Friday, July 08, 2005

Pathos Cinema-X

Source: Hi-Choice Summer 2005

Cinema-X? Maybe Pathos' marketing department has been watching too much Pay-TV? In earnest, this is a 5 x 110 watts into 8 Ohm multichannel integrated amplifier. The valve preamp stage operates in class A and uses 6 ECC88 tubes, one for each solid-state MOSFET amplifier channel and one for the sub-woofer output. Each channel can be individually adjusted via the remote control. Design is pretty purist and audiophile grade: no internal decoder, limited video switching, XLR in, and most interestingly, power amps can be grouped together for 2 x 450w into 8 Ohm. Pathos even claims that X delivers 2 x 700w into 4 Ohm! Styling is typical Pathos - you either love it or hate it, personally I find all their designs striking.

As for sonic characteristics, the review found X's sound BIG and rich: "... perhaps too huge: a solo voice can sometimes seem as if it's about five metres tall and four metres wide!" Sound was found to lean on warm, slightly romantic and creamy side, the drawbacks being some lack of dynamics and transparency. The main criticism was timing: "... if your last amplifier was a Naim, your next one will not be a Pathos." Combining power amps into 2 x 450w "... comes across as more grip and headroom..." Received "Editor's Choice" recommendation.

Viewpoint: Only one. This blog leaves for vacation and we'll meet again in the end of July. Happy summer listening.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stax SRS-4040 Signature System 2

Source: Hi-Fi World August 2005

David Price reviewed a Stax "earspeakers" system comprising of the SR-404 classic electrostatic earspeakers and the SRM-006t valve energiser. If you are a newbie for earphones business, seeing the "latest" Stax offerings will most propably send you away from a dealer's showroom screaming. First, the looks. Price really nailed it by saying: ".. it feel like it is 1974 ... the colour is a dead ringer for the 'Nutmeg brown' vinyl interior of my 1977 Rover 3500." One cannot regard Stax's design as retro, it's just plain 1970 hifi appearance. Second, Stax's marketing communication. Instead of headphones and headphone amplifier they refer to Earspeakers and Energiser. Well, in all fairness Stax earspeakers actually are miniature electrostatic speakers with thin diaphragm of only 1.35 micron in thickness. Third, and most importantly, looks are deceiving. Although Stax's product lifecycles seems to be measured in decades, the fact is that over the years numerous revisions to both earspeakers and energisers have been implemented.

Price's review was interesting because he compared SRS-4040 system to his Sennheiser HD-650 with Stefan AudioArt's Equinox cable and Musical Fidelity's latest X-CAN v3 headphone amp. The verdict? Compared with Sennheiser/Equinox /MF combo "... don't come within a country mile." Furthermore, "... these are the cleanest sounding headphones I've ever heard ... so comprehensively better than anything else of its type I've heard ..." Price duly noted what all Stax owners know: the valve based Stax energisers require at least 2 hours of warming up before they really deliver; the affordable (everything is relative) Stax earspeakers are a bit shy in low bass; and while those 'Nutmeg brown' vinyl earspeakers are supremely confortable, they tend to get sweaty during the longish listening session.

Viewpoint: As a satisfied owner of Stax SRM-T1S / Lambda Nova combo I read with interest Price's review, but also felt that he should listen to Stax top-of-the-line SR-007 Omega earspeakers driven by SRM-007t
tube driver unit (see Stereophile review). I had some years ago a change to listen some 2 hours with my own reference disks that system, and have since tried to find all kind of excuses not to purchase them. In addition, Omega has more contemporary looks, if that matters to you.

BTW, a great site to learn about headphones is Headroom.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

CD-playback: CEC + Perpetual Tech vs. Mark Levinson 390S

Some two weeks ago I had to send my Mark Levinson 390S CD-player to service (once again, should I say?). Since an idea without music for several weeks was no option, I installed CEC TL51 transport and Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A combo from my Stax earphones system into my primary system - and was very surprised by results.

