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Friday, June 19, 2015

Audiophile Speaker Review!
Paradigm Prestige Series 15B
Two-Way Stand/Shelf Speaker

©Everything Audio Network

Brevis...
Price: $799 each
Likes: accuracy, imaging and size
Dislikes: not a thing, nada, zero
Wow Factor: Big sound/small speaker
More info:  Paradigm Prestige 15B

by John Gatski
  The last high-end Paradigm small monitor that I reviewed, the Signature S2, was five years ago and, boy, did I gush about that speaker’s finesse. For $1,500 each, I expected the Paradigm S2 stand speaker to excel. And it did.
  The new Prestige 15B sells for half the price, but what you get is a fantastic, accurate, small monitor that exhibits pin-point imaging and exemplary accuracy for a mid-priced speaker. The speaker mixed so well with my amplifiers that I had no hesitation in playing symphonies, loud rock n’ roll, laid-back jazz and classical guitar recordings.
Features
  Priced at $799 each, the small, bookshelf Prestige 15Bs is designed with premium drivers, crossover and cabinet materials. The vented enclosure features a 5.5-inch woofer (Active Ridge Technology overmolded surround, SHOCK-Mount isolation mounting system and 1.5-inch voice coil). The 1-inch, ferro-fluid-cooled HF driver utilizes Paradigm’s PPA Tweeter lens and FEA-optimized pole-piece assembly design to deliver smooth, linear upper-frequency response. The second-order crossover is set at 2 kHz, in my opinion, the optimal frequency for a small two-way.
  The Paradigm Prestige 15B compact small speaker is a serious audiophile speaker designed for small rooms and listening in the near and midfield. Within 10 feet of the listening position, these speakers are extremely articulate with excellent stereo imaging and depth. Many of my reference hi-res tracks were impressively showcased through the Prestige 15B pair.

  The rigid-braced, solid-cabinet construction minimizes unwanted resonances, and the rear port enhances low-bass response — without adding extra mid-bass, a trick many small speakers employ to create more audible bass, but at the expense of accuracy. Not this little Paradigm Prestige 15B; plenty of clean 100 Hz to 60 Hz bass.
Driver/cabinet design
  Paradigm put a lot of effort into making an accurate speaker at a reasonable price with the Prestige line. Key to its balanced performance are the custom drivers and advanced cabinet design, made in house, as well as extensive product testing in Paradigm’s sophisticated anechoic chamber.
  According to Oleg Bogdanov, director of Paradigm Engineering, the tweeter design is paramount to listenable accuracy. “Dome shape plays a major role in sound quality. If the dome radius is too big – i.e. shallow dome - the dome break-up frequency (parts of the dome move out of phase) can be too low and that is well within the human hearing range – 20 Hz to 20 kHz.”
Anatomy of a Prestige Series tweeter

  “This can add coloration to the reproduced sound (octave below 20 kHz limit), which may be perceived as “metallic,” he added. “Therefore, the dome profile needs to be optimized” to sound accurate. Bogdanov emphasized that the Prestige line’s tweeter dome material and treatment are very important considerations as well. “X-PAL uses an anodizing process, which enhances damping properties of the dome — in addition to improving its environmental stability,” he noted.
  Bogdanov also stressed the importance of synergizing woofer and cabinet design to achieve realistic bass reproduction. “We design and build our own drivers for specific applications, such as 15B bookshelf cabinet, and of a very specific size and shape. To achieve smooth and extended bass response, without bumps and troughs, woofer parameters need to fall within a very narrow range. Magnet type and dimensions, voice-coil winding length, wire material, gauge and number of wire turns, flexibility (or, as we call it, compliance) of suspension elements – spider and cone surround, and mass of moving components: all of them must be right.” The cabinet tuning and using correct port diameter and length, as well as the exact amount and placement of very specific damping material, is another critical aspect, according to Bogdanov.
Extensive design/testing for Prestige 15B woofer/midrange

