The ULTIMATE ELECTRONICS Issue! 10 Amps Reviewed! The

The ULTIMATE ELECTRONICS Issue! 10 Amps Reviewed! The
The ULTIMATE ELECTRONICS Issue! 10 Amps Reviewed!
MBL’s Corona C51 Integrated Amp
Focal’s Terrific New
$1500 Bookshelf Speaker
Rotel’s Amazing
$799 DAC
State-of-the-Art Amp
and Preamp from Pass Labs
MUSIC FROM Bruce Springsteen, the Allman Brothers,
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Miles Davis, & Yes
PLUS: The Best High-Res Downloads!
Power & Grace
By Neil Gader, photography by Cody Hamilton
Corona Series electronics made a cameo
appearance in my review in Issue 228 of
the MBL 120 Radialstrahler, the breathtaking three-way
compact. Regretfully, because I was running short on space,
I could only touch on the general strengths of the C11 preamp, C21 stereo amplifier, and C31 CD player (The C31 was
a 2013 Golden Ear recipient, Issue 235). Nonetheless I was
mightily impressed with how well Corona performed under
the ultra-high-resolution scrutiny of the Radialstrahler—a
speaker that doesn’t suffer fools lightly and has been known
to un-ceremoniously show the door to any component it
finds lacking. (And sadly I have to report my health insurance doesn’t cover the withdrawal symptoms I’ve endured
since the MBL 120s departed.) Long story short, when I was
offered a second opportunity with a Corona amp—in this instance the newly released C51 integrated—I grabbed it.
A quick refresher: Corona is, technically
speaking, MBL’s entry-level series. “Entry
level” is an expression I use guardedly since
every product by this Berlin-based firm is
built to a level that most components only
aspire to in their electronic dreams. Corona
was also much more than a replacement
for the aging Classic line (circa 2006). MBL
began with a clean sheet of paper in visual
design, software implementation, and technical innovation. With the release of the
¤7,500 C51, Corona is now a complete fivecomponent range that also includes the C31
CD transport/DAC, C11 preamp, C21 stereo
amplifier, and C15 monoblock (500W into 4
To my eye, Corona screams elegance—almost Japanese in its graceful, uncluttered
simplicity. The top-panel roofline inclines slightly toward its center, merging in a heavy
plated panel that waterfalls into the C15’s polished front-panel display, which is lit in a
brilliant fluorescent blue. On top, the MBL’s crest nests in a soft “corona” of light that
doubles as a top-mounted dimmer for the front-panel display. There are no saw-tooth
heatsinks, protrusions, or hard edges to mar the flowing, symmetrical lines of its chassis.
So singular is the Corona profile that my own friends, comfortable in the presence of
fancy electronics, would invariably cast their approving eyes on the Corona gear and ask,
“Wow, what is that?” And tactilely the C51 immerses you in the experience of owning
a fine audio instrument. It may not matter to everyone how a knob turns or a button
releases, or how deep the luster of a chrome accent appears, but it does to me. The C51
may not be ultra-expensive, but it makes you feel rich with every look and touch.
Corona amplifiers, like the C51, are solid-state, and designed around LASA technology
(for Linear Analog Switching Amplifier), an advanced implementation of switch-mode
Class D topology and the brainchild of chief designer Jürgen Reis (see Sidebar). The
C51 outputs a healthy 180Wpc into 8 ohms and 300Wpc into 4 ohms—specs that are
identical to those of the C21 stereo amplifier I’d encountered previously. The C51’s
preamp stage uses a sophisticated analog volume control operable via a motorized
potentiometer. Front-panel functions are reserved for small soft-touch buttons; the only
resident knob is the volume control. All other functions are shuttled off to the remote
control. Connectivity is excellent. The back panel is roomy and well laid out; its RCA and
XLR jacks are widely spaced. An optional phonostage is available at extra cost (€1,089).
Firmware updating is accessible via a standard SD slot on the back panel.
In my first go-round with the C11 preamp, I complained that the front-panel volume
indicator was too small, virtually useless for fine volume adjustments from any real
distance. I’d like to think that MBL took to heart my earlier criticism because that issue
has been solved on the C51. Now when a volume change is requested, the software
boldly increases the size of the numerical display for a few seconds. MBL, my eyeballs
thank you.
