Back Issue Article

April 2001

One Guy's Sonic Reference

Keep your bearings

Last month’s first installment itemized and briefly described the ingredients that make up "le stew" in my listening room. Today let’s talk turkey: How’s it sound? Obviously, I love this system. I’ve built it carefully over time. It reflects the best I’ve come across and could afford. These are important qualifiers. How could I possibly know about stuff I have never heard of or listened to? Thus "the best" is a function of exposure and experience, as well as personal likes and dislikes. And not to overlook les francs. What one can afford acts as yet another powerful equalizer that focuses attention onto a well-defined field. By starting to talk about other components outside of what I currently own, my resident system will shortly turn into a reference. Note the progression. It’s not a reference per se. It becomes a reference via the repetitive process of subjective comparisons. Hence it doesn’t suggest --- as common usage of the word "reference" might imply -- any sense of innate perfection, benchmark-ism or ultimate standard. Reference here simply means "that to which I’m used to." And while I happen to think that my system represents a very fine slice of high-end audio, your mileage would quite likely vary.

Srajan’s ultrasonic tape measures how components stack up

But that’s not the point. A writer’s reference simply serves him as an arbitrary yardstick. He compares the known and familiar against that which is new and unknown. Talking about my system isn’t public narcissism, but done to help you understand my personal yardstick. When it comes to future findings and observations, the issue is not whether you’ll sympathize or disagree, shake your head or take it as gospel. The issue is whether you intuit when to do either. This requires a prior context of relationship and familiarity. Hence my preference for staying informal and putting my personal color into the writing. It feels more natural than attempting to extricate myself to appease objectivism. It’s not only my I-can’t-help-it style -- the customary low-key comfort of boots, faded jeans, earring, unbuttoned shirt, rolled-up sleeves and turned-up collar -- it also serves a distinct purpose. After all, this whole reviewing business is a pretty subjective enterprise. It’s not machines doing the comparisons. It’s folks with preferences, biases and ideas as to what sounds "good" or "real." I say better to know more than less about the person doing the comparing. That way you clearly know where this guy stands, within what context to place his opinions and when to consider him deaf.


More it is then. First and foremost, what I look for in a system, as an ex-musician, is its ability to communicate emotionally. This is a bit tricky. Let’s face it, nobody can measure love -- "here, let’s put this probe up your nose." Neither do we have emotive specs for components. In fact, don’t ask me what causes certain components to trigger this rapport while others don’t. I’m clueless. Nonetheless, I’ve found over time that tubes, and particularly single-ended designs using just a single stage -- which tends to equal micro power -- excel in providing this emotional context. In certain circles fond of exacting measurements, SETs are often dismissed. And in truth, many measure very poorly.

In fact, SETs don’t automatically guarantee sonic bliss at all. Their requirements for synergy are legion. If they’re bad or the synergy is off, they’re really bad. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the golden halo school of SET sound that prettifies everything by smoothing out the edges and toning down the energy, that revels in the midrange while castrating the musical beast both in los cojones and its horns. That’s caramel-flavored sonic fudge -- and it does fudge the truth. I want linearity -- sparkle in the treble, bite in the brass, definition and clarity in the bass. The Art Audio amps are purposefully linear. They don’t voice the sonic proceedings by selectively sculpting frequency response. This makes them intrinsically more solid-state-like than, say, amplifiers from Cary Audio. Most single-ended Cary amps I’ve heard seem to go for midrange lushness. No judgment in that observation, merely a different designer’s ideal and idea of what good sound is.

