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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 CD player, Pro-Ject 2 Xperience turntable w/ Nagaoka MP30 cartridge [in for review], Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/AT95E cartridge.
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Stingray, Audio Zone AMP-1, Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage, Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V and Amp 2SE [in for review].
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Living Voice Auditorium [in for review], Green Mountain Audio Callisto [in for review]
Cables: DH Labs Revelation interconnects, Q10 speaker cables, Audience Maestro interconnects and speaker cables, Chord Odyssey biwire speaker cable [on loan], Audience powerChord AC cables, GutWire AC cables.
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand.
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon.
Sundry accessories: Pro-Ject Speed Box, Pro-Ject Speed Box SE [in for review], Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Audience Auric Illuminator MkII, GutWire Notepads and SoundPads, Duende Criatura Tube Rings, dedicated AC line with Isoclean ICP-002 outlet, homebrew acoustic treatments.
Room size: 13' x 17' x 8'
Review Component Retails: DP200 $2,495; CDT200 $1,495; M200 $3,895/pr.

While cruising the halls of HE2004 looking for affordable sonic bliss, I stumbled across the April Music room. Instead of being assaulted by 120dB sound levels and overpriced gold-plated audio jewelry, this was a quiet, relaxed room featuring Stello's understated line of affordable electronics. Moreover, it all sounded quite good to me, the price was right and the equipment seemed well built and very versatile. Thus duly impressed, I requested samples for review.

In their native South Korea, April Music is a well-known importer of hifi products. The entry-level Stello and upscale Eximus lines mark April Music's initial foray onto the world stage of manufacturing. The Stello line appears to be an entry level, mid-priced marque that focuses on obtaining an optimum mix of performance, features and price. Shortly before last Christmas, I received a full Stello system for

review, the DP200 preamp/DAC, CDT200 CD transport and a pair of M200 mono amplifiers. The M200 is a 200-watt high-current monaural power amplifier fed by a single 1KVA shielded toroidal transformer and reservoir bank totaling out at 100,000uF. Power output into four ohms is 350 wpc. Inputs are single-ended and balanced (XLR). Remote power switching is available via a 12V trigger input. The input stage uses J-FETs while six Sanken bipolar transistors occupy the output stage. The innards further include proprietary "bias stabilization" and multiple protection circuits. Along with the i/o ports, the rear panel contains an IEC power inlet and main power switch. The front adds a standby rocker and an LED that will turn from red to green when fully powered up.

The DP200 DAC/preamp is the star of this combo and the proverbial Swiss army knife of two-channel preamps. It includes an on-board 24/192 up-sampling DAC, an ADC that upsamples analog input signals to 24-bit/96Hkz (ideal for making digital copies of LPs and radio broadcasts), and an MM/MC phono stage with four gain settings and six impedance loadings. Volume control is via a digital 120-step control chip accessible via front panel and remote. According to April Music's website, "in addition to the normal preamplifier functions of input routing and volume control, the DP200 allows direct digital connection of various digital sources such as CD transports, computer hard drives and satellite receivers. An internal upsampling D/A converter supports formats of up to 24bit/ 192kHz sampling frequency. The upsampling rates are user selectable either from the front panel or from the fully featured remote control. Settings of bypass, 48kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz can be chosen for the preferred sound quality". Around back, there are three pairs of analog inputs, one balanced (XLR) and two unbalanced (RCA). Outputs consist of one balanced (XLR) and one unbalanced (RCA) pair. Digital inputs include two coax, one AES/EBU and one Toslink. There are also three digital outputs: Toslink, AES/EBU and coax. The DP200 can be used as a stand-alone DAC and/or phono preamp via a small switch on the rear panel. Is this beast versatile or what? Wait, I'm not done yet.
A Home Theater bypass loop allows the preamp to be used at fixed gain with an external multi-channel processor providing volume control for all speakers in a multi-channel system. All inputs, volume, mute, bypass and upsampling are controlled via a solid metal system remote. It also controls the CDT200 transport as well as any RC5 (Philips) coded CD player/transport. And I almost forgot the onboard headphone amp - darn fine-sounding too. The front panel sports a two-line alphanumeric display to indicate volume setting, input and output modes and upsampling status. Seven buttons control power/standby, input, bypass, record and volume.

The CDT200 utilizes a Philips VAM1210 transport mechanism and is fully compatible with all CD, CD-R and

CD-RW audio discs. Digital outputs consist of AES/EBU (XLR),Toslink, BNC coax and RCA coax connections. April Music claims, "proprietary transmission circuitries get the most out of audio signals with no loss or audible noise, resulting in a fully involving listening experience". While all features of the CDT200 are accessible from the DP200's system remote, a separate remote is included with the transport for those using it with other manufacturers' equipment. The transport offers all the programming and display features one would expect in today's age of consumer convenience.

