AudioKeyREVIEWS! ISSUE 17 - JULY 2024

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DAC 2.10









L-10000 OTL/OCL






Music is art, art is music.

Claude Monet - Le bassin aux nympheas, 1917-1919

Front Inside Cover: Henri Matisse - Flowers, 1907

Back Inside Cover: Auguste Pierre Renoir - Roses and Jasmine in a Delft Vase, c.-1880-1881

The Other Art It is my belief that the artist and the musician are not only creatives, but they access heart and soul and experience, perhaps, in the selfsame ways. My own love for art and music are inseparable. And so art, music, and those things which facilitate the music shall share theses pages.


Wayne Thiebaud - Flatland River


It is probably obvious that music and art are two of the things I most love and enjoy. There’s not a single issue of this AudioKeyREVIEWS Magazine that does not speak to music and art. I have a curated collection of over 1,100 pieces of digital art that I can place, rotate, or invite for another “season” of art and music whenever I wish. There are few museums that can boast as many pieces of art from the great masters. Being able to use them to bring art to my readers’ experience and discovery is truly enjoyable. And for this I am grateful.

I have also collected many albums from many different genres that have truly become part of me over the decades, after getting me through high school (and family) and then college and far too many all-night study sessions. And then there is life, of course, or as some notable artists might say, “The vicissitudes of life.” There have certainly been many of those, and they continue.

In this July issue, art and music have come together yet again to help me and our reviewers flesh out some rather spectacular components, encompassing amplifiers, DACs, cables, headphone amplifiers, and a number of other components. Discovering them has been both refreshing and impactful, an exciting revelation that again stands beside truly impeccable works or art. Perhaps you’ll make the connection.

I do hope that you enjoy the latest issue of AudioKeyREVIEWS Magazine, presented for your collective enjoyment.




K. E. Heartsong

Managing Editor

Dr. Irina Kuzminsky

Senior Editor(s)

Andre Marc

Oliver Masciarotte


Dr. Irina Kuzminsky

Rain Jordan

Music Reviewers (Video/Written)

Dr. Irina Kuzminsky


K. E. Heartsong

Graphic Design

Wabi Sabi Design Group

Vincent Van Gogh - Mulberry Tree
Wassily Kandinsky

South Korea’s Allnic Audio made quite an impression on us when we reviewed their H-7000 phono preamplifier (, and their M-3000 Mk3 mono block power amplifiers (https:// allnic-m-3000). These products set new with respect to tube-based home playback gear. We now get to close the circle with the introduction of the L-10,000 Signature Edition Linestage. A review sample was dispatched from Allnic’s factory.

The L-10,000 Signature Edition has many features and design implementations that differentiate it from other high-end tube-based preamps. The first thing that stands out is that the L-10,000 uses 300B tubes, one of the most coveted amplification tubes among high-end enthusiasts. It is also an OTL (Output Transformer-Less) and OCL (Output Capacitor-less) design. There are few linestages with this type of topology.

between unboxing and being powered on. As with the M-3000 Mk3 amps, there was protective material in the tube chimneys that needed to be removed. The manual is very thorough and includes sign-off signatures for completed quality checks of the major components—a nice touch.

Vincent Van Gogh - Peupliers à Saint-Rémy

So what is the difference between the newly released L-10,000 Signature Edition and the previous model? Plenty. Channel separation has been optimized, and the noise floor has been lowered. Interestingly, Allnic reduced the gain from 18 dB to 12 db to better accommodate more modern digital

are two identical parallel boards, each with its own power supply.

The build quality of the linestage matches that of the M-3000 Mk3 amps—in other words, fanatical in detail. Even the chunky supplied remote is put together with precision and feels and looks like a piece of

One of the major features is the 61-step constant impedance attenuator that offers an amazingly wide volume range. These types of volume controls are very expensive to implement and require tremendous precision. There are tube changes as well, with the 6211 replacing 12AU7, and the ECF802 replacing the E80CF. The chassis has remained as before, but internally there

delivers in spades. The L-10,000 Signature Edition sells for $30,000.


The L-10,000 Signature was dropped into a virtually all Allnic system, with the H-7000 phono preamp and the M-3000 Mk3 mono block amplifiers downstream. Along with the Allnic gear, we had on hand a Canor DAC

2.10 (review in process), a Sota Comet Vi1 turntable, and Clarus cables. Everything was powered by Bryston and Audience power conditioners. We used a pair of Magnepan 3.7i speakers.

After letting the linestage settle in for a week following its week-long journey from South Korea, we put it through its paces. We had a stack of vinyl and plenty of digital downloads ready to go. We had just received the new all analog remaster of Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, cut by the great Bernie Grundman. The album is made up of tracks Hendrix had mixed and was getting together for his fourth studio release. Most of the tracks were recorded at his own Electric Lady studios, which were still under construction during the process. The tracks found here have been scattered around several posthumous releases, like The Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge.

First Rays is the most complete collection of Hendrix’s vision. The music is a huge leap forward, with sounds not heard on any previous release. The Allnic linestage made tracks like “Earth Blues,” “Dolly Dagger,” “Pali Gap,” and “Drifting” sound more present and immersive than we have ever heard them before. Mitch Mitchell’s propulsive jazz rock drumming explodes out of the speakers on tracks like “In From The Storm,” and the layering of percussion, guitars, backing vocals, and studio effects is a

thing to behold, with the L-10,000 Signature supplying gobs of texture and earthy analog tones.

Switching over to digital, we listened to an album we have become very fond of, Para Mi Potnia, a bossa nova album by a group from Italy called Sinedades. The album is well recorded and it creates a vibe like a warm summer morning. The music is breezy and charming.

The Allnic preamp created a beautiful halo for this mostly acoustic music. The guitars, percussion, and the wonderful co-led vocals of Erika Boschi and Agustin Cornejo come through in a very intimate way. The L-10,000 Signature extracted the soul of the melodies, sung mostly in Portuguese.

We took a bit of a turn and went with a few albums on the heavier side. First up was last year’s high-resolution remastering of Dirt, the explosive second album by Seattle’s Alice In Chains. We were amazed at the crunch of the guitars and the impact of the drums throughout. Even more impressive was the textures the L-10,000 Signature created with acoustic passages, such as the epic ballad “Down in a Hole.” The late Layne Staley’s haunting lead vocals were powerful and majestic, even more so when coupled with guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s ghostly backing vocals. The Allnic preamp showed it

could recreate the scale and impact of rock music without a hitch.

We then focused on mostly acoustic music and orchestral pieces. Gypsy Flamenco, by Flamenco master Carlos Heredia, ripped

captured by the recordings and the amazing stereo spread featuring guitar, traditional vocals, and percussion, was as lifelike as we have ever heard from a home playback system. The foot stomps seemed to come from corners of the room, and it was easy to differentiate them from the castanets.

Cameristico, by the brilliant Brazilian guitarist Marco Pereira, is a masterpiece of an album, and features music for guitar,

orchestra, and trio. There is a sprinkling of flute and mandolin as well. The music is cinematic, with varying shades of light and dark, and overall it’s stunningly beautiful music. The L-10,000 Signature served amazingly organic-sounding, and the individual instruments and percussion each had their own place on the soundstage. And Perreira’s guitar sits elegantly front and center.

We had a craving for some classic jazz, and McCoy Tyner’s Time For Tyner, from 1968, was exactly what the doctor ordered. McCoy’s piano was brilliantly showcased, with the listener made to feel a very direct connection with the master’s touch. The

addition of the great Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone added another dimension, and the L-10,000 Signature provided the sonic sauce needed to make these tracks sound as entire album sounded coherent and focused.

nuance compared to the original CDs is staggering. The L-10,000 was adept at spotlighting Buckingham’s guitar mastery and his particular gift for crafty

Just before our time was up with the L10,000 Signature, we purchased 20th Century Lindsey, a 192 kHz remaster of four of Lindsey Buckingham’s solo albums. The Fleetwood Mac frontman has been very prolific, and the albums included here are Law And Order, Go Insane, Out Of The Cradle, and a selection of rarities.

The tracks were remastered from the original tapes, and the level of detail and

finger-picked guitar, layers of vocal harmonies, and some spoken word interludes. There are some more fleshed-out tracks as well, and the Allnic system beautifully rendered the performances and production with great focus..

With respect to ergonomics, the L-10,000 Signature was simply flawless and a joy to use. The stepped volume control was astoundingly smooth. We thought we had encountered precision volume controls

before, but the Allnic implementation was unparalleled. The linestage was also amazingly quiet, both mechanically and electronically. The only noise heard was at power up as the tubes came to life.


We have had one other 300B based linestage in our system and it sounded lovely, but leaned too heavily on the velvety, rich side. We have also had numerous superb flagship preamplifiers in-house from excellent brands like Lamm, Rogue, Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and more. None approached the sheer perfection of the Allnic L-10,000 Signature Edition.

The L-10,000 Signature Edition would be a final purchase for most audiophiles. There was no area in which we found it lacking, and in our estimation, it would serve virtually any audiophile’s listening habits. Of course, coupled with Allnic’s own M-3000 Mk3 mono amps, there was synergistic magic, to be sure. But we feel the preamp would be a superb front end for any amplifiers that can match its level of excellence.

preampfification. A DIAMOND AWARD winner.


Allnic Audio, South Korea Allnic L-10,000 Signature Edition

Linestage: $30,000


• Input Impedance: 10 k ohms( RCA, XLR)

• Tubes: 300B x4, ECF802 x2, 6211 x2

• Dimension: 430mmx450mmx280mm WDH

AFor those in the market for a state-of-theart linestage, we strongly recommend, if not insist, that it would be prudent to take a listen to the Allnic L-10,000 Signature Edition It will open an astute audiophile’s ears to what is capable at the highest levels of tube

• Weight: 22kg/net AKRM

Wassily Kandinsky - Murnau. Two Houses, 1908




For quite some time, I sought to assemble the “system that never was.”

This represented a determined search for my next stereo system, which was to have tubed amplification. I was leaving behind a decent solid state stereo system, though I can only remember the Mark Levinson No. 39 CD player, and the B&W 804 speakers. The Mark Levinson No. 39 CD player was one of those components, beautifully constructed, stylish, sleek, and solid, that I long believed I should never have sold. There have been perhaps a handful of those “should have kept” components over the course of what has been a long stereo journey

The “system that never was” consisted of the Meridian 506 CD player, the EAR V20 Integrated amplifier, and a pair of Sonus Faber Grand Piano speakers. I had listened to the system in a San Francisco audio store back then, and also in a New York audio store while travelling on business. It was definitely

the system to beat at the time, as each piece on its own was quite good, but the synergy, as I remember, was wonderfully musical, with good detail, and it was a real looker. The Sonus Faber Grand Piano, a gorgeous speaker, was my first introduction to a speaker designed by Franco Serblin.

The Grand Piano featured glossy black side panels and leather-wrapped front and back panels that cried opulence, despite its nonopulent price tag. Ultimately, I would never own that system, as my software startup was in the throes of its first funding and disposable income for such a purchase was neither advisable nor practicable.

Subsequently, I would listen to just about all of Sonus Faber’s beautifully made monitors—the Electa Amator, Minima Amator, Liuto Monitor, etc.—loving some while merely liking others.

Mr. Serblin’s speakers, however, have always held a respected place in my memory, and their styling has always been luxurious.

This brings me to the review of one of the late Franco Serblin’s more recent speaker

Vincent Van Gogh - Pine Trees against an Evening Sky, 1889


inspirations/creations, the Accordo Essence. Like its predecessors, the Accordo Essence is a beautifully constructed work of art that may well find its way into a modern art museum soon, perhaps as staged in a model MidCentury Modern home. But how does the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence sound?

REFRAIN: Unlike most other reviews, this review will be non-sequential, as it will start with how the component actually sounds and not the process of physically “undressing” it and/or laying out its various parts, specifications, etc. Tink of this review then, as a non-linear movie— Memento, Kill Bill, Arrival, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc—that, likewise, starts at the end and winds its way to the beginning.