By virtue of being a multi-stage design, the Art Audio Jota, when compared to the PX-25, appears just a tiny bit brash. This translates as a very minor edge. That word usually connotes a negative, but is here meant to describe a quality of incisiveness that the PX-25 lacks. This incisiveness bestows a certain energetic virility on the Jota that transforms, in the PX-25, into an uncanny intimacy and relaxation with the music. One is tempted to call it sweetness only if it’s understood not to mean a saccharine sugar coating that weight-bears on transients or rolls off the treble. The PX-25 handles transient zip and microdynamic agility with aplomb, possibly even better than the Jota. Its dynamic envelope is, of course, narrower, but within this slightly smaller window, the number of individual gradations is surely the Jota’s equal, if not peer. Ditto for top-end extension, though the Jota possesses a kind of intensity that’s not a function of emphasis but rather of being lit from the outside. The PX-25 feels subjectively smoother in a don’t-pay-attention way, but smooth here doesn’t equate to shelving, just an utter absence of electronic hash or steeliness.

In the bass, the PX-25 is shockingly good -- and don’t say "good for a SET." In fact, the designer claims that even a large 15" or 18" woofer -- such as you’d find in a high-efficiency Dual Concentric Tannoy -- poses no challenge. Apparently that’s due to the amp’s high damping factor. Be that as it may, I can confirm that it controls the triple 6.5" woofers of the Triangle Ventis as well if not better than the Jota. On Jan Garbarek’s Rites [ECM 559006], "Vast Plan, Clouds" opens with a first faint, then rising thunder-like rumbling of a very low drum. With the PX-25, this wasn’t portrayed as just a homogenous noise but a clearly identifiable instrument played with changing pressure and variable pitch, and lower and more pronounced than I had heard before. To be sure, the Jota offers more ultimate slammage factor, if you’re into that sort of thing. For my low-calorie-consumption level of trance/techno and ballistic symphonic bombast, though, the PX-25 leaves absolutely nothing to be desired.

More more

What about the midrange? Thought you’d never ask. It is here, in the domain traditionally granted SETs as their one field of unchallenged excellence, where the PX-25 tube truly outshines others and does some fabulously special things -- special "even for tubes." Remember that intimate relaxation mentioned earlier? Think heretofore diminished amounts of harmonic nuance and timbral wealth. They’re all of a sudden released, as though a beautiful garden in high bloom, formerly admired through the window, now caressed you through the opened screen door, with the fragrances mixing and blending, fading and being replenished, adding an extra dimension of palpability and access to the visual. You can remain dead still not doing a thing and be entirely ravished. Do not mistake this description for midrange emphasis. It’s not. I’d only call it that were we talking about a 2A3 that glories here, but it doesn’t extend it into either direction equally into treble and bass. The unique thing about the PX-25 tube, to my ears, is that it possesses this peculiar 2A3 magic but spreads it over the entire frequency spectrum. The end result is thus not a limitation -- albeit an exceedingly pleasant one -- but an impression of enveloping sonic truth. Compared to the Jota, the PX-25 also offers more bloom, that mysterious yet obvious quality that tubes have over solid state even though it may very well be a distortion mechanism. The Jota is a tiny bit drier, something I wouldn’t have noticed without the PX-25 invading its former territory. Do I have to confess to not only being into emotionalism but blooming as well? OK, for the sake of honesty, here we go: Yes, me likes bloom! It creates a certain image density that’s synonymous with palpability.

This or that?

Does this now make the PX-25 a better amp than the Jota? Is mocha Java better than hot chocolate? It all depends, as even Starbuck’s will tell you. If you have copacetic speakers around 92dB or higher -- I’m told even less will do -- and share my tastes, yes. If your speakers need more juice; or your primary musical fare is massive, large-scale blockbusters; or if you want an extra dose of caffeine excitement -- the Jota is the better choice. Conversely, the PX-25 strikes me as the most tubey of all single-ended amplifiers the Art Audio marquee has produced thus far. Being from the firmly linear-design school as are competitors Wavelength Audio and LAMM Industries, this makes the PX-25 amp something of a unique beast. You get the tubular presence thing, three-dimensional imaging, emotional communicativeness -- in short, maximum magic -- but you also get solid-state virtues of frequency-domain honesty, which should silence some SET detractors.

