Monday, October 24, 2005

Listening to Wilson Audio MAXX Series 2

I visited with my audiophile friend TL-Audio, a high-end dealer some 100 kilometers from Helsinki, capital of Finland. You can see some pictures of TL-Audio's quest for hifi here. The main attraction was to listen to Wilson Audio MAXX 2s in order to substantiate whether various reviews of which I reported earlier were correct.

The source was Audio Aero's Prestige SACD player, driving directly Audio Physic's Mono digital monoblocks. Audio Aero's output stage has sub-miniature tubes and a built-in IC ladder attenuator. The cabling throughout was Transparent's Reference MM, with PowerIsolator surge protection / noise filtration unit. Icing the cake was Velodyne's flagship sub, the Digital Drive 1812 Signature Edition. All this is a spacious, acoustically well-treated room, which absorption provided a perfect tradeoff between detail and liveliness.

I'm not going to bother you to death by running through a checklist of sonic characteristics, instead of that I'm simply stating that the sonic performance of this system was impressive. However, I would like to highlight some themes that I found beguiling during over 4 hours of listening.

First, my experience has been that regardless how good a subwoofer is, its integration with main speakers is never seamless. In this system, however, MAXX and Velodyne combo delivered consistent, tight bottom-end with huge dynamic expression. More impressively, the combo never overloaded the room and only with some tracks I was able to position the sub.

Second, MAXX and Audio Physics Mono amplifiers presented a huge headroom, extremely wide bandwidth and dynamic range, way outperforming my Revel Studios & Mark Levinson 334 combo.

However, the most enthralling was the wholeness of the sonic performance or should I say as my accompanying pal said - "The Live Sound". I have never listened to a system, which was as close to live performance as this one. The musicians were in the same room with us, playing in the same space, not in the artificial space called "soundstage". Slam was extremely convincing. The MAXX 2s disappeared as sources of the sound, leaving only the illusion of live concert behind.

I personally found some room for improvements. Occasionally extreme top end called attention to itself, which I suspect would be fixed with a super tube pre-amp like Audio Research Reference 3. Although I'm a resolution freak, MAXX's bogglingly transparent and state-of-the-art resolving capabilities were sometimes a tad too much for my pal, a Dunlavy IVA owner: "I've information overload".

One final note. We both felt that while the MAXX2 looks much better with its grilles on (in this case in Diamond Black with Gray grille cloths), it sounded more spacious with its grilles off.

Utterly rewarding experience.

Monday, October 17, 2005

HP's secret revealed - it's ASR Emitter

One of my reader was correct, HP's secret (see post1 and post2) is the ASR Emitter II Exclusive. And what an essay the latest "HP's Workshop" in October/November 2005 issue of The Absolute Sound is. "This amp is so far beyond the usual that I call it "revolutionary" ... essential elements of its performance defy the usual descriptives ...".

BTW, the Emitter II Exclusive is a $27.000, 280Wpc into 8ohms "integrated" amplifier with a separate battery-powered supply for the input stage.

You have to read yourself this saga where HP with some respective names of high-end audio use the Emitter as "...the focal point, the "enabler", if you will, that allow us ... to fine-tune the jizzy-wits out of the primary reference". The Alon Exotica Grand Reference speakers were driven by the ASR and Antique Sound Lab Hurricane monos (woofers), the digital sources varied from two-piece Lector CDP-7T to the four-piece Lector set-up, followed by Bluenote's Stibber and Jadis JD-1. Analoque sources were no slouch either, Dynavector XV-1S, Benz Ebony LP cartridges and VPI and Kuzma decks. And the manufacturers were on site hacking their products: Nola speakers' designer upgraded cross-overs, VPI's designer created a Super Scoutmaster Plus etc. Nordost cables played a crucial role both in system wiring and in aforementioned upgrades.

Stuff of legend and a journey into high-end audio singularity. And it's not over yet. HP is already reviewing improved Emitter II Exclusive Version 2005...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Latest from Naim Audio

I just noticed that Naim is aiming even higher. Company has introduced at London Hi-fi and Home Entertainment Show the new reference level CD-player, model CD555, along with the 555PS power supply. According to Naim, it "represents Naim's finest reference quality CD player to date". I didn't see any information whether the existing top-of-the-line model CDS3 continues in production. The CD555 will be available in December 2005.

The CD555 is evidently aimed to accompany Naim's NAC 552, which "is by some distance the most advanced Naim pre-amplifier ever and has some claim, therefore, to being the best pre-amplifier, period". The related external power supply is the 552PS. Stereophile's Michael Fremer review is available on-line, to sum up he concluded that "... the NAC 552 provided an exceptionally coherent and cohesive sonic, and especially musical, picture. Add to that its high build quality, convenience, flexibility, and, for the most part, glitch-free performance, and you have an expensive product that, when you look at, touch, and hear it, quickly lets you know you're in the presence of audiophile greatness". Remember that this review took place before Mickey's entry into Musical Fidelity's and Wilson Audio's ne plus ultra wonderland. ;)

In French Haute Fidelite's October 2005 issue Naim NAC 252 pre-amp + Supercap 2 and NAP 500 power amp were reviewed. No news here, the extreme musicality & grace & beauty & ease, PRAT (pace, rhythm, and timing) and huge dynamics resulted in Haute Fidelite Reference honour.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Final call for Black Gate caps

For months there have been rumours that production of legendary Black Gate capacitors shall cease but now seems to be the final hour. For more information look at Partsconnections Web-site.

