Times up. My six week vacation from reviewing is over and its time to get back to work. Its been great just being able to enjoy my system without having to change out equipment, interconnects, etc., with the inevitable mistakes leading to less than Christian grammar projecting from my listening room. It also gave me more time to enjoy the holidays with family and friends. Unhappily, we had an ice storm last Thursday night and as I write this on Tuesday we still donít have electricity, phone, heating or internet. Luckily we do have a wood stove fighting off the 20 degree temperatures and a generator for a couple of lights, some television and refrigeration, but the audio system is down, and Iím suffering withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, irritability and restlessness. All of the electrical appliances have been disconnected from the wall sockets and the main house circuit breakers have been shut off to prevent damage when the AC comes back on with its surge, so hopefully no damage was done to the equipment when it went off. Remember, when the AC is disrupted or restarts there can be several thousand volt high amperage surges that can destroy equipment, especially solid state.
Last month I discussed my listening style, how it evolved and what I hold for being important to listening to and evaluating components. Today Iíll go over my system and why Iíve chosen the components I use in their order of importance as discussed in last monthís article.
1. Software: Over the years Iíve collected probably over 1000 records, 300 15ips two track second or third generation master tapes from the great recording companies of the 50ís and 60ís, about 600 CDís, 150 music Laser Discs, 50 music DVDs, 100 plus SACDs and DVD-As and recently have begun collecting HD-DVD and Blu-ray music titles. Iíve kept about 300 of the best vinyl, which are now being transcribed to 24-bit/96kHz and DSD digital files, the tapes were transcribed long ago to 16-bit/48kHz DATís which have recently been transcribed to computer files, and in the future will probably do the same with all of my laser discs and DVDs. While there is always a slight to significant degradation to the sound during the conversions, I now have the convenience in my old age of having all of my best music on a 1 terabyte hard drive, backed up by two others, which allows me to listen to anything in my library with excellent fidelity at the movement of my mouse. When I want to do seriously listening, the originals are still available.
2. Listening Room: I deduced 25 years ago that the listening room is the most important piece of equipment and therefore should have the greatest amount of bucks and energy thrown into it. After discussion with several sound engineers and reading as much literature on room and concert hall acoustics as possible, a 16 to 17 x 27 to 28 x 13.6 x 14 foot listening space with a 6-inch concrete pad with all walls being uneven and made of two layers of 0.75-inch high density fiber board on 2x9 inch studs was built. All windows have wooden shutters to isolate the panes of glass and all walls have 9 inches of shredded paper for both sound and heat insulation, thus not requiring a noisy heating or cooling system most of the time. In addition, both the rear and front walls are covered with RPG type self-built diffusers, and the side walls have 4x8 foot self-built sound absorbers stuffed with 6 inches of Sonex and covered with a cotton tapestry at the first reflection point of the main mid and tweeter horns removing all reflections from about 300 Hz on up. The bass horns are placed on the floor and against the side walls thus removing first room reflections from the low frequency output, and making them ľ horns with deeper bass output. While this method of construction drove my contractor crazy as all studs and roof beams needed to be cut to different lengths thus costing a fortune compared to normal construction, it has served me well over the past quarter century of listening.
Media Room from entrance and back of room.
3. Electricity: When the room was first built back in the early 80ís it had three 12 amp lines feeding the mega amps I needed for my original inefficient speakers. This caused current limiting and thus they were replaced with a 60 amp circuit with four 30 amp circuit breakers feeding off of the top breaker of a 200 amp service. The service is covered from surges by an Environmental Potentials EP-2050 Home Protection Unit. Each circuit breaker was hard wired to runs of 50 amp Silent Source AC wire to hospital grade outlets. While this eliminated the current limiting, it did nothing for the noise coming over the AC line.
Over the years one of my major pursuits has been to find some way of eliminating this noise, which friends from other parts of the country, including from the center of New York city, have felt is worse than they have there. Iíve finally settled (so far) on the following:
a. Two APC S-15 Power Conditioners feeding the front two channels.
b. Two APC H-15 Power Conditioners for the rear channels and video equipment. Both do an excellent job of noise isolation.
c. Each of the APC S-15 units powers a Bryston Torus 15 amp Power Isolation Unit which feeds the front amplifiers. These use massive torroid transformers for further noise isolation and at the same time and with its low source impedance and current storage eliminates current limiting.
d. One of the Apc-S15 units also powers an Audience adeptResponse aR12p high resolution Power Conditioner which feeds all of the power source components and preamplifiers.
This ganging of conditioning units multiplies their ability to remove unwanted AC noise just as a second or third order crossover has steeper curves for blocking out more of the out of band frequencies. The negative to this is that ganging of the units can lead to current limiting by affecting the phase of the voltage and amperage waves, thus the use of the Torus units, whose transformer stores current for needed surges.
e. Power Cords: At the least, AC cords need to be able to pass as much current as needed by the piece of equipment it feeds. Thus low resistance to current flow is a must. In addition, if built properly, they may act as filters of one line noise riding on the 60 Hz wave, two RFI noise from the surrounding electrical equipment and from the environment, and three noise produced by the equipment, especially the digital type being propagated back to the other pieces of equipment.
A word of warning: Power Cords are probably the most over hyped and overpriced component of your system, except for possibly interconnects and speaker cables. There is more snake oil here than you can imagine. While a great cable with the above attributes can make a noticeable improvement in your system, it is more like changing the color of the icing on the cake rather than major change, no matter how we audio reviewers talk about it. There is science involved relating to the quality of the conductor, plugs and insulators, and their relative construction, and there are many ways to skin the cat on construction that will either improve or worsen their effects on the electricity.
Several years ago I settled on AC cords from Silent Source as their developer and company owner is a well-trained engineer, they have super low impedance and seem to isolate themselves from airborne RFI. While more expensive than zip cord and those black AC cables given with most equipment, they are reasonable compared to many of the cables out there.
f. Electric Company. If you have a lot of noise on the AC, you may want to call your local electric company and have them do an evaluation of your line. While most states only require that they supply proper voltage and sufficient current, some companies will also evaluate the lines coming to your house for anomalies. For instance more than the proper number of houses may have been added either to the transformer outside the house or at a point further up the line the switches, transformers or circuit breakers may have been damaged or corroded. My company replaced our transformer with a larger one and cleaned up the breakers up the road and it made a significant difference to the sound.
a. Walker Audio Proscenium Gold turntable with Kondo Io-J phono Cartridge and phono interconnect. This combination has been my vinyl source for several years now and I havenít heard another turntable setup that is its equal. Weighing 275 lbs with a 75 lb. platter, its own amplifier acting as a power supply for its motor, the unit has absolutely no wow or flutter except for what off center records impart. It combines perfectly with the Kondo cartridge which has superb tight deep bass, a beautiful clear but romantic midrange, and clean highs. Of course, at $60,000 list for the combination, one would demand nothing less.
b. Teac Esoteric DV-60 Universal Player. While not in their upper echelon of players, the DV-60 is a superb unit for both video and audio. It will play every type of digital disc except LaserDisc and Blu-Ray, does superb decoding to analog 5.1 of SACD, DVD-A, Dolby and DTS, and will upsample 16/44 before transmission or D/A conversion, and will output everything except SACD on the HDMI or SPDIF output. Its two minor flaws, for a reviewer, are its inability to transmit DSD from SACD recordings over HDMI, as Esoteric feels that their decoders are better than what can be obtained from a pre-pro, and not to be able to play back Blu-ray discs. Unhappily they still feel that there is no high end transport of sufficient quality to reads Blu-Ray and nobody in the near future whoíll be willing to invest in it considering what may be coming down the road in the next couple of years for digital storage. Also, unhappily, I had their P-05 D-05 combo here for review and had to send it back due to lack of funds to purchase it, one of those few times in my life where giving up a piece of equipment was damaging to my psyche.
c. Samsung BD-UP5000 Universal Player. This was purchased to allow me to evaluate HD-DVD and Blu-Ray concert discs, and to possibly evaluate SACD decoding by my pre-pro. Unhappily, it, and no other Blu-Ray player out there, even Sonyís, will yet read SACD recordings. How they get away with calling it a universal player is beyond me. Happily, OPPO will be coming out in the near future with the BDP-83, a truly universal player that will decode everything out there for less that $600
d. Hewlett Packard QuadCore HTPC with LG Blu-Ray HD-DVD Drive. This has been modified by me as described in previous articles, AA 105, 106, for digital playback. All of my analog tapes, CDs, DATs, and about 80 percent of my vinyl have been transcribed to high bit rate (96 and 192kHz) digital files for playback through it. The unit is connected by SPDIF and HDMI to my pre-pro, and also acts as a server for my house. While not quite up to the Esoteric sound-wise, and unable to play back SACDs, except for those times when I am really concentrating on the music, the sound gets me to 98 percent of what the rest of my system can achieve.
e. Tascam DV-RA1000HD High Definition Digital Recorder. This is a professional grade (in the good sense) recorder which will transcribe 2 channel digital recordings at their present bit rate or record analog at anything from 16-bit/44kHz to 24-bit/192kHz directly to its 60 GB hard disc, or to DVD-RW or even CD-R or CD-RW, and even record in Sony's Direct Stream Digital, DSD, the only machine under $10,000 to do so. Inputs include optical and RCA SPDIF, professional AES-EBU through XLR plugs, and DSD through SPDIF and three BNCs. Analog inputs are balanced XLRs or unbalanced RCAs, and there's a USB 2.0 connection for computer transfer. It is being used to transcribe all of my analog to digital as 24-bit/96kHz, 24-bit/192kHz or DSD files for transfer to my HTPCís hard drives.
f. Sony PS3 Playstation System. While I donít play video games, at least not yet, the unit is being used for both Blu-Ray disc playback and for transmission of DSD from my SACDs. The purchase was more of a lark to see how the Integra 9.8 pre-pro compares in DSD decoding with the Esoteric. I have found that it does just as good if not better job of playback of Blu-Ray as the Samsung unit. Unhappily the Esoteric leaves it in the dust with DSD decoding, as the PS3 transcodes the DSD stream to PCM before transmission over the HDMI line. Come on Sony, are you giving up on the SACD system you spent a fortune on producing? At $245 purchase price for a used unit on EBay, the price was certainly right. More next month.
Arcici Rack and Center Channel
5. Speakers: As Transducers of electrical to mechanical energy, in a digital only system, this will be the most distortion producing part of your system, and in an analog system using a phono cartridge, at least the second most. In addition, being the largest and clumsiest piece of equipment, it will be the most difficult to purchase as its sound will have to please you and your tastes for a hopefully long period of time.
As a reviewer, Iíve heard just about every type of transducer out there, in just about every type of system imaginable, and studied their weaknesses and strengths in relation to my listening tastes. Over the years Iíve had seven preamps, eight or nine amplifiers, and four turntables and innumerable phono cartridges and digital sources, but only three store-bought speaker systems, the VMPS Super Tower 2aRís, B & W 801ís and Yamaha NS-1000 ( which were purchased way back in 1976 and are still functioning perfectly in my sonís system.) Each was modified both by professionals and yours truly to bring out the best in them, but over the long run, they never quite satisfied my urge for that sound one becomes accustomed to playing in an orchestra.
As a tweaker, experimenter and a horny type of guy (having been a French Hornist), and a lover of the sound of low power tube amps, my speakers consist of seven horns designed by Bruce Edgar, and self-built. All seven have the same 800 Hz. Tractrix solid maple butcher block mid horn each driven by xxxxxxxxx.
The front left and right mid woofer are 6 ft. long 50 Hz straight hyperbolic elliptical quarter horns each using two Electrovoice 12L drivers, with the cabinets consisting of two layers of ĺ inch plywood with a 1 inch center filled with sand to stop all resonances. The center, side and rear mid woofer horns are 80 Hz. 3 foot long of the same construction using Electrovoice 15 L drivers. The tweeters are matched RAAL 140-15D Ribbons. The side and rear tweeters are Fostex t500amk2drivers.
Each speaker has its own subwoofer, the left and right front being self-built sealed cabinets using four NHT 12 inch drivers in series-parallel. Side subs are VMPS large subs with a 12 and 15 inch driver each, and the rear subs are the original seven foot tall round Hsu Research units using one 12 driver each. In addition there are two Sunfire 12 inch subs for the subwoofer channel. Each speaker has its own active crossover and amplifiers matched to the individual driver, as I think this maximizes the quality of the sound over using passive crossovers. Edgar 600 Hz Tractrix Horn, Raal Tweeter, Main Channel Subwoofer, 2 VacuumState 300B amps, Electraprint Audio tweeter amp, Vibraplane
a. Vacuum State RTP5 Phono Line Stage Active Crossover. This is a 10 year old hand-built one off pair of balanced preamps made by Alan Wright specifically for my system. The various gain stages have been configured to produce a 24 dB active crossover for my main horns. As I have added the unit below to the system, this piece is only being used as a superb phono stage with 72dB gain.
b. Onkyo Integra 9.8 preamp-processor. The HTPC, Esoteric, DirecTV and Samsung units are run through HDMI input while the Esoteric also uses the 7.1 analog pass-through and the VacuumState phono stage uses a stereo analog input. This unit will decode any digital type sent to it including SACD and DSD, plus it does an excellent job of room correction with the Audyysey system and digital signal processing for Dolby Digital, DTS Neo6, THX Neuro, etc., has a built-in moving magnet phono stage, AM and FM HD receiver and either Sirius or XM reception. Well worth it $1600 list price as it would take more than twice that cost to get something better.
c. Marchand XM-44 Active Crossover. I have had many different crossovers in my system, both tube and solid state, and in my opinion, Mr. Marchand makes the best. Iíve tried all of his, both solid state and tube, and prefer the XM-44 for its design, and the ability to set it up for any slope from 6 to 48 dB per octave, both asymmetric and symmetric, one to four way, delays, boosts or notches, crossover frequencies from 20 to 20KHz., level control for each driver and single ended or balanced operation. Construction is superb, and its as close to a straight wire with gain as any crossover Iíve tried here.
d. Behringer Super X-Pro CX 3400 Active Crossover. I have three of these on my center and surround speakers. The Behringer units work in the digital domain, thus requiring an A/D and D/A conversion. On the other hand, they are balanced, will do polarity reversal for each output, 2 or 3 way stereo or 4 way mono, and each crossover can be adjusted infinitely for volume, frequency and delay. While they certainly donít match the Marchand for purity of sound, they are perfect for their positions on the side and rear speakers, and can be purchased for as little as $125 used on Ebay.
7. Amplifiers: As all seven of my speakers and six subwoofers have active crossovers, they each require multiple amplifiers, which while expensive, is good in that one can match the amplifier to the driver. Tubes, either single ended or push-pull are used to power the main speakers while the surrounds and subs have to settle for solid state.
a. VacuumState DPA-300B Mono Block Power Amplifier. I have four of these, actually the first four that Alan Wright built, running the left and right main speaker mid and woofer horns. While their 18 watt output is overkill for the 106 dB per watt efficient drivers, their superb sound makes them the tube amps to beat.
b. Electraprint Audio 300b DRD SET Stereo Amplifier. Jack Eliano built this stereo amp for me several years ago and except for tube replacements has served me well running the center channel mid and woofer drivers. The circuit path has only two tubes, one input capacitor, 2 one kohm resistors and an output transformer between the in and output with no coupling capacitors or transformers in between. Its ten watts per channel output from a 300 B tube is more than necessary for the horns.
c. Electraprint Audio Single Ended A2 6A3/300B. These three monoblock amplifiers using the Russian 6A3 output tube were purposely built by Jack to drive my three front speaker tweeters. The circuit was designed to be optimized for the 3000 to 30,000 Hz. frequency range and even have a 3000 to 6000 Hz. high pass crossover built into the circuit. They have been breaking in over the past few weeks and are doing an excellent job of driving my RAAL super tweeters.
d. Crown Macro Reference Stereo Amplifier. This 1500 watt behemoth which Iíve had for over 12 years is used to drive the front left and right speaker subwoofers. I have yet to find another amplifier which gives off such tight deep bass and puts a stranglehold on the subwoofer drivers. Unhappily it hasnít been made for years, but except for a minor problem with its fan, which became noisy over time and had to be replaced, it has functioned perfectly for these many years.
e. EAD PowerMaster 500 Amplifiers. Two of these 5 channel 100 watt per channel solid state amplifiers are being used to drive the side and rear woofer, mid and tweeter horns. Unhappily EAD went out of business years ago because their equipment was built to milspec quality with superb sound for the price. If you can find any used units, they are well worth the price and there are several persons out there who can do repairs and mods if necessary.
f. Sherburne five Channel 250 watt Power Amplifier. This is used to drive the multiple subwoofers arrayed around the back of the room. While not up to the Crown Macro Reference standard, the solid state Class AB amp does a reasonable job in controlling the various subs.
Control: Air and ground-born vibrations due not only to speaker output but
also the environment, while not the major cause of distortion, do effect
components, especially transports, turntables and tubes. Over the years Iíve
tried everything from special feet and weights for individual components to
moving all source equipment to a separate room to suspending everything from the
ceiling on rubber straps. At present, my source equipment, preamp and turntable
are situated on an Arcici SuspenseRack with the rest of the equipment placed on
several Vibraplanes for control of ground-born vibration. Both use air
bladders and mass to control these vibrations, and Walker Valid Points and
Resonance Discs for some control of air-born vibrations.
8 . Interconnects and Speaker Cables: As discussed last month, while other reviewers (and me in the past) have praised what different wires do for their systems, and the right wire in the right place can make or break a system, their effect is more akin to the coloring of the icing on the cake as far as effect compared to the other components. Yes, wiring can and does make a difference, but it is small compared to what a different speaker, or even an amplifier, can do. Also, like other high end audio products, the differences become miniscule as the prices skyrocket. A $10,000 set of interconnects will not give you a 10,000% improvement over a $100 pair. In addition, where in the system an interconnect is used may affect how it changes the sound, for better or worse.
Iíve had many different types in my system over the years, and could probably retire on what Iíve spent just to get a smidgen difference in the sound, and have settled (for the time being) on interconnects from Black Mountain Cable and Nanotech Music Strada Golden Strada #79 Cable, which appears to no longer be available in the USfor my front speakers. Why? Because they seem to bring out the best attributes of my system without adding any noticeable degradation in the sound. Plus, they were relatively inexpensive compared to other cables with equal sound characteristics. Unhappily I have been unable to find a US dealer for the speaker cables, but the interconnects can be bought directly from the manufacturer for a very reasonable price for their quality.
So there you have; my complete system. How does it sound? To me, fantastic. To others, who knows. With a large portion self-built, and to my tastes, its impossible to compare it to any other system out there. Remember, its not the individual components that are important, but how the entire system reproduces and transmits the feeling of the music to your inner being. Each of us responds differently to the different characteristics of sound based on what weíve inherited in our genes and learned from our environment. As Steven R. Rochlin, our illustrious editor always states:
"In the end, what really matters is the we all Enjoy the Music!"