Thursday, June 30, 2005

Martin Logan Summit revisited

I got so curious by ML Summit I wrote last week that I had to organize some face time with them.

Luckily, Noir et Blanc, a ML dealer in Brussels, had them on demo and agreed to set me for a listening session. BTW, the other nice high-end dealership in Brussels is New Music. Same goes for both of them: if you approach them with a typical "tyre kicking" mentality, you get what you deserve. But if you present yourself as a knowledgeable audiophile, clearly presenting your agenda and budget, they respond positively.

Gentleman in Noir et Blanc had set-up the Summits nicely. Sources were CEC TL 51 transport + North Star Design Model 24/192 DAC for CD playback and Esoteric DV-50S universal player for SACD and DVD-A playback, amplifier was a T&A V10 integrated hybrid (with tubes) amplifier. BTW, T+A stands for "Theory and Application", not for "Tits and Ass" as some wiseguys have guessed... Noir et Blanc's reference speakers Dunlavy IVAs, by the way, were in this occasion serving the role of diffusors some 80cm behind the Summits ;)

Sound? An enigma, honestly. The Summits were not fully burned-in (some 50 hours) and I expected to hear excessively bright presentation. Instead of that, I heard more resolution than in my Revel Studios, yet at the same time less transparency. My Studios sound brighter, more analytical, more lay-back, and if I dare to say, more high-end. And yet, the Summits were more natural, soundstaging was bigger than life, imaging was more real. With the qualification that you get Summit's low bass controls properly set-up. Initially there were too much low bass for my taste and I fiddled between 0dB and -2dB settings at 20Hz and 50Hz, and almost adjusted overall bass level to minimum. Yes, the Summit offer three level of bass adjustments and I was a tad puzzled how much the overall tonal balance changed by different level of bass adjustments. With just a little of reduced energy in low bass the sound got bright, but never as aggressive and listening fatigue producing as with ML Prodigy. BTW, I'm not a new-born not to recognize how a good sub-woofer can change the tonal palette of HE-speakers, so give me a break here...

The bass controls are a great asset of Summit: you can individually set-up left/right speaker to produce the optimal room/speaker interaction in your listening room. Personally, possessing an asymmetrical listening room, this is one feature I would be ready to pay top money.

Might be my imagination but I felt that T&A V10 integrated hybrid was never in full control of Summits, my vote for an amplifier would be something producing more current/authority/control. I suspect that the challenging impedance magnitude of Summits (drops below 4ohms at 4kHz, and after that continues to decrease in almost linear fashion to 2ohm at 10kHz, and approximately 0.5ohm around 17kHz) would be better served by amps like Krell, Mark Levinson (not the latest offerings) and a like.

The ultimate question: am I going to "upgrade" from Revel Studios to Summit? Well, I'm not entirely virgin for Martin Logan designs, having owned both ML Aeon i and Ascent i speakers. With the Summit I heard the same pros and cons. State-of-the-art resolving capabilities and bogglingly transparent are only half the story, you might find that there is a bit of restricted dynamic drive. In particular for somebody like myself who predominatly listens to acoustic jazz, the choice is difficult. The Summits were uncannily accurate at expressing Partica Barber's Barber Companion, but yet that residual, Martin Logan house sound (sorry, I just cannot put it better) left me wondering. Better than Revel Studios? I would say qualified yes, but I'm not yet entirely convinced. Taking into account the current retail prices, I have to confess that the Summit at €12.000 is an outstanding value. In this light it's no wonder that Revel is is announcing revised Salon/Studio speakers in coming next 3 months.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Mårten Design Duke speakers and Ellington subwoofers

Source: HiFi+ issue 39, Positive Feedback issue 19

In December 2003 review of Swedish Mårten Design's Mingus III speakers the conclusion was "Mark my words, this is one important company to keep under close scrutiny..."

Right on target. November 2004 Hifi+ review of company's Coltrane speakers resulted in HiFi+ Product of the year 2004 award. Same speakers were reviewed in February 2005 in Stereophile by Michael Fremer, and result was Class A rating.

Two reviews of Mårten Design's Duke speakers appeared almost at the same time in summer 2005. The Duke is a bookshelf-sized, two-way loudspeaker featuring the Accuton ceramic drivers from German Thiel Partners (not to be mixed up with the US Thiel Audio).

HiFi+'s editor Roy Gregory tested Dukes without and with the Ellington subwoofers. He noted that the Dukes sounded far more immediate, focussed and dynamic than their specified 87dB sensitivity: "There's crispness and liveliness to the music that you'd normally associate with far more efficient desings...". Furthermore, Gregory observed that the Dukes delivered "... a fantastic performance on smaller scale recordings ... combination of micro-dynamic discremination, energy and spatial definition ... makes the sound so convincing." The review mentioned Duke's lack of weight and substance at low-frequencies, but bringing the Ellington subs into play fixed this. "... you are left in no doubt that this is an extremely capable, full range speaker system." Conclusion: "This is one speaker system that anybody spending up to five-figures should definitely hear."

Positive Feedback's Danny Kaey echoed in his review. "... the first speakers to achieve headphone resolution in my room, and let me tell you, this is quite an experience. Never before have I heard such resolution of the details buried on CDs, LPs, or tapes." He quibbled over bass re-production, and like Roy Gregory found the Dukes nicely be complemented with a sub. Instead of a pair of Ellingtons, he used a single Velodyne DD-15. "Based on that experience, I concluded that the Marten Design Dukes could be upgraded from hyper-realistic performance to true world-class status by the addition of a modern subwoofer."

Viewpoint: It's tempting to conclude that the Accuton drivers are the ticket to high-end speaker design. The other renowned speaker manufacturers employing them are Kharma and Talon Audio. What is equally common for all these great sounding speakers is that the manufacturers use non-traditional materials and designs in cabinets and high-quality internal cabling.

