Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

To the surprise of no one, about 12 people -- including several derelicts, some tumblin’ tumbleweeds, and SoundStage!’s own Brent Butterworth -- attended the hi-fi segment of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you haven’t visited Las Vegas, imagine a city codesigned by Louis XIV and a strip-mall developer, and fueled by a near-lethal combination of vodka, Red Bull, and poor decision-making, all tinged by the aroma of burnt tobacco. The high-end segment of CES has been on a slow decline for years, domestically usurped by the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and internationally by Munich’s annual High End. Despite this, this year’s CES was chock full of new and affordable audio gear.


PSB Speakers has updated its Alpha line of entry-level loudspeakers for the first time in 20 (!) years. The line now comprises the Alpha P3 ($199 USD/pair) and Alpha P5 ($349/pair) bookshelf models, the Alpha T20 floorstander ($599/pair), and the Alpha C10 center-channel ($299). All of these models are two-way designs with a 0.75” aluminum-dome tweeter. As for polypropylene midrange-woofers, the P3 has a 4”, the larger P5 a 5.25”, and the C10 center and T20 floorstander each have two 5.25” drivers. Vinyl finishes of Black Ash and American Walnut are available. SoundStage! founder and publisher Doug Schneider currently has the little Alpha P3 bookshelfs in for evaluation in his “System One” budget system; I have the larger Alpha P5 bookshelfs and am writing a full review, to be published here on SoundStage! Access in March or April. Spoiler: They’re rather good.


Almost every audiophile and/or home-theater geek on a budget is thoroughly familiar with Emotiva -- they make high-value electronics designed and assembled here in the US and sold direct to consumers. They also offer two lines of loudspeakers: the passive Airmotiv models and the active Stealths. At CES Emotiva debuted the Airmotiv T-Zero, which quickly caught my eye. Like the PSB Alpha T20 mentioned above, the T-Zero is a two-way, three-driver floorstander with two 5.25” midrange-woofers, though the Emotiva’s are made of woven fiber, not polypropylene. Interesting are its folded-ribbon tweeter, faceted front panel, and cabinet of high-density fiberboard (HDF), the last feature rare at $499/pair. With a frequency response of 48Hz-28kHz, ±3dB, and that super-affordable price, I’d love to get a pair in for review sometime this year.


A lot of SVS speakers have been reviewed on Access over the years, none by me. Maybe this is the year -- at CES, SVS announced the new, floorstanding flagship of their Prime series, the Pinnacle. Priced at $1499.98/pair, half again as much as the Prime Tower ($999.98/pair), the Prime Pinnacle has a 1” tweeter, an all-new version of the Prime Tower’s 4.5” midrange, and three 6.5” woofers -- one more than the Tower. The Prime Pinnacle is intended to bridge the gap between SVS’s entry-level Prime series and their reference Ultra series. Compared to the two $1500/pair floorstanders I’ve reviewed in the last 18 months, the Elac Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 and the KEF Q750, the Pinnacle Prime should be able to play louder and deeper than either, and may well look better, too. It looks like a lot of speaker for the money.


Many cool turntables were introduced at CES. Audio-Technica showed no fewer than six new record players, ranging in price from the $99 AT-LP60 to the $299 LP-W40WN. The latter looks to be the one to get, given its built-in and bypassable phono preamp, bundled A-T moving-magnet cartridge, and carbon-fiber tonearm. I’m no vinyl guy, but the LP-W40WN’s walnut-colored finish and aluminum platter make it seem like a great time to be spinning LPs. At the pricier, audiophile end of the spectrum was Technics’ new SL-1500 turntable, launched in tandem with their baller-looking SL-1200 MK7 DJ deck. The direct-drive SL-1500 includes a built-in phono preamp and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, in a package costing about $1400.

The most interesting introduction by a mile was NAD’s M10 BluOS streaming integrated amplifier ($2500). It’s everything you -- or I, for that matter -- could ever want in a one-box multifunction device. Way smaller than the usual audio component, the M10 measures only 8.5”W x 4”H x 10.3”D, and its faceplate is dominated by a TFT touchscreen with a proximity sensor -- this is 2019. The M10’s class-D Hypex NCore amplifier produces 100Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms, and it has an ESS Sabre DAC and includes BluOS network streaming. BluOS means native support for Amazon Music, Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, and other services. The M10 also supports Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri voice control, AirPlay 2, two-way aptX HD Bluetooth, and smart home integration, and it even handles MQA streams. The M10 has two unbalanced inputs (RCA), coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital connections, and a LAN port. Conspicuous omissions are a USB input to hook up to a computer (this seems to be a growing trend) and a phono stage -- vinyl lovers will have to put in a little effort. What I found interesting were the inclusions of two subwoofer outputs, an HDMI ARC input for use with a TV, and, most impressive, Dirac Live room-correction software.


Now, $2500 is a lot of coin, but I think the NAD M10 is important for a number of reasons. First, its combination of small size with HDMI ARC input and voice integration make it an attractive all-in-one for a living-room system hooked up to a TV. With its big, modern touchscreen, it doesn’t look like a dreary old amp with lots of buttons and bright LEDs. And its built-in BluOS integration -- not an add-on, as in many of NAD’s modular amps -- means it can be natively used for every popular streaming service short of Apple Music, which, I still maintain, kind of sucks. The cherry on top is one of the best room-correction products on the market -- with Dirac Live, no matter what speakers and/or subwoofer you have, you can maximize your system’s sound quality for your living space. Near as I can tell, the M10 is a lot like Naim’s Uniti Atom integrated amplifier, but with more flexibility and more than twice the power output -- and it costs $800 less. NAD is killing it these days. I’m excited to see and hear what the M10 can do. I’ve requested a review sample.

I don’t know why I spent so many years reviewing gear costing $5000 or less when I could have set my price ceiling at a mere $1000 and been just as happy. My fancy new Hegel Music Systems H590 integrated amp-DAC ($11,000) is sitting idle as a $349/pair of bookshelf speakers, a $549 app-controlled subwoofer, and a $699 integrated amp-DAC occupy my time. Hand on heart, I am not missing my Hegel. Eight years in, and I’m finally hitting my stride . . .

. . . Hans Wetzel