Review: Ken Kessler

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 02, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingSteeped in valve lore, this iconic tube brand extends the 'voicing' of its products right down to the choice of passive components and hand-wiring. We test a stack of VAC!

With the Valve Amplification Company, aka VAC, now 30 years old, it qualifies as a stalwart of the 'third wave'. The first was, of course, the original golden age generation of Marantz, Quad, McIntosh and others of the 1940s and 1950s, while the second wave hit in the early 1970s with Audio Research, EAR and other tube revivalists. VAC arrived at the point when tubes were demonstrably here to stay, Kevin Hayes founding the company with his father in 1990. He was, and remains, resolutely focused on the high-end, as this pairing's £69,000 cost attests.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 05, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingWho better than a legendary turntable maker to offer a go-to, affordable, universal phono stage? The Thorens MM-008 looks set to shake up the entry-level sector

If anyone still doubts the extent of the LP renaissance, beyond the use of turntables as a trope for cool ads aimed at hipsters, the plethora of affordable gear coming from purist brands known for high-end price points should convince them otherwise. Forget those £69, all-plastic 'record players' sold online to snare newbies: when a company such as Thorens brings out a phono stage like this £220 MM-008, it indicates that renewed LP usage is not the sole province of seasoned audiophiles. Or, indeed, wealthy ones.

Review: Ken Kessler, Review and Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 04, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingFollowing its groundbreaking Master 1 optical cartridge, DS Audio introduces the Grand Master, and a two-box energiser/equaliser, to up the ante even further

In every field, not just 'hypercars' and luxury wristwatches, there's an extreme, cost-no-object pinnacle. From chefs' knives to sunglasses to fishing reels, there are items which push engineering and price limits, a phenomenon we are used to in high-end audio. Thus, with shaking hands (not a desirable state with this item), I installed the DS Audio Grand Master cartridge, at £11,995 surely the most expensive pick-up I have ever reviewed, if not the most expensive on the planet.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 04, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingAccordo standmount gains a dedicated woofer and larger, floorstanding cabinet. Hey presto: the Essence

No kidding: when I first fired up the Franco Serblin Accordo Essence, I figured it sold for around £20,000, somehow forgetting that the loudspeaker above it – the flagship Ktêma [HFN Sep '20] – cost £25k. Surely they wouldn't price two models so closely? Equally, I failed to recall that the standmount Accordo [HFN Jan '18] from which it is derived sells for only £7500. The pricing, however, illustrates how Massimiliano Favella is sticking to a plan where each model fills a sonic and fiscal gap: the Accordo Essence will set you back £12,998 per pair.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Feb 01, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingMark Levinson's second turntable, the No5105, has been designed to be a painless, all-in-one, 'turnkey' affair – but does it still tick all the high-end boxes?

Like that 'difficult second album', any sequel to the Mark Levinson No515 [HFN Oct '17] has to live up to a heady precedent. At £5799 less cartridge, or £6499 with Ortofon's Quintet Black S MC pick-up installed, the No5105 sells for just over half the price of the No515. While the inclusion of the cartridge does not save any money – certainly not always the case when buying a package – it does remove any set-up worries by being factory-fitted.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jan 26, 2021  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingLaunched in 1999, the original Debut turntable set the bar for starter vinyl packages. Twenty-one years later and the 'Carbon EVO' raises it to pole-vault standards...

Deck/arm/cartridge/dustcover: check. Price £449: check. A choice of nine finishes including wood veneer, or gloss or satin colours: check. Everything included in the package readying it for connection to a phono stage: check. That list tells you Pro-Ject's best-seller remains, after two decades, the go-to 'turnkey' record deck for newcomers (or seasoned audiophiles on a budget). The basic recipe is unchanged but refined, which is why it has sold over 1,000,000 units. Rest assured, however, that this latest incarnation, the Debut Carbon EVO, is far more than a merely cosmetic upgrade.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Dec 31, 2020  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingFive years on and Wilson Audio's Sabrina earns its 'X' – an overhaul that raises the bar for compact floorstanders

Five years – that's how long ago the Sabrina was launched and five years seems about right before making a new version of any model as good as the original was – and remains [HFN Aug '15]. Rightly, the upgrade is comprehensive, not a mere facelift, which is reassuring if you're wondering why a £15k per pair model is now priced at £21,500-£23,000. As for the price span, it covers three standard or three deluxe 'WilsonGloss' paint finishes, which can be co-ordinated with five grille colours. Our review sample is pictured here in the 'upgraded' gloss Ivory.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Dec 21, 2020  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingBy extreme high-end standards, it's almost an 'entry level' product – so is Dan D'Agostino's Progression Integrated amplifier the perfect introduction to the brand?

After nearly four decades' worth of using Dan D'Agostino's designs, from Krells in the 1980s through to his more recent, eponymous models (I use a Momentum Stereo as my solid-state reference and love it to bits), I thought I knew what to expect. Silly me: surprise No 1 provided by the D'Agostino Progression Integrated was that I could lift it without any assistance. Surprise No 2 was a price under £20k.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Dec 11, 2020  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingSynonymous with top-end turntables for two decades, AVID has extended its 'Very Interesting Design' portfolio to include MC pick-ups. Here's its open-bodied flagship

Irrespective of having installed what must be thousands of cartridges in my life, AVID's Reference Ruby moving-coil brought me out in a cold sweat. The top model in a trio that also includes the £4000 Boron and the £2000 Ionic, its £6000 sticker price, allied to a completely exposed cantilever, reminded me of the first cartridge I ever destroyed. The irony was not lost on me: that honour goes to the Dynavector 23R, the first-ever cartridge with a ruby cantilever. But unlike AVID's ruby rod, it was also one of the shortest at just 2.3mm.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Nov 20, 2020  |  0 comments
hfnoutstandingOne of a trio of small but substantial add-ons, the MX-DAC joins Musical Fidelity's partnering MX-HPA headphone amp and MX-Vynl phono stage. Is this another steal?

Imagine the dilemma when Pro-Ject acquired Musical Fidelity: the overlap with the former's Box range and the latter's MX models created an in-house rivalry in the 'affordable audiophile' sector. Both produce pint-sized ranges with matching phono stages, headphone amps and – of relevance here – beer-budget DACs. Musical Fidelity's MX-DAC, at £499, is a direct challenge to Pro-Ject's Pre Box DS2 Digital [HFN Nov '17] and a few others in the family, but the lineups are distinctive enough to cause no sleepless nights.

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