This system is the result of a successful long term effort to build a balanced, no compromise two channel system for audio and also home theater.

While it would be nice to think that the system was put together per some grand plan, I think how I finally got here is a vastly more interesting story.

I           The Beginning (The age of discovery)

This all started in school when I was fortunate enough to be able to be wildly irresponsible and blow all of my summer earnings on my first audio system which consisted of a bunch of used components that I really got lucky mixing and matching at a dealer to put together a system that blew me away - Wadia 850 CDP, Levinson 38 Pre, Ayre V-3 Amp, B&W 804 Speakers and MIT Cabling.  It was a really dumb use of funds given my financial situation at the time but man did I love that system.  The feeling of joy listening late into the night in my studio apartment to that system is still to this day etched into my mind.  

II          The Devolution (Give me my MP3)

Fast forward five years and that system was a distant memory – sold it all when times got a little tough.  The subsequent period featured some lean audio years - the best setup I had was an iPod and Sony MDR V-6 headphones.  MP3s were what I was listening to thanks to the internet.

III         A Rebirth (Nostalgia is a hell of a drug)

Then I moved half way around the world for work and got the audio bug again.  I dipped my toes in with some entry level stuff - Ayre CX-7 CDP (horrible), Ayre AX-7 Integrated (decent for the price but underpowered), B&W 804S Speakers (sounded mostly like I remember) and some Bettercables (ugh).  That was more disappointment than fun and almost a complete waste of money. 

I figured at that point that I had two options - pack it in or commit.  Having that old system from school dancing in my head kept me from giving up.  I decided that I would go big and create a system that would give me the joy of that old system but with a minimum of coloration and state of the art dynamics and resolution.  

IV         The Descent Into Madness (Wait, why did I think this was a good idea?)

I figured that the new system would take a couple of years to put together and allocated a maximum budget in the range of a well optioned Audi A6 sedan.  But like a government contract, costs kept ballooning and the end date kept getting pushed back.  It wasn't until ten years later, after visiting many dealers all over the globe, taking financial hits on multiple component changes and a lot of learning and most painful of all, spending considerably in excess of my original max budget, that I arrived at a system that I found to be really enjoyable - EMM Labs XDS1 V2 CDP, Ayre KX-R Twenty Preamp, Ayre MX-R Amps, Focal Scala Utopia Speakers and MIT Oracle MA Cabling.  

I thought that’s where I would end up; a very expensive fun system.

V          Sober Living (An audiophile stops tinkering and learns to enjoy the music?)

Nothing changed for a couple of years until my problematic Ayre MX-R acted up again (Ayre had some type of issue with a particular component on their MX-R boards that only shows up after 1.5 years that they couldn’t fully sort out – they always replaced the board but this was the third time for that particular mono and I had had enough).  I was assured by Ayre that the MX-R Twenty used different components and did not have a similar issue. I figured better performance and no issues was worth it so I upgraded.

While waiting for my upgraded amps (it ended up being a mess with Ayre continually missing delivery dates on the upgrade.  I spent almost four months without amps as a result), I figured I would just take a peek and see what was happening in audio news.  

VI         Relapse (Did I really not learn my lesson the first couple of times?)

Of course, I first checked in on developments at the companies that I knew the best – the makers of the components of my system.  The most intriguing new development was EMM Labs’ release of a new statement digital system comprised of the TX2 transport plus DA2 DAC and also a V3 upgrade for my XDS1 CDP.  While I enjoyed my XDS1 V2 it always left me wanting on the bottom end, never sounded quite right on the top end and was too recessed in the midrange for my liking.  I gave a call to EMM Labs where I learned that the TX2 was a limited edition and since Esoteric was no longer supplying drives to third parties, this would likely be EMM Labs’ last disc spinner.

It was a tough call; the TX2/DA2 combo would be a considerable expense and I’d need to sell my XDS1 V2 since I had no dealer – I had purchased the XDS1 direct from EMM. I toyed with upgrading the XDS1 to V3 status but was strongly dissuaded from that option by EMM Labs who insisted that the V3 wouldn’t approach the performance of the TX2/DA2. I’m not big on regrets or financial restraint when it comes to audio, so I busted open the piggy bank.  After a lot of struggle I was finally able to sell the XDS1 at what I consider a giveaway price for what was effectively still state of the art  digital for a one piece CDP (less than 50% of retail – the secondhand market for digital is brutal) and placed the order with EMM Labs.

The TX2/DA2 were a revelation – it was a very good move on my part as my system took a significant jump in performance across the board.  But in audio, with the good often comes the bad.  In my case, the top flight front end significantly pushed the ceiling of the system, which in turn exposed glaringly one of the shortcomings of my Focal Scala speakers.  The top end of the Scala had always been rough/raggedy with the XDS1 but with the further extension provided by the new digital front end it became a real issue which required that I use the jumper on the speaker to shelve down the tweeter which alleviated the issue but robbed the air from the system. I played around with the speakers for a month but couldn’t resolve the issue. This was obviously now going to get ugly; I was going to have to make as big an investment upgrading the speakers as I did the front end.  Had I made a very costly mistake?  The system was already much more expensive than I imagined but now I was looking at purchases that would push it into the stratosphere – a total investment that would be enough to buy an apartment.

VII      Spiraling Out of Control (This is a completely sensible course of action, right?)

The mind is an amazing thing; you can convince yourself that a reckless decision is perfectly logical if you give it enough time and effort.  Over the next month, I researched speaker options taking into account the dimensions of my listening room and a budget in the ballpark of 50k. For whatever reason, whether design, aesthetics, size and/or price, my short list ended up being very short and was comprised of Focal (Maestro Utopia) and Avalon (Isis or Time).  I had not heard the Focal speaker except very briefly in a Burmester/Transparent showroom system but had extensively heard the Isis and to a more limited extent, the Time.  I wouldn’t be able to hear any of the contenders in my home so I conducted further research, reached out to dealers and the internet, but the final decision was mine.

