Review: Bricasti Design M15 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier

I just had a rather arresting (in the sense of, one has to stop doing anything else, and just listen) listening experience. I want to share it with you. The music I was listening to is from an underappreciated (really, almost unknown) classic-era jazz recording; but I have heard it many times.

However, I had never heard it like this—it was a real “Holy Poop!” moment. (The truth is, I did exclaim rather loudly, 19 seconds into my favorite track.)

The recording is Guitar Forms, guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 1965 orchestral collaboration with arranger and conductor Gil Evans, the same Gil Evans of Miles Davis Sketches of Spain fame. (Guitar Forms remastering, Verve 314 521 403-2; imported CD from Amazon; also available streaming from Tidal.)

Creed Taylor (later of CTI, the crossover label that so many loved to hate) produced, while Rudy van Gelder was the engineer. Session players included Lee Konitz, Bill Barber (both of whom played on the Birth of the Cool recorded live performances, as well as the recording sessions), Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. How can you beat that? Guitar Forms is a wonderful recording, so even if you are not in the market for a new power amp, you owe it to yourself to read on. A generous sound sample and more audio commentary are to be found after the jump.

To say that Guitar Forms is Kenny Burrell’s orchestral collaboration with Gil Evans is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Five of the album’s nine tracks are orchestral settings, but three are small-combo jazz; and one piece, a Gershwin Prelude, is a guitar solo. That said, seeing that as to my ears the most treasurable tracks are the orchestral ones, I think no harm done.

Before I talk about my favorite Guitar Forms track, the one I had not listened to since the last major change to my stereo system, I want to explain what the critical listening session I was about to undertake was all about.

Esperanto “Black” Word Clock Cable
The olivewood block is from the Holy Land

After leaving Stereophile magazine (voluntarily, and on good terms with John Atkinson), I took steps to commercialize the cable designs I had been doodling and experimenting with for the few years before that. I call my company Esperanto Audio. My first products were digital cables, but I recently completed a production run of electric-guitar cables, and I am close to pulling the trigger on producing balanced analog cables.

The design goals of my digital cables are to minimize signal degradation by careful attention to the limitation of internal electrical reflections; optimizing mechanical resonances; and, neutralizing the mechanical stresses that are the unavoidable by-products of any cable-fabrication process. Parts of the process are trade secrets, but one important part is a unique burn-in tone that I created, that is meant to be applied to digital cables, but in the analog domain.

Therefore, to burn in my digital cables before sending them out to a dealer or customer, I use the digital cables as analog cables, and pass a massive (about 15 octaves tall) tone cluster (made up of Mandelbrotian-nested square waves) through them. The frequencies span from below 5Hz, up to 88.2kHz. (The tone cluster is carried in a DXD 352.8kHz PCM file.)

After this has gone on for many hours, I then put the cables back in between a transport and a DAC, and listen critically to assess their performance against my reference set.

For day-to-day listening, I use an Esperanto Audio “Blue” S/PDIF cable (MSRP $600). A customer recently ordered a “Black” S/PDIF cable, which has an MSRP of $1600. I set up to burn it in (that is, the digital cable is carrying an analog signal). I came in the next day and rearranged the signal path so the digital cable was again doing digital duty.

Some weeks earlier, I had taken Guitar Forms out to listen to it again at some later time. An outgoing-cable burn-in Quality Control check seemed to be as good time a time as any. I cued up Track 8, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Last Night When We Were Young.”

The track starts with some orchestral (or perhaps more properly, big-band) large-scale scene painting, in typical Gil Evans fashion. But the orchestrated introduction soon comes to an end. At the 19-second mark, Kenny Burrell’s solo guitar enters.

Holy Poop. The centered tonal solidity, the vivid dynamic immediacy, the shimmering harmonic complexity, and the dynamic nuance—all conveying the pure beauty of Burrell’s (admittedly, very close-mic’ed) acoustical-guitar playing, were entirely eye-popping. (And this recording is from 1965!)

Here’s a nice big chunk of Burrell and Evans’ “Last Night When We Were Young.”

Track 8: “Last Night When We Were Young”

I had heard that track through my Black cables before, but I don’t believe that I had played it since Brian Zolner of Bricasti Design had dropped off Bricasti’s new stereo amplifier, which, at 125Wpc versus the Bricasti M28’s 200Wpc, costs $18,000 (compared to the monoblock M28’s $30,000/pr.).

Wow. I had already decided that Bricasti’s M15 was a world-class product, but… there are many world-class products.

Really. Tastes may vary, but in terms of design excellence and build quality, I don’t think that anyone can claim that choosing among the top offerings from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus, any of those brands is heads-and-shoulders above the others, or that one of them is a dog that does not belong in that category. However, above and beyond “world class,” at least in my room with my associated equipment (more about which later), Bricasti’s M15 sounded magical.

The last amplifier I can remember that gobsmacked me to the same degree (during in-home auditions), in terms of sheer listenability and musical enjoyment, was darTZeel’s original NHB-108, which I reviewed for Stereophile way back in 2003. Before that, I think it was Jeff Rowland’s Model 5, for its solid but agile musicality, which I lived with briefly in the mid 1980s. Please note that these three amplifiers are not of the “you can weld with it” brute-force variety. darTZeel’s first amplifier had a claimed output of 100Wpc, while the Rowland 5 had a claimed output of 150Wpc.

