Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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To Diego Estan and Doug Schneider,

Thank you for doing such a thorough and in-depth review of the Anthem STR preamplifier and its feature set.

The STR preamp has been on my radar for over a year because my listening room has open left and right front corners (effectively no front corners), and, as a result, the room provides little bass re-enforcement for any pair of loudspeakers. I find it necessary to use a subwoofer to help generate adequate bass, even when using fairly potent tower speakers such as the Bryston Middle Ts. I am now considering increasing from one subwoofer to using two for even better bass response. The STR preamp’s comprehensive feature set with bass management and support for dual subwoofers is very appealing.

I am quite intrigued by the STR preamp and its outstanding feature set, but at this stage I am looking for advice and opinions on the STR preamp related just to system matching with my existing Simaudio Moon 400M monoblock amplifiers. I am also curious how the STR preamp might compare sonically with my much more expensive, purely analog Simaudio Moon P-7 preamplifier (discontinued in 2013). I don’t have an opportunity to try or borrow an STR preamp at this time, so below are two questions (items 1 and 2):

1) Gain matching: my Simaudio Moon 400M monoblock amplifiers have a higher-than-typical gain specification of 36dB (most power amps are rated about 29dB). Might the STR preamp’s analog gain of 18.6dB (as measured by Diego for the balanced outputs) be a bit too high to be a good match for my 36dB Moon monoblocks?

Or worded differently, might the combined gains (18.6dB and 36dB) of the STR preamp and my Moon 400M monoblocks result in very little useable adjustment range on the volume control before it becomes far too loud? To compare, the Moon P-7 fully balanced preamplifier that I am using with these monoblocks has a gain specification of 9dB, and the new Moon Neo 390 preamp-DAC-streamer from the same Simaudio product line as the 400M monoblock has a gain specification of 10dB for the balanced outputs. I realize that the STR preamp is designed to pair with the matching Anthem STR power amplifier. Has Anthem indicated what sort of volume control implementation is being used (potentiometer, chip, R2R ladder, etc.)?

2) Analog performance: Diego’s review of the STR preamp indicates that it was indistinguishable from his well-regarded McIntosh preamp, so obviously the Anthem STR’s analog performance is really good.

However, any “guestimate” how the STR preamp may sonically compare to my older but almost-twice-as-expensive Moon P-7 fully balanced preamplifier? (My Moon P-7 preamp was purchased secondhand, but it was very well regarded as an analog preamplifier when still current in 2013.) Doug separately reviewed the Moon P-7 preamp and 400M monoblocks several years ago. This is why I have also included Doug in this conversation.

Best regards,
Ron
Canada

Thanks for the kudos and reading my review. I must admit, the STR consumed me as a reviewer for a few months. There are so many features and so much versatility that my time with it yielded not only the review, but a few accompanying articles as well.

My short answer is that if you are going to be using dual subs, the STR is a good turnkey solution for you, offering both bass management and room EQ.

Now, to specifically answer both of your questions:

First, the 18.6 dB of gain I measured was across the hot and cold pins of the balanced output. While there is no standard way of doing this, most manufacturers would report gain from single-ended input to singled-ended output. It’s therefore perhaps fairer to say the STR has 12.6dB of gain in analog mode. For example, my McIntosh C47 is rated at 15dB of gain, but if I measure across the balanced output, I measure 21dB.

I wouldn’t worry about having too much gain and not enough volume adjustment. The STR provides 206 volume steps, in 0.5dB increments. Due to the extra gain, at normal volume levels, you will likely hear a bit more noise/hiss with your ear near the tweeter compared to your Moon preamp, not only because of the gain difference, but because Simaudio makes very, very quiet electronics. I’m willing to bet, however, that with your average-sensitivity speakers, at normal volume settings, you will hear absolutely no noise from your seated position. While I can’t tell you precisely what chip Anthem uses for its volume control (they have not given me permission to do so), I can tell you that it’s a well-regarded R2R-type integrated circuit. Attenuation is digitally controlled, but performed in the analog domain. Also consider that the STR offers up to +/-20dB of gain trim, in 0.5dB increments, on any input, should you choose to use it.

