Friday, April 20, 2007

Conrad-Johnson ART3 and ACT2

Conrad-Johnson. Two legandary audio designers' (they are economist by education) name combined - and as a brand one of the Tier 1 American high-end audio companies. It just sound right, their slogan goes. And one product which put CJ into high-end radar screen was ART (for Anniversary Reference Triode) preamp. ART was first introduced in June 1996 (20th anniversary of CJ) and second incarnation ART2 came in 2001. The initial concept of ART was that CJ would only make 250 units, period. However, somehow only 225 series 1 and 2 models were made, leaving CJ with 25 chassis left over.

Fast forward to 2004 and introduction of another great CJ pre-amp, model ACT2. One of the key factor for ACT2's success in reviews and evidently on the market was extensive use of CJ specific Teflon capacitors. So in 2006 CJ decided that they can use those left-over 25 ART two-chassis, and employ the same advanced materials and Teflon caps to bring to the market ART3. At the time of writing this, all ART3 are gone, but if you own ART1 or ART2, rejoice as you can upgrade from ART1 and ART2 to ART3 for USD 13.000 and USD12.000, respectively. I love audio companies who take their "reference" products seriously, i.e. provide upgrade paths for the loyal owners of reference products. The other great example here is Mark Levinson. Audio Research, take note (no upgrade path from REF2 pre-amp to REF3!).

However, the owners of original USD 13.500 CJ ACT2 (earlier blog entry here) might not feel as exuberated. After only 2 years since its introduction, CJ announced updated Series 2 model with a complete internal makeover. In essence, Series 2 ACT2 only shares casework with previous model, circuit and power supply are entirely different. British hi-fi+ reviewed favourable ACT2 Series 2 in issue 49 - although they gave equally positive review for Series 1. Personnally I would feel a bit embarrassed as a reviewer that the product raved highly recently has much better successor only 2 years after. Remember that original ACT2 was referred as a product which raised the bar for tube preamplifiers.

Initially CJ said that there is no upgrade from Series 1 to 2, however, the word on the street is that there is an upgrade available.

Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento

Ken Kessler reviewed in Hi-fi News March 2007 issue Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento speakers. No news here, Kessler is a long-time fan of original Guarneris, and he gave a very favorable review of the speakers - "I've always loved the Guarneri. Now I positively adore it".

What struck me was the measurements. There is a broad dip in output between 2.5 kHz and 11 kHz, about 7.5 db down at 7.5 kHz! That dip indicates poor integration between bass-mid driver and tweeter. The measured sensitivity was also 3db lower than specified, at 85 db.

hi-fi+ and Audio Reseach LS26 linestage

Although the UK-based print audiophile publication hi-fi+ was acquired by Absolute Multimedia, owners of longstanding United States magazine The Abso!ute Sound, it seems to remain review-wise unchanged. Which is good as the 50th issue exemplifies. The "analogue special" issue has for example reviews of SME 20/12 and Clearaudio Performance turntables, various phono-stages and cartridges, Burmester 061 CD-player, and finally, very first review of Audio Research LS26 linestage.

According to review, the LS26 well deserves its nickname "REF 3 Junior". Compared with REF3, reviewer found LS26 to be a tad quieter than REF3. This is propably due to design differences as the LS26 has hyprid tube/JFET audio circuit vs. REF3's pure tube design, and REF3 has tube regulated power supply. The tube vs. hyprid was evident in listening notes, where reviewer found LS26 to give away to REF3 in authority, dynamics, presence, and less expansive soundstage, on the other hand LS26's leaner bottom-end made sound quicker and more direct with greater musical drive and pace.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Enjoy the Music has a review of Ed Meitner's single chassis CD/SACD player, which upsamples the Red Book 44.1kHz signal to 5.6448MHz DSD.

According to Phil Gold: "The CDSA SE has to be in very front rank of CD Players regardless of cost. It will do wonders for detail retrieval, imaging and accuracy complete with a fully realized bottom end and open top on the best Redbook recordings. Its failings are those of the medium itself. As to SACD, this is as good as digital gets, and far better than any Redbook CD you will ever hear".

The Positive Feedback seems to concur: "Put the CDSA SE up against any Redbook player extant, smile with confidence, and just take SACD as a lagniappe. At this point in time, on planet Earth, digital music reproduction just doesn't get any better than the CDSA SE".

Nagra CDP

In April 2007 issue of Revue de Son both oldtime reviewers, Jean-Pierre Landragin and Jean Hiraga, gave an extremely positive review of Nagra's latest CD-player, model CDP. To refresh your memory, Nagra introduced in early 2007 three new digital, Red Book products: the CDC equipped with a built-in DAC, remote control and pre-amplifier stage; the "conventional" CDP with a built-in DAC and fixed level analogue output; and a CD transport CDT designed to be used with an external DAC (like Nagra's 192 kHz/24 bit DAC). The chassis of CDx-family identical is in dimension to the Nagra's PL-P pre-amp and PL-L line-stage and thanks to the front-loading mechanism allows the units to be stacked neatly together.