• Grimm Audio MU2 Streamer/DAC/ Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATC - 5s Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATM - 1E Amplifier

• ATMA-SPHERE - GEM Integrated

• LYRIC Ti 100 Single-Ended Integrated

• Franco Serblin Accordo Essence Speakers

• Fern & Roby Raven III Speakers

• Kubala-Sosna Interconnects (XLR, RCA), Speaker Cables, Power Cords

• Grimm Audio SQM Interconnects (XLR, RCA)

• TORUS AUDIO Power Conditioner

• RSX BEYOND, MAX Power-cords

• SEISMION Amplifier Stand (powered)


My new listening room’s dimensions are 17 feet (5.18 m) by 24 feet (7.32 m). The system is placed along the short wall, with the left side of the room open. The floor is carpeted, and while I prefer area rugs, the carpeting works very well with regard to taming reflections and other unwanted anomalies (there is concrete underneath the carpet). The speakers were placed 3 feet from the front wall, 9 feet apart, and 2.5 feet from the right side wall. Toe-in saw the speakers pointing almost directly at the listening seat.

The Franco Serblin Accordo Essence speakers were relatively easy to place and subsequently tweak to solidify the centre image, provide the widest and deepest staging, and tighten the bass.


Te research or “scuttlebutt” on the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence is that it takes a goodly amount of power—100-plus watts —to drive the speakers to reasonable listening levels, though optimum room size or volume level are rarely if ever considered in these pronouncements. Te last two points—room size and volume level—are quite important, as they are the true arbiters—“decision-makers”—with regard to the power required of nearly any speaker.

concert levels or air plane engine equivalents, but at medium to low volumes. And with my preference for jazz, blues, folk, classical (chamber, solo performances), opera, and choral music, I was very curious to test the “soundness” of the claims. I am a bit of a contrarian.

So for this contradictory review, I assembled several low-wattage amplification systems—the Air Tight ATC-1 preamplifier/ ATM-1 amplifier (36 watts), Lyric Audio Ti MkII Single-Ended Triode integrated (20 watts), and Atma-Sphere GEM integrated (5 watts).

and first-rate treble response. The Air Tight ATC-1s preamplifier and the ATM-1s amplifier combo, however, via the additional 16 watts, improved on all aspects of the Accordo Essence’s performance, with a much tighter and deeper bass response. And in truth, the Atma-Sphere GEM integrated, with its 5 watts, seemed, well, gratuitous and incompatible, and it was. The Air Tight combo, the optimum low-wattage amplification in-house, would be used for the majority of the Accords Essence’s review.

If the Accordo Essence speakers demonstrated anything, and they did in fact


demonstrate much, of note were its transparency, exceptional resolving abilities, and its capacity to easily present detail in abundance. Further, its staging brought forth great width and depth and a persuasive sense of intimacy when called for. Separation of performers across the stage and at depth was also very good, and air and ambiance always gave dimension to the venue in question. And I remind you that this was done with 36 watts of power, in a medium-sized room, and at medium listening levels (8:30-9 o’clock on the Air Tight ATC-1s volume dial).

The Air Tight ATM-1s amplifier and its quartet of EL34 tubes imparted a texture for which EL34 tubes are well known and which the Accordo Essence aptly portrayed. This gave the vocals gravitas, palpability, a richness that found Andy Bey’s “Angel Eyes” (American Song, Savoy) the most moving and accurate portrayal that I have ever heard. I once sat several feet from Andy at Pearl’s Jazz Club in San Francisco when he sang “Angel Eyes,” and this combo of

components had me there once again. Beautiful!

As mentioned above, the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence’s volumetric cube—its soundstage—is quite wide and deep, with good height. Spatial recreation—horizontal positioning, layering to depth, relative spacing, air, and ambiance—are superb.


One of my go-to bass review tracks is Delfeayo Marsalis’ “Secret Love Affair” (The Last Southern Gentleman, Troubadour Jazz Records), which is a dynamic, superbly constructed piece with a good measure of low-end drive from an “extended” drum kit and an upright bass, to which the Accordo Essence responded very well. Dave Holland’s upright bass on “B-40/M23-6K/ RS-W” and “Emerald Tears”(Emerald Tears, ECM) was fast and tight, its tone and timbre beautifully differentiated, and the Accordo Essence, with all of 36 watts, did not miss a beat. To reiterate, the Air Tight combo’s 36 watts brought superb renderings of all the bass-rich pieces with which it was presented in relation to my specific listening requirements.


As I mentioned earlier, Andy Bey’s “Angel Eyes” is exquisitely presented via the Accordo Essence. Andy’s voice is rich, textured, palpable, with a clarity, transparency, and fine resolution of detail that had me once again at Pearl’s Jazz Club, just a few feet from his piano. I had to repeat this track and just listen for a while. It was a wonderful night, followed by Chinese food at a nearby “dive”in North Beach with excellent food and good company.

Joan Shelley’s “We’d Be Home” (Joan Shelley, No Quarter) plays now, and the guitars that precede Joan’s voice have invited themselves into my listening room. They are soon followed by Joan’s sonorous voice, which finds her seated between them and also inroom. The clarity, the inherent detail, the fine resolution is brilliant. The Accordo Essence and the Air Tight combo and of course, the Grimm Audio MU2 have again rendered into three dimensions what many stereo systems render as two, un-engaging, thin, distant portrayals of the same. Bravo.


Yes, it’s time for that track again, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (Time Out, ColumbiaLegacy). Why? There are so many systems, regardless of their price tag, that can turn Joe Morello’s cymbals into something frying under the high heat of a gas stove on a too humid midwestern day, and that ain’t pretty,

folks. This is not what the Accordo Essence does by any means, as it is at the other end of the spectrum. The Accordo Essence brings very good treble extension, clarity, and resolution via its 29 mm silk-dome tweeter. Joe Morello’s cymbals are beautifully and clearly resolved, with air and ambiance aplenty giving spatial/dimensional detail to his drum kit and richness, texture, and tone that scream out “in-room,” as if you were expecting something else.


Absolutely gorgeous. This is an exceptionally beautiful speaker, probably one of the most beautiful speakers that I have, to date, reviewed. No, make that the most gorgeous speaker. Made of solid wood, a Franco Serblin trait, the front expertly wrapped in leather, fitted with aluminum-magnesium parts “to control resonance” and chrome, everything speaks to master furniture design in the form of a speaker, which is stunning. The Franco Serblin Accordo Essence would work well, better than any previously mentioned speaker, in a San Francisco or Paris pied-à-terre, an isolated designer home in the Santa Barbara (CA) hills, or an innercity mansion in, say, Chicago.


Well, this contrarian review has uncovered an important truth with regard to the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence speakers. You don’t need a lot of power to drive them, especially


if you listen at low to medium volume (like most audiophiles, music lovers) have a smallto medium-sized listening room (like most audiophiles, music lovers), and don’t listen to large orchestral pieces, ponderous rap/hiphop, acid rock, or the like (like most audiophiles, music lovers).

That said, the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence speakers easily go with the flow of the accompanying amplification. They played beautifully with the single-ended Lyric Ti 100 MkII (20 watts), with an expanded soundstage, beautiful midrange, and soaring highs in my medium-sized room at medium volume. The Air Tight ATC-1 preamplifier/ ATM-1 amplifier (36 watts) combo extended low-end weight and gravitas while providing exceptional midrange tone and texture, and nicely extended highs.

Lastly, the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence speakers are supremely musical, refined, and technically accomplished, featuring an outstanding design motif that will eventually be curated for a modern art museum.

Therefore, we give the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence our GOLD KEYNOTE AWARD for technical excellence, profound musicality, and a physical beauty that few speakers can even hope to attain.


Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

• Frequency response: 35Hz - 22KHz, inroom

• Nominal impedance: 4ohm

• Sensitivity: 88dB/2.83V/1m

• Minimum power amplifier: 20W/channel

• Dimensions: 1100 x 230 x 430 (HxWxD)

• Weight: 60 kg/pair speaker unpacked 70 kg /pair packed

• Finish: Solid walnut - Metal parts of chrome and aluminum



Franco Serblin Accordo Essence: $18,975 17800 South Main Street, Suite 109 Gardena, CA 90248

Toll-free (866) 295-4133

2190 Nolensville Pike, Suite C Nashville, TN 37211

Toll-free (866) 295-4133

Pros: Incredible midrange, with exceptional resolution, clarity, detail, tone, timbre and texture. For the right audiophile and the right room, even at low wattage, perfection. Cons: Its ability to scale relies on the power at hand, given the above caveats.


Paul Cezanne- Gardanne, 1885-86

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“ The Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects connected me to the music like no other interconnects I've heard, at anywhere near the price.

Robert H. Levi

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The Expressions present music without noticeable boundaries to a stage; sound stages don't erupt from a black background, but from an invisible and expanding one…

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The title appealed to me straight away.

“Piano Dances” conjured up all manner of images, including that of a dancing grand piano, mobile but rather heavy on its feet. I checked it out and found

Anna Vinnitskaya’s new album to feature suites of waltzes and other dances by Ravel, Shostakovich and Jörg Widmann (b.1973), a German composer hitherto unknown to me.

Te album opens with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), which took me back to the last piano recital I ever gave. It was a set of pieces I particularly enjoyed playing for their exploitation of pianistic colours and textures. Ravel wrote the Valses nobles et sentimentales as a homage to Schubert who had written a set of Valses nobles and a set of Valses sentimentales. I had not listened to them for a very long time, and in a way this was like rediscovering them all over again – and coming to terms with a different interpretation. As I listen I realize that our understanding of the music, our interpretation of it, both as listeners and performers, grows and changes with us.

Te first thing that stood out for me was Vinnitskaya’s scintillating piano fingerwork. She possesses a steely finger technique, but musically seems to sit on the surface of these pieces. I find myself wishing for a bit more whimsy and bigger spaces between the eight pieces, more silence to absorb the transitions between moods, and a less mannered approach. Having said that, the pianism on display is impeccable, notes flow in crystal clear

Berthe Marisol - Young Woman Picking Oranges


cascades. I listen to a couple of other recordings to check my reactions. Louis Lortie brings out the unresolved dissonances more strongly in no.1 in a harsher interpretation, and the jazz elements in no.2. Vinnitskaya’s sounds is more brittle and more crystalline. Tere is also Ravel’s own performance for comparison, a great reference point, although one needs to take into account the recording limitations of the time. But I find I cannot go past Walter Gieseking, the famed Debussy interpreter, with his ear for nuanced musical details, and his sense of colour and dynamic contrast. His playing draws me in, the Valses emerge more subtle, more understated, dreamy, whimsical and refined under his fingers.

It is with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Dances of the Dolls for Piano (1952–1962) that Vinnitskaya truly comes into her own. Te “Lyric Waltz” is convincingly delightful, nuanced, and a joy to listen to. Te “Gavotte” and “Romance” are unpretentious, sweet and simple, while the “Polka” has a great dance quality and feel for rhythm. Te “Waltz scherzo” has

some great staccato passages, and the second part of the “Hurdy Gurdy” takes the folk song material at a dizzying speed with no loss of clarity. It makes one want to chuckle! Vinnitskaya’s programme notes speak of feeling transported into the world of childhood by all the pieces on this album, but for me this holds true only for these Doll Dances by Shostakovich. All the other works are far darker, distinctively adult affairs.

Te Zirkustänze (Circus Dances) from 2012 by Jörg Widmann are a total novelty for me. Te opening “Fanfare” is jarring after the Doll Dances, but certainly catches your attention for a change of mood and soundworld. Te pieces are interesting and, on the whole, more sombre. Tere is a sense of the steps falling over each other in no.3, “Erster Walzer”, perhaps portraying the clumsiness of a first attempt at waltzing which ultimately disintegrates and simply wanders off the dance floor.

Widmann seems to have a predilection for the extreme top register of the piano which he exploits regularly, either throughout a piece or adding splashes of colour. No.8, “Karussell-Walzer”, places the merry-go-


round almost exclusively into the extreme top register with a sudden intrusion of the extreme bass, only, ultimately, to leave the piece hanging there. But it is probably no.9, “Hebräische Melodie”, that exploits that top register best. Sudden splashes of a high tessitura chord erupt into the low melodic line disrupting its solemn flow with what feels like a threat, a lashing cut, growing ever more frequent. No.11, the “Bayerisch-babylonischer Marsch”, a rather laboured, disjointed march, as the title suggests (Bavarian and Babylonian!?), closes proceedings. Needless to say, Vinnitskaya gives a bravura performance.

