Some days writing is hard. Not because of writer's block, but because I keep getting waylaid by my desktop system. Just when I'm ready to buckle down and commit words to electronic paper, some song will come up on iTunes in shuffle mode and the next thing I know I'm turning up the volume and singing along. I figure I should warn you of the perils of the road we're traveling on. Here are mini-reviews of the gear I'm currently using in my near-field set-up. I'm going to start at the front end of my system and work my way back. Feel free to jump to the part that tickles your fancy the most.
Pioneer PDR-555RW CDR Recorder/Player
Frankly, this CDR recorder is here by default. It's being used as part of a long-term digital transfer project that involves copying all my old Beta PCM digital tapes of live performances made back in the late 80's onto CDRs. Its digital input is tethered to a Sony PCM 601 SPDIF digital output. Unfortunately, given the number of tapes I've got and my copying speed, I'm gonna' be working on this project for years.
But despite the Pioneer's decidedly mid-fi pedigree, it performs remarkably well. It reliably plays every disc format prior to DVDs, DVD-As and SACDs. The secret to its more than acceptable sound may be because its digital output feeds a Perpetual Technologies P-1A digital signal processor, which claims to be able to turn even a sonic sow into a silk purse.
As an experiment I dragged my CEC TL-2 CD transport down to my office to see how it sounded in comparison to the Pioneer. The playing field wasn't exactly level since the CEC had the advantage of being attached via an AES/EBU cable to the P-1A while the Pioneer employed a coaxial connection. I loaded each device with a copy of MA recordings Salterio (MA MO25A). After over an hour of both rapid and longer-term A/B comparisons I have to admit the Pioneer holds its own. The CEC has a slightly more natural timbre on the upper frequencies of the psalterion. The CEC also does a marginally better job elucidating the rear half of the soundstage. But still, the differences between the two units are subtle. It takes quite a bit of concentration to identify their dissimilarities. Gosh, golly gee, the Pioneer PDR-555 sounds way better than I originally thought.
For further amusement I connected the CEC TL-2's AES/EBU output directly to the Perpetual Technologies P-3A digital-to-analog converter, bypassing the P-1A and then compared it to the Pioneer's signal coming through the P-1A. This proved to be a far less scientific comparison because the CEC's AES/EBU feed had a noticeably higher output level when connected directly to the P-3A than it had when going through the P-1A. But still, after readjusting the volume as best I could by ear, the differences between the two transports appeared to be more pronounced. The CEC had a more forward character with greater dynamic contrasts than the Pioneer. It appeared the P-1A had slightly reduced the CEC's contrast and transient attack while increasing its euphonic musicality. While I wouldn't even begin to guess why or how the P-1A caused these changes, it does reinforce the old adage that, even in high-end audio, there's no such thing as a free lunch.
To complete a trilogy of comparisons I connected the Pioneer's coaxial digital output directly to the P-3A, bypassing the P-1A completely. Once again the output levels of the two transports were identical, and once more the differences between the two appeared minimal. In a blind A/B test I did only slightly better than chance at picking which transport was which. Both lost a smidgen of musical suavity when run directly into the P-3A, but they also gained a bit more dynamic speed and immediacy. Once again the CEC's better depth recreation in the back half of the soundstage separated it from the Pioneer, but this sonic advantage completely disappeared on multi-miked pop recordings
Perpetual Technologies P-1A DSP and P-3A DAC
While you can use these two digital devices independently of each other, the manufacturer intended a synergistic relationship between the two. Perpetual Technologies designed the P-1A ($1099) and P-3A ($799) to make their union greater than their parts both in terms of ergonomics and sonics. Together they supply a desktop system with six digital inputs, enough for a CDR, CD, MD, and Computer sound card with a couple of inputs left over for future applications. The P-1A has coaxial, AES/EBU and I2S inputs and outputs, while the P-3A has Toslink, coaxial, EAS/EBU, and I2S inputs. For outputs the P-3A D/A has a single pair of single ended RCA connections.
The two units do have some overlapping functions, such as upsampling red-book standard CDs to 96kHz, impedance matching for digital inputs, and ability to accept digital devices using I2S inputs. But since the P-3A functions as a D/A, it has analog outputs and a phase-polarity selection switch, while the P-1A serves as a digital signal processor with bit depth interpolation and extensive DSP speaker corrections. So far the P-1A's speaker corrections are limited to the Onix and Rocket speakers sold on their website, but Perpetual Technologies promises more brands in the very near future.
