Review: Aesthetix Calypso Line Stage Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

Aesthetix Calypso Line Stage
There are two components that have created truly revolutionary improvements in my system. The first being the Plinius SA-102 Class-A, 125 watt power amplifier. The second arrived in my system four months ago, the Aesthetix Calypso Line Stage. This is a true breakthrough product in audio electronics, and I’m thrilled to have found it.

Product description:
The Aesthetix Calypso is a relatively affordable ($4500) pre-amp. Considering all it has achieved in my system, not to mention the rave reviews and the 2004 TAS product of the year award winner, it could be considered a bargain. The Calypso is a merger of two long held audio philosophies not often successfully combined, solid state and vacuum tubes. The Aesthetix president and designer Jim White, was a chief designer at Theta, an often regarded leader in solid state audio circuitry. He began designing pre-amplifiers over ten years ago on the side, combining the latest revolutions in microprocessor-based control circuitry and vacuum tube amplification. The result was a hideously complex and astronomically expensive phono stage, the Io; and a Reference line stage, the Callisto. These incredible preamps use between 16 and 32 tubes each, and in their ultimate configuration, create a six chassis 270lb component preamp.
The Calypso has taken the lessons learned from these projects and created a one box, extremely simple but highly sophisticated line stage. (Note the Calypso has a sister unit for phone stage, it’s called the Rhea) The design begins with a massive power supply consisting of a high voltage transformer, heater transformer and a high voltage choke. All the magnetic components are shielded by a stainless steel cover. The power supply is regulated with a discrete transistor-based regulator. The Calypso uses only the highest quality components, including Roederstein resistors, RelCap film capacitors, Mercury Magnetics transformers and Nichicon audio grade electrolytic capacitors. My unit came with a complement of two Sovtek 12AX7WB and two 6922 vacuum tubes.
The Calypso is loaded with features and provides complete flexibility. There are five inputs, two outputs and a tape loop. The five inputs are accessed by five discrete buttons on the faceplate or through the very simple to use remote. Volume is controlled on the faceplate or though the remote. Balance is controllable by adjusting the volume level on either the left or right channel, when the two are set to the same level, the volume controls both channels simultaneously. There are mute and absolute phase features again accessible through the face plate or remote as is the bypass feature. When the bypass is engaged the unit’s unity gain is neutral, this allows for a home theater processor or other component to override the volume control. All inputs and outputs are available for either XLR (balanced) or RCA (single-ended) connections. When not playing music, the pre-amp can be put into “standby” mode allowing for all the electronics to remain powered up, except the vacuum tube plates. The only feature not available that some may wish to have is a mono switch.
My system uses the RCA connections. I should mention at this point that this unit is truly balanced. Looking inside the unit by easily removing the top (no tools required!) the design is amazingly simple and clean. There are two identical circuit boards sitting side by side towards the back of the unit. They are separated by a stainless steel “U” shaped trough that houses the power cord running from the back plate to the power supply located in the front of the unit just behind the faceplate. This “U” shape also is utilized as a structural element making for a more rigid chasse and thus less vibration. (This is brilliant in my mind. Placing the power supply and transformers in the front allows for short direct circuits working their way towards the rear panel and thus the outputs. So straight forward, but not something I’d seen before.) The tubes are easy to access and have ample room to simply remove and insert them into their sockets.

The long wait:
This unit has been a hot item over the past six months, and because of that, most of us who own one waited a fair amount for it to arrive. I was no exception, when I ordered mine the factory was six to eight weeks back logged, but I was able to catch a break when someone canceled their order, so I only waited three weeks.
During the wait time a friend of mine and I played a group of recording including the Minnesota Orchestra, female vocals like Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers, piano and vocals of Patricia Barber and Norah Jones, along with some favorite songs by Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Sarah K. and Jerry Garcia. See later in the review for a detailed listing of recordings used during our audition.
I selected these recordings to test the “weaknesses and strengths” of my present system. First was the piano, I wanted a less electronic sounding piano. I was looking to duplicate the analog sound of a felt hammer hitting a tight string in a wood box. In my experience this is the hardest instrument for our systems to reproduce. My system was good with the Placette active line stage (old pre-amp) I had been using for the past three years, but on some recordings I sensed an electronic glare. Growing up with a mother who played a piano often, I am very sensitive to the poor reproduction that most stereos posses.
A second aspect of my system with the Placette that I hoped to improve on was the extreme high frequencies. Soprano singers in the top octave and violins were both every “excited” in my system. I would not term it as glaring, bright or harsh, but I would not term it as 100% natural sounding either. It possesses just a bit more energy than I like, leaving me feeling the system was just short of being annoying. It was not however fatiguing at all, so were talking a very fine line here, and something that over time I had “tuned” to an acceptable level through footers and isolation, along with room tuning. My hope for the new pre-amp was that it would retain the clarity and transparency, but at the same time back off the harsh “edge” of the high frequency threshold. So again, the music selected were pieces that pushed the limits of my systems ability on the raw edge of high fidelity.
Another aspect I hoped to improve upon was depth of soundstage. If my system had a weakness, it was in this area. I had once tried a pair of Cary 300B SET amps that showed me what was possible with my room. I have tried to recreate the sense of depth and definition in the soundstage that these magical amps created. But try as I might I never truly achieved that final “something” the Cary’s had produced.
These were the areas I hoped to improve on, but I was just as concerned that I not loose the 95% of what my system does right. Bass definition is flawless in my system, never slow or muddy. Always quick, focused and yet natural. Midrange on my system has always contained the same magic as the 300B SET amps, and I would not accept anything less. Definition is perfect. Transparency, clarity, pace and tempo are beyond reproach and again I was unwilling to lose even the most subtle bit of these qualities. Color, tone and timber are endless, natural and very neutral in their characteristics. For the most part, my system was perfect, except…
The final aspect of my system is emotion. I demand a system that allows me to “feel” emotion. This can be emotion created through an instrument, but for me its best presented through female vocals. I want to feel as though I can touch the singer, and comfort their pain. I want to see their tear or witness the curl of the mouth as they laugh. I want atmosphere, nuances so subtle that only the eighth time through the track am I able to truly define what I’m sensing. This is life played out through electronics, but never revealing itself as anything artificial, a facsimile of life being lived. This is perfection in two channel stereo, and this is what I expect to achieve.