For more information about Mårten Design's approach to speaker design and manufacturing see their US distributors site.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Naim CD5x CD-player with Flatcap2x power supply

Source: HiFi+ issue 39

As a British reviewer, Jason Hector surprised in his review. He was actually quite critical towards Naim's latest offering. "In my opinion, and being blunt about it, the CD5x is not a stellar sonic performer", he stated in the middle of review. Although he recognized what the Flatcap2x brought into party - "After connecting the power supply the sound changes markedly and definitely for the better." - he went on describing whether the CD5x + Flatcap2x represent a good value. "The answer depends on your priorities ... could best be summed-up as well balanced and safe. Certainly, there are more colourful, dramatic and better sounding CD players available for this sort of money."

Later on he emphasized Naim's high residual value in second hand market etc., but the message was simple: "... the CD5x is not bad at anything but it is not spectacularly good at anything either. It is unquestionably an enjoyable player but it does not stand out in terms of absolute sound quality."

Viewpoint: Good for you, Jason. Recently I've noticed that French Haute Fidelite and British HiFi+ have both increased the number of critical reviews. What I've always stressed that one has to be educated how to read particular reviewer's articles in the context of editorial policy of a hifi magazine. What some people read as positive, can be interpreted quite negative in the context of reviewer's way of writing negative feedback.

As for Jason's feedback of "no-taste", let me repeat myself here. For me the greatest sin of a 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.

Cambridge Audio 640H Music Server

CA has finally announced its 640H Music Server. CA claims 640H to be an audiophile quality hard-disk player, based on their "mid-hifi" CD player Azur 640C. Specs are interesting: 160GB hard-disk, Wolfson WM8740 24/192kHz DAC, Internet radio, and in-built CD-R/CD-RW burner. Included WiFi and Ethernet connections enable the 640H to access music stored on any PC or Mac in home network. The Music Server is controlled with its embedded Audiophile (?) software, either via a small front LCD screen or external TV. Indicated retail price is €1200.

Viewpoint: The music server business is poised to be owned by Apple, building on their iTunes / iPod franchise. I'm baffled that they haven't announce CA 640H kind of product yet. Having said that, Apple actually already has a direct competitor to CA 640H in terms of Mac Mini, AirPort Express WiFi access point and iTunes software. And Apple solution enables a seamless use of iPod. However, Apple's iTunes has one key weakness what I've already reported. The iTunes software should be enhanced 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.

I'm a proponent of music server type of products, but I'm even bigger fan of iTunes. I'm personally puzzled that according to studies only some 15% of iTunes users use its track/album rating system (1-5 stars). I use rating system to copy selected 4/5 stars songs to my iPod Mini, and have really been delighted how I've re-discovered some terrific tracks on unnoticed albums.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Martin Logan Summit reviewed

Source: Stereoplay 07/05 (German)

This actually might be the first official Summit review. Stereoplay tested it with pretty respectable company of three other speakers: Audio Physic Caldera, B&W N 801D, and JBL Project K2S 9800. Both the B&W and JBL have been raved earlier by British and French hifi magazines. The review noted that the new XStat transducer with its smaller holes provides 50% more playable area than ML's Odyssey, and seems to work as promised - Summit sounded extremely dynamic, open, precise and natural. The magazine concluded that the Summit is the best electrostatic loudspeaker reviewed so far. At €12.000, excellent price/performance ratio, 62 points and Stereoplay Highlight award.

The other reviewed speakers all scored high: Caldera 63, 801D 63, and K2S 9800 62 points.

Viewpoint: A month ago I listened to ML Prodigy in a dealer's showroom. The Prodigys were driven by Bow Technology's components. Although that particular show room is acoustically treated, both myself and my HE buddy (owner of Dunlavy IVAs) detected quite aggressive highs (speakers were not fully burned-in), and larger than life soundstaging. Imaging was painted with large brush and generous strokes, if you get the meaning. To some extent a disappointment, especially in the light that I personally got hooked by high-end audio in listening to Prodigys. BTW, the Prodigy got 60 points in Stereoplay's review in year 2000.

Back to the Summit. The measurements illustrated that Summit is not the most neutral speaker in terms of frequency response, nor did they meet manufacturer's specified 92dB sensitivity (more like 88db). But what really got my attention was the plot of impedance magnitude, which drops below 4ohms at 4kHz, and after that continues to decrease in almost linear fashion (2ohm at 10kHz, and approximately 0.5ohm around 17kHz). Although active bass module should in principle make Summit easy to drive, I suspect that any amplifier not capable of providing enough current will make these speakers sound rolled-off in highs. For the comparison, check Stereophiles's measurements of Prodigy. BTW, Martin Logan owners' site has on-going discussion about the Summit.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Harry Pearson in the Critical Intersection

Source: The Absolute Sound June/July 2005

In short, HP elaborated in "HP's Workshop" that while auditioning some new components over the past few months, he firmly believes that we have reached a turning point in recreating an absolute sound. Furthermore, he stated that improvements we are going to witness in coming months in sound re-production are such that "... we had reached the limits of the descriptive vocabulary that has served audio writers so well for a generation." Then he really got cryptic: "... we shall face an experience that would be a "hyper" reality, like no experience heretofore. Thus we are at an intersection that could take us to "the outside edge" of what we know." And evidently he is talking about two-channel sound.

Now if that was cryptic, then how about this: "There definitely is a revolutionary product on the horizon." He went on describing that on his watch as a reviewer, there has been only one "revolution", "... and that came with the QRS-1D, a hybrid enclosureless speaker system of planar and true ribbon and planar-like ribbon units." So evidently HP has recently been introduced to some kind of product, which has left him puzzled. Quote: "... recently came into my hands what I consider to be the second revolutionary audio product during my days at play. And both its sound and one of the ways it goes about achieving its result have prompted me to rethink some fundamentals and will, no doubt, rattle the audio reptiles, perhaps into a state of denial. I have been so shaken that I deferred writing about it too soon."

I know, the text above describing the mystery component sounds like coming from UFO related magazine, and here am I putting more gasoline into fire. HP confessed that this component has presented itself in the context of the latest state-of-the-art analog and digital gear in his listening room(s), and later on he presented some of these equipments in his revised Super Components List. Some components are already known, like Antique Sound Labs Hurricane monoblocks, some are new additions like Spectral DM-360 monoblocks, Lector Zoe pre-amp (review in same issue), and Zingali M-215 hybrid horn/cone system (review in the previous issue).