I agonized for a few weeks and eventual settled on the Focal Maestro. I put down a deposit with my dealer and waited. The wait time would be three months.  In that time, I learned a very important lesson – don’t order anything the month before the Munich Show.  Why?  Because unlike every other civilized business, audio manufacturers love to keep quiet about new products on the way and then surprise! what you ordered and haven't even received is now a previous model.  Sure enough, Focal decides to introduce their new Focal Maestro Utopia EVO – essentially a Focal Maestro MkII.  At first, I was livid that my dealer who I felt should have known it was coming didn’t warn me.  When I spoke to him, he claimed that dealers  get no heads up before new model introductions. I didn’t believe him and refused to take delivery of the speakers unless he promised to allow me to upgrade to EVO with near full credit of what I paid for the Utopia III.  I wasn’t sure I would do it, but I wanted the option.  I was still pretty pissed and so made him take my old Focal Scala Utopia speakers in trade (for not much but he had refused to do so earlier and I did not want to deal with storing or selling and shipping them).  Having gotten my pound of flesh for the betrayal, I went back to waiting for my speakers.

Finally, the day came.  The speakers were installed and once the dealer’s crew left my apartment, it was time to get a taste of what I was in for.  Right off the bat, it was clear that this speaker was on a whole other level than the Scala. The midrange was so clear it really surprised me – my wife was similarly impressed.  To me however, the best part of the Maestro and the part I didn’t expect was that the drivers were so well integrated that the speakers sounded like a single point source.  No longer was I able to clearly discern the tweeter and the woofer as on my Scalas. Having been satisfied that the upgrade was a good move, I set about breaking in the speakers.

As the weeks went by, I was becoming less enthralled with the Maestros – they sounded closed in and lethargic with anything fast paced.  I was confused.  The setup had been spry and kicking with the Scalas.  What happened? I realized that something was off but what.  I went and read over reviews of the Maestro but more carefully this time – I got lucky.  Stereophile had reviewed the speakers and had a full spread of measurements.  I started to conduct research to understand what those measurements meant.  After a few days of learning, I could now decipher the graphs Stereophile had so nicely prepared. It was not great news.  The Maestros, unlike the Scalas, are shelved down in the brilliance region of the audio spectrum (what is heard as sparkle and air) and are a very nasty amplifier load compared to the relatively benign load of the Scalas.

The Focal Utopia III series has jumpers to adjust for room effects.  I decided to try the treble jumper in the high position – sure enough, there was now air and sparkle but it was too steely to tolerate for long so I put the jumper back in the normal position.  I could live with the closed in top end for now I thought and moved my attention to the more serious issue – the lack of explosiveness.  I knew that my Ayre monos doubled from 8 ohms to 4 ohms and I thought they doubled down again into 2 ohms.  I checked again.  Strangely, the official specs only show 8 ohms and 4 ohms.   Hmmmm…  I started scouring reviews of the Ayre MX-Rs to see if anyone had conducted tests and included measurements – I got lucky again, Stereophile had (again – what lifesavers) and it showed something shocking (to me), the MX-Rs double into 4ohms and then pretty much fall on their face – offering limited additional power after 4 ohms.  So that was why the Maestros sounded lethargic – there simply wasn’t enough power coming from the Ayre amps.  Glad that I had found the issue, I was still pretty dejected to learn that my $30k amps weren’t good enough – something that until that moment had never crossed my mind as a possibility.  Exhausted from all the homework and plot twists, I decided to take a break and just listen to the system for a couple of months while I contemplated my options.

VIII       Off the Reservation (The amps cost how much?)

Having taken time to clear my head, I came to accept that one of two things had to happen, the speakers needed to go or the amps did.  The speakers would be an issue – there was no going back to the Scalas and the Maestro EVO, while being an easier load than my speakers, had some points against it.  First, I couldn’t be sure that my amps could drive the Maestro EVO to my satisfaction and thus, if I upgraded to them, it would be a hefty cost without any guarantee that my amps would not need to be replaced as well.  Second, unlike the Utopia, which is a 3 ½ way setup with a sealed upper bass enclosure, the EVO had gone back to a traditional 3 way setup.  From a sales perspective it was a smart move on the part of Focal, since by going back to a 3 way setup, the speakers would be easier to drive and there would thus be more potential customers as more amps could drive the speakers.  But for me, 3 way was a real step back.  That left me with the only option being a new amp.

The new amp would have to be a monster – a hefty power rating  doubling down all the way down to 2 ohms.  It would be a nice bonus if the amp also had controlled non steely highs so that I could use the high setting on the speakers’ treble jumper. Living in an apartment is all about efficient space utilization.  I had already squeezed in all I could into my apartment and there was no room for the 3ft high traditional monster amps from most manufacturers.  I kept looking but ultimately came back to the amps I didn’t want to audition – the D’Agostino Audio Momentum M400 – the price was obscene for amps and I wasn’t in love with the aesthetics (but they had grown on me over time).  They were a similar form factor to the MX-Rs, and so would be an easy swap in replacement (I would need new feet for my HRS amp stands but that was a minor expense – they are swappable).

I forgot about it and said to myself I would move on.  But the more I thought about what I had spent in all on my system until that point and how unhappy I currently was with the system, the more I came around to considering the M400s.  It was either that, or just shut it down and liquidate it – it was bothering me that much.  I remembered that my Ayre dealer carried D’Agostino – he had raved about the amps and how they were amazing; something he never did when we discussed the MX-Rs (even the Twenties). I had dismissed it at the time given the price and the fact that I was happy with my Ayres.  How times had changed.

So I called the dealer (who is in Singapore) and told him I would be visiting in a few months.  I then told my wife we were going to Singapore for a week’s vacation (and some audio stuff). She was excited about the vacation and is smart enough not to ask questions she doesn’t want to hear the answer to so didn’t do too much digging about what else I had planned.

IX         Relief (I think it’s actually over)

Singapore in the spring is a beautiful place – great weather, fantastic food and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.  But that was the sideshow and I had a 60 thousand dollar question that needed answering.  I had brought my favorite test music along and my dealer had reserved two afternoons for me.  The first surprise was how shrill the MX-Rs sounded with the Avalon Isis which has what is typically a smooth diamond tweeter.  The Ayres controlled the easy to drive Isis well in a setup that I was comfortable with from earlier auditions – it sounded great except for the top end.  My wife said it made her ears hurt – both of us are very sensitive to high frequencies.

Out came the M400s.  Despite the impression in the literature that they’re similar in size to the Ayre monos, seeing them in the flesh revealed that they are about twice the size, which was comforting in that I was confused as to how Dan could get such power from monos the size of the MX-Rs – now it was clear that that wasn’t the case.

There was no drama.  Like Mike Tyson in his prime, the M400s were on a different plane entirely than its competitor.  Buttery smooth top end without any roll off that I could hear had the wife in its corner from the first cut.  Add to that the amazingly cohesive presentation and the vice grip on the woofers and the M400s had done what I thought would be impossible – justify their price and then some.  I was very wrong about these amps – it was a case of being happy to have a mouth full of crow.  After so many disappointing hyped products I finally heard one that was as good as all the reports.  While I couldn’t be sure how they would sound in my setup, the quality couldn’t be ignored – it was probably not only the solution to my speaker woes but a component that was so accomplished it would let its system mates shine and push the system to being exceptional.

My dealer gave a fair trade in deal but held firm on any substantial discount knowing that even if he charged full retail it would still be a good buy.  I gritted my teeth and shook hands – it was done. Delivery was a couple of months later.  The M400s shone even brighter in my system than in the demo. Apparently an amp the price of a loaded Euro sedan is all it took to reach the performance peak I had visualized in my mind those many years ago. High end is a completely out of control hobby when you’re pushing the envelope.

X          The Aftermath (Am I finally out?)

Since the M400 miracle (that’s really what it feels like), I finally have a system that has no compromises and makes me smile every time I use it – what a 15 year rollercoaster ride of discovery, learning, mysticism, disappointment, desperation, delusion, exhaustion and ultimately, satisfaction and relief. As happy as I am now with the system, knowing what I now know, I can’t see me ever doing this again but time does funny things to statements which include the word never…

May 2020: Addition of EMM Labs TX2 SE to replace EMM Labs TX2; Addition of EMM Labs DA2 V2 to replace EMM Labs DA2 ll December 2017: Addition of D'Agostino M400 to replace Ayre MX-R Twenty ll June 2017: Addition of Focal Maestro Utopia III to replace Focal Scala Utopia III ll March 2017: Addition of EMM Labs TX2/DA2 to replace EMM Labs XDS1 V2 ll December 2016: Addition of Ayre MX-R Twenty to replace Ayre MX-R ll February 2015: Addition of EMM Labs XDS1 V2 to replace EMM Labs XDS1 ll April 2014: Addition of Ayre KX-R Twenty to replace Ayre KX-R ll May 2010: Addition of Focal Scala Utopia III to replace Focal Alto Utopia Be ll October 2009: Addition of EMM Labs XDS1 to replace Wadia 861se GNSC Statement

Components Toggle details

    • EMM Labs TX2 SE CD/SACD Transport
    With V2 PS
    • EMM Labs DA2 V2 Stereo D/A Converter
    With Acoustic Revive IP-2F and BSIP-2F
    • Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty Preamplifier
    With Acoustic Revive SIP-8F and BSIP-2F; Cardas XLR Female Cap; Acoustic Revive RGC-24
    • Dan D'Agostino Momentum M400 Mono Amplifier
    • Focal Maestro Utopia III Speaker
    With Star Sound Audio Points LE 2.5AP-1E.5 and APCD-5
    • Aural Symphonics Optimism Lotus ST Fiber Optic
    • MIT Cables Oracle MA Interconnect
    XLR 1.5m
    • MIT Cables Oracle MA-X Rev. 2 HD Speaker Cable
    • Furutech GTX-D(G) AC Receptacle
    With Furutech GTX Wall Frame / Furutech 104D Carbon Fiber Plate and Acoustic Revive CS-2F (dedicated line for each of power conditioner and each monobloc)
    • VH Audio Trans Power Cord
    Furutech FI-50M(G)/FI-5X(G); 6ft (for power conditioner)
    • Shunyata Research Everest 8000/T Power Conditioner
    With Acoustic Revive CS-2F (for transport, DAC and preamplifier)
    • VH Audio Airsine Power Cord
    Furutech FI-50M(G)/FI-50(G); 6ft (for each of transport, DAC and preamplifier)
    • Shunyata Research King Cobra CX Power Cord
    1.75m (for each monobloc)
    • Harmonic Resolution Systems Nimbus Assembly/Vortex System
    Nimbus NA-100 (for each of transport, DAC and preamplifier); Vortex (for each monobloc)
    • Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 Isolation Base
    With M3X2 feet.  M3-1921 (for each of transport and DAC); M3-1421 (for each monobloc)
    • Finite Elemente Levelplus 3M Sideboard System
    With cerapuc footers (for preamplifier)
    • Oyaide OCB-BS Granite Base
    (for interconnect networks)
    • Acoustic Revive TB-38H Isolation Platform
    (for speaker networks and GC1)
    • Acoustic Revive RCI-3H Cable Insulator
    (for all cables)
    • Computer Audio Design Ground Control
    GC3 (for power conditioner and monoblocs); GC1 (for each of transport, DAC and preamp)
    • Echo Busters Double Busters MKII Absorption Panel
    At side wall first reflection points
    • Echo Busters Phase-4 Bass Trap
    At front corners

Comments 26

Please, could you tell me the gross weight and external dimensions in packing of the Maestro Utopia? If you still have an original packing, that information might be on the cartons. I am going to buy them and need that info to calculate the delivery cost, but Focal does not answer.

And how far from the speakers you listening place is located?
Thanks a lot in advance!



Grounding With Computer Audio Design: Ground Control GC1

Audio is a curious hobby.  One minute you’re laughing at the people wearing tin foil hats and at some later point in time you look in the mirror and there’s a person wrapped in tin foil staring back at you. 

I’ve always thought the people paying big money for grounding products were more than a little nutty – how could these boxes with who knows what in them actually improve the performance of a high end audio system.  Plus, my system has a star grounded VH Audio Hot Box that all components are ultimately plugged into and so in my mind my system was as grounded as it was going to get.

The whole topic of grounding in audio is a minefield – it seems to be an area which attracts a lot of fanatics with over the top claims.  The various grounding products in the market with accompanying opaque explanations (or sometimes no explanation) of their operation also do not inspire confidence in their effectiveness.  Given that, I wasn’t actually planning on dipping my toe into grounding treatments.  In fact, I might never have if not for FedEx. 

