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More Component Matching
A few months ago I wrote a Standout Systems column titled "Component Matching." It told of my experience with Mirages MRM-1 loudspeaker, a good but tough little speaker to drive. The article described the importance of properly matching the power output of an amplifier with the power requirements of a loudspeaker for best performance. This column continues that thought and reports on some sonic mixing and matching of other components to achieve Standout System sound.
Assembly of this system began when I received the new $3699 Bulldog loudspeaker from Canadas Cliffhanger Audio. This speaker made its debut at CES 2000 in Las Vegas. In an enormous hall, without any wall reinforcement in sight, the Bulldog sat atop pint-sized speaker stands and plowed out unbelievable bass. Shortly after the show, I received the speakers for review.
The name suits the speakers appearance. Its stubby and very heavy (65 pounds each), but overall, quite good-looking and well finished. The shape and look of the cabinet are similar to those of the companys other speakers, but the finish is more upscale. It uses better quality, real-wood veneers that are then finished with a high-gloss coating. The front and back panels are done in piano black. Internally, it uses much more bracing, resulting in a very solid cabinet. Its large and heavy for a stand-mounted speaker (it measures 19" tall and 16" deep!), so you need some very sturdy stands. Twenty- or 22-inch-high stands are probably ideal, but I only had 24-inchers on hand. They worked well. The Bulldog employs a unique driver configuration that includes the 6.5" bass driver used in the companys excellent W-2 subwoofer, a metal-dome, midrange driver of German descent, and a ribbon tweeter.
The stubborn Bulldog has a low sensitivity (about 82.5dB) and some nasty impedance swings that make proper amplifier matching paramount. Just like the MRM-1, these are speakers not well suited for the vast majority of tube amplifiers on the planet. As for low-power, singled-ended jobs, they need not apply. Good-quality solid-state is the amplifier topology of choice. Last time I used Blue Circles BC22, this time I happened to have on hand the brand new $2775 Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver.
The MD 208 contains a high-quality 100Wpc solid-state power amplifier section, a top-notch tuner, and a full preamplifier section with a total of seven inputs. The build quality is first-rate, and the styling is extremely attractive. It also has a heavy-duty, all-metal remote control. I think that this great-looking all-in-one unit will become a centerpiece for many fine audio systems. Furthermore, its a rare piece in the world of high-end audio. After all, how many high-performance receivers are there?
The MD 208 has more than enough power to control and push the Bulldogs to high listening levels. The combination makes for an extremely transparent and versatile system that can swing through a wide variety of music. Intimate folk, large-scale classical, and hard-driving hard rock are rendered with ease and supreme clarity. Transparency and detail are very good with highs that extend without a hint of strain and bass that lends a rock-solid foundation to any music. Just as I heard at the CES, the Bulldogs can go deeeeeep in the bass.
Despite this fine sound, though, I knew a little more tweaking needed to be done to make something that was already good into something great. If there was a component to improve, at least in combination with these components, it was the digital source. It was, well, just a little too digital-sounding. Compounding this problem is the fact that the speakers and receiver let just about everything through. It all sounded good, but also a tad hard, and I felt the need to add a little warmth and bloom.
Enter the $4200 Audio Aero Capitole CD player from France. "A little too expensive for this system," you say? Perhaps, but the excellent quality of the other components makes this piece feel right at home. The stylish Capitole, with top-loading tray, will appeal to listeners who tire of the fatiguing sound that can be heard from some players. It contains a tube-based output section that has a volume control with a knob mounted on the front panel. At full throttle, it can swing 3.5V. So if you don't have any other source components, you can simply kiss the preamplifier goodbye and run this unit directly into your power amplifier. In theory, by doing this you may obtain better sound by bypassing the preamplifier section (then again, depending on how it matches up, better sound is not always the result).
While I will try running the Capitole direct for the upcoming review, in this system, it was run into the CD input of the MD 208, where it still made splendid sound; no, scratch that -- it made gorgeous sound. Any bit of harshness that was there before vanished. What remained is beautiful, almost liquid reproduction that's among the best Ive heard from a digital source. It also brought back the perfect balance of warmth and bloom. The Capitole is smooth, seductive and sweet without being slow, sloppy and syrupy. Dare I say analoglike?
So what accounts for the fine sound that this unit is capable of? Is it the tube-based output section? It could be -- it does have those qualities you sometimes associate with tubes. But, truth be told, I have no idea. What I do know is that based on the sound quality alone, this is a very good-sounding CD player that Ill be sorry to see leave. A full review is forthcoming.
Finally, my inclusion of Nirvana Audio cabling throughout the system will sound, for lack of a better phrase, like a broken record. Anyone who has read my reviews or columns knows that for about the last two years these cables have shown up in every article where I discuss my equipment. These obviously arent the only cables Ive used, but they are the ones that are a mainstay in my system. Although Ive tried, and greatly liked, some other cables, Ive never stopped using the Nirvana S-L series speaker cables ($1095 for a six-foot pair terminated with spades) and S-L series interconnects ($695 for one-meter pair terminated with RCA jacks). They are, quite simply, neutral and highly revealing. They impart no sonic signature of their own. Most importantly, they have matched ideally with the many components Ive set up in my room. Sure, there are other cables that do a little better here and there, but on the whole, I find these extremely versatile cables to do the trick perfectly. Theyre certainly not cheap! However, theyve been in, and will likely stay in, my system for years.
After all is said and done, many audiophiles may find this system a tad too simple. Hard-core audiophiles are notorious for laboring over every individual component in a system -- preamps, power amps, etc. The MD 208 contains the preamp and power amp plus a tuner! Whats a tweaky audiophile to do when most of the components are sealed inside a single box? Well, I can suggest one tweak worth investigating. Richard Grays Power Company retails for some $700 and can accommodate up to four electronic devices. In this case, there is room on one of these units to plug in the MD 208 and the Capitole with two outlets to spare for things like a television, cassette deck, or what have you. If you have a bunch of other source components and need more than four outlets in total, you can "star-cluster" these units by chaining one to another (two units will allow seven components; the eighth outlet is taken up when one is chained to another through the power cord). Richard Grays Power Company is certainly not inexpensive, but luckily for audiophiles wishing to try this piece, the company is focused on building a strong dealer network so that people can try before they buy. My experience shows the improvements vary from system to system, making experimentation mandatory. In my system I did notice that it seemed to provide a reduction of the noise floor which increased depth, detail and image specificity. Furthermore, the unit not only works with audio systems, but seemingly improves video too (go ahead and try plugging your TV in). Whats more, I found it to have no ill-effects for anything I plugged into it -- even amplifiers. This can't be said about all regular power-line conditioners. Then again, the company doesn't say this is a line conditioner; they say it's an "unconditioner."
So whats the moral of this story? This unlikely group of components, both in terms of technology and price, combine to form an outstanding system. It sounds startlingly good. Had these components not shown up for review simultaneously, and had I not become familiar enough with each to realize how well they could fit together, I would have likely never tried or thought to make them into a complete system. Whats more, before the MD 208 came along, I would have never suspected that a receiver-based system could sound so good. There is one more side benefit besides the great sound worth mentioning. The convenience that the all-in-one MD 208 provides (not to mention the benefits of its great tuner section) makes it an attractive centerpiece that will be a godsend to many consumers looking to cut down on all the boxes and cables in their systems. In the end, this system offers great sound through good matching.
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