My existing system:
A quick note on my system as it stood prior to the arrival of the Aesthetix. My system starts with a Sony SCD-1 (heavily modified by Richard Kern and Audiocom-UK) fed through a Great Northern Sound “Passive Audio Signal Isolator” into a Placette active line stage. I then have two Plinius SA-102 amplifiers bi-amped vertically. Meaning one amp drives the bass and the second amp the mid-range and tweeters. Both amps are played in true class A. The speakers remain Dunlavy IV-A. (No longer manufactured) All interconnects and speaker wires are Nordost Valhalla. Power cables include Nordost Valhalla (SCD-1), David Elrod ESP-2 Signature (Pre-amp) and NBS Statement (amplifiers). I use two dedicated circuits with 8 ga. wires, one for the amps and one to a Shunyata Research Hydra power conditioner fed by an Anaconda power cord. Both Circuits use Wattgate 381 outlets.
My racks sit on 4” sandstone slabs that rest on Aurios Pro isolators. Both my Mana (SCD-1) and Apollo racks are spiked to the slabs. Each component sits on a shelf “sandwich” comprised of 3/8” Aluminum shelves resting on upturned spikes from the rack. I then use a sheet of anti-static “Bubble Wrap” with a Neuance shelf sitting on the “Bubble Wrap.” The Hydra uses EAR feet between it and the Neuance shelf. The SCD-1 and both amps are supported by three Orchard Bay titanium cones (no longer available) and Aurios Pro isolators. The Placette sat on its factory footers, the Aesthetix sits on a “Tightrope” isolation system that in turn sits on a Neuance shelf “sandwich” The Dunlavy IV-A speakers sit on #3 Black Diamond Racing pucks and #4 BDR cones that then sit on Aurios Pros. Both the base and midrange/tweeter binding posts use Walker Audio High Definition Links II. All cables are raised off the floor using Cable Elevators
I use AudioPrism Quite-line system on the refrigerator, computer and T.V. outlets to cancel line noise at the source. I have home made acoustic panels in the vertical corners with triangle panels at the ceiling corners. I have one round home made acoustic column between me and an untreated window. Other windows are treated with Marigo window dots and wool curtains. The wood floors have thick wool rugs. I use an assortment of Walker Audio brass and lead pucks on much of the equipment and on two wood furniture pieces in the room. My SCD-1 has a ten pound ½” steel plate treated with s anti-vibration coating on its top and sides and a rubber sheet glued to the bottom. It then sits on four round rubber disks. (feet) The 14’-6” x 20’-0” room is used only for the stereo and is isolated from the house with French doors. The doors are covers by acoustic panels on the room side to reduce the glass surface. The house side of the glass appears as natural glass in that there is a dark surface behind the glass. The speakers are placed on the long wall approx. nine feet apart and 1/5 into the room. The listening chair is 1/3 into the room. Behind the listening chair is a teddy bear collection (acoustic bears) with book shelves on each side. There are a number of other “acoustic bears” that have been positioned in very specific locations to help focus the system. (REALLY!) Now you all have the evidence needed, I am certifiably nuts.
As you may have guest, I’m a bit anal when it comes to my stereo, but I must defend myself by saying this system is that sensitive. The tiniest change in footers or isolation can make a major difference in some tonal aspect of the presentation. A two pound weight on the top of a component might create focus that was not present before, or it might create a smear or pace change that is unacceptable. I tell you this not to show “how great my system is, or how crazy I am,” but rather to help demonstrate that when I’m talking about improving the existing qualities, I’m not discussing whole sale alterations. I’m only looking for the final couple percent. The minutiae of system synergy, the stuff I’d be willing to say most of the people even here at Audiogon would find overboard, not to mention the masses. My friends think I’m nuts to try to get more from my system, but they continue to drop their jaw when a new power cord is introduced, or when I went from MDF shelves to aluminum shelves as the bottom layer of my shelf “sandwich.”
So as you might have guessed, changing a major component is big doings, and the changes can be difficult to resolve without the proper audition method and enough time to understand what we are hearing.

The box arrives:
As I opened the well packaged 39 pound pre-amp and set it on it’s shelf I was pleased with its brushed aluminum faceplate, and clean simple design. It actually appeared to be the skinny brother to my SCD-1. Both have simple clean faces with a darkened plastic (LED readout) panel in the middle. It has a number of discrete brushed aluminum triangle buttons. (They look like little ‘A’s similar to their logo) I quickly reviewed the easy to read instructions and proceeded to hook it into the system. Next I put on my XLO burn in disc, track #9 on repeat, volume set low enough to not drive us all crazy; and I pulled the French doors closed, leaving the system to burn itself in.
Ten days; that’s my norm, ten days at 24/7 burn in before I begin listening. At least that’s the time I give before I make any type of evaluation. Ten days of waiting and waiting and waiting, but wait… What’s this? OK, I couldn’t wait, one day and I had to listen. I spent two hours with a very mixed impression. I was not impressed at all, so I thought I better wait a bit longer. Three more days passed, but I still had the same disappointment. As day nine came, 200 hours of time, it was time to try to figure out what was going on. A huge amount of hash/ tube rush noise. The noise was loud enough to really interfere on the quieter passages of music. I called the dealer and he sent a new set of Sovtek tubes overnight, but what the heck, noise and popping from the right channel. I tried mixing the two sets of 12AX7 tubes to find the quietest combination; as I waited for yet a third pair of tubes from the dealer. These were better, but not at all acceptable. One more set; this time from a different source; again noise and distortion.
I was frustrated, angry and extremely disappointed. I voiced my complaints to the distributor via e-mail and he quickly forwarded my comments to Aesthetix. I was impressed with the personal service, but all the service in the world will not make this thing sound better. I than started researching on Audiogon and Audio Asylum, quickly discovering I was not alone. There were three distinct paths people were taking. One was the “I’ll live with it “camp. In my overly sensitive system, this was simply not possible. The second route was send it back with a letter expressing my incredible anger and disappointment about lost time and money in shipping. The third route was tube rolling.
Cool, I’m a solid state guy, so tube rolling has always intrigued me, but I’ve never actually had the opportunity. (I should say I never tried it, I have owned Marantz, Conrad Johnson, and Kora tube pre-amps in the past) So as I most always do, I jumped in with all four feet. (Yes all four feet, I’m still a carnivore) I ordered one set of most every current production 12AX7, along with a select group of NOS tubes (New Old Stock). Believe me, I tried them all RCA, Tungsol, GE, Raytheon, Westinghouse, Telefunken, Phillips (Holland), Mullard, Siemens, Amperex Bugle Boy (Holland) and Brimer England. Each had a different and highly unique characteristic, although I tried to use only well matched low hour tubes to test, some were not perfect and thus my results were somewhat flawed. I began finding two things, no one tube had everything, it was more finding which tube set accomplished the most without giving up anything. The Mullard were very soft and warm. Phillips Holland was a bit to edgy for my taste. The Amperex Bugle Boy Holland (same plant) was excellent, but I was unable to find a well matched pair with low hours. The same can be said for the Telefunken, “maybe the perfect tube” but I could not find a well matched quite pair. The others were all lesser in many areas and were ruled out quickly.
Then I found an extremely rare, perfectly matched, very low hour pair of the Mullard 10M gold pin. This is the “cream of the crop” for the 12AX7 tube, and arguably the best 12AX7 ever made. The Mullard 10M gold pin, had every positive aspect of every tube I used; and to my ear it had no downside. To my wallet however there is a huge downside. A perfectly matched pair of NOS Mullard 10M gold pin tubes will cost $$$, and from the big reputable dealers well over $500. Needless to say, these tubes are extremely rare, but the results are beyond any expectation I had for this or any other pre-amp; and it brought my remaining components to levels I previously thought impossible. This was going to become an exceptionally exciting addition to my music enjoyment; but it was going to take a lot of work to fully integrate it into my system. Not only the time finding the right tubes, but it was going to require some subtle tweaking of the footers and room acoustics to find the best performance. Find it I did, and I will try to explain those changes and how this pre-amp differs from what I thought was as good as it gets when I was using the Placette. (I will not go into detail on the various tweaks we made, partly because I just don’t remember all of them)