Over the years I’ve heard all the elitist pro and con arguments about the integrated
amplifier. That they are ho-hum, one-chassis compromises, with average parts-quality and
puffed-up power specs, while separates, on the other hand, are technological showcases
and super-sexy. Or, that integrated amps should be considered only in the interests of
saving space and saving money—a recipe for sissies, not real audiophiles—while only
dedicated separates take you down the true path to sonic nirvana. Fiddlesticks. Modern
integrated amps are models of the efficient use of space. Plus, by combining preamp
and amp sections, an entire bank of circuitry is eliminated along with the need for a
pair of interconnects and the sonic influence that brings to bear. While it’s true that
MBL’s Reis is a die-hard
analog guy (and an allaround nice guy, at that),
but he’s never ducked a
the tighter packaging can lead to thermal
issues and EMI/RFI concerns, cuttingedge designs like the C51 have answered
these Old School reservations.
MBL’s Reis is a die-hard analog guy
(and an all-around nice guy, at that), but
he’s never ducked a challenge. His stated
goal for Corona was for it to match the
qualities of the fine, traditional linear
amplifiers MBL has been producing for
years. In sonics, you can throw away every
concern you might have harbored about
Class D. Most particularly, the C51 takes
the frequency extremes and makes them
its playground.
From the start, it’s remarkably quiet,
with a deep velvet-black background,
ideal for musical images to spring from
(a quality that is unmistakably MBL). Its
midrange is rich in color and texture,
with vocals especially seeming to carry
a few extra ounces of weight and air. It has some vestigial, almost brooding warmth
with all sorts of familiar material. Even
and bloom in the bottom octaves, reminiscent of MBL’s Reference line amps, though
bad edits in the recording studio revealed
the C51 in comparison has a slightly lighter character. Though still armed with deep
themselves more prominently.
dynamic reserves and powerful bass slam, it’s more cruiserweight than heavyweight.
When a company produces what is arBass response is classic “define and control.” The C51 articulates with ease the cascade
guably the premiere omnidirectional loudof tympani across the back of the stage during Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man
speaker in the world, as MBL does with its
[Reference Recordings]. It may not be as resonantly expansive in the bottom octave as,
Radialstrahler range, it doesn’t take a big
for example, the Vitus Audio RI-100, but it is still extremely satisfying in its vise-like
leap to assume it knows a little something
grip on the funamentals of string bass, tympani, and organ. It is also instructive to note
about measuring acoustic space. I think
that in the many months I’ve had the C51 on hand it never gave me the feeling that it
the main issue that listening to the C51
was squelching dynamics, or otherwise close to reaching the limits of its power output,
provoked in me was the way it integrated
regardless of the speaker system it was driving.
individual criteria—frequency, imaging,
Its top end is top-notch—airily extended with none of early Class D’s constriction
dynamics, transients—weaving them toand cloaking of the treble. Reis’ version is open, airy, and sweet where appropriate, and
gether into a seamless tapestry of reprohighly charged and aggressive when called upon. And frankly it has to be; Radialstrahler
duced sound. Every image found a home
tweeters are cruelly revealing of mediocre electronics. When I played Arturo Delmoni’s
within the full context of the recording. At
Solo Violin Works [JMR Records], the C51 sang with an open, unconstricted voice. It
a concert, we experience this context first,
captured the speed, sweetness, and even, at times, sinewy aggression of an instrument
the entirety of the performance with our
famous for filling the world’s largest halls, unamplified.
eyes as well as our ears. But back at home
A brief bias alert: My gauge for treble resolution and freedom from distortion is
we tend to focus on the more granular. We
piano. It’s a sound I understand well. I play the instrument a bit and refer to it constantly.
When I play I’m reminded of the complexity of color and texture that one can hear
with every strike of the hammers—a sound interwoven of wood, felt, and steel from the
softest pianissimos to the grandest fortissimos. When I put on my reviewer’s hat, some of
my favorite recorded passages are Evgeny Kissin’s reading of Glinka’s The Lark [RCA],
and for something completely different, the piano solo during jazz songstress’ Holly
Cole’s rendition of “I Can See Clearly” [Alert]. I’ve played these tracks countless times,
and they never fail to elicit differences from every component. Consider the passage
in The Lark where a series of high-pitched trills is struck so firmly and rapidly that the
overlapping harmonics create a bell-like ringing effect—at least, they do ideally. With
uncanny agility, the C51 reproduces the individual notes of this
cue without any smearing, even as the entire sequence becomes
enveloped in a mist of ringing harmonics. Similarly, the transient
bursts of aggressive bowing and resultant treble harmonics
from Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin during Tchaikovsky’s Violin
Concerto [DG] revealed a top end that was not only smooth,
Power: 180Wpc into 8 ohms
extended, and grain-free, but dancing with a level of transient life
(300Wpc into 4 ohms)
Sota Cosmos Series IV
that tickled the senses.
