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When you’ve been immersed for several years in high-end audio, chances are you take for granted certain things that may surprise non-audiophiles. One of these is that a lot of today’s audio gear uses the venerable vacuum tube. In fact, many audio “civilians” are surprised to learn that vacuum tubes still exist in the 21st century, and that companies such as Atma-Sphere have been using and refining tubed circuits in their amplifiers and preamplifiers for over 30 years with no plans to change. The Music Amplifier M-60 Mk.3.1 is an example of how Ralph Karsten, founder and president of Atma-Sphere, has refined the sound of a venerable circuit.
Atma-Sphere is one of the few companies whose tube amps don’t use output transformers -- the output tubes drive the speakers directly. Transformers tend to smear the sound and limit the frequency response, and while many manufacturers wind great transformers, there’s no transformer like no transformer at all -- something that becomes clear when you hear an Atma-Sphere amp. You hear bass as deep as that from a solid-state design, but with levels of detail and tunefulness that most solid-state amps miss. The difference is not subtle. And unlike some output-transformerless (OTL) amplifiers, Atma-Sphere’s have been, in my experience, virtually bulletproof. You can even remove or insert output tubes while an Atma-Sphere amp is playing (an oven mitt is recommended). Most tube amps will be damaged if you turn them on with no speakers connected to them, but not the Atma-Spheres; being OTL, they can withstand that normally fatal condition. I don’t recommend that you actually try either of these, but if a connector slips off an Atma-Sphere’s speaker terminal, it’s nice to know it won’t trash the amp.
I’ve enjoyed AudioPrism products for quite a while -- all the way back to CD Stoplight, introduced 20 or more years ago. This is a green paint marker with a notched tip that fits the edge of a CD. You paint the disc’s inner and outer edges with the marker and let it dry. AudioPrism claimed that the green paint absorbed stray infrared reflections of the beam from the player’s reading laser. CD Stoplight has remained one of the most controversial CD tweaks ever since it was introduced.
I am a faithful user of AudioPrism’s WaveGuide and Noise Sniffer. Their other products have included power conditioners, radio antennas, CD Backlight (a luminescent disc to put on the back of a CD during play), and tubed preamplifiers and power amplifiers. AudioPrism’s electronic components were so good that, for a while, they made preamps and amps for Mark Levinson’s Red Rose brand.
AudioPrism went dormant for much of the 2000s, but has now been rebooted by Byron Collet, who was with the company in the 1990s. AudioPrism will bring back many of their older products, along with some new ones -- of which the Ground Control ($149.99 USD per pair) is one.
The Ground Control is claimed to improve the performance of the ground side of loudspeaker and amplifier connections. It would be considered a tweak product by most audiophiles, many of whom consider tweaks a waste of time and money. However, in my experience of tweaks in my own system -- in subjective evaluations, with occasional objective measurements (when possible), and even some blind testing -- tweaks have almost always changed the sound. These changes have not necessarily been huge; some have been for the better, some for the worse, and some have simply been different. But I can’t recall any tweak product that has done nothing to the sound, and the Ground Control is no exception.
Opening a box of audio cables is a uniquely Zen-like experience: the exposing of silent components that are so important to your system that it can’t function without them.
And who doesn’t enjoy opening up a box? It’s just like Christmas! And when that box is full of cables, it’s like the best parts of Christmas morning all rolled into one: there’s not just one big gift -- a single stinking CD player -- in there. No sir! There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the box. The opening process is deliciously extended.
Then you get to plug it all in, down there on your hands and knees disturbing dust rhinos, crumbs, and that button you lost a few years back. Plus, if you’re sufficiently obsessive and were toilet-trained early enough, you can take the opportunity to clean off all your connectors with some metal polish. What fun!
These observations recently roiled around in my head as I spent the better part of a day installing a full set of Nordost’s Norse Frey cables. It had been quite a while since I’d last changed the cables in my system, and let me tell you, I was due.
Confronting Diax Rake
In Neil Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem, his protagonist cautions, "You should not believe a thing only because you like to believe it!" Reiterated throughout Anathem and referred to as "Diax Rake," this admonition is a reminder to prevent subjective emotions from clouding objective judgment. Repeating this mantra can benefit anyone, but it is especially important for reviewers and buyers of high-performance audio gear. I remind myself of the wisdom distilled into Diax Rake whenever I audition pedigreed equipment, and particularly when I audition components made by Ayre Acoustics of Boulder, Colorado. That company, its design team and products, have earned my respect and admiration again and again. When I bought an Ayre K-5xe preamplifier in 2003, my passion for music was revitalized, and I started down a path of system building that resulted in my writing for several audio publications before graduating to contributor status at the SoundStage! Network.
