Best Amplifier Speaker DAC Cayin Spendor Monarchy

I have bought and sold a dozen plus amplifiers (solid state and tube) over the past several years and have finally settled on a combination that I like best. If someone is newly into Audiophile gear, or wanting to make a change, the following may be helpful info for a good place to start, and some mistakes to avoid.

Ultimately, your personal preference for the sound that you like is the final determining factor in choosing your system, augmented of course by good electronics to deliver the sound, and budgetary constraints. The systems I recommend by my preferences, along with some comparisons of other systems I have tried, are as follows:

I started out with a Rotel Amp and some B&W 805 Nautilus monitors. The sound was great in the studio, but ultimately the metal tweeter on the B&Ws became fatiging and difficult to live with. I simply could not get the harshness out. Although I relieved it someone with a budget yet very good sounding and warm Harmon Kardon 2 channel solid state amp.

I recommend auditioning speakers for an hour before you buy them with the same amp you own or similar if possible and using music with singers with an etched voice such as Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy, etc. to see if you fatigue easily and they sound natural. From my experience, I would have been happier overall and saved alot of time and expense, if I had chosen the speaker/amp sound with the lushest midrange and good clear yet non fatiging extension, rather than focusing on the openess of the highs which later induced fatigue.

I then switched to some AV123 reference monitor speakers made in Rosewood which were beautiful and non fatiging yet still extended and drove them with the Harman Kardon amp which was a nice budget combination (all under $700 also).

Later, I purchased a Musical Fidelity Nu Vista amplifier which along with the BAT amplifier and Forte 4A was some of the best solid state sound I have heard (the BAT preamps in contrast however sounded harsh to me). I was running with a TriVista DAC at that time which I also loved. I also had a NAD amp which sounded more tube like than some tube amps. It is very lush in the mids and a little rolled off in the highs by my ear. I liked it alot but it was apples and oranges compared to those other amps which were more extended.

Later, I purchased some Dali Helicon 400 speakers and some Dynaudio Focus 220 speakers. Both represent some of the best speakers for the price you can get. I found the Dalis wonderful sounding but ever so slightly too bright at the upper end. The Dynaudios seemed more balanced to me and very dynamic (they could play soft jazz or jamming rock well). I then later heard a friends Spendor speakers and loved the lush midrange, and clear yet non fatiging highs and wonderful bass so purchased the floorstanding S8e speakers that I continue to play today. The Spendors sounded similar to me to the Dynaudios, except they are not quit as Dynamic with hard rock (though they still can rock), and the Spendors had a little more natural tone and lushness in the mids by my ear. Granted, changing tubes in an amp may make more of a difference than that between these two speakers.

The the tube bug took over. I first purchased a Unico Unison which is a wonderful all around tube/hybrid design. It was warm, but had power and extension. One of the best for the price I have heard (can be gotten for around $800. I liked its lush tube presentation a little more than the no slouch powerful and musical Musical fidelity Nu-Vista. I later purchased a Blue Circle integrated tube amp that I like better than the musical fidelity. However, I found the Blue Circle a little etched in the highs as I had the Musical Fidelity. I then later upgraded and purchased and compared Prima Luna and VTL IT-85 integrated tube amps. I preferred the VTL IT-85 as it was extended and resolving like the Prima Luna, yet more powerful and to me a more lush in the mids. So my order of preference at that time was the VTL-IT85 first, the Blue Circle second, and the Prima Luna a close third. Each offered a slightly different sound and have arguable merits over the others.

Then later the Cayin A88T came into the picture. Although it gave up something in the treble extension department, it rewarded in spades in additional lushnes in the midrange. These two amps remain to date my favorites, the Cayin and VTL-IT85.

If you like wonderful open detail and natural sound with
extension and musicality, for me the VTL is the winner. If you would like a lusher more earthy and textured midrange yet still adequate power and don't care so much about hyper detail, the Cayin A88T represents a wonderful and also relatively cheaper alternative (though slightly less power than the VTL, it powers my floor standing Spendor's just fine).