Let’s take a step back.  Having completed component and signal cable selection, I was considering whether there were any reasonably priced tweaks to my system that would result in a material uptick in performance.  The only thing that jumped out at me was power delivery.  The Shunyata Denali, even though an excellent product, left room for improvement given the subsequent introduction of the flagship Shunyata Triton v3.  So I began considering whether upgrading the Shunyata Denali power conditioner to a Triton v3 would be worthwhile.  The reviews of the Triton v3 were encouraging - an excellent online comparison of the Denali 6000/T and Triton v3 noted a substantial increase in weight and speed provided by the Triton in relation to the Denali - and coupled with an amazing promotion bundling a meaty 6awg Sigma EF cable, my decision was a relatively easy one.  But ultimately FedEx had different plans – losing my newly ordered Triton v3.

While waiting a month and a half for FedEx to conduct their search for my wayward Triton, I decided that the best way to take my mind off of that mess was to turn my audio attention elsewhere – with no “traditional” options left for system improvement (components, wire and isolation were set and power was up in the air), it was time to broaden my audio horizons and finally take a serious look at grounding.

After conducting research over a few weeks I learned that there are three types of grounding treatments – signal, chassis and mains earth.  They can each be beneficial to a system and can also be used in combination.  Beyond a very high level understanding of the differences between all three, I’ve never cared to understand how they work (maybe that’s because there has yet to be a consensus as to how they actually do what they do).  Nonetheless, the more I researched, the more I couldn’t ignore the number of user reports that stated that these types of treatments can substantially improve performance even on high end systems.  However, overall user reports regarding the effectiveness of various products were also inconsistent so I was ultimately left to make my own call.

The grounding products with the most extreme hype (and with extreme prices to match) are the Tripoint products that are focused on chassis grounding.  Way too expensive to take a flier on, I moved on quickly (and if my Triton was ever found and I am so inclined, I could test out chassis grounding via the Triton's integrated CGS system in any case).   The other big players in the market, Nordost and Entreq, focus on signal grounding, although they appear to have branched out more recently into mains earth grounding in the case of Nordost and chassis grounding in the case of Entreq.  Nordost products look professionally made but have very little information explaining how they operate so I was hesitant to take that route.  Entreq products had a little bit more theory but not much and their ridiculous range of products made me shy away. 

So I cast my net wider and explored the other players in the grounding game.  My search ultimately led me to the product being discussed here – the Ground Control GC1 manufactured by Computer Audio Design (CAD) which focuses on treating signal ground and mains earth.  A coherent whitepaper by Scott Berry, CAD’s founder, plus a solid review by a reviewer I trust, Roy Gregory, confirmed the bona fides of the Ground Control products.   I also liked the fact that CAD has chosen to design a single reasonably priced product line with a single set of reasonably priced cables (to be fair, they’re not alone in this regard - Nordost also falls into this category ) – I’m a big believer in treating customers properly – I shouldn’t have to spend thousands on cables from the manufacturer in addition to product cost to get the proper performance from a grounding product.

Being the skeptic that I always am and fully expecting to not be impressed irrespective of theory or positive review, I minimized my spend and limited my initial purchase to a single CAD Ground Control GC1 with an additional cable for use with my transport and DAC (not inexpensive at ~$2k all in but not crazy money either).  Given reports that digital equipment benefit disproportionately from signal grounding, I figured that this was more than a fair test.  If the GC1 didn’t do much in this use in my system, then the Ground Control line wasn’t likely to do much in any other part of my system.

CAD turned out to be a pretty efficient shop and I had the GC1 in my hands a week after I placed my order.  Opening the box revealed that the GC1 is small enough that it can be placed almost anywhere and as expected, its subdued black acrylic design won’t call attention to itself.  After examining the clean fit and finish for a few minutes and taking note of its substantial heft (10 lbs), I got to work creating just enough space between the HRS M3 isolation platforms for my transport and DAC to be able to straddle the GC1 between the M3 platforms.  I then plugged the ground wires into the unused AES/EBU output of the transport and an unused spdif input of the DAC.  I had read that the effect of grounding generally takes time to show up so instead of testing I went back to watching my Blu-Ray boxset of the television series Person of Interest, intending to leave critical listening to another day.

I pressed play on the next episode of the series and the intro began to play.  Well that’s strange I thought, I don’t remember hearing that in the music playing over the intro.  Hmmmm.  I kept watching and then the bass hit with a punch that I had never heard from that part of the music.  I made a mental note and watched the episode.  Started the next episode – the show intro ran again – everything I had heard earlier was confirmed, but even more so.  It didn’t make any sense – it’s a small box, there’s no way it’s making *that* much of a difference.  There’s only one way to settle this I thought – I pulled out my Japanese Blu-Ray of Dredd – my current go to test movie. 

The intro credits certainly seemed punchier.  Then the movie started playing and I was sure – low level detail that I had never heard was now audible.  Bass heft and punch were markedly improved.  Over the next few days those improvements continued to increase in effect and were similarly reflected in two channel listening where additional improvements in low end drive and articulation were also audible. Impressive. 

I played around with connecting the GC1 to the DAC and my preamp as recommended by CAD but I didn’t like it as much.  In that configuration, the low end detail and drive were lessened but the music in turn appeared to take on better flow.  It’s something I plan to explore in respect of the preamp along with mains earth grounding via the Ground Control GC3, both at a later date.

We are experiencing an amazing era in audio as talented designers push beyond established narrow minded thinking and explore ever more corners of the audio universe.  I’m still not sure how the CAD Ground Control GC1 does what it does, but the performance improvements it draws out of system components are significant and undeniable.  Grounding treatment now takes its place next to isolation and power treatment as a critical component if one intends to extract the ultimate performance from a system.  I guess there’s only one thing left me for me to say – thanks Fedex (they finally found my Triton a little over two months after they lost it and the Triton v3 did what I expected so in the end I got a lot more  than I expected and thank goodness for that).


Tweaking: Stillpoints Ultra 5 vs Star Sound Audio Points

On the face of it, this is a ridiculously unfair comparison – a Stillpoints Ultra 5 in black with bullet spike and thread is just about $800 a piece, while the limited edition 2.5” Audio Point in my system is about $150 a piece.  Multiply that by eight and you’re comparing a $6,000 tweak to a $1,000 one.   But such is life in the audio world and everything I read on reviews and user comments regarding Stillpoints was effusive praise and I’m always looking for relatively reasonable expenditures that can deliver material performance improvements to my system.  