Bricasti claims a very conservative 125Wpc for the M15. I cheerfully state that the loudspeakers I listen to the most often were designed by Mike Zisserson, with (largely conceptual) input from me. The Esperanto Parolanto prototypes (that name is a lame pun in the constructed international auxiliary language called Esperanto) are 2-ways with 6.5-inch woofers. They were designed to be easy to drive. Specifically, Mike and I believe that rated efficiency is less important than the smoothness of the impedance curve and the absence of a problematic electrical phase angle.

Moreover, avoiding when impedance and phase angle synergize in a bad way is extremely important. Therefore, while the Parolanto prototypes might be rated at only 83dB 1W/1m; their impedance curve is very even, and their phase-angle characteristic is benign. Our design decisions in this regard were the exact opposite from the case where a loudspeaker is 90dB (or more) efficient, yet has an impedance curve that dips below 4 Ohms in the same region where the phase angle is punishing for most amplifiers. Punishing, because the time lag between voltage and current means that there is less usable power. If I had to draw an analogy to illustrate the phase-angle problem, I might say that when you are trying to push a heavy object, you usually crouch lower instead of standing up straight, because if you stand up straight there is more wasted effort and less leverage.

Back in the day when Halcro amplfiers were all the rage, I tried them out on the then-new Aerial Acoustics 20T, which, as John Atkinson’s measurements later showed, was challenging in exactly the way I have been talking about here. The Halcros made the 20Ts sound like they were not as large as they really are—one listener said that they made the (four feet tall, 250 pounds each) 20Ts “sound like small speakers.” Whereas the same pair of 20Ts, driven by Plinius’ SA-250 amplifier, filled a 30 x 60-foot room (that has a 15-foot high ceiling) with high-resolution pipe-organ music at realistic volume levels.

Given the facts that the prototype Esperanto Audio loudspeakers are 2-ways that are easy to drive; that my room is not large; and that I do not listen very loudly very often, Bricasti’s M15’s 125Wpc is probably somewhat more than I need. (However, if I acquired much larger speakers that were a more troublesome electrical load, I just might need Bricasti’s 200Wpc M28 monoblocks. Horses for courses.) The rest of the system is a Parasound Halo CD 1 player used as a transport, a Bricasti M1 DAC, and Esperanto Audio XLR balanced interconnects and S/PDIF cable.

One other exceptional recording has figured prominently in my evaluation of Bricasti’s M15. I was intrigued to read that Reference Recordings’ SACD of Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburg Symphony in Shostakovich’s symphony 5 had, as a disc-filler, the orchestral-strings version of Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio from his first string quartet.

I was even more intrigued to learn that Honeck believes that Shostakovich’s fifth is chock-full of Gustav Mahler references and homages. I requested a physical disc as well as a high-res PCM download. I listened to both, and again was gobsmacked. To skip ahead a few months, that selfsame recording was awarded two Grammys: Best Orchestral Recording, and Best Classical Engineering.

Not incidentally, Honeck’s “Pittsbugh Live” Shostakovich/Barber disc was recorded location-live by Soundmirror, Inc. Furthermore, in Soundmirror’s Boston studios, the playback signal chain for mixing and mastering (for both stereo and multichannel programs) includes Bricasti power amps. The Bricasti amps at Sound Mirror are not only the M28 monoblock “battleships”—Soundmirror has several M15 “cruisers” as well. (A Bricasti M15 weighs 90 pounds; but please do not get it dripping wet.)

Brief comments on the performance and sound of Honeck’s revelatory Shostakovich/Barber disc, and then, the objective and subjective coverage on the M15.

When I sat down and listened to the Honeck/Pittsburgh Mahler 5 (not to be tactless), I had a hard time believing it was by a second-tier American orchestra and not a first-tier European orchestra. I must not be the only one who thought that way, because the recording later did win two Grammies! The performance incorporated its own internal logic of nearly-operatic drama, but without histrionics. I got a very clear sense of transitions between light moods and dark, or hope and fear. I also got a very clear sense of when Shostakovich’s utterances were genuine, and when they were mocking (or taking the form of parody). The orchestral sound is at the same time powerful and transparent. Articulation and ensemble are world-class. Solo playing is so wonderful. To sum up, the interpretation and the recording are revelations. In particular, the slow movement perfectly captures a sense of expectation that mingles hope and fear. (After all, the symphony is about life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.) The last movement, of course, is smashing.

There have been times when I can try to explain why certain recordings get Grammies only on the basis of, Academy voters who do not know much at all about classical music vote for the best-known names (regardless whether they have heard any of the discs on the short list), or on the basis that they vote for the person whose last recording got the Grammy last year (Georg Solti, please take a bow). This is the special case (I think Andris Nelsons’ Grammies are the same thing) where a very deserving recording got the award. (I do not say “the most deserving,” because I have not heard all the eligible recordings.)

Honeck has his own thoughts on the Adagio from Barber’s first string quartet. Honeck may be right, or, he might be wrong. (If he is wrong, certainly no harm was done.) Honeck believes that the later (1967) a-cappella choral version that sets the Latin text of the Catholic Mass ordinary prayer “Agnus Dei” was in the back of Barber’s mind from the beginning. In other words, Honeck thinks that because the Latin text fits the music so perfectly (and also because, duuh, Barber in his youth had been a church organist), that—forget the orchestral version—before Barber wrote the string-quartet movement, he was already hearing the Agnus Dei in his head. And that insight (or at least conviction) informs Honeck’s interpretation:

I have allowed myself, against traditional contrapuntal interpretation,
to direct the phrasing according to the nuance of the spoken text.