Viewpoint: I've read TAS some 8 years, and have to confess that I've never seen HP writing in a way he did in this issue's "HP's Workshop".

But the mystery remains, there is a new component in HP's radar screen he believes will "rattle the audio reptiles" - and will be revealed in the months to come. You Read It Here First - after TAS, of course ;)

I just wonder what comes next?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Aesthetix Saturn Calypso pre-amplifier

Source: Stereophile July 2005

Michael Fremer's listening notes in Stereophile were very positive - and informative as he compared Calypso with VTL TL-7.5 and Musical Fidelity kW pre-amps. The speakers were no slouch either. Instead his new reference Wilson Audio's Puppy 7s he used this time Wilson's MAXX2s.

Actually the Calypso was "Fremered" by Mikey. "Not since the VTL TL 7.5 was in my system have I experienced such mesmerizing midband richness unmarred by thickness and congestion." Furthermore, "... midband presentation was everything I expect from an all-tube circuit: rich, colorful, harmonically involving ... without sounding ... overly "golden" or romanticized." He also observed that while Calypso's midrange over-performed his current reference, MF kWP, the kWP bettered Calypso in transient attack. In furher comparison with two other pre-amps, he noted that the Calypso's bottom-end performance had more extension and control than VTL, and kWP "was still somewhat more "punchy"."

Fremer found spatial presentation and dynamics equally convincing. The only matter worth of criticism was "... it might have missed the last bit of expansive air and resolution you can find in some pre-amps costing far more - but not in all of them." Conclusion: "One of the most enjoyable, musically satisfying preamplifiers I have has the pelasure of reviewing."

Viewpoint: I wrote about Calypso in April. Sum-up: Although Robert Harley in The Absolute Sound (TAS 146) praised this pre-amp, some users evidently have experienced tube problems and excessive noise. As for the latter issue, Mikey experienced none of that. In fact he found that the Calypso performed flawlessly during his two months review period, and was quiet: "Tube rush? Never heard any."

Fremer also observed quite interesting point during his review. With MAXX2s, he noted that the Calypso with the same manufacturer's phono pre-amp Saturn Rhea wasn't producing the ultimate magic, nor was Musical Fidelity's kWP pre-amp with MF's own phono pre-amp. Using MF's kW power amps, he found the most musically enjoyable system building occured when the Calypso was combined with MF phono pre-amp, and MF pre-amp with Manley Steelhead phono pre-amp. Personally I suspect any seasoned audiophile has learnt that while a manufacturer's components are voiced to support and complement each other, sometimes synergies between components from different manufacturers enforce more particular virtues a melomane is seeking.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Dire Straits' new call to arms for SACD ...

stated Hi-Fi News in July 2005 issue presenting a new re-mix of this classic (?) and audiophiles' favored (?) album. Although I don't possess or plan to purchase SACD player, I was intrigued enough to order this hybrid CD/SACD (stereo/5.1) disk. As I don't have the original CD, the listening notes concern the Sultans of Swing, The Very Best of Dire Straits CD I have. Since this Best Of has Brothers in Arms and So far Away tracks, I compared them with the same tracks in re-mastered hybrid disk.

In short, better. Increased resolution, better defined bass, Mark Knopfler's voice has more texture, sound is definitely more open and airy. I also discovered that new hybrid's CD layer is HDCD coded, although I couldn't find HDCD logo anywhere in packaging. The Best Of album is also HDCD coded, and clearly indicated so. The CD layer of SACD disk has also substantially more presence, but unfortunately sounded a tad more louder than the other disk (read: more compression?).

Funny thing, though. As a teen, I was a big fan of Dire Straits and had all their albums in vinyl. Loved that sound played through my humble hifi gear, yet nowadays even this re-mastered disk leaves me dead cold emotionally speaking. Sure, my music taste is utterly different nowadays (90% 50/60's jazz, rest 10% consists of French non-contemporary like Manu Chao and bands like Pink Martini), but still I have to confess that after the test was concluded this Brothers of Arms ended right there with my other secondary stuff. Furthermore, this re-mastered version left me question what virtues other audiophiles appreciate in order to use this album as their reference disk?

With the same delivery from I also got classic War of the Worlds album, remastered to CD/SACD hybrid. If the latest version of Brothers of Arms sounded superior to precedent version(s), the re-mastered War of the Worlds sounds way superior to the double CD I possess. Richard Burton's voice, in particular, is wonderfully presented - rich, full of warm and shades. The packaging is super as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Musical Fidelity kW 750 power amp

Source: Revue de Son June 2005 (kW750), Hi-Fi News July 2005 (with kW750 pre-amp)

As always, Musical Fidelity's marketing message is not shy in describing these products like the following extracts from their Web site illustrate: "The kW preamp is technically far in advance of anything available from any other manufacturer at any price." As for power amp, "The kW750 is not like any amplifier from any other manufacturer. It is so powerful that it virtually never clips or limits." And surprisingly, these new MF amps are not a limited edition products.

So how do these amps "not available from any other manufacturer" rated in reviews?

Jean Hiraga and Romain Buthigieg reviewed power amp with its standard outboard power supply. They both noted that often hold notion of big equals bad - i.e. that massively powerful amps sacrifice delicacy for power - doesn't apply with kW750.

JM: "... competes with McIntosh MC 1201 monoblocks ... both combine very high power with dynamic acceleration, finesse and subtlety." They equally wowed kW750's capability to maintain its character with low and high listening volumes - once again, not always the forte of high-power amps. Reading their listening notes, kW750 was bogglingly transparent, had state-of-the-art resolving capabilities, and imaged extremely convincing. Huge power available presented very authoritative and physical presence. Sum-up: Revue de Son Recommended.

As kW750 power amp, the matching kW750 hybrid pre-amp is designed not to be overdriven by load. According to Hi-Fi News' measurements, it can sustain a continuous output in excess of 15w into 8ohm load! The pre-amp employs mu-vista miniature 6112 valve in its drive stage. "While £2999 is a lot of money, for once it represents almost unbeliable value", noted Kessler in Hi-Fi News' review.