Touches of luxury, a ton of metal
The KX-R preamplifier costs $18,500 USD, and its packaging understandably departs somewhat from Ayre’s usual austere, less-is-more packing. On opening the double-boxed enclosure, I first saw a heavy-duty ziplock poly bag containing a copy of the high-gloss product manual, a product registration card, and a pair of white gloves with which to protect the gleaming KX-R from fingerprints. Also included was a remote control of extruded aluminum. Under these was the KX-R itself, entombed in form-fitting, closed-cell polystyrene foam. Under the top panels of foam, the component itself was double-bagged, first in thick poly, then a close-fitting sheath of padded velvet, to protect its finish from any scratch or blemish. Extricating all three components from their packaging required a bit of muscle. Despite their relative smallness, the Ayres’ weights were surprising: At 40 and 52 pounds, respectively, the KX-R and each MX-R monoblocks ($18,500/pair) are extremely dense.
I suppose there were good reasons, some 50 years ago, for the transistor’s replacement of the vacuum tube in homes all over the world. Tubes ran hot. They broke. Their quality varied from tube to tube. And while the tubes themselves weren’t much heavier than light bulbs, the amplifiers they plugged into could weigh down a tarp in a gale.
To a degree, these criticisms are valid today, although improvements have been made. But while many of the world’s finest integrated amplifiers, ranging in price from $2500 to $25,000, boast solid-state electronic engineering, rarely does anyone long for that distinctive solid-state sound. You almost never hear anyone say, “I love that solid-state warmth,” or “I wish this amp sounded more like solid-state.”
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, a technology that seemed to die a swift and irrefutable death has been revived. Possibly due to the same backlash against digital that has spurred vinyl’s comeback, and probably thanks to the desire of the Chinese to affordably manufacture anything that might sell.
With such a bleak economy and so many audiophiles wondering whether now is an appropriate time to make any audio purchase, I had to wonder about the recent launch of Synergistic Research’s new Galileo models. At $40,000 for a pair of top-of-the-line speaker cables and $50,000 for two sets of flagship interconnects, these products will be on the holiday shopping lists of the very few who are accustomed to such luxuries as American Express Black Cards, Bugatti Veyrons, and stays in the Presidential Suite of New York City’s Plaza Hotel.
I don’t have a Black Card or a Veyron, and the only times I’ve been to the Plaza have been to attend weddings. Needless to say, I won’t be reviewing the Galileo cables any time soon.
All is not lost. Synergistic has trickled down the technology used in the Galileo models to its Galileo Universal Cells: small black boxes that, when attached to any brand of speaker cable and/or interconnect, are claimed by Synergistic to turn almost any wiring system into an audiophile version of the proverbial silk purse. According to Ted Denney III, Synergistic’s lead designer, the Cells will decrease the system’s noise floor, increase its resolution and air, improve its dynamics, and enhance its soundstaging and presence.
At $2500 USD for a pair of Galileo Universal Speaker Cells and $1500 (RCA) or $2000 (XLR) for a pair of Galileo Universal Interconnect Cells (two pairs are needed for a system that uses a separate preamp and power amp), these things still ain’t exactly cheap. But $5500 isn’t Bugatti money, and that kind of loot didn’t seem too out of line with the cost of my midpriced system, so Denney arranged for a full set of Cells to be sent to me.
I was also sent matching sets of Galileo Basik speaker cables and interconnects. For a limited time, the Basiks are being given free by Synergistic with each purchase of matching Galileo Universal Cells. The company’s least-expensive Quantum Tunneled cables, the Basiks retail for $250 for a 1m pair of RCA interconnects (add $95/pair for XLR), and $375 for a 6’ pair of speaker cables.
To further spice things up, Denney arranged for me to receive a handful of Galileo Mini Power Couplers ($400 each). These upgrades of Synergistic’s standard Mini Power Coupler (MPC) power supplies can be used not only for the Cells’ active shielding, but for any active Synergistic cable.
The first Valve Amplification Company component I ever heard was in the system of a good friend: a PA-80/80 stereo amp, first made in 1994. He’d invited me over for a listening session with his system, which included Verity Audio Parsifal Encore speakers hooked up to what he called "the VAC." Its looks were retro black with distinctive gold bars and a lightning-bolt logo on the faceplate, and the sound was so gorgeous and involving that I went right to the Internet and bought one used for myself. I still have it -- an old and precious friend.