Vinnitskaya returns to Ravel to round out the programme, this time to the piano arrangement of La Valse (1919-1920), which uses a motive from the Valses nobles et sentimentales. Ravel wrote La valse for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes intending it as a ballet score. Diaghilev admired it but turned it down as unsuitable. It was not until 1951 that La valse, the ballet, was premiered in New York with Balanchine’s choreography. For his ballet Balanchine used not only La valse but also Ravel’s

Valses nobles et sentimentales to precede it. Tis was the second time the Valses nobles et sentimentales had turned up as a ballet – the first time was in 1912, commissioned in its orchestrated ballet version by Russian ballerina Natasha Trouhanova with a love triangle libretto written by Ravel himself. As for La valse, it is a kind of apotheosis of the swirling Viennese waltz and the remnants of the society that so loved it which swirls its way into a frenzied distorted chaos. “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano”, Ravel wrote in his notes to La valse. Vinnitskaya plays it with great energy in a virtuosic tour de force but for me the highlight were the Shostakovich pieces, “sincere and beautiful”, to quote Vinnitskaya herself. Te rest I can admire but not feel compelled by on the same level.



My first exposure to the AIRTIGHT ATC-1 preamplifier and the ATM-1 amplifier combo was over 20 years ago. It’s easy to the components, as the design has been carried forward to this day in the latest versions— the AIR-TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier— currently under review.

Seldom have audio components been so well executed from a design perspective and so substantive—solid. And as to their diminutive size, I imagine that apartment dwellers with limited space and audiophiles with small- or medium-sized listening rooms them.

A long time ago, I owned an earlier version of the AIR-TIGHT combo, and I recall that their rendering of my various albums and CDs always proved insightful and musically engaging, with a lushness that

Claude Monet - Red Water Lillies, 1914-19

clearly belonged to the dominion of its EL34 tubes. I’m certain that the pairing components, while good, do not compare to combo will now play. I would also be equipped with a far more appropriate speaker —Fern & Roby Raven IIIs (94dB/8Ω) than I had owned then. So how did the new AIRTIGHT combo perform?


After one biases the tubes of the AIRTIGHT ATM-1E amplifier, a one- to twominute task, the AIR- TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier combo is plug and play.

The AIR- TIGHT combo would “sit in” with two speakers of varying sensitivity: • Fern & Roby Raven III - 94dB/8Ω

REFRAIN: Unlike most reviews, this review will be non-sequential, as it will start with how the equipment actually sounds and not the process of physically “undressing” it and/or laying out its various accoutrements, specifications, etc. Tink of this review then, as a non-linear movie— Memento, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Eternal its way to the beginning.

• Franco Serblin Accordo Essence88dB/4Ω

With a power rating of 36 watts, only one speaker would pose a challenge for the AIRTIGHT combo—the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence. Though it should be noted that with musical fare that was not largescale orchestral or driving rap or acid rock or the like, the AIR-TIGHT combo worked very well with the Accordo Essence speakers. Jazz ensembles, classical chamber, choral, vocals, folk, were all beautifully served. Of course, the Raven III speakers were an optimum “band mate,” and it showed.

I would utilize the Fern & Roby Raven IIIs for the majority of the review, as the Devore Orangutans 0/96, though well broken-in, did not arrive until the final week of the review. I will, however, utilize the AIRTIGHT combo for their review.


• Grimm Audio MU2 Streamer/DAC/ Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATC - 5s Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATM - 1E Amplifier

• ACCUPHASE E-700 Integrated

• ATMA-SPHERE - GEM Integrated

• LYRIC Ti 100 Single-Ended Integrated

• Devore Audio Orangutan 0/96

• Fern & Roby Raven III Speakers

• Franco Serblin Accordo Essence

• Kubala-Sosna Interconnects (XLR, RCA), Speaker Cables, Power Cords

• Grimm Audio SQM Interconnects (XLR, RCA)

• TORUS AUDIO Power Conditioner

• RSX BEYOND, MAX Power-cords

• SEISMION Amplifier Stand (powered)


The AIR-TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier combo rendered an “old school meets new school” approach to the music, which resulted in lush and beautifully textured music with superb transparency and resolution that easily laid bare the detail across numerous recordings. And with the more efficient speakers, the AIR-TIGHT combo took hold and rendered increased dynamic realism, contrasts, and low bass power. Memories flooded back of CDs and albums spun, though I’m certain that the earlier iteration of the AIR-TIGHT combo never sounded this good, nor this exciting.

In direct comparison to the Lyric Audio Ti 100MkII (20-watts, $9,995), a current reference here, the AIR-TIGHT combo’s additional power was evident across all recordings and gave the music a good deal more gravitas and weight that lent even more palpability to various performances. And while the Lyric Ti 100MkII provided more

better control of the Fern & Roby Raven III and the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence speakers.

I must admit that while the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence was very good, when allied to the AIR-TIGHT combo, the Fern & Roby Raven IIIs were exceptional, given their more sensitive nature (94dB, 8ohms) and with three superb components working in unison, the resulting music was outstanding and incredibly engaging, regardless of genre.

The AIR-TIGHT combo’s volumetric cube—its soundstage—was wide and deep, with good height. Spatial recreation— horizontal positioning, layering, relative space,

Delfeayo Marsalis, “Secret Love

Affair,” (Te Last Southern Gentleman, Troubadour Jazz Records) via the AIRTIGHT combo brought forward a tight, deep and rousing bass (30Hz-20kHz). Tere was also great texture and dynamics, while the horns demonstrated exceptional timbre, tone, and bite. Tere was an aliveness that in truth was startling, fresh, and engaging. Had the Devore Orangutan 0/96s (96dB, 26Hz-31kHz) arrived in time for a few sets with the AIR-TIGHT combo, I’m certain that bass response would be plumbed to even greater depths and dare I say beautifully so, given the combo’s performance with the Raven IIIs, the best to date.


First up was Andy Bey's “Angel Eyes” (American Song, Savoy) via the AIRTIGHT ATC-5s and the ATM-1E, which delivered a textured, in-room palpability of Andy’s beautifully aged, gravel-rich voice that made listening the sole order of the day. Note-taking was quickly put aside as I just listened with a growing smile and rapt engagement. Branford Marsalis’ “Gloomy Sunday” (Eternal, Marsalis Music) cued next, and its portrayal was rich, textured, beautifully resolved, three-dimensional, and haunting in a “gloomy Sunday”sort of way. Tere was no floating apparition in regard to Branford’s horn, it had entered the room. Did I mention the strength of the AIR-TIGHT combo’s exceptional and absolute way with regard to its portrayal of the midrange? Are “delicious” and “edible” apt descriptors here? Indeed. Bravo!


My go-to pieces for “sussing out” the treble strengths of a given component’s ability to resolve Joe Morello’s drum kit cymbals are Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (Time Out, Columbia-Legacy), or the resolution and clarity of Ysabel’s castanets on Charles Mingus’ “Ysabel’s Table Dance” (Tijuana Moods, RCA-Legacy). Well, the castanets were leaping out at me, as if they were

thrown into the room with Ysabel attached and leaping in with them! Surely, this was the work of a rather potent combo, with the Grimm Audio MU2 leading the charge, but the ability of the AIR-TIGHT combo in rendering the stream of the MU2’s technical and musical wherewithal presented a holographic presentation that was absolutely compelling and gorgeous. Joe Morello’s drum kit and the attendant resolution was right up there with the best and better than most. Whether the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence or the Fern & Roby Raven III speakers were in play, there was great continuity, though the Accordo Essence’s separate treble nicely extended the range and resolution of those “higher bits” of musical information to the heavens and above.


As mentioned earlier, the AIR-TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier combo are beautifully designed in an artisanal fashion, where attention to detail is, well, absolute. Te AIR-TIGHT combo’s design has stood the test of time, not unlike Mid-Century Modern furniture —the Eames Chair, Noguchi table, Barcelona Chair, etc.—which continues to this day with great appeal.

The technical aspects of the AIRTIGHT combo’s design incorporate steel,


aluminum, and copper metals from exterior to interior, and are finished in a grey lacquer that distinguishes them beautifully from the vast majority of competing amplifiers. This is not a skin-deep approach to design, as the amplifier is hand-wired and employs the topmost component parts—Alps potentiometers, Tamura and Hashimoto transformers, ceramic tube bases, gold-plated sockets, etc.

The AIR-TIGHT components are beautifully designed, elegant, heirloom components, that are meant to be passed down to one’s family and loved ones.


The AIR-TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier provide an “old school meets new school” approach to rendering one’s music, which, as earlier mentioned, results in lush and beautifully textured music that is spatially astute, with superb transparency, resolution, detail, and brilliant musicality.

The AIR-TIGHT combo handles the entirety of the frequency range exceedingly well, though in my opinion, the combo represents midrange royalty, a music lover’s dream and an audiophile’s guilty pleasure. There will be no threadbare recreations, no soulless renderings of one’s music, but neither will there be the honey-thick, old-timey slog through your media. The AIR-TIGHT

ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier are both musically and technically superb.

We happily award the AIR-TIGHT ATC-5s preamplifier and the ATM-1E amplifier the GOLDEN KEYNOTE AWARD for its high fidelity reproduction and engaging musicality.

Pros: Superb technical performance, musicality, and holographic-spatial recreation, texture, tone, and timbre.

Cons: Optimum performance is speakerdependent given the power rating.





17800 South Main Street, Suite 109 Gardena, CA 90248

Toll-free (866) 295-4133

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Toll-free (866) 295-4133

Henri Matisse - Interior with Goldfish
Camille Pissarro - Boulevard Montmatre at Night



“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage” ~ Anais Nin

I’ve eagerly anticipated this interview with bassist and multi-instrumentalist, Farida Nelson. The first time I heard Farida play the bass guitar, I fell in love with her melodic grooves and warrior goddess vibe. Farida is a fierce force of feminine power and talent, an accomplished musician in her home country and in the San Francisco Bay area where she now resides. Some people embody a mythological or powerful avatar. As you get to know Farida, you will glimpse the Lionhearted Goddess from the faraway land of Azerbaijan. The one who defies the norms and transcends the odds.

In the video

interview that follows this article, we cover Farida Nelson’s journey from the past to the present, except I am pretty sure we do it in reverse order. So, after listening to the playback, I decided I needed to elaborate a bit more on the relevant details of her past; the experiences, and the synchronicities that make her who she is today. Therefore, my friends, this article focuses mostly on the first part of her journey. To hear more about what is happening with her now, tune in to the video interview and check out her music videos on the following pages.

Pierre Auguste Renoir -Tulips


As I mentioned, Farida is a rarity. A successful female bass guitarist and multiinstrumentalist in what is still essentially a man’s world, much like the high-end audio industry. I don’t mean it as a criticism but as a statistic. Otherwise, that would be a longer conversation, which we don’t have space for now. Nor does Farida focus on the inequities, she moves around them. Farida Nelson was born in Azerbaijan, a transcontinental country located at the boundary of Eastern Europe and West Asia. The Caspian Sea sits to the east of the country and Russia's Republic of Dagestan to the north. Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, and Iran are its neighbors.

Azerbaijan was the first Muslim-majority country to become a democracy by declaring its independence from Russia. In 1918, emboldened by the women’s suffrage movement, it became the first Muslim nation and one of the first countries to grant voting rights to women. Despite this, gender continues to play an influential role in a country with strong historical stereotypes; boys and men are still the societal preference, and even today few women are represented in government. Much like in the U.S., things have improved, but quite slowly. But times are changing rapidly these days and women are rising in all sectors of life.


As a young girl, Farida grew up in a family where music was a regular part of life. She was immersed in music at home and in school. Her training primarily focused on the classical piano and singing. But lo and behold, at 15 years old she discovered an acoustic guitar tucked away in her grandmother’s closet. She quickly learned to play it on her own. Serendipitously, a friend needed a bass player for a rock concert. Although she hadn’t played the bass before she eagerly took the risk and the gig. From that day on, the trajectory of her musical life began to unfold in a new direction. Her performance attracted the interest of a prominent bass player and teacher whom she studied under. Eventually, she began to play for some of the top rock bands in her country. She performed at the Eurovision finals with the popular band Unformal and later with Milk & Kisses. If you’re confused, Eurovision is the world’s largest international song competition by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). As a female bassist in a maledominated industry, this was an unconventional opportunity but one she was passionately prepared to take on. It was a pivotal time that solidified her identity as a rising artist.