This all started late last year when I got a good deal on a full set of new black Ultra 5s.  I couldn’t resist and so placed the order.  A note about my using the bullet spikes since I see very few people using them  – the floor in my audio room is tile on concrete and like most floors it isn’t perfectly flat, I needed to use bullet spikes with the Ultra 5s.  I was told the bullet spikes wouldn’t be detrimental and might even enhance performance.

So, as I typically do with a new tweak, I removed the Audio Points from the bottom of my Focal Maestros and swapped in the Ultra 5s and prepared to listened to my setup for a month.  Then I would switch back to the Audio Points and make a determination.

I’m typically leery of ascribing much weight to first impressions in audio but I couldn’t help but notice from the first day that the system sound had changed materially with the Ultra 5s – in the win column, bass was super nimble, but that was coupled with a lack of any real weight - very obvious with piano, for example. More of an issue was that the treble was no longer universally smooth, but could become harsh in certain circumstances – any harshness had earlier disappeared with the addition of the D’Agostino M400s but now it was back.  The harshness wasn’t intolerable in general, but where present, it was difficult to listen to the song.  As a result, I had no choice but to move the treble jumper on my Focals back to its neutral position – which helped to mostly alleviate the issue.  I typically keep it to the high position for a more open presentation.  Finally, the midrange was pushed forward in the soundstage which was different; not good or bad.  These impressions remained consistent over my listening period.

In addition, as I listened over the month I identified a distinctive musical presentation with the Ultra 5s -  with them on my Focals, I was able to clearly identify each performer on the soundstage.  It was almost as if they each had a type of audible outline.   But the strange thing was that the performers always sounded like they were playing in their positions solo – the music had lost its coherency and instruments no longer played off of one another.  It was as if the performers had been recorded separately and then photoshopped onto the stage if that makes any sense.

At the end of the month, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Could speaker footers really change the music so much.  Maybe I was just imagining an amazing system that I never actually had.  Thankfully, my suspicions were unfounded - as soon as the Audio Points returned so did the music.  

So my experience with Stillpoints was materially different than the hype.  Oh well, time to find something new to play with.


Tweaking: Furutech FI-50 Gold

I tend to consider changes for many months before taking the plunge – I want to ensure that I am intimately familiar with the current configuration of my system such that I can ensure that I am in a position to be clear on the specific shortcoming I plan on addressing with the change and as important, the reason for that shortcoming – I want to minimize the chances that I am adding a new coloration rather than solving the actual issue.  But other times, it’s a case where a change is icing and thus, doesn’t make sense to apply before I actually finish the cake.  This is one of those times.

I can’t remember how I first came across VH Audio.  Probably when I was first looking to convert a UK-style outlet to US outlets and ran across the perfect solution – the VH Audio Hot Box.  From there, I took a chance on that company's signature product, the VH Audio Airsine power cord.  The Airsine was a revelation and I’ve been “collecting” them ever since.  I now have six Airsines – powering everything from the front end of my audio system to my A/V system (an extension of my audio system).

Furutech releases some very interesting products – top notch workmanship but their love of rhodium keeps me away from their top end products. Thankfully, VH Audio understands this recalcitrance and a few years ago commissioned an exclusive run of gold-plated Furutech FI-50 power connectors.

I had always been curious about how those connectors would sound on my Airsines but my Oyaide P004/C004 connectors have always been stellar performers and I had bigger fish to fry in terms of my system performance.   But the time finally came when these bigger fish were indeed quite crispy and I was ready to consider the FI-50 golds.

For once, I was quite happy with my system, so I didn’t need to upgrade or fix anything.  As a result, I took my time looking for an attractive buy in the secondary market.

After a few months, a used Airsine with the Furutech FI-50 gold connectors came up for sale in the secondary market for less money than the connectors themselves.  I made the purchase and later installed the Airsine on my pre and was horrified.  Very shrill top end and recessed midrange with no bass heft.  I was so confused that I emailed VH Audio to see if the Airsine construction had changed – it had not.  I talked to the seller – apparently the Airsine had been in storage for a few years and after then speaking again with VH Audio, I was informed that after not being used for an extended period, the Airsine needed a re-break in.  Made no sense to me but playing music nonstop for a week in the background wouldn’t kill me and the money was already out the door so I broke it in again.  I still don’t understand why break in can make such a drastic difference but it does and it did.  This was the Airsine that I knew so well but with increased low level articulation and a little bit of added sweetness and weight.  

The new Furutech connectors were as impressive in performance as they were ridiculous in price.  Having been assured of the improvement, I then in turn replaced the Oyaide connectors on the other component Airsines with FI-50 gold connectors and enjoyed the fruits of my curiosity.


Thanks.  I'm strictly silver discs at this point for a few reasons - first no room (anyway, if I did have more room I think a Shunyata Triron V3 and maybe Typhon QR would have first priority), second I tend to listen to albums all the way through and so I'm switching discs only every 45min to an hour so it's not a big deal in terms of ease of use and finally, streaming seems to be all over the place now and I'd rather wait for it to shake out than be part of the beta testing atm (it reminds me a lot of CD playback - it took 20 years for it to sound good and another 10 years after that to where it wasn't playing second fiddle to anything).


4 letters is the only way to describe your setup - S O T A!

Do you stream music with Roon or another software? Or only SACD/CD?

Ag insider logo xs@2xshadorne

Thanks for the kind words and glad you enjoyed the story.  I don't see enough journey stories, mostly it's people reviewing components which really doesn't give a true insight into the hobby and what it's like to build a system you enjoy.  The struggle is pretty universal irrespective of budget, although budget flexibility does provide more options (which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the circumstances).  As much as I thought I knew what I was doing when I started and even midway through the process, it was ultimately a humbling learning experience and required a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance and patience.


I enjoyed reading your long and now satisfactory audio road.  I can share your feeling and anxieties. Very well written. Thank you.