The sound:
I tried to describe the aspects I had hoped to improve upon above, now let me focus on the results. It’s wrong to focus on each minute aspect of the listening experience in that that is not how we enjoy music, but for the purpose of reviewing a product one almost has to focus on the micro before we can understand the macro.
Piano, remember this was my first priority to improve upon. Piano reproduction through a digital front end has never been completely satisfying in my experience. I’ve heard a great number of very high quality systems, but piano always has a glare of electronics. I’m not talking about an annoying level, just not 100% natural. I have heard quality piano reproduction on analog systems, but at the cost of the downsides of analog. The Aesthetix with the 10M tube is 100% right on. Every note in every octave is natural and clean with the accurate quality of resonance as notes decay within the space. A warmth on the midrange and a shimmer in the higher octaves all sound as I know a real piano to sound. AMAZING, simply amazing! I’ve pulled out disks that before were fatiguing and/ or electronic sounding only to discover an enjoyment beyond reproach. Now I’m not about to tell you poorly recorded piano suddenly sound natural and analog, no they still sound like crap, only softer. Patricia Barber and I have fallen in love all over again, now with a new fondness of her immense talent. Every subtle nuance of her piano comes across as if she were in the room. A muting of the strings by the foot pedal comes through as if I were seeing it with my eyes.
As far as soprano vocals and what might be considered harsh un-listenable high octave vocals, well they now have body. They remain unsightly high and transparent, but there is a wholeness to these ultra high frequencies that make them real and human. Some of my favorite vocalists, Emmylou Harris, Kasey Chambers and Alison Krauss are real, not harsh in the slightest, but defiantly not warm and fuzzy either. Their simply real, natural and extremely emotion filled. The violin, another “voice” that is known to create problems for digital systems to accurate reproduce, sounds like a string and wood instrument. The warmth of the violin’s wooden body is present through even the highest notes produced. “Stradivarius on Gold CD“ has always been a good disk to test the system with, but the piano and violin together can be a fatiguing experience if the entire disk is played front to back. Not now, it allows me to enjoy the instruments as I would in a well designed symphony hall. “It’s just lovely, glowing and crisp.”
Yea, yea, yea. The world is now perfect and the weather is always sunny and 72 degrees; in Minnesota no less. No I’m not going that far, but the Aesthetix with the Mullard 10M 12AX7 tube in my system is as close to perfect as I could ever expect to achieve. I lost none of the transparency I received from the ultra clean Placette. The tempo matched my expectations, meaning perfect, but tube selection did largely affect the tempo and pace; with the standard Mullard tubes being sluggish. The 10M and the Telefunken were every bit as right as live music, and every bit as good as my old system.. The bass remains tight, well focused and to my surprise not at all slowed or muddied. The soundstage is amazing! The detail and focus is laser clear but not at all artificial. I can see much deeper into the soundstage and find definition with instruments set behind others. The three-dimensionality is every bit as good as I remember the Cary’s to be, but with better focus.

A quick look back:
The major strengths of my system, the Sony SCD-1, Plinius SA-102 amps and Dunlavy IV-A speakers are their combined ability to accurately reproduce music. The sudden attack of the lead edge of a note, through the subtle decay as the note fades from our ears is as close to live as I’ve found possible. The Placette pre-amp was the perfect fit in that it is invisible; it is so transparent and so neutral that it adds nothing, thus allowing the qualities of my other components to be heard. The “weakness” of my system is in my cabling; they are so revealing and so demanding that even the slightest flaw in the components is brought to light. Some people claim the Valhalla cables are lean, or overly bright, and frankly that is true, but only because of the weaknesses (or characteristics) of the components they are attached to.
I understand the contradiction of my statement above. I’m calling the absolutely crystal clear Valhalla’s a weakness and the “flaws” of my components the strengths. In fact this is not a contradiction, for every component made is flawed in some way, perfection comes when a synergy of components counter balances each others weaknesses creating a balance of sonic qualities. So with the ultra clean, ultra transparent, ultra neutral personality of the Placette, my system ran on the edge between bright and edgy and well reproduced high frequencies. My system was not ever fatiguing or objectionable, but it was always right at that edge. I learned to tame my systems potential through footers and tweaks making it very enjoyable, but at the same time taking something away from its ultimate abilities.
Now I’ve replaced the Placette with the Aesthetix line stage and after resolving some tube issues I’m more in love with my system than ever. All the qualities I described in the prior paragraph remain, but now something has been “added” to make it more whole, more real and human. Yes I said “added” for there is no question this pre-amp is adding its own sonic signature (if only through the tubes). It is not neutral like my past pre-amp, but it’s a good thing. The sonic qualities match my other components perfectly; each apparently strengthening the other to climax in what I believe to be as real a presentation as possible with today’s electronics. Not only does it appear to mate sonically with what my system is trying to achieve, but the “added” weight, body, sole or whatever we call it has filled in the thin areas of the Valhalla cabling. No longer do I sense any of those comments about thin, dry or bright. They are simply crystal clear and faster than superman on steroids.
This may be the best place to address one concern regarding system matching with the Aesthetix. I have heard a lot of people express problems (or wondering if they will have problems) in matching the output impedance which is 300 ohms SE and 600 ohms balanced, with a recommended load of >50K ohms. My amps input is 100K ohms, and in theory might create a matching problem. I have little knowledge of what I just said, but I can tell you it is not an issue in my system. For the record, the absolute phase input impedance is 40K ohms SE and 80K ohms balanced. Maximum input is 3.5v (SE), 7.0v RMS balanced.

