Happy Holiday Season! Hope you survived your turkey dinners and are ready for the rest of the holidays. In the spirit of the season, today we'll review two products that are very cost effective and works better than one would suspect for their price. Usually this column waits until January to discuss the product of the year, but since this year's is affordable enough to be given as a present and is a steal at its price, the column has been moved up.
Yesterday, I was invited to a listening session at Maurice Schmir's house, owner of Dyana Audio, where he demonstrated the top of the line Eben X-5 loudspeaker, a cost no object $100,000 per pair behemoth built into a seven foot slim-line carbon fiber cabinet with four woofers with built-in amps, two ceramic midranges, and ribbon tweeter, 93dB/W/m efficiency and flat frequency and impedance. The unit was being driven through Nordost cable by a 50 watt Art Audio Quartet tube amplifier to ear piercing levels without any discernible distortion. The soundstage extended out to beyond my listening chair and on a couple of recording it almost sounded as if hall sounds were coming from behind me, something I'd never heard before. These things must be about as phase accurate as possible to do this.
This was one of the best listening sessions I've ever attended and if I had the moolah I'd probably go for a pair or two, but I'd prefer to retire in the near future. These things are so transparent that we could tell a significant difference between an Electrocompaniet and 47 Labs CD transports, with the 47 Labs coming out on top by a significant margin. If you get a chance, go for a listen even if you can't afford them. Just don't tell the dealer I suggested it. You'll really find out what high-end audio is all about. If this were a formal review they'd probably receive Product of the Year, but it isn't and it won't.
ZVOX 325 Single Cabinet Surround Sound System
No, I'm not crazy. This isn't the product of the year either. But it does give excellent value for its cost. No, it also isn't meant for your ultimate listening system, but for that second television in the living room or bedroom where you don't want to spend a fortune on electronics or take up half the bedroom with speakers, or even with your computer or MP3 player. The unit consists of a black or silver magnetically shielded MDF cabinet (for placement on top of CRT televisions) 17x5x17 inches containing three 3.25-inch inch ferrofluid speakers and a 4 x 6 inch woofer plus amplifiers. Included with it are a wall wart with power cord, two input cords, one with minijack on one end and RCA's on the other one with two minijacks, a small remote control, and two pages of setup information.
The front has a very thin grill which had a small bent area in it from shipping (I swear I didn't do it), with a small red window for the remote control, a volume and phase pot and a mini jack for signal input. The back has a woofer (subwoofer according to them) volume pot, two minijacks, one input and the other either an input or an output for a subwoofer, a power switch, with one of the input jacks being able to be used as an output for an external subwoofer( which I didn't try) and the woofer port which must be kept away from a rear wall. The amplifiers have circuitry that both equalizes the sound for the speakers and has their so-called “PhaseCue” system to expand the sound stage giving the feel that the sound is originating from beyond the box. Without asking them this most likely is adding out of phase information to the left and right speakers, but maybe one of their representatives will answer that question at the end.
Setup is easy. Just plug in the appropriate cord from the stereo outputs, or headphone outputs of the source, and plug in the wall wart to the unit and the AC. If your source has an internal speaker, turn it off or disconnect it. Turn up the volume control on the source to approximately what it would normally be for listening through the source speakers, then turn up the volume control on the ZVOX until sound can be heard. Then advance the source control until some distortion occurs, either hiss or amp distortion, then back it off and turn up the ZVOX to normal listening levels. This will decrease to a minimum the noise. Finally listen to a piece that has surround information and adjust the PhaseCue control for the optimum sound stage.
Some helpful hints.
First, while you get more surround or wide space information by turning up the phase control, it can also overpower the center channel's ability to produce sufficient dialogue sound, as most speaking is done through the center channel. If you do like excessive surround information, this can be overcome by turning on the source's own speakers and making them a center channel. This worked well for me when watching programs with my mother who was visiting, as she couldn't hear the dialogue at what I considered to be the ideal setting of the PhaseCue.
Second, you can push the PhaseCue to the point of amplifier distortion if it is turned up too high which first appears as a grittiness to the sound. Happily the amp gave out well before the speakers, and no damage was done.
Third, the unit should be centered if possible on or under the source and away from all walls. Being nearer to the left wall than the right of the room significantly decrease the effectiveness of the unit. Also, if the unit is placed too close to a corner, the woofer output will need to be adjusted.
So how did it sound? Surprisingly good for a unit of its size. While it wasn't equivalent to my 7.1 horn surround system, it certainly gave significantly better sound than any Bose wave radio, or the internal speakers for both my Toshiba 50 inch CRT and JVC 50 inch LCOS Projectors. When set properly, dialogue was very clear and centered, with left and right information expanding several feet beyond the unit with little if any phasiness that sometime accompanies these things. It also somewhat wrapped around the room but certainly didn't give the feeling there were surround speakers.
All in all, the unit did work as described and gives remarkable value for its price. I didn't even feel the need for an additional subwoofer, but then who needs one in the bedroom. It would be perfect for one of those plasma or DLP monitors and is a useful addition for even those with built in speakers.
Now a few comments from Thomaas Hannaher of ZVOX:
Erika from Nicoll PR sent me a copy of your review of our ZVOX 325 system. I thank you for the kind words. A couple of notes:
1) The depth measurement of 17" includes knob extension at the back. A 16" depth measurement is more accurate. (I know.... we supplied the 17" number, but we changed our minds about what was more accurate.)
2) Sorry about the grille dent. We've added an extra piece of foam to our new box production. BTW, it would probably pop right out if you removed the grille and thumbed it out.
3) PhaseCue explanation: Middle speaker is mono (L+R). Right speaker gets the right channel and out-of-phase information for the left channel (R-L). Left speaker gets left channel and out-of-phase information from the right channel (L-R). The PhaseCue control adjusts how much out-of-phase information goes to the outer speakers.
Thanks again. Let me know if there's anything else you need.
OK. We're finally there. This has been a great year for me for product review, with several possible products that could have been given the honor, including the NESPA wire, AA Chapt 77, Thor Power Distribution System, AA Chapt 78, and the Vantage unit, AA Chapt 83. In any other year one of these may have won. Also, this has been a great year for improving the garbage coming into our homes that masquerades as pure electricity. Again, any of the several products reviewed this year, including the Thor, and the two Exact Power units, AA Chapt. 75, 76 & 80, would significantly improve the sound in any high end system and any could, depending on the type of AC line distortion, make any audiophile's face light up.
But, in my system, one company's products have completely eradicated, as far as I can tell, any and all line noise and grunge coming into the house. How can one tell? Because my system now sounds great any time of the day or night with little if any variation in the sound from 6 P.M. to 1 A.M. Interestingly, it's not even a high end company with their necessity for exorbitant charge per unit due to lack of economies of scale, but a well respected world-wide producer of power supplies for both computers and industry.
I'm referring to American Power Conversion (APC). While their products are world-beaters for both computers and commercial usage, they tend to put out a so-called pseudo-sine wave, which unhappily is not conducive to music or video. Thus they formed an audio-video or home theater division and have brought out a line of products especially designed for us. Their S-15 was previously reviewed, AA Chapt 82, and would have been given this award if they hadn't come up with new products in the line, one of which gives tremendous value for its cost.
Their top of the line now in the series is their new S20 unit. This is very similar to the S15, in that it has not only four separate circuits for AC line conditioning and battery backup for power line sags, but also an RS-232 interface so it can be computer controlled for large home theater systems, and actually included one of my suggestions to them from my visit to their factory: boosting the average allowable wattage to 1200 from 900 in the S15. This allows it to be used in larger systems or with very high power amplifiers.
Unlike in most UPS units sold for audio, they don't do an AC-DC-AC conversion to eliminate line noise by producing a completely new sine wave unless the AC fails, but do sufficient isolation to eradicate all of the noise traveling along with the 60 Hz. wave. I didn't believe this was possible until I saw actual oscilloscope live tracings in their factory where they fed super noisy AC into the unit and got out the purest sine wave I've ever seen. At the same time they use autoformers to keep the voltage as close to 120 as possible, and battery backup for severe line sags (brownouts) and safe shutdown of equipment with complete loss of electricity, as the several circuits can be used to shut down sources before amplifiers. They have even produced extra battery packs which can be ganged to run the units on pure DC, but I found this to be unnecessary. Anyway, please review the previous articles for the full skinny on them.
This prizewinner for this year is actually the newest addition for high-end system protection, their H 10 and 15 units. Like the S series, these units will safely work continuously on 600 and 900 watts each, but will do short term maximums to 1700 watts without damage. Each has the same circuit boards outputs, etc. Unlike their bigger and heavier brethren they don't contain battery backup and thus the safe shutdown feature. They work only by autoformers to control voltage sag.
On the other hand they have improved upon one problem I found with the S units. When the unit had to adjust for low or high voltage or spikes, they tended to make a mechanical clicking sound, which could be heard both through the speakers and by air. This has been solved by the H series, which are perfectly quiet in their operation.
Now on to the important question; Do they work as well as the much more expensive S units? Frankly, in testing over the past three months, at least in my system, the two series work equally as well at controlling AC line noise. This amazed me as the H10 lists for $299.95, and the H15 for 399.95 versus the $1499 for the S15, and a reader, Kishore Kumblekere has suggested he has found them on sale at his local CompUSA for as little as $130, which sounds impossible. It may be that he's talking about their C series, which has one circuit and looks like a power strip, but who knows.
So for the same price one could buy 4 of the H series have a total of 16 separate isolation circuits with 48 outlets, with one piece of equipment per circuit, thus completely isolating all equipment from each other. While I haven't tried this yet, I do now have two of the S-15 units, using one for the left channel and digital equipment, and one for the right and center channels, and am now using one H15 for the video equipment and one for the rear channel, placing the latter after a long run of AC cable to the back of the room.
Perhaps you don't understand my enthusiasm for these products. I have been into high-end audio since 1982 and have spent enough on various equipment to fund the World Health Organization for several months. Until these units were put into my system, I still had to wait until late into the evening to listen to optimal sound. Many of my columns have been about this problem and the various cures tried over the years with varying success. Maybe I'm getting older and thus more easily satisfied, but for the first time in 24 years, I can listen to my system at any time of the day or night with contentment. Thank you APC.
One fly in the ointment here. I have just been notified by APC that they will sell the S series only through their dealer system, usually consisting of home theater installers. Happily we can purchase the units through American Theater for only $968.
And now a few comments from Patrick Donovan of APC:
Thanks for forwarding the article...I have the following comments...
Both the S and H Types will make a small, momentary audible *click* whenever the tap-changing transformer needs to correct the RMS voltage level. The isolated filter banks will eliminate EMI/RFI interference, however, without making any audible noise as these filtration circuits have no mechanical parts involved...
Thanks and best regards!