Kessler observed that the combination had a distinctive sound. The pairing produced "rich, fat, luscious, romantic bass." He add, however, that the bass is not undamped or overpowering, more like a tilt toward the lower register. Personally I suspect quite many people find that as a likeable quality, providing music with foundation and subjective impression of weight. Kessler highlighted dynamics, speed, huge available power, and detailed and neutral (above that mentioned low bass) sound. Furthermore, he described combination's imaging capabilities as "”...MF calls up a vast amphitheatre in which ... music will play ... resolves all three dimensions with aplomb, working miracles with recordings where scale matters."” Summing up: "... there are few designs to rival this combo for sheer value."

Viewpoint: Quite many people imply in Internet forums that the sheer number of MF product reviews in hifi magazines, and constantly noted super quality/performance/price ratio in these reviews only proof that MF'’s marketing campaigns are superior to competitors'’ efforts. Well, I don't think so. MF is evidently one of the few high-end manufacturers who constantly revise their offerings in order to make them appalling for reviews, and new products seem to provide solid value for money. I know, you are as troubled as am I that there are no balanced connections, but...

BTW, Michael Fremer in January 2004 Stereophile reviewed Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista kWP preamplifier & Tri-Vista kW Monobloc power amplifier.
Consequently, Mr. Analog Guru adopted Musical Fidelity amps as his personal reference review tools with Wilson Audio Puppy 7 speakers.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Live vs. recorded - the acid test of audio reproduction

Quite many audiophiles have advocated that the ultimate and the most honest test for high fidelity would be to record a live, acoustic performance and then play it back on the spot, for the same audience through two or multi-channel audio system.

The ultimate test? Think again. Although level matching between live and recording could probably be achieved, the issue is audience seating during the live concert and during listening the recording. Taking into account the limitations of speaker designs, listening from the on-axis/off-axis and under/above the tweeter axis would significantly affect how the recording would sound and image vis-a-vis the live performance. In essence, only a few listeners in a speakers' sweet spot could provide plausible audition.

More importantly, when recording a performance in a room and then playing that recording back in the same room, you're overlaying the room's acoustic with its own image. Hence, in order to make live vs. recording meaningful, only the listeners who enjoyed live performance in its sweet spot should compare the recording in the acoustically treated room through a particular audio system, and only then deliver the judgment.

Pass Lab X1 pre-amp and XA100 monoblocks

Source: Haute Fidelite June 2005

Audio veteran Nelson Pass has been titled Mr. Class-A as he has designed behemoths Class-A amplifiers under numerous brands for years. It's under Pass Labs, however, where he has been able to summate and implement his overall design philosophy.

Haute Fidelite tested X1 pre-amp with XA100 monoblocks. Like many high-end pre-amps, the X1 is a two chassis construction, and has three features I consider essential for a pre-amp: state-of-the-art volume control, variable gain settings and full balanced circuit. The volume control is an intriguing implementation as it's essentially a fixed resistor attenuator under digital control. With regard to the XA monoblocks, the very first thing everybody notices is their most dramatic-looking exterior design (see pic. below).

Compared with Pass Labs' X-series, the more upmarket XA-series "accentuate performance over power", according to manufacturer's Web site. As with all Pass Labs amps, XA-series employs low global feedback and "Supersymmetry" circuit, which according to company, reduce overall distortion by as much as 99%.

Back to review. Laurent Thorin observed:"...low end was tuneful, incredulous energic and precise ... mids were astonishingly rich and fluid ... voices were unsettlingly real ... highs materialized with subtlety and delicacy ...". Moreover, he noted that in subjective terms the XA100s sounded 2 or 3 times more powerful than their actual 100 watts. Thorin bestowed "Haute Fidelite Reference" designation for the combination.

Although Pass Labs product reviews are quite rare, all I've seen characterized the sound in pretty similar fashion. The extreme dynamic range and definitive bass control, warm midrange and sweet top end, and a subtle, velvety character that floates images in superbly three-dimesional soundstage. Anthony H. Cordesman in the Absolute Sound August/September 2004 issue said about XA160 monoblocks: "It is the most tube-like transistor amplifier I have heard in the positive sense of "tube-like". This is an amplifier with soul." And while reviews highlight the realistic warmth and lifelike nature of XA-series, equally reviewers have noticed that XA amps don't possess the ultimate resolution.

The XA160 review in Stereophile by Michael Fremer was curious as evidently the early production run of the amplifier suffered from an internal wiring error, resulting in distorted sound and low maximum power. The measurements also illustrated quite low input impedance, at 19.5k ohms balanced and 12.7k ohms unbalanced.

If you are interested, there is a fascinating review of XA160s by Dr. Poltum, the Director of Archives for the prestigious Vienna State Opera/Philharmonic Orchestra. Look at their reference system: Pass Lab's amplification, Wilson Puppy 7 speakers, SME 30/2 turntable w/ SME V arm and top cartridges like Koetsu Platinum Jade, Accuphase DP-85 SACD/CD-player and Mark Levinson Reference CD transport, and Transparent Reference XL cabling. Worthwhile article to read, especially how musicians themselves decribe the reproduction of sound of their own recordings.

Viewpoint: The diversity of high-end amplifiers is staggering. On the one hand there are occasional hobbyist-professionals handcrafting esoteric amps and on the other there are potent manufacturers with staying power like Accuphase or Mark Levinson that produce extremely high-quality, great sounding amps aiming to the most neutral reproduction of sound.

Personally I find the most compelling the high-end amplifier manufacturers like Ayre, Audio Research, Burmester, Edge, Halcro, LAMM, Pass Labs, and to some extent, Krell. Why? Because the amps from these companies tend to embody one bold thinker's vision, imagination and creativity what an amplifier should be and do. Although aforementioned companies produce sometimes utterly different designs than the others' ones, their amplifiers are designed with an attitude and personality and exhibit a difference in their designers' points of view. Some excel in resolution (like Halcro), some leave the reviewers searching words to describe the "rightness" of the sound they are experiencing (like with LAMM), and some take price-point-no-issue approach (like Burmester). But at least they express something distinctive, some even have soul.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Nordost Thor

In June/July 2005 issue of The Absolute Sound Harry Pearson listed his updated "Super Components List". Although review is pending, HP already announced that Nordost's Thor AC mains power distribution unit is "A masterpiece, pure and simple." I wrote earlier in this blog about enthusiastic Nordost product reviews in audio magazines. Some time ago HP became converted, and has since been an evangelist for Nordost Valhalla cables, pronouncing "allows what might truly be described as a window on the, er, world of sound."

