Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Good Web site of Stax "earspeakers"

The UK based Simply Stax site has an extensive list of current and discontinued Stax products. Some images in Products page are not shown, lets hope they'll fix the problem. Recommended anyway.

BAT VK-55 power amp

Source: The Absolute Sound April/May 2005

Sue Kraft and Wayne Garcia reviewed the latest offering from BAT, a 6C33B tube based, 55wpc, full balanced power amp VK-55. The VK-55 can be seen as BAT's "value-oriented" answer to Audio Research's VS-55 and to onslaught of Chinese origin tube amps.

In short, "not the most detailed amp out there...instead, it provides plenty of harmonic, textural, rhytmic, and ambient information, all within the context of the musical whole." And "The midrange is this amplifier's glory...vocals - all vocals - are treat". Kraft found the VK-55 to be a bit sweeter and more romantic sounding than pricier BAT amps, Garcia concluded it to be "toward the warm side of neutral."

Viewpoint: I've always highly respected Balanced Audio Technology. BAT's products are designed with an attitude and reflect designer's, Victor Khomenko, points of view. It's Khomenko who introduced now famous "supertube" - 6H30 - into audiophile designs. BAT as a company belongs without any doubt to top-tier of high-end manufacturers. Personally I haven't seen any negative review of BAT's products. In addition, Victor has a very good sense of the customer service, look into his posts in AudioAsylum.

However, I do have a problem with BAT's pricing in the EU. I understand that beyond transportation costs (negligent), the EU retail price includes duties and VAT, but with the prevailing USD/Euro exchange rate the European price of €5000 for the VK-55 looks - should I say - ridiculous. Yeah, it's $3995 in the US. Unfortunately BAT is one of the American manufacturers who has chosen to be phased out of the European market because of excessive profit maximazation (greed?). Hint for Americans: please see how competitively all Europeans cars are priced in the US vis-a-vis their national markets - or look Musical Fidelity's pricing strategy in the EU and in the US. No wonder products providing superior price/performance like Melody or PrimaLuna have a great future in the EU.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Conrad-Johnson ACT2 and Premier 350

Source: Streotimes September 2004 (Premier 350), Hifi+ Issue 35 (ACT2) and Issue 34 (Premier 350), Stereophile March 2005 (ACT2), Haute Fidelite December 2004 (18LS pre-amp, Premier 350), The Absolute Sound December/January 2004 (18LS pre-amp, Premier 350)

Conrad Johnson is one of the few audiophile companies with staying power. Over the years it has earned the reputation of making fine vacuum tube equipment, and whilst the company has made forays into the solid-state amplification game, the 350 is of different league.

Some interesting notes concerning zero feedback, dual-mono design of the Premier 350. It uses what CJ call a "hybrid solid-state circuit." This is a very simple circuit topology for a power amp: a FET voltage gain-stage and a bi-polar output stage. According to company's Web site CJ has selected FETs for gain-stage, "because, like tubes, and unlike bi-polar transistors, they produce almost no strident odd-order harmonic distortion." And furthermore: "Bi-polar devices have been specified for the output stages ... because they offer about 1/4th the output impedance of a MOSFET, resulting in much better control of the loudspeaker. This is most noticeable in faster, more solid bass response."

Overall, the design uses very high quality components: "The circuits employ polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors extensively, except in the main power supply storage, where special high-speed electrolytics are used because of the extremely high capacitance required." Those power supply caps are custom film capacitors (Teflon), which excell in their ability to deliver current much faster than electrolytics caps. In terms of music this should result in both faster transients and attack. The transformer is not the typical toroid but an E-I core design with an electrostatic shield. E-I core designs have a narrower passband than toroids thus better noise rejection. The electrostatic shield reduces the noise even further.

As for reviews, the Stereotimes review stated "The performers had dimensionality, the highs were extended, sweet and airy and the bass was fast, deep and nimble. Those words, while helping to describe the sound of the 350 don’t really do justice to it. One meaningful attribute that I can confidently give to the 350 is musical realism."

Hifi+ also compared the 350 with Hovland RADIA, another well-regarded solid stage amplifier: "...sonically they could be brother and sister." RADIA's strengths lean towards intimacy and immediacy, the 350 "is better at being a big amp....". The 350 was found to produce more tuneful, better defined and deeper bass than RADIA. Furthermore, Hifi+ found that the 350 brings to musical performance "a sense of absolute stability, graceful authority", and almost limitless headroom, a combination which "delivers a spectacular soundstage...". Roy Gregory concluded: "listen and you too will be besotted."

French Haute Fidelite in December 2004 echoed. They tested the 350 with the 18LS linestage. Like Hifi+, they noted deep bass ("one of the best in this regard we've experienced"), huge headroom and dynamics, in short, brutal power combined with extreme musicality, transparancy and subtlety. The 350 got the HF Reference Award.

TAS' Anthony H. Cordesman confessed in his review that "The resulting problem from a review point is a lack of drama. If I go on to say that these are the kind of products that are an investment that can provide years of musical pleasure, there is no "hook", nothing to grap the reader's attention." In other words, he echoed the other reviews that nothing in these products jumps on your face, they just sound right. "...auditioning is an experience that I can unreservedly recommend."

Like the 350 the ACT2 linestage has a simple topology: no feedback, one active stage. Design uses high quality components and caps: "Capacitors for the power supplies are exclusively polypropylene, polystyrene, and Teflon - there are no electrolytic capacitors in the audio circuits or their related power supplies" - says CJ's Web site. The volume control uses 24 Vishay resistors (like Mark Levinson has used in its pre-amps for years ;)...). The usage of 6h30 tubes instead of 6922s follows approach taken by BAT and Audio Research with their high-end pre-amps.

Stereophile in March 2005 review noted: "...ACT2 did all those audiophile tricks extremely well...But that kind of obsession with details run counter to the ACT2's real strength, which was presenting music as a whole." Wes Phillips concluded as "ACT2 raises the bar for tube amplifiers...In that, the ARC2 is ... like art itself: I may not know what it is, but I recognise it when I hear it." The measurements showed sufficiantly low output impedance (max. 1150 ohms at 20Hz), extended frequency response (up to 200kHz), and excellent volume-control channel matching (those Vishays).

Hifi+ in issue 35 said "The naturalness of the ARC2's performance rests on its overall coherance. Working back from the whole, it's the evenness of the information across the entire acoustic space that strikes you.", and "The end result is to further divorce the musical performance from the mechanics of its reproduction, to make it more easily understood, more convincing and ultimately more entertaining.". Summing up:" A truly great product puts the music first and on that score the ACT2 score is clarly front-rank".

Viewpoint: Evidently two super products, which together represent a powerfully musical combination that further extends the reputation of this illustrious brand. All these reviews shared the same theme: the reviewers were consistently drawn towards enjoying music instead of venturing into the audiophile semantics.