Monsieur Landragin positioned CDP against other high-end CD-players as "Between the CDP and its competitors, there is the same difference as sound re-produced through hifi-chain and a real instrument". Jean Hiraga echoed: "... quality of re-production of sound and musicality on level never heard before. This realism astonishing ...". Une reference absolue".

There were some interesting points in the review, though. Nagra's own Web-site is very thin as for technical data of CDx-family, but evidently CDP has a 352.8 kHz/24 bit DAC (i.e. higher oversampling than company's standalone DAC). RdS found than due to extra Burr Brown stage balanced outputs sounded significantly inferior to asymmetric outputs - contrary to most top CD-players. Should make then the CDP a good match with single-end only pre-amps akin Conrad -Johnson.

BTW, German Stereo magazine gave to model CDC (in picture) in 2/07 issue a full 100% for sound quality, see review here.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sonos Digital Music System

I reviewed some weeks ago Sonos Sonos Digital Music System for a Finnish hifi-magazine. Two Sonos "systems" were subject to review: ZonePlayer 80 Bundle, consisting of two ZonePlayer ZP80s and one Controller 100 remote controller; and one ZonePlayer 100. See details of aforementioned products at Sonos Web-site.

Some background. I've some 500 GB worth of WAV-files, i.e. almost my entire CD-collection on hard-disk. The necessary back-up methods naturally are implemented in terms of external hard-disks and daily/weekly BU procedures. Why WAV and not MP3? Look into the falling prices of hard-disk as €/GB, and tell me one reason why one should compromise sound quality using any kind of compressed or non-compressed audio formats other than WAV. There is none - except WAV's limited metadata capabilities.

For a music library software I use both Apple iTunes 7.x and MS Media Player 11, ripping is done by same software and occasionally by EAC. Which brings us to one of the Sonos shortfalls, i.e. insofar as your music library is in MP3, FLAC or Apple Lossless formats, Sonos library software works fine. The Sonos Desktop Controller organizes your music library nicely by artist, album etc. with associated album artwork, but if you use WAVs you view into music library are pretty limited. With iTunes and WAV, Sonos software provides you with very crude folder view, organised by artist. You fare a tad better with MS Media Player and WAV, but evidently Sonos has been designed for MP3 users, not for audiophiles. This is not only Sonos related problem, but applies to all music library software and how they metadata WAV files. Annoying, nevertheless.

In assessing the sonic capabilities of Sonos, I connected one Sonos ZP80 player to my HE-rig, consisting of McIntosh 275 amplifier, Great Northern Sound modified Audio Research LS25 Mk2 pre-amp and Mark Levinson 390S CD-prosessor. Speakers are JM Lab Micro Bes, the cabling consist of Siltech XLR G5/G6 interconnects and Kimber Kable Select KS-3035 speaker cables.

For testing I connected Sonos ZP80 player's digital out via Siltech G6 Golden Ridge digital cable (the best digital cable I have tested by very large margin) into my Mark Levinson 390S CD-processor's digital in. This was to assess Sonos system's performance as a transport, using the same ML 390s 24bit/352.8kHz DAC as I normally use when listening CDs.

Result was startling, i.e. I could barely hear any difference. And yet mentally I already had decided that this insignificant small box + dedicated WiFi-network could no way be on the same level as my ML 390S transport. Talking about reality check! I had to dig into my best recorded acoustic recordings to actually hear differences. Please note here that I was able to switch by remote control between original CD played through ML 390S and the same WAV-file played through Sonos system into 390S DAC.

In essence, ML 390S as a standalone CD-player had more organic sound, "black-is-blacker" background, more dynamics and less digital artifacts than Sonos - but observable only with the best acoustic recordings like Blue Coast Collection The E.S.E Sessions. My system is ruthlessly transparent, with mid hifi speakers I could propably here no difference. Please note that in fact I only compared the performance of Sonos ZP80 and dedicated network against ML 390S transport. Otherwise the reproduction chain was the same. I do recall that when I tested my CEC TL-51 belt-driven transport connected to ML390S DAC there were more significant changes, notably almost magical liquidity and smoothness in sound.

As for using Sonos ZP80's internal DAC and analog out results were less succesful, that was more like using 200-300 € CD-player. In making that assessment I used my Samsung HD-850 DVD-player as a reference. As for the ZP100, I tested it as a standalone replacement for my whole HE-rig, i.e. as 50 wpc D-class amplifier/DAC/pre-amp, and whereas ZP80 sounded somewhat compressed vis-a-vis ML 390S, then ZP100 sounded even more so against my whole HE-rig. But put into the context, super buy for your third bed room or for your kid, just add decent speakers.

To sum up, if you are an audiophile and computer audio Luddite, you should broaden your horizon. We cant't beat this inexorable movement, and we should not even try. The products like Sonos' are the proof than there is much to gain by embracing and integrating computer audio with HE-gear. I bought the ZP80 combo, and I've never listened to that much of music before. All those tracks, artists, albums which took so long time to locate before are now available by a simple search and click. Drawback naturally is all that playing with computer, especially ripping.

I can only mirror what John Atkinson concluded in his review of Sonos in Stereophile: "But the real beauty of the Sonos system is the way in which it marries excellent audio engineering to a system design that allows foolproof and efficient setup of a distributed-audio system. It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."

Search Popdex: