unable to get a handle on where the stops were. What I mean is that the more I pushed the Q7s, in every direction, the more they kept exceeding all my prior experiences. This is not just in terms of frequency extension, loudness capability, resolving power, speed and dynamic impact -- though those were areas in which the Q7 was the best I've heard. The amazing part was that the speaker was so chameleon-like that I really could not nail down its character. It was that complete lack of sonic character that led me to make the statement about it being the first "unlimited performance" loudspeaker. I'm sure the Q7 does have its limitations -- every product of every type does -- but the Q7's performance ceiling was not something I could lay my hands and ears on, which was a first for me. In that sense, and in my mind, it remains "unlimited." I hope that helps. . . . Jeff Fritz
To Jeff Fritz,
In your recent article, "The Super Products I'd Buy Today," you make some surprising statements about the Ayre KX-R preamplifier. Do you really believe it to be the best preamplifier out there? It is not inexpensive at $18,500, but it is also not the most expensive. I am thinking about the DarTZeel and MBL line stages as examples of preamps that might better it. Can you clarify your comments about the Ayre so I am clear as to what you mean? Thanks for your lucid articles and always interesting insight.
One of the problems in high-end audio today is that there is an assumption that performance scales perfectly with price. The fact is that it does not. That is not to say that the best products are not expensive -- generally they are -- but that a high price does not always equate with the superior products. I have not heard the MBL or DarTZeel preamplifiers in my system so I cannot give you a blow-by-blow account of their performance versus the Ayre KX-R. But I can tell you that the Ayre is the best I've heard, and not by a small margin.
My advice would be to not assume that the more expensive preamps are better just because they are more expensive. That would certainly be a mistake. Consider this: If the Ayre were $40,000, would well-to-do audiophiles take it more seriously? I can confidently state that the Ayre is, in my opinion, state of the art. I'd advise you to audition it to see if you agree. . . . Jeff Fritz
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