[SoundStage!]Planet Hi-Fi
Back Issue Article

May 2002

Me, Myself, My System

I couldn’t get my laptop booted up fast enough. When inspired to write, I know to take advantage. I’m listening to my usual system again after having experimented for a few weeks with some other speakers. Since the time of my last Planet Hi-Fi review about a year ago, audio has been only about the music for me. I needed the break from the equipment world. I was fortunate to be able to take that break with some extraordinarily fine sound at my disposal. Mine is a system that underwent a lot of improvement during my stint with PHF, and the time off from reviewing helped me get to know it. In the process, my listening skills improved. Now, I guess it’s simply that time, as I’m once again turning my attention to making my system better and to sharing my experiences with you.

What I have is a Sony DVPS777 DVD player used as a CD transport. It feeds a Meridian 568 surround preamp, which I’m using as only a digital-to-analog converter. It can’t compete with the better high-end preamps at controlling volume. Instead, I send a fixed-level signal from the 568 to a Placette passive line stage -- absolutely golden. Give me a preamp that sounds as pure and I’ll be surprised and grateful. The Placette, with its dual outputs, feeds two Bel Canto Design eVo 200.2 digital amplifiers. These feed my Von Schweikert VR-5 speakers. These have Albert Von Schweikert’s optional higher-performance woofer and Hovland upgrade, which includes Hovland silver-wire inductors and pure-foil capacitors. I use Silverline Audio interconnects and TARA Labs RSC Air 2 speaker cables. I have found that the digital cable from the Sony to the Meridian doesn’t much matter. What matters is my discontinued XS Technologies Strata 1000 UPS. It’s essentially a battery that serves as a line conditioner, and I’ve never heard anything come close -- not even the celebrated PS Audio units. Maybe there’s something to batteries that non-battery-based systems can’t match. I’m also using a Monster AVS2000 power-line conditioner -- an extra shot in the arm.

The vinyl side of my system consists of the Grado Reference cartridge, Linn Ittok LV II tonearm, Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, and the Naim Armageddon power supply. A Signal Guard II Resonance Attenuation Platform supports the turntable, and a very heavy homemade pinewood stand supports the Signal Guard. I use the phono section of a McIntosh C38 preamp, which feeds the Placette passive line stage via one of the Mac’s fixed-level outputs.

But I have a couple of nits to pick with the sound I’m getting. One is the bass. I’m contemplating what adding the bottom octave (i.e., a subwoofer) might do to improve things. I’m skeptical that things will improve, however, as stand-alone subwoofers tend to be unnaturally boomy to my ears. (I have heard phenomenally good ones, but they cost as much as a car.) One of the things I love most about my system is its clean low bass. I’d hate to ruin that. More bass? Easy. More and as good? I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Look here for an upcoming column on Albert Von Scheikert’s subwoofer. I’ll be very happy if it maintains the VR-5’s agility while adding presence. Indeed, I’ll be happy if it gets here. UPS managed to lose the first one I was sent.

A second nit is digital playback. I upgraded my cartridge a while back, from a Grado Sonata to a Grado Reference, and my past preference for the vinyl side of my system grew stronger. Perhaps related, I’m less satisfied with CD sound. Vinyl isn’t always better than CD, but since my cartridge upgrade, CD seems to always have an unnaturally cold quality. It’s as if there is some key part of live sound that isn’t getting captured -- as if the texture isn’t right. I’d like to attempt an upgrade to my CD rig, but I’m just not convinced such sound isn’t inherent in the 16-bit CD standard. I need to pay this issue some attention while listening through a Krell/Sonus Faber system to which I have access. This system, consisting of Krell’s FPB amps, reference CD player, reference preamp, and Sonus Faber Amati Homage speakers, reinvigorated my interest in audio. Meanwhile, at home, I’m spurred on to extract still more information from the grooves.

Back to the present and my own financial reality, I'm still overwhelmed with gorgeous sound. Ani DiFranco is singing "you are going down," drawing me into the music. This disc, Dilate [Righteous Babe Records RBR008-D], is classic snarling rock'n'roll and a terrific-sounding recording with plenty of dynamic range. I haven't had sound this good for a couple of weeks, during which time I was experimenting with a pair of Infinity Renaissance 90 speakers. Jim Fosgate's Dolby Pro Logic II, courtesy of the Meridian 568, is making things all the more engaging. I've never before heard DSP for two channels that does so much good for so many recordings.

The sound I’ve so joyously sunk back into has purity and bass extension that are, in my experience, rare for the money. I’d like to point out, however, that I labored over buying the Von Schweikert VR-5 speakers or the Vienna Acoustic Mahlers. I felt that the Mahlers were lying delightfully, whereas the VR-5s were more truthful, and I go for truth. Yet, if I’d chosen the Mahlers, I don’t think I’d have ever looked back. Choose either with confidence. Go listen to either of these models for a $10,000 reference, or go right to the Sonus Faber Amati Homage (around $20,000) for a much better reference.

About those Infinity speakers. Living with my present system, I’ve become sensitive to a "zzz" sound introduced in most systems. It’s a distortion that I suspect is a primary clue that what we’re hearing is artificial. It’s most noticeable on voices. Listen to a naturally recorded voice on any audio system and ask yourself how it differs from a live voice. Think of the "zzz" sound, and maybe you will understand what I’m saying. Others might recognize it as "electronic sounding." I was reintroduced to this distortion during my brief stint with the Renaissance 90s.

Made in the early '90s, these speakers listed for $3800, compared to $11,000 for my upgraded VR-5s. The Infinity Renaissance 90s have full, detailed, bass extension, a dynamic sound, and they image well. For $3800, they’re competitive with many like-priced current designs I know of. Indeed, if you have at least as much or more "zzz" in your reference system, you probably wouldn’t notice this trait in the 90s. Like many distortions, listeners notice it only after it’s been reduced.

Well, that's my system, and I'm sticking to it --- until my next column, that is.

...Dennis Hartwick


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