My friend and musical colleague Steve Martorella came by for a listening session. In his youth, Steve studied music at the Vatican, so I think it is fair to say that he probably knows something about Agnus Deis. I played him some Shostakovich from the disc without telling him the orchestra or conductor, and all his guesses were European. He was as impressed as I was that the playing we were hearing was from an American orchestra, but not one we usually think of as first-tier. As for the orchestral Barber Adagio, Steve agreed with me; this was the best one he had heard. And if the truth of the matter is that all those Recording Academy voters were voting for the Barber and not the Shostakovich, I actually have no problem with that.

Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings

Bricast’s M15 stereo power amplifier is 10.5 inches tall, 17 inches wide, and 18 inches deep. It weighs 90 pounds. Rated power is 125Wpc into 8 ohms, 250Wpc into 4 ohms, and 500Wpc into 2 ohms. Claimed frequency response is 10hz-150kHz, within 0.5db; signal to noise is claimed to be greater than 85db at full rated power. Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise is claimed to be less than 0.005% 20hz-20kHz at full rated power into 8 and 4 ohms. The power topology is fully differential.

Bricasti’s M15 was designed to be used with Bricasti’s M1 digital-to-analog converter, which has its own volume control and which was the source component for this review. Or, the M15 can be used with Bricasti’s M12 source controller. (The M12 is based on the M1, with the addition of (among other things) a discrete resistive-ladder volume control.) Or, the M15 can be used with any another full-featured DAC, as long as that DAC has true balanced outputs. The M15’s User Guide states how important it is that the M15 be fed a genuine complementary, dual-differential analog input.

To make gain matching as accurate as possible and as easy as possible, the M15 has on its rear panel a detented setscrew Gain Trim adjustment (one setscrew adjusts both channels) that can reduce the input gain in -6dB increments for a possible total reduction of -18dB. What this means in practical terms is that if you never drive the M15 to full power, and therefore the signal is going to get attenuated somewhere, having the larger chunk of attenuation happen in the analog domain at the amplifier’s inputs may have some sonic benefit, in that it means that your DAC’s digital gain control is making less of a change.

That is, if the volume setting on your M1 DAC is usually down in the -40 range, reducing the M15’s sensitivity as much as possible by the rear-panel trim pot means that the DAC will then attenuate in the digital domain by roughly only half as much. I did play around with this feature, and the bottom line I found was that when I could match the M15’s input gain to the recording’s level so that I could listen with the M1’s volume control at -0, I did feel there was a worthwhile increase in transparency and immediacy. (But I have resolved not to drive myself crazy over this.) And I hasten to offer the observation that the M1’s volume control is very transparent (I think more transparent than all but the best analog preamps), and also the caveat that there might be a confirmation bias at work in this particular regard.

The M15’s binding posts are made in-house, and, like all the other details, are excellent. The M15’s feet are vibration-cancelling footers co-developed with Stillpoints. For my listening, I used a Cardas Clear power cord, but its improvement over the very hefty cord that came with the M15 was worthwhile, but not night-and-day.

To sum up: The Bricasti M15, no matter how hard I pushed it, never sounded electronic-y. But neither did it ever sound like it was detached or playing things safe. I was just listening to Sarah McLachlan’s angst-fest Surfacing. With the M1 DAC’s volume control set all the way up to “0,” I heard some little production details (such as overdubbed unison voices) that I had never heard before.

Bricasti’s M15 power amplifier gives what I call the “You are in good hands with Allstate” feeling.

It just sounds right. And Grammy-winning record producers and recording engineers definitely agree with that.

Highly recommended for in-home audition.

Bricasti Design M15 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier
US MSRP $18,000
Bricasti Design
2 Shaker Road
Building N
Shirley MA 01464 USA
Telephone (978) 425-5199

42 Replies to “Review: Bricasti Design M15 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier”

    • john marks

      Jack Baruth appreciates fine audio equipment… and btw, it’s his website.

      If you are not interested in audio equipment, you can read about two excellent recordings.

      If you are not interested in music, you have my mingled pity and something else.

      John Marks
      Post Author

      PS: If you knew anything about audio engineering, you would know that Briasti is not snake oil; it is expensive because it is among the best. Musicians from Alicia Keys to John Mayer use Bricasti gear. Go ahead–YOU tell John Mayer that what he thinks he is hearing is a $$$ confirmation-bias delusion!

      • dave

        A double blind test would tell him just like it has told everyone else. There is less than 1% chance you would be able to tell the difference between this setup and a $200 Class D amp with Amazon’s cheapest cables.

        • Ben Johnson

          I love those Tripath amps – their existence makes for a great litmus test if someone is actually is into audio or if they only know how to throw money at problems. A good Tripath/Class-D should defiantly be in any audiophile’s collection.

          One of my favorite setups for pop songs has a $30 tripath amp, two Radio-Shack speakers with chi-com Linaeum tweeters that you have to source from Ebay. In total, it’s about $250 and combined with a used iPhone (they tend to have a great audio circuitry) playing lossless audio you can have a lot of fun. You can get fancy and make the crossover much nicer with $10 in parts.

          More info about the Rat-shack speaker:

  1. rwb

    Will vouch for Bricasti, I had some time with the M7/M10 a while ago and it’s an outrageously high-quality piece, so I imagine their consumer equipment is to a similar standard.