Musical interpretation and impressions:
So you’ve been asking yourselves for the past few minutes; why the odd eclectic music selection for the listening/ auditioning sessions. I will clarify that now. Below is a detailed list of the specific cuts we used during our many nights of auditioning. Every night we played all of these for the specific reasons described below. It is possible to skip this section if you do not want this level of detail.

Copland 100; Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. Reference Recordings
Track #1 Fanfare for the Common Man
It should be noted that the two Minnesota Orchestra recordings were used because we both know Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and have heard these selections live in the Hall where they were recorded. Our criterion was to attempt to duplicate the experience of being in the Hall itself. Bass! The quality of the bass kettle drums leading edge note and the reverberation and decay through the hall was all we were looking for here. The result was excellent, the scale of the image is huge and the reverberation time was right on.
Mephisto & Co; Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings
Track #4 Mussorsky; Night on Bald Mountain
We were looking for the complex congested passages that combine with extreme impact and attack over the course of this track. From the piccolo through bass kettle drum during full orchestral crescendo, each section of the orchestra was clear and visible. The test was to see how the system was able to resolve all the information and retain realistic imaging and impact of the bass kettle drum. Never has my system been so close, it is possible to close your eyes and transform the mind to the Hall itself. One issue, my system places you in row ten, but due to the parents I have, I am not privileged enough to have inherited those seats, thus the previous track, “Fanfare for the Common Man”. In other words, row 63, far right!
The Pizza Tapes; Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Tony Rice
Tracks # 5- Shady Jam and #6- Shady Grove
I just love these two tracks and the midrange qualities of two guitar greats and the best mandolin player is wonderful. I learn nothing other than the midrange and imaging is as good as ever.
Patricia Barber; Café Blue. SACD
Track #4 Romanesque
Vocal and midrange purity, this track must sound analog and natural and it did.
Track # 11 Nardis
Here I’m looking for piano qualities and imaging of soundstage. I was listening for the attack of the lead edge of notes, transients, rhythm and pace of drums and piano.
Patricia Barber; Modern Cool, SACD
Track #4, Constantinople
I was looking at a number of issues here. Bass definition, imaging and emotion with the bow on stand up bass. Clarity and imaging of percussions were far better than I’d had before. The brass horn needed to be brash, crisp, sharp but not glaring or harsh. Wow, it was better than live.
Track #11 Postmodern Blues
It’s all about bass definition, attack and impact.
Lucinda Williams; Essence.
Tracks #3 I Envy the Wind, #4 Blue, #6 Are You Down, #8 Reason to Cry, #11 Broken Butterflies.
OK, I have a love affair with Lucinda, and have seen her live in local intimate clubs. I know her live and I know her recordings. Lucinda is all about emotion, imaging of pain, intricate vocal qualities, subtle inflections that create a mental image. EMOTION! Damn she’s got it here. My system is so liquid, so musical and so detailed. I can truthfully say, Lucinda is more enjoyable on my system than live. I can make the same comment regarding Patricia too, which I have also seen in local clubs. The Aesthetix has transformed my system to pure magic.
Kasey Chambers, The Captain, Import 1999 EMI Music Australia (huge sonic improvement between import and domestic release)
Tracks #3 This Flower, #5 These Pines, #7 Southern Kind of Life.
Kasey Chambers; Barricades and Brickwalls. Import 2001 EMI Music Australia
Tracks #2 Not pretty enough, #7 Million Tears, #11 Falling Into You.
If you’re not familiar with Kasey, you’re missing something very special. She is a young untamed soprano Lucinda Williams. Her emotions are pure, raw, on the edge and extremely involving. The sonic qualities of her domestic recordings are in my opinion un-listenable, but her imports are quite clean. Her voice is edgy and at times painfully bright through my Placette, but perfectly honest and raw through the Aesthetix. This is why I love music, the emotion and drama; it’s pure and perfect with the Aesthetix.
Emmylou Harris; Spyboy.
Track #1 Songbird
Air, atmosphere, transparency and presence, these are adjectives I would use to describe the voice of Emmylou. I again am amazed at what I’m receiving from my system.
Alison Krauss + Union Station; New Favorites. SACD,
Tracks #1 Let Me Touch You for Awhile, #7 I’m Gone
Alison has a very airy pure voice and her band is large and complex. Pulling all this together and yet retaining the delicacy of Alison’s voice is not that much to ask, yet to make it “life like and alive” is another thing. The Aesthetix again has added a wholeness to these tracks, bringing life where there was non before.
Norah Jones; Come Fly with Me. SACD
Track #3 Cold Cold Heart
This is simple; the piano has always appeared a bit “hot” in my system. Now it has body, pure and natural tonality and amazingly clear detail.
Sara K; Hobo
Tracks #3 Brick House, #7 Oh Well, #8 Hobo
It was fun to bring out this old favorite. This recording is so good and clean that it’s always sounded great. What I looked for was depth and imaging, along with a sense of space. On Hobo, there are a number of solo voices of instruments (harmonica, triangle and shakers) that have always been present, but now they have three-dimensional form and location within the soundstage. The triangle’s crystalline qualities are sudden and pure with a decay that lasts forever; it’s just simply amazing.