Finally, even if there were subtle differences in sound between both preamps, these would absolutely pale compared to the sonic benefits that the STR would bring in terms of bass management and EQ. Of course, you can also opt to keep your Moon preamp and explore external solutions for bass management and room EQ, which is what I did before I knew the STR existed. But you may encounter a steep learning curve with that approach, so it depends if you’re into doing the required homework/research.

I hope that helps. . . . Diego Estan

I’m not sure if you’re aware, I wrote about the STR preamplifier on SoundStage! Hi-Fi this month. As a result of my experiences with the STR, I agree with Diego that with what you want to do with speakers and subwoofers, the STR is the ideal way to go as a turnkey solution. I also can’t add much more to what he already said, except this: I am more wary than he is of the gain issue that you pointed out, not for volume control, but for potential for increased noise. I’ve had noise issues with some preamplifiers and amplifiers I’ve reviewed over the years, so it’s something that jumps to mind when someone talks about matching a certain preamplifier to an amplifier that’s out of the norm.

We measured the Simaudio Moon 400M when I reviewed it, which revealed the very high gain you mentioned -- 36.2dB on both the single-ended and balanced inputs. That’s a lot more gain than with most amps, which could result in excessive noise from a high-gain preamplifier. Not surprisingly, Simaudio’s preamps have lower gain. To know if it’ll be an issue with the STR, though, you’re really going to have to connect the STR to your 400Ms in order to find out. I know you said you couldn’t right now, which I understand, but, to me, that’s the prudent thing to do, just to see if the noise is an issue and you’re making the best choice. After all, if noise isn’t an issue, and you like everything else about the STR, including its second-to-none feature set, that should go a long way toward making the decision for you with your current system goals. . . . Doug Schneider

To Diego Estan,

How are you? I got your e-mail address from an article I read [about the DALI Opticon 8 loudspeakers.]

I am interested in getting a pair of these DALI speakers and would like to ask you your honest opinion if these are any good. I live in the Caribbean on the island of Trinidad and we have no way of auditioning these, hence relying on other people like yourself. I have several questions:

Can these speakers work in a room 19’ long x 13’ wide, with one wall 10’ high and the other 16’ high? I would say my listening is moderate, maybe sometimes loud for a short period of time, and I sit roughly 11’-12’ away. I could move the sofa closer if needed (10’).

Do the DALIs produce enough bottom end (bass) or [do they] require an external subwoofer?

I would like to pair these speakers with a PrimaLuna EVO 400 tubed integrated amplifier and EVO 100 DAC, or a Parasound solid-state A 21+ amplifier and P 6 preamplifier (DAC included). Can I drive a 4-ohm speaker with an 8-ohm amplifier? Are there any downsides here?

Would you say that these Opticon 8s are good value for the money? I could also consider a pair of satellites using external subwoofers. I currently have a pair of SVS SB-2000 subwoofers new in boxes.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanking you in advance,
Richard
Trinidad and Tobago

Thanks for reading my review. I’ll try to answer all your questions, so here goes:

Yes, a pair of DALI Opticon 8s should have no issues working in a room your size (my room is a bit smaller at 15’W x 12’L x 8’H). One of the DALIs’ strengths in my room was their bass performance -- I was satisfied. I would wager most listeners would not go looking for a sub in a room your size with the DALIs, but, this is only an educated guess -- bass performance is very room and speaker-placement dependent. So, you shouldn’t need a sub, but I personally feel that just about any speaker will benefit from the addition of one or two subs. I happen to demand very good bass from my system.

With the amp choices you mentioned, you should be fine in terms of power. We measured the DALIs at 88dB sensitivity (2.83V/m). Sitting in a room your size, 10’ away, you should be able to achieve 102dB SPL (quite loud) with even the 70Wpc from the PrimaLuna. Choosing between the Parasound and PrimaLuna will be a personal choice -- I haven’t heard either. I’m not personally a fan of tubes, but, of course, many audiophiles are.

One thing I’ll mention about the Parasound combo (other than ample power) is that the P 6 offers full bass management. If you opt to use your subs, having bass management will be invaluable, and will help to bring your system’s performance to a whole new level. I recommend you unbox the SB-2000s and try.

