Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 19
It's the Economy (System),
Article by Bill Gaw
Hello, fellow Audiolics, Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous, our support group for the insatiably TWEAKED. Well, I've finally recovered from the CES, and have promised myself never to go again. Of course, I've done that each time I've gone, and forgotten the vow after three or four years. I now understand how women can go through the hell of childbirth, and do it again. As I look back, I can think of only three rooms that had sound comparable to what I've heard in decent high end home systems, and none that came close to the best. Of course, we all think ours is the best, probably because we set it up to our tastes, and use it as our reference. And I'm certain that mine is the best I've ever heard. Which brings me to this month's topic, SYSTEMS.
I was steered to it by a letter I received from a Mr. Seak, from somewhere in the Far East, who asked several questions about two systems he was evaluating for purchase.
Some of the equipment, I was familiar with, but others I had never heard or heard of. I have seen similar letters in other audiophile magazines, and I had to give Mr. Seak the same answer I had seen in them; i.e., I don't know. Not only was I unfamiliar with some of the pieces he mentioned, but I certainly couldn't tell how they'd interact.
Rule 1: There is no such thing as a completely neutral component which passes the signal completely unchanged. Each component is made up of imperfect parts which react imperfectly with each other to pass an imperfect signal. This is especially true for transducers, i.e. cartridges, speakers, tape heads, and CD drives. Each designer voices his creation. Translation - adjusts the parts to give what he considers the best sounding distortions.
Rule 2: Each piece of equipment interacts differently with each other piece, cable, etc. Information in the form of electrons or photons passing between stages, wires, or pieces of equipment have to pass barriers to their flow secondary to breaks in the crystal structure, air gaps, impurities, etc. Even in a perfect structure, much like water flowing through a very smooth pipe, there will be changes in flow much like turbulence. And the more imperfect the pipe, the more turbulence, i.e., distortion. Thus, every system will change the signal differently from every other. This is why, even with the best reviewers, everything has to be taken with a grain of salt. Corollary. What the reviewer is hearing in his system, may be the direct opposite of what will happen in yours. This happened to me several months ago when I wrote about two tweaks for the electrical line distortions. In my system, they both improved the sound, one of them to a great extent, and I highly rated them. Then, I saw a review for each in Stereophile and Absolute Sound that gave each a horrible review, something that's very unusual in high end magazines.. Was I right in my glowing recommendation, or were they in their scathing negative reviews? Well, both of us were probably right. In my system they helped and in theirs, they hurt.
Rule 3: Trust no one except yourself and your system. The only way to fairly judge something new is to put it into your system and listen. And not just for 10 minutes - preferably for hours or days before making a final judgment. Why?
Rule 4: Every new piece of equipment will change its sound over time as it breaks in, and change the sound in some manner, usually for the better at first, as it sounds different. It's a fact that at first, the majority of changes will sound as an improvement, and only over the long haul will we be able to actually discern whether the change is for the better. Corollary. First impressions are not always correct. What may sound like an improvement at first, may be a disaster in the long run. Also, the sound of a system will vary by time of day, week, month, etc., and it's the average change which determines whether it's better for your system or not, unless you're willing to change out pieces of equipment depending on time of day, weather, sun spots, etc.
Rule 5: The simpler the system or piece of equipment, the better. The more variables there are, and the more intricate the whole, the less chance one has of obtaining what one wants for sound. While at the CES, I was privileged to hear a system set up and shown by Mark Levinson to demonstrate SACD playback. It was one of the four best sounds at the show. And what did he use for equipment you may ask? Answer. A Sony mid level SACD player. His lowest priced interconnect and speaker cable. His Red Rose low end speakers and a Sony RECEIVER. Total system price- About $3000. In another room, there was a $60,000 speaker system with about $40,000 of wire and equipment driving it, and the sound was So-so. What can be derived from this?
Rule 6: It's the system, stupid. While paraphrasing our illustrious, or should I say infamous, ex-president, this is the second most important rule. (By the way, how many of you would invite him over to hear your system, and not check the next day to see if something is missing?) It doesn't matter how cheap or expensive each individual piece of equipment is, it's how it all sounds together that's important. And what is the way to that close to perfect system? Well, there are actually two paths. 1. Experiment for 20 years, spend $100,000 plus on various pieces of equipment, sell each for half what you paid for it, buy another one, and try again.