What more could I possibly say. This line stage stands alone in a very congested category for audiophiles’ toys. This is not a tube pre-amp, it’s much to fast and transparent for that. The bass is far to defined and solid to be tube, the attack is far too sharp to categorize this unit with any other tube product. But wait, this is clearly not a solid state transistor based pre-amp. There possesses far too much body and tonal richness to be transistors. There is fullness; a humanness that is simply not possible with solid state products. The detail is there, but the edges form a true three dimensional image, verses the solid state two dimensional razors edge. The transient attack is something only solid state can create, but the holographic imaging is only possible with tubes. I can tell you; the Aesthetix Calypso is perfect!
But that is not quite true, sadly this review is not of the stock unit, but of a unit with a very rare, and relatively expensive Mullard 10M Gold Pin, 12AX7 tube set. I can not tell you how the stock unit sounds or performs; because after four sets of Sovtek tubes, I never did find a quite, not micro phonic matched set. I wish I could tell you the unit you receive out of the box is all mine is, and it may well be. I just can’t share that experience personally. I can say this could be the perfect pre-amp, and it may well be straight out of the box, I simply do not know. I have been told by my dealer and the distributor that there was a bad batch of tubes that came through, and that problem no long exists. Well if that’s true, thank God that’s over. Sadly I know a lot of potential customers moved on frustrated and left with a very bad taste for Aesthetix products.
Lucky for me I believed all the high praise, and found a way around a bad tube batch. I hope for the sake of all of us the Sovtek tube (Please read comments from the manufacture below to learn how they resolved this issue) does all my unit can do, if that is true, this is the last line stage you may ever own! If it requires NOS tubes to create the ultimate magic, it will still be the last line stage you’ll own. It is perfect!

Thank you for listening, J.D.

Manufacturers Comments:
I emailed a draft of this review to the distributor who in turn forwarded it on the Aesthetix. Lucky for all of us, the president and founder of Aesthetix took the time to help us learn how the tube problem arose, how they solved it and the enormous quality control they employ at the factory. Please take the time to read his response.

Dear Mr. MacRae,

Thank you for the detailed and insightful review of the Calypso, and your tremendous patience!

Regarding the tubes, a bit of history:

I originally designed the Io around the Sovtek 12AX7WA, then went to the 12AX7WB when it came out, because I thought they sounded better. For many years, the Io was sold that way, with very few problems with the 12AX7WB. When I set out to design the Calypso, I based its gain stage around the same tube, based on that past successful experience. The operating conditions are identical to that used in the Io (plate voltage, plate current, etc.) For about the first 6-8 months of production, we had almost no tube problems with the Calypso. Then, they started cropping up, as noise like you encountered. This was our worst nightmare, because we thoroughly evaluated the units before they shipped. They were going noisy after leaving our facility. We immediately started burning the tubes in longer and testing more thoroughly and stringently, but with little success. I looked into alternatives, but no tubes of current manufacture worked properly or to my satisfaction, so we stayed with the Sovteks and continued trying to find ways of culling tubes that would go noisy. Near the end of last year, we finally found a 12AX7 of current manufacture that sounded good and would remain noise free. We have since switched to that tube (Teslov E83CCS), and our tube noise issues have been drastically reduced.

Every tube that we use is tested. First we test them at the same operating conditions that they will be used in our units, and write down the pertinent characteristics. Then, we go through and match the tubes for gain and other parameters. They are then installed in production units and again tested for noise, matched gain and other operating characteristics. Next, the units are burned in for 100 hours and we evaluate the noise a few times during this period. Then there is a final listening evaluation that includes noise testing. The same basic procedure is used if we are replacing tubes in the field.

One aspect of all of my designs that contributes to more demands on the tubes is that I do not use any form of global negative feedback, as I believe it is damaging to sound quality. Feedback greatly reduces noise, distortion, tube matching requirements and output impedance. If the Calypso had global feedback, many of these tube problems would not have exhibited themselves. It is my decision that it is worth the pain and trouble to test and match tubes to achieve the sound quality described in your review.

As you wrote, the Calypso is a simple circuit. It basically consists of input switching, volume control, gain stage (12AX7), output stage (6922). Therefore, anything that happens in the 12AX7 goes directly to the power amp and will be heard.

Thank you again for your wonderful review, I enjoyed reading it.

Best regards,

Jim White

Associated gear
Sony SCD-1 (heavily modified by Richard Kern and Audiocom-UK) Placette active line stage
Two Plinius SA-102 amplifiers bi-amped vertically.
Dunlavy IV-A speakers.
All interconnects and speaker wires are Nordost Valhalla.

Similar products
None I know of
Terrific review.

I am pleased to hear that Jim may have found the solution for the noise my customers and I experienced. The IO Sig, Rhea, Calypso and Callisto Signature all had great potential, but at the time I carried the line, the noise was unbearable.

My experience with the JJ ECC83S validates Jim White's findings. They are certainly some of the best 12AX7 replacements I have encountered.

Good luck with the preamplifier and again the review was very thorough and your experience is appreciated.
Hi, Nice review!

Are those Cardas XLR & RCA caps on the back of your pre-amp?

Does the volume attenuator use descrete resistors like in the Callisto?

Hello, welcome to the happy musical world of Aesthetix. You clearly put a lot of effort into making this work for you and it really paid off. So few people give a product a chance like you did. Right on!

I have been running with an Io for almost 2 years now. The set of tubes I got with it exhibited no noise issues at all. It was so mighty nice. But after reading Albert Porter's reports here on the improvements with rube rolling, I replaced all the 12AX7's with old old Telefunkens; I was unprepared for the dramatic changes in the 3-dimensionality and harmonic richness. It truly was that amazing.

I live in the twin cities metro area and yes the weather is mighty nice now but it just means all these tubes will be making their presence known even greater on the warmer days.


Wow, thanks for the thorough review!! Great job!