  Bodanov said proper testing is paramount to ensuring the company’s speaker designs are optimized. “Without an accurate measurement system and anechoic chamber, it is hard to verify whether the above considerations bring the desired results,” he explained. “Quasi-anechoic measurements that many other companies are using require splicing of low- and high-frequency measurements, but the accuracy of the method is not sufficient. Our anechoic chamber provides true bass response for most speakers and require small corrections for ultra low frequencies for subwoofers.”
  All that research/design and testing methodology has certainly paid off with the Prestige line’s baby brother speaker. The 15B speaker design boasts a factory response curve of plus, minus 2 dB from 57 Hz to 20 kHz, on-axis. (17 kHz at 30 degrees off-axis). The easy-to-drive, 8 ohm speaker has a listed room sensitivity of 90 dB, 1W/1meter. Maximum input power is 90-watts per speaker.
  "To achieve smooth and extended bass response, without bumps and troughs, woofer parameters need to fall within a very narrow range. Magnet type and dimensions, voice-coil winding length, wire material, gauge and number of wire turns, flexibility (or, as we call it, compliance) of suspension elements – spider and cone surround, and mass of moving components: all of them must be right." 

   The 15B dimensions are (including grille and terminal cups): 12.375-inches tall × 7-inches wide and 10.875-inches deep. Weight is 16 pounds per speaker. They come in separate shipping cartons.
  Per usual with Paradigm, these made-in-Canada speakers are well built and very attractive. Even a picky high-end audiophile will like the aesthetic of this speaker. Cabinet finishes come in Gloss Piano Black, Midnight Cherry, Satin Walnut (the review sample pair) and Satin Black Walnut. The five-way binding posts are easily accessible and the magnet-attached grill makes removal a snap.
  The speaker can be used as a serious audiophile speaker in small rooms, or it can be linked up with other Prestige loudspeakers to form a home cinema speaker system. Buy the 15Bs for surround, along with the tower Prestige 75F, center channel Prestige 45C and Paradigm sub — you got one serious surround system.
A perfect speaker for stand mounting

  I had heard the Prestige at a brief demo at 2015 CES. and I was impressed at how well it held up against its bigger brothers in terms of 80-Hz+ bass, midrange depth and “air” in the treble response. My notes from the show showed several stars — as a reminder that the baby Paradigm speakers had potential. A good small speaker, can be musically satisfying and as accurate as bigger, multi-driver speakers — especially in small-to-medium rooms, where the placement equation becomes easier.
  I have always been a fan of small speakers, like the Paradigm Signature S2 and the Legacy Studio HD, because I can easily integrate them into a room. You can place them closer to walls, easily angle them and perform all sorts of different placement options to get them to sound good. it’s not so easy with big speakers.
The setup
  I set up the Prestige 15B pair in an audiophile stand arrangement — about 10 feet away from my main listener position. The speakers were placed on Apollo speaker stands, which put them right at ear level with my listening position. I toed in the speakers a few degrees and tried them with grills on and off. Since they look good with them on and the grills have minimal audible effect, I left the grills on.
  The speakers were paired with several different amps including two digital amps (Rogue Audio Medusa tube/digital hybrid and the ultra economic 200 wpc Class D Essence DPA-440. I also connected the pint-sized speakers to my heavyweight power amps: a Bryston 14B-SST bipolar output Class AB stereo amp and a Pass Labs X350.5 Class A-A/B MOSFET amp.
Bass port enhances low-end output 