Some personal thoughts here. First, in the context of audio products, I basically shun A/B comparisons, and overall notion that something is better or the best. This stems from my experince that the key to the high fidelity in sound reproduction is a careful system matching of primary (sources, amplifiers, speakers) and secondary (cables, racks, tweaks) components. Here I make an assumption that the speakers are suitable for the listening room and room acoustics are optimized within a given budget and domestic restrictions. Hence, taking into account of all variables of the primary and secondary components and the listening room, in the context of my audio system "better" is different that better in your system. Hence, the question whether me or you should upgrade our systems based on the glowing reviews is easy to answer.

Second, with CJ's products the reviewers found that it was an exercise in futility to try to describe the sound of the CJ products by running through a checklist of sonic characteristics. They just connected with the music and instead of trying to describe the sound of the component with the idiomatic language of audio reviews they described how they experienced the music itself through the components. This is a fundamental difference and the same phenomenon can be found in all LAMM reviews. But look into any Halcro, Mark Levinson, Krell, Linn etc. reviews - it's description of component's sonic charasteristics, not music experienced through them.

For me the greatest sin of a competently designed hifi component is mediocrity trap: that it does nothing glaringly bad, nothing particularly memorable. Such designs basically have nothing to say, and having nothing to say is not dependent on price. This is the case with most mainstream, high-end manufacturers today. I'm personally fine if a product commits a few minor, acts of omission if it somehow leaves an indelible impression on me - and connects me with the music emotionally. So for all this I salute manufacturers like Conrad-Johnson and LAMM - and manufacturer of my pre-amp, Audio Research.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Swobona Audio modified Sony SACD players

Swobona is one of the numerous boutiques (see this list in Positive Feedback) offering modifications to Sony SACD players. Swobona modded unit, based on previous generation Sony SCD-333ES model, earned in German Stereoplay magazine in January 2004 a rating of 62/70 (CD/SACD) against standard latest generation Sony SCD-XA 9000ES' rating of 60/68.

Swobona's latest model based on Sony SCD-XA 3000ES participated in 4 players shoot-out in German Audio June 2005 issue, earning a rating of 115/130 (CD/SACD). For the reference the same magazine has given the following ratings for some other products: dCS Verdi/Purcell/Elgar Plus 125/140, Accuphase DP-85 125/135, and Linn Unidisk 1.1 135 (for SACD). Hence, at €3.200 Swobona seems to have excellent price/performance ratio.

Now according to Swobona Web site they'll make available in June 2005 a modded version based on Sony's current top-of-the-line SCD-XA 9000ES. That should sound spectacular.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Denon's latest entries into high-end,

DCD-SA1, a stereo SACD/CD player and PMA-SA1 integrated amplifier have agitated some European high-end aficionados - or should I say wannabe HE-experts ;) Some arguments I have managed to catch go like "big Japanese consumer electronic manufacturers have no experience, nor expertise to build high-end products."

Hello? It's said that ignorance is a bliss, but lets look into facts and explore some great Japanese HE-companies.

Teac continues its decades old tradition to produce HE-gear under the brand Esoteric. See, for example, SACD-player on-line review. Have ever heard of Wadia? Well, a big part of Wadia sound is the CD-drive they have been using, Vibration-free Rigid Disc-clamping System (VRDS) - from Teac.

Second example is Harmonix's Reimyo brand. Harmonix itself is renowned by its isolation devices and tuning feet. Reimyo CDP-777 has been noted as one of the best sounding CD-player by various hifi resources like "The Product of The Year 2004" - November 2004 by HiFi+", see full list of awards and player's specs here. Reimyo's pre- and power amp are reviewed CAT-777 and PAT-777 in Positive Feedback Issue 19.

Third example represents for me the "ultimate and affordable" in the Japanese hifi, Shindo Laboratory. This almost Jade color products and their Zen-kind of design including NOS caps and tubes should be heard by every audiophile in order to understand notions like rightness, continueness and coherence. You can read a great review of Monbrison preamp and Shindo's design approach in 6moon.com February 2004 issue.

The list could go on ad infinitum, including both esoteric manufacturers like Audio Note (Ongaku amplifiers), Zanden Audio, or more familiar brands like Accuphase, Pioneer's TAD speakers and drivers, or even Sony (SACD-1 was by any accounts the first SACD audiophile grade player, and still a great one with mods).

About those new Denon products. The DCD-SA1, a stereo SCAD/CD player and PMA-SA1 integrated amplifier were subject to review in June 2005 Hi-Fi News. Like Accuphase's products, these seemed to be built with an attitude. The exquisite attention to detail, a tad of 70's retro design, but where Accuphase has the tonal controls and other bells and whistles, Denon has chosen a more purist approach. The PMA-SA1 has no remote control (DCD-SA1 has one, thank's God), no pre-out connection, no headphone socket, no muting, and SACD-player has no switchable filters (which I personally prefer). In SACD player separate discrete circuits are used for PCM and DSD processing, although final production units might have an alternative signal path, in which DSD is converted to PCM (why? usually this is done for bass management purposes in multi-channel players). Both units have SE/balanced connections, and the amplifier seems to be able to handle difficult load (doubles output to 100wpc into 4ohm load).

Hi-Fi News used no nonsense primary and secondary components in review: B&W 88D speakers and Nordost Valhalla interconnects. Verdict was positive. The resolution and transparence, checked: "The level of detail that the combination can extract from disc is quite extraordinary, and may transform your view of come familiar recordings." Timing, checked: "Nothing drags, ... the best way to describe the effect is similar to the coherence experience you expect from a live music event." Magazine furthermore highlighted overall grip and coherence the Denon combination seemed to impose on music, and clear and tuneful bass.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Tube output CD-players

Nobody has escaped from noticing two trends in high-end CD-player market: increasing usage of tubes in output stage and onslaught of Chinese manufacturers.

In TAS April/May 2004 Harry Pearson summarized Italian Lector CDP-7 cd-player (with 2 x ECC81/12AT7 tube output stage) as "...I think that Lector represents a new wave in CD sound. What is does right, it does with such authority and in so many areas that I may, for the moment, be insensible to its shortcomings, which must sure exist, but certainly not in any great magnitude...I'd say you can't go wrong here...you may find yourself with a first-time case of digitally-induced goosebumps." He emphasized that what he was hearing was not sophisticated tube colorations, just "What this player does is let you hear more information, in my case, more than I ever thought could be encoded on the best 16/44 CDs."

However, Chris Thomas in Issue 37 of Hifi+ was not as positive. Albeit he concluded that CDP-/TL "is a machine that offers exceptionally good value", he also noted that it lacked the needlepoint fine resolution of a pure solid-state player like the Naim CD3. He adviced an auditioning at home in order to find out whether you like its character (balanced on the soft side, not the fastest sounding).