Regarding driving 4-ohm speakers with an amp rated at 8 ohms. First, a speaker’s impedance is referred to as its nominal impedance, because it varies with frequency. The spec you see (e.g., 8 ohms or 4 ohms) is more like an average. In the case of the DALI Opticon 8, we measured its impedance curve and found it to hover around 4 ohms between 100Hz and 500Hz. In the bass, it never dips below 6 ohms. In the treble, it rises to between 6 and 8 ohms. Overall, I’d call the DALI Opticon 8 a relatively easy 4-ohm load to drive. Both amps you mentioned can drive 4-ohm loads without issue (the PrimaLuna has both 4- and 8-ohm outputs, while the Parasound is specified at 400Wpc into 4 ohms).

I hope that helps. . . . Diego Estan

To Hans Wetzel,

What [is a good integrated amplifier] for Q Acoustics’ 3050i floorstanding speakers? €700-€1200? Thank you.

Igor Banyák
Slovakia

You have several choices from reputable manufacturers. Audiolab’s 6000A is a good option, as is Arcam’s SA20, and you could look at Cambridge Audio’s CXA61 and CXA81 (though the CXA81 might be just beyond €1200 in Slovakia). The first integrated that jumped to my mind, however, is the NAD D 3045. It’s a phenomenal little amplifier that has tons of connectivity, as well as more than enough power to push a pair of 3050i towers to really high output levels. I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these options, but I’d personally opt for the NAD. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Diego Estan,

I just read your detailed and informative review of the Audiolab 6000A integrated amplifier. I have an NAD C 316BEE, which I was about to replace/upgrade with the 6000A, but after reading your review, I am not so sure anymore whether this is money well spent. Based on your review, it seems that the 6000A can easily hold its own versus some high-end equipment, but since the sound of the NAD and the Audiolab are virtually identical, by extension this would then also apply to the C 316BEE, correct? Just to be clear, I am only talking about sound, not appearance, build quality, or features like DAC, etc. If I connect a Bluesound Node 2i to either amp, using the Bluesound DAC, there should be no noticeable difference. Perhaps I should save more money and buy a truly high-end unit, such as the Hegel H90. What do you think? My speakers are Wharfedale Evo 4.2 stand-mounts, my room is approximately 250 square feet, and I sit approximately 10’ from the speakers. I listen to music at moderate levels (3 to 4 on scale from 1 to 10).

Kind regards,
Hans
United States

If it wasn’t already obvious from my review, I’m quite objectively minded. I do not believe that two competently designed solid-state amps, operated well within their limits, playing level-matched under blind conditions, should sound different from one another. If real differences do emerge, they would be of the very subtle variety. Although I cannot speak to the Hegel directly (I haven’t heard it), I believe this generally holds true, regardless of price point.

It’s important to consider, however, what I mean by “well within their limits.” Amps can definitely sound different when operated close to the margins of their limits. In the case of the NAD and Audiolab, both have similar power output into 8 ohms (40Wpc for the NAD vs. 50Wpc for the Audiolab), but the Audiolab can deliver quite a bit more into 4 ohms (75Wpc versus 45Wpc for the original C 316BEE, and 60Wpc if you have the C 316BEE V2).

Your speakers have a moderate sensitivity (87dB), and, according to Wharfedale, don’t dip below 4 ohms (they say 8-ohms nominal, but I couldn’t find an impedance curve online). With 40Wpc, 10’ away, and assuming your speakers are placed within 2’-4’ from the walls, you should be able to achieve almost 100dB SPL at the listening position. Considering your claim of moderate listening levels, 40Wpc into 8 ohms should be plenty. Of course, you may have other considerations I’m not aware of, such as upgrading to more power-hungry speakers in the future, moving to a bigger room, or listening habits changing.

So, in terms of sound in your current set-up, your NAD integrated amp is fine, and you shouldn’t expect a real upgrade in sound quality with a new amp. Of course, if you go in expecting an upgrade, you may in fact hear one -- that is how expectation bias works.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy the Audiolab 6000A. I really enjoyed my time with it. Its build quality is superb and belies the relatively modest price, the buttons and volume control have a great feel and inspire confidence, plus there’s a quality built-in DAC with Bluetooth connectivity, while the C 316BEE doesn’t have at DAC at all. And don’t forget the most important reason of all: do you want the Audiolab 6000A? If you do, and you can afford it, then you should buy it!