By the way, I had a Cary SLI-80 for awhile also. It is in the class of tube amps that are resolving, extended, and somewhat close to solid state with an ovall tube lushness, as is the Prima Luna and VTL amps. I liked the Cary alot. A friend of mine who is into natural, clear, extended sound prefers and Cary and over my Cayin in fact. Among that class of extended tube amps, I preferred the VTL overall. Others will differ based on preference of course.

The Cayin A88T is my winner in what I have heard to date in the warm lush-midrange class of tube amps. Don't misunderstand. It has a great presence and sense of your are there, live front and center. That is what I love about it. No sterile hyper detailed solid state-ease music here. The bass, highs, and midrange are palpable, immediate, and vibrant. Some purists would say the sound is colored a bit. So what live performance isn't?

My preferred tubes for the Cayin A88T after much experimentation: Mullard ECC35 (6SL7s), RCA VT-231 (6sN7) and SED KT88 power tubes. Preffered DAC: Monarchy NM24 with Amperex White Label PQ 7308s (or JAN Green Label 7308 which sound the same as PQ white labelled 7308s, but are priced less). In reference to the Cayin Amp, if you want a more extended although slightly less lush sound, I recommend replacing the lush RCA VT-231 round plates with also great sounding but less lush and more extended T plate Raytheon VT-231s (6SN7).

So, that pretty much sums it up. From what I have found there is a compromise no matter what system you buy. It is largely a metter of matching the amplifiers voicing (house sound) with your own persoanl preferences ultimately.

For instance, I like equalizers with solid state amps but not with tube amps as they seem to rob a little of the tube richness from the sound and I can adjust the sound by changing tubes. I think they are wonderful for customizing sound to your personal preference and room (the Dynaco SE10 is a nice older quality neutral EQ or you could try a techy Behringer Ultracurve pro or DBX Driverack 260 or Monitor EQ, the DBX having less noise than the Behringer yet harder to program). However, if you adjust the EQ for more midrange sound, you push up the midrange in the curve and the treble and base relatively diminish a bit. So, the physics of sound are such that you can't have it all in an amp. An amp with great extension, no matter what, will have a midrange that is relatively less. It is a matter of striking the best balance for your taste.

So, I recommend the Unison Unico, Forte 4A, Musical Fidelity NuVista, NAD, and BAT amps for solid state (the NAD has a lush midrange and sounds very tubey).

I prefer tube amps as they to me inject more body and life into the sound. As far as tube amps go, my favorite was the VTL IT-80 and the Cayin A88T. The VTL being the winner the in the extension department with good musicality for that kind of amp, and the Cayin, my personal preference for its lush 'tube amp of yore' midrange sound and quality highs. FYI the Cayin is basically a well built clone of some earlier McIntosh and Marantz amps, German desined, built and owned in China.

A word on DACs. I have an Olive music server which delivers great easy to access sound from its hard disk and menu system (though the operating software is a little buggy). The sound was a little too soft for me, so I tried several DACs, including those by Musical Fidelity, BAT, Monarchy, Bel Canto, Northstar, etc) and I personally preferred the sound I got from the Monarchy NM24 with the Amperex 7308 PQ or Amperex JAN 7308 tubes. The BAT DAC, sounded harsh to me, and the Bel Canto sounded too smooth to me, and the others were good but more linear in presentation. I preferred the Monarchy as it is open and extended yet still musical. Again, you can alter the sound with tubes if needed.

In summation, I have learned to be very wary when someone says 'this is the best sounding amp, speakers, or tubes' without giving comparison to the type of sound they like to hear or referencing another component (hopefully you have heard) and the relative difference in sound. When it comes to sound systems, one persons heaven is another persons hell. Someone who prefers a lush sound such as the older Conrad Johnson systems (sounded slightly dull to me, the newer Conrad Johnsons are more extended) or a new Cayin for that matter, may describe an amp that has great extension and musicality as harsh, and vice versa.

Also be aware, when comparing tube amps that the tubes used make a major difference in the overall sound and presentation. Unless the speakers, tubes, and other components used in the listening test along with listener's sound preferences are discussed, the information is almost worthless.