In March 2005 issue of Revue de Son Jean-Pierre Landragin and Jean Hiraga listened to Chinese Consonance CDP-5.0. This is 24bit 192kHz up-sampling CD-player with full-balanced 6H30 tube output and top-loading design. Chassis construction is wood, graphite and ceramic sandwich and special made super-clock is employed to reach very low jitter (manufacturer claims jitter less than 14psec!).

Two gents were impressed by CDP-5, top grades for quality/price, and it earned their recommendation. Highlighted super reproduction of voices, wide and deep soundstage, dynamics, need for good support and superiority of balanced connections. Put in the context of previous reviews by same gentlemen, not on the same level as several top-of-the line Accuphases or Mark Levinson 390S, but as said, excellent quality/price.

Enters Shanling CD-T300 Limited Edition CD Player. This player has some interesting specs: 8 Burr-Brown PCM1704K D/A converter chips, four per channel in parallel for single-ended output, two per channel in parallel for balanced configuration. The 8-times oversampling is implemented by Japanese Nippon Precision Circuit SM5847 chip, 4 EH6922 vacuum tubes in output stage, renowned Philips CDM-4 transport, 2(!) absolutely fabulous aluminium remote controls, external power unit, and two sets of different cones.

CD-T300 was a subject to reviews in Haute Fidelite May 2005 and Prestige Audio Video April 2005. Whilst both magazines concluded it to be a true audiophile player (I save you here from typical idiosyncrasies like "astonished with opera music"), reviews' findings were a tad peculiar. PEV found T300 sounding best as a transport feeding modified (Black Gates caps etc.) Tact digital integrated amplifier, and advised to avoid single-ended connections ("which provided quite standard sound"), whereas HF found asymmetric connections to be most musical. Go figure, must be system dependent - as usage of either SE or balanced connections usually are.

Shanling has used tubes in output stage in other models like in SCD-T200 SACD player, and CD-T100 and CD-T80 players. CD-T80, BTW, was reviewed by Hi-Fi News May 2005: "Anyone looking for a truly outstanding player in the £500 to £1000 area has to hear this Shanling."

Musical Fidelity has announced a limited edition kW SACD player. Antony Michaelson, one of the best marketers in hifi business, really knows how to fulfill audiophiles' need for exclusivity with his "limited editions"... ;). To be fair, Michaelson was quoted in December 2004 Stereophile eNewsletter as "Actually, everything any company makes is a limited edition by virtue of all production being finite. But our editions' numbers are determined by the availability of the active devices we use, and by our knowledge of the size of the market. Frankly, I don't understand the furore. Ferrari produced 399 Enzos, a limited number of Stradales. Most high-end watches are severely limited editions, sometimes as few as 10 pieces. Nobody complains about that, ever. But I do understand consumers' disappointment."

The kW SACD is 2-channel only SACD player with switchable tube (mu-vista 6112?) and transistor output stages, both in Class A. The SACD and CD path are internally entirely separatete and company claims pretty staggering noise ratio of 128dB. In its ad Musical Fidelity states that both output stages can be run simultaneously through different inputs on preamp - logic probably being that user can easily switch between inputs to find out which output stage has better sound per a partucular recording. I suspect all hifi magazines to go overboard with positive reviews.

Viewpoint: Chinese enter into HE-hifi segment seems to be based on truly individualistic, innovative products with futuristic and esthetic designs. Although some products are priced right against Western products, Chinese manufacturers are also capitalizing on their costs advantage to create new price/performance points in contested hifi market.

German T+A D10 tube output stage (2 x 12AX7 LPS, 2 x ECC 99) SACD player was tested in June 2005 Stereo (German) magazine. This 2-channel player completes T+A's V-serie (other products are integrated amplifier and turntable, all share the same industrial design). Rating of 94% for SACD playback and "Excellent" for price/performance. For me T+A's V-serie design resamples too much Shanling. BTW, T+A stands for "Theory and Application", not for "Tits and Ass" as some wiseguys have guessed ;)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Audio Research Reference 3

Source: Prestige Audio Video May 2005

French audio magazines never stop supprising me. How in Earth they manage to get reviews of the latest products out so fast? Good for us melomanes. Two reviewers concluded: "With humility, we give it the golden medal on our podium of audio preamps". Actually, reviewers compared Reference 3 to experience time traveling, i.e. disk after disk the pre-amp (used with ARC VM220 amp and Wilson Audio Alexandria speakers) managed to transport them to actual time and site of particular recording. "Like having artist for us only, in private performance." Measurements were immaculate, the pictures also illustrated "zen" kind of simple, yet evidently effective design.

Viewpoint: I have managed to hear both previous generations of ARC Reference, and I 've liked them all, but for different reasons. Ref.1 was typical, lush tubey sound (6922 tubes) with slightly exaggerated soundstage. The Ref.2 was much more controlled (6H30 tubes), very crispy and detailed sound. Now, I already posted my findings concerning effect of installing the 6H30DR grade tubes in my ARC LS25mkII pre-amp (astonishing is this closest word I can use). I can just image how Reference 3 would benefit from DR grade tubes and proper tube dampers (it still uses those awful O-rings). In addition, ARC really should look into companies like Plinius or Mark Levinson how to make a proper remote control. That nasty little plastic toy has zero owner satisfaction.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Plinius CD-101 and Audia Flight CD One

Source: Haute Fidelite May 2005 (in French)

New Zealander Plinius needs no introduction, audiophiles all over the world recognize its amplifiers. The company has now launched its first CD-player, CD-101. French Haute Fidelite liked the product, to say the least, and presented its "Reference" award to it. This is a fascinating product, nothing given in to reach optimal musicality: 24bit/352 kHz conversion (Burr Brown 1704), no screen (instead 20 LEDs showing track numbers), SE/balanced outputs, fully tweaked DVD-ROM 8x drive, build quality beyond reproach. The review cited fluid musicality, superior soundstaging (especially depth), dynamics, and at EURO 3.800 5/5 stars for value for money.

The magazine tested in the same issue an Italian cd-player, Audia Flight CD One, and also compared both players side-by-side. Audia's specs shortly: top-loading, 24/192, both SE & balanced out, Phillips' Pro cd-drive.

Audia was a typical "Italian job", i.e. smooth, harmonically rich and voiced to seduce instead of being overly analytical. It offered better lateral soundstaging than Plinius and had a slightly fuller low bass. Plinus was found to more analytical, presenting nuances in small doses in a way which ultimately captivates the listener. In short, two outstanding cd-players with complementing characteristics, reserved for melomanes.