  2. E. Bryant

    My electrical engineering degree and two-decades-plus of experience in the field has left me poorly prepared to understand the concepts put forth in this post.

    • john marks

      Specifically, what??? What puzzles you? (And, what is your specialty?)

      A shame that you got a degree, but somehow along the way over the past 20 years you never learned that the capability of the power supply is a hugely important part of the sound quality of an audio amplifier! The primary reason this audio amplifier weighs NINETY POUNDS is its robust power supply, which enables the amplifier’s output stages to achieve the theoretical ideal of doubling the output wattage as the driven load presented by the loudspeaker (expressed in Ohms) decreases by half. What aspect of that are you ill-equipped to understand? Do you know anything about the dynamic real-world behavior of loudspeaker loads? Does the concept of phase angle temporarily elude you? Would you like a bowl of warm soothing soup?

      Did your EE training leave you unprepared either to understand or appreciate the fact that Bricast’s M15’s frequency response of 10hz-150kHz is consistent within 0.5db?

      I really want to ask you whether, without resulting to an Internet search, you can concisely explain Oliver Heaviside’s life’s work and name his most famous achievement. Hint: nearly every home in the developed world has lots of this. (Extra credit if you mention quaternions.)

      Please don’t come back with, “None of that should make a difference that you can hear.” Because then I would be tempted to say that if a Subaru WRX and a Porsche 911 both can be driven to exert a lateral force of .8G, the driving experiences are therefore in all respects identical.

      Perhaps I have to crate this thing up and ship it to Jack as the “honest broker.”

      Have a nice day,

      John Marks
      Post Author

      • Random HiFi Dude

        Assuming that I didn’t have an electrical/computer engineering degree and a reasonable amount of experience with electrical signals and I had zero understanding of chemistry and physics and I might somehow be inclined to believe some of the malarkey in your post,
        then surely your hissy fit reply above would go a long way toward establishing credibility, no?

        Respectfully, Jack, this is unbecoming of your site. What’s next, peddling Cardas Cables or such?
        For giggles, folks, look up Cardas Audio and their high-end cables, designed (and business run) by a wedding photographer.

        From John’s post:
        “The design goals of my digital cables are to minimize signal degradation by careful attention to the limitation of internal electrical reflections; optimizing mechanical resonances; and, neutralizing the mechanical stresses that are the unavoidable by-products of any cable-fabrication process. Parts of the process are trade secrets, but one important part is a unique burn-in tone that I created, that is meant to be applied to digital cables, but in the analog domain.”

        John, you need to ramp it up a bit, I’m afraid that the wedding people have you beat when it comes to the gobbledygook density per phrase:

        “It is said, wire is just wire. In reality, a high-end audio cable must balance resistance, capacitance, inductance, conductance, velocity of propagation, RF radiation and absorption, mechanical resonance, strand interaction, high filtering, reflections, electrical resonance, dissipation factors, envelope delay, phase distortion, harmonic distortion, structural return loss, corrosion, cross-talk, bridge-tap and the interaction of these and a hundred other things. As a high-end cable manufacturer, Cardas Audio strives to address every detail of cable and conductor construction, no matter how small.”

      • RTR

        OK, I am a P Eng – and yes, the power output of an Amp has an impact of sound quality and certainly distortion – well known and scientific. Yes, impedance and reactance are also known and understood – not to mention measurable. Why I called “snake oil” is when real science got lost and you try to convince me that a cable needs to be “burned it” or that a block of wood makes a measurable difference. That’s where the real science is acting as camouflage for the pure nonsense used to justify insane prices for cables. That the AMP is good quality- I have no doubt. 13,000 dollar cables that need to be burned in .. yeah. Sure.

    • Ben Johnson


      My understanding of digital signaling caused me to stop reading after the $600 S/PDIF cable.

      I wouldn’t mind hearing about well made cables that were well constructed – Blue Jeans Cables come to mind… but snake oil velben digital cables seasoned with analog voodoo are right out.

      • john marks

        Hi, Ben!

        Your understanding of digital signaling is therefore woefully incomplete! (You also might want to look up the proper spelling of Professor Veblen’s name… .)

        For those who might be adrift but willing to learn, the S/PDIF protocol for transmitting PCM digital audio signals does not have a set data rate. PCM uses a bi-phase mark code which enables the original word clock to be “recovered” from the signal train. The accuracy of the recovery of the “embedded” clock signal is largely dependent upon the minimization of internal reflections in the S/PDIF cable.

        Many of my customers (all of whom benefited from a money-back guarantee, or a free test loan from their dealer) own digital equipment from the British firm dCS, whose top-of-the-line setup has a US MSRP of $114,900. So, if a suite of expensive cables allows them to hear better sound from what they have already paid for, they are happy.

        So, Ben, please put a sock in this snake-oil nonsense. You have not heard my cables. And I doubt you have heard the kind of equipment they usually end up in.

        John Marks
        Post Author

        • Ben Johnson

          As far as digital signaling, you’re not fooling anybody that ever programmed a digital computer.

          Yes the PCM in S/PDIF can be varying rates to cover the different rates between CD and DAT and your cable has nothing to do with that – you just make the dumb pipe.

          I live in a Pacific Northwest and just about all of us have a fancy pants system thanks to MSFT and AMZN – we all know the game and $114K isn’t impressive. At all. It’s a yawn – and we’d all rather watch a teenager assemble a Sterolab speaker kit.