After fearlessly immersing herself in performing and studying music professionally, Farida immigrated to the United States in 2015 to expand her possibilities and follow her bliss. Moving to the U.S. was something she had wanted to do since she was a child. She sought a freedom of expression that she felt wasn’t as accessible to her in Azerbaijan. As a multi-genre, multiinstrumentalist, classically trained pianist, keyboardist, guitarist, singer, composer, and teacher, Farida transcended many of the traditional limitations and stereotypes women face in the music industry. Farida is poised for greatness.

But as we all know, the journey to our holy grail can be arduous and often inexplicable. Uncertainty and the unforeseen are inherent. And so, it is with Farida’s journey. Shortly after her move to the United States, Farida told me that her then-husband died of cancer. She was pregnant with her youngest son at the time, and her oldest son was still quite young. The grief and hardship had just begun. It was a heartbreaking and difficult time. Still, she had to begin anew. The challenges were big. She was a musician in a new country, a single mother with two young boys, and a dire need to support her

family. Fortunately, although not easy, Farida found work teaching music in the San Francisco Bay area. Her students quickly benefited from her teaching skills and musicianship. As she settled into her work as a teacher, her life as a widowed mother began to stabilize. Soon, she would be playing gigs, laying down the building blocks for the life she dreamed of as a little girl.

But the hand of destiny has its own order. Farida’s life took another turn when she decided to buy a ticket to see the legendary Victor Wooten, one of her favorite bassists and biggest influences. He performed at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in March 2019. On the evening of the concert, Farida waited patiently in the long, crowded ticket line. She learned she was in the wrong line when she got closer to the front of the line. Tim Hill, a music and bass aficionado, was standing in the right line. He said that he couldn’t help but notice the situation because Farida was the only woman in a throng of men. Tim wanted to save Farida from having to go back to the end of the line, so he waved her over and offered her a space in line next to him. Nice job Tim. It turned out that they had so much in common; they chatted, laughed, and enjoyed

the entire show together. At the end of the show, Tim politely asked Farida if she would like him to introduce her to Victor Wooten. Yes! Last year, Farida and Tim got married. Today, Tim is Farida Nelson’s producer. And I must say, she has an amazing schedule of upcoming performances and projects. Watch Farida talk about what is happening now on her musical journey in her video interview on the following page. You can also find Farida’s full performance schedule on her website:

Farida Nelson: Bands

Melodious Journey: A one-woman multiinstrumental show.

The Farida Nelson Trio: A jazz-rock fusion trio. Paul Branin on guitar and saxophone, Christopher Gamper on drums and percussion, and Farida, on bass, keys, vocals etc.

Farida Nelson Solo Artist: Available to perform and collaborate with select bands and projects.

“Solid state dynamics, resolution, detail retrieval, and spaciousness married to tube liquidity, remarkable tone/timbre/texture, offer #%$*@! musical bliss. What more could one ask for (Aurorasound HEADA)?”


Farida Nelson



Farida Nelson, a rising star originally from Azerbaijan, now living in the San Francisco Bay area, is a classically trained pianist, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, and composer. While in Azerbaijan, as a teen and young adult, she played with widely popular rock bands during a time when being a female bassist was counterculture, an act of sheer audacity. Farida now plays music within a wider, more versatile range of genres, yet her classical roots and her passionate rockstar musicianship are germane to her style. Recently, Farida scored a very visible spot in a sold-out Jeff Beck Tribute Show. The show featured veteran artists from legendary rock bands, who came together to honor master guitarist and musician Jeff Beck. The artists include Stu Hamm, Eric Barnett, Jude Gold, Angeline Saris, Farida Nelson, Mike Vanderhule, Frank Martin, Jimmy Wells, Danial Gottardo, and Danny Jones. Farida played the bass through the evening on multiple songs. And she surprised us with the keytar when she joined guitarist Eric Barnett for a standout duet-style performance. I am happy to say that I had the honor of being at the show, and it was spectacular! Farida was an integral part of the success of the show. She rocked it! I still feel the music in my body. It’s the kind of hangover you want. Listen and learn more about Farida here at Audiokey Reviews.

(This is an excerpt. The full interview is available on the video provided)

Raine Jordan: So welcome. We are here with Farida Nelson, multi-instrumentalist and bassist; however, I know her mainly as a bassist because when I’ve seen her live, she has mainly played the bass guitar. Though I know I’ve missed opportunities to see you play. And, you're also a vocalist which is another instrument in my opinion. What other instruments do you play Farida?

Garrick Davis: It's an EP, an extended play. I did that just because I wanted to put something out again. I had forgotten that it was recorded on my phone. And, I just thought the energy was so good.

Farida Nelson: I play guitar. I play piano which is my major. I have a master’s degree in piano performance. So, I play piano, keyboards. I sing. I play guitar. I play bass which is my passion that's why you see me mostly play the bass.

RJ: I mean that’s amazing. It is like you are some kind of supernatural musician. You know someone who really has taken on the full creative gamut of instruments. You know I find that a lot of really high achieving artists, or high achievers, musicians that are really deeply in their creative genius, so to speak, branch out in that sort of same direction, and really play with a lot of different instruments, and then choose one or two that they really resonate with. Do you find that that is true for you?


FN: I would say yes but at the same time you know it's like a search. You know a search for different sounds. A search for inspiration. For example, I picked up a guitar to compose songs. Because on the piano I have such a long formal education. I would say that I will put my hands on the keys, and they want to go the way they are used to going. On the guitar I didn't really have formal education. I was exploring it on my own. So, I do exactly what I want to do, and it would be more sincere in a way for me. I don't know if that makes any sense? But yeah, then I discovered that if we're talking about improvisation on the spot, fast, right now, it's so much faster, so much easier on the keyboard. Because my hands, again they know exactly what to do, and sometimes there is less thought, it’ kind like auto pilot mode..

RJ: I got it! Yea, that's good information. So, on the keyboard, because of you formal training it's just flows, it’s more “natural” (actually more learned) but the guitar takes more attention and thoughtfulness? How often do you play the guitar?

FN: Almost every day.

RJ: OK! So, that's a little intro taste of Farida Nelson, the multi-instrumentalist! Although, “I” know her (or have her seen play live) as a bassist. So, we’re going to focus a little bit on the bass. But whatever you’re doing now is what we will really want to hear about. So, speaking of that, I know that you have an exciting upcoming show, a Jeff Beck tribute! I think it's this Saturday on June 22nd?

FN: Yeah!

RJ: Talk to us a little bit about the Jeff Beck Tribute show. How you got invited – what it’s going to be like - how many people are playing? is there a set list? I know that you might not be able to say what songs are playing. So, what is your role there and how did you get invited?

FN: Yes, so first of all, I really want to thank Eric Burnett the producer and a wonderful guitar player. I've been seeing his shows throughout these last years, and he is an incredible guitarist. Anyway, he's the producer of this Jeff Beck Tribute, and I think this is the second year that they're doing this. And I got invited mostly because, I, you know with my Farida Nelson Trio was playing Jeff Beck cover songs. The amazing guitarist, Paul Branin and the wonderful drummer Christopher Gamper. Yeah, so Eric Burnett heard some songs, and that's how I got invited into this tribute which is full of stars. I'm really looking forward to performing with these people, these amazing musicians! There will be a total of 3 bass players along with me, so it would be me Angelina Saris and the amazing Stuart Hamm. He’s been my star since I was like a teenager. But anyway, it's been a dream..

RJ: Oh wow, that's amazing! I look forward to it too. I have the honor of attending myself, really Peter Baron and I will be attending. I know that Peter Baron has also been an influence in your life to a degree. Peter Baron is the producer and the founder of The Backyard Improv, which is an improvisational concert series that he's put


on. He owned the Impulse Club (the Impulse Room) at one point which is the jazz club in Walnut Creek CA, and now has brought that outside, after COVID kind of upset everything. So, he’s brought that music venue outdoors. That’s how creative and tenacious he is. And has been very successful at it. And we live in Northern California, so there's nothing more incredible than enjoying music outside in some of the most beautiful backyards in Northern California. So, I must hand it to Peter for pulling that off so beautifully. And how he continues to evolve it. Farida, I know that you've been involved in his concert series for quite a while. Can you talk a little bit about that and what his influence has been for you in your own development?G: I take it

seriously. The thing that’s happening in this phase, is that writing has really brought me back to why I have struggled to continue or why I now feel good about continuing. I feel content in the pursuit now. When I hear these songs, when I am developing the phrases, the lines and all these things, I’m like oh my God, this is the best thing in the world.

FN: I've already played I think 5 shows with him in this in his series of improvisations. He became a pushing point in my artistic career, pushing me towards the outside of my boundaries and the outside of my comfort zone. I was not able to improvise as freely before, but then I started discovering and asking, “how is this happening, how are these people coming together like this?” They don't know what's going to happen - they don't even know who they're going to play with. You know you're showing up, and you don't know who the drummer is - you don't know if there is a drummer.

What if there's a percussionist? You just don’t know what to expect. And it’s incredible how you show up and it just melds together. It all fuses together, and it turns into something absolutely beautiful. Each of those improvisational jams are in my opinion, absolutely unique. And yeah, I learned how to feel comfortable in this uncomfortable situation. So, thanks to Peter. I want to say thank you to him.

RJ: Definitely!

FN: And coming back to this this Jeff Beck Tribute and how all of this actually influenced what's happening for me right now. I became more, brave, I would say. Brave in my choice of music, songs, daring to play some songs, and to do things that I wouldn’t normally do. Like, for example, I did that interpretation of the March song that was written for piano. And I did a translation of it completely for bass. The whole thing is not for bass, and it sounds amazing. It sounds incredible. These are things that are out of the boundaries. Anyway, with the Jeff Beck Tribute I play bass and I also play guitar on one song. And there would be one special little thing that I can't really talk about, but it's going to be a very great surprise for people. I'll tell you this, there'll be 3 bass players on the stage doing something very, very cool that sounds amazing!

RJ: It gives me goosebumps. I love a great live performance, and of course, especially if it's somebody that I admire, somebody that I'm really looking forward to seeing on the stage. So, are you saying that your affiliation with

Peter and his improvisational “act” (lol, got to experience it to know how creative Peter is) that he has expanded your sense of bravery, and your ability to think outside the box, and just try things different?

FN: Yeah, definitely. Thanks to him. As a matter of fact, as you said, it all came from his Impulse Room in Walnut Creek. That's how I actually met Peter. I was looking for jazz clubs somewhere on the East Bay, and it was the only jazz club. We went there with my sister, and I'll never forget that night we met with Peter. I actually played in his club that night! I played this piece on the piano that I was formally trained on in classical education. And with that, you must know exactly what you're doing. So, it's a little different from what I'm doing right now (lol).

RJ: Right! So here you are right now, and you are doing the Jeff Beck Tribute. I know you went through some of the names that are going to be there. Are you the only woman?

FN: No! There's another woman bass player.

RJ: Hallelujah! How nice.

FN: Yes, her name is Angelina Saris, an amazing bassist from the Bay Area, a native. I think everybody adores her, and I do too. So, it's an honor to be on the stage with her.

RJ: That's so cool! I cannot wait for that kind of feminine energy to hit the stage and inundate us with that vibration. You know, because it is different, and it wonderful to get that sort of feminine energy. It's a bit different, don’t you think? Feminine energy is different than the masculine in its approach, but I don't know if that translates


to how you play an instrument, but I know it translates into what comes out of you on an expression level. But as far as instrumentally, and technique, and things like that, it might be all the same pretty much. I mean obviously everybody plays with their own signature. I get that. I’m not saying everyone plays the same way, but what do you feel? Obviously, you're a woman in a male dominated field. Even the high-end audio field. I'm in a male- dominated field as well.

My column is called, Joan of Audio and Music. it is sort of a “forging the way” for that feminine energy to enter. To enter into what's predominantly male, and to add that particular energy that might be missing and complement the male. So, tell me how you think that might be different, and what your experiences have been as a woman who plays as a musician, as a bassist or as a multiinstrumentalist?.