Viewpoint: If you already have top notch system, Valhalla cable system might be icing the cake. However, personally I just can't get over the price issue - are you really better of investing over €20.000 to cables instead of putting the same money into updated source and/or pre-amp? But then I also use expensive Siltech G5/G6 interconnects and Kimber Kable's 3035 speaker cables, so I should be the last person quetching. Envious?

Nikic Audio Team (NAT)

I've never heard about NAT before, but by looking into information in their Web site you get an impression that this is a boutique high-end company that might deserve wider international exposure. The fabrication and the choice of components seems to be first rate, like Vishay and Holco resistors and MultiCap coupling capacitors. NAT power amplifiers features output transformers wound by hand, which according to company, result in extremely wide frequency response (5 Hz to 120 kHz). While some aspects in designs appear to be excessive - like Plasma line stage's usage of 18 tubes in total - specs are impeccable.

Check out this worthy review in Dutch magazine (English traslation).

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Only a Frenchman ...

can conclude an audio component review by saying "Avec les Manley, c'est fromage ET dessert."

You have to know a bit of cuisine française to appreciate this "you can have both cheese and dessert" joke. Anyway, the closing was made in review of Manley Snapper monoblocks. You propably guessed already, Antoine Gresland in Haute Fidelite June 2005 issue rated Snappers highly.

Monsieur Gresland asserted: "Neutral and well-balanced, it's evident that the tubes are not used here to produce false warmness in frequency band, but to liberate it from any hardness and provide a listener as precise listening experience as possible." He furthermore noted easiness of reproduction of music and musicality of these monoblocks. His closing remark about cheese and dessert referred to fact that with Snappers you don't need to choose between objective and subjective qualities of music reproduction - you can have them both.

Viewpoint: While some high-end companies have house sound, Manley has house naming policy and industrial design. Coming to consumer hifi from pro-segment the Manley Labs, under the leadership of characteristic Madame EveAnna Manley, evidently produces super products. Their Steelhead phono pre-amp has received outstanding reviews, and as for the Snapper Positive Feedback gave it equally glowing remarks.

My only concern with the Snapper is its low input impedance: with the switch in rear a user can choose input impedance either 600Ohm or 15kOhm. The higher value is still on the low side for some (tube) pre-amps.

Audio Research VM220 monoblocks

Source: Hi-Fi News July 2005 issue

To my knowledge this is the first VM220 review in mainstream hi-fi magazines. More interestingly, reviewer David Berriman also reviewed VM220's little brother, VS110, some time ago in the same magazine and was able to put VM220's sound into that context.

The VM220 is an odd-man-out in Audio Research product family. It differs from visually similar VS-serie (VS50 & VS110) by having both SE and balanced connections and being monoblock against VS-serie's stereo design. The output stage has six 6550 tubes and is fed by a power supply with 438 joules of energy storage. The design uses high quality components (e.g. Nichicon caps, extra-wide-bandwidth transformer) and bandwidth extension is higher (up to 100kHz) than in VS-serie products. Stereophile's measurements of VS110, on the contary, illustrated frequency roll-off -4db at 50kHz.

Hi-fi News tested VM220 with Musical Fidelity A306 CR and Audio Research Reference 2 pre-amps. David Berriman noted: "From memory, the VM220 certainly has better bass grip and treble clarity than stereo Audio Research VS110...Whereas the VS110 had more of a typical warm, cuddly, rounded valve sound, the VM220 was having none of this." He confessed that he searched words to describe the enigmatic sound of VM220, i.e. "it's both delicate and assertive, ... brilliant and soft." And finally, "Just don't expect to hear it and not alter your audio perceptions."

In other words, he liked VM220 - a lot. The amp for melomane, according to him.

Viewpoint: There is a huge price difference between VS110 and VM220. In my view, ARC has a gap in its product line and they should introduce balanced version of VS110 with some price premium over standard VS110. Currently to enjoy ARC power amp sound in balanced mode sets you back at least €8000 (VT100 mkIII).

BTW, if you are interested in ARC products, Manfred Persson maintains excellent Web site, "Audio Research Database", listing discontinued and current ARC products, including revisions per product.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Simaudio Supernova CD-player

Simaudio has announced the SuperNova CD-player. This is a fully-balanced differential design housed in a single chassis, with 24-bit/352.8kHz digital audio processing. Available in August 2005, retail price $4500. The SuperNova appears to be a simplified implementation of company's ambitious two separate chassis Andromeda CD-player, although Andromeda has higher specs: 24-bit/705.6kHz upsampling and superior clock implementation.

More glory for EAT KT-88 tubes

Source: Hi-Fi News July 2005

As I wrote earlier in this blog, EAT's KT-88 tubes have received very favourable reviews in British hi-fi press. Now Ken Kessler found that they turbocharged his current budget reference amplifier PrimaLuna Prologue 2. "...the KT-88s astonish, offering gains in weight, midband and speed." He noticed that already excellent amp (for a budget component) gave an impression of increased wattage, bottom end was more convincing, and overall resolution went up "A big notch." According to review, there were much improved attack/decay capabilities, i.e. PrimaLuna gained speed. Sum-up: "...£600's worth of EATs can turn the £999 PrimaLuna into a reasonable facsilile of a £3000 amp...".

There is on-line review about EAT's 300B tubes in Positive Feedback.

See also post presenting some interesting European KT-88 based amps.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

"Secret " of B&W new D-series speakers ...

Personally I'm sick to see B&W's marketing machine working, i.e. every hifi-magazine is full of their latest diamond tweeter speakers reviews - which without exception have been positive. Quite many, though, have highlighted that some models in D-series are not the most neutral, but nevertheless enjoyable. Like Hifi+ issue 38 reviewing 803D: "...the midband, 500Hz - 1kHz, is rather forward, and output falls significantly thereafter to very restrained presence octave 2 -4 kHz, before the tweeter stages some recovery."