  Preamps included the Coda High Current design, the new Rogue Audio RP-5 tube preamp and the audio feed from an Oppo HA-1’s discrete HP-to-line output. Other DACs included Benchmark DAC2-DX and the Mytek Manhattan. Sources included Clear Audio turntable with AT-150ML cartridge, Oppo BDP-105 and a Dell Venue 8 tablet with USB Audio Player Pro, which allowed me to play up to 24-bit/384 music without cluttering up the space with a computer. I mounted the tablet via a clamp to a mic stand and set it next to my Ikea listening chair.
  Speakers on hand were Legacy Studio HD stand speakers, my reference electrostatic MartinLogan Montis, Pass Labs SR-2 three-way towers and Westlake LC 8.1 two-way stand speakers. All speakers were cabled with Wireworld Equinox cables. Line components also were linked via Wireworld cables. Essential Sound Products Essence II Reference power cords and passive power strip linked the components to the AC.
  Since the Prestige 15B speakers were brand spanking new, I “burned“ them in for three days via test tones and multi-plays of symphonic music.
The audition
  First up was the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD, recorded by Tom Jung in 1999 for the DMP label. The drum cymbals on “Autumn Leaves” are some of the most accurate ever recorded and there is lot of “musical space“ between the drums, piano and bass from this live-to-DSD recording. A good set of speakers evokes the studio space impression of this recording and can present the realistic drum cymbal sheen without being brittle.
  The 15Bs really nailed the cymbals, and the metal dome tweeter maintained a smoothness that is surprising for this price class. Instrument location, in width and depth within the stereo image, also impressed me. For a two-way, these speakers are very articulate.
  The speakers lack the deepest bass, but there is enough 50 Hz to 80 Hz bass that it does not seem bass shy with most music. On stands in the middle of the room, my RTA revealed relatively flat bass response to 60 Hz. And the bass is clean. Adding a subwoofer can get you more low bass if you want it, but I would not call these speakers bass shy.
  The 15Bs also emerged as a winner. The smoothness of the crossover and the lack of stridency in the tweeter made for pleasurable listening sessions with the Dire Straits — Brothers in Arms DVD-A (24/48) and The Rolling Stones — Some Girls Deluxe Edition hi-res reissue (24/88.2).

  Turning to classical music, I played the Mercury Living Presence SACD reissue of Janos Starker — Bach: The Complete Cello Suites. The little two-ways filled up the room with a convincing presentation of those wonderful cello string harmonics and such spacious imaging for a single instrument. As per other good speakers I have listened with this disc, I could hear the subtle background noises of the recording: chair squeak, breathing, etc.
  The crossover/driver synergy makes this an easy speaker to listen to solo instruments. Its sound is not too forward or too recessed. The cello’s bass oomph was not quite as deep as the much bigger Pass speakers or the MLs active subwoofer, but the 15B’s satisfactorily reproduced the essential mid-bass tones.
  On Pop and Rock recordings, the 15Bs also emerged as a winner. The smoothness of the crossover and the lack of stridency in the tweeter made for pleasurable listening sessions with the Dire StraitsBrothers in Arms DVD-A (24/48) and The Rolling StonesSome Girls Deluxe Edition hi-res reissue (24/88.2). The “Money for Nothing” power chord punch shines on this speaker even though the bass is not as big as with larger speakers. And on the Stones’ Some Girls Deluxe Edition, those marvelous bonus tracks kicked butt through the 15Bs. I particularly liked the Country-Rock tinged “Don’t Be A Stranger” and “Do You Think I Really Care.” The bonus tracks are some of the best-sounding Stones recordings ever made, and the Prestige 15Bs certainly did them justice.
Fit fore a pro
  Because of the 15Bs’ compact size, yet accuracy persona, I could not resist putting them into my home recording suite. Though not self-powered as most pro speakers are these days, the Prestige 15Bs made for an excellent nearfield monitor.
 Because of the 15Bs’ compact size, yet accuracy persona, I could not resist putting them into my home recording suite. Though not self-powered as most pro speakers are these days, the Prestige 15Bs made for an excellent nearfield monitor.

  I did numerous editing sessions with the little Paradigms. The system consisted of a Mac computer, linking its USB output to a Benchmark DAC2-DX DAC, which fed its variable line output to a Pass XA-30 Class A MOSFET amp and the Prestige 15Bs. Other than lacking full, under 50-Hz bass, this speaker is more accurate than many of the popular small pro speakers that are used today in the home recording world. Paradigm should make a powered version of this speaker, call it Prestige Pro 15B and get it into musician/pro audio dealers. It’s that good!