So I just have one question: Are the acoustics better with the polar bear in place, and if so, where do I get one? OK, I guess that's two questions.

excellent review. I do not see any disclaimer. I assume you received no discount and have no affliation with the manufacturer or dealer. If I missed it in your review, my apology.
Kw6, yes they are Cardas caps on the RCA only
Jafox, we must figure out how to get together some time.
Jax2, yes, that is one of the “acoustic bears” and believe it or not, he does effect the sound, that is his best location. You will think I’m nuts, but I have spent nights tuning my room and my bears. My sister gave me this bear, he came in a box with air holes, for she knows what I know, bears breath!
Gregadd, no affiliation and I had never talked to Jim prior to this review. I had never spoken to the distributor prior to my tube issues, and I did not find any dealer who would discount the pre-amp when I bought it.
Hey Jadem6: Looks like I might have to try out some big bears in my room - maybe behind the Soundlabs instead of the Soundlab Sallies. I live in the twin cities west metro so throw me an email and I'm sure I will have some free weekend or evening time to have you come over for a listen. Always cool to try out other peoples' gear in our system when we live nearby.
Thanks for the nice review, Jadem6. Including Jim White's email about Aesthetix's design choices and search new manufacture tubes that will work over time in this circuit was very helpful and interesting. I suppose I've been lucky on tubes: I've used an Aethetix Io Signature for four years now with the stock Sovtek 12AX7 tubes and have had no tube noise issues. I can see why Jim must have been going nuts trying to resolve reports from the field. Glad to hear hear he's found the Teslovs as a better solution for currently manufactured tubes.

And, it sounds like I may be one of those rare birds who have come back to the stock tubes by choice after trying Telefunkens, Mullards and Sylvanias. For me, on complex orchestral classical music, the vintage tubes I tried just lost too much of what the Io is capable of delivering in terms of resolution, dynamics and shadings of timbre. Call me the outlier on this issue of rolling tubes, and best wishes to those who've found sonic improvements in the process.
Thanks for the wonderful review J.D. I am in the process of rolling tubes in the new Cary cd player and it's a long process. I know how time consuming your review must have been and I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us.
My sister gave me this bear, he came in a box with air holes, for she knows what I know, bears breath!

Wonderful - I bet I'd like your sister! What does the bear think of the Calypso? I guess he's not exactly in the best position to judge!

Thanks again for the thoughtful review. I went back and checked out some of your previous reviews and see that this one does not fall short of the high standards you've set. That's a very generous contribution to the community. I will definitely watch for more reviews and posts by you.

Marco, as you can see, my bear is very happy, and sometimes sings alone. He likes all types of music, even my wife’s Prince. Now that is quite a bear. The forty or so bears that are sitting behind me on a hutch that leaves the bears at ear level, all love the system and the fact that I share my sweet spot with them. The polar bear is quite humble and offered to take a bad focus spot for the enjoyment of the rest of us!

P.S. I have a platypus who thinks he's a bear behind me too. I just don't have the heart to tell him he's not a bear.


" Your review was very well written and very insightful. Thanks for an opportunity to view such well chosen words to express an attempt to assist other owners of this Pre - Amp.

This is a great deed that you've done.
As a means to help others to understand this products true value and it's hidden beauty which it has on it inside, as well as its outer shell.

Thank you guys for the kind words. you have no idea how nice it is to hear my review was meaningful. You make me feel very good, thanks.
JD- After reading your review (outstanding, BTW) and other comments on Aesthetix and my previous ownership of VAndersteen 3Asigs, I was excited to see that they were teamed up at the HE 2005 show in NYC last weekend. What a disappointment! Sound was flat and uninvolving, in a good sized room. Anyone with any ideas why that might be the case?
Sorry, J.D., I saw so much, i can't remember the source or amplification. Room was quite large, maybe 30-35 x 40 or 50.
I asked because this pre-amp is not a warm fuzzy unit, but it should have sounded fuller and more naturual than you are recalling. My guess it was the room! I've been working with a friend who has a large room and it just sucks the lower midrange out of the music. It does the same thing to my voice, so it's the room in his case. my guess is if you walked into that room and talked, it would not sound naturual.
I have been using a Aesthetix Janus in a 16' x 34' room with no room size issues.
The room at HE05 was maybe greater then 50' in length?
It sounds to me like JD is saying that there may have been a room acoustics issue. Can't imagine that with Vandy 5As would need a small room. Just the opposite. I know that the VAndy "sound" is not a detailed in your face hi-fi sound, but this was just plain flat and dull. I really wanted to like that set-up, believe me. Looking for an explanation, because the speaker and pre-amp are well liked by many.
Excellent review, read it on the asylum as well, thanks for the insight and for posting Jim's response. I went with a BAT because I had heard bad things about the noise issues in the Calypso even though it is a great piece. I am selling the BAT going to the Aesthetix and will try your tube suggestions as well. How are the TC's? I am a MN native transplanted to Vegas, it was 102 here today!! I would trade you weather, I have to cool the room off then shut off the A/C so I don't constantly have noise in my room, when I get really into the music it can get a bit warm after a while!
Hi JD, you want to come over and have a listen to the Callisto with the updated tubes and try the WalkerAudio contact treatment? I also changed the cartridge loading on the Io and shuffled some things around in the room so I thnk you'd like the improvements. Just let me know.
I have mushrooms growing between my toes and my neighbor is collecting animals. We’ve had weeks of rain with no end in sight. The trees and flowers are beautiful, but some sun would be nice. I could not take the summer in Vagas, but I love the proximity to southern Utah and Northern Arizona. Outdoor life must be fun for you. If you ever get back “home” let me know, I’ll buy you dinner and music.
John, I'll give you a call
I was just wondering if the newer versions of the Calypso with the change out of tubes has made a difference on quieting down the preamp? Are the changed out stock tubes quieter?
Nathanu, I just received my Calypso back from Jim White and it is the quietest it has been. All you hear is a very faint tube rush if you place your ear close to the speakers. It is about as quiet now as I have heard from any tubed linestage.
The only time it was really noisy was when the Sovtek 12ax7wb's were going bad. It was more of a crackling and hissing sound. I had ordered several pair of new ones and they were silent when installed. I really think some of the tubes were just bad from the get go. Hopefully, this will be the permanent cure.
It had developed a hum in the left channel that wouldn't go away no matter what I tried. I finally sent it back. Aesthetix cured whatever ailed it and it is wisper quiet now. It is by far the quietest it has been. No hum and the slightest of slight tube rush (it can't be heard unless you are within an inch of the tweeter and even then it is very faint.)
I understand they gutted it and installed the latest boards and tubes. Whatever they did, it has certainly made me a happy camper. It operates without a glitch and has the sound I was hoping for. It did take about 100+ hours for it to open up. It has continued to get better with time.
Wow, what a great write up. Especially from a disenchanted Stereophile subscriber.
I do have one question not addressed in your review. Any issues with the volume section?
88 1db steps sounds very course to me. Seems like it would be very diificult to "hone in" on just the right volume, especially at higher volume levels. One bump up=too loud, one bump down=too low. Any thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Perfectionist, if memory serves, decibles were defined to approximate the threshold of the average person's ability to hear a difference in sound pressure levels. The difference, for example, between 70.0 and 70.5 db cannot generally be perceived but the difference between 70 and 71 can be perceived. Of course, our audiophile ears are better trained and we may notice more than the average joe (though not the average josephine). Regardless, a 1 db step should allow for pretty good control. A stepped attenuator "could" ("would", if designed right) allow for a cleaner signal path. Other opinions are both welcome and inevitable ;-) My memory has failed me before so I look forward to hearing from other, more knowledgeable, folks.
The Callisto's level controls have only 45 positions. Another 10 or 20 might be nice, but the 45-position control works mighty fine to get a sound level that works for me.
J.D.: Another thorough and meaningful review, thanks!
It's good to read about a product and feel that one knows quite a lot about it before even auditioning... the very useful tips on tweaking its operation are an added bonus.
My experience is the steps are just about right. There have been times where I have wished I had a half step, but really, this is such a minor commplaint. It's very easy to except it if it is a problem.
After living with the unit since August I find the volume control to be just fine. There is a way to cut it by 6db which makes the volume control much more sensitive, but it takes quite a bit to ramp up the volume. I was also concerned that there may be a softening of dynamics, so I returned it back to stock. It is a wonderful pre which I'm sure I'll have for many years to come.

