The speakers for the demo were Harbeth SHL5 Plus speakers that retail for $6,299. These are near the top of the line for Harbeth. The top of the line come in at $18 – 20,000. I’ve heard these speakers before and for my ears, they give one of the clearest and purest sounds I’ve ever heard. The Harbeth P3ESR are their entry level speakers at $2,300 – 2,700. Not entry level for many of us, but again a phenomenal sounding speaker that you could have for a lifetime.
The demo started with a neat little gizmo called the Ifi Micro iTube . This bit of gear has a single General Electric 5670 tube inside its tiny casing and retails for $499 at Planet of Sound. For the demo it was placed between the pre-amp, but in reading reviews I understand that it can be placed pretty much anywhere prior to the amp or integrated amp in your system. It has a number of functions according to the ifi website: a Class A tube buffer, 3D holographic sound, digital antidote and a precision analogue volume control.
Ifi Audio cites a German study to support the virtues of tube gear: “The Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts conducted an extensive scientific study where participants reported a ~60% decrease of tension, nervousness and a 120% increased sense of well-being with a HiFi system including tubes, when compared to a solid-state system.” (1)
To demo this Ifi, we listened to a McCoy Tyner number on the Marantz PM8005 solid state system ($1,499) with and without the Ifi Micro Tube. I believed I could hear a slight difference with the Ifi adding a more natural sound especially with the piano. We then did a blind test where we could not see whether the Ifi was being used or not and were asked to indicate whether A or B used the Ifi. The differences are subtle, but only roughly a third of those present got it right. Unfortunately, there were a few technical challenges that resulted in a couple of minutes between A and B, so it is really difficult to compare. I wouldn’t take this as any clear indication of the value of the Ifi.
We then moved on to similar demos with the Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 MKII at $4,999 compared to the Marantz. With the blind test, we had improved to about 80% of us getting it right. For my ears, it was again a more natural sound coming from the Acoustic Masterpiece.
On to a LAB 12 Integre4 () at $4,299 again compared to the Marantz. We got pretty much the same results on the blind test. The LAB 12 does have the cool factor going for it with its exposed to tubes that glow in a darkened room. The tubes on the Acoustic Masterpiece are enclosed in an aluminum casing.
The final test was a comparison of two tube amps: the LAB 12 and an Accuphase e-470 . You’ll have to call Planet of Sound for pricing on this one, but I thought I heard something north of $8,000. Most of us bailed on this test. When you have equipment that sounds this good, if becomes near impossible to easily discern significant differences.