The verdict
  The Paradigm Prestige 15B compact small speaker is a serious audiophile speaker designed for small rooms and listening in the near and midfield. Within 10 feet of the listening position, these speakers are extremely articulate with excellent stereo imaging and depth. Many of my reference hi-res tracks were impressively showcased through the Prestige 15B pair; many tracks sounded as good as through some $8,000 speakers I have tested.
  The little Paradigms lack the bottom octave of deep bass (hey, it's a single 5.5-inch woofer in a small cabinet) but the 15B has good, honest bass down 55-60 Hz — and without the mid-bass bloat of lesser, small monitors. I can’t think of one negative about these speakers. One big Stellar Sound Award for a pair of impressive, small speakers.
  John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net 







Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Audiophile Turntable/Preamp Review!
VPI Scout 1.1, Luminous Audio Arion
“Turntable, Preamp With Accuracy Focus”


©Everything Audio Network

Brevis...
Price: Scout 1.1 ($2,000); Arion($6,395)
Likes: tracking, accuracy, rugged USA build
Dislikes: must have expert arm setup (VPI)
Wow Factor: masterful vinyl playback system
More info:  VPI, Luminous Audio


by John Gatski
  As much as I am a proponent of pushing digital recording and playback’s ultimate resolution and realism for music playback (Tom Jung and I, as an audio journalist, were involved with DSD since its practical beginning). I still have a fondness for LP records, keep a good turntable on hand and have plenty of hi-res vinyl.
  When you consider how old the technology is, records can still sound fantastic. Much to the amazement of many audiophiles, the phonograph biz has actually picked up over the last five years — with more affordable audiophile products and, of course, there is no shortage of good sounding vinyl to listen to — from vintage treasured LPs to state-of-the-art remasters and pop album releases.
  From the equipment perspective, you can spend a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, or more, to get the right feature set for your turntable and your preamp purchases. For this review, I got the chance to test the improved version of the fabled VPI Scout, the Scout 1.1, and the Arion, a dandy, discrete phono preamp – from Tim Stinson’s Luminous Audio, located in Richmond, Virginia. The preamp was designed by audio engineer Mike Bettinger of GAS Audio modification fame. (Click here to read more about Mike's design and background.)
 If you are a vinyl stalwart with a bit of disposable income, the VPI Scout 1.1 and Luminous Audio Arion are two worthy candidates for purchase. If you are moving up, or even as a first turntable system purchase, it might be the last vinyl system you need to buy.

  Tested here is the recently upgraded VPI Scout 1.1 belt drive turntable, priced at $2,000, with an Ortofon Black MM cartridge mounted on the JMW-9T unipoint tone arm, and the Luminous Audio Arion solid-state, phono preamp, priced at $6,395.
Luminous Audio Arion
  The Arion is a single-purpose preamp and, as such, means ease of operation and intuitive connectivity. It features a front panel mute button, on/off switch and a MM/MC cartridge switch. On the back are a pair of unbalanced and a par of balanced (rare) XLR inputs, unbalanced inputs and unbalanced outputs (RCA). The power switch is located on the rear as well. The Arion package also includes a hospital grade power cord.

  The Luminous Arion is a discrete, Class A stage phono preamplifier. The preamp stage design incorporates Toshiba JFET and output transistors, Sanyo power transistors and Analog Devices JFET devices, mounted on a 4-layer PC board layout. Polypropylene film capacitors and 1% metal film resistors are utilized throughout the layout, The power supply contains split-bobbin C-core transformers and Fairchild Stealth rectifiers. Separate transformers are used for the +/— raw supplies.
  The Arion contains a two-stage design with a cascoded discrete JFET input stage, followed by a differential cascode JFET second stage and a passive/active RIAA EQ stage. The first stage provides an interface with the cartridge, and it provides the gain and drive for the passive EQ network. This stage includes cascoded, parallel JFETs and bipolar cascoded voltage amp stage. Gain switching is accomplished through latching relays. The second stage provides additional gain for the low-frequency RIAA curve. Its circuit layout features cascoded Toshiba JFET differential amplifiers. The final output is Class-A biased.
  The unit comes from assembly with a factory 47-kOhm MM setting and 100 Ohm MC setting, which can be designed with optional resistors to precisely match a cartridge. All in all, the Arion is a phono preamp with an emphasis on performance.

