[SoundStage!]Archived Letters
November 2007

Active or passive?

November 27, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

I would very much like to hear your opinion on the active-versus-passive speaker debate. I am looking for a pair of desktop nearfield monitors under $2000. Volume levels are always low to moderate, so I do not need the high-SPL pro models. Accuracy, detail, speed, resolution, and simple musicality at even low levels are my prime requirements. I have an excellent Arcam A8 integrated amplifier, but am considering a JoLida 50Wpc amp to get the tube midrange.

In the passive "corner," I am considering the Amphion Helium2 based on reviews and the Axiom M22 v2 (I have plenty of space on my desk). The contenders in the active corner are the Dynaudio BM6 and the Quad 12L.

Could you please illuminate this debate for me in the light of my requirements? Help me choose between them? Auditioning is not possible so I must rely on reviews.

Jerry Mayle

The answer cannot be answered that simply, although there are certainly merits to active loudspeaker design. In fact, the very best speakers I’ve heard have been actives one -- Aurum Acoustics Integris 300B system comes to mind first. However, that’s not to say that every active loudspeaker will better every passive one that’s mated to an appropriate amplifier for it.

So, in your situation, for example, the answer’s not straightforward because you’ve mentioned four different speakers -- two active, two passive -- and they’re all quite different in terms of their execution and design. Passive versus active is one aspect, but there are numerous other things to take into consideration to determine which one is the “better” speaker. Generalizations are just not possible….Doug Schneider

Revel or Merlin?

November 22, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

I’ve read your review of the Revel M20 speakers. I just heard the Revel M22s and was also quite impressed. I thought before I made the big leap, I would get your impressions on the Merlin TSM-MXE speakers. I do about 50% music and 50% home-heater listening. I have not heard the Merlins, but I have read many favorable reviews. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Chris Luffman

I used to own the Merlin TSM-SEs, but not the MXE version, which I guess is one of the latest, so keep that in mind as you read my response. One of my concerns is that with 50% of your listening being for movies, you’ll want a speaker to play very loud without distortion or, worse yet, damage. My experience with the TSM-SE was that although it’s quite refined-sounding, it couldn’t play super loud. The M20, however, could, and I suspect the M22, given how the other Revel speakers perform, can as well. I’m not sure how well the TSM-MXE can perform in that regard, and it’s worth checking out….Doug Schneider

"Two questions" about the Usher Be-718

November 20, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

Thanks for your review of the Usher Be-718 bookshelf speakers. Two questions: Have you heard the much more expensive JMlab Micro Utopias that also have beryllium tweeters, and if so, what do you think of them compared to the Ushers? Also, how do you think the Ushers will sound with tube amps of at least 100Wpc, like Rogue Audio monoblocks or the Cayin A-100T?

Charles Klein

With a sensitivity of about 83dB (2.83V @ 1W/1m), the Be-718s do need some power to make them sing, and 100Wpc would certainly do the trick. However, as unfortunate as this might sound, you can't always trust manufacturers' specs, particularly for tube amps. In fact, we've measured a number, and they've come up short in terms of power output. Unfortunately, we haven't measured a Cayin amplifier; however, we have measured a couple models from Rogue Audio and they performed well on the test bench.

That said, the key thing is to make sure the amplifier you're going to match the speakers to can deliver the juice that the manufacturer says. As I said, the Be-718s need it....Doug Schneider

Amphion reviews?

November 16, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

A few years ago you reviewed the Argon2s from Amphion. Based on you review, I ended up buying a pair and the Origo center-channel speaker. I'm very pleased with them.

The question I have is whether you had a chance to review the Amphion Ion or the Helium2. I would like to get one of them (well, two) for surround speakers to match the Argon2s and Origo. I am not sure which one would be a better match.

Jorge Grilo

Unfortunately, I haven’t reviewed any Amphion speakers in a long time, but I’ve been in contact with the company recently and they say they plan to submit some new ones soon – likely the Ion L or the Prio….Doug Schneider

Assembling a first system

November 12, 2007

To Philip Beaudette,

Of all the sites that review high-end stereo equipment, I find SoundStage! and its reviews to be the best. I especially liked, and agreed with, the review of the Energy RC-10s. So, I thought I would write to you guys for some advice, as I am new to configuring a decent stereo rig.