In summary, my general advice if shopping for an integrated amplifier is to figure out how much power you need based on your loudest preferred listening levels (you can use an online calculator like this one at myhometheater.homestead.com/splcalculator.html), then consider your speaker’s impedance (if 4 ohms or less, look for an amp that can handle lower impedances easily), and, finally, choose based on features, build quality, looks, feel, reputation, warranty, etc.

If you’re looking to improve or change the sound of your system significantly, look to the electronics last and focus first on speakers, subwoofers, and their placements, as well as room treatment and room EQ. Thanks for reading my review. . . . Diego Estan

To Diego Estan,

I read your article on ported vs. sealed subwoofers and was wondering if you think you could tell the difference if the crossover frequency was lower. You used a pretty high crossover frequency for the test, and it’s actually pretty impressive both subwoofers sounded so good with such a high crossover.

If the crossover was more like 80Hz, do you think you could tell the difference? I’m guessing for movies, the SVS PB-3000 would be louder [than the SVS SB-3000], but for music they might be more similar.

Chandler
United States

That’s an interesting question. The honest answer is I don’t know, because I didn’t try due to the way my system is set up.

My intuition is that I could still tell a difference with an 80Hz crossover (that’s right in the middle of the kick drum fundamental frequency), but with 60Hz or lower, perhaps not. The lower the crossover point, the more difficult I think it would be to tell the difference between the two, as the sub is reproducing less of the musical spectrum. The next time I get a ported sub in for review, I will change some things in my system and test this.

You mentioned that for movies the PB-3000 would be louder. Yes, the main advantage of the ported design is the added output before reaching compression. But for fair comparisons to determine whether there is a difference between ported and sealed, it’s important to level-match volumes, match target curves with EQ, and listen to both subs at levels below compression for both, which is what I did. Otherwise, you’re going to hear all kinds of differences simply because the outputs of the subwoofers are not matched well. Thanks for reading my article. . . . Diego Estan

To Hans Wetzel,

I hope that you and yours are doing well in these trying times. Being stuck at home, we can’t go out to the stores for some hands-on advice. We came across an article you had written back in 2015 about the Monitor Audio Bronze 6 loudspeaker. We would like to purchase a 5.1 speaker set for our home cinema. We were originally interested in a Monitor Audio Bronze speaker set (Bronze 5, Bronze 1, Bronze Centre), but we read about the new PSB Alpha T20 speaker system. Have you, or one of your colleagues, had a chance to hear both systems? The chosen bundle would also have to sound great for listening to music. Would you mind sharing your experience? Can you think of anything better in this price range?

Olivier B.
Canada

I really loved the Bronze 6 loudspeakers, as you could tell from my review. That was five years ago, however, and Monitor Audio has just announced an updated Bronze line. I don’t think that you can go wrong by picking up the outgoing Bronze system on special so long as you like a dynamic, lively sound. The Bronze 6 speakers definitely had a bite to them, emphasizing attack, with a splashy treble. I like that kind of sound, but I know not everyone will.

I reviewed the PSB Alpha P5 minimonitors last year and really liked those speakers, too. If we’re assuming that all of the speakers in each of the respective speaker ranges are voiced similarly to the two speakers that I reviewed, then it really comes down to your sonic tastes. If you like an exciting sound, the Monitor Bronzes will serve you well. By comparison, the PSBs will sound a little more laid back, as the P5’s tweeter was a bit smoother and more refined to my ears, without sounding boring. To be clear, the PSB P5 isn’t a relaxed, warm-sounding speaker, though -- just in comparison to the eager and forward-sounding Monitor Bronze 6.

You can’t go wrong with either, however. When I move to the suburbs and have a dedicated home-theater setup of my own, you can bet Monitor’s Bronze line and PSB’s Alpha line will be at the top of my to-audition list. Good luck. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Diego Estan,

Interesting to have those findings backed up with measurements. I found the same thing a few years ago when I was shopping for a then-new listening chair. I settled on a wide seat (between a standard width and a loveseat width), low-back design with arms that are a little lower and a fabric covering. No reflections was the goal. It’s served me well for a long time!

Guy Knuth
United States

To Diego Estan,

I read your article on the MartinLogan Motion 60XTi that was published last month. I found the article particularly interesting because I’ve recently become interested in using the XTi-series speakers in the home-theater/music room that I’m building. I was rather surprised by the testing results at the Canadian NRC. The frequency-response plot definitely wasn’t what I would have expected from a speaker in this price range. The peaks and nulls easily take up every bit of the ±3dB tolerance, however, what really grabs my attention is the very sharp bass roll-off starting at 80Hz. I find it difficult to believe that a tower with two 8” drivers would exhibit something like this, especially at that part of the frequency range (your review mentioned the bass was good). I could understand the plot better if it were taken in something other than an anechoic chamber, so I’m wondering what would account for it? Or is there something about the speaker you didn’t like but didn’t want to put in the review?

Thanks,
Dain
United States

First, thanks for taking the time to read my review. I appreciate it.

With respect to the first part of your question, our measurements are taken and plotted at 1/24th octave, which is likely why your eyes are drawn to all the little peaks and dips. If you contrast our measurements with, for example, Stereophile’s, that don’t generally provide as much detail or are smoothed to 1/10th or 1/6th octave, ours look a little choppier. That said, the Motion 60XTi’s frequency response is, to my eyes, relatively smooth and likely to fit fairly well into a ±3dB window, even at 1/24th octave. Smooth the chart to 1/8th, 1/6th, or 1/3th octave, like others do, and it would easily fit.

The large drop at around 80Hz and then slight rise at 40Hz is due to the measurement microphone’s placement (in front of the speaker) relative to the 60XTi’s ports (behind the speaker). Based on the impedance plot, the ports appear to be tuned to about 60Hz. Had we captured the extra energy from the ports with a second microphone, then summed their outputs with what’s measured from the front of the speaker, we’d see a much gentler downward slope. Furthermore, bass in an anechoic chamber is always less than what you experience in a real listening room, due to what most people call "room gain."

As to the second part of your question, I definitely did not withhold any negative observations in my review. I really liked the MLs, and, in my medium-sized room, they had plenty of taut, extended bass. I measured a very respectable in-room bass output from the 60XTi loudspeakers to about -3dB at 22Hz! That should tell you something. . . . Diego Estan

To Hans Wetzel,

I ran across your review of the Parasound Halo Integrated [integrated amplifier-DAC] from a while back (so sorry for having to refresh your memory!) -- as I’m really debating between [purchasing] it or the Hegel Music Systems H160. I currently have a pair of Dynaudio Focus 160 [loudspeakers] paired with a Peachtree Audio nova220SE [integrated amplifier-DAC]. The sound is a little dull for me, to be honest. I’d like something a little more upfront with the voices and more expansive (I’m playing with speaker setup too, but limited in what I can do at the moment). I’m leaning toward the Hegel based on the reviews -- but the Parasound has so many features that it’s hard to overlook. Just wanted to get your opinion since your column on the Halo was one of the best I’d read, and you actually used music like the Lumineers that I had heard of and not some random track I’d never listened to! I mainly stream Spotify and Pandora via a Roku and Oppo Digital BDP-103D and listen to a lot of vinyl. Everything else is normal TV.

My complete system [consists of]: Rega Planar 3 turntable with an Audio-Technica AT33PTG/II cartridge, Parks Audio Puffin phono preamp, Roku wired via HDMI to an Oppo Digital BDP-103D Blu-ray player, Peachtree Audio nova220SE acting as the DAC (via a coaxial connection from the Oppo), Dynaudio Focus 160 loudspeakers, and an SVS SB-2000 subwoofer (running from the nova220SE’s preamp outputs. The problem is, if I add an external DAC -- say something warmish like the Rega DAC -- the nova220SE only has one set of RCA inputs so I couldn’t run the turntable as well unless I use a switch or something.

I think I like the idea of the Halo Integrated with all the inputs and sub stuff, but also think that the Hegel would be better for me sound-wise with the Dynaudios. I kinda feel like the speakers are a little more relaxed than I would like -- not sure if an external DAC or different amp or a combo of the two would help. I don’t have an option to test anything around here so I buy based on reviews, tons of research, and what I can hear at friends’ homes. I know it’s a stretch, but you heard both amps, so thought I’d reach out. I’d be buying both used so the price is similar for each. The last option would be to completely change the setup -- speakers and all -- but I’m growing fond of the Dynaudio sound (came from some KEFs). Thank you so much for your input -- it’s greatly appreciated!

Stewart Joyner
United States

Not only have I heard both of the amplifiers about which you’re writing in, I’ve reviewed each of them as well. I definitely appreciate your conundrum. The Parasound’s I/O options would be incredibly useful for your setup, while I agree with you that the Hegel’s sound will almost certainly be more to your liking. If you like your Dynaudio Focus 160s, I wouldn’t get rid of them -- Dynaudio makes some great speakers and they should serve you well for years to come.

Personally, I’d opt for the Hegel. Its more lively and forward sound should get you far closer to the desired “upfront” and “expansive” sound that you’re looking for. As flexible as the Parasound is, and as neutral as it sounds, I think you’ll find yourself second-guessing about whether you made the wrong choice if you went that route. The H160’s dual RCA inputs, fixed RCA line-level output, and variable RCA line-level output, should slot into your system without an issue, allowing you to keep your analog setup intact, and your subwoofer in play. I’d grab the Hegel and not look back. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Diego Estan,

I read your review on the new Paradigm Defiance V12. I’m torn on purchasing the V12 at $650 vs. the SVS SB-2000 at $1049 (both Canadian dollars). I was looking at purchasing two V12s. I just bought the Paradigm Monitor SE 6000Fs in Gloss White and they sound amazing. I’m running a Marantz SR7013 receiver. Just wondered if you highly recommend the V12 sub or should I be looking at others?

Thanks,
Art
Canada

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to listen to the SB-2000, although I should be receiving a sample of it from SVS shortly. I do own the SVS SB-3000 and SB-4000, and they are both stellar performers.

My general advice will depend on whether you plan on using the subs primarily for music or home theater. If you’re using the subs primarily for music, a good sealed sub, like the SB-2000, will give you a slight advantage compared to the V12, which is ported. You’ll likely get slightly better transient response, which will translate to quicker and more nimble bass. But I should stress that when I compared the V12 against my SB-4000, which is sealed and is more than twice the price, the differences were fairly subtle. When I listened to the V12 in isolation in my two-channel music system, I was completely satisfied with its performance. If you’re using the V12s in a home theater, you’ll likely get a bit more output in the lowest octaves with a ported sub, which may come in handy for movie soundtracks. So, for the price, in a home theater, two V12s are a no brainer -- and they might be a no-brainer for only music playback, too. . . . Diego Estan

To Diego Estan,

Great review of the Monitor Audio Gold 100 loudspeakers, and I liked the fact that you compare speakers, but I don’t understand why you told us that you like the Bowers & Wilkins more. I want to read about the differences, but the reviewer shouldn’t have preferences or shouldn’t express them. I want a review to be as objective as possible. Just how I feel, but I love your work.

Best regards,
Geoff
Belgium

I really appreciate your feedback, and I’m glad you liked the review.

I guess the only way I can address your comment is to say that I respect your opinion, and I’m sure many others would agree with you. But also, many others would disagree, and that’s ok.

I can only speak for myself here. As a reader, I actually agree with you in some ways, but not in others. I’m definitely an objectively leaning audiophile and a scientifically minded person. I’m a graphs-and-charts kind of guy. The perfect review for me would have a short intro, then description/specs, then set up and any observations with respect to use, then measurements, and finally objective comparisons to similarly priced products (preferably in bullet form in a table) -- that’s it.

But, I'm afraid my opinion is not shared by the majority of readers out there. Most readers likely want to see detailed descriptions of the reviewer’s experience of the sound through music examples, as well as the reviewer’s preference of one product over another, or a certain attribute of a product over another, as long as the differences are explained and the reasons for the preference are given. This way, readers get to learn what type of sound a given reviewer likes or is drawn to.

There's also the concept of Reviewers’ Choice for reviewed products across the SoundStage! Network. The only way to ascertain this is for the reviewer to convey through writing how much he/she liked the product, including when stacked up against the competition.

Thank you for taking the time to write me. . . . Diego Estan