Simple, but effective Arion connection panel

  Factory rated specs include: .005% distortion, 85 dB S/N (A-weighted MM), 78 dB S/N (A-weighted MC), 40 dB gain (MM), and 62 dB gain (MC). The unit measures 17.25 inches wide, 13-inches deep and 3,.50 inches tall. Weight is 20 pounds.
  The Arion design concept began after Stinson met Mike Bettinger at a Richmond Audio society meeting, where Bettinger engaged him in conversations about high-end audio design. Stinson eventually made a visit to Bettinger’s home and was “blown away” (his words) by the designer’s system.
  “The bottom line is that his system instantly fit into one of the top two or three that I had ever heard in my life” Stinson recalled, “and with $3,500 MartinLogans as the speakers. I had never heard ML’s sound quite like this.
  ”Impressed with Bettinger’s background and the products that he modified for his own use, Stinson commissioned him to design the high-end, no limits Arion. “I literally came to Mike and told him to design the Arion, regardless of cost,” Stinson explained. “He (Bettinger) was totally taken back. ‘Engineers are never given a blank check,’ Stinson remembered Bettinger responding. “What a concept!”

Inside the Luminous Audio Arion phono pre
  Since Stinson had a high-end phono preamp in mind, he asked Bettinger about adding more “exotic” resistors, caps, etc. as he expected it to potentially approach a $10,000 price tag. Bettinger quickly addressed this high-end parts list request, Stinson noted, by pointing out that such components are often “designed” to sound soft or more “musical,” etc, but not accurate.
  Thus, Bettinger used components, board design and a custom power supply to create a phono preamp that showcased the best LPs, cartridges and tone arms — no added coloration from this preamp.
The VPI Scout 1.1
  The updated Scout 1.1 tested here is the successor to the original Scout. Similar in design and appearance to the original, the new version gets the heavy duty, 1-1/8"-thick MDF bonded-to-a-12-gauge steel plate VPI plinth. The new platter is a 1 3/8"-thick 6061 aluminum design (no more acrylic platter) featuring a stainless-steel damping mount, which rests on an oil bath bearing by a Number 2 Jacobs Taper. The bearing mechanism contains a PEEK thrust-disc and machined-graphite, impregnated brass bushings — using a Thompson Engineering 60 Rockwell case hardened shaft.
  The 600 RPM AC synchronous belt-drive motor (from the Traveler) is self-contained in a steel housing located on the turntable’s left side. The Scout also includes the Traveler’s record mat, which is claimed to offer superior resonance dampening.

The VPI Scout 1.1 tracks as good as it looks


  The Scout 1.1 came with the JMW-9T tone arm with an Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge, a decent MM cartridge that sounds good on most kinds of music, But in my opinion, the Ortofon lacks the upper-end detail and space attributes of better MC cartridges. The JMW-9T tone arm takes a bit of setup — with its required tracking angle, height adjustment and the friction anti-skate setup that we ignored while using our beloved L04 MC cartridge. It also needs a stylus force gauge for proper balancing.
  The Scout 1.1 utilizes a connector block mounted behind the platter that allows the owner to use his favorite unbalanced cables. It also includes a ground post for wiring the ground to the preamp. There also is a ground post on the chassis. With its heavy metal platter and platform, the Scout 1.1 weighs in at a solid 40 pounds. I am a sucker for a good looking turntable and this VPI looked grand in my rack. Ain’t nothing like a turntable sitting in your rig to make an audiophile beam out loud.
The setup
  One of the requirements of being a high-end vinyl tester is that, unlike digital players, you gotta do some manual labor to make sure those LPs play properly. Turntable needs include cartridge mounting and setup, installing the motor and belt, installing ground wires and cables. The preamp is pretty much plug and play, unless your MC cartridge needs some resistance tweaking to get that ideal match.

An ideal match: Benz cartridge and JMW-9T arm

  For these review associated setup tasks, I turned to Music Technology in Springfield, Va. Audio ace extraordinaire Bill Thalman, who set up the Scout 1.1 for me,  made a resistor change in the Arion so we could optimize the re-tipped, fantastically accurate-sounding Benz L0.4, a $1,200 cartridge from a decade ago that has since been superseded. The MM Ortofon is okay for casual listening, but for such a revealing phono preamp, and the fact I was using MartinLogan Montis electrostatics and a very revealing amp, the Benz was a much better fit.
  Bill Thalman installed the cartridge into the JMW-9T arm, setting tracking angle, azimuth, and stylus force. He also pulled the cover from the Arion and changed the MC resistor to net a bit more smoothness in the treble.

I immediately zeroed on Arion's dynamic range, excellent signal-to-noise, and its ability to relay the bass without bloomy midbass bottom end — a character I have noticed in numerous high-end phono preamps.

