[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
October 2000


I often wonder what exactly we audiophiles are searching for. For the most part, a musically satisfying system doesn’t require the endless hours of tweaking, countless component upgrades, and that all-important disposable income that we spend. In fact, I enjoy music in so many places, such as the car and at work, that at times the playback method is really irrelevant. Then it happens. I sit down in front of my stereo and I'm amazed at the musical enjoyment I get from being transported to the event. It is a deeper understanding of the artist, the music and the message. It’s about the involvement and the emotion. It renews me each time.

What enables a listener to transcend his physical location and enter into another world? For me, it’s removing the reminders. It’s why listening in the dark is better than with the lights on. Late nights and early mornings do it too. There is little noise from cars, dogs, phones, and televisions to remind you that the sound you hear isn’t real. It is the removal of the reminders that keeps me searching for better sound. If I hear compression, distortion, a component-induced coloration, I know the sound is not real. And it doesn’t let me forget. I can still enjoy the music, but not at the same level.

My system has changed significantly over the last year. First and most importantly, the room has changed. As most audiophiles know, this will change the sound of a system more than any single component. The 35' x 22' x 9' listening room is located on the bottom floor of my house and is the largest single room I have. Due to its size, I was able to choose a somewhat unorthodox location for my speakers, one that provided some significant sonic advantages.

The speakers, Wilson Audio X-1 Grand SLAMM Series 3 ($79,900 USD), fire diagonally across the room. There is approximately 12 feet between each speaker, which creates an equilateral triangle with the listening position. The diagonal arrangement is beneficial due to the avoidance of side-wall reflections. No rear wall comes into play due to the ample space behind the listener. With Brazilian cherry floors and plenty of glass/wrought-iron furniture, the room is somewhat live. The drapes, area rugs and some large furnishings do absorb their share of floor and ceiling reflections, which tames the room to an acceptable level.

Due to the size of the room, deep bass is supported and allowed the opportunity to develop nicely. Pressurization doesn’t occur until the listening level is quite high, allowing waves of bass, such as those created by pipe organ, to sound quite natural. The Wilson X-1/XS subwoofer ($18,500) combination refuses dynamic compression in the bass, so one significant reminder is banished. In effect, the system has three subs, with each X-1 being capable of extreme low-end performance. I also believe this to be a significant advantage in the way the room is loaded. The bass is smooth, with no audible peaks or dips.

The amplifier I finally settled on to drive my subwoofer is the Aragon Palladium ($2750). This monaural 300W amp is powerful and extended. The first hundred watts are pure class A. I’m not sure if this means anything in the bass, but the Palladium sure sounds effortless in a way that several other solid-state amps couldn’t match. Since the Wilson XS is rated at 4 ohms, the Aragon actually delivers 600 watts to its load. You’ve got to have some control to handle a sub like the XS; the Aragon succeeds by maintaining a tight grip.

On the other end of the spectrum, the high frequencies have improved through the use of either the Jeff Rowland Model 8T ($13,900) or Coda Model 11 ($5495) amplifiers. The Wilsons are extended in the upper registers, which makes an etched or grainy amplifier sound, well, etched and grainy. The Rowland combines a grain-free treble with a smoothness that almost defies description. The Coda is also smooth, though not quite as silky as the Rowland. Its bass control is astounding, though, topping even that of the Rowland. Each has its strengths. Both have an extremely low noise floor. You just don’t hear the system with great amps like these.

Speaking of a low noise floor, the Coda 04r ($2,750) has been my reference preamp for some time. This minimalist effort from the folks in Sacramento just doesn’t intrude on the music. With convenience features such as remote control and digital volume readout, it’s hard to fault. And, of course, there are no reminders, just how I like it! Also in the rig is the Pioneer 606D DVD player and Harmonic Technology cables. These stalwarts performed admirably while the rest of the system was in flux. Finally, the components rest on a StudioTech rack that was purchased due to the shelving matching my floors. It is sturdy and attractive, two prime criteria for rack selection.

As you upgrade components, one of two things can happen. First, you realize how good other components are when you replace a weak link. This can lift performance higher than you would have expected due to the underestimated qualities of your ancillary gear. On the other hand, you sometimes notice flaws when you lift a layer of haze that was masking a shortcoming. It is indeed hard to predict which outcome will prevail in the long term. But one thing is for sure: The matching of gear is so paramount to system synergy that one poorly matched component can really detract from the overall sound. Worse yet, you’ll be reminded of this malady every time you turn your system on. As of this writing, I am only reminded of how great this hobby can make me feel. Satisfaction and enjoyment -- my cups o' tea.

...Jeff Fritz


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