I would like a system that excels at providing me with music that is rich, warm, and clear rather than replicating the "boom" of a movie theater in my home. That is why I've decided to just start with a good two-channel system. Although I watch a lot of movies, I like music, and I figure movies will still sound better on a good stereo system than my TV speakers.

As for music, I listen to a lot of heavy rock'n'roll, hip hop, etc. -- stuff like Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Metallica, Grateful Dead, New Order, Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Eminem, Johnny Cash and the like (no jazz right now, maybe someday, or classical). Therefore I like lots of bass (tight, punchy, feel-it-in-my-body bass), but not if it is to be muddled or boomy. I will most likely be confined to living in apartments/condos, so room size at most 15' x 15'.

Also thinking about linking all this up to a USB DAC. I have a MacBook and would like to use it as a transport (MP3s, Apple lossless). I read about the Stereolink model 1200 and the Scott Nixon USB Tube DAC. What do you think?

After a long time at the store, I decided to purchase a pair of Totem Mites. It was a real tossup between them and Energy RC-10s. I found the RC-10s a bit boomy (at the store), and the Mites (87dB sensitive) were crisp and lively. However, the Mites did not have as much bass. While the RC10s were set up on shelves (4" from a wall), I wonder if they would sound better at home a couple of feet from the wall on stands (smallish living room). I figure I would go for the clearer sound and match it up with a "warm" (not sure if I understand the adjective in audiophile terms) amp like a NAD C325BEE (enough power ?) or maybe a C372. Am I going about this the right way, or would the Energy speakers be fine with the NAD?

I want a system good for the music that I, and probably most people from the ages of 20 to 40, like (sorry for generalizing). I find that most of the audiophile reviews, opinions, and forums involve persons who listen to a different sort of music, and thus may not be applicable to me.

Scott Ely

The first thing that caught my attention when I read your letter was that when you auditioned the Energy RC-10s they were placed very close to the wall and you thought they sounded boomy. This is hardly coincidental. Placing speakers close to a wall reinforces the bass, and I suspect was in large part responsible for the boominess you describe. A better comparison between the Energy and Totem speakers would have been to place them both on stands away from the walls.

If you are in the market for an integrated amplifier I think the NAD C325BEE that you mention is a good choice. Given the size of your listening room I don't think you'll ever need the power of the C372. In this case I'd suggest saving yourself some money and go with the smaller amplifier. If possible I'd suggest returning to your audio dealer and auditioning the NAD with both the Energy and Totem speakers (on stands, away from walls). Better yet, try to arrange an in-home audition of both so you can hear how the two will actually sound in your own room.

Lastly, I haven't listened extensively to Totem speakers but if they're anything like the Energy RC series (I reviewed the RC-70 floorstanders) they will sound fine with all types of music. A good speaker should play everything from rock to hip hop to chamber music. Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

As for a DAC, I'm sorry that I can't help you, but I haven't heard any of the models you mention....Philip Beaudette

Bargain-priced MC cartridges

November 8, 2007

To John Crossett,

I just read your review of the Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II (a mouthful to say and type!). I really enjoyed reading the review, and I like your style. I am very familiar with the latest OC9 and its
predecessors. (I counted three OC9s in various stages of decay.) Although I feel the OC9 remains the best bang for the buck among cartridges, I still think that the older beryllium-cantilevered OC9s were just a tad better. Of course, the old carts didn't look as "sexy" with gray shanks as they do with that glistening gold "member" shining in your face, but I guess it was Audio-Technica's only choice, given the supposed fact that beryllium is outlawed in Japan. (I assume it's OK in France, since JMlab makes a big deal over their use of beryllium.).

As a producer of 180-gram reissue recordings, the only reason I stopped using the OC9 was because of its top end. I'd never call it a bright cartridge, as it really doesn't sound that way. It also never sounds dull, perhaps at times when it should. When I was only working on rock, jazz, and Vanguard folk LPs I never had any problem using the OC9. Listening to classical records was never a problem with the OC9 either, but making sure that the LP's tonal balance is just right is another story. With the OC9 Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz sound just a little too "sunny" -- great for listening, but it can be misleading. If I were to assume that the OC9 was telling the truth I would also assume that my LPs of violin soloists are about 1dB hot around 8-10kHz. If you examine the response graph that comes with an OC9 (any vintage) you would see that the rise begins above 10kHz, and most of the time you'd never even notice it. However, an audible rise is there on fiddles.