  The Scout’s arm has a mechanical anti-skate, but we did not use it, instead adding a bit more tracking force (overall 2.5 grams) to compensate for the skating effect. With the Benz L0.4 and the precision JMW-9T, our play tests revealed no audible artifacts, such as the tell-tell end of LP inner groove distortion. It all sounded clean and ready for some serious record playing.
  I should note that I also did additional listening using a Clear Audio Emotion turntable and the classic MM AT-ML150 cartridge, the 1980s version, which is still in pristine condition. But that was not the focus of this review. The AT cartridge had a more pronounced treble than the Benz, but the bottom end was tight, and midrange clear with great channel separation. A good cartridge for dull recordings.
  I monitored the VPI and Arion in a couple of different scenarios; first with headphones and then speaker/amp listening. To get a “closeup” listen, I connected a pair of Wireworld Eclipse RCA cables from the VPI to the Arion; another pair of the WW Eclipse’s linked the Arion to a Bryston SHA-1 headphone amp. Headphones included my reference AKG K702 Anniversary, Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic and Shure SRH1840 headphones.
  The second listening setup linked the Arion to a Pass Labs XP-10 line preamp, which was wired to a Rogue Audio Medussa hybrid tube/digital amplifier with the Wireworld Eclipse cables. The amp powered my reference MartinLogan Montis electrostatics, again using premium Wireworld speaker interconnects, a perfect scenario to hear how much air the phono/preamp combo dished out.
The audition
  With the set up complete, I brought out a bunch of albums, plus bought a few new ones for the review. First up was my Wes Montgomery - Full House live concert (circa 1962) half-speed mastered, special-edition LP. This album has that classic Riverside jazz sound — with excellent imaging for its time. The instruments range from the thumb-picked, warm Gibson L5 jazz guitar from the master, as well as saxophone, piano, drums and bass. Love those cymbals. (To sample  an audio snippet from this album, click the player in the sidebar: VPI/Arion Review Demo)
  On my headphone set up, I immediately zeroed on Arion's dynamic range, excellent signal-to-noise, and its ability to relay the bass without bloomy midbass bottom end — a character I have noticed in numerous high-end phono preamps.

                      
Two fantastic LPs to make your vinyl gear sound good

  The Benz cartridge’s natural midrange and top end and just the right amount of air come through in spades from the Full House LP. Man, do I love this album. I actually own and play a two-pickup version of Wes’ guitar through a Fender Twin  Reverb, and I know that tone. The record, VPI arm, Benz cartridge and the Luminous Arion all contribute to make it as real as possible. And the original recording is more than 50 years old!
  The cut “Come Rain or Shine,” a Johnny Mercer composition that is perfect for Wes’ band style, has a very modern jazz combo sound with surprisingly good detail on the L5CES guitar, piano and drum cymbals, considering the recording vintage. And because the vinyl is so damn quiet, you’d swear you were listening to digital. In fact, I dubbed two selections to my Mac computer in 24/96 PCM — via a Benchmark ADC1 A/D. I edited out the lead-in and lead-out’s surface noise, and played back the recordings for several picky audiophiles They swore they were listening to hi-res downloads of the album cuts.

More choice LPs for the Arion/VPI rig

  Switching to classical, I mounted up a brand new copy of the 2013 remaster of the 1953 RCA Red Seal LP Jascha Heifetz/Emmanuel BayBeethoven’s No. 8 and 10 Piano/Violin Sonatas. This mono recording came from the early days of tape, but even lacking stereo, its essential Stradivarius violin tone, with those luscious harmonics — as well as the Steinway piano, shine through this brilliant remaster. Plus the music is being presented by two masters of their instruments.
  The VPI/Benz/Arion trio handled the duos with exquisite class. I don’t know what kind of microphone was used for this early '50s recording (probably a Telefunken or AKG), but the violin textures are amazing, much of the complexity was captured on the tape and this remaster just brings it home.
  Turning to another jazz LP, I clean brushed my 1973 copy of Isao Suzuki Trio/QuartetBlow Up (Three Blind Mice – TBM-2515), which is still in great shape. (Bought it in a hi-fi shop when I was 19). This recording combines elements of classical and jazz — with piano, cello (Mr. Suzuki expertly plays), bass and drums. It has a stripped down, small club concert kind of presentation with a wonderful analog dynamic.