Rule 7: The most important. 2. Get the best dealer you can find, who has spent $200,000 plus on various pieces of equipment, will give you his years of experience, let you listen to systems in his showrooms, let you take the equipment home for a trial, and then charge you fairly for the service. And if you are first starting out, buy it as a system. Stay simple and be happy. And don't do all of the above, then go up on the web and order the equipment from a discounter, for two reasons. First, you owe the guy something for his time, energy and expertise. Two, you may drive him into bankruptcy and he might not be there next time you have a question or problem.
I have been lucky over the years in that I have had three gurus helping me. The first and longest running, was and is Clark Johnsen, of The Listening Studio in Boston,
(617) 524-7606. If I had listened to him over the years, I would still have tried and bought many pieces of equipment, but I wouldn't have gone down so many false paths. Thanks, Clark for all of your help. Second was Sal Demicco of Distech fame, sorely lost to a heart attack while attending a CES in Chicago.
The third and latest is Steve Klein, owner of Sounds of
Silence. I have known Steve for at least ten years, and have bought several cartridges and Vibraplanes from him, after trials, all at reasonable price, and he has always been there when needed.
Kwami Ofori Asante's System
I must say, if I were starting out in audio today, had a good budget (meaning not cheap), and were willing to shoot for the best sound I have ever heard, except for my present system of course, I would buy the setup he has done for my good friend, Kwami Ofori Asante of Lynnfield, Ma. Steve, as you remember from (CHAPTER 18), had brought over a new type 45 tube amp from Jeff Korneff Designs, which I evaluated in my system, and found to be great for the price.
Kwami had taken the first route for years, including trying to develop his own speakers, and finally came to the realization that he had hit a dead end. He got smart, called Steve, who brought down the system, and Kwami was floored. Two hours later he called me, I went down last weekend, and I was amazed. I even went to Steve's house that afternoon, rather than taking my wife out for dinner, for a second listen. What is this system, you may ask.
1. Simon Yorke Turntable and tonearm with active Vibraplane - $11500
2. KSL IO-J Moving coil phono cartridge. $15000
3. KSL AN-KSL tonearm-leadout cable - included with cartridge
4. KSL Moving Coil Transformer model AN-S6cz - $7500
5. KSL Phono Stage - $29000 with line stage - $51000
6. KSL AN-KSL Silver-Lexus interconnects $3000/meter
7. Korniff Designs Monoblock Type 45 tube amplifiers $3000 per pair
8. KSL Speaker Cable - $3000/meter. No longer available. Substitute with Kondo Cu Cable at $50/linear foot - some deal, Huh.
9. Beauhorn Virtuoso Lowther Speakers.$8500/pair
10.Rel Stentor subwoofer - $4000
Did you notice any similarity in the names? Do you know what the KSL company is? Does the name Kondo ring a bell? KSL stands for Kondo Sound Labs.
Still no idea? How about Audio Note of Japan (www.audionote.co.jp)? This is the new company of Hiroyasu Kondo, otherwise affectionately known in high end circles as Kondo-San, the designer of the Ongaku amp of high end legend. He has changed the name of his company so as not to be confused with Audio Note of England. Using his many years of experience in high end audio, he has developed the above equipment as a system, except for items 1., 7.,and 9. Steve has added these as he was already US distributor for them and he felt they mated well with the Kondo equipment. Let's look at the pieces individually.
1. Simon Yorke Turntable. This is a hand built turntable-tonearm combo, and one of the world's best. It has been chosen by the Smithsonian Museum for playback of the world's largest record collection, has been written up extensively in several high end journals, and as far as I'm concerned is one of the top three turntables, the other two being my Walker Proscenium, and the other the Clearaudio. Enough said.
7. Korneff Designs Type 45 Amplifier.This unit received a review in Chapter XVIII, (www.enjoythemusic.com/ . It uses a 5U4 rectifier, 6 SN7 driver and a Type 45 output tube for 1 1/2 glorious watts. In direct comparison to my tweaked Bottlehead 2A3 parallel feed amps, they produced a somewhat tighter bass, although not quite as deep, a more natural mid range, and slightly cleaner high end. Where they excelled was in soundstaging, filling in the blanks between the instruments.