I’ve recently struck up conversations with Kevin Hayes -- VAC’s founder, president, and chief designer -- first on the telephone about replacement output tubes for my PA-80/80 and then at audio shows. When his new Renaissance Mk.3 preamplifier and Phi-200 stereo power amp debuted at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I asked to review them, and Hayes agreed -- although, famously, it took some time for units to be made available. VAC rarely sends products out for review. My review of the Phi-200 will appear in a future issue of Ultra Audio.
I’d long been curious about Accustic Arts, not only for the positive press they’ve received, but also for what I’d heard about the company from audiophile friends. Given the quality of electronics coming out of Germany these days from such companies as ASR, Burmester, and Tidal, I was interested to see if Accustic Arts was up to that standard of performance. So when Jeff Fritz gave me the assignment of reviewing Accustic Arts’ combo of Reference Tube-DAC II SE D/A converter ($11,000 USD) and Reference Drive II CD transport ($12,000), I struggled to contain my enthusiasm. Now I would experience the Accustic Arts listening experience.
When FedEx delivered the Reference Tube-DAC II SE and Drive II, I was a little annoyed that they left them sitting on their sides against my garage door. That’s not how they were meant to be delivered, but once I’d got them into my listening room, all was well. Both the DAC II and Drive II were double-boxed, and packed very carefully and securely. After checking that nothing was missing, I began setting them up.
I was impressed with the build quality and finish of the DAC II and Drive II. Each had a stunning finish of brushed, silver-anodized aluminum that looked attractive in my equipment rack. Both were solidly constructed, and it seemed a lot of attention had been paid to the details: no sharp edges, the lines looked straight, and the layout of the controls and connectors seemed well thought out.
The realization that resonances can affect the sonic performance of audio equipment is an audiophile rite of passage. After not too long in the hobby, it’s inevitable that we confront and accept the not-so-obvious notion that the things we place under and even on top of our components can alter the sounds of those components. That’s the easy part.
Determining how to control resonances so as to not only change but improve what we hear is a bit more challenging. Yes, you can try to understand the often-conflicting technical claims made by manufacturers of isolation devices. However, the conversation can quickly get very complex, particularly if you lack an advanced degree in engineering.
Just look at the materials isolation devices are made of. Some manufacturers claim that resonances are best tamed by such common woods as oak, birch, or Canadian maple. Others assert that only a certain exotic wood will do; e.g., myrtle, teak, jabota, African blackwood, zebrano. Still other companies insist that you shouldn’t use wood at all; that the only ways to go are carbon fiber, acrylic, Sorbothane, or various stones, ceramics, or metals. Indeed, it might not be a stretch to think that, when Thomas Dolby wrote the song “She Blinded Me with Science,” he was buying from some lovely lady an isolation platform for his high-end audio system.
In light of the foregoing, my guess would be that many audiophiles take a scattershot approach to isolation, as I have. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a mélange of stands, platforms, cones, pucks, feet, mass-loading devices, cable risers, and the like. I’ve also spent countless hours tweaking these devices to get the sound just so. I was therefore reluctant to review Silent Running Audio’s new, custom-designed VR fp isoBASE platform. Setting up its feet, particularly for components that tend to be lifted off the rack by unwieldy power cords, can be a major pain in the keister.
The phrase "a man for all seasons" comes from an assessment by Robert Whittington of his friend Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Chancellor of England, author of Utopia, and perhaps the most famous hardhead in history. Whittington said, "More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."
Appointed to the highest position of juridical authority in England, More, because of conscience, refused to sanction King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce his first wife, the aging Catherine of Aragon, who in 24 years of marriage had borne him a single daughter and no sons, so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress and, presumably, as fertile as she was fetching. More would not change his mind despite the counsel of his peers; like him, they were churchmen, but unlike him, they valued life over principle, and urged More to bow to political pressure, both popular and kingly. But More remained steadfast, held out for principle, and, in the end, Henry VIII had him beheaded. British writer Robert Bolt heroicized More in his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, and the phrase entered popular American speech after the release of the film version in 1966, which won that year’s Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Costumes. So when we use the phrase to compliment an individual’s well-rounded qualities, or adapt it to praise a product’s myriad capabilities, do we forget the expression’s origin in describing a man of principle?
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