FN: That's actually one of the reasons why I became a bassist. Okay, so you , I come from a predominantly Muslim country, fom a country where they tell you, “You are a woman, you have to act that way, you have to do this and that, you have to you, you have to you”. So, I’ve been in that my whole life. Being a woman in a male field is nothing for me. Honestly compared to what I've been going through my whole life, and what 've been fighting against, or I would say, not against but I would say fighting for. I think I like positivity more.

RJ: Yes, I agree with you.

FN: Yeah, so I think I was able to turn the disadvantage into a benefit. Yes, like “how

many female bass players are there”? There aren’t that many.

RJ: There aren’t many in comparison to how many men there are.

FN: I think we have a lot to put on the plate. And we have a lot to show.

RJ: Yes, please.

FN: And we'll show you on the 22nd.

(Interview continued on the above video)

Minor White



Imagine for a moment a weightlifter who is able to easily “clean and jerk” 500 pounds (murder on the knees). Imagine further that this very same weightlifter only ever enters contests where the maximum amount to “clean and jerk” is 250 pounds. This would, of course, provide a decided advantage and much “headroom” for this weightlifter against those for whom 250 pounds would be the maximum. Even those in a 350-pound “clean and jerk” competition would be at a disadvantage compared to the 500-pound “clean and jerk” weightlifter.

Well, while this is a rather sideways approach to introducing the component for this review—HeadAmp CFA3 Headphone Amplifier—it is an apt metaphor in many respects. It illustrates not only the strength —power, headroom—and abilities of the CFA3, but its headphone amplifier competition. I have spent nearly four and a half years reviewing headphone amplifiers, sending some back, unreviewed and thereafter unmentioned, because they did not meet minimum standards of functionality (despite very high price tags).

I can say straight away that the HeadAmp headphone amplifiers—GS-X Mini, GS-X MarkII, Blue Hawaii Special Edition (BHSE)—that I have reviewed have always beautifully fit the bill, and

always at a price that seemed to belie the totality of their strengths. And especially the BHSE, which has won a place in my heart as one of the best, most technically adept, musical, and dependable electrostatic headphone amplifiers that I have ever reviewed or owned. And given a pair of exceptional electrostatic headphones—STAX SR-X9000, Dan Clark Corina—the combination will introduce you to new dimensions of music, via your own media, that you may never have experienced.

The above said, what I have realized in my review of the HeadAmp CFA3 compared to the competition is perhaps the closest example of the 500-pound “clean and jerk” weightlifter going up against 250- and 350-pound ‘“clean and jerk” weightlifters and, well, handily beating them every time. How good is the HeadAmp CFA3?

REFRAIN: Unlike most reviews, this review will be non-sequential, as it will start with how the component actually sounds and not the process of physically “undressing” it and/ or laying out its various parts, specifications, etc. Think of this review, then, as a nonlinear movie—Memento, Kill Bill, Arrival, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.— that likewise starts at the end and winds its way to the beginning.

Robert Doisneau



• Grimm Audio MU1 Streamer

• Grimm Audio MU2 Streamer

• Silent Angel Rhein Z1 Streamer

• Meze Empyrean Headphones

• Audience FrontRow Interconnects (XLR, RCA), USB, Ethernet

• Kubala-Sosna Interconnects (XLR, RCA), Power cords

• Grimm Audio SQM Interconnects

• Border Patrol SE-1 DAC

• Aurorasound HEADA Headphone Amplifier

• HeadAmp CFA3 HPA

• Pass Labs HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier

• ABYSS AB1266 Phi TC Headphones

• Dan Clark Expanse Headphones

• HIFIMAN Susvara Headphones


Nearly half or more of the time I’ve spent reviewing the headphone space, electrostatic headphones, and electrostatic headphone amplifiers, I’ve been fascinated, and I would spend long hours listening to literally every piece of media that I knew well. With electrostatics, there was an

There have nonetheless been nonelectrostatic components and headphones to date—the HIFIMAN Susvara, ZMF

Atrium, Abyss AB1266 Phi TC—that have delivered a goodly amount of the electrostatic experience, but no doubt they have been held back by their partnering, non-electrostatic headphone amplifiers, despite how very good these headphones are. In this respect, there was a truncation of the overall experience.

Well, things change and more quickly, it appears, than we would like to believe. Step forward the HeadAmp CFA3, coupled with any one of the aforementioned headphones, and that full electrostatic experience is infinitesimally close. The CFA3 has reduced that vast chasm between electrostatic and non-electrostatic components to a razor-thin crack along a sidewalk. That is to say, there is now exceedingly little difference between the

HeadAmp CFA3 amplifier as paired with the HIFIMAN Susvara headphone relative to the electrostatic STAX SRM-T8000 amplifier and the STAX SR-X9000 headphones. And in a number of instances, the CFA3 and the Susvara have won out.

The CFA3 is something very different, indeed above and beyond its quite impressive 15-watts of power into 50-ohms, which translates to the CFA3 being able to drive/tame perhaps the most difficult, lowest-sensitivity, and yet the most sublime planar/dynamic headphone in the world— the HIFIMAN Susvara. And it is this very combination, in particular, which broaches the daunting electrostatic headphone/head amplifier barrier. And there is word of a new Susvara, the “Susvara Unveiled.” One can only imagine its technical and musical acumen.

The HeadAmp CFA3 provides the depth of stage, meticulous separation and layering of performers, across any given stage, and the daunting transparency, resolution, and detail retrieval for which electrostatics are known. That said, the CFA3’s superb ability may make some electrostatic systems a wee bit envious, certainly those not at the Topof-the-Line. It is impossible to dispute that you-are-there, Tardis-traveling, electrostatic realism that immerses one in the music with the CFA3. And choral and live music, best heard through electrostatic systems, are astounding transparency, resolution, detail retrieval, and the ability to recreate a given venue like no other headphone technology could mirror. The players were always presented with such in-room palpability, ambiance, and exacting spatial recreation that I used Dr. Who’s Tardis—a time and space travel machine from the television series Dr. Who—to relate the experience. Listening via electrostatic media was like visiting any musical or concert venue at any point in time, so close, so reach-out-and-touch was the experience.


treated equally well with the CFA3.

While the CFA3 will always provide its

texture, tone, and timbre, even within the context of a full orchestra, gives rise to instrumental differentiation that I had either taken for granted or did not know was on the recording. It was certainly there, and the HeadAmp CFA3 went a long way to pointing it out, and beautifully so, which became yet another reason for its ability to immerse the listener in the music.

Regarding the HeadAmp CFA3’s volumetric cube or its soundstage, there is perhaps no better description of it than the

one I gave its HeadAmp electrostatic kith and kin—the Blue Hawaii Special Edition made relevant.”

This is saying a great deal for a nonelectrostatic headphone amplifier and one that, given the current projected pricing, costs several thousand dollars less than the Blue Hawaii Special Edition and $2,000 less than the STAX SRM-T8000.

In the breakdown of the frequency spectrum below, I’ve tried to utilize the same recordings, if there was a recording common to all three, to see how close, given my previous reviews, the CFA3 came to


matching three of the top electrostatic headphone amplifiers—the Blue Hawaii Special Edition ($6,995), the STAX SRMT8000 ($6,200), and the top nonelectrostatic headphone amplifier—the ALLNIC HPA 10000 OTL/OCL ($15,000).


The track used for comparison across the various headphone amplifiers was Eiji Oui’s “Infernal Dance of King Kashchey” (Stravinsky, Reference Recordings, CD) and David Holland’s “B-40/M23-6K/RSW” (Emerald Tears, ECM) .

Oui’s “Infernal Dance of King Kashchey” enters with a taut, deep, resounding bass that conveyed the gathering of the seven timpani that were assembled for this movement, via the CFA3 and the Susvara. Yet the low bass rendering was all of the above and even more propulsive, potent via the Abyss AB1266 Phi TC headphones. Both headphones as allied to the CFA3 uncovered detail deep within the mix and to the depth of the orchestral stage, while removing many veils. The resulting playback conveyed greater transparency and resolution to the movement, with a level of refinement, delicacy, and power, when called for, that was the most natural, engaging, and

energetic to date. In truth, I cannot think of the electrostatic combo—amplifier, headphones—that could match this rendering and the power and propulsiveness of the sub-bass on display.

In this respect, the HeadAmp CFA3 beautifully weaves together the various good bits of other headphone amplifiers’ technologies while displaying none of their relative “limitations”—meticulous depth, layering, and propulsive bass response.


The tracks used for comparison of the midrange across the various headphone amplifiers were Voices8’s “Prayer to a Guardian Angel” (Lux, Decca) and Emily D’Angelo’s enargeia (Deutsche Grammophon) .

Voices8’s “Prayer to a Guardian Angel” displays a key element of the CFA3’s ability, one that clearly differentiates it as a headphone amplifier able to compete with electrostatic amplifiers, since it beautifully layers the voices of the small choir and provides outstanding depth, positioning, separation, and both the air and ambiance of the performance. Further, the articulation and clarity of soprano Emily Dickens’s voice is superb, as every phrase is easily gathered and understood. Another Emily, Emily D’Angelo’s “Hildegard von Bingen: O frondens virga” (enargeia)is mesmerizing,

ethereal, and haunting. Emily D’Angelo sings as if alone on a stage, the surrounding ambiance reminiscent of a large cathedral as her voice reverberates high into the alcoves and then diminishes. Beautiful. The rendering is compelling and forces repeated listenings of this performance. The rendering via the CFA3/ Susvara combo would appear to be a spot-on match for the STAX SRM-T8000, SR-X9000 combo, given my quite copious notes.


The track utilized for comparison for the treble across the various headphone amplifiers was Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (Time Out, Columbia-Legacy) Brubeck’s “Take Five” begins the comparison and review relative to the treble section. As always, Joe Morello’s drums become an immediate point of focus, so familiar that they serve as a trusty gauge for resolution, transparency, and treble extension. The HeadAmp CFA3, HIFIMAN Susvara, and Grimm MU1/ Bricasti M1SE front-end again perform the honours. Superb resolution and transparency are on display via the detailrich, air-infused, crystal clarity of Joe Morello’s drums, stage left, and there is a level of refinement and delicacy and a naturalness that settles you in and drops your shoulders for a listening that will be far

too short. Repeat. In truth, there has not been any headphone amplifier, regardless of price or tube complement or technology, that has rendered this piece with the requisite dynamics (see electrostatic), the ambiance (see tubed amp), or detail as the CFA3 renders Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Brilliant!


The HeadAmp CFA3 is a superb headphone amplifier and easily best in class. Dare I say, there are no headphone amplifiers competitive at twice its price if not far more. Its impressive 15-watts of power into 50ohms allow it to easily drive even the most inefficient headphone on the planet, with headroom to spare.

And of its many superb traits, the CFA3 can even “out-electrostat,” perhaps, all but the very best electrostatic headphone amplifiers, as it has narrowed the chasm between electrostatic and non-electrostatic to a wee, fine crack in the pavement when coupled with the topmost headphones—HIFIMAN Susvara, ZMF Atrium, Abyss AB1266 Phi TC. As mentioned above, it joins the club of electrostatics in its Tardis-like ability to transport listeners to the original venue with its you-are-there in-room palpability.

In terms of its technical abilities, which are vast, it provides the depth of stage, the meticulous separation and layering of performers, across any given stage, the daunting transparency, resolution, and detail


retrieval for which electrostatics are known. Couple this with superb tone/timbre, musicality, and naturalness, and it easily becomes the anchor of a TOTL reference headphone system.

Additionally, the HeadAmp CFA3 provides all the pluses of a TOTL dynamic/ planar headphone amplifier, as well as a veritable plethora of headphones and InEar-Monitors (IEMs) with which to pair the CFA3, which is a decided advantage over electrostatic headphone amps.

The HeadAmp CFA3 is, like its HeadAmp brethren—the Blue Hawaii Special Edition electrostatic headphone amplifier—a DIAMOND AWARD winner for its superb technical prowess, its musicality, and its ability to transcend musical formats to their three-dimensional representations effortlessly.

Pros: Powerful and able to easily handle even the most inefficient headphone the world has to offer. Not just electrostaticlike, but more electrostatic than most electrostatic headphone amplifiers. Outstanding technical abilities with commensurate musical engagement.

Cons: None.