Overall, build quality is quite decent and all components are attractive to the eye and easy to operate. In fact, I really did not require the manuals. Fit and finish were not quite up to the same standards as for example Bryston but commensurate with the asking price. My only minor gripe is the slightly rough finish and a couple of sharp edges here and there. Operationally, the Stello system was remarkably easy to use. The control features of the DP200 were especially intuitive. However, I believe the system remote would benefit from adopting a user-friendlier button layout. The displays of the DP200 and CDT200 are well organized and easy to read from across the room. Binding posts and signal connections are tight, well arranged and apparently of exceptional quality. Solely based on appearance and functionality, the Stello system offers audiophiles one heck of an impressive package. Of course this would be all for naught if the resultant sound quality blew chunks but rest assured it did not.

I did have trouble with the transport and one of the monoblocks, however. The CDT200 arrived DOA and one of the monoblocks stopped working after about an hour's play. I suspect shipping damage killed the transport - as soon as I removed it from the box, I could hear something rattling inside. While it would power up, it refused to read any discs. As for the amps, one M200 shut itself down after an hour. Upon unplugging the unit and removing the cover, I noticed
that one of the 20,000uf power reservoir caps had self-destructed. I have no idea why it failed but seriously doubt shipping damage was the culprit. On the other hand, the M200's protection circuitry worked as advertised. It prevented signal reaching the speaker outputs and the amp would automatically go into protection whenever I tried to power it back up. That was a darn sight better than with some other brands.

Upon notifying April Music and within a few days, I received an entirely new system directly from South Korea, all carefully packed in a wooded crate. This time, I experienced no problems whatsoever. While appreciative of April Music's speedy response, I doubted the average consumer would be treated in the same manner. I asked Stello's PR guy Adam Sohmer what standard protocol is for consumers in similar circumstances. He replied that non-functioning units are returned to the local distributor for repair or outright replacement depending on the nature of the problem.

I used the Stello gear as a complete system and the DP200 in fixed mode as a stand-alone DAC and phono section with other components I had on hand. I initially relished the thought of blasting out the likes of AC/DC at insane volumes with a pair of 200-watt transistor monos in my listening room but surprisingly, the M200s seemed reluctant to kick out the jams. In fact, they were remarkably smooth and refined, pretty much what I remembered from the Stereophile show. While it has become reviewer cliché to describe modern solid-state amps as having tube-like qualities, nobody would confuse the M200s for a pair of tube monos. While they lean to the cooler, drier side typical of solid-state amplification, I noted little of the bleached-out chalky grain that seems to afflict most of the breed in this price range. While fleshed out, solid and controlled, the bottom end was not as
extended and powerful as I have heard with other solid-state amps. The treble range was relatively sweet and silky rather than extended, the all-important midrange smooth, warm, focused and relatively grain-free.

If the M200s never grew as big and coarse on rock material as I wanted, they certainly exhibited a fine sense of rhythm and flow with fairly well delineated dynamics. Complex musical lines in large-scale orchestral works were well rendered and I do not recall them becoming confused or congested unless cranked up to very high levels.

The complete Stello system delivered the goods on large-scale orchestral mayhem such as Bruckner's unfinished yet towering masterpiece, the 9th symphony [Teldec 46746]. Tympani had good weight and impact. Strings did not grate or coarsen though they were perhaps a little wiry and harmonically slightly thin but not enough to become bothersome. Especially the DAC section will tell you exactly what is going on with your recordings. On lesser samples, the aforementioned characteristics were clearly audible. Wilco's debut album A.M. [Reprise 45857] is a decent collection of songs yet ultimately let down by its poor recorded sound. A.M. is

notably thin, flat and displays an annoying edge. With the Stello, you will hear exactly what's wrong with this troublesome disc but on the other hand, you won't be reaching for the sick bucket either. The smooth, silky top end won't let you. In addition, there is just a hint of warmth in the mids that prevents the bland, colorless, vivisectionist approach all too common with most similarly priced solid-state gear I've heard.

However, well-recorded discs such as Renaud Garcia-Fons' Navigatore [Enja 9418-2] sounded fantastic without missing anything. It all sounded transparent and clean without grain or edge. If you have not heard of Garcia-Fons, do try to track down his CDs. His 5-string double bass playing is truly astounding. His arrangements include just about every genre of music and feature a wide assortment of instruments and tone colors that many listeners accustomed to more traditional Western styles will find quite breathtaking.

The svelte boxes from South Korea also performed admirably on sparsely recorded discs such as a newly released recording of Bach's Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, played by Canadians Thomas Ehnes and Luc Beausejour [Analekta 2-9829]. I again noted a slightly thin mien of timbre but unless you are a card-carrying tuboholic, I don't think this would register as a problem. The harpsichord was clean and percussive without sounding clangy or blurred. The violin was perhaps not as full-bodied as with my Manley Labs Stingray but certainly not bright or edgy. Or perhaps this recording is a little lighter and thinner than I think it is and the Stello did a better job of allowing me to hear that?

The monos performed well with all the speakers I had on hand and had no problems driving any of them. The Green Mountain Audio Callistos in particular were a wide-open window on Stello's sonic signature [review forthcoming]. The Living Voice Auditoriums were a little richer and warmer in nature yet still upbeat and expressive, my Meadowlark Kestrels occupying the middle ground. Regardless of speakers used, higher volumes turned the sonics a little too hard and thin. I suspected a little odd-order distortion of creeping in at higher power. Keep the wick at sensible levels and all will be fine.