Bearing in mind in how many HE-mods and DIY projects Black Gates were instrumental, this seems to be a devastating news indeed. However people, I give you the alternative, i.e. V-Caps.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mark Levinson 390S owners, pls. note

OK, I confess, I have to take back what I said in previous post concerning ML390S. After I got it back from service it went back to my primary system due to reason that the player was in essence some 50% revised.

As 200hrs burn-in is now completed I can give initial assessment. The story is that transport gave in and I had to sent ML 390S to service. Typical Levinson stuff, service took 2 months and costed me €780 - yes, forget Levinson's international guarantee, evidently if you seek service outside the country of origin, you pay. Love to be ex-pat.

The interesting point, though, is that since my 390S was one of the first to be upgraded from model 39, during this particular service the DAC was changed for no charge for the current status. I personally always suspected that early upgrades were more or less hacks (my unit went back 3 times to upgrade service due to various problems). The good news is that this new DAC raises the 390S onto a new level in terms of resolution and soundstage projection. The sound is more upfront instead of tightly focused as before, there is more presence, midrange is more palpable, soundstage is as deep as before but noticeable more wider. I already mentioned improved resolution and transparency, proof is that I keep throwing in various CDs just to hear what I've been missing before.

Two possibilities. First, my original upgrade was somewhat defective, and yet even that unit had fabulous transparency. Or second, ML has indeed made some improvements for the original upgrade and the latest upgrade illustrates what an upgrade 390S is fully capable of. Actually I don't mind, I keep smiling when I listen to music. But if you own one of the early upgraded units, check with ML local service whether you are eligible for DAC revision.

Two interesting high-end CD-players

Source: Hi-Fi News November 2005

Musical Fidelity only just recently announced the kW SACD player (see previous post), and yet they keep up the restless pace of new products. According to Hi-Fi News MF has announced (yet MF's Web-site has no information about this) the kW25 CD-player. This is two chassis design, comprising of kW25DM transport and kW25DM DAC. The transport mechanism features enhanced rigidity and vibration-resistant design, adjustable levelling and sophisticated multiple power supplies. Transport upsamples to 96 kHz and outputs via dual cable S/PDIF to kw25DM DAC, which in its turn upsamples audio stream up to 24bit/192kHz.

Such like the kW SACD, kw25 offers two output stages. MF says in their Web-site concerning kw SACD as follows: "The output stage(s) is really interesting. There are two output stages in the kW SACD, operating at the same time. One is a super-quality tube stage, using our amazing mu-Vista tube, and the other is a Class A transistor circuit. Each is an incredible performer and both have truly excellent sound, but they are slightly, ever so subtly, different. Who is to say which one is correct? The idea is that you can connect both output stages to your amplifier and switch between them to select the perfect balance to suit your tastes and recording. Price £1.999 each.

In the same issue another Grand Design was reviewed, Ancient Audio's Grand Lektor CD-player from Poland. I've never noticed this company on my hi-fi radar screen, but I'll in future. Evidently founder Jaromir Waszczyszyn (hope I got that right!) has been hand-crafting HE-components since 1995. The Grand Lector is a gothic, almost insane three-box (!) design, transport + two mono DACs. En plus, each has its own power supply with required power cord, so do the euro/dollar math to apply Nordost Valhalla power cords throughout your system. Data transfer between transport and DACs is by I2S connections (see my post about Revelation Audio I2S cable). However, in this case there are five (5) I2S cables between each DAC and transport, i.e. ten (10) all together, all serving a different purpose, e.g. a master clock, a sample clock etc.

The transport itself is renowed Philips CD-Pro 2M, built in granite chassis. As with other top-loading designs, a magnetic puck is used to secure the disk while playing, but in Lector's case there is no lid (I'm running out of exclamation marks). The DACs use Ancient Audio's own converter, all connections are made in silver and output buffering utilizes 6H30 valve (another my favourite). You have to buy this issue of Hi-Fi News just to be able to admire crafmanship of this beauty.

Reviewer Andrew Harrison's reference system consist of full dCS stack, i.e. state-of-the-art digital playback system par excellence. Yet he remarks that "Where the dCS would give a neutral, nearly dispassionate rendering, the Ancient Audio player had a more engaging personality ... thanks to its sweet, liquid and organic presentation there are few machines that will take you closer to the heart of the music".

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