HeadAmp CFA3

• Inputs: 2x XLR balanced, 1x RCA stereo

• Outputs: 4-pin XLR + TBD

• Input Devices: 2NOS Toshiba matched pairs

• Gain: TBD

• Volume Control: 47 steps

• Voltage Output: up to 80Vpp, balanced

• Power Output: up to 15W/50-ohm balanced

• THD: 0.001%


• PSU Type: Linear, Golden Reference discrete regulation, at least +/-25VDC

• Power Transformer: Toroidal, 120VA, 100-240VAC input

• Power Consumption: at least 75W

• Thermal Regulation: Passive Heatsink

• Chassis: CNC machined anodized aluminum

• Dimensions: 12x9x4.5”

• Weight: 22 lb.


HeadAmp CFA3

Standard: $3,995

Deluxe: $4,995

Call or text : 434-981-2829


Imogene Cunningham
Vincent Van Gogh - Landscape near Auvers Wheatfields, 1888



Ihave gone on in some detail regarding those who assume an almost ideological belief in the fact that “there is no difference in the sound of cables, any cables.” And I have heard noted audio manufacturers echo or believe this very same statement. I must admit that the latter revelation was indeed both perplexing and shocking. How

could someone in the audio industry, some one who sets about building components with their various microchips, resistors, capacitors, power sources, differing wires, etc., not know? I have pondered long and hard on this, and have arrived at two conclusions.

The first conclusion is that the believer/ proselytizer who “knows” that cables don’t make a difference has never actually undertaken the empirical research to validate their “hypothesis.” The second is that their hearing and ability to differentiate macro— large-scale changes in sound—let alone micro—small changes in sound—have long ago abandoned them, if indeed they were ever in possession of such abilities.

The second conclusion took considerably more thought as to how someone steeped in the audio industry, in many cases for decades,

Paul Cezanne - House by the Path


would not know that cables absolutely make a difference. Is this a belief system so rigid as to vehemently discard any new information, even their own insights and observations? Or is it that their hearing ability has long ago abandoned them, analogous to a deaf Beethoven or, more tangentially, a Monet with diminishing eyesight?

In truth, this is a topic that boggles the mind. Especially so when I can perform a comparison with a teenaged girl and two power cords—a standard power cord and, say, Paul Spetlz’s AntiCable Level 3 power cord —and she gets the difference, literally in

seconds! She has no buy-in, is not an audiophile, and has embraced no dogma, yet she gets it clearly.

Over time, I have evaluated and reviewed a number of cable products, ranging from entry level cables and cable looms to reference level cables and cable looms. And I have a bet for anyone whose hearing remains intact that differences do exist between cables, and in many if not most cases, those differences can easily be discerned (see power cable example above).

This brings me to my current cable review, Grimm Audio’s SQM cables, which have proved decisively that technological

advancement proceeds at a rather frightening pace, that the applied science has decidedly homed in on cable design, and that the least expensive cables are now competing easily with some of the most expensive cables (see SQM cables). Well, how do those SQM cables sound, and which expensive cables have they “soundly” defeated? In the end, this may be a far shorter review than intended, and the reason will become quite clear.

REFRAIN: Unlike most reviews, this review will be non-sequential, as it will start with how the equipment actually sounds and not the process of physically “undressing” it and/ or laying out its various accoutrement, specifications, etc. Think of this review then, as a non-linear movie—Memento, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Queen’s Gambit, In the Shadow of the Moon, etc.—that likewise starts at the end and winds its way to the beginning.


The Grimm Audio SQM cables were reviewed in the context of two audio systems — the reference two-channel and the reference headphone, both systems detailed below.

I received SQM interconnect cables only —two balanced sets and two single-ended sets (itemized below). So while not a full cable loom, the cables would be placed to give

a full accounting compared to the cables that had been removed.

• Grimm Audio SQM XLR Interconnects (1-1.5m, 1-2.0m)

• Grimm Audio SQM Single-Ended Interconnect (1-1.5m, 1-2.0m)

As in all cable reviews, I kept things simple in terms of the streams that would be used for evaluation—all streams very well known to me. The tracks utilized were:

• Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (Time Out, Columbia)

• Ólafur Arnalds “Árbakkinn,” (Island Songs, ECM)

• Eiji Oue’s Stravinsky (Reference Recordings)

• Vangelis’ Blade Runner Soundtrack (East West UK), and

• Joan Shelley’s eponymous album (No Quarter)


• Grimm Audio MU1 Streamer

• Silent Angel Rhein Z1 Streamer

• Silent Angel Forester F2 Power Supply

• Silent Angel Bonn NX Network Switch

• Silent Angel Genesis GX Clock

• Bricasti Design M1 Special Edition DAC

• Border Patrol SE-1 DAC

• Aurorasound HEADA Headphone Amplifier

• HeadAmp CFA3 Headphone Amplifier

• Pass Labs HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier

• HIFIMAN Susvara Headphones

• ABYSS AB1266 Phi TC Headphones

• Meze Empyrean Headphones


• Audience FrontRow Interconnects (XLR, RCA), USB, Ethernet

• Kubala-Sosna Interconnects (XLR, RCA), Power cords

• Grimm Audio SQM Interconnects (XLR, RCA)

• RSX BEYOND, MAX Power Cords

• TORUS AUDIO AVR ELITE Power Conditioner


• Grimm Audio MU2 Streamer/DAC/ Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATC - 5s Preamplifier

• AIR-TIGHT ATM - 1E Amplifier

• ATMA-SPHERE - GEM Integrated

• LYRIC Ti 100 MkII Single-Ended Integrated

• Franco Serblin Accordo Essence Speakers

• Fern & Roby Raven III Speakers

• Kubala-Sosna Interconnects (XLR, RCA), Speaker Cables, Power Cords

• Grimm Audio SQM Interconnects (XLR, RCA)

• TORUS AUDIO Power Conditioner

• RSX BEYOND, MAX Power Cords

• SEISMION Amplifier Stand (powered)


The Grimm Audio SQM cables would be reviewed via a top-to-bottom “soundoff’”versus various cables that were in-house and those that had just come in to be reviewed. Or at least that’s the way I had intended things to proceed, but the wholly unexpected abilities of the SQM balanced and single-ended interconnects would in fact rewrite the script entirely again, making for a short review.

Placing the SQM XLR balanced cables in the Reference Headphone system, absent the

benefit of complete burn-in, was nonetheless an eye-opening, mouth-agape epiphany. All the cables that were not considered reference or Top-of-the-Line (TOTL) cables in a manufacturer’s offering were quickly and soundly surpassed in all technical, musical, and immersive abilities. It was not even close, and this called for several minutes of quiet to determine what had just happened. After reflection, I pressed on to determine whether or not this had been an anomaly, a one-off, or perhaps a mistake on my part. The initial observations held firm. The Grimm Audio SQM balanced interconnect was the strongest cable in every respect, as it made the other cables sound deficient and lacking in technical acumen and refinement. Whoa!

The various cables prior to the SQM had been either at the top of their respective price range or they represented the TOTL of their respective manufacturers.

When it came to the TOTL cables, well, at least the penultimate—second or third from the top or ultimate—while they were not dispatched in the selfsame way as the other cables, there were clear differences in technical abilities, presentation of space, at any given venue, musicality, and quiet. The SQM had again come out on top against cables five to six times its suggested retail price—$710/pair (2.0m XLR)! And against the ultimate TOTL cables at seven to eight times the SQM cable’s pricing, the SQM

were either matched across all parameters while providing a more natural presentation, or they excelled in certain other areas— spatial representation—soundstage width, depth, separation, and layering, slightly above the TOTL cables. And this was a rather shocking revelation, given the extreme pricing differences between the TOTL and Grimm Audio SQM cables. They only inhouse cables that handily weathered the storm of the SQM cables were KubalaSosna’s top interconnect cables.

I had had an epiphany decades ago, when a friend introduced me to what was a rather obscure cable that he believed would best the cables that were currently in my system. I asked what those cables cost and he gave me a very low number. I scoffed and remember saying something like, “Do you know how much these cables cost? There’s no way.” He laughed, gave me the cables, and were far better than the expensive cables in my system.

“But how do the SQM cables actually sound?” you ask. Well, the short answer is that they sound very much like the TOTL cables that I have written about across these pages, though at relatively speaking bargain basement prices. There is, however, the added quiet, a quite profound naturalness, and the meticulous staging of your music, that “sorts” out musicians in and across a given venue to its depths, width, and their relative spacing that few cables have achieved. The other descriptors relative to the SQM are its rendering of tone/timbre, which is more in line with a box of 120 crayons as opposed to the standard 24 or 96 crayons. This, of course, extends expressiveness and, in turn, a naturalness, an immersion into one’s music that is rather compelling. And the fine—read smaller—diameter of the SQM relative to


SQM is substantive, deep, tight, wellresolved, clear, and beautifully textured.

On Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Joe Morello’s cymbals were superbly resolved and perhaps more natural than I have ever heard them. The birds on Ólafur Arnalds’

know. What I do know is that when I discovered the actual pricing of the SQM cables, I was truly and profoundly shocked. How could it be that these cables at mid-fi level pricing were performing so excellently and at TOTL level pricing? Grimm’s

The current epiphany of epiphanies? Yes, and for a very interesting reason. When I received the SQM cables, I was not aware of their pricing and would not be made aware of their cost until the review was near its conclusion. Whether this was intentional, to avoid biasing my opinion, or a direct result of Grimm Audio being incredibly busy—shows, Grimm Audio MU2 debut, etc.—I don’t

sound quality is a serious step up from Grimm’s already excellent TPR cable. The way it treats reverb is astonishing, dynamics are greater, it sets a larger and deeper stereo image, and music flows in a disarmingly natural way.”

I do not believe that a company’s design philosophy and subsequent marketing slogan

have ever been borne out so accurately as with the Grimm Audio SQM cables.


Yes, the Grimm Audio SQM cables are mind-boggling, as they compete, no scratch that, out-compete Top-of-the-Line (TOTL) cables at many multiples of their cost in a way that defies any semblance of, well, “logic.”

One would not think this possible, given the vast disparity of cost between them and the TOTL competitors, but on every metric of music reproduction—technical/spatial, natural musicality, immersiveness—the SQMs were consistently on top. Incredible!

I have written in the past of coming across a compelling product that pushed the boundaries or the wherewithal of a given audio segment—HIFIMAN Susvara, Mola Mola Tambaqui, Grimm Audio MU2, SEISMION REACTIO 51, etc.—but their realm was always at TOTL designation in terms of relative cost. The SQM, per its pricing, is far from that designation, but it performs as though it is, and comfortably so.

This is perhaps one of the easiest and highest recommendations that I have made for a product, and given its costs and its abilities, at orders of magnitude above its cost. The Grimm Audio SQM cables are clearly and easily DIAMOND AWARD winners of the first degree and truth be told, they are BREAKTHROUGH winners as well. And as I say with most components and cables of

such abilities, you will see them again in our Awards Issue, where they will no doubt bag a few more well-deserved awards.

Pros: Exceptional in their ability to supplant cables at many multiples of their price, while providing exceptional levels of performance when it comes to rendering music in technical/spatial, natural, and immersively engaging ways. Cables are indeed incredibly important to the fidelity of one’s music.

Cons: None.



SQM RCA (1.0m/2.0m): $670/$765

SQM XLR (1.0m/2.0m): $615/$710

Zandven 6

5508 RN Veldhoven

The Netherlands

Or call: +31 40 213 1562


Canor, based in Slovakia, produces high-end tube gear with modern performance goals, especially with their tube-based source components. Along preamplifiers. Canor products are built in the European Union.

PCM formats, as well as DSD via USB. There are several other digital inputs and no fewer than seven digital filters to choose

Most interestingly, Canor designs their own circuit boards with what they call CMT, or Canor PCB milling technology. According to the company, this allows them to control many variables and to ensure the highest quality of components. They also use their own in-house-made measuring devices to guarantee consistent quality.

The DAC 2.10 is a dual mono design using ESS Sabre DAC chips, and decodes all

The DAC 2.10 looks and feels like a luxury component, and is built with tremendous precision based on visual inspection and use over time. The unit weighs 25 pounds (11.3 kg) due to the beefy power supplies and solid casework. Inside the chassis sit four double triode 6922EH tubes, running in dual mono configuration. The DAC 2.10 employs a large power transformer that is well isolated and treated with an anti-vibration compound. Electromagnetic shielding is used throughout

Paul Signac - Two-Cypresses

to reduce component interaction and any RFI/EMI.

around. Everything was powered by Audience and Bryston power conditioners.