Inputs: Five RCA, one XLR
turntable; SME V tonearm;
Although the C51 will happily oblige, reality in audio
Outputs: Two RCA
Sumiko Palo Santos, Air Tight
reproduction is not about being driven back in a listening chair by
PC-3; Parasound JC 3 phono;
the report of a bass drum or achieving Black Sabbath levels in a
45cm x 44.5cm x 14.5cm
Synergistic Element Tungsten/
den. My listening bias veers consistently in the direction of lowerWeight: 23kg
CTS, Wireworld Platinum
level transparency, resolving power, and soundstage replication.
Price: ¤7,500 in standard
Series 7, Analysis-Plus Big
And this is where the C51 proves its mettle. It has the touch of
finishes; palinux or gold, ¤950; Silver Oval interconnect &
the classicist in the import it places on the finest inner details.
side panels in piano finish,
speaker cables; AudioQuest
An example is pianist Valentina Lisitsa performing a selection of
¤600; center section in piano
Coffee USB & Firewire,
Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt [Naxos]. There’s a passage where
finish ¤190; phono module,
Synergistic Tesla & Audience
Ms. Lisitsa plays a repetitive, upper-octave melodic line that has
¤1,089; balanced input, ¤387
Au24 SE phono & powerChord,
always had a brief indiscernible artifact hanging over a note that
Wireworld Platinum power
just precedes a pause. It is an anomaly that, had the recording
MBL AKustikgeräte
cords. Mapleshade record
been on a vinyl LP, would have sounded like mistracking. In
GmbH & Co. KG
any event, I’d end up cocking my head to one side in frustration
Kurfürstendamm 182,
and asking myself, “What is that?” The C51 had the answer—
10707 Berlin, Germany
Ms. Lisitsa was taking a breath on the beat—a quick inhalation,
+49 30 230 05840
probably unconscious, that alighted on that one note. Revelations
like this occurred consistently throughout my listening sessions
Reality in audio
reproduction is not about
being driven back in a
listening chair by the report
of a bass drum.
Comment on this article at
MBL’s Unique Twist on the
Switching Amplifier: LASA
begin breaking down the recording into
component pieces. Some of this is provoked by the recording process itself, but
another part of it goes to an amp’s resolution and transparency—its retrieval power,
if you will.
The C51 has the ability to take all the
carved up segments from a recording and
reattach them in a way that makes the result indistinguishable from the original.
Many times I’ve listened to the intro to Audra McDonald’s “Lay Down Your Head”
[Nonesuch] for the delicate opening harp
figure and the chamber group that joins
in shortly thereafter, but only a handful
of amps, including the C51, allow me to
hear the entirety of the immersive space
and image relationships that this recording offers. Even on a typical pop recording like Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”
[Sony Music], I could hear the angelic
backing chorus as it wafted through the
black acoustic space beside Cohen’s dark
baritone and mingled with a calliope-like
whistle, a vamping piano pad, and a tick
of percussive accent in a way that shamed
the multitrack artifice of many of today’s
other recording studios.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t
matter what kind of prism you use to
judge the C51. It has more power reserves
than the majority of audiophiles will
ever need. It’s impeccably proportioned
and lavishly appointed. Its musicality,
needless to say, is first-rate. Separates may
continue to hold sway at the more esoteric
levels of the high end, but I’d gladly put
the mbl C51 head-to-head with any of
them. And let’s see who owes whom an
apology. Corona may be entry-level for
MBL, but it’s one world-class, sexy beast
in my book.
Flexibility figures big in the Corona family of components. All are equipped
with the MBL Smart Link protocol to centralize various functions. When cojoined via Ethernet cabling (owner-supplied), Smart Link enables simultaneous
display dimming for all linked components plus control of inputs. For example,
the input buttons on the remote control could simultaneously change inputs
on the C51 as well as select inputs for CD/SPDIF/Optical/USB aboard the
C31 CD transport/DAC. Additionally, menu-driven front-panel controls allow
personalization of input names according to user preference, and unused inputs
can be deactivated. A single push of a button will also sequentially power on
or off the Corona family—when powering down, the display playfully wishes
the user “good-bye,” even though I kind of hoped for an “auf Wiedersehen.”