Viewpoint: I've long drooled to hear a full Plinius system. This is one serious HE-company, for example in certain amps it uses internal silver wiring by Siltech. Somehow I have a feeling that CD-101 sounds pretty much like my Mark Levinson 390S (same upsampling to 352.8 kHz), although it uses different DACs (390S uses an Analog Devices AD1853 D/A converter chip, CD-101 Burr-Brown PCM-1704 chip - just like Levinson in its 360S external DAC).

Saturday, May 21, 2005

List of NOS tubes

This is on-going post listing of NOS tubes in my possession:

6x4 rectifier:

  • GEC QA2407 DD getter with blackplates (extremely rare) $90

  • 6X4W Tungsol €10

  • 6X4W CV4005 GEC (Genelec) KB/ZA €10

12AU7 + variants:

  • Amprerex 7316D getter (Beckman) $50

  • Siemens Halske silverplate 12au7 $75

  • Raytheon 5814A triple mica blackplate square getter from 1955/41st week $75

  • The West German made Siemens / Halske 5814A 1962 (2pcs) $44.95

  • Tungstram E80CC $55

  • Mullard CV4003 KB/QDD (2pcs) €37

12AX7 + variants:

  • Philips Holland - Pope 12AX7 1959 (2pcs) (Upscale Audio Platinium Grade, exactly same tube as Amperex Bugle Boy Holland 12AX7) $125

  • Sylvania 1961 Vintage 12AX7 1961 (2pcs) (Upscale Audio Platinium Grade) $30


  • 6H30DR grade (8pcs) (Tubestore Best Grade) $55

BTW, a cool place to purchase NOS tubes is Halfin in Brussels. I happen to know that quite many Web tubestores actually get their tubes from here...

Coda Technologies

Source: Stereophile May 2005

Review dealt with Coda S5 power amplifier, 50Wpc pure class-A. What makes Coda interesting is that the founders have in their background a company called Threshold - a formidable company founded by Nelson Pass and which most audiophiles think became extinct. Their S/5000 amplifier was reviewed in April 2004 Revue de Son with preamp R3.0 with very good remarks, especially S/5000's measurements were immaculate. Soundstage has also S/5000 review on-line.

About Coda S5. Wes Phillips said: "Listening the music through the S5 was a delight - and a sensation...at the very least, you really ought to experience your music through the S5 at least once." He was really captivated my musicality of this amp.

The S5 was reviewed by Srajan Ebaen of 6moon.com in April 2004. Based on what I understood (?), he also liked the S5. But the way this guy writes the reviews (extract from S5 review: "But I shan't belabor this point. It's as mute as wishing for a white girl to have one of those stacked derrieres certain black ladies are blessed with."). I mean, come on! I do understand it is tough trying to get through market noise and establish yourself as a serious HE-reviewer, but trying to communicate in meaningful way might facilitate it.

Viewpoint: Love to learn about this "new" (actually has been in operation more than 15 years) audiophile company. Note their mission statement: "We are a mission-driven organization singularly dedicated to the advancement of state-of-the-art audio reproduction technology". Seems to me that they operate with the same bandwidth as Plinius Audio and Pass Labs. The only alarming thing, and for me running against the face to that mission statement, is some troubling measurements. Stereophile measured input impedance of 1085 ohms (!) in balanced mode. Forget using tube pre-amps with S5.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Dream monitors / small speakers

I have a soft spot for small speakers ("mini-monitors"), mainly because I once owned a pair of ProAc Response 1SC on Tangent R24 stands. I plan to update this post with short news of exciting new small speakers.

Totem has introduced a Signature version of its acclaimed Model 1 mini-monitor. I still greatly miss Totem's Arro speakers, which I kept in my study and then foolishly sold. Although Arro is a ultra slim, compact floor standing speaker, its miniature size puts it in mini-monitor class. And not only the size, but the way Arros disappear and soundstage resemble more mini-monitors than floor standing speakers. Note, though, that Arros present a typical dilemma of high quality mini-monitors: physically small they can be, but they require substantial investment in quality upstream components in order to sound best. My experience is that all best, small speakers can easily accommodate upstream components costing 2-3 times more than speakers themselves.

The speaker on my personal short list is Harbeth Super HL5. This particular speaker received TAS' Golden Ear Award 2004 (full review in TAS 149), and was also much appreciated by Sam Telling in February 2005 issue of Stereophile. SHL5 is the latest embodiment of the classic BBC-inspired (ugly) box. There seems to be three distinctive features in its design: first, mid/bass driver made of proprietary RADIAL material; second, Audax titanium-dome supertweeter (cross-over at around 15kHz, tweeter is SEAS aluminum-dome); and third, cabinet made of thin walls is designed to resonate, much like real instruments.

Sam Telling said "... one of the finest speakers to come my way", and Robert E. Greene in TAS review "...you ought to listen to it just to explore one direction of the boundaries of the possible."

UPDATE: I noticed that Harbeth Super HL5 was also reviewed in Stereo Times in October 2004. Paul Szabady: "The consistent and lasting impression of the Super HL5 is its exceptional ability to get to and to communicate the heart of music. Never, at any price or design type, have I heard a speaker that so completely got out of the way and let the music speak for itself." He concluded the review by saying "The Harbeth Super HL5 is a true masterpiece of speaker design."

In courteous terms one can say that SHL5 looks old-fashioned or classic, for my eyes it's one ugly duck with those available veneers. But heck, it's the sound which matters .

BTW, funny thing about those supertweeters, i.e. that what you can not hear actually affects what you can hear. You can experience the same effect with subwoofers; adding sub into system clearly affects reproduction of mids.

Another great mini-monitor apparently is Legacy Victoria LE. Unfortunately for us europeans Legacy Audio is not well distributed within the EU - and based on various positive reviews it should be. Victoria LE was subject to TAS review in issue 152.

Robert Harley utterly liked this over-sized, truncated-pyramid design, which incorporates a ribbon tweeter. The review has the following extracts: "The Victoria combines the classic virtues of a mini-monitor with the bass extension and weight of many floor-standing speakers; "...image focus was razor-sharp..."; "... the Victoria had some special magic that kept me clued to the listening seat." ; and finally "In the very competitive USD 3.500-per pair loudspeaker market, the Victoria is a standout bargain ..."

In May 2005 issue of French Haute Fidelite TAD's studio near-field, the Model TSM-300, was reviewed. TAD is Pioneer's professional / audiophile spin-off, and its drivers and speakers are highly admired among connoisseurs. TSM-300 combines a single 1-inch titanium HF compression driver on a proprietary round aperture horn, flanked by two 6-inch edgeless structure woofers. Frequency response is said to be 35 to 35k Hz. At EURO 1.067 per speaker this seems to be one hell of the deal. Haute Fidelite highlighted precision, resolution, energetic drive, and soundstaging. Value for money, 5/5 stars.