Perhaps through Maggies this is just what the doctor ordered. While I sometimes enjoy the added detail, at the same time I can't trust it. This is why I turned to Dynavector. You need to get a sample of the DV-20X cartridge. I wouldn't say that it's necessarily better than the OC9, but it's a terrific cartridge. Dynavector makes it in a high-output version that will work beautifully with your ARC PH5. In fact, the only DV-20X I ever used is the high-output version. At $650 it may not be quite the value of the OC9, but I don't believe you'll be thinking this while you're listening to it. Currently, I'm using the Dynavector 17D Mk 2 (It's now a Mk 3), but I can't honestly say that it's a better cartridge than the 20X. It's certainly more analytical and perhaps a tad more "accurate" but I'm also comparing it to the older 20X. The 20X has the same line-contact stylus as the 17D2. BTW, it's tonally much closer to your Clearaudio moving-magnet cartridge.

Robert Pincus
Cisco Music

Other than Usher...?

November 7, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

Have you heard the much more expensive Focal-JMlab Micro Utopias that also have beryllium tweeters, and the Dynaudio Confidence C1 monitors? If so, what do you think of them vis vis the Usher Be-718 speakers you reviewed?

Charles Klein

I’ve only heard the new Utopia line at trade shows. They seemed impressive, but that’s hardly a critical evaluation; I’d need to have them in my room. However, I do have the Confidence C1s here right now, and I’ll be supplying my comments on them as a sidebar to an upcoming review. Therefore, you’ll have to wait until then to get my comments on them….Doug Schneider

Stello DAC break-in?

November 5, 2007

To Doug Schneider,

Great review of the Stello DA220 Mk II. Your coverage was a deciding factor in my purchase of the now three-day-old unit that is currently breaking in. A fellow 'phile in Seattle is a huge fan of the little DA100 (which I listened to) and was the one who initially pointed me to the offerings from April Music.

Now that I have it, it is undergoing a break-in period. I have a good assortment of music streaming to it from my Sonos ZP80 box via a temporary S/PDIF cable (a run of satellite RG6 cable terminated with some ever-so-exotic coax to RCA connectors; replacement coming soon!).

At this point in, I am not hearing any noteworthy differences between the Sonos and the Stello. The ZP80 is connected single ended to my Krell KCT, while the DA220 is in balanced mode. I have level-matched the two sources so I can make a better comparison as it goes along. Output from there is to my Krell 700cx and B&W 802s, so differences should be easy to distinguish.

From your experience with the unit (and in general), I would like to hear your thoughts on:

  • The break-in time of the Stello DAC (and all DACs for that matter).
  • The importance of a quality S/PDIF cable. (I am making a homemade cable with Oyaide silver coax and Eichmann Silver Bullet connectors.)

My friend cautioned, "Remember to leave it on for at least two weeks before it starts to sound good," so perhaps I am jumping the gun here, but audiophilia nervosa likes to set in here and there!

I see alternatives like the Benchmark, Lavry, and PS Audio, but it seems the gap between them all has narrowed so much in recent years.

Thoughts? Wait it out and it will magically "unfold" soon here?

Kevin Dakiw

From my experience, break-in of DACs has never resulted in any meaningful sonic improvement. Rather, I believe the break-in happens more to your ears – i.e., you get used to the sound.

In terms of digital sources today, however, there are other things to take into consideration. One is the cabling. Yes, it can make a difference. Another is the fact that many of today’s digital sources are so good that it’s very difficult to tell one from the other in some cases. Frankly, I have no idea how good the Sonos ZP80 is. It might be an outstanding performer, too.

However, the one important thing that many people overlook is music selection – not all music is that telling. For example, I recently did an A/B comparison of two digital sources, and with some program material the differences were indistinguishable. In other words, they sounded the same. But when I switched to simply recorded music that involved most guitar and voice and there was plenty of captured space (Eddie Vedder singing “Society” on the new Into the Wild soundrack is a good one), I heard quite large differences between the two. One source was obviously much better at retrieving the subtle details than the other....Doug Schneider

[ahem] Measurements?

November 2, 2007


The Verity Audio review, like the Volent review, is missing measurements. Are measurements in the works?

Joseph Pagan

Sorry, there will be no measurements for those reviews. The Lohengrin II is too big for the NRC's chamber, and we couldn't get a one of the Volent speakers up to Canada....Marc Mickelson


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