Standby power consumption is in the environmentally friendly range below 1VA.
Corona represents MBL’s and Jürgen Reis’ reinvention of the Class D or
switching output stage. Anchored by a robust linear (non-switch-mode) power
supply, a toroidal transformer features electrostatic shielding to prevent stray
coupling to the ground potential of the circuit. It virtually eliminates stray
currents between Corona Line devices providing a quiet environment for the
use of unbalanced RCA wiring. The transformer also features a magnetic mumetal outer shell to protect the circuit from magnetic interference.
The secret sauce, however, is the LASA technology. According to Reis, LASA
technology overcomes a series of key hurdles that impede typical switching
amps. He points out that traditional Class D tends to be load-dependant, so
that it will literally sound different depending upon the impedance shifts it
encounters with a specific loudspeaker. (All loudspeakers have impedance
variations with frequency, some dramatic.)
The LASA switching technology mimics the low output impedance of a linear
output stage, with the same high damping factor (low output resistance) at
high frequencies that typical Class D designs normally only enjoy at low ones,
plus the same low harmonic distortion values across the entire frequency
bandwidth. To paraphrase, “The result is that frequency response will not
change with load and THD will not vary with frequency.” The takeaway is
that the “speaker load will not affect the LASA amp and the LASA amp won’t
attenuate the loudspeaker’s frequency response.” In fact, Reis points out that
the only similarity MBL claims with contemporary Class D is low heat radiation.
And Reis continues to explore the boundaries of LASA technology. At this
year’s CES, MBL introduced the rejiggered Noble Line, which uses an even
more advanced LASA 2.0 technology. In my CES report in Issue 242 I wrote
that according to Reis, LASA 2.0 is now capable of driving complex impedances
and phase-angle swings, and delivering more current than ever before. And
power output is up, as well. This represents a stunning shift away from
traditional Class AB designs and underscores MBL’s increasing confidence and
commitment to its unique LASA/Class D topology.
Posted with permission from NextScreen, LLC. All rights reserved. © 2014. Any unauthorized duplication of this article is strictly prohibited.
For more information on use of this content, contact Wright’s Media at 877-652-5295.
MBL: The Pinnacle of Audio Engineering
MBL Akustikgeräte’s products (such as the
X-treme Reference System) are designed by
a team of talented engineers. Chief Developer
Jürgen Reis has been responsible for shaping the
acoustic imprint of all MBL products for nearly
thirty years. Time and again MBL has developed
jewels of sound whose naturalness and synergy
far exceed those of any established standards. For
all employees at MBL, technically sophisticated
circuitry is just the first step in a long journey of
listening and research in the quest for the perfect
audio component. Guided by long experience as a
musician and sound engineer, Jürgen knows that
in the world of natural sound, with its multilayered
patterns and interwoven structures, there are
dimensions that lie beyond anything he learned in
electrical engineering textbooks. Development of
MBL products can only be concluded when the act
of listening to music transcends the technical and
blossoms into a highly emotional experience.
MBL products are manufactured in our own
factory outside Berlin. To build a tweeter capable
of reproducing every nuance of natural sound –
and this component serves as an example of every
product we produce – MBL had to strike out in
new directions and pursue them through to their
ultimate consequence. When we found no tweeter
on the market capable of performance we knew was
possible, Jürgen invented our own carbon-based
Radial Tweeter – a true masterpiece of engineering
and craftsmanship. It takes no less than twenty-one
hours before even a single MBL radial chassis has
completed all its stages in the production process.
Vertical integration at MBL is one hundred percent
because only in our own factory can we build
such high precision components to our exacting
standards. Obviously we could save a great deal of
money and effort if we took a standard dome tweeter
that comes off a sub-supplier’s mass production
line at the rate of nearly one a minute. But if we did,
we’d be depriving you of the enjoyment of too much
sonic bliss.
MBL products are distributed in North America
through a new subsidiary company, MBL North
America, Inc., which is designed to bring you service
commensurate with MBL performance. Please visit
our website or contact us for further information on
the MBL experience, whether for a single component,
Radialstrahler speaker, or a complete MBL system.
MBL Akustikgeräte GmbH & Co. KG
Tel: +49(0)30 23 00 584 0 email: web:
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