Thanks.  That's just kind of how it came out.  I know a lot of people deride MIT Cables because of the "boxes" but they've always sounded right to me.  Not that I've heard even the majority of the the many many brands of cables out there, but I've never had a desire to look elsewhere.  In fact, now that I think about it, I think MIT and Ayre are the two brands that survived all the way from my very first system until now, although what I'm using now and what I used back then are worlds apart.


Really nice system! Unusual to see MIT cables without Spectral gear but why not? They are excellent. I used a complete loom for many years.


Thanks for your kind words.  It's always fun to share experiences especially these days where reviewers seem to actively avoid comparisons with products in similar performance categories so it is hard to find helpful information.


Great system page.  Congrats on an amazing system.  Thanks for your detailed and insightful product comparisons!  Reminds me of the old days of the ‘Gon.  Might spend some more time here again.  Cheers!


The ability to place the speakers well in front of the plane of the TV was one of the critical setup points to me. 

Diffusion, that's actually a good idea; I hadn't considered that.  Not sure though what kind of diffusion panel would be portable enough to be able to move around.  I'll have to do some research.


Very true about the room. You have a nice setup. Your speakers are much more into the room than the TV. I think some sort of diffusion panel in front of the TV (when not watching, and purely listening), should resolve the soundstage depth issue.


Thanks.  The M400s are amazing - I'm still always impressed at how they're able to disentangle complex passages but keep the musicality of it all.  I bought them because I needed more current down low, but what I got was a stunning amount of performance across the board.  Once I heard them and then shortly after that got the V2 firmware for my DA2, I knew I had reached my goal.

Well, the room is the most important component since if it's got issues it almost doesn't matter what your components can do.  I'm amazed when I see people putting mega buck systems into messed up rooms - all that money is going up in smoke because the room gets in the way.  Not that you need a perfect room, but you need to make sure you get the room set straight or else save your money.  My biggest issues at the moment with my room is that (1) it's a living room so there is only so much treatment I can apply and (2) I have a huge TV stuck in the middle of the speakers which I can treat, but it's always going to kill soundstage depth in that area.


Very upscale system. Congratulations on your new amps.
Thank you for sharing your experience. It always feels good when you make a small change and experience some major improvement.
Something silly happened to me very recently. I purchased a new set of loudspeakers and put my old ones on sale. I neatly packed them up and set them behind my chair, about 4 feet back on the right and left side, against the wall. So these boxes were next to the sound panels behind me. I was struggling to get a "lock" on the center image. My speakers were sold on Audiogon and I moved the 2 boxes out of the room. Came back home and fired up the system. Guess what? The center image were "locked" in place and vocals were crystal clean. The overall imaging is pin-point and coherent at the same time. I had not realized that the boxes behind were causing the reflections that was messing up the sound.
Feels elated when you get major improvement in audio without spending a single dime :-)


Remedial Course: Shunayata Denali

I recently got a remedial course in how setup can have a critical impact on the performance of an audio system.

I purchased a Shunyata Denali 6000/S in late summer last year a few months after I purchased my Focal Maestro Utopia III speakers.  I found that it made a nice improvement in the system, particularly in noise floor, control of bass and treble smoothness. 

I really wasn't spending too much time focusing on the Denali after that since my Ayre MX-R Twenties were having a hard time with the nasty impedance curve of my new Maestros.  I researched the issue and realized that the amps simply petered out between 4 and 2 ohms and these were speakers that needed massive amounts of current into 2 ohms.  I ultimately replaced the Ayres with D'Agostino Momentum M400 mono blocs which given their doubling of wattage from 8 to 4 to 2 ohms, I expected to solve system speed and transient issues.  While there was a definite improvement in performance with the M400s, I was still experiencing to some degree the slow speed, blunted transients and lack of air and shimmer.  After letting the M400s break in for a month, these issues weren't getting any better, and for a sanity check, I pulled out the Denali and while the noise floor was higher, all the speed, attack, air and shimmer returned.

So I emailed my dealer just to let him know my experience and that the Denali was coming out of my system. He was really surprised and said that the Denali was one of the few products in his many years in audio that had almost universally positive feedback, particularly with high end systems. He said he'd email Shunyata and let me know.  Shunyata couldn't understand why the Denali was causing these issues in my system but sent some things to try - one of which is to use the unit as intended (I had been sitting it on its side on two HRS nimbus assemblies due to lack of space - the 6000/T was too wide to fit in the same space due to its spread out feet or I would have ordered that).

Since I was long overdue for my biennial system cleaning anyway, I went ahead with that and stripped the system down completely which allowed me upon rebuilding it, to temporarily configure the system so that the Denali was used as intended - on its own feet on hard tile over concrete. Having checked the connections, I hit play - WOW were there transients, but the top end still didn't have the proper air and shimmer.

I know my speakers and they are tipped down in the brilliance region (which generally helps with real world untreated rooms but this is the region in the audio spectrum that produces air and shimmer) so I figured that the Denali was doing something Focal did not expect - delivering very clean power. Thankfully, this was solvable thanks to Focal's wonderful jumper system - I set the tweeter jumper to high (a +1db boost) and the treble was again airy with the right shimmer.

So all good? Not quite. I started to reassemble the system and as I usually do, placed HRS nimbus assemblies under all components and cable network boxes for my MIT cables. UGH! Sluggish again and blunted transients. Hmm...  So I started systemically removing the nimbus assemblies, first from the speaker networks and then from the interconnect networks (they remain under all my components in combination with HRS platforms). Transient attack and speed returned and all was well again.

Lessons learned:

(1) Use components as intended/the manufacturer generally knows best

(2) Get to know your system (speaker measurements are invaluable although that's more a result of the good fortune of having a Stereophile review or similar review which includes measurements)

(3) Sometimes you can't appreciate what something is doing until you take away other things (even if those things that you take away worked amazingly well earlier)/ it's a whole system and some things don't play well with each other


In my below comments about the EMM Labs TX2/DA2 I said that "If it gets any better than this, I don’t need to know".  I’m here to admit that I was VERY wrong. I definitely needed to know and am glad that I now do. 

While the TX2/DA2 was the best digital I had heard upon release, the recent V2 firmware upgrade is pretty mind blowing. I went from having a great source to the source I always dreamed of. 