What is this amp’s overriding attribute? In my review, I called the Jota "the ultimate driving machine." I wanted to suggest the type of interaction that BMW refers to when they appeal to an enthusiast driver’s active participation in the riding experience, at the wheel of a finely balanced road-carving machine. There is something about the PX-25's presentation that's more relaxed, not the acutely honed sharpness of a first date but the more intimate ease that comes later. I’m here not talking measurable things but just a feel -- yes, terribly subjective, and the lab guys will hamstring me for it. But those who have heard low-power single-ended executed well will know whereof I speak. It’s a sensation of things hanging together properly, a cognition of musical intent and coherence. When you’re in coherence, it’s not a "got it, aha" adrenaline-rushed insight like solving a puzzle. It’s an involuntary, nearly unconscious letting go and melting, like a pleasurable sigh on exhale. This quality then is the PX-25’s calling card -- an intimately relaxed merger with the music. Call vividness the Jota’s signature.

The problem with getting it right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was

This piece of lazy-worker advice turned upside down comes to mind when you reflect on the Art Audio PX-25. The amp allows 21st-century music lovers to savor a particular, exceedingly well-balanced thermionic flavor; one that, since World War II, was extinct and kaput. Until now. And it is an aroma for sure. Not like an 845 tube as implemented in the Bel Canto SETi 40, which has plenty of air but strikes me as thicker and slower by comparison, more musk than essence of rose. It's different also from a 300B that has the aural glow thing going but can’t follow the PX-25 into the Stygian bass abyss or upper stratosphere. 300Bs feel magical because of a certain voluptuousness in the midrange that’s really a subtle emphasis wrought by shelving limitations at the outer edges of the frequency domain.

Putting it together

Let’s talk synergy: If you like that certain controlled brashness of the Jota, which manifests as energetic liveliness -- and boy, I do -- you can infuse some of that into the PX-25 without upsetting the cart of luscious apples. The Audio Magic Clairvoyant power cords seem to accentuate transient speed and jump factor. This creates something I call projection. This is my third and final audio addiction because good musicians -- and gifted performers in general -- do it all the time. It’s the quality of an orator whose voice, intonation and intent can reach across a very large audience, to make even you -- sitting in the very last row -- feel personally addressed and spoken to. A lesser speaker would require you to lean forward in your chair in an attempt to move your attention to him. When I played music, I always sat at the edge of my chair. However, when I listen to music, I want it to come to me while I’m languishing in the chair in a semi-meditative state.

Back to (the) Audio Magic (cord): It also does bass with a vengeance. One less leg to support the candy-ass truism that silver always leans out the bass. I love it when preconceptions -- including my own -- get whacked over the head. Truly, I can’t help but think that having a bass-maximizer power cord on a 6Wpc amp ought to be a good thing -- it sure sounds it.

The Triangle Ventis speakers, like the Jota, possess the same quality of musical energy. They’re speakers with vitality. They image very well, but the images are not as disassociated from the cabinets as I’ve heard, especially from designs that feature truly massive and inert construction. The Triangles are also not the last word in very low bass. I’m quite certain that’s intentional. Having worked around a few speaker designers, I know for a fact that three 6.5" drivers per box can do low 20s if you want them to. I peg the Ventis to give a solid 32Hz. Add room gain and you’re good for a bit lower. What is more important to me is the rightness, precision and speed in the midbass. It’s too often sacrificed for ultimate extension since usually the same drivers handle mid- and low bass -- optimize one aspect, lessen another. Midbass perfection is where the Ventis edges out many competitors, including the Lyrr, the next model down. By comparison, the Lyrr’s lower midband suffers a few minor pounds of excess girth. The Ventis just nails it. Plus, that tweeter is a piece of work. I’ve tried it recently with the excellent and very affordable Audio Refinement Complete duo of 50Wpc integrated and matching CD player. Wanted to insure that the sparkling and glare-free refinement of cymbals, hi-hats and brushes wasn’t due to some tube-induced softening. No, this minimally horn-loaded metal-dome tweeter puts to shame another truism: that only soft-dome tweeters don’t eventually go on your nerves. Granted, the Audio Refinement gear is not the kind of solid state that exacerbates any shortcoming here. Would a hard and edgy solid-state amp sound hard and edgy? Heck, you’re asking the wrong guy. My assumption though is a blatant yes. The Triangle tweeter is very extended and, if anything, on the live rather than sleepy side. But the design’s most formidable weapon is the extreme wideband midrange driver with triple-pleated surround. Do a French kiss with your ear to notice how high up into the treble this driver remains active. Did I mention the speaker’s 93dB sensitivity?


