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Many years ago, shortly after taking an interest in high-end audio, I learned an unassailable audio truth: never, ever doubt the performance benefits of good AC power. But even after many years, whenever I upgrade my power cords, line conditioners, AC outlets, or fuses, I continue to be amazed at the reduction in noise and the improvements in detail, transient speed, dynamic range, imaging, and three-dimensionality. It’s a lesson I learn over and over.
I frequently receive new power products for review, and am pretty good at keeping up with industry news. Yet it seems that every few weeks I discover another maker of power products I’d never heard of. Reading the company’s website or new-product announcement, my eyes usually glaze over, and far more often than not, I never hear about that company again.
But when my editor mentioned Essential Sound Products, my interest was piqued. First, it’s been almost 20 years since ESP’s Essence power cords and distribution strip made a huge splash. Back then, the fact that a high-quality power cord could improve a component’s sound was not as generally accepted as it is today. ESP was one of the first companies to prove otherwise.
A company you should get to know
Before embarking on this review, I hadn’t heard much about JE Audio, a company based in Hong Kong. But when editor Jeff Fritz asked if I’d be interested in reviewing JE’s Dyad S400 amplifier ($16,000 USD), I thought it might be an opportunity to discover an overlooked gem. I was soon in touch with John Lam, JE’s founder and chief designer, and not long after that, a review sample was on its way from Asia to Illinois.
In just a few days, the Dyad S400 arrived at my doorstep in a flight case -- a pleasant surprise, as it made handling the amp a whole lot easier for me and the DHL deliveryman. Previously, I’ve seen flight cases from only a few European companies. I wrestled the case into my listening room, opened it, and there, in a black velvet sack, under the owner’s manual and a pair of white gloves, was the 95-pound S400. The flight case made unpacking and setup very simple.
The median household income in the US in 2011, according to the US Census Bureau, was $52,762. Household income. To me, that sounds like a pretty modest amount of money, but I find that such a perspective is a wonderful thing to have. I’m hugely fortunate that my monetary worries are few. But reading such a statistic, I wonder if spending enormous amounts of money on audio gear brings me proportionally more enjoyment than, say, an iPod dock. The answer, of course, is no -- diminishing returns, and all that. It’s all well and good that I can hear the differences among various high-priced loudspeakers, amps, and cables, but it doesn’t mean that I can no longer be moved by listening to music through pair of $300 computer speakers.
I’m sure there are some people out there who, having sampled the best of the best, thumb their noses at lowly proletarians who enjoy anything else. It’s easy to comprehend why: the more expensive something is, the better it is supposed to serve its intrinsic purpose. Obvious stuff, this.
Suppose this wasn’t the case, however. Suppose that, one day, a top company came out with something twice as expensive than anything else on the market, but was little or no different from the company’s own next best product? Imagine competitors’ derision at such a move, and said derision replaced by shock, as people actually bought the product. Now all the competitors come out with equally expensive products, with equally little difference between them. Consumers buy them with gusto because the products cost what they think they should be paying for a top-quality product. Yet the products are no better than before. In short, you can’t have $60,000 speakers, $120,000 worth of electronics, but only a mere $20,000 worth of cables and interconnects. The weak point is obviously the wiring. Just sack up and pay the $50,000 it will take to balance out your system. The more expensive stuff is clearly better. But is it?
In 2011, according to Nielsen/Billboard, US sales of digital music downloads surpassed sales of recordings on physical media for the first time. That statistic is comprised of, almost entirely, sales of compressed music by websites such as iTunes and Amazon. While there are a couple dozen websites selling downloads of CD (16-bit/44.1kHz) or higher resolution, their offerings represent only a small proportion of current releases, and an even tinier fraction of back catalog. In 2013, CDs are still the dominant format for buying uncompressed music, and most of us own hundreds or thousands of them. Not everyone is inclined to rip his entire CD collection to hard drives for playback through a computer; the standalone CD player still has a place in a modern audiophile system.
On the other hand, a component that plays only CDs ignores the very real sonic benefits of higher bit depths and sample rates, as well as the undeniable trend toward downloads and computer-based playback. A number of companies have recognized that we are at this crossroads, and have responded by adding digital inputs -- often including USB -- to their newest CD players. One such is Music Culture, which introduced the Elegance MC 501A ($4490 USD) to succeed their Elegance MC 501.
The single-ended triode (SET) amplifier enjoyed a fairly brief surge in popularity several years ago, but then audiophiles rediscovered facts that had become obvious in the 1920s and ’30s: SETs just didn’t have enough power to drive most speakers. So push-pull amplifiers again became the standard, and SETs dwindled in popularity. But some companies found the SET sound so beguiling that they tried to overcome the technology’s power deficit. Their success has been mixed. Several models with more power than the early SET amps were developed, but the most powerful of these still produced little more than 50Wpc, and were typically big, heavy, and expensive.
It’s not surprising that KR Audio, in the Czech Republic, has continued to design and make higher-powered SET amps. Originally, KRA manufactured tubes; specifically, power triodes designed to be used in SET amps. It was a logical progression for KRA to build a line of amplifiers that could use their tubes -- such as the integrated amplifier reviewed here.
In June 2012, SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider reviewed the PMC twenty.24, the flagship of the British company’s twenty line. Not long after completing his review, Doug told me how impressed he was with the twenty.24, noting that it displayed a remarkable midrange purity, and impressive bass extension for such a modestly sized floorstander. He then asked if I’d be interested in reviewing the IB2i, the smallest three-way studio monitor in PMC’s flagship “i” series. I responded immediately: “Absolutely!”