My initial impression was as follows:

The vocals, instrument delineation, density of what's there, added meat on the bone, harmonic richness, musicality - WOW!!!!! Everything that was lacking has been addressed - it is now the player that I hoped it would be. 

After further listening a few other items stood out to me:

-  The low level information I am hearing now is stunning - sucking me into the performance. 

- The last vestige of lean-nes in the treble has been banished to the point where I can maximally enjoy the benefits of the beryllium tweeter in my speakers without any hint of fatigue. 

- Distance between performers front to back is more obvious which now perfectly compliments the existing width of the Soundstage.   

- While transients are a touch slower than before, they are more natural and explosiveness is startling. 

The best compliment I can give the DA2 is that it's now so good that I can finally declare my system done after 12 years of work.


Very sad day today.  Another legendary craftsman has passed:

Charles Hansen 1956 - 2017

With heavy hearts, we regret to inform you that Charles Hansen, founder of Ayre Acoustics, has passed away on November 28th, 2017.  Those who knew Charley knew that he was a passionate man who always stood up for what he believed to be right.  His family knew him as a loving and dedicated father of his two children.  With the passing of Charley, the world has lost one of the most creative and innovative minds in the audio industry and we have lost a good friend.
While we can never replace Charley, his spirit lives on in the team at Ayre. We are dedicated to continuing his mission of creating and manufacturing the best sounding audio equipment in the world. Most importantly, we will be there for our friends, partners, and customers who have supported us over the years.


Audition: Ayre -R Twenty Series vs. D'Agostino Momentum Series

I've owned the top of the line Ayre gear for quite some time. I had the KX-R first, then added the MX-R, then the KX-R Twenty and most recently the MX-R Twenty. The KX-R and the MX-R were very good, the KX-R Twenty transcendent and the MX-R Twenty excellent.

I recently purchased Focal Maestro Utopia speakers and it became clear that the MX-R Twenty monos were not getting everything I was looking for from the speakers versus their performance with my earlier Focal Scala Utopias. The Maestros are an admittedly very difficult load - dropping to sub-4 ohms in places (1.7 ohms in the worst case) - requiring amplification that can deliver massive amounts of current down into 2 ohms.

Having heard nothing but praise for the Momentum monos (plus, size wise they are close enough to my MX-R Twenties that no additional space will be needed in my setup - just swapping out the feet on the HRS stands), I figured I had a legitimate excuse to check them out, but expected to be underwhelmed as I almost always am when I hear touted gear. However, I'm always open to being proven wrong.

So, while on break recently I had the amazing opportunity to spend five hours or so over a couple of days to compare the top of the line efforts from Ayre and D'Agostino in a system with which I was relatively familiar.

Ultimately it was a split decision, with the M400 clearly showing superiority over the MX-R Twenty in every aspect (although at twice the price and with questionable aesthetics - besides the love it or hate it steampunk, the metal finish is pretty lazy in contrast to the beautifully textured lenticular finish of the Ayres) while the KX-R Twenty stayed true - an elite preamplifier that shows that it isn't easy for even a great amp designer to design a pre that can hang with Charlie's masterpiece (which is amazingly compact and gorgeous to boot).

MX-R Twenty vs. Momentum M400
Full disclosure: The dealer only had the original MX-R but in my experience, the Twenty is an evolution of the original and I am quite familiar with what changed vis-a-vis the original since I've owned the original for many years and the Twenties since the start of the year.

What really surprised me was the clear superiority of the M400 with a speaker like the Avalon Isis that the original MX-R drove amazingly well (in fact, it was that combo that made me fall for the Isis - still an amazing speaker). The M400s exhibited an iron fist on the woofers and the speakers generally but also showed a tender side, bringing out more inner detail in voices and instruments while also producing highs that were sublimely smooth.

With respect to the tweeter, something very interesting occurred. I was always under the impression that the slight whitish tinge/slight piercing nature on cymbals, etc. in some recordings was a necessary evil of accurate reproduction on a metal tweeter. However, that doesn't seem to be the case. Those recordings exhibited the same whitish/piercing nature on Avalon's diamond tweeters. However, when we switched to the M400 that characteristic disappeared. Did the M400 roll off the highs? Not that I can detect but I can't be 100% sure.

The other characteristic of the M400 that I want to point out is that it is warmer than the MX-R Twenty - not by a large amount but it was noticeable. With a warmer speaker that might prove to be a little much if you're looking for anything close to accurate reproduction.

While I do feel that the Momentum M400 is clearly superior to the MX-R Twenty, my existing opinion of the top of the line Ayre monos remains unchanged - they are excellent and remain legitimate end game amps. For those not wanting to pay the ridiculous pricepoint of the D'Agostinos, not having difficult to drive speakers and/or having warm(er) speakers, the MX-R Twenties could definitely be the right call.

KX-R Twenty vs. Momentum Pre
Full disclosure: The Momentum Pre was only auditioned with the D'Agostino M400s since the Momentum Pre plus MX-R Twenties wouldn't address the performance concerns I am currently experiencing in respect of the Focal Maestros.

After been having been mightily impressed with the Momentum M400s, I decided to push my luck and see if I could be impressed with back to back hyped audio products.

Once the KX-R Twenty was replaced with the Momentum Pre, the pace of the whole system seemed to get noticeably slower. In my earlier review of the KX-R Twenty I noted "Pace and timing are now rock solid... the Twenty oozes confidence, not missing a beat no matter what type of music is thrown at it." After my audition, I'll double down on the above and say that after hearing the D'Agostino piece, it became even clearer to me as to how exceptional the KX-R Twenty's pace and timing are. Across a wide range of music, the KX-R Twenty was on the money. The Momentum on the other hand was fine with slower paced music like Sarah McLaughlin all the way up through typical jazz but just couldn't keep up with the pace of the action when things got hot on Caravan on Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now live album and on Good Pain on Live's newly remastered Mental Jewelry.

The D'Agostino combo also proved too much of a good thing in terms of tone. While the warmth of the M400s was welcomed, when coupled with the Momentum Pre it wrapped every CD in a cocoon of honeycomb - sweetening the presentation to such a degree that I wasn't sure if on 2Pac's All Eyez on Me he was rapping or serenading me.