          I’m sure your analog cables are awesome, but digital is digital. It works or it doesn’t.

          Case closed Mr. Monster Cable 2.0.

          • john marks

            Please name one award-winning mastering engineer who believes that “Digital is digital–it either works or not.”

            I have a hard time believing that YOU have a genuine “fine audio” system. Details, please?

            And for those of us who channel our passion for music through technology, getting the best possible sound out of legacy formats such as CD is not a yawn, it is a challenging and rewarding pursuit.

            BTW & FYI, my digital cables usually get compared to products from a far better-known firm, except their cable comparable to my “Black” cable costs twice as much. Yup, a $3,200 S/PDIF cable.

            Finally, while Noel Lee had in my opinion a nearly limitless ability to behave like a horse’s ass, the original Monster Cable in fact was more musically satisfying than lamp cord. Later, Noel Lee and Bruce Brisson were awarded a patent (4,777,324) based on Brisson’s balanced-bandwidth loudspeaker cable technology. So, I think you are wrong on that too. You should be capable of finding that patent online. My question is whether you are capable of putting together a respectable argument devoid of name-calling, that a fraud was perpetrated on the Patent Office.

            John Marks
            Post Author

          • Ben Johnson

            Oh my CD audio setup is shit – just a old NAD5300 with a built in DAC that I resurrected by tweaking the focusing pot, a home made tube amp with that will kill you if you touch the power supply and set of old US-made Koss headphones because my uncle gave them to me and I loved him. In my poverty days, I found two Magnepans – I had know idea what they were, but I knew that were more than $40 Goodwill wanted. I’m content with the setup.

            The ‘fine’ audio equipment that I have makes people smile is a 19th century upright grand made in Chicago that tuned to A430 – makes Bach sound more melodic; and an early Columbia Grafonola.

            And the finest audio equipment is my wallet – it lets me take my friends to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley.

            As someone who can still hear to to 18 kHz (flyback transformers still annoy me) I’d be vastly more interested in your analog offerings – and I could imagine that guitar cables would requite a lot of careful thought in both keeping a great analog signal and not getting in the way of the player. But jamming a bunch of analogue noise down a digital cable doesn’t make any scientific sense – and you’re going to lose a huge chuck of your market that’s immune to audio woo-woo if you go down that road.

      • Jack Baruth

        I have two sets of the Blue Jeans cables and I’m happy with them but I did not A/B them with the junk they replaced.

  3. bjarnetv

    Well… this post sure could use some editing and increased focus, but at least it got me to check out the Shostakovich recording, which is nice.
    iv’e got to admit though, i never really gelled with Shostakovich, and even during live concerts i often loose focus and drift away when listening to his works.

    As for the cables – we all have our own hobby horse to ride, but personally i use regular old ofc copper speaker cables, pro audio breakout cables with neutrik plugs and some generic usb cable between my computer and lynx aurora DAC.
    never really heard any improvement with more exotic stuff (though i haven’t tried any for several years)

    On another hifi-related note, i just upgraded the tweeters in my horn speakers to TAD TD-2001, and those tweeters just rocks!
    They have so much physicality and depth compared to the previous Radian 475 beryllium drivers, and the build quality is miles ahead, so at least i dont feel too bad for throwing all my savings down ye olde moneypit.

    • Ben Johnson

      Shostakovitch doesn’t click with me either – and I feel bad about it. Like I don’t respect what he had to go though. – Those TD-2001 look interesting – and it sounds like money very spent.

  4. James

    It is a standard test of a software compiler to have the compiler compile itself.

    Now, the human sense of sight is much less refined than that of sound–movies are still shown at 24 Hz! But in both cases we are talking about the reproduction of a recorded, captured signal.

    With sight, the recording device is superior to the playback device, so that one tests a TV screen by pointing a camera at it, making a video recording of the TV playback of a video recording, and then comparing the two recordings.

    With sound, the playback device is far superior to the recording device, so much so that there’s no way to stick a microphone in front of some speakers to test the reproduction’s fidelity to the original production. It cannot be done: you need a human reviewer.

    If you use the best speakers, with the best receiver–connected via the best cables, of course–then you have a reproduction system that is so far superior to the production system that recorded the original jazz album that even if you used that production system to record your reproduction, you couldn’t tell the difference between your system and one that used, say, the second-best cables.

    And so we see repeated, misguided complaints about how much all of this costs. When you buy these components for your reproduction system, you are reproducing things that are not there in the original recording. They should have been there, because they make the recording sounds better, but they aren’t, just because of the limitations of the production system. How can you put a price on that?

    • James

      To understand this whole cottage industry, you need to accept human psychology as it is. A recording will never sound better than when it was made, because it is fixed. It does not change.

      With a reproduction system of low enough quality, you get the limitations of the reproduction system piled upon the limitations of the original recording–I think of early Technicolor films reproduced on VHS, which were a garish, muddy mess!

      With reproduction systems beyond a certain minimum quality, however, all you gain from increasing quality is either (a) nothing or (b) more transparency into the limitations of the original recording. With film, think of TVs at 240 Hz vs. 120 Hz–the original recording is at 24 Hz, so you gain nothing. (You do gain something between 60 and 120 Hz, since 24 divided the later but not the former.)

      Or, think of early films on 4K or Blu-Ray, vs DVD: all you’re paying for is film grain. Now some people like film grain, but of course it reveals the recording as an artifice.