The DAC has a very easy to navigate menu system for selecting filters, input, and menu parameters—a nice touch. The DAC 2.10 is offered in a silver or matte black finish. Our review sample arrived in matte black.

The DAC 2.10 produces a sound that could be described as full-bodied,

the genre of music streamed through the DAC 2.10, the sonics were first-rate and very organic.


We dropped the Canor DAC into the heart of a very impressive system consisting of Alnic’s new L-10,0000 Signature Edition tube linestage and their M-3000 Mk3 tube mono block amplifiers. Speakers were Magnepan 3.7i and cabling was Clarus all

We got a very good sense of the main strength of the DAC 2.10, namely dimensionality, making the music seem to have weight and depth. The was especially true listening to a slew of Miles Davis’s late 1960s recordings, ground-breaking albums including Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

This was the first series of recordings where Davis incorporated amplified instruments in the form of Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes electric piano, along with Ron Carter on electric bass and George Benson on electric guitar. He would dive head-first into electric music later with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

The music on these two albums was well recorded at Columbia Studios, presenting a fascinating portrait of an artist beginning to push the boundaries of jazz. The Canor DAC made the 24-bit 192 Khz remasters, from the original tapes, sound as avant-garde and game-changing as they were more than 55 years ago. Davis’ trumpet and Wayne Shorter’s sax dance throughout, and it was easy to hear the distinct location in the mix of each, along with Hancock’s elegant phrasing. This was an experience.

The DAC 2.10 seems especially adept at dynamics and imaging. Listening to classical music, crescendos, and percussive elements was quite breathtaking. A recording that showcases these attributes is the 88.2 Khz Reference Recordings production of Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in a run-through of Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale, The Firebird, and The Rite of Spring.

The power and sheer weight of these performances was stunning, The DAC 2.10 made us lose sight of all things analog or digital and made items like sample rate secondary, as the music took centre stage in its presence and palpable dimensionality. It’s hard to believe that when first performed,


some of these pieces actually caused audiences to riot.

Staying with music filled with power and dynamics, we switched over to a classic album

spotlighting the incredibly sympathetic production by Brett Eliason.

Eliason gives the band a lot of breathing space and the album flows perfectly in the chosen sequence. “Long Gone Day,” another ballad featuring Staley and Lanegan on colead vocals, induces goosebumps, and the DAC 2.10 makes the marimba, cello, and bass lines tonally shine, with superb texture.

out of the Seattle 90s scene, Above, by Mad Season. The lineup is a true super group, featuring Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, and Mark Lanegan and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees. The heavy psychedelic grunge jams exploded out of the speakers, and the DAC 2.10 made the late Staley’s clarion call vocals seem to emerge from the mist.

But for us, it was the ballads that made the hair on the back of our necks stand up.

The lead track, “Wake Up,” is a harrowing tale of addiction, with McCready pulling Hendrix guitar lines out of his soul and Staley pleading for deliverance. The DAC 2.10 also dug deep into this performance,

Now a small confession: we have had numerous tube DACs in our system for review, and all were high-fidelity decoders, but they strayed too far from neutral for long-term enjoyment. Specifically, there was too much warmth, too much tube noise, and they ran too warm. The Canor DAC 2.10 shares none of these attributes. It was ultra transparent, noise-free, and did not double as a space heater, although decent ventilation is still common sense.

After experimenting with the digital filters, we settled on Liner Phase Slow and Apodizing Fast. None of the filters sounded disagreeable, but those two seemed to be the most consistent across various genres of music. We also left the Upsampling engaged

throughout, which we felt added increased textural depth.


The Slovakian brand Canor has made its presence known over the past several years, and the DAC 2.10 is a world-class source component, regardless of topology. But the fact that Canor pays fanatical attention to detail, even designing their own boards, and has found a way to incorporate a flawless tube output stage with their digital design, makes the DAC 2.10 a unique and highly desirable digital source component. A HIGH-NINES AWARD winner.


Canor DAC 2.10

Retail: $3,995 Canor Audio


Analogue outputs: 2 x XLR / 2 x RCA

Supported PCM sampling rates: 44,1k / 48k / 88,2k / 96k / 176,4k / 192k / 352,8k / 384k / 705,6k / 768kHz

DSD over PCM support: DoP DSD 64/128/256/512

DSD Native support: Native DSD 64/128/256/512

S/PDIF Optical input : 2 x (24bit / 192kHz)

S/PDIF Coaxial input: 1 x (24bit / 192kHz)

AES/EBU input: 1 x (24bit / 192kHz balanced)

Digital to Analogue converter: 2 x ESS9038Q2M (dual mono)

Filter settings: 7 x digital filter

Weight (net): 12 kg

Joan Miro - Hermitage


“Wires” are an interesting aspect of most high end hi–fi systems. Some folks consider them interchangeable, with lowest cost being the most important factor. After

were they just shuttling electricity around without impacting the overall performance? Lastly, there are those like yours truly, who have formed the opinion that every aspect of a highly resolving system matters. As to

enthusiasts have compared a wire coat hanger with a dedicated “audio” cable and found no discernible difference. How can that be if cables are that important? Others aren’t really sure what’s going on with these seemingly innocuous components. They hear what their more well heeled compatriots say and, listening to their buddy’s fancier systems, they do notice how great they sound. Was it the big budget interconnects that contributed, or

skills. As I have said many, many times; just because you or I can’t hear something, it doesn’t mean it’s not evident to others.

So, why such a wide gulf between one person’s reality and another’s? It comes down to myriad constituents. One factor is that all conductors and insulators are not created equal, and their physical configurations influence the “complex impedance,” the amplitude and phase behavior to AC or

Ralph Gibson

alternating current, that which we electrical engineers call music. Our fave metals for audio are silver and copper. Silver has the least resistance to signal flow, with copper coming in a close second. Gold is great for

Audio Art included, employ specially cast and drawn high purity copper utilizing a process known as OCC or OHNO Continuous Casting. The combination of low contamination and elongated grains results in fewer boundaries per linear meter. In turn, fewer discontinuities translates into lower hurdles to signal flow. I conjecture that many cable manufacturers include “directional” labels so as to promote the stability of those micro–regional

conductor. Brass, tin, aluminum and other metals, especially as part of a connector, come in a distant third. Digging deeper, we find that metals, on a very small scale, are not uniform. Indeed, the microscopic structures found in metals, the grains or micro–regional boundaries, are somewhat fluid and can be nudged to and fro in response to the aforementioned alternating current. With sufficient time, those micro structures of a conductor will settle or “relax” into their lowest energy state. This is akin to you settling into your favorite listening chair, and not wanting to get up to flip over the record! Once those grain boundaries find their lowest energy configuration, they tend to stay

boundaries. If you don’t have labels on your cables, do consider adding some while you’re thinking of it.

Early on, I mentioned capacitance, which is difficult to explain but its action is not. In a simplistic sense, capacitors store charge, acting as high pass filters; they allow higher frequencies to pass on through while attenuating or stopping lower frequencies. Once you combine all those basic factors into real world cables, resistance, capacitance and the induced magnetic fields known as inductance, you then have a far more complex interaction to contend with; that of the receiving device’s input. Ideally, impedances between input and output devices should match, but that is rarely the case. When we talk of speaker wires, we think of that interaction using the label “damping factor.” Try and make sense of the Wikipedia entry for a glimpse at what’s involved.

Given all the myriad factors that come into play with interconnects, I have to assume that those who cannot hear differences with cables either have a system that is simply not able to resolve enough detail, in the catholic sense, or their hearing is not trained to discern small differences. Either way, it’s not whether they’re stupid or their rig is crap, it’s just it’s not something they should worry about. For those of us that can detect changes in sound quality due to cables, it’s an aspect

of component systems that we should be aware of.

Rob Fritz is owner, founder and Enchilada Grande of Audio Art Cable. Rob’s cables are also cryogenically treated. I have no knowledge in this area so I turned to my colleague Dr. Doug Stauffer, a materials and metrology expert. He told me that there are many factors involved with thermal treatments. He wouldn’t comment on cables. However, regarding cryo treatment of steels, he mentioned “…changes in grain size and alloying components.” Hmm…

For this review, my rig was boringly basic, at least for me; my exaSound e22 Mk. II DAC being fed from Amarra Luxe and feeding my Parasound JC 5 stereo amp running Class A. Normally, I use a set of Soundstring GEN II Beta 2-22S balanced XLR–to–XLR cables to connect DAC to amplifier and a factory power cable for the amplifier itself. Since I wanted to accentuate differences, I started with heavy yet commodity power cords of the 18 gauge variety. My exaSound has an external “brick”–style power supply so I went with its factory power cable. One cable I did not test was my stock computer–to–USB connection; a Wireworld Starlight 8 USB. It stayed in place the whole time. Loudspeakers for this review were either a set of Vienna Acoustics Haydn SE SIGNATURE standmounters

from their Concert Grand series, review forthcoming, or my long term loaner pair of Scansonic MB2.5 B floor standers. So, power cables, balanced analog interconnects, and speaker cables; those are what I concerned

well trodden territory like Dr. Keith Johnson’s reference–grade Reference Recordings. I also spent a considerable amount of time exploring Qobuz’s never ending, curated “Grand Selection” new releases album list.

myself with for this review. As to speaker cables, I chose my $285 starter audiophile ANTICABLES Level 4.2 FLEX speaker wires with their beefy, solid copper spades and BFA style Z-Plug banana options.

Recognizing the subtleties of the subject matter, I spent most of my critical listening stint going through my OMas_Test public Qobuz playlist, with occasional forays into

Let’s start with Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony performing Brahms Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 No. 4 from Brahms: Reimagined Orchestrations [Qobuz 176.4k Reference Recordings 2024].

I love this piece for many reasons; its short duration; its extreme fidelity; and its inclusion of percussive metal instruments. This was the first piece I played after switching out all my

aforementioned cables for the Signature e cables. I had to turn the playback gain up a touch to feel I was back to nearly where I was before the swap, but not quite. The two big changes? Transient response and soundstage were both diminished. Those lovely chimes at the head were less present and more distant, more reserved. That came along with a reduction in low frequency robustness. I also noticed shrinkage, not in the Seinfeld sense, but close…the venue got smaller, my seat got moved back a bit, and the reverb and spatial clues receded. I tried swapping each of the three cable sets under test and heard small differences each time, but the aggregate swap really brought home my conviction that every piece of the playback puzzle matters. Each in its way contributes to higher resolution…or not.

Next up, something less highbrow; The Mavericks’ Without a Word from Moon & Stars [Qobuz 48k Mono Mundo Recordings 2024]. Mondo guitars and horns, mucho percussion and a reverb–drenched vocal from leading light Raul Malo add up to in–your–face, brash border rock about a special working girl from her john’s perspective. It would have pleased Roy Orbison. Once again, detail suffered. Malo’s voice came across with less texture, the shakers were darker, and that left, hard–panned trumpet lost a smudge of bite. This recording has a

healthy dose of artificial reverb, which was also less apparent with my daily driver wires.

Alto saxophonist Alan Braufman’s Edge of Time from Infinite Love Infinite Tears [Qobuz 96k Valley of Search 2024]. What struck me on first swap was that my default connections sounded like audio, but the Audio Art Cable Statement connects transmuted the sound of this modern sextet to…music! That may sound trite but, with my stock cabling, the piece was enjoyable but not engaging, not quite up to snuff.

I asked Fritz what made his offerings better than the competition, and his reply was refreshingly measured and succinct, like his cables. “With all of the subjectivity involved in this hobby, I try to steer clear of using the word ‘better’ when talking hi-fi. ‘Different’ IMO, becomes a more accurate descriptor for all things performance audio.” He went on to say that Audio Art Cable is different from many other established brands in that, “…we are able to offer a stronger value at each price point…Being a direct to end user business model affords the opportunity to eliminate excessive markups in our pricing. I also believe high performance cable designs can be achieved through practical means; high purity, best-in-class wire, extruded in first class factories, then hand-assembled into a finished audio cable by a true artisan, using best in class, name brand copper connector


parts, audiophile grade solders, cryo treatment, quality jacketing materials, and proven burn-in devices (if desired by the customer), are truly all that is required.”