  With the right cartridge, the VPI/Luminous Audio system allows the music’s realness to emerge as much as LP records can. Sure, records don’t have the ultimate dynamic range and low noise of digital, But even by today’s digital standards, this “ancient technology” can still sound damn good!

  I love the sonic textures of the cello and the air around the drum cymbals. Again, the Benz L0.4 mounted on the accurate tracking VPI arm brings this recording to life through the Arion. About as good as I ever have heard this record in 35 years of playing it.
  I have to mention another jazz album that played spot on through this review set up. My beloved Stephan GrappelliUptown Dance (Concord 1978), an under-appreciated record that features Mr. Grappelli and band working with an orchestra. Its Nelson Riddle-like strings, combined with Grappelli’s signature signature tone and supporting band, portrays a lush, detailed soundscape; the strings and solo violins offer up a pleasant, Easy Listening aura that vinyl sweetens even further. Too bad there is no hi-res of this and many other Grappelli releases. I dubbed it to digital to maintain a copy of the record in its best state.
  The VPI/Luminous set up also acquitted itself quite well on pop records. My vintage copy of Michael JacksonThriller received the royal treatment with that throbbing bass line from “Billy Jean,” and 1986’s Dwight YoakumGuitars, Cadillacs, Etc. emerged with that punchy, mix of electric, acoustic guitars, fiddle and steel guitar. The stand out cut is “It Won’t Hurt.”

  Other records that impressed through the VPI/Luminous audio test duo included Flim and The BBs’ first album, which was recorded by Tom Jung on the Sound 80 label and predates his all-digital DMP label by a couple of years.

  Other records that impressed through the VPI/Luminous audio test duo included Flim and The BBs’ first album, which was recorded by Tom Jung on the Sound 80 label and predates his all-digital DMP label by a couple of years. The sessions were recorded in the early days of digital before CD. Thus, the tracks went straight to tape, using an early version of the 3M 16-bit/50.4 kHz digital tape recorder; the master lacquer was cut from the 3M digital tape since the originally planned direct-to-LP disc release fell through because the master lacquer was damaged.
  Flim’s dynamic, percussive jazz tones, judging by this first album, was already well established, and it foreshadowed the highly regarded Tricycle and Big Notes; Flim and the BBs DMP CD releases from 1983 and 1986. The LP’s direct-to-tape energy and dynamics play well via the VPI/Arion phono system. Those high-velocity drums tracked perfectly, and the Benz gave those keyboards and sax tracks a bit of vinyl smoothness.

The verdict
  Since I did this review with four critical components: the turntable/tonearm/Benz cartridge and Luminous Arion phono preamp, you never know, beforehand, how such a phono playback system will synergize. For me, I want an accurate-as-possible dynamic and a low=noise character from a turntable set up. I don’t like warm, musical, laid back, etc. In my music playback. I want it to sound like music. I play guitar. I play the piano; I know what they sound like. The electronics have to be faithful as possible to the real sound character.
  That is the sense that I get from the VPI Scout 1.1 and the Luminous Arion. With the right cartridge, this system allows the music’s realness to emerge as much as LP records can. Sure, records don’t have the ultimate dynamic range and low noise of digital, and they wear out. But I have never abandoned the format — continuously maintaining a turntable (or two) for the last 40 years. Even by today’s digital standards, this “ancient technology” can still sound damn good!
  The Arion is not cheap at $6,395, and the VPI takes some patience to set up, but what you get is a USA-made turntable and preamp that reproduce the music about as good as it gets for under $10,000 (and exceeds many separates that are well above that price).
  If you are a vinyl stalwart with a bit of disposable income, the VPI Scout 1.1 and Luminous Audio Arion are two worthy candidates for purchase. If you are moving up, or even as a first turntable system purchase, it might be the last vinyl system you need to buy. An Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award for each component and a nomination for our 2015 Gear of The Year.