Some background. PT's P-1A digital-to-digital processor and P-3A DAC have been well covered by audiophile magazines, see for example Stereophile'’s review. My P-3A and external Monolithic Sound power supply are modified by ModWright to the highest Signature II level (see Stereophile's follow-up review of ModWright units). My experience with modded units in my Stax system has only been positive, yet I have never used PT combo in my primary system.

When I purchased CEC TL51 transport some 2 years ago, the decision was based on its impressive soundstage capabilities against other transports I listened in a dealer's facilities. I suspect that CEC's trademark design aspect, i.e. its belt-driven CD-drive (like in analogue turntables), is material for this point.

First I connected only PT P-3A DAC with Monolithic Sound power supply into my pre-amp, using Alpha Core's Sapphire Silver RCA interconnects. As I've had some 4 years with my Levinson 390S CD-player, my long-term memory footprint is pretty solid, i.e. I can definitely spot difference against other CD-playback system. Well, CEC + PT DAC did sound OK, but not on the same league as ML390S (see also Stereophile's review). What idiomatic language of audio reviews you want to use, it was just not happening on the same level as with ML390S. As I said earlier, Levinson service tends to take time, so I figured that I can do a little of damage control. Time for system building and tweaking.

I added PT P-1A D/D processor to feed P-3A DAC. Definitely an improvement, same thing when I installed PT combo on Townshend 3D platform. Resolution wise it was behind ML, but I got some impressive soundstaging, the gain in depth was in particular noticeable.

In order to make things even, I replaced Alpha Core's Sapphire interconnects by the same Siltech interconnects than with ML in a system. As I usually run my system full balanced, in order to use Siltech G6 XLR interconnects I had to install Cardas'’ RCA/XLR converters on the P-3A'’s side. The digital cable from transport to P-1A was Siltech G5 Golden Ridge, between PT units standard i2s cable. The result was unexpected, actually I was flabbergasted. This combo gave in practically nothing in comparison with ML 390S, on the contrary. Where ML's soundstage is a triangle shaped, deep between the speakers, CEC/PT combo'’s breadth and depth of soundstaging was huge in comparison, and very well layered. If you are familiar with the expression of soundstage's corners illuminated, that's what I got.

I still experienced some lack of ultimate resolution, but where ML is a tad warm sounding due to rather generous midbass, CEC/PT combo'’s bass goes deeper and presents bass lines better. While some tracks demonstrated that ML has a better rhythmic grip, attack and timing, CEC/PT combo's biggest allure is its musicality, with capital M. Reproduction of ambience and elusive impression of liveliness and vitality are another strengths, despite combo having less ultimate resolution than ML.

As said, I was stupefied and yet I wanted to see how far this combo can go. I remember reading about Revelation Audio's PT specific cables. To cut a long story short, some days later I received by courier service Revelation Audio'’s Parable Cryo-Silver Reference Power cords and the Prophecy Cryo-Silver Reference i2s Digital Link cable to replace rather wimpish standard cables. If you want more information about the construction of these cables and another reviewer's comments, see this review on-line. I have nothing to add and nothing to subtract, the reviewer expressed exactly my findings of these cables: more of everything, and then some. Simple, fabulous cables and must to have upgrade for PT owners. I am in awe what this combo can do, palpability and presence of the music has kept me clued on my listening chair for two days.

Good lesson here. What on paper looks like an underdog, produces more enjoyment than a component costing twice as much. But yet, lets remember that combo in a question is a modded one - and it was never a budget combo to start with. For me this is yet another proof that the system building through synergies is the ultimate art. And like art itself, results can sometimes be unpredictable. When ML 390S comes back from service, it'll assume a new role in my secondary system, driving Stax earphones. What I miss in attack, timing and resolution, the slightly "larger than life" presentation compensates. Or maybe my preferences shall change one day, and ML returns - who knows.

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