JD, I tried Tungsram, Brimar, and GE Longplate 12ax7's, the latter of which I now run as I feel it's a great rock 'n roll tube. This doesn't seem to be a popular tube, but out of the tubes I mentioned (and also stock Tesla's), I liked them best as the majority of music I listen to is rock. I know many like the Tungs, but I tried two different pairs and couldn't stand them. One experienced Agon member felt I had some bad and/or bogus Tung's, but they came from a very reputable source. I'm not willing, nor do I have the patience to tube roll to the extent that you did. Anyway, I'm curious to know if you rolled the 6922's and if so, what were your findings???
Aaudiophile: Thanks for your email today. I believe the Calypso has always had 88 settings. For some people, this may still not be enough. But my comment above was that even with the CALLISTO having only 45 steps, this works well for me. Finer increments would be nice at times but this minor "shortcoming" is easily overshadowed by the many magical musical wonders produced by this product. Cheers.
Nicly done with excellent detail; I feel as though I already auditioned this piece!! I also love the Plinius gear JD and admire your ability to put into words your experiances. What Ive done is roll my hometheatre and two channel system into one setting using 2 sa 102s in mono with a plinius 100m3 on surrounds and p8 for center channel, Ive also added theyre m8 preamp and find your tastes in music very similar to my own ie. Barber; great accoustic sets with tremendous drums[ think 102s]. Allison Krauss vocals with Jerry Douglass on dobro steel guitar; great test on mid to upper frequencies ect...You also mentioned Kora- which I own theyre Hermes DAC, Ive also tuberolled in this unit taking out sovtechs which sounded thin and sterile, cheap solid state if you will' and inserted Mullard 1964 nos E88cc which gave my system that "breath of life". Forever searching; just recently rolled again this time trying Pearl Mullard cryovalve cv2492/E88cc gold pin 1975 nos and although its still early I can pretty much say this tube is even lower in its microphonic noise floor than previous with same characteristics overall, have read some good and bad in regards to cryovalves perhaps I just recieved a good pair but theyve deffinatly settled down any extra sparkle in my top end [cleaner] as well as helping me hear deeper into the stage.As you found in your review of this preamp theres something to be said for tuberolling, bad production runs, personal tastes and system synergy all being factors but when one gets it right as youve seemingly done it makes all that effort worthwhile. Again; a enjoyable read, thanks for taking the time to share your views, one last note J.D. a disc Ive found very enjoyable recently is Bill Frisells East/ West featuring Victor Krauss [ Allisons brother] on bass and Kenny Wolleson on drums recorded live to two track with excellent guitar work and amazingly different string tones by Frisell, if your into contemporary jazz at all this is worth note. Repeated listening has its merits. PS- Plinius and signal tubes, magic! Regards Tim W.
I have indeed been doing some trial and error (tube rolling) with the 6922. I was under the false impression that this tube set (V2 socket) would have little affect. I was grossly wrong. After reading “Joe’s tube lore” (Google Joe’s tube lore) at Audio Asylum on both the 12AX7’s and the 6922’s I discovered a world of knowledge beyond my capabilities.

I took the comments from Joe and tried a few things. First off I should comment that one of Joe’s personal favorite replacement tubes for the 12AX7 was the GE JG5751 military black plate triple mica; Premium industrial grade. I tried this tube, and apparently the gain is too high for the Calypso for it was extremely noisy. I sent the tube back to have it tested, and the seller confirmed it was dead quite in his pre-amp. Otherwise I have found Joe’s recommendations to be spot on. As Perfectionist has pointed out, the gain can be altered on the pre-amp with a set of jumpers on the circuit board. This can be set at -6dB and -12dB, but like his concern, I felt the change to the 12AX7’s performance was compromised.

As for the 6922, I tried three from his favorite list. The Mullard (1960) gold pin. This is a relatively affordable and easily found tube. I also tried the Siemens E188CC (1959) very rare and apparently quite different than the Siemens E88CC. The third tube I tried to replace the 1959 Russian tube I initially used when I first bought the Calypso was 1960 Phillips Holland SQ “mini watt”. This is the tube I liked best for the Calypso. It has all the extension and imaging of the Siemens with a slightly closed in soundstage in comparison. The Siemens has a huge soundstage with excellent separation, but I felt a bit glassy or grainy in comparison to the other two. I should back up and say that these three tube completely blew the Russian tube off the face of the earth. The Mullard was not much more expensive than the Russian, so clearly this is an excellent consideration. I should also say the step from the Sovtek to the Russian was quite noticeable in imaging and extension.