BTW, TAD has another Website, which presents their homeaudio products, like the famous Model-1. From that product family model CM-1 might be another super minimonitor with its Beryllium cone midrange driver and Beryllium dome/cone high-frequency driver. So far I haven't see any reviews.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Update - 6H30 DR tubes

I posted on March 10 some information about 6H30 tubes. After that I read an AudioAsylum posting claiming the superiority of 6H30 DR grade tubes over standard Sovtek 6H30EB tubes in Audio Research LS25 mkII pre-amp. Having been a 100% satisfied owner of aforementioned pre-amp I nevertheless decided to give it a go, and placed order for 4 DR tubes of the highest quality. I know there has been a lot of rumors concerning tube vendors re-labeling either EB or EV versions as DR - and charging double price. So choose your vendor carefully, I used TubeStore. Price per tube was USD 55, other costs were UPS Express delivery of USD 26 and various EU VAT and duties of Euro 58.

The sound? I have to be careful here, otherwise I might lose all credibility, but in short the best value for money upgrade I have ever done. Even after some 10 hours of burning-in, DR tubes demonstrated to be way superior to standard Sovtek tubes. The full run-in tubes give the ARC sensuously textured midrange, and eerie presence with which it reproduces voices and solo instruments. The DRs produce a dramatic, palpable three-dimensional sonic picture with superior sense of scale. The bass is slightly drier and better defined, and the overall system has better musical grip and ability to tightly control Revels' woofers. In short, DR tubes make ARC to sound more substantial, colorful, and dramatic, more musically involving.

I have to confess that part of the improvement might occur because at the same time I replaced crappy O-rings ARC installs as standard feature by Herbie's Audio Lab tube dampers.

Viewpoint: I perceive DR grade 6H30s with tube dampers as essential upgrade to ARC LS25 mkII. Before posting this I even ordered 4 tubes more from Tubestore in order to have 3 spare pairs.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Xindak, Audreal and Melody

Source: French hifi-magazines

Audreal brand arises from cooperation between Chinese Xindak Electronic and its French distributor, Delta Sigma. Based on various Xindak products, distributor has suggested a numerous improvements to tune the sound. Xindak XA6800 was reviewed by Revue de Son in November 2004 (reviewer Jean Hiraga: "astonishing permormance/price ratio", "c'est une affaire en or"). This 1.100 Euros integrated has 80wpc, operates Class-A up to 30wpc, MOSFET output stage, and is fabulously built for the price. The Audreal Duo 2.0 was reviewed by Haute Fidelite May 2005. Externally Duo 2.0 seems to be almost identical with Xindak 6800, however internal pictures illustrate that serious modifications are indeed performed, like usage of Dale resistors and audiophile grade internal cabling. Price has risen to 1.500 Euros. Verdict: drives demanding load (speakers were Thiel CS2.4), authoritative, yet musical sound, airy and well presented soundstage. 5/5 stars for quality/price.

Audreal Duo 1.0 was reviewd by Revue de Son in March 2005. The retail price of this integrated amp is 990 Euros, specs include 80wpc, both SE and balanced inputs, and like with Duo 2.0 good quality condensators, Dale resistors, and internal cabling. And unfortunalety, just like with Duo 2.0, motorised ALPS volume potentiometer (for the record, I hate ALPS potentiometers due to their low quality!). Jean Hiraga & Robert Lacrampe: "Goes beyond Xindak XA6800 in sonical terms", "exceptional quality/price ratio".

How intriguing Xindak or Audreal might look, for me the real deal are Melody amplifiers. Design work is done by serious Australian audiophiles, and production in China. What allures me is the seriousness of components used in all Melody models: all the internal parts are audio-grade quality, matched to close tolerances.

Pre-amp SHW1688II (see picture below) uses rare 101D (and 6SL7s, 6SN7s) tubes, Aerovox oil-filled and Jensen silver foil capacitors, Riken and Dale resistors, stepped audio attenuator etc. Power amp SHB300B uses also Jensen silver foil capacitors in conjuction with Howland Musicaps. Even the entry model, SP3 integrated, uses stepped audio attenuator, paper-in-oil caps (Melody claims these to be NOS!). Clearly, not much room for DIY modifications. The build quality throughout the range is equally impeccable.

In October 2004 issue of Revue de Son Jean Hiraga and Robert Lacrampe went literally ballistic in commenting SHW1688II pre-amp. JH placed it among 2-3 best pre-amp he has heard, but RL went ever further "... se place au sommet de ma hierarchie personnel", i.e. pretty much the best pre-amp he has heard. In Haute Fidelite January 2005 Antoine Gresland gave equally high appraisal: "SHW1688 is phenomenom in its category", and he was almost equally impressed by accompanied SHB300B power amps.

French hifi-press has given equally positive reviews for integrated SP3 (Prestige Audio Video No.104, Revue de Son January 2005), and for EL34 based integrated H34II (Prestige Audio Video October 2004).

Viewpoint: It's a shame that French hifi-magazines are not more accessible for foreigners (i.e. you have to read French). I have to confess that occasionally I sense that French products tend to be too favourable reviewed, but same can be witnessed with the British magazines. French hifi-tradition in general and especially their sometines esoteric approach complements nicely Anglo-Saxon and German hifi traditions.

As for Melody, either we are dealing with French consipiration or alternatively these product indeed present outstanding price/performance ratio. My only concern (and which prevented me from buying it) with Melody SHB1688 pre-amp is lack of adjustable gain. The 26db gain limits its usage with high-gain power-amps.

BTW, in June/August 2004 issue of Revue de Son Jean Hiraga and Jeau-Pierre Landragin reviewed Mark Levinson 320S pre-amp. For JH it was "a new grand reference" and they concluded by stating "Astounding sonic performance". Lets see when these gentlemen manage to review Audio Research's latest Reference 3 pre-amp.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Phonostages, cartridges and turntables

I'll to keep this as on-going post concerning interesting analoque components - yes, I tend to buy analogue gear in near future.

John Bizar nailed it in "The Cutting Edge - The Resurgence of Vinyl" of TAS April/May 2005: "The reason that analog is so successful is because it's no longer commercially viable. The companies who make turntables and cartridges and associated stuff really build for the aficionado now." And then Garth Leerer in the same article:"The turntable is the barbecue of music: It's the process as much as the result, and that's part of its charisma." Very interesting roundtable overall, I recommend you to read it.

Phono pre-amps

In January 2005 Stereophile Rober Reine ("Mr. Budget Gear") followed-up Michael Fremer's review of Graham Slee's GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V. "Mikey was right - Graham ... is a pip!" Interestingly he compared Graham with EAR 834P (re-tubed with NOS Telefunken 12AX7s) and Creek internal phono board. As for EAR he commented: "...exhibited more detail, air, delicacy, and body in the midrange than Era Gold...more detailed and extended highs...bass performance was a bit rounder and slower...". Nevertheless, recommended all three phonostages. Quite amazing bearing in mind how old design EAR is, but those NOS tubes evidently lift performance to another level, as do various mods (see AudioAsylum posts about EAR mods).