I say almost, because there tend to be winners with each type of tonal preference. For instance, I personally prefer the 7308 tubes because I found them more musical than the 6DJ8 tubes. For instance, the Siemens 6DJ8 Holland tubes were harsh by my ears, and the Siemens 7308 were musical, had liquid full mids, and extended. I found the Amperex 7308s to have a little more midrange, but not quit as extended and clear as the Siemens, but for tipping the overall balance in my system, I preferred the Amperex. Someone wanting a little more extension with still great midrange, might prefer the Siemens.

Many reading this will know most of the caveats referenced already or have struggled similarly trying to find the perfect system. They might also have found they are shooting at a moving target as their tastes change over time. However, when I first started to buy gear, I would read references to preference and take them way too seriously. I have found much of it to be completely wrong and misleading as the authors were simply stating their personal preferance without qualifying the information. How would you know someone calling a system dull preferred extension and detail that might pierce the air to where the average listener might be bleeding from the ears.

I am glad the 'journey is the destination' when it comes to the 'perfect system', as that will more than likely never be achieved by anyone. However, now that the dust has settled, settling down for awhile and just listening to music is what it is all about for me.
Great review. I suggest you take it to the next level and look at the VAS preamp. Nothing does vinyl better.

I forgot to include a note on my experience with subwoofers in my recent review. I tried several. A Velodyne HGS, Martin Logan Dynamo, AV123/Onix Rocket, and a 10" MJ Acoustics Ref III. I wanted the sub primarily for music as I thought something was lacking from concert memories, even with floorstanders. For instance, if I play some Fleetwood Mac with a sub in addition to my floorstanding speakers, the music suddently opens up and you feel and hear the beautiful rolling bass as it was meant to be heard, but sorely deficient with stand alone floorstanders with 8" woofers. The sound opens up and suddenly you go 'ah, that is what I remember the music is supposed to sound like'. However, though the Velodyne and Martin Logans could have that deep crushing sub bass which is great for home theater, they often stood out like a sore thumb on some passages listening to music. Of the above, the MJ Acoustics and AV123 Rocket were the most musical and blended well with the MJ Acoustics and likely its relative the REL sub being the better.

The MJ Acoustics is an REL knockoff made in England, produced by abandoned REL staff after REL got bought out and production was moved to China. It is a wonderful musical sub and some reports say, every bit as good, but lower priced than current REL.

Articles abound on adjusting sub woofer sound so I won't go into that. However, a perfect musical track for adjusting your subwoofer is the fourth cut (O'Farrel's Welcome...) on Paul Winter's Celtic Solstice Album. On it, several deep sounding Irish Kettle drums are played. One is at the upper end of the sub bass sound and the other is deep into the sub bass range. So, without a sub, you near a nice bass on one of the drums, and the second deeper one sounds weak and muffled in comparison. However, with a subwoofer in line and adjusted properly, the muffled drum will stand out equally well and enrichen the sound dramatically.

So, my recommendation and personal preference for a subwoofer is to choose a musical sub and crank it up a bit for home theater, or have a second sub for home theater if into that.

My MJ Acoustics sub blends well with the music and makes my floor standing Spendor S8e speakers (which already have great bass) sound much larger - as if they have a 12" woofer built into them.

A side note on preamps: My favorite was a Joule Electra LA-150MKII. The Joule to me is well worth its high price tag if you have the money and a system worthy of it. However, due to budgetary constraints I opted for the integrated Cayin and Olive music server, both purchased for a total price equalling the price of a used Joule.

One other note on listening to an Almarro 318B single ended triode amp: It had wonderful palpable midrange, but my reasonably efficient Spendor S8e floorstanding speakers could not be driven well by it. I couldn't turn the music up beyond low to low medium volume levels at all.