In all fairness, the performance of the Momentum Pre was impressive in many areas and overall it is a very good sounding unit; however, it was just outclassed in most aspects by the KX-R Twenty. Had it not been up against an elite preamplifier like the KX-R Twenty, the Momentum Pre's shortcomings may not have been quite as obvious. Certainly I could see how a person could prefer the Momentum Pre in a cold(er) system, have tastes in slow to mid-paced music exclusively and/or like the sweet coating of honey on their music (which admittedly, can be very addicting).


So finally got the Maestros installed.  WOW.  On another level entirely than the Scalas.  From the first second of playback, it was obvious that there was no comparison.  The midrange clarity is startling.  The tweeter is so much smoother than the one on the Scala.  The seamless top to bottom integration is something that I didn't expect.  I was really worried about the low end overpowering the room, but it's actually much better in that regard than the Scalas.  Really everything I hoped it would be and then some.  And that's with no break in.  Can't wait to hear the final results.


Thanks for the kind words; I am really enjoying it.  The speakers are fantastic and I've got a lot of enjoyment out of them (bought them shortly after release) but they have a few minor shortcomings so I'll be upgrading them at some point (waiting for my new place and expect by that time the Utopia IV line should be released).


Awesome system!   I am very envious of those speakers!


Review: EMM Labs TX2 Limited Edition CD/SACD Transport and DA2 Stereo DAC

I've been looking for a proper digital front end since I decided that while I loved my Wadia 861se GNSC Statement CDP, it was hopelessly colored, closed in and limited in its detail retrieval.  Given that, over the past few years I’ve been on the hunt for a single box CDP with digital inputs that I could live with long term.


I've historically been a Wadia fan because their players got the most important thing in music right – drive (in fact, I still have a Wadia S7i GNSC Statement CDP - Wadia's last CDP - that I intend to use in a secondary system once I get the space).  Wadia's players have always been unparalleled in my experience in driving the music forward.  Up until now, subsequent to the death of Wadia (what exists now has no relation to the original company), I have not heard any digital that has gotten that right since.  When I replaced my Wadia 861se with the original XDS1, I sacrificed that drive for the significantly lower coloration, better and more open top end and midrange and the vastly greater resolution of the XDS1.  But not having that drive always bothered me, and along with the mid-hall presentation of the XDS1 (I prefer being closer to the stage) and the good but I never felt quite right treble, I was never fully satisfied with that CDP, even in V2 guise.  


Hearing that EMM Labs would not be releasing a replacement for the XDS1 V2 and that the EMM Labs TX2 Transport is a limited edition (50 units I believe) and would likely be the last CD spinner from EMM Labs, made me seriously consider the latest EMM Labs combo.  I re-examined the limited space I currently have for my system and eventually decided that a two-box digital solution could be shoehorned in with some rearranging.  Having settled that and having worked out the potential logistics with EMM Labs, the Fred Crowder Dagogo review favorably comparing the TX2/DA2, particularly in the low end and leading edge, to the Esoteric P-02/D-02 (which I’ve heard do its thing), meant that I was all in. 


The EMM Labs TX2/DA2 is, simply put, a statement digital music delivery system.  At a very basic level, the EMM Labs designers/engineers have taken the positive aspects of the XDS1 V2 and made them significantly better while fixing all of the shortcomings that kept me from ever really falling in love with that CDP.  On a more holistic level, EMM Labs has delivered on the promise of digital - one that leaves no question that digital has finally arrived (without the need for any bandaids).


EMM Labs’ new reference digital combo has everything that one could ever want - resolution top to bottom that is generations beyond their single box CDP (which was not a slouch), highs that are smooth and accurate (violin is as smooth as it is in real life while cymbals have just the right amount of bite and definition), unlimited dynamic range and musicality without coloration that I can detect – plus the best aspects of Wadia - drive and solidity in the bass/fully developed foundation to the music.  It’s purely a bonus that the clean industrial design of the units, without the shiny buttons of earlier pieces and with a grey strip down the middle, is a beautiful evolution of the EMM Labs aesthetic and befitting the sonics (although the blingy footers were not so well received but nothing that some black electrical tape can’t fix).


When I began building a new system 10+ years ago, my goal was to build a system that made music as fun my first system (that system began my love affair with music and was a system that I couldn't stop listening to well into the night and typically much longer than planned – components were: Wadia 850, Levinson 38, Ayre V-3, B&W 804 and MIT cabling), but with accurate uncolored reproduction of music including state-of-the-art dynamics and resolution.  Notwithstanding my best efforts, I’ve been struggling with that. While I eventually put together a great system (EMM Labs XDS1 V2, Ayre KX-R Twenty, Ayre MX-R Twenty, Focal Scala Utopia and MIT Oracle MA cabling) that I've greatly enjoyed listening to for the last few years, I never got that "just one more song" pull that I had with my first system - that is, until one night this past month with the TX2/DA2 - a planned short 20 minute listening session to see how the system sounded after break in that was supposed to end just before midnight extended past 2AM and I had to forcibly stop so that I could get enough sleep to function at work the next day.  Just as pleasant a surprise was that my wife, who couldn't care less about high end audio (she tolerates my audio "hobby"), was right next to me asking for one more song and then just one more and then another.  We went through a range of music - Nina Simone (Sinner Man, My Baby Just Cares For Me, I Put a Spell on You), Chicago OST (Overture/ and all that jazz), The Mission OST (On Earth as it is in Heaven, Falls, Gabriel's Oboe), Crosby, Stills & Nash (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), Billie Idol (Rebel Yell), Phil Collins (In the Air Tonight), CCR (Fortunate Son, I Put a Spell on You), Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven) and a few others.


After that night, I paused all major upgrades to the system - I just want to enjoy the music.  I'm both overjoyed and relieved to finally have achieved the goal I (naively) set out with in 2006 - a goal that in recent years I was increasingly coming to accept as not likely to happen (I thought I would have to sacrifice uncolored sound to bring back the joy).  


Ultimately, I don’t think I can sum up the achievement that is the EMM Labs TX2 LE CD/SACD Transport and DA2 Stereo DAC any better than to say that I’m in full agreement with Fred Crowder’s closing comment in his review - "If it gets any better than this, I don’t need to know".

Note: I replaced the included ST fiber optic cable with an Aural Symphonics Lotus Optimism ST fiber optic cable.


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