My complaints are relatively minor but may be important to you…For one, the “hand,” in the fabric sense, of the power cables I had in my review collection were stiff, but not in an unbendable way. What I found difficult was their resistance to being twisted more that a half turn. This resistance to twist is crucial from a conductor/insulator geometry perspective, but it was challenging in my setup. Fritz told me he has smaller diameter versions for lower current, lighter weight components, which certainly would have helped. The only other complaint I had was not with the cables per se, but with the design of the expanding bananas on the speaker cables. Lacking any knurling to insure a firm grip, their smooth finish made for difficult tightening.

In at least one way, cable evaluations are easier than reviewing a piece of gear. No level matching is required since wires have no gain, only loss or imperfect frequency response due to load interactions. On the other hand, aural interconnect differences should be subtle so evaluating them requires extensive, attentive listening. None of the individual cable pairs made an OMG difference, but taken as a whole, the AAC Statement team definitely brought their A game to bear. In a mid–

priced rig, these premium wire sets, at a direct–to–consumer price, would significantly boost the overall performance a good bit. However, in a more esoteric system, the Statement cables would come into their own, elevating an already highly resolving system to a new level of solidity, transparency, and definition. You could spend much more on your wires, but you owe it to yourself to give these a try. Two thumbs up! And a GOLD KEYNOTE AWARD.


Audio Art Cable San Diego CA

AAC Statement e SC Cryo speaker cable, rhodium banana — $1,520 pair

AAC Statement e IC Cryo interconnect cable, gold XLR — $1,430 pair

AAC Statement e2Plus Cryo AC power cable, 15A US Male IEC — $2,080 each

Claude Monet - The poppy field



Ihave known of FERN & ROBY for quite some time. I began to poke around the site just after reviewing the LTA Z10e Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier. It was a very good review: the LTA Z10e was well and beautifully made, and it sang with the various via dynamic/planar and electrostatic headphones that I had at the time. This was a rare feat indeed—to play with all manner of headphones.

products, I had my eye on the FERN & ROBY rack. Long story short, the timing did not work in my favor and the rack would not be mine, unfortunately.

Over the course of time, I would speak with Christopher Hildebrand, FERN & ROBY’s founder, by phone initially, and later we’d meet at AXPONA. It was of course a

Looking through the FERN & ROBY site, I noticed a number of well thought-out and designed audio components, turntables, racks and stands, and accessories. However, as I was in need of a new rack to house my growing number of reference headphone

pleasure to meet Christopher in person, get to know him a little better each time, and listen to the rather wonderful system that he would always curate, always. The last system I’d listened to when visiting his room was an all FERN & ROBY system configured with the Montrose Heirloom Turntable, the AMP No. 2, and the Raven III Speakers. I was


quite taken with this very minimalist system in a sparsely furnished room, with no bling in eyeshot, and yet the music was incredibly natural and engaging. As I stated in the AXPONA review:

“The operative term that comes to mind

the discussion that would shortly see the FERN & ROBY Raven IIIs at Casa Heartsong, undergoing their initial evaluation and subsequent review.

The first thing you notice about the FERN & ROBY Raven IIIs is that they are quite beautiful, beautifully made of real wood.

to a superb performance, given by exceptionally talented musicians.”

I would love to have reviewed each component of the system, though given the Raven III’s efficiency—94dB/8-ohms—and three low-wattage amplifiers currently in or coming in for review, the Raven IIIs seemed very logical. And so Christopher and I began

person are two completely different experiences. I would liken the experience to seeing Henri Matisse’s Flowers, 1907 in a magazine for far too many years and then seeing the painting in person at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Suffice to say that the experience was far beyond astonishing or magnificent. You’ll

AudioKeyREVIEWS magazines. Yes, the FERN & ROBY Raven III does indeed bring a measure of that experience, but there will be a great deal more later with the full review.


• Solid Walnut or Ash sides, top, and bottom

• Richlite front baffle

• Walnut Veneer plywood back panel

• Black Cat Cable hookup wire

• Cardas speaker terminals

• Fern & Roby Driver manufactured by SEAS


• Efficiency: 94 db

• Impedance: 8 Ohm

• Frequency Response: 30 Hz to 20,000

• Width: 12-1/2"

• Depth: 11-3/4"

• Height: 33-1/4"

• Weight: 48 LBS each

house amps and those passing through for their evaluation and review. More to come in the September issue of AudioKeyREVIEWS Magazine.


FERN & ROBY RAVEN IIIs: $8,500/pair 702 E 4th St Richmond, VA 23224 (804) 233-5030

Vincent Van Gogh - Small pear tree in blossom
Minor White

Welcome to AudioKeyREVIEWS Magazine’s Recommended Components, which will become part and parcel of each of our various issues. The purpose of this section is to acquaint the reader with products—speakers, DACs, amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, headphones, IEMs, streamers, portable audio, etc.—that we feel are quite exceptional and rise above their like brethren. There will be three categories —Budget, Mid-Tier, and Top-Of-The-Line. In our Budget Recommendations there will be products that compete far above their respective price point and are, generally, also built to reflect this.Our Mid-Tier Recommendations will encompass those products within arms reach, in terms of relative affordability, that present value and a challenge to the vanguard of their respective product niches. Finally, our TOTL Recommendations will be composed of those products that are at the cutting edge of technological advancement now happening across the world. The three categories of recommendations will rotate across the various issues of our magazine and there will also be a fluidity to the products within the various lists. Things change and especially now given our current technological epoch. The various lists, however, will be fixed on the website.

Joan Miro - Gaudi


AURORASOUND HEADA $2999: If you’re looking for an endgame headphone amplifier and even if your headphone amplifier is more expensive, try this one, you may be quite surprised. That said, the Aurorasound HEADA headphone amplifier is a top echelon component and an easy DIAMOND AWARD winner.

SILENT ANGEL RHEIN Z1 $2299: The Rhein Z1 and Forester F2 combo played far above the league that their combined price would indicate. For many, this $3,900 combo may well represent an endgame streamer/ power supply capable of exceptional fidelity with DACs from entry level to those on the cutting edge.

ABYSS AB1266 PHI TC $5999: I think that I’ve said it all. The Abyss AB1266 Phi TC is a phenomenal headphone. It brings an undying passion for musicality and a ferocity for transparency and clarity and detail retrieval, formerly the domain of the best electrostatic headphones. But this planar headphone speaks that language—electrostatic—fluently and well.


TORUS RM20 $3999: Can you say pristine, natural, open, and unhindered frequency response? Wide dynamic range? And there were oceans of detail, air, microdynamics, and ambience rendered by the Torus RM 20. It was not subtle. On the contrary, it was stunning.

RSX POWER8 $399: The RSX Power8 clearly holds to the dictum, “Do no Harm,” to the system in which it is being utilized. What it, in fact, offers is pure, clean power, a testament to the meticulous parts selection, research, and conscious minimalism all employed in its design. suffice to say, that it has no competitors at 3 to 4 times is cost.

GESHELLI LABS ERISH2 [E2] $219.99, JNOG2 [J2] $249.99: Disinterested in ostentation, Geshelli Labs believes in real world pricing with high fidelity performance. Their JNOG2 plus ERISH2 are a petite and potent bargain. With just enough character to put flesh on bone, the classy little twosome sets your music free without excessive color or dispensable features.

Wayne Thiebaud - Cakes American Beauty



For us a Magical Synergy represents two components or more, that together make music far above what either make separately. Generally, we’ve discovered Magical Synergies via reviews, where we mix and match a good number of components to determine how one of the components—the component under review— sounds.

And while there may be strengths and weaknesses between the various combinations, the Magical Synergy represents that combination which has very few if any weaknesses and a wealth of combined strengths.

In this respect, we’ve done the homework for the reader by evaluating numerous combinations to uncover the Magical Synergy, as many of you may not have the time, options, or financial wherewithal to make these determinations. And Magical Synergies are not always uncovered in our reviews and or our research, as they tend to be, well, rare.

A note on the various Magical Synergies that we uncover. We are music lovers first and foremost and not professionals who produce music or movies for a living and require different synergies, nor do measurements come into determination for us of what is a good Magical Synergy and what is not. No, for this we determine by ear, heart, and soul, that

which moves us, provides for that “vibrational” comfort food, and a rich and engaging musical experience. The experience should, of course, come with sufficient detail and resolution and fidelity to recreate venue and/or the experience of listening to live music, when appropriate. After a long and trying day in this topsy-turvy world, wouldn’t it be wonderful if some small measure of nirvana could be achieved through one’s music and the components that play it back?

In other words, our Magical Synergies do not render music that is dry, unengaging, subtractively neutral (see dry, boring, etc.), flat, or lacking in dynamics, when called for.

Please find for your review a number of Magical Synergies below.

1, 2 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.



What happens when transparency is, seemingly, exceeded? Realism? Or, perhaps, seeming realism? This is the conundrum raised by the Abyss AB1266 Phi TC and its easy ability to make the best of the best headphones sound dull and uneventful, while it waxes on clear as a wellmade bell … Yikes! The Abyss AB1266 Phi TC is a phenomenal headphone. It brings an undying passion for musicality and a ferocity for transparency and clarity and detail retrieval, formerly the domain of the best electrostatic headphones. The Aurorasound HEADA headphone amplifier is musical from ‘Square One’, ‘Jump Street’, ‘Scratch’, or, practically, as soon as you turn it on, though it gets worlds better thereafter. It is a beautifully, carefully designed endgame component to pass down. If you’re looking for an endgame headphone amplifier and even if your headphone amplifier is more expensive, try this one, you may be quite surprised. That said, the Aurorasound HEADA headphone amplifier is a top echelon component and an easy DIAMOND AWARD winner.



There was immediate magic from the Ti 100 MkII, though this was purely from a musical perspective, which was immersive in the extreme. However, after about 100 hours the magic suffused to all aspects of the Lyric Ti 100 MkII’s performance. Tis was easily witnessed, as it followed an exceptional pair of 200 watt/channel, solid state monoblock amplifiers with dedicated preamplifier with relatively minor lessening in overall performance. Remarkable! Te Lyric Audio Ti 100 MkII is, of course, not one of those products as it has easily met our criteria for the DIAMOND AWARD, our highest award, which reflects on its excellence.

Te Vivid Audio Kaya 45s came in, with little expectation from me.

Tey sat patiently while the other inhouse speakers were put through their paces And when its turn came, well, it astonished and continues to astonish. Additionally, the Kaya raised the bar of performance and award citation for not only speakers but all other equipment aw well. No small task. And this speaks to the profound abilities of the Vivid Audio Kaya 45.

Te Kaya 45s will beautifully play all genres of music and have you neglecting none, as was the case with this reviewer. Te high-fidelity touchstones are always scrupulously met and with a refinement, naturalness, ease, and musicality, most will simply never expect. I certainly did not. Tat said, the Vivid Audio Kaya 45s win our highest award, the DIAMOND AWARD, while making it look easy and yet a good deal more difficult for other speakers and components alike.



The Dan Clark STEALTH planardynamic headphone is a revelation. It exceeds its prescribed edict—to excel in planar magnetic duties—and goes on to become exceedingly familiar with, if not master of the edicts of the other headphone worlds and technologies. Again, there are very few headphones capable of doing this and fewer still with such compelling musicality. You and your music, regardless of genre, will be well served…Please note that to date, I have listened to a great many headphones, and these days it takes a great deal to move me. Te HeadAmp GS-X MkII is an exceptional headphone amplifier that not only outperforms its GS-X Mini sibling, but a goodly number of headphone amplifiers that have come my way for review these past years, some being a good deal more expensive.

Its attributes are many, starting with its exceptional transparency and resolution, which ferret out both detail and insight in a manner that compels one’s attention. And one mustn’t forget the lickety-split transient responses or the dynamic contrast or the air and ambiance set free. When I wrote of the Mini that, “You can’t possibly be making all of this incredible music”, the same thought, though of a higher order, can now be said of the HeadAmp GS-X

Imogen Cunningham - Flowers





5. AND other reviews, columns, interviews, videos, etc.


Music is art, art is music.










































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