As my Spendor's floorstanders are driven as easily as most monitors, I don't think the Amarro is practicle unless highly efficient speakers are matched to it or you don't mind background only volume levels for your music. I have heard from a good source that those highly efficient speakers are often lacking in bass, though that problem may be reduced with a good musical subwoofer such as the REL or MJ Acoustics, etc as discussed. I would require those efficient speakers if I kept the Almarro or probably at least one Almarro for each channel with my current speakers - and would still have to give up on 'turning it up' but may have decent medium volume level listening.
One last note of mixing components for sound and some good tubes:

Earlier I mentioned I thought the Bel Canto Dac sounded a little dull. In keeping with the theme of the post, I should mention that I thought it was dull in line with my already lush Romantic sounding tube amp clone of yore the Cayin A88T. If someone thought there system sounded way to analytical, lean, hyperdetailed, etc, the Bel Canto might be the perfect Dac to take care of the problem.

For instance, when I installed the wonderful sounding Mullard ECC35 6SL7 tubes, I got what I thought was perhaps a little too much shift toward openess and clarity for the net sound I wanted (I prefer the warm midrange sound as a matter of preference). So, I put in the tonally rich RCA 6SN7 VT-231s along with Amperex 7308s, and the two pairs took the sound where I wanted to go, leaving me with more open sound that when I started, yet backing off a little by adding more midrange texture. So for me, the extended Mullards matched well with the lush sounding RCAs to produce a great net sound. I found using both RCAs for the 6SL7 and 6SN7 tubes in my amp was a little too lush. Though the mids sounded good, the highs no longer seemed natural and had an almost noisy overtone to them.

A wonderful thing about tube amps, is that if you don't like the sound out of the speakers or your amp, you don't necessarily have to run out and buy a new amp or speakers. The tonal balance can be dramatically changed with the tubes that you choose.

I have found the Mullard and Sylvania 6SL7 tubes to be more forward, but not sterile at all, the Mullard the better of the two (expensive but worth it). I found the RCA tubes in general along with their 6SN7 tubes to be a bit more musical and lush compared to most others. Another winner in the 6sN7 catagory except this time for a more open sounding tube (and very affordable) is the Raytheon 6SN7 T plate (I haven't compared the wafer plate though). Another one I couldn't afford that many seem to want in the extended catagory is the New Old Stock Tung Sol 6SN7 round plates (VT-231). From reports, the Raytheon is very close in sound at about 1/4 the price.

CD Players, dare I go there. Quickly, I liked the Rotel 1072 and the Rega Saturn even more for detail. Though both for me were slightly too detailed and bright in my system. I had a Acoustic Research which was still very detailed but not quit as bright as I found the Saturn. This was an older AR CD II if I remember right which wouldn't play computer CDs and would only play new CDs without scratchs (perhaps needed alignment). I ended up going with a Music Server with the tubed Monarchy DAC which I use today and am quit fond of. I imagine playing from a computer with a good DAC can sound equally good.

I mention these things as a resource to, perhaps, help others avoid starting 'cold' in trying out audiophile gear. If your are interested in tube gear, you couldn't loose starting out with a Cayin A88T, and if even with tube adjustment, you are not getting enough extension and detail, choosing a VTL tube amp such as the IT-85.

For solid state, I have heard good things about Parasound (found it too bright for me). Although technically the Musical Fidelity Nu Vista is a great tubed amp, the tubes in it are closer to solid state in presentation, but that is a great amp also. Others have been mentioned, Forte 4A (a price and great sound leader), BAT amps, etc.
By the way, I had some Merlin speakers which I put head to head with the Onix REF I from AV123. Both are sweet and extended type speakers. Although the Merlin was smoother, I actually preferred the slightly brassier REF I Speakers. They were clearanced awhile back for around $600 (down from $1,200) so I would look for a used pair for around $550 and team it up with a used AV123 tube amp or even a Harman Kardon 2 channel solid state (check JR dot com,etc) if looking for Budget yet wonderful sound system. You would have to spend several thousand more to get that extra 10% which I have with my Spendor/Cayin combo mentioned. Also, don't overlook the Spendor S5e used if going budget. They can be had for less than $1,000 these days. They sound close to the S8e. They just don't have the easy powerful presentation of the S8e nor the same bass of course.
Hi Guys
What would be your preference Cayin 9084D or Mastersound 845 Monoblocks using Marantz SA7 ,ART Noveau Speakers and VPI Superscoutmaster Deck
I agree. Too much resolution = fatigue