Here’s one of my beliefs -- the more efficient a speaker, the better its dynamics and apparent speed potential -- i.e., the possible range of signal amplitude, from pianissimo to triple fortissimos, and the growing ease whereby the design can move from one state to the next. Dynamic range and microdynamic wealth of gradations are what provide a system with realism. If I had to, I’d rather err on the side of maximizing this aspect by foregoing, for example, ultimate bass extension or the last word in soundstage precision. In fact, I’ll be able to listen to a pair of Avantgarde horns in the near future to really test this theory of "efficiency equals dynamics equals realism." Seeing that 100dB+ efficiencies unmask gain noise like an electron microscope, less amplifier juice is definitely more. The 6Wpc PX-25 could turn out to be the perfect amp contender, especially sans preamp. Stay tuned.

More synergy

This leaves the Cary 303 CD player to talk about. To find out how good it is, I hitched the Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A combo to it in 24-bit/96kHz-upsampling mode. Perpetual is well reviewed, which makes this product into a useful benchmark. This dynamic duo is another energetic performer, with a mild upper-midrange emphasis that adds immediacy and excitement. In the context of this system, that’s a quality already in perfect balance for my tastes. In fact, even though listening to the Cary undiluted traded off a shade of apparent resolution, its overall gestalt -- call it the musical baby breath -- was preferable. The Perpetual duo, with the excitement, also introduced a certain tension that the Cary by itself did not. Does this belittle the value of the Perpetual Tech pieces? Nonsense. Rather, I’d be somewhat disappointed if an essentially just-introduced $3000 CD player could be significantly improved via an outboard DAC. Where I see the real application of the P-1A/P-3A team is in bringing up-to-snuff players like my ancient Denon DCD-1560, my Marantz CDR630, an inexpensive Pioneer DVD player with a street price of $179, or even yesteryear’s $2000 player that is being bested by today’s $800 machines.


You may now want to know about the Aurios. What’s up with those? Quite simply, spaciousness, the difference between a tight and a loose weave. The Aurios bearings, by mechanically isolating the individual components from their supporting environment, dimensionally expand the sonic fabric into all directions. Since they can’t add any notes or compose novel counterpoints, this expansion creates superior separation and intelligibility of individual instrumental lines, and a simultaneous removal of…I’m not sure of what exactly. In theory, isolation prevents mechanical intermodulation between components -- i.e., additive ghost resonances -- think Tibetan chanters that sing in between two notes to cause a third sum-and-difference tone. Telling these fellows to cut short the mantra stops this effect and allows you to hear your own thoughts again. Maybe floating components lowers a mechanical noise floor? Whatever exactly is going on, the effect is anything but subtle. Granted, neither is it on your pocket book. There are other devices on the market -- the Symposium roller blocks and Daruma bearings come to mind -- which are apparently based on similar theories. I haven’t heard either of those. I have heard the MIBs. They definitely work, and work like a charm. In a future installment, we will look into differently priced CD players to investigate whether a $900 unit can be made to approach the sound of a $2000 unit by simply floating it on $300 worth of sliding feet. If so, the word value would spring to mind regardless of the seemingly high cost of $100 for a device the size of a silver dollar. As it stands from a performance perspective, the Aurios are a definite tweak to take very seriously. Removing them from my system causes such an implosion of space and resultant loss of transparency that I wouldn’t dream of living without them.