      People seem to like the artificial quality of film: recall the response when Peter Jackson released a film in 4K x 48 Hz x 3D! Enough people, however, do not like the artificial quality of audio recording, and a lot of them listen to jazz. So reality–that if you listen to Stokowski’s 1930s multi-track stereo recordings for Disney’s “Fantasia” on a good audio system, what you’ll hear is the nitrate stock of an optical recording made by engineers who had never heard a multi-track recording before, and not the orchestra’s performance itself–is unpleasant to them.

      And we are all narcissists, so if you tell a man that you can allow him to hear beyond the limits of the audio recordings he cherishes, that he can pay more not to be constrained by the limitations of the source material, which is a recording, but rather to transcend the recording and experience the original performance itself–then enough will believe you, if you give them the chance.

      Hence, you must send analog signals to break in digital wires, because everyone knows that sending digital signals won’t do anything. You may mock the exploitation of the need, but the need itself is very real, and very human; and if you don’t shove your digital cables through a monogrammed block of expensive wood (to keep the electrons flowing), then someone else will charge the same amount for digital cables that do exactly the same thing, but without the blocks of wood.

      And if I am going to pay for a performance, then I would prefer the performer to put some effort into his work, which means that burning digital cables in with analog signals is preferable to the alternative.

      • john marks

        This is in reply both to you and to Ben Johnson.

        Another commentor failed to respond, so I will try this now on both of you:

        I really want to ask you whether, without resulting to an Internet search, you can concisely explain Oliver Heaviside’s life’s work and name his most famous achievement. Hint: nearly every home in the developed world has lots of this. (Extra credit if you mention quaternions.)

        Your sarcasm is as uniformed as it is misdirected. You apparently have no idea at all about the history of signal transmission cables and the rather stunning achievements of Oliver Heaviside in higher math and in applied technology. So, let me try to unendarken you. A length of electrical power distribution cable (such as the solid-core flat twin-lead seen in most houses’ basements) has a resistance that is aligned with and proportional to the cable’s length.

        The genius of the coaxial cable is that its characteristic impedance is largely the result of the resistance presented by the conductance of the inner dialectrical insulation (in concert with the inductance and capacitance of the system per unit length). Therefore, a coaxial cable’s characteristic impedance (in this case, 75 Ohms) is found at right angles to the cable’s length–the 75 Ohms are derived and deemed to be found between the center core and the outer shield, within the inner dialectrical insulation.

        Now, I have already given the game away, but if you are feeling slow on the uptake this morning: the fact is that, because one of the fundamental electrical parameters of the system is capacitance… (drum roll, please) one can regard the system as… a CAPACITOR. The phenomenon of break-in of capacitors is widely recognized.

        I am not going to bother applying for a process patent for my burn-in tone cluster (even though I appear to be the first ever to have done this), but my results from listening tests conducted off an on over three years’ time suggest to me that hitting the inner dialectrical insulation with very wideband nested analog square waves in fact does accelerate capacitive break-in, compared to relying upon the ANALOG 44.1kHz signal that is “deemed to represent” digital data. (The all-caps is a response to your amateur error on that point.)

        BTW, on the subject of old recordings and what is and is not in them; again, I know what I am talking about and I don’t think you do.

        Last October I gave a presentation at a conference at Yale University. Really. The other two presenters were from Yale Music and the Boston Symphony. My topic was “Designing and Equipping Workspaces for Archiving Legacy Audio Media.”

        One attendee was so moved by the transfer I had made of perhaps the only existing first-pressing copy of Cantor Pierre Pinchik’s 1928 RCA Victor recording of his showpiece “Rozo Deshabos” (“The Mystery of Sabbath”) that she thanked me for reminding her why she had chosen her profession. BTW 2, Yale’s workspace for archiving legacy media owns an SME turntable that with arm and cartridge costs more than a new entry-level Kia. Was that expenditure mere T. Veblen ostentation on Yale’s part?

        I won’t belabor the tortured logic and invincible ignorance your “old recordings” argument. The fact that the Pierre Pinchik 1928 recording had technological limitations is irrelevant to whether using today’s best turntables, specialist 78rpm pickups and dedicated non-RIAA phone stages, we can hear things from that recording that nobody could hear from the playback equipment of 1928.

        Anyway, I feel as though I am devoting too much time to trying to explain to a blind man what it is like to drive a Ferrari 355, so I will leave you with this: You might want to ponder the Latin and Greek origins of our word “monogram.” The wood blocks on my cable (which are impregnated with oil and wax and I believe that to that extent they function in the same was as a ferrite choke does on the power cord to an external hard drive) are not “monogrammed.” They were laser-engraved, of course by the best contractor I could find.

        For 26 years I was a Visiting Lecturer at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series, so it is with relish and gusto that I grade your essays:

        Expression: C-/C-
        Content: F/F.

        Have a nice day.

        John Marks
        Post Author

        • James

          You referred to a listening test, appealed to your own authority, and then wrote so, so many irrelevant words. Why? But you do the same to every commenter, so your response was predictable. Still, why?

          The answer arises from the fact that you are engaged in alchemy, not science–everything you sell has to be done by hand. There needs to be space to allow the magic a chance to work. The long, irrelevant discourse needs to be long because it is irrelevant, to allow hope, in the potential customer’s heart to pipe up and say: maybe he is on to something, maybe this explanation is complicated enough that the thing being sold just might work.