For their part German audio magazines have been quite enthusiastic about Clearaudio's inexpensive (€250) Smartphono.

In March 2005 Stereophile Michael Fremer gave very positive review for Whest PhonoStage 2.0 + MsU.20: "...was ultraquiet...the West seemed to equal the $7.500 Manley's dynamic expression, image solidity, soundstaging certainty and size, and, especially its ease and liquidity...the $2595 Whest ... is in my list of top 10 phono preamps...sounded remarkably similar to the stock (Manley) Steedhead, and costs a lot less."

In June issue fearing that he went overboard he toned down. "...it's not in the same leaque than...Manley Steelhead, though some overoptimistic souls have read that into what I wrote." Hey Mikey, we just read what you indeed wrote ;)

Ken Kessler / Hi-Fi News some months ago found Audio Research's latest "affordable" PH5 Stereo Phono Preamplifier so enjoyable that he purchased one. Interesting points of this phonostage: adjustable cartridge loading to 47K, 1000, 500, 200, or 100 ohms at the touch of a button on remote control, and four 6922 tubes. However, Kessler found to his astonishment that different loading made a little difference with Transfiguration Temper V cartridge. Jimmy Hughes tested PH5 in Hifi+ issue 35/November 2004. "...sound quality is first-rate: smooth and tonally warm, but surprisingly detailed and very holographic." He also emphasized the value of included mono-switch. If you cannot afford a seperate mono cartridge, this might be the reason to buy this unut. Hughes also noted that change loading option "makes it simple and quick to tailor the sound to individual requirements" - read per individual recordings. Both Kessler and Hughes experienced less vinyl surface noise with PH5.


Sumiko Blackbird (MC, 2.5mV, $750). Fremer in January 2004 "...strongest points are its background quiet and the power, extension, and focus of its bass...threw a big, wide-open, very transparent soundstage." In March 2005 issue he mentioned: "I'd put the Sumiko Blackbird's overall sonic performance, and especially its ability to deliver solid musical performance (if not the last word in resolution) up against almost any cartridge at any price!" Stereophile 2004 Analog Source Component Runner-Up.

Lyra Dorian (MC, 0.6mV, $750) Fremer in March 2005 Stereophile:"...Dorian's tranparency, transient speed, rhytmic solidity, resolution of low-level details...brought an overall balance and musical excitement that I've yet to hear from any cartridge competing at this price". I wonder where that leaves Blackbird then?

Benz Ace L/M/H (MC, 0.4/0.8/2.5mV, €500) German magazines have given quite varying ratings, according to Stereo April 2005 issue at least L-model has been improved with quite substantial improvement in sound.

Shelter 501 Mk.II (MC, 0.4mV, €700) The Absolute Sound May 2004: "Let me come right out and say it: The Shelter 501 Mk.II is the best sub $1,000 I've yet heard, and for more reasons than I have space to hint at here." Fremer Stereophile February 2005: "I recommend the Shelter 501 Mk.II without hesitation."

The Shelter 901, in its part, won the prestigious Image Hi-Fi Award for best cartridge in 2004 - and those guys know something abour analoque. Image hi-fi might be considered as THE most serious HE-oriented magazine in Europe.


TAS June/July 2004 had an intriguing review for me as an owner of a 3D Seismic Sink. Paul Seydor tested Pro-Ject RM9 turntable with Sumiko Blackbird cartridge, on Townshend's 3D Seismic Sink (air-bladder-suspended isolation platform). He noted wonderful synergies between table and cartridge, and highlighted benefits having non-suspended deck on Seismic Sink ("was immediately struck by the transparency, clarity, and impact of sound." and "Soundstaging was quite spectacular...offers performance comparable with turntables costing far, far more...". I've identified RM9 as one of the decks I would like to buy, so this was interesting news.

Hi-Fi Choice July 2005 tested mid-level turntables, and Pro-Ject RPM9X (acrylic base version) was summarized as "...in terms of value, including its carbon-fibre arm, it's most attractive." The "winner" of the test was Michell's TecnoDec with the standard Rega RB250 arm - and TecnoArm might (should) lift performance further.

BTW, what most people are unaware that there is highly flexible top-grade silver internal wiring available for Pro-Ject 9c-arm. Has to be specified at ordering.

VPI has been intrumental in getting Nordost to enter into pickup-arm wire business. According to Harry Pearson in April/May 2005 TAS, he and VPI's Weisfeld were mighty impressed by demo wire, VPI even more so. All VPI arms in near future are supplied with Nordost arm wire (estimated price increase $100).

Pete Riggle Audio offers VTA adjustment on the fly adjusters for Rega arms, priced at $149. For details, go to Audiogon and search VTAF for more information. Think, now you can easily accomodate two arms with different cartridges (e.g. new mono offerings).

A stellar review for the Origin Live Conqueror tonearm in May 2005 Stereo Times.

About mono recordings. The groove of a mono LP is modulated only in horizontal plane, whereas stereo uses horizontal and vertical modulations, coexisting in 45 degree, V-shape groove. The left channel is encoded on one wall of the groove, the right channel on the other.

French Revue de Son had a fascinating turntable shoot-out in January/February 2005 issue. Among the group were the Loricraft restored Garrard 301 (RB300 arm w/ Incognito wiring + Ortofon Kontrapunkt A), the Linn LP12 (Lingo + Ekos + Akiva), the Mitchell Gyro SE (TecnoArm + Shure M97x), and the T+A G10 (SME M2 + Benz C10). Due to different reviewers reviewing different decks it's a bit hairy to conclude the overall winner, but all aforementioned decks were recommended by the magazine. My vote would be splitted between the Garrard (speaks to heart) and the Mitchell (rational decision). But ultimately I would go for Verdier's Nouvelle Platine: maybe not anymore the best price/performance ratio, but imagine that pride of ownership.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Why some(tube) amplifiers sound "warm"

This is an extract from Ralph Karsten's comments on 6moons.com review (September 2004) on the Atma-Sphere MA-1 MkII.3 Silver Edition 140-watt monoblock OTL amplifiers. Highlights are mine.

"Warmth. (I just have some comments if that's okay.) Tube 'warmth' (no pun intended) is actually a subjective measure of the amp's even-ordered harmonic distortion, which the MA-1 has less of then the BAT VK-75. So it correctly would not sound as warm, but it should sound more transparent. For the same reason, with less distortion, lower-level details are more easily revealed.

As audiophiles we describe this even-order harmonic distortion several ways, depending on the amount of it: Warmth, bloom, excessive bloom, fatness and finally muddiness.