UPDATE: German Stereoplay in June 2005 issue reviewed B&W model 802D and French Prestige Audio Video in its part model 803D. Both magazines' measurements confirmed previous findings: D-series is not the most neutral. The measurements show that there is accentuated mid bass between 50-80Hz and mids in presence region. Though the 802D's highs were not entirely smooth, the 803D showed in PAV's measurements more lifted high frequencies between 8-15kHz. In addition, the 802D measurements showed that this is not the easiest load to drive: minimum impedance is 2.8ohm. But both magazines nevertheless gave their recommendations for both speakers.

Viewpoint: The success might be to some extent explained by B&W's decision to use the first-order crossover instead of previous models' third-order filter, i.e. speakers are phase coherent - like Dunlavy and Thiel speakers. The inherent simplicity of 1st order cross-over means low components count, and on top of this B&W has sourced the special oil-filled capacitors from German specialist Mundorf. That 1st order cross-over necessites that B&W's minimum recommended listening distance should be adhered in order drivers to integrate.

Combak Bravo speakers vs. Gradient Prelude

You might have noticed that there is quite a bit of Internet discussion about the Bravo and the Gradient Prelude, i.e. claims that they are essentially the same speaker with different price tag.

In Enjoy The Music review Combak's Kiuchi-San went on-the-record, and said: "... Bravo is made for us to our specifications by the Gradient speaker company in Finland and we supply wire and parts. When the Bravo arrives from the manufacturer, we custom-tailor each one with our traditional resonance control technology so that the total frequency is flat, using our exclusive technical know-how... The crossover was designed for us by the manufacturer, Gradient. We pay particular attention to resonance control. We maximize the potential of the network design by selecting the optimal material for the front baffle (solid wood not MDF), the tuning of the driver inside and the box itself". Furthermore, "We designed Bravo to be much more integrated and to be acceptable to serious music lovers. So we redesigned the front baffle to use natural wood, we designed and supplied the internal wires and so on. The speakers are so different that there is no point comparing them any more."

Viewpoint: Personally I bet most of the claims actually originate from Finnish Prelude owners, hoping to own a special HE-gear. Finland is a peculiar country as for high-end audio (I should know, it's my home country although I have lived overseas some 12 years). It's most probably the least developped EU country in regard to high-end audio market penetration. Whether reason is a low purchasing power, small living space or something else, the fact is that overall supply of HE-gear is very limited (to mainstream offerings), and no esoteric gear is available. The prevailing mantra is that there is no difference between €150 DVD player's and dedicated €3500 CD-player's CD playback sound quality. Oh, well...

Back to comparison with Prelude. Some years ago I purchased a pair of Prelude to my office system. Not wanting to offend anybody here I can say that they did not last long. Don't take this wrong, Gradient enjoys certain reputation, initially because of their subwoofer integrated so well with Quad 63 speakers. Nowadays they Resolution speakers are well-known to interface well with "real" living room environments.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Some interesting European tube amps

Source: Haute Fidelite June 2005, Hi-Fi News September 2004

The Tchek tube specialist KR Audio's VA-340 hybrid integarated uses MOSFET transistors and manufacturer's famous 300BXLS tubes in output stage, producing 20wpc. Design involves pure Class A, tube auto biasing and includes remote control (ALPS' motorised potentiometer). Associated pictures in review illustrated very neat and high quality internal contruction, external appearance is typical somber KR Audio design. The review mentioned the regular audiophilia minutia akin super 3D imaging, natural timbre of each instruments and so forth. "A winning combination in musicality", summed up HE, and presented its Reference award to the VA-340. See also the VR-340 review in, in where it received their BlueMoon Award.

Viewpoint: At €6.500 KR Audio faces like any other European tube specialist a tough competition from China origin products. The KR Audio might be in better position than some others as it does enjoy relatively low labour costs, being located in Tchek Republic. However, compared with typical Chinese products this one have high-quality 300B tubes as standard (a spare pair goes for $500). Other interesting European tube amp is Italian Graaf's GM50. Ken Kessler noted in Hi-Fi News September 2004: "...perceived value so far beyond what most traditional high-end brands offer that it's almost painful." Furthermore, "Where the GRAAF really scores, though, especially related to its price, are the sense of power it imparts within the anticipated performance of a 50-watter, and the scale it produces."

Copland announced in Salon HiFi Home-Cinema 2005 in Paris its latest integrated, model CTA405. Specs are similar to Graaf GM50: 50wpc, 4 KT88 tubes, although whereas the GM50 has balanced connections the CTA405 seems to be single-ended only. I wonder how both of these amps would sound with EAT's KT88 tubes.

Panasonic automobile high-end (?) CD-player

This looks like a hilarious product. The CQ-TX5500D is a double DIN size automobile CD player with tube output stage. It also plays MP3 CD-ROM discs.

Cambridge Audio moving upwards

In Munich High End Show Cambridge Audio launched two products that have high-end aspiration: integrated amp 740A and CD-player 740C. The 740C appears to be interesting as it incorporates acclaimed DAC from Swiss Anagram Technologies, upsampling CD audio stream to 24-bit/352,8kHz. The price for both products is around €1000, and they should be available in September 2005.

Conrad-Johnson ACT2 measurements

Review in June issue of Prestige Audio Video added little to previous reviews. Equally applauded as one of the most musical and best pre-amps currently available. However, I paid attention to one peculiar aspect in measurements. The rise time was 14,5µs ! The same magazine tested previously Audio Research Reference 3, and in comparison it's rise time was 1,6µs. Unfortunately in Stereophile's review Atkinson didn't comment rise time, nor his measurements showed anything troublesome.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Modification of hifi products

If you read on-line hifi publications and forums, you could not have missed proliferation of modded audio products.

One of the best justification for modifications I've seen is at Response Audio's Web site, read full text yourself.

They start by saying: "If you are simply not happy with the performance of your tube product (amplifier, preamp, CD player, etc.), modifications may not be the answer. Our modifications are designed to bring out more of the hidden potential within a product, not completely change its overall characteristics. We can bring out more resolution, inner detail, dynamic control, transparency, etc. We cannot change a Pinto into a Porsche."

