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The Beatnik’s “Bongos” or My Three Biggest Surprises of 2015!

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This last year was one that had three significant surprises from the products that passed through my listening room. The biggest surprise of the year was that there was any amplifier that would make me willing to part with my beloved Wavac EC300B, much less a transistor amp. The next biggest surprise came the way of what I can only call the world’s best tone controls and last, a little transistor phono preamp from a tube amplifier company in Mexico. So let me share why these products were such huge surprises.


Pass Labs XA30.8 Class A Stereo Amplifier

Pass Labs’ gigantic, little 30-watt stereo amp was such a surprise that it took me three reviews to even begin to say how good it sounded in my system. I haven’t had any interest in a transistor amp in over 30 years, the last one being Electrocompaniet’s original amp. It was a 25-watt pure class A amp that made my Quad 57 sing like no other amp. I also liked every system I heard with the original, huge ML-2 Monaural Power Amplifiers, also 25 watts of pure Class A.

The only reason I asked to review the XA30.8 was that I knew I had a pair of Wayne Picquet’s restored Quad 57 coming in for a while, so I was trying to figure out what amp I wanted to use with them; the just-released Pass Labs XA30.8 looked perfect on paper. When I combined this with the fact that one of the constants at audio shows is how good rooms with Pass Labs amps sound, I requested an XA30.8 for review and the people at Pass Labs were nice enough to send me one.

Still as much respect as I had for the sound of the .5 amp series of amps from Nelson Pass and his company, nothing prepared me for how good the XA30.8 would sound in my system. I should add that the XA30.8 sounds more powerful than any amp I have heard in my system at any price or power point. Please go back and read the three reviews if you haven’t already. I have lived with this amp for over a year now, and along the way I sold my Wavac; nothing else that passed through my room came even close, and all this for under $7,000.


Audio Reference Technology Room Tuning Cones and L.F.E.

At the time I was writing the review of this amazing tuning system, I had not yet understood the full potential of the ART Tuning Cones. As I continue to use them to tweak my system, I continue to be amazed at how precise they allow one to be.

There are really three products we are talking about here. The ones I would never consider giving up are the light and dark wooden tuning tones. The dark ones tune in the 80 Hz area and the light ones around 200 Hz. I was amazed at what a difference they made. I kept playing with them and then one day I put all six of the light and dark into the room. Ouch! Way too much bass energy. So, then I started taking them out of the room one by one. I ended up using about half of the two sets, while the other half remained in their box.

I use these in conjunction with their Low-Frequency Effect unit. Yes, it is an active device, and while the people from A.R.T. don’t want to call it an equalizer, I don’t know what else to call it. On their website they say:

Most audio equipment operates below its optimum, concerning bandwidth and tone quality, which is truly a great loss to the consumers. Even with some excellent stereo systems with frequencies that extend into the low 20Hz range, one cannot hear the bass properly because of echo, the length of the sound wave, or because the power amplifier can’t control the bass on its own.

A.R.T. Low-Frequency-Effect is designed to solve all these problems. You will not only experience fantastic low frequency, but the whole bandwidth will be amazingly open and wide. The roundness and the purity of the tenor, the clarity and profoundness of the bass, and the three-dimensional compass are so lovely; you will never want to be without it again.”

Let me say that combined with the wooden cones, I can get bass that is vastly satisfying. I have tried several pairs of sub-woofers over the years and have never found one that didn’t sound incoherent when mated with the speed of the Teresonic Ingeniums. The A.R.T Low-Frequency Effect unit was able to achieve this without any of the negative effects of subs and to my hearing, without any loss in transparency. It doesn’t take the bass down into the 20s, but the impact would make you think it did.

Last are the brass cones that look like equipment spikes. These work from the lower midrange on up to the top end. They are helpful and can take care of peaks and dips in certain areas. I used about half the box here as well.

One of the dirty little secrets in high-end is that abandoning tone controls was the easy way to deal with the harm they did. Every system needs tone controls, which is why so many people turn to cables and other tweaks. The wooden and brass cones from ART give you very precise tone controls that don’t add distortion to your preamp. I have been shocked by these little cones. Now if they could just make the wooden ones in a flavor my Carin Terrier didn’t like.


Margules Audio:   Magenta FZ47DB Phono Amplifier

The Margules Audio Magenta FZ47DB Phono Amplifier is a small black box. It’s not good or bad looking, just rather business-like. The FZ47 DB has plenty of gain, namely 54dB with a maximum output voltage of 10V with a S/N ratio of 90 dB at maximum output. It has a dual regulated power supply. Inside is a built-in internal DIP switch board, which allows the user to change the load with 16 different input impedances that vary from 27K to 390 K ohms.

I need to apologize to you dear readers, and to Julian Margules of Margules Audio, for my not having turned in the review yet. I got the amp and preamp reviews completed back in the summer. This little phono preamp just keeps falling through the cracks. Not because it’s forgettable, but because I keep using it with different products. I promise I’ll review it soon, but if you’re looking for a sub-$4,000 phono preamp, try to give this little black box a listen. If you’re worried about it being a transistor unit, don’t. It’s actually a little more tube-like than the tube Allnic 301 that cost $3,000. It is simply everything most mean when they say analogue. I say that in the best possible way. You need to hear it!

Well, have a boppin’ good new year and I hope we have good surprises in 2016!

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3 Responses to The Beatnik’s “Bongos” or My Three Biggest Surprises of 2015!

  1. stephen d says:

    Hi Jack and Happy New Year.

    Just a note to thank you for the many improvements your column has lead me to over the years. In fact, I have developed so much faith in your ears that I purchased a demo Pass XA30.8 to audition against my SET–honestly thinking that I would shortly be putting it up for sale. (Which I actually did but then something happened: the XA30.8 suddenly developed all the finesse of the SET–I guess the unit wasn’t as broken it as I assumed. And that along with its control and uncanny tonal accuracy put me over the edge.) You were right again and here it sits between my Giscours and my Petite Latours! I still can’t get used to looking at it!

    So off I go again to see if the Wizard is right about the ART Tuning Cones. Now if I could just find a place to buy them!

    All the best and look forward to what 2016 brings (although I’m pretty much in audio nirvana now).

  2. Jack Roberts says:

    Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad the 30.8 worked out, it took a while for mine to come around as well, but I love it. I’ll do some checking around about the best place to get the cones. Constantine was over yesterday and was sitting with his eyes closed listening to Beethoven’s 4th and I slipped over and just removed the wooden cones. A few minutes went by and he said, what happened? They are really good in my system, but I have not heard them in any other system.

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