I certainly understand 'liking' warmth. In the 1960s, General Electric conducted tests and discovered that people will tolerate even-order harmonic content up to 40%! while at the same time not tolerating even a fraction of a percent of odd-order content."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

IsoClean audio-grade fuses

Source: 6moons.com May 2005

" If upgrading from a stock power cable to a decent aftermarket cord can produce audible benefits, then why not that little fuse? "

"... I noted the difference right away, even from a cold start. I noted slightly greater transparency and less hash and grain, not unlike a decent power cable. On my CD players, the effect was inconclusive. I did not notice an improvement let alone a difference in either player. Perhaps they needed a little break-in time? I left the fuses in my equipment for a couple weeks before swapping them out with my original fuses. Whoa. Now it was obvious that the Isoclean fuses had a significant impact on my system's performance. Via the CD players, I observed less grain and hash, greater transparency, a little more detail and a slightly more open soundstage. The effect was not unlike swapping in a set of decent power cables or inserting modest power conditioning. "

Viewpoint: I'm uber-tweaker, but such an impact from changing fuse? But then I remember reading something similar in German audio magazines. I suspect that if this works, then it's better kept between you and your best friends. Like when I replaced with some of my audio buddies IEC and Schuko plugs of Siltech SPX-30 power cords by Furutech and Wattgate top-of-the line plugs. Or replacing WBT copper spades by WBT's best silver spades in my Kimber Kable 3035 speakers cables ...

HiFi Tuning also offers audiophile grade Fuses made from pure fine silver and handmade in Germany. Check this excellent site if you are interested in DIY or are looking for cables, plugs etc.

Monday, May 09, 2005

China-zation of hifi manufacturing

China made hifi products spark controversy. Just like for many other industries, China is becoming "world's factory" for hifi products. Remember that over 90% of world's DVD players are already manufactured in China. Although the xenophobics cry loud about low salaries, work conditions and demand at least revaluation of yuan against major currencies, the undeniable trend is that it's very difficult for Western hifi companies to compete against Chinese producers in price (and quality?).

Western hifi-industry has chosen two distinctive strategies to deal with and benefit from Chinese comparative advantage. First, respective hifi-manufacturers have outsourced part of their (low price point products) production to China to exploit the cost savings to create budget ranges, like British Mobile Fidelity (with its X-serie).

Second, there are multiple of new companies, who have design shop in Western countries and manufacture actual products with a chosen partner in China. For most people, Mark Levinson's (in person, not a company) decision to launch his Red Rose brand with Chinese partner was an eye-opener, examples today are Melody (Australian), Vincent (German), Audreal (France), and PrimaLuna (Dutch). Some of these joint ventures result in truly new product designs, some are re-labeling or slight modifications of existing Chinese products. PrimaLuna, in particular, have had a spectacularly successful launch, clearly benefiting its European founders' connections with audio journalists and distributors (see Upscale Audio's site for more information).

One should equally bear in mind that established Chinese hifi-manufacturers are entering the Western markets directly, like Cayin, Shanling, Antique Sound Lab etc. People tend to forget that Chinese HE-market has existed over 2-decades, but mainly serving the domestic market. Check, for example, Jungson. Please see my posting on May 15 for reviews of various Chinese origin amplifiers. Plese bear in mind also that Chinese companies are acquiring Western companies in order to capitalise on the existing brand recognition, example here is Quad.

Viewpoint: I have to wonder how Quad ESL owners feel about theirs "British" speakers being actually Chinese? Quad is owned by Chinese consortium IAG, and all Quald speakers are now wholly manufactured in China. Don't get me wrong: if cheaper manufacturing costs allows the brand to survive and results in putting a product to consumers' listening room through competitive retail price, I'm the last to complain. I'm just curious. The last review of Quad ESL 989 I'm aware of is in January 2005 issue of French Haute Fidelite. Conclusions: build quality 3/5, musicality 2/5, and quality/price 2/5 stars. Quite a difference vis-a-vis earlier Anglo-Saxon reviews, n'est pas? Inconsistent production run, or then maybe not? The IAG's manufacturing facilities are ISO 9001 certified, which means that they should have strict standards for quality control and quality assurance.

There are pictures on-line of Stereophile's Wes Phillips' visit to examine IAG's manufacturing facilities in China. See also Stereophile's April 2005 eNewletter for actual article.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

New high-end cables - Kubala Sosna

Kubala Sosna cables have created buzzle in audio circles as many great-sounding systems have incorporated them in various hifi-shows. Snake oil or solid engineering, up to you to decide. For me the ultimate cables continue to be top cables in Siltech G6 series, cannot forget the demo I had at home (I own entry G5/G6 interconnects, and they leave the system only "from my cold, dead hands").

Saturday, May 07, 2005

dCS' new products

Data Conversion Systems (dCS) is one of those dedicated, engineering driven boutique HE-companies whose products I fancy to own one day (others are Halcro, LAMM and Pass Lab, just to name a few). The dCS has an impressive list of "industry firsts" (see Web-site) and has very high reputation within professional audio and audiophile communities.

The company is now offering "simplified" versions of its formidable professional products for audiophile market. The first is integrated CD/SACD player P8i with on board upsampling from CD to DSD and digital volume control (see picture below). Other products to be announced are DAC8e converter and T8e CD/SACD upsampling Transport.

Viewpoint: About cd-players incorporating analog (like Mark Levinson 390S) or digital volume control (like Wadia, dCS). Previously I was singing "lets keep signal path as short as possible" mantra. But having owned Wadia 801 and Mark Levinson 390S and running them directly to power-amps, I can tell one thing: adding active pre-amp (in particular tube pre-amp) with all necessary cabling etc. can (should I say will) result in substantial improvement in sound re-production. If you care about "rightness" of sound and final touch of realism, do yourself a favor. Listen to HE-pre-amp. I know the case where an owner of full dCS professional gear introduced Nagra PL-P tube pre-amp to his system, and after 20 minutes of listening he decided to purchase the unit.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Apple iPod mini and special earphones

I've been using iPod Mini 6GB version some time now. User interface and music management application (iTunes) are way, way superior to the ones provided by my previous portable player, Creative Labs' MuVo2 4GB version.

So far my earphones of choice has been Etymotic ER-4P, quite astonishing sound quality from such a small earphones. Not on par with my Stax earphones, but still. There is the "ultimate" earphones solution, though. Sensaphonics' ProPhonic Soft 2X, $750 USD a pair custom-fitted in-ear monitors, has two drive units and a crossover in the custom-molded monitors, thereby offering truly state-of-the-art headphone playback while canceling ambient noise by 26dB.

The process of getting a pair of ProPhonic Soft 2X monitors begins with having impressions of your ears made by a qualified audiologist. Sensaphonics maintains a list of recommended audiologists with experience in making impressions for Sensaphonics products.