From the first listen the P-3A D/A delivered impressive performance. Along with excellent low-level resolution, the P-3A has extraordinary dynamic contrast coupled with remarkably neutral harmonic balance. Even on especially "hot" and dynamically punishing recordings the P-3A remained musical and under control. Depth recreation, while not quite as expansive as the EAD 8000 Pro DVD player, still provided a convincing three-dimensional picture of a live concert soundstage. The inclusion of an absolute phase switch makes it easy to compare polarities. Very often reversing the phase rendered an overly forward mix into one with a more natural perspective.
From my tests I've discovered I could probably live without a P-1A (until they fully implement their speaker DSP features), but the P-3A ranks as one fine bargain priced D/A. Its compact size, only 5.5" by 8.25" by 1.75", makes it ideal for desktop use. Perpetual Technologies offers the P-3B ($349) power supply upgrade that I haven't tried yet. They claim it produces a better signal to noise ratio as well as better transient response. The power supply delivers up to 5 amps of output capability and includes power line filtration. I'm going get one soon and give it a whirl. But if you want to test one yourself Perpetual Technologies offers a risk-free 30-day trial on all components purchased from its website.
M-Audio Audiophile 192 PCI Sound Card
I needed a digital output from my computer. M-Audio makes several sound cards for the Mac, but the Audiophile 193 ($199) had the best feature set including 24-bit/192kHz sampling rates and upward compatibility for advanced digital recording. It was easy to install and worked fine form the get-go. Someday I may try its analog outputs, but for now it's strictly a digital port. For more information, check out M-Audio.
Monolithic Sound PA-1 Preamp
I've always been a huge fan of passive preamps. Unfortunately passive preamps usually have problems when required to drive lengthy cable runs. But in a desktop system where the longest cable probably won't be more than a meter this isn't an issue. The other disadvantage of passive preamps is that sometimes you really need a bit of gain to boost a signal up to just the right listening level. Passive preamps can only get you to unity gain.
While the idea of combining a passive circuit with an active preamp isn't new, the Monolithic Sound PA-1 ($599) accomplishes it in a uniquely elegant way. Instead of a switch to engage the active circuitry, the PA-1 has a detent at twelve o'clock on the volume knob to let you know you've entered the active part of the preamp's circuitry.
With four line-level inputs, two variable level outputs, and one fixed tape output, the PA-1 can handle almost anything required for a desktop system. The two outputs permits sending signal to both your speakers and subwoofer, while the tape output makes it convenient to hook up an outboard headphone amplifier or analog recorder. The front panel is only 8.5" by 2.75". It contains a four-way input switch, three-way source-mute-monitor switch and a volume control. Sure, a balance or dual volume control would be nice, but on commercial releases I haven't felt a burning desire to make any individual channel level adjustments.
The PA-1 comes with a basic wall-wart power supply, but for an extra $279 you can add Monolithic Sounds HC-1b power supply. The HC-1b cabinet has the same dimensions as the PA-1. It is so well shielded that I set it up directly underneath the preamp without experiencing any hum problems (although Monolithic Sound recommends putting it beside the PA-1.) This dual mono power supply sports a pair of 1.5 amp 16-volt transformers, and has provisions for both American and European AC voltages.
I've been using the PA-1 preamp for almost two months and I love the way its sounds - just like nothing. In bypass tests using some of my own concert recordings (these have low enough levels that I can use unity gain without blowing myself out of the room) I can't hear any negative sonic effects from the PA-1. As a mater of fact, I can't hear the preamp at all. Call it a straight wire with attenuation. With almost every commercial recording in my collection I don't need to use the PA-1's active circuitry. Most of the time its volume control sits between 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock for 90 to 98 dB peaks at listening position.
At $878 I've yet to hear any active preamp that comes close in neutrality and lack of coloration to the Monolithic Sound PA-1. Is it the perfect desktop preamplifier? Yep. It's small, well configured and utterly transparent. For more info check out Monolithic Designs website.