          I suppose most of Jack’s readers have filed for patents, where relevant; and none of us is confused about the process. A patent ensures that the technique remains proprietary–it is no assurance that the process actually works. Do you think that patent examiners actually evaluate audio cables? How would that even work? What sort of authority do you think patents provide, and why do you keep appealing to it?

          I suspect this is just not the right audience for the discussion you want to be having. You might be better served interacting with people who don’t know what you are talking about, and therefore can avoid having an accurate opinion concerning (for example) the reasoning and rhetorical skills of adjuncts at third-rate liberal arts colleges. I say this to point out how absurd your appeals to authority appear, in this seeing. Let your ideas stand on their own, if they can.

          • James

            (And you must reply to every commenter, of course, because for the benefit of your intended audience, you are arguing volume rather than content. If you didn’t reply, your intended audience might think the other guy had a point; if you truly, the hope and magic creep back in, and the content of your reply is irrelevant. So it is safe to reply to an oblique criticism of relying on listening tests by appealing to the authority of… listening tests.

            (We can all diagnose everyone here… I keep replying to my own comments, for example, because some other idea occurs to me, and I feel compelled to set it down before I forget it…)

        • Ben Johnson

          John Marks, I took a look at your web-page.

          For a someone who’s claims to be capable of shoving the irrational set of Mandelbrot numbers down in a digital cable in analog form and magically produce a better cable you sure are baffled by the existence of href tags to make your website actually work – and according to it’s been that way for two years.

          Here’s a business opportunity: James Randi has a challenge that says that you can’t tell the difference between a decent speaker cable and a super expensive one and will give you $1,000,000 if you can.

          It looks like your website needs about 8 href tags to get it to work – so you can win Randi’s price splurge and purchase them for only $125,0000 each – that aught to help with your marketing.

          Of course, I could be wrong on the marketing – maybe a broken web page helps you sell your product in the same way poorly worded Nigerian prince emails weed out people that can’t be fooled.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      then you have a reproduction system that is so far superior to the production system that recorded the original jazz album

      Not necessarily. Many great legacy recordings were captured with some of the best audio equipment ever made. They used superb microphones, tube based recording consoles with simple circuitry, and 15 IPS reel to reel recorders. Perhaps more important, the engineers knew what they were doing.

      I was in the NYC area a couple of weeks ago and had a day to kill so I drove into Manhattan to check out Alex Roy’s NoHo Sound. The system in their main room had Focal Sopra 3 speakers and McIntosh electronics. The source was lossless digital off of a streaming service, not sure which. I picked three recordings with which I’m intimately familiar and the experience was revelatory.

      One of the pieces was a Mercury Living Presence mono recording of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Paul Paray conducting Dvorak’s New World. It was recorded in 1960. Alex’s salesman couldn’t stop raving about it.

  5. safe as milk

    Whoa tough crowd! I will stay out of the audiophile controversy but thanks for the heads up on the Kenny Burrell album. I will definitely be checking that out. Despite all our modern technology, Van Gelder’s recordings from his makeshift New Jersey studio sound better than almost anything out there today.

    • john marks

      Thanks for your observations. I slightly knew Mr. van Gelder. In our interactions he came across as an amiable, um erm, I can’t decide whether the proper word is “coot,” or “loon.” Nice guy, though. I also knew famous jazz-era photographer Don Hunstein (he did a portrait of cellist Nathaniel Rosen, who had several recordings on my label).

      I have it on good authority that Mr. van Gelder was so paranoid about his “secret” methods that before he would allow session photographs to be taken, he would replace his real microphones with lesser microphones he kept on hand for that purpose, and re-position things, to sow confusion.

      BTW, while the earliest RVG recordings were made in his parents’ living room, his later studio was designed from scratch by an architect, somewhat in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, and with lots of input from RVG. The roof peak is 39 feet over the floor.

      One can nit-pick this and that about RVG’s approaches to production and engineering (reportedly, some famous musicians did not want to record with him; IIRC, Charles Mingus in particular), but the music he recorded was so hugely important. AFAIK, the present owners of the studio are trying to get Landmark designation for it on three grounds: the recordings made there; the fact that the architect was (IIRC) a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s; and the importance of the studio in documenting music by African Americans.


      John Marks
      Post Author

  6. Harry

    +1 tough crowd.

    The odds of me ever choosing to spend $18k on a piece of audio equipment are vanishingly slim. However I will swear up and down that the equally arcane swappings of one highly regarded mountain bike component for another utterly transforms the riding experience. My ability to explain the difference falls apart when the party I am trying to explain it too lacks a frame of reference that is in the right ballpark.

    I think there was a similar situation with this review. I see no need for those of us not in the market for such an item to be upset about its existence or a review of it.

    • john marks

      THANKS, Harry.

      Bricasti’s M15 is not for everybody. It seems to me that many people use music playback in the home mostly as an accompaniment to other activities that are the real focus: hobbies, housework, or hobnobbing. For that kind of listener, I recommend they buy a Sonos Play 5 ($500) and be done with it and be happy. But if you want to get the most out of “A Love Supreme,” or “Harvest,” or Tennstedt’s Chicago live Mahler 1, you need to spend more.

      A career high point for me was being asked to specify the office stereos for the President and SVP Music, Media, and Technology of Steinway & Sons. News flash: even the Home of the Immortals has a budget to stay within. The total of the various MSRPs was under $5000 per system. If you want to read about that, please visit:

      And then search “Steinway” to get the other three installments.