Interestingly, Sensaphonics states in the web site that "Sensaphonics has been chosen by Etymotic Incorporated to be the designer and manufacturer of custom, super soft silicone comfort gel ear molds that fit over your universal ER-4 or ER-6 earphones. An audiologist in your area will take ear impressions, send them to us and we will customize your ER-4 or ER-6 with an add-on silicone sleeve."

However, I haven't found any information about audiologists within the EU.

Viewpoint: So far my only request to Apple is that they should enhance iTunes software in a way that audio files could be stored in iTunes in WAV / AIFF format, but then during the transfer to iPod files would be converted on the fly to either Apple Lossless or MP3. This would enable users to use iTunes as their high quality media library, and at the same time maximize drive space in iPod.

As for audiophile quality of Apple Lossless format, jury is still out. I connected iPod to my HE rig in order to do comparison with my Mark Levinson 390S cd-player, and I have to confess that it was not that much of contest. Although Stereophile's John Atkinson has demonstrated that Apple Lossless is indeed lossless algorithm (see below), the iPod connected to HE gear sounds dull and uninvolving. Apple should most definitely include mini-jack digital out in next generation of iPods - as they already have in AirPort Express.

An extract from Stereophile's March 2005 eNewsletter: " "CD quality"? Yes, the data appearing on the AE's digital output are identical to the data in the original file. While preparing my review, I compared a WAV music file with a duplicate that I had captured on my PC from the Airport Express's S/PDIF output. I used iTunes on my PowerBook, playing a version of the file encoded with Apple Lossless Compression, to feed data to the AE. Despite the lossless encoding, despite the 128-bit encryption I use in my home network, despite the transmission of the packetized data through the air, and despite the circuit in the AE having to reencode the data as an S/PDIF stream, the files were bit-for-bit identical."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Nordost and Hifi+

I, "The φber-tweaker", subscribe to notion that so called secondary components akin cables, rack, isolation devices etc. do play quite significant part in system tuning - although still I would prefer to invest primarily in active components. In this context I'm a tad perplexed by Hifi+ magazine's fixation to review (or at least highlight) in almost every issue Nordost products. The latest examples: the issue 35 had mains distribution unit Thor, and issue 38 in its part Brahma power cord. Excellent reviews, naturally. I'm not questioning integrity of their review process, Nordost is just making excellent marketing.

TAS' Harry Pearson recently announced that Valhallas have bettered his previous power cord champions, Kimber Kable Palladian PK 10s - and by a wide margin.

UPDATE: Hi-fi News in June 2005 issue joined the band: "I still cannot believe the extortionate price this mains lead is offered at, when complete audio systems of merit can be assembled for less than the price of one length. But I also cannot deny that, in the context of my own system, one cable alone truly transformed it for the better." And this from Andrew Harrison, pretty respected reviewer.

I've personally tested Valhalla speaker cables, and was not that impressed. Has to say that I owned at that time Cardas Golden Reference, Kimber Kable 3035 (still has) and Townshend Audio's Isolda cryo treated (still has) speaker cables, so Valhallas were not in "virgin" environment. I have NOT heard Valhalla power cable, but I do own and use entry level Shiva and I find it OK - but not as good as for example Siltech SPX-30, which is at the same price level. Since my reference in power cords is still Kimber Kable Palladian PK 10s (I possess two), maybe I should dare...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mark Levinson 431 amplifier

Source: Stereophile May 2005

The review summarized two issues, which have influenced Mark Levinson lately. First, move to new production facility (Harman Specialty Group seeking greater efficiency and synergism decided to incorporate most of Group's manufacturing in one site), and second, the need to integrate traditional 2-channel audio equipments into home-theater and multi-channel set-ups. How do these two issues manifest themselves?

Well, move to new facility did not go smoothly, resulting in delays in deliveries and re-scheduling of new product launches. As of today, problems seem to be resolved, but some dealers are still vary about promised delivery times. But the second issue is more profound.

The 431 clearly shows the impact of raising popularity of home-theater & multi-channel set-ups to traditional HE-manufacturers. Gone are the days when Levinson products were designed according to "cost+", "built-to-last" and "will drive any load" principles. New designs like 431 are slimmer, build quality is high, but not over-done, and amplifier is not designed for demanding loads. Contrary to model it replaced, No.334, 431 is not rated for loads below 4 ohms or for bridged operation. BTW, production difficulties during the time of the review were still evident as first test unit did not even turn on from standby!

Nevertheless, Larry Greenhill gave No.431 dandy remarks. In comparison with No.334 using Revel Salon and Quad ESL-989 speakers, he observed that "just like the No.334, it had midbass punch and the ability to throw a wide, deep soundstage. It exerted tighter control over the Quad's bass response than had No.334, but sounded more analytical driving my Revel Ultima Salons, with less bass extension. In contrast, the No.334 sounded fuller and warmer through the Revels, darker through the Quads." He noted further "...it (ML) continues to build fine amplifiers, even after having shrunk those amps to fit into home-theater equipment racks."

To sum up, slight reduction in bass solidity and punch, but improvements in midrange detail and treble extension compared with No.334.

Viewpoint: As a (very) satisfied owner of ML 334 amplifier and ML390S cd-player I've feared the day when even the company like Mark Levinson has to submit to market demands of home-theater and cost cutting. BTW, the same happened to Mercedes Benz some 5 years ago when it had to change its production philosophy from "cost+" to "retail price-". Ask any long-time MB owners what they think about MB's latest models' quality and excellence...

Moreover, John Atkinson's measurements illustrated "new" design approach taken by ML, in particular when comparing with No.334's measurement done by Atkinson in September 1999 Stereophile. Note remarks like "the internal heatsinks just adequately specified" when No.334's heatsinks "could still be touched without discomfort".

No. 431's input impedance for both SE and balanced inputs was measured as 51k ohm dropping to 15k ohms at 20kHz. This might limit usage of No.431 with high output impedance (tube) pre-amps. No.334's input impedance was measured as 98k ohms balanced and 50.7k ohms unbalanced - nice high figures for successful system building. But my biggest anxiety is that No.431 is not rated for loads below 4 ohms. ML No.383 integrated amplifier I owned had the same limitation, and believe me, with Martin Logans speakers I definitely heard rolled-off treble and muddy bass.

So why am I groaning about one audiophile company trying to accomodate market demands? Simply, I see this as one more, major deviation from mentality of building great HE-equipment (see my February post "What is "high-end" audio?). Moreover, this is further evidence that although I personally don't see/hear any substantial benefits from multi-channel medias, my days as 2-channel audiophile are numbered. The writing is on the wall: great 2-channel vendors and equipments shall disappear. Seems to me that I'll never sell my No.334...

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