The overall bouquet

You now should have a reasonably good fix on this system’s overall sonic signature and my family tree of aural virtues. I’ll go out on a limb then and hand detractors a razor-sharp chain saw whereby to send me plummeting into forever-silenced oblivion: The Krell/Wilson type sound, from what I’ve heard, simply isn’t my cup of tea at all. While these marquees are nearly synonymous with high-end audio, my personal priorities of emotionalism, presence and bloom here turn me into a stranger in a strange land. I know all about the great reviews these brands consistently bring home. I just can’t relate. To my way of listening, they extol grand and mightily impressive hi-fi, but not go-under-your-skin music. However, two SoundStagers, one a certifiable tube nut like myself, own Wilsons themselves. It’s important to point out that my sentiments are thus not business but purely personal. Maybe I’ve just never heard either brand with the appropriately matched ancillaries.

The qualities I have endeavored to enhance in my listening room are realistic microdynamics, fast transients, immediacy, purity of timbre, palpable presence and bloom. Your typical SET laundry list, n’est çe pas? Yeah, but without the customarily assumed limitations about what kind of music listening this crams into a tiny nutshell, or the overt midrange-enhanced voicing that can occur with SETs. My musical fare, outside of reviewing, is heavy on acoustic world music and trance/ambient, lighter on jazz and new age, even lighter on classical, and only occasional on what’s referred to as popular: pop, rock, R&B, soul, blues, country and hip hop. I’m convinced that were my musical tastes to differ drastically, my system would likely be configured differently. Interestingly, Marc Mickelson, another SoundStage! SET aficionado and Lamm owner, recently made a powerful remark in his review of the Mark Levinson No.383. Truly accomplished solid state, he mused, inserted into a devout tube follower’s system, can make such a fellow wonder at times whether his glow-in-the-dark system doesn’t sound all wrong by comparison. I have to admit I haven’t suffered such encounters with tubular self-doubt for a very long time. I sense Marc’s comment was meant to challenge our mental and perceptional boundaries that act as a literal comb filter when blind adherence to certain design philosophies influences our hearing. However, I don’t feel called upon in this instance. See me eat crow in public next though. While I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon -- I’ve been at this hi-fi thing for a good ten years and have a pretty good idea of "what’s out there" -- I promise that if and when it does happen, I’ll report on it here, openly.

What I can already tell you is that my system doesn’t do the kind of holographic imaging that’s akin to the hyper-realistic photography school. You know the kind, where foreground and background images are rendered with exactly the same kind of super-contrast detail that’s quite opposed to the way our eyes actually work in the real world. I call that hi-fi again, but not music. Neither does my system serve double-duty for home theater, nor do I routinely listen to blockbuster soundtracks that revel in subsonic U-boat effects, rocket launches, stampedes of dinosaurs or giant spider invaders from outer space. Hence, I’m not that interested in mega bass either, which is a real requirement to enjoy these types of mixed sound effects.

Up and coming

The Bel Canto EVo 200.4 and the companion PRE1 are promised, to allow a follow-up of the February SoundStage! feature review of the 200.2. The larger 1500VA-power transformer in the 200.4 could offer enhanced bass control, even if only used in two-channel mode; while permanently bridging the amp to 360Wpc might have yet further impact onto sonics. Am I curious about this experiment? You bet. Further possible ear candy en route: Avantgarde Duos are definitely promised, as are some affordable tube monoblocks using the venerable 6V6 output tubes in what’s dubbed a "six pack," zero feedback, pure class-A push-pull configuration. I’m also scouting for solid-state amps a thermionic fossil like yours truly could fall in love with. Any suggestions?

See you next month!

...Srajan Ebaen


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright © 2001 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved