[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
March 2001

The Ultimate in Simplicity (and Transparency?)

Later this month you will be able to read about my experiences with the Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 CD player. I will let the cat out of the bag, though, and say that this player is among the best-sounding I’ve heard. It improves on almost every aspect of the original Capitole. However, for the nitty-gritty on it, you’ll have to wait for the actual review.

I’m mentioning the Capitole 24/192 right now not just because of its sound, but also because it has an adjustable, tube-based output stage that allows you to drive an amplifier directly -- a feature I wish more CD players had. With the Capitole 24/192, the volume is controllable by the large knob on the front panel and via the remote control. I found during the course of my review of the player that you can make great strides in transparency and resolution by bypassing the preamplifier (hopefully you don’t need the preamp's switching capabilities). When I learned this, I began to wonder what would happen if I could bypass the traditional power amplifier?

Now hang on. Of course you can’t really bypass an amplifier because you need something to power your loudspeakers. A CD player’s output simply won’t drive a pair of speakers. However, what if your loudspeakers are self-powered?

It just so happens that Paradigm sent me the Active/40 loudspeakers, part of their Reference Series. These speakers have their own built-in amplifiers and, therefore, accept a line-level input via either single-ended RCA or balanced XLR connectors. While the state-of-the-art Capitole costs a whopping $6200, the Active/40s come in at a much more affordable $2000 for the pair ($2300 with real-wood side panels). While some may still find the Active/40s to be a bit pricey -- remember, you don’t need to buy a power amplifier!

Now Paradigm doesn’t necessarily build active (i.e., self-powered) speakers just so people like me can connect our CD players straight to them. There are many other reasons, including the company’s contention that they can build a better-sounding loudspeaker by creating a complete crossover (at line level) and amplification system specifically tailored for that loudspeaker. After living with these speakers for just a short while, I believe them.

To start this system playing music, you simply need three wall sockets (one for each speaker and one for the CD player), a pair of interconnects (Paradigm is kind enough to supply some with the Active/40s), and some CDs to play music. Ready, set, go! It doesn’t get much simpler.

Straight out of the box, without tweaks of any sort, the exceedingly simple system sounds fabulous -- exceptionally clear, exceedingly neutral, and extraordinarily resolving. Everything that the Capitole 24/192 can do oh so well shines through in this system. And despite the fact that the Active/40s are smallish, stand-mounted speakers, they can go DEEP in the bass. They're close to full range. In fact, Paradigm says they are flat to 32Hz! My ears believe it when I listen to the ultra-deep bass on "When I See You" from Greg Keelor's Gone CD [WEA CD17513]. As Roger Kanno likes to say, "it POUNDS!"

However, audiophiles being what they are won’t likely leave well enough alone -- they’ll want to tweak, like I did. One logical place for an upgrade is the cabling. Remember, in a system like this you can forget the speaker cables and concentrate on just one set of interconnects. DH Labs’ BL-1 interconnects ($130 for a two-meter pair -- you need them to be a little longer in a system like this) are a cost-effective way to go. I tried them and they sound great. Still, you can always move as far up the ladder as you want. For the ultimate in transparency, I slipped in Nordost’s Quattro-Fil interconnects. These ultra-expensive wires ($1600 for a one-meter pair) use an ultra-thin Teflon "spacer" to essentially suspend the conductor in air. Nordost calls this Micro Monofilament technology. The result is probably the most resolving and transparent cable I’ve heard (although Nordost claims to have outdone this with their new Valhalla series based on similar technology). Then again, you could always forget about using single-ended connections and go balanced. Since both the Capitole 24/192 and Active/40s support balanced connections via XLRs, you can try those type of wires (although they are most often used in installations where there is a concern about noise being picked up -- something that did not plague me). Some may also wish to play with power cords, both on the CD player and the speakers, but I did not do this -- yet.

Finally, another upgrade is to turn this already excellent system into something truly full range with the addition of a subwoofer. Now that’s a prospect that really excites me. So in the near future I’ll be attaching Paradigm’s Servo-15 subwoofer with their X-30 crossover. That’s supposed to bring the system down to a rock-bottom 20Hz. If it achieves that type of extension and retains the same bass quality, I will likely be flabbergasted. Until then, though, I’m going to sit back and enjoy this exceedingly simple, thoroughly transparent, and completely enjoyable standout music system.

...Doug Schneider


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