There were several reasons for my enthusiasm. First, I’d never reviewed so large a stand-mounted speaker, let alone one that’s a transmission-line design and costs $21,999 USD per pair. Second, if the IB2i proved even half as impressive as Doug found the twenty.24, I was in for an ear-opening experience. I was put in contact with David Callam, national product manager for PMC’s Canadian distributor, Precor. Callam proved invaluable throughout the review period, patiently answering my myriad questions and providing an abundance of information. But informative as he was, I was still unprepared for the surprises the IB2i had in store for me.
When I asked to review a properly expensive pair of loudspeakers and was offered a pair from France, my trepidation ran high. Damn. I’d been pining for some example of traditionally designed, overbuilt awesomeness to be ushered into my listening room for what would be my first foray into Ultra Audio territory. Instead, a pair of Cabasse Pacific 3s was sent from across the pond in what could only be an unorthodox fashion -- hot-air balloon, perhaps? Cabasse makes some pretty wonky stuff, the pinnacle of which is La Sphère, a spherical (of course) four-way coaxial loudspeaker that retails starting at $175,900 USD per pair. Cabasse it is, then.
The three-way, floorstanding Pacific 3 ($16,000/pair) is 51.6”H x 11.4”W x 23.2”D and weigh 124 pounds each. My strong recommendation would be to enlist some help to marshal the large Pacifics into place. The Pacific 3 is distinctive in appearance. The eye is first drawn to the white-ringed coaxial tweeter/midrange drivers. A friend took one look at them and said, “Nice speakers, bro, but what’s with the alien eyes?” The BC17 driver doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Pacific 3’s looks, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a gimmick or merely for show. The tweeter is on the large size at 1.35”, and made of Kaladex, an alien-sounding plastic from DuPont. Cabasse decided to forgo a metal diaphragm because, though the first breakup mode of a well-designed aluminum tweeter can be pushed just past the range of human hearing (which tops out at around 20kHz), when breakup does occur, the Q factor (a parameter that enjoys an inverse relationship with damping) rises sharply, with an amplitude potentially reaching 15dB. In other words, the driver rings like hell. The reason that many high-end speakers now make tweeters of beryllium is that they don’t tend to break up until around 35kHz. Kaladex was chosen for its considerable rigidity, but it also has good internal damping, which prevents, or at least ameliorates, high-frequency breakup modes. The plastic’s ratio of high rigidity to density also yields high efficiency and low distortion. The Kaladex tweeter’s upper-frequency limit is specified as 20kHz.
It is the reviewer’s job not only to describe the sound of the component under test -- although that’s a huge part of it -- but also to provide some context for that sound. It’s naïve to think that products and their sounds exist in a vacuum, with no relation to other, similar products. There’s always something else vying for the buyer’s attention, and these days the competition is fierce in almost every category of consumer electronics, and at all the popular price points. Therefore, one of the most relevant assessments a reviewer can make for a reader is where a product ranks among its peers in the overall marketplace. This gives potential buyers an informed overview that they can use to help make wise buying decisions.
For example, if you were to walk into a showroom and hear, see, and feel the Sonus Faber Venere 3.0, you might not guess their cost right off, particularly if you have any experience with high-end audio and know how absurdly high the prices can be. You might be surprised that the Venere 3.0 retails for $3498 USD per pair -- surprised by how little that is compared with how much it buys.
One of the most interesting tests of the cost of a new product is the general public -- not just the subset of buyers who might be interested in that particular product. We’ve all had friends who gasp when we tell them how much our new preamp cost. Conversely, folks who have visited my home while the Venere 3.0s were playing have been quite accepting when told the retail price of the speakers -- a semi-remarkable feat for a high-end brand. Let’s face it: most of the high end makes no sense to the average guy.
There isn’t a more noteworthy trend in high-end audio today than that of companies smashing the price/performance ratios of yesterday -- in both directions. You don’t have to look far to see abysmal $200,000/pair loudspeakers, and you can find a gem for very little money around almost any corner. Hegel Music Systems is firmly about the latter.
Hegel, of Norway, has made a steady push into the heart of high-end audio with a stream of products that has helped expand audiophiles’ ideas about what level of performance they can and should expect for reasonable prices. I can think of no finer example of that than their H300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($5500 USD), which Hans Wetzel reviewed for GoodSound! in late 2012, and which won a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award for Exceptional Value. Hot on the heels of the H300 came the announcement of the HD25 digital-to-analog converter ($2500), Hegel’s new top-of-the-line digital offering. Yes, you read that right: The best DAC the company makes costs only $2500. Isn’t that, alone, refreshing?
Ed Meitner, founder and chief designer of EMM Labs, has an impeccable digital pedigree that dates back to the 1970s. He has not only published groundbreaking research concerning the causes and cures of jitter, he also has designed and manufactured a series of digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, adaptive filters, and disc transports that have often advanced the state of the art of digital music reproduction.
An example is the Meitner IDAT DAC of 1992, made by the now-defunct Museatex. Among other innovations, it contained a low-jitter custom data receiver, a unique DSP-based system that analyzed the digital signal and routed it to one of several different filters, and a then-unheard-of eight DAC chips.
Ed Meitner also has done some impressive work relating to SACD technology. Introduced in 1999, the Super Audio Compact Disc has to this day never won mass acceptance. In fact, on a number of occasions, its creators, Sony and Philips Electronics, appeared to be on the verge of pulling the plug on it. Very early in SACD’s history, the DVD Forum, an association of hardware manufacturers, software firms, and content providers involved in the design and production of DVDs, rejected its adoption. Not surprisingly, many Forum members were reluctant to adopt a technology controlled by Sony and Philips. But many also disliked SACD’s sound quality, at least as it then existed.
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