I’ll be honest: there’s some insanely priced equipment here at the Florida International Audio Expo. A lot of it, actually. And so, on the second day of the show, I went searching for equipment that most audiophiles could realistically aspire to own—gear that doesn’t cost as much as a well-optioned BMW 3-Series. Here’s what I found, with all prices in US dollars.
Soulnote is a new name to me. The company, which is based in Kanagawa, Japan, was founded in 2004 by former Marantz engineers. Soulnote is distributed in the US by Fidelity Imports. I entered one of the many Fidelity Imports rooms at the show and was met by a stack of handsome-looking components with brushed-silver finishes, all of them made by hand in Soulnote’s Japanese facility.
The brand’s entry-level Series 1 line was fully represented. Unusually, the A-1 integrated amplifier ($3999) is the least-expensive component of the line. The amp delivers 80Wpc into 8 ohms, jumping to 120Wpc into 4 ohms. THD is listed as 0.08% (30W at 8 ohms), the S/N ratio is specified at 110dB, and the wide-bandwidth frequency response is specified as 3Hz–300kHz, ±1dB. The front baffle is fashioned from a thick piece of silver aluminum (a black-colored finish is also available) with a striking terraced design.
At $4999, the E-1 Phono Equalizer (read: phono preamplifier) offers support for both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. It has an input-load selector for MC cartridges ranging from 3 ohms to 1000 ohms, a subsonic filter, and pairs of balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs and outputs.
Employing a pair of ESS Technology’s flagship ES9038Pro chipsets, one per channel, the D-1N digital-to-analog converter ($6999, second-from-the-bottom component on rack in photo above) has a listed dynamic range of 140dB. Accepting signals up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512 on its USB input, the D-1N also features two S/PDIF coaxial inputs and an AES/EBU input. A TosLink optical input is conspicuously absent. The D-1N features a 260VA toroidal transformer, and no fewer than eight power supplies: two for each channel (one each for digital and analog circuits), one for the clock crystals, one for the USB input, one for the logic board, and one for the S/PDIF receiver. While the D-1N is nominally an oversampling DAC, it can also run in non-oversampling mode, which, according to Soulnote’s website, is “basically a non-negative feedback version adapted to operate in the digital domain.”
All of the Soulnote gear looked very cool and sounded great in a system anchored by Acoustic Energy AE 520 loudspeakers ($4999 per pair), a Michell Engineering TecnoDec turntable with matching Michell T3 tonearm ($2698), a NEO Audio rack ($3999), and an Innuos ZENmini S streamer ($2049).
France’s Diptyque Audio is another brand that I wasn’t familiar with, but it stood out instantly when I entered another Fidelity Imports room. Sitting on either side of a stack of Cyrus Audio electronics, the DP107 planar-magnetic loudspeakers ($7999 for the pair) were not only cool to look at; they also sounded great. With a listed impedance of 6 ohms (I was told its minimum is around 5 ohms) and sensitivity of 86dB (2.83V at 1m), the two-way design isn’t crazy hard to drive. Power is more important than current when looking for a partnering amp.
It’s a neat-looking design with bottom-mounted binding posts and wooden and copper accents around the periphery. The DP107’s frequency range is 40Hz–19kHz. Soundwise, the Diptyque was impressive, with the pair producing a big sound with lots of width and depth. One of Diptyque’s smaller planars (it’s one model up from the entry-level DP77), the DP107 pushes out surprisingly punchy and controlled bass below 50Hz, but its real magic lies higher up in the audioband. The midrange was super-concise on “Dangerous (Oliver Remix)” by Big Data, marked by a real emphasis on attack and decay. This planar loudspeaker definitely emphasizes the upper midrange and lower treble. I found the Diptyque to be a riot of a loudspeaker with highly dynamic material.
Down the hall at another Fidelity Imports room—the distributor did a terrific job of presenting systems that were cool, sensibly priced, and high-performance—I found a more familiar face in the form of Italy’s Audia Flight. I recently reviewed Audia Flight’s high-end FLS10 integrated amplifier ($12,999) on SoundStage! Ultra, and was chuffed to see their entry-level FLS Three S integrated amplifier ($3999) at the heart of a system alongside the matching FL CD Three S CD player ($3999), with its optional digital input board ($549) being fed by an Innuos ZENmini music server, flanked by Q Acoustics Concept 50 floorstanding loudspeakers ($2999 per pair), all connected with a loom of QED cables. This struck me as a good-looking, well-balanced system. Audia Flight’s gear is made by hand in Italy and features a richly textured sound with a bold bottom end, while the Q Acoustics loudspeakers are well-designed, no-nonsense towers that are sonically well integrated from top to bottom. I liked everything about their sound, full stop. No, it wasn’t a contender for the best system of the show, but I could see a lot of listeners experiencing a system like this and purchasing it straight-up.
Yet another Fidelity Imports room drew me in with its alluring combination of Italian gear. Unison Research’s Unico 90 integrated amplifier is not a brand-new product, but it hasn’t been available in the United States until now. Retailing for $5499, the zero-feedback integrated amp is a hybrid design, combining a class-A tubed input stage featuring ECC81 and ECC83 vacuum tubes with a solid-state class-AB output stage with three pairs of FETs per channel. It delivers a healthy 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 160Wpc into 4 ohms, and has no fewer than six inputs, with three unbalanced RCA, two balanced XLR, and one unbalanced RCA bypass connection. Build quality seemed outstanding for the price—I literally did a double take when Bartolomeo Nasta, the export manager for Unison Research, told me what the amp costs. The Unico 90 was partnered with the Unison Unico CD Due disc player ($4499) and Opera Loudspeakers Callas Diva towers ($11,999 per pair)—all handmade in Italy. An Innuos ZENmini music server and QED cables rounded the system out. The sound? Delightful. It was textured and full-bodied, and it added only a hint of that characteristic tube warmth to the proceedings. I’m really glad to see Unison Research (and Opera Loudspeakers) back in the United States.
Finally, Moonriver Audio announced its brand-new 505 phono preamplifier ($5995), as demoed by the ever-affable Philip O’Hanlon from On a Higher Note, which distributes the Swedish brand in North America. The 505 offers a ton of functionality, including selectable mono or stereo operation, an EQ switch for RIAA and Decca 78 curves, a moving-magnet input-capacitance selector (100–680pF), a moving-magnet input-impedance selector (22, 47, or 75k ohms), a moving-coil input-impedance selector (10–470 ohms), and a gain selector. It saves your selections for each of its four inputs, one of which offers the option of balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA, while the remaining three are all unbalanced RCA. On the output front, there are one pair of balanced XLRs and two pairs of unbalanced RCAs.
Moonriver’s 505 is, without question, a vinyl lover’s dream component. I heard the 505 in action with the matching Moonriver 404 Reference integrated amplifier ($5995 as spec’ed with optional phono stage), a Bergmann Modi airbearing turntable with a Bergmann Thor tonearm ($17,000), a Hana ML moving-coil cartridge ($1,200), Graham LS8/1 speakers ($9700 per pair, including matching stands), and a raft of Cardas cables. I’ll admit that trying to suss out the impact of a high-end phono stage in a system retailing for well over $30,000 would be foolhardy, so I’m not going to try. But O’Hanlon’s setup positively sang on “Your Freedom Is the End of Me” by Melanie de Biasio. De Biasio’s vocal had a golden quality to it, at once sweet and well-defined. The lazy drum work in the background was rich and supple, and the net effect of this vinyl rig was a cinematic quality that attendees definitely enjoyed, and I found myself getting lost in the Belgian singer’s dream-like track.
All of this gear was a treat for the eyes and ears, and I’m looking forward to following up with some of these brands regarding review samples.
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!