***
    John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net 













EAN UpClose:
Luminous Audio Arion
Designer Mike Bettinger

Audio Designer Mike Bettinger at 2014 CAF

EAN: Can you give our readers a little background about yourself as an audio designer?
MB: I apprenticed as a technician in my uncle’s stereo repair shop while attending school in the mid 1970’s, during the birth of high-end audio as we know it today and one of audio design’s most creative and productive periods. I was influenced and intrigued by the sonic differences among amplifiers and preamps that passed through my bench system, a constant test environment. This started my 30+ year investigation into the differences in the design and execution of audio circuitry. From 1976 through 1990, I owned GASworks Modifications, modifying high-end audio components. This work provided me an endless supply of equipment, allowing me to research all of the classic designs and their engineers’ approaches. I experimented endlessly, comparing all of the many circuit variations and building blocks used to create these components.
  An 18-year sidetrack as an equipment engineer for two major semiconductor manufacturers exposed me to the cutting edge of the broader world of high precision electronic equipment design and some of the worst RFI environments that they were required to function flawlessly in. These experiences created for me a short-list approach to apply to audio circuit design, highlighting the importance of circuit layout, grounding, component choices, and physical requirements for optimum resolution. The Arion is the fully realized implementation of all of the lessons learned over 35 years. Its performance satisfies my personal impression of what a phono preamp should sound like  An 18 year sidetrack as an equipment engineer for two major semiconductor manufacturers exposed me to the cutting edge of the broader world of high precision electronic equipment design and some of the worst RFI environments that they were required to function flawlessly in. These experiences created for me a short-list approach to apply to audio circuit design, highlighting the importance of circuit layout, grounding, component choices, and physical requirements for optimum resolution. The Arion is the fully realized implementation of all of the lessons learned over 35 years. Its performance satisfies my personal impression of what a phono preamp should sound like. 

What are the important designs highlights that you have implemented into the Arion. (Specific circuits. etc.). Is there any specific parts that you would like to note in your design?
MB: Our designs focus on low level resolving capabilities, minimization of circuit interactions that add congestion and background textures to the sound, and neutral retrieval of the most subtle information present in a recording. This is what makes circuits sound the most musical.
  My recipe to accomplish this is much like the ingredients a chef would use in a culinary recipe. My choices and how I apply them are what are what make the Arion different. The power supplies are extremely low noise and stable; the support circuitry such as current sources, cascodes, biasing, etc. have all been painstaking evaluated for best performance in the overall circuitry. Biasing of the various stages is performed in real-time by ear.
  The real highlight of the design is the layout and physical relationship of the circuitry as a whole. All signals and power flow through the circuits in complex loops; each of these loops has been carefully evaluated, with the layout processing being reminiscent of an intense game of chess with each part’s placement and interaction being carefully considered in the process. The overall PCB design reflects this attention to detail as well by including controlled return planes and distributed capacitance instead of relying on an overall ground plane. Physically, the chassis is isolated by custom sourced feet of a soft durometer silicon-based material. The PCB is designed to float in the vertical plane, minimizing vibration transfer with the chassis base plate. The results are easily discernable in the Arion’s low level resolving capabilities, the speed and control of the dynamics and the utter lack of confusion or congestion when the music complexity or dynamic requirements step up. 

The Arion is a very accurate, clean, low-noise phono preamp that really showcases well-recorded vinyl. Why did you go that route as opposed to the “warm and rich” audio path, that I often hear in high-end phono preamps?
MB: While it would be cool to say that I voiced the design for a particular sound, the sound of the Arion is the result of our focus on two areas that have always irritated us when listening to music.
The first was that the Arion had to possess the natural bloom that accompanies live music, which is readily apparent on live recordings that capture the sound of the room and is also heard in the full body of the vocals or instruments. 
  Also, the design had to be tonally pure in that vocals or strings had to be processed by the Arion without the addition of the edge normally associated with transistor designs. The Arion’s design focused first on creating a clean ground reference and by controlling signal return currents. Secondly, dialing in stage biasing allows the active devices to operate in their most sensitive regions. The sound you experience is an extension of these efforts. An Arion is not finished until it satisfies us in this regard.

Any new products on the horizon?
MB: We have designs and prototypes created for both a line stage and power amp; we hope both will be released in the not-too-distant future. 

    John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net