So back to the three tubes I have tried. The Mullard was the least exciting for my taste and system. It is laid back and thick in relationship to the other two. It clearly is not fair to call this a thick or laid back tube however. The Mullard will appeal to most people who are looking for a slight addition of “tube” warmth, body, realism color and hue. The Mullard has this ability, and if I had not tried the Phillips Holland SQ “mini watt” I would feel the Mullard was as good a compromise as I could get. Again the Siemens is more open, quicker, more dynamic, but at the cost of some grain. The Phillips is a bit of each but super clear. The Phillips does not have quite the depth and body of the Mullard, but it was not necessary to my ears. The Phillips still provides the “tube realism” I was looking for and it retains ALL the sparkle, and liveliness I want. Imaging is fabulous, soundstage depth is quite good and body is believable.

If I needed to make a blank recommendation it is the Phillips Holland. This is not a super rare, ungodly expensive tube. I found a wonderful supplier, and a great guy, who is in the Netherlands that has a great selection of tubes. His name is Tom Heertjes and I strongly recommend contacting him for any Phillips Holland tube needs.

I do not intend to spend any more money/energy trying to find a better tube for the V2 socket, but I would love to hear any other people’s experiences.

Hi Tim,
Thank you for the kind words. I used to have two SA-102 amps in a vertical bi-amp configuration. (running both in stereo. I found the mono block configuration to be a bit too aggressive for my room and ears. I imagine your set-up as described is wonderful...
Bill Frisell is an incredible musician, and has a wide array of styles. My favorite of his disks (that I have heard) is "Nashville." This is a recording he made with the very best studio musicians in the Nashville scene. INCREADABLE acoustic music! I'll check out East/West.
Thanks Jade for taking the time to evaluate and write
your findings, and your help on my breakin issue.
On tubes I have 2 methods that work well ,I have the 60s Siemens e83ccs special military grade ,and they equal or
better the best Telefunkins, used in tandum with the White label U.S PQ 6922 .Suberb detail,this is all dependant on speakers and other equpment .I also have the 1955 MUllard smoothplate square getters ,which are as good or better than the Great 10-M , with the Telefunkin ec88cc-6922
or for a little warmer perspective , the 6922 use the
PQ Amperex. for around $600 you can add 10%+ of musical satisfaction, also the tubes need about 100 hours to seat properly, and any New Aesthetics product needs a solid
450 hours to Fully run in, Yes 450 that is correct.
J.D. I just read your review on the Plinius sa 102 WOW!! Some may believe owners of gear are biased in theyre descriptios of sound and I suppose theyre is some truth to that, along with well heeled entitlement; however your description of the sa series '100' were very honest-I especially value your admitting to liking the Plinius mk11s overall sound but not being able to accept the noise levels from power supplies.This is unquestionably ones WANTING to continue using in ones system but through "subjective evaluation" not keeping a otherwise wonderful component. Thats -Integrity-.Its not a wonder this review is posted on Plinius web site,what an honor, and I agree- this amplifier is perfect.If you ever write for one of the scribes as I currently get Stereophile, Absolute Sound and Hi FI + Ill be sure to read- your pretty darn informative and entertaining.Also one other artist I noticed you listen to that -yes- I also started listening to in the last two years is Lucinda Williams as I just saw her live at the Vicks theatre in Chicago last October-wonderful;just purchased her Live at Fillmore; ironically listening to this when hurricane Katrina devestated the gulf coast and was hearing many of the "towns" in this music on the news at this time, and she still put on a thrilling show. No dought one of todays top songwriters and artists.Also her Live in Austin DVD is great through my surround system.My apoligies for posting outside the scope, Im still kind of getting used to this wonderful web site, again regards, all my best in the new year.Tim W.
I must take a second to thank you Tim for the extremely kind thoughts. I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity to write for any magazines or E-review sites because I have not pursued it. I enjoy this hobby more than anything I am able to due given my extremely limited physical abilities. What adds a great deal to the enjoyment for me is sharing the experiences with friends. This of course means friends who come over, or I go to their homes, but it also includes the Audiogon community. This is a very special group of people; and I have grown to love a great deal of the members through our sharing both on site and privately. We are blessed to have a site that has people with passion yet do not feel the need to attack like they do at AA. For that purpose I enjoy writing my opinions and experiences with the equipment I am lucky enough to try.

The only reason an opportunity to write for Stereophile or the like, would be to access to equipment I can only access now through my wallet. It would also be a great ego boast, for a short time. I think the biggest problem I would find is the politics and the difficulty of not sounding like ever piece of equipment is the best ever. This is hard for me now, not to sound like everything I own is the best, so I can only imagine how it works when there is political/advertising pressure added to the issue.

Here at Audiogon, the access to equipment by many who write reviews is far more limited, but the site management has no influence, so there is the potential for more honest writing. At any rate, I thank you so much for your comments; hearing them means a lot to me.


BTY, I too had the same thoughts after Katrina. It was fun to know the towns not through a vast geographical knowledge, but an emotional one that we get from Lucinda. Do you live in Chicago? Perhaps you get up to Minneapolis?
No No No.....JD must not become a magazine contributor. And he's way too brutally honest to survive long in that world anyway. And besides that, he's all mine I tell you, he's all mine!

If there was ever one person who has influenced me so much and taught me more in the last year than anyone else in this hobby, it would be JD. But this unfortunately comes at a high price.

Tim, what you never want to do is invite JD to your home. If he sees all your power cables in a big blob to the wall outlet you will see smoke coming from his ears. If he sees your components are merely sitting on Ikea tables, he just circles the room shaking his head. "We must do something about the vibration under your preamp. Are you still using those interconnects? What? Where is your power conditioner? There's a lot of echo in here. Hmmmm, your imaging is off....the singer is supposed to be just to the left of center - not way over there!"

Yes, JD is about as radical a perfectionist in this hobby as they get. But I must say, each and every time that I attended to one of his observations and/or suggestions, the end result was a significant step up in my system's musical performance. He is a troublemaker indeed but one that anybody would greatly benefit from if they took note of what he has to suggest and share.

Initially I thought he was just being nice so that I would give him the Callisto for Christmas. But I have since learned he truly is a nice guy.


I hope your still checking into this thread. I have tried now four separate times to write you back, but I am receiving a delivery delay and/or failure message. I'm so sorry I can not get back to you directly. To contact Jim White go to the Aesthetix page under manufacturers here at Audiogon. There is a contact link you can use. This is not Jim's direct email, but if you make it clear your asking for his help it will get to him. I do however think we need to figure out what is wrong with your email. It's possible he will not get through either.

I will continue to try to send you my phone number and Jim's email every other day. Once you do actually receive it let me know.