2. KSL Phono cartridge. This is a 0.15 mv output moving coil unit with an elliptical diamond stylus, aluminum cantilever, silver windings and
leadouts, and a new gold plated motor and titanium armature design by Kondo. I was so taken by the sound of this little baby that I'll be doing a full review of it next month comparing it to my Clearaudio Insider Gold. It even comes with its own tonearm-phono wire, the...
3.AN-KSL cable. It is a solid silver cable in a Litz configuration with 8 strands of his Vz silver wire, anointed by Buddhist monks, probably with Sperm Whale oil, in a special configuration. Kondo claims superiority in hearing the "sound images between the instruments and smoother sound." The same wire is used in his
4. AN-KSL Silver Lexus interconnects
8. KSL speaker cable.
5. & 6. KSL Transformer and Line-phono stage. The phono stage built into the Kondo preamp is a moving magnet type with low gain. Kondo believes it is more accurate to give the additional gain moving coils need through a properly built transformer, thus this combo. Thus the KSL arm cable connects to the transformer, which has controls on the front for impedance and capacitance for cartridge matching, then a KSL interconnect to the phono-line stage. This certainly makes sense if the transformer and extra interconnect produces less distortion than an additional gain stage, or a built in smaller transformer.
9. Beauhorn Virtuoso Speakers (www.beauhorn.com). These are Lowther based rear horns using the biggest solid wood phase plug I have ever seen. The cabinet is only 2x3x4 feet in size, with a rear firing mouth, with a claimed frequency range of 50- 20KHz. There will be a complete review of these in my home in the next couple of months.
10. Rel Stentor subwoofer. While Kwami didn't have this unit yet, I did go to Steve's house where he has the same system with this unit. It consists of a 10 inch driver in a solid wood cabinet with a 24 dB crossover and internal amplification.
At Kwami's place, where it had only been set up for a few days, and completely
untweaked, the sound was very good. After the three of us, Kwami Steve and I, got done tweaking, WOW. The mid range was to die for. Each instrument and voice sounded about as natural as I've ever heard, with the Beauhorns in this system beating by a wide margin the Rethm horns, using the same Lowther driver, which I liked so much at the CES. Whether the phase plug is the reason or not I'm not sure, but the upper mid range tizz that I normally hear with the Lowther is gone. In Kwami's room, the system went down into the 50-60 Hz. area, and the high end went beyond what I can still hear. The amazing quality was the feeling of hall and space surrounding the instruments. Not only the instruments were there, but also their bodies, and souls. The only thing lacking was the lower octave and a half. I have six foot straight horns, which are gigantic compared to these, and take up much more space and definitely have zero
WAF (wife acceptance factor), and are flat to 50 Hz., and I must say they are flatter to 50 and below than the
Beauhorns, but they are in a much larger room, which may make a difference. Thus I'll leave any consideration of this until I hear them in my system.
At Steve's he has basically the same setup in a larger room, along with the Stentor subwoofer to fill out the low end. Even with the subs off, he had a fuller bottom end than at
Kwami's, and with the subs, the system matched the low end on mine. And everything I said about the sound at Kwami's was multiplied. This was the best sounding system that I have ever had the pleasure of feeling, and I do mean feeling, not just hearing. From voice to small jazz groups to orchestral, the presentation was LIVE. If I were starting over, and had the bucks, this is the system I'd buy and be happy, I hope, forever. Add SACD or DVD-Audio, and/or go with six channels of amplification and Beauhorns with my Marquee home theater computer and projector, and enough money to retire, and I'd be a very happy man.
Is it worth the money? At $85000 to $100,000, this may be the most expensive Japanese integrated system you'll ever hear of. That's up to you and your accountant, but Steve has hinted that buying the whole system would cost significantly less than individual pieces, possibly less than $70,000. See, it's not only the system, stupid, but also the economy of the system. While still not cookie jar money, it's certainly cheaper than starting off with a $70000 speaker system, and going from there. Most dealers will give you a much greater price break if you buy a system, rather than individual parts, as they have a better chance of making a fast profit, and keeping you as a customer for years. Anyway, you couldn't go wrong with Steve and his big boy toy. He'll be there when you need him, and that is invaluable.
Further price break? Drop 1 through 5., get the new Philips 6 channel SACD player for $2000, three more
Beauhorns, Cornice amps, interconnects and speaker wire, and for about $35000 without discount, and have a great digital surround system.
Next month I'll probably be reviewing the Beauhorns and Kondo cartridge in my system, so stand by to see if it really is the system, and not the individual pieces that make the difference.