Soundstage width was exceptional as was image placement. However, soundstage depth was fairly close to the plane of whatever loudspeaker I used. These are not amps that will light up the entire stage. For that, one would require a larger budget or perhaps, some glowing glass. I compared the CDT200 transport with my Cairn Fog as transport and found little to differentiate. The Fog would make a decent transport for a future DAC upgrade. However, I did note considerably more definition, bass slam and overall coherence when I compared the Stello to my significantly less expensive Rotel RCD-971. Up 'til now, I have never really believed transports would sound that different but the Rotel was clearly left behind.

I did not have other power amps on hand to get a sense of the DP200's performance as a stand-alone preamp. What I can say is that it's a remarkably flexible component and did not appear to intrude in an adverse way when used with the M200s or as a dedicated DAC. What really stood out was the latter's upsampling chops. Like the French Cairn, here finally was an upsampling device that actually sounded quite musical and did not impede PRAT or overlay an annoying edge on music playback. Compared to the leaner Fog, the DP200 was noticeably fuller and exhibited considerably tauter and more powerful bass. I also thought it improved dimensionality.

Flipping through the DP200's various sampling rate options via the remote, I was surprised how audible these differences were. As I increased the bit/sampling rate, I noted greater transparency along with a more open and sweeter treble range. Ambient detail retrieval kicked up a notch or two as well. Mind you, these were not huge improvements but nevertheless, very noticeable and worthwhile in my opinion. I left the DP200 on 24/192 for the bulk of this review. Listening to the recently remastered hybrid SACD of the Rolling Stones' Paint It Black [Abkco 719476], Jagger was centered right between the speakers while Brian Jones's remarkable sitar playing was crystal-clear as was Charlie Watts propulsive drumming and Bill Wyman's loopy, sliding bass playing near the end of the song. I was thoroughly involved with this and other upbeat records like it. I did not note any rhythmic lethargy or sogginess in the bass department. As I recalled at HE2004, music playback was smooth and controlled and showed a fine rendering of dynamic contrasts. With each step up flipping through the sampling options from 16/44 to 24/192, I noted a little more space between instruments, a tad more clarity in Mick's salacious snarl and a slightly sweeter tonal balance. Like I said, I kept the DP200 at 24/192 for the bulk of my listening.

The optional $250 MM/MC phono stage offers excellent compatibility with a wide range of cartridges and only faces competition from more expensive phono sections. For the price, I had no real qualms. Sins were of omission rather than commission. I worked my way through a stack of recently acquired used LPs mostly consisting of 80s stuff such as Elvis Costello's sublime King of America [Columbia 40173] and the Smithereens' (remember them?) Especially For You [Enigma 97499]. While the DP200's phono section did not offer the dynamic range and frequency response of more expensive phono stages such as the Graham
Slee Gram Amp-2 SE and Era Gold V, it did not make my ears bleed either. If you are an occasional wax spinner, this option will serve you admirably. In the complete Stello system, these records were punchy, dynamic and a pleasure to listen to. Since the mono amps and preamp featured balanced connections, I borrowed some Nordost Blue Heaven XLR and RCA-equipped interconnects from the good folks at Ovation Audio in nearby Aurora/Ontario. The balanced connections were indeed superior. I noted slightly more bass weight and definition as well as a more dimensional soundstage. I would not call it a huge improvement, certainly not enough to convince me to rush out and purchase a fistful of balanced interconnects. However, I might put it on the future upgrade list.

With the steady decline of the US dollar against other currencies plus the increased costs of importation, the North American importer Bertrand Audio Imports has increased Stello's retail prices. At their initial asking price a few months ago, the brand offered phenomenal value. At an average price increase of 25% now, I am hesitant to offer a blanket recommendation especially for the M200. A foreign amp retailing for US $3,895 in Canada faces serious competition from such highly regarded domestic brands as Bryston and Sim Audio. Both have exceptional amps at or around the Stellos' price, albeit as stereo rather than monaural designs. Perhaps the Stello S200 stereo amp might be a more cost effective choice. However, the DP200 remains a fine bargain, as does the CDT200 transport. $2,500 buys you a well-equipped remote-controlled 2-channel preamp with balanced connections, a reference quality DAC, optional phono and ADC upgrades all in one attractive, easy-to-use package.

Apart from a few quality-control issues, the Stello system was indeed impressive and I cannot think of any complete electronics system at or near this price range that offers this degree of flexibility and performance. While not the last word in bass slam and extended highs, the M200s were remarkably smooth and grain-free customers. The CDT200 spun discs without flaw and offered greater punch and drive than less expensive standalone players. The DP200, however, is the crown jewel of this team. It offers a plethora of options as well as transparent and detailed yet non-fatiguing sonics. I can only imagine how good the standalone DA220 DAC will be. If you are on the prowl for a complete, flexible, upgradeable solid-state system that won't offend your ears and are considering marques like Rotel, Rega or Arcam, Stello belongs on your short list of products to audition.
April Music website