      My position is that anyone who in theory can afford a good used Mazda Miata can afford a fine-audio system (but perhaps not both in the same time frame).

      If I had to pick a buy-it-once-and-buy-it-right system for most music-loving “normal” people, one viable setup would be ATC’s SCM19A self-powered loudspeakers ($10,000/pr.) driven by Grace Design’s m905 digital monitor controller ($3500), with tier-appropriate cables and some acoustical treatments. All said and done for less than the price of the Bricasti amp alone.

      On the other hand, I was a consultant for the architectural acoustics for a playback room at a private university, and the loudspeakers they chose had a US MSRP of over $200,000 a pair. More than six feet tall, circa 700 pounds each. Fortunately, of modular construction. Even so, uncrating them was an adventure.

      In any event, the heathen will rage, but I don’t think they will talk John Mayer out of his happiness with the Bricasti gear he owns. Nor, the Boston Symphony. Nor, the winners of the most recent Classical Engineering Grammy.

      Nor I.


      John Marks
      Post Author

  7. Dave L

    There’s a lot here I don’t understand, but the back and forth commenting reminds me of the photography forums. Just type “sensor equivalency” and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of engineer types arguing for days.

    I do enjoy the breadth of topics presented here and thanks to Jack I’m close to pulling the trigger on an Astell & Kern Kann which along with DAC I never heard of 3 weeks ago.

  8. tyates

    I’ve liked some of John Mark’s other articles, but this is a little too unfocused for me. I prefer going down the rock-blues-jazz musical rabbit hole with him.

    And sure, I know the iconic Maxell ad has the guy sitting in his chair in front of the speaker, but if he really cared about music he’d just do what I do and get some big ugly headphones.

    Also as a computer coder / hacker / gamer I am deeply skeptical of premium digital equipment like many people. My reaction when I see something that gives you a marginal performance improvement for 2x-3x or even 10x the price isn’t interest or envy, it’s laughter. If you’re on the other side of that debate fine, but you have to at least acknowledge where many of your readers are and either counter it or just get them to accept that’s where you both are and look past the divide if possible.

  9. Dirty Dingus McGee

    Will this high dollar equipment improve the playback quality of an 8-track player?

    Asking for a friend. 🙂

  10. bbakkerr

    One thing I definitely learned here is that John Marks is the post author.

    Many people who like high-end stuff of any kind have heard rhapsodic claims selling it and have had to sort out where the truth lies. In particular, claims regarding high-end audio equipment abound, and I don’t see how anyone can avoid being at least a bit skeptical about them. I can see how John Marks (Post Author) can take this the wrong way, but to simply amp up his haughtiness weakens whatever case he tried to make originally.

    The commenters above aren’t “the heathen” for disagreeing with a self-interested salesman. Maybe they disagreed in a rude way, but hey, this is the wild world of the internet. These are not the hallowed halls of Stereophile.

    On the post itself, it was a wandering tale of an amplifier, cables and recordings. Alright, I have some new information to consider, which I will add to the heap.

    I guess if one feels that they have special information to share, do so, and they are laughed at, disregarded, or disrespected by the “uneducated”, they become annoyed at having to fight the “ignorance.” Wow. Exchanges of this sort have happened before in the world.

    I am sure John Mayer is happy with his Bricasti gear, just as I am sure other artists are happy without using Bricasti. I’d like to try it, along with the cables. Why not?!

    I give the original article a C, the comments a B.

    • CJinSD

      Mind you the author could have simply said, “I used my Esperanto Blue cable to ensure the amp had an accurate signal to amplify,” and nobody would have said boo about his advertorial practices.

      I have a hard time with audiophiles based on knowing a bunch of Marxist twits who used their stereos as social yardsticks, in lieu of what would have likely been a pathetic dick measuring contest. Being Marxists, they only measured inputs. It mattered not what their future arson investigations sounded like, merely what they spent. Two of them turned blue in the face when a number of party guests complimented the sound and features of my Kenwood receiver and Infinity Studio Monitor loudspeakers. These guys had spent every moment of every party they hosted boring everyone to death about their latest hi-fi additions, and I think the people who complimented my stereo knew exactly what they were doing. Priceless. They thoroughly soured me on esoteric garbage.

      Ironically, I actually can tell good sound from smile curves and Dolby effects. I’ve heard it, at least a few times. Once was when I hooked a decent Yamaha receiver to a pair of NHT speakers circa 1995. I was in the stereo business at the time, and I had a piano demo cd playing in a Carver cd player with tube digital to analog converters. To my amazement, I was snapped back to the last time I’d heard piano music live, which had been about a decade earlier. I could remember a number of things about that day, such was the truth of the sound reproduced by that system. The other time that comes to mind also involved NHT speakers. That time it was the opening of Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Feel the Pain.’ The song starts with a champagne cork popping, and the sound provided by NHT model 2s driven by a high-current amp made me taste the last champagne I’d had . Nothing else has ever come close, and I’ve been exposed to stereos that cost as much as anything alluded to in this thread.

      What I can tell is the difference between a good CD and the MP3s people feed to their signal processors and surround sound systems. MP3s get the idea across, but they’re about as artistic as an author who adopts a seventy-five word vocabulary.

  11. DirtRoads

    I don’t have the hearing or the cash for this article to make any difference to me. No dog in the fight, so I’m posting a nothing post just to say that. 🙂

  12. Opaddington

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