Pay attention what they say about circuit mods and fallacy of categorically using "the best components".

Friday, June 03, 2005

META, audiophile recordings and SACD/DVD-A thoughts

Quite many audiophiles propably missed that in a press-conference during the CES 2005 the META-initiative (Music Engineering & Technology Alliance) was announced. META states as their mission statement:

"Established to provide the best standards and practices for high-quality music recording and delivery by uniting audio professionals, technology providers, and consumer electronics manufacturers."

Behind META are some heavyweights from recording industry, so the initiative has credibility.

John Atkinson wrote in Stereophile February 2005 eNewsletter as follows: "One of the factors that has increasingly marginalized the high-end audio industry is the lack of attention paid to sound quality in the music industry: If there's no more quality to be retrieved from an overcompressed, overequalized, overprocessed, underdithered, underperforming MP3 than can be obtained from playback on a computer via a pair of pitiful plastic PC speakers, then why should anyone bother with putting together a high-performance audio system?"

Viewpoint: Finally, we Audiophiles Unified say. I wrote earlier in this blog that although (if, actually) we have managed to build a truly high-end hifi system that is capable to reproduce to the highest fidelity the original recording, we have only completed a half of audio circle. What we are often sadly experiencing is non-audiophile recordings. With recordings "audiophile" simply means that the same care goes into the front end that goes into the back end. The studios, which have invested in state-of-the-art recording chain and the highest quality available signal path, basically completes the audiophile circle. Once a melomane plays the recording at home, that's the other half, a studio keen to make the highest quality possible recording is the first half.

I sincerely hope that META initiative succeeds in its mission. During the last decade there has been too much emphasis on convenience over sound quality, and if recording industry would bring back quality, they might even be able to find a sustainable business model in the onslaught from downloadable music. The SACD and DVD-A were not pushed by industry because it wished to serve audiophiles better, or rise the bar and provide the highest-quality audio for mass consumption. Rather the objectives were first to make money from re-issues (like when people replaced their familiar music LPs with CDs), and second and more importantly, introduce effective copy protection into playback chain by keeping both architectures closed in terms of limiting digital out connection options.

Further proof? In both formats the content is too often compromised with respect to resolution and dynamic range, which renders moot the advantages of the new formats. There are even measurements demonstrating that in some SACD hybrid disk both CD and 2-channel SACD layer were exactly the same material.

Conrad-Johnson LPM142 monoblock amplifiers

I've seen in various on-line forums a comment that the CJ will annouce in summer 2005 yet another new product employing their new Teflon CJD capacitors. Specs-wise, the LPM142 is a 140W, linearized-pentode monoblock amplifier built to conform to C-J's new retro-futurist styling (like the ACT2 preamplifier). Evidently it'll replace the Premier 140 in their product line. It comes configured for 4 ohm loads, but can be ordered set up for loads of 2, 4, 8, or 16 ohms; the wattage remains 140 at all outputs. Price estimate $6500 each.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Stereophile eNewsletters

You can subscribe to Stereophile's monthly, email delivered eNewsletter, at their home page. Don't miss the opportunity to read the past newsletters.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

System hierarchy debate, Part II

Back to TAS Roundtable. No big surprises, Mr. Tiefenbrun maintained the Linn's traditional stand that the source is the most important, Messr. Wilson said "...three most important factors. First is the microphone used in the recordings. Another is room acoustics, and then third is loudspeakers." The microphone? Remember that Wilson started his audio career in recording business with his wife, who continues to run that business.

The TAS representatives were less categorical. Wayne Garcia: "...for me, balance is the key. But if pressed, I would ultimately go to the source." Jonathan Valin noted that he has never heard a truly satisfying system in which front end wasn't first-rate. He went on emphasizing importance of pre-amp, and that speakers' characteristics should match listener's primary musical taste. "I would not spend the bulk of my money on a loudspeaker whose many virtues I wouldn't need or use." Furthermore, he counseled consumers to build a system, which as a whole, would faithfully reproduce those qualities of music that a listener values and makes "your music consistently enjoyable to listen to..."

Harry Pearson: "I think I would come down on the side of the speakers, simply because if you buy a good speaker system, you will not need to replace it as you're working on the chain."

All participants assumed that a system is not static, but one that changes over time. Wayne Garcia raised a good point by saying that not all listeners want to upgrade: "Not every customer wants to make it a hobby." A lot of people want just to buy a system with a given budget, take it home and enjoy music years to come.

Viewpoint: As I said in the beginning, read the original article, it's worthwhile. My views about the system building reflect to some extent various opinions put forward by the Roundtable participants. Naturally I make assumption here that your are a melomane/audiophile, i.e. that music matters you so much that you invest time and money in your hi-fi system to make it more enjoyable.

First, I call for balance, but not in budget allocation but in terms of performance. Although price/performance is quite linear with audio components (with diminishing return), careful testing and listening can results in some components costing (substantially) less than initially reckoned, because they provide superior price/performance in the context of a particular system. This most often occurs because of synergies between different components make 1+1 equal 3 in sonic terms.

Second, for any serious hifi system I would always allocate some 10-15% to "secondary" components, i.e. to cables, racks and tweaks (like isolation devices). The secondary components behave like subtle tune controls. They can enhance the virtues a listener feels important in his/her sound, but you can never make any components fundamentally better. If "it" doesn't exist in primary components - like resolution - then secondary components are not going to make "it" audible.

Third, buying a system as "balanced" holds a trap. The end-result might not develop enough enjoyment and involvement, leaving an owner unenthusiastic to invest further in his system.

Fourth, I advocate having an anchor point is your system, and that cornerstone should be a pre-amplifier. I'm a relic here as I'm only referring to 2-channel pre-amp. If you are intrigued by new "audiophile" formats (I'm not, for various reasons) like SACD and DVD-A in multi-channel format, look elsewhere. However, my experience is that most audiophiles enjoy increasingly more new formats in 2-channel set-up, so you might continue reading.