Bel Canto EVO-2 Power Amplifier
I've been using Bel Canto EVO-2 power amplifiers in my large-room home theater for several months since I reviewed them for Stereophile's Ultimate A/V magazine. The EVO-2 ranks as one of the best solid-state, and the best digital amplifier I've ever heard. Recently I had to review another home theater amplifier so the EVO-2s were sitting idle. For educational purposes I put one into my desktop set-up. What a mistake. Now I'm loath to remove it from the system.
Although not inexpensive at $2999, the EVO-2 still seems like a high-end bargain. It delivers more than enough power in stereo mode (120 watts into 8 ohms, 240 watts into 4 ohms) to drive any desktop monitor to post-ecstatic levels, and while there are more expensive solid-state amplifiers out there, few I've experienced offer anything substantial in the way of better sound. Unlike most solid-state power amps, which have little, if any, depth recreation, the Bel Canto EVO-2 can actually reproduce a three-dimensional image. That alone makes it special. Coupling its soundstage abilities with microscopic amounts of grain and electronic texture gives you the makings of an exceptional sounding power amplifier. As another plus, especially in a desktop environment, the Bel Canto EVO-2 generates very little heat and draws an infinitesimal 25 watts when idling. Even when going full-bore the amplifier remains relatively cool. At worst it becomes slightly warm to the touch.
While I could wax poetic about the EVO-2's gloriously neutral yet musical harmonic balance and effortless dynamics, instead I'll put a link to my review in Ultimate A/V.
Reference 3-A Dulcets
The Dulcets are the smallest and least expensive speakers ($1695/pr) in the Reference 3a line. But, boy howdy, these little guys are the perfect desktop speakers. At 12" high, 7 1/2' wide, and 7" deep at the top, and 9" deep at the bottom, their slightly wedge-shaped cabinets fit comfortably on my desktop. The tweeters sit about 7" below ear-level. Finished in a reddish orange honey maple veneer, they look every bit the part of a high-end mini-monitor.
While the Dulcets don't use anything I consider radical in the way of new parts or technology, they do combine tried and true features into a well-designed package. Reference 3A begins with a rigid, heavily braced, well-damped rear-ported enclosure where they have mounted two drivers in close proximity to each other to create an optimal point source. The Dulcet's slight wedge shape puts the tweeter's physical plane behind the midrange woofer for better time alignment. Reference 3A espouses a minimalist approach to crossover design. The 4" midrange/woofer driver in the Dulcet sports no crossover whatsoever. Instead Reference 3A developed a proprietary driver with a very natural roll-off in its upper range that can be easily blended into the tweeter sans crossover. The silk-dome tweeter has a simple high-pass filter made up of a single high-quality capacitor.
Before installing the Dulcets in my system I was listening to the very slick-looking desktop speaker system from Xhifi. Their XDC-1 system combines a pair of ribbon film speakers with a high quality subwoofer. The subwoofer enclosure also contains a sophisticated crossover system, a pair of 60-watt digital amplifiers for the ribbon speakers, and a 50-watt "Class B" amplifier for the subwoofer. Although the Xhifi system offers a lot of sound for $995, it isn't in the same league as the Dulcet speakers. For starters the Dulcet delivers a far more satisfying midrange with realistic dynamics and energy. The Xhifi's JVC-designed ribbon transducers are superb tweeters with extraordinary upper frequency extension, but they just can't move enough air or go low enough (they cross into the subwoofer at 230Hz) to produce adequate lower midrange weight. The end result makes for a very left-brained listening experience, lacking the visceral impact that gives music emotional power.
The Dulcets have the capability to not only produce a gloriously rich lower midrange, but their midrange/woofer blends seamlessly into their tweeter. Since in a desktop environment your ears are only two to three feet away from the speaker it's all too easy for a speaker designed for a room application to lack proper driver integration on your desktop. The Dulcets' simple crossover design and closely situated drivers allow them to speak with a single unified voice.
You might think that since a desktop system only needs to image for one person, the size of the imaging sweet spot wouldn't be an issue. But, the size of a speakers' imaging sweet spot matters a lot. If the sweet spot is too small it's far too easy with small changes in listening position to alter the imaging and even the harmonic balance of a speaker. Although the Dulcets don't have as large a sweet spot as the omni-directional Xhifi XDC-1's, they still produce a large enough listening area that imaging remains stable under normal listening conditions. Naturally, if you do jumping jacks while listening, the image will shift and the harmonic balance will change as you go up and down, but if you stay within a regular sitting position the Dulcets maintain a stable and musically convincing image.
On the subject of imaging, the Dulcets do a more than credible job. When properly set up not only the soundstage width, but the depth recreation will wow you. Unlike the Xhifi XDC-1 system, which always seemed to reduce a symphony orchestra to 3/4 size, the Dulcets create a fully life-size life concert experience. Lateral imaging has the precision you would expect from a mini-monitor, even though you are only two feet away.
When it comes to resolving musical information the Dulcet speakers qualify as first-class reference monitors. They make it easy to listen deep into a mix's subtleties. Whether I'm listening to a live two microphone classical recording or a massively multi-channeled pop CD the Dulcets successfully delve into all the detail. Right now I'm listening to a live recording I made surreptitiously of Bryan Sutton and Jim Hurst's impromptu playing during a lunch break at the Rockygrass academy a couple of years back. Not only can I easily identify each guitar, I can also clearly differentiate the voices in the background, including Del McCoury's distinctive laugh as they finish their tune.
Although the Dulcet's silk-dome tweeters don't have as much upper frequency extension as the Xhifi's JVC-designed ribbon transducers, they still have enough high frequency information to supply flutes and violins with natural air and finesse. The Dulcet's overall harmonic balance leans slightly toward the warm, dark side of neutral, but since I often listen to my desktop system for hours at a time, I don't consider this a liability. Their rich harmonic balance makes them far less fatiguing than speakers with a lean, forward, or tipped up balance.
On my desktop the Dulcets do a commendable job on low frequencies. My Prosonus SRD test CD indicates they put out a clean 50Hz tone, but roll off to virtually nothing by 31.5Hz. Although the Dulcets certainly aren't boomy or untidy at low frequencies, they are slightly warmish, making blending into a subwoofer a bit trickier than with harmonically lean speakers. Depending on your tastes in bass, you may find the Dulcets sufficiently satisfying to eschew a subwoofer completely, but if you're a stickler for that last bottom octave, a subwoofer will be de-rigueur.
Frankly, if I weren't an equipment reviewer I'd be perfectly happy to live with the Dulcets for the rest of my life. They combine superb musicality, high resolution, and dynamic acuity in a suitably compact footprint for desktop listening. In the coming months I'll be comparing them to other speakers, and although I doubt they will always be the top dogs in every performance parameter, I have no qualms about designating them as a long-term reference. The Dulcets epitomize what a high-end speaker should do and be. Shoe-bee-do-bee-do.
Earthquake Supernova Mk IV 10 Subwoofer
My choice of the Earthquake Supernova Mk IV 10" subwoofer for my desktop system was based on my experience with their larger 12" and 15" subwoofers in my home theater systems. These guys know how to make a solid no B.S. subwoofer. The Mk IV certainly lived up to my expectations.
Situated under my desktop with no corners to augment its low frequency extension, the Earthquake goes down flat to 30Hz and puts out appreciable low frequency energy to 20Hz. Unlike many subs, when called upon to reproduce a 30Hz tone the Supernova Mk IV puts out 30Hz without adding copious amounts of 60Hz and 120Hz. This makes integrating the Supernova far easier than with lesser subs. For more technical specifications check out the Earthquake's website.
The Supernova takes both line-level and high-current inputs so that even if your integrated amp or preamp lacks line level outputs you can use the Earthquake. It also has a 0-180 phase-switch that becomes especially handy if you need to place the Supernova so the controls are on the left side. This puts the active driver facing away from the front, effectively reversing its phase.
At $840 the Earthquake Supernova Mk IV 10" makes it difficult to recommend or justify a larger or more expensive subwoofer for a desktop system. You could spend more for a fancier finish (Earthquake has gloss piano black for extra $$) but in terms of performance and features for a desktop system, the buck stops here, at the Supernova Mk IV 10 subwoofer.
Next month I'll either look at a couple of integrated amplifiers or some desktop speaker options. It depends on what gets here first and grabs my attention. In the meantime bonbons and brickbats can be sent to me via e-mail.