Following logically the cornerstone thinking you might conclude that it's the best to make the speakers an anchor. I beg to differ, and let me give you an example. I used to drive my power amp directly from the source, using Mark Levison 390S CD-player's analogue volume control. And that volume control is no slouch (attenuator implemented with Vishay resistors). A typical "lets keep signal path as short as possible" mantra. But still I preferred the sound with an inexpensive tube pre-amp with NOS tubes injected into the system, in this case €1200 (with NOS tubes) Eastern Electric MiniMax. The end-result was more involving, enhancing the virtues I appreciate in music listening like soundstaging and imaging - and this in a system costing close to €45,000. This was the definitive moment for me as I realize that the speakers and the source are extremes, and the pre-amp acts like a valve between them.

Consequently I decided to take pre-amp on the same level as the rest of the system, and ARC LS25 mk2 pre-amp provided me with even more satisfying sound, and finally replacing the stock tubes by better NOS tubes (6H30 DR grade) took performance yet to the different level.

So am I bragging around about my gear or is there a message here? The point is that in order to hear what your source can decode from CDs, LPs or new formats and how your speakers can finally re-produce the signal you need the best "valve" in between, i.e. the pre-amp. So my advice is to spend disproportionally to (tube) pre-amplifier, and then use that as reference to build the system over time.

Why tube pre-amp? Because you get harmonic completeness, timber richness, coherence and and convincing three-dimensional soundstaging. Don't take my word for it, experience with tubes.

Fifth, when "the speakers come first" school emphasize the quality of speakers, way too often they forget to say that equally important is speakers' interaction with the room. The speakers have to match the room size and characteristics. For example, in the Nordic countries rooms tend to be constructed differently than, lets say, in the US or France. A typical Nordic room is relatively small, with concrete floor and walls and double-glazing windows. This kind of construction presents utterly different interaction with any speaker than a large room in a wood construction house with large, single-glazing windows. Also for this reason consumers should read foreign audio reviews carefully - and I'm not a xenophobic in saying that ;)

Some closing notes. One of the more frustrating uncertainties facing high performance audio is determining the ultimate capabilities of a component. Being able to identify a component as excellent is easy enough. Knowing exactly just how excellent is rather more ambiguous. Since any component will only be audible when placed in a system, judging its ultimate limits requires that one knows the ultimate prowess of each component in the system, each of which in turn faces the same dilemma. Upgrading an individual component becomes a shot in the dark: will the upgrade bring a genuine improvement in system sound and will the rest of the system be capable of resolving the difference?

The larger, far more important questions should always be the central concern: is the component in question producing more musical information? Is it more faithful to the music? Is it, thus, higher fidelity? For quite many audiophiles engaged with system building difference per se is reported immediately to be good, and yet after the long term listening new component's or tweak's shortcomings become evident and audible.

We audiophiles devote a lot of time building our audio system towards higher fidelity, and we like to read audio magazines and peer group reviews (at least for positive reinforcing). As for reviews, the old rule prevails. The purpose of audio reviews is not to make choice for a reader. It is rather to help potential buyer to know what products merit a visit to a dealer showroom - or more preferably, leads into home trial within listener's own system.

And yet if we've managed to build a truly high-end hifi system that is capable to reproduce to the highest fidelity the original recording, we have only completed a half of audio circle. What we are often sadly experiencing is non-audiophile recordings. With recordings "audiophile" simply means that the same care goes into the front end that goes into the back end. The studios, which have invested in state-of-the-art recording chain and the highest quality available signal path, basically completes the audiophile circle. Once a melomane plays the recording at home, that's the other half, a studio keen to make the highest quality possible recording is the first half.

System hierarchy debate, Part I

Source: The Absolute Sound December 2004, TAS Rountable Playpack systems: What Matters Most?

I strongly urge you to read the original article in TAS. In short, TAS' Wayne Garcia, Harry Pearson and Jonathan Valin discuss with Ivor Tiefenbrun (Linn's founder) and David A. Wilson (Wilson Audio's founder) about system hierarchy, i.e. which components matter most and the least in the playback system.

Let me give some background for this debate. So called The Hierarchy debate emerged in 1972 with the launch of Linn LP12: for quite many listeners it was troubling to clearly hear how a superior source component can improve the sound reproduction. The garbage in, garbage out metaphor became a central theme in system building thinking, further re-enforced in 1991 by Mark Levinson's launch of its No.30 Reference Digital Processor. The No.30 broke the digital sound barrier and very first time a digital product achieved what many thought was impossible for the 16-bit/44 kHz CD standard. The Mark Levinson continued to build on No.30's formidable performance with successive digital products, but it's the Linn's Sondek CD12, launched in the late 1990's, that took digital playback yet further, almost closing the gap between high-end digital and analogue gears in terms of musicality.

In the other end of The Hierarchy debate is "speakers matter most" school of thought. Idea is that you can spend disproportionately to speakers, then gradually upgrade the rest of equipments, and the speakers are able to resolve the improvements in the rest of your system. You might disagree with me here, but for me Wilson Audio is the manufacturer, which since its launch 1981 has been the most influential in speaker design. Their WATT, MAXX and Grand SLAMM models have sold in thousands, despite sky-high price tags (up to $225,000 a pair). For a comparison, Dunlavy sold only some few hundred pairs worldwide of its respected model IVA (before it went bust). The latest incarnations like WATT Puppy System 7 and new models like Alexandria are further proof how far speaker design can be taken. There are other great speaker manufacturer like Kharma, Tannoy, JM Labs or Avalon, just to name a few, but none has shapen speaker design over the last 20 years period like Wilson Audio. In various demonstrations Wilson Audio has used Apple iPod playing non-compressed music tracks as a source to further brag their "speakers are the most critical element in playback chain" mantra. Personally, I find that trick foolish and coarse.

Somewhere between these extremes then are various other "hierarchiers": some call for balanced system building akin allocating 50% of any given audio budget to speakers, rest spent evenly to source and amplifiers; others point out that the highest overall performance can be found through synergies or unorthodox allocation of budget. Nordost finds it's OK to spend 50% of the audio budget (and should I say of family's annual budget) to their Valhalla cables, some say €1500 speakers combined with the €10,000 esoteric amplifier is the right ticket to audio nirvana.

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