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When audiophiles gather, they inevitably salivate over Esoteric’s cutting-edge digital components -- its transports, digital-to-analog converters, and word clocks. Analog? Not so much. Mention Esoteric’s preamplifiers and power amplifiers and you’ll likely hear this common generalization: Despite their technical competence, the sounds of Japanese analog products lack body, passion, and soul.
That generalization is not true of Esoteric’s analog gear, which is fast and detailed, yet also rich, full-bodied, and romantic. I’d go a step further -- I believe that one of the key ingredients in the secret sauce Esoteric uses to make their digital gear is the outstanding design of their analog circuitry.
I head up SoundStage! Ultra’s sister site SoundStage! Access, which is the SoundStage! Network’s site for affordable hi-fi gear. In my time writing for Access, I’ve come across enough overachieving components that I now evaluate considerably more expensive products with cautious ears and eyes. For example, my Hegel Music Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($5500 USD) measures exemplarily well, and sounds it. My reference loudspeakers, KEF’s R900 ($4999.98/pair), are equally impressive, and despite their having shared time in my system with Cabasse’s Pacific 3 earlier this year, they were never outperformed by the pricey ($16,000/pair) French monoliths. Then, in two substantial wooden crates, the Vivid Audio Oval V1.5s showed up . . .
Vivid Audio’s Oval V1.5 ($7700/pair) is made in South Africa and looks . . . well, avant-garde -- like a creature from one of the Alien films. The cabinet, in the shape of an elongated teardrop, drips down to form an integral stand with a flared base. The Oval V1.5 measures 44.5”H x 10”W x 9.5”D, weighs 50 pounds, and sits on five high-quality, stainless-steel footers. Hidden under at the rear of the speaker’s base are four five-way binding posts placed only an inch or two above the floor. Their height and close spacing make using cables terminated with spades possible but awkward. Banana plugs are strongly suggested here; Vivid includes banana jumper cables to permit use of single-cable runs.
I’ve long had an interest in Daedalus Audio’s loudspeakers. At first it was because of the company’s cool-sounding name -- but after I heard first their DA-1.1 and then, several years ago, their Ulysses, it was their sound that interested me. Friends have told me that they, too, had heard and liked Daedalus speakers, but I’d seldom seen their products reviewed. I concluded that the next time I saw Lou Hinkley, Daedalus Audio’s owner and designer, at an audio show, I’d talk to him about reviewing a pair.
Hinkley and I finally met at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, where we talked about my reviewing his speakers. He had in mind the Argos v.2, which was used in Purity Audio’s room at last winter’s Axpona 2013 show, in Chicago. Arrangements were made.
The Daedaluses arrived nicely packed, with foam buffers for each speaker’s corners, sides, and top and bottom panels. Unpacked, the Argos v.2s looked handsome and solidly built. The speakers measure 46”H x 11”W x 16”D, weigh 103 pounds each, and cost $12,950 USD per pair. The standard finishes are solid Cherry or Walnut; also available, for $950/pair more, are Maple, Quartersawn White Oak, or Ebonized Walnut. The review pair were clad in the beautiful Cherry finish. The front and rear baffles are made of solid layers of walnut and ash, respectively, and add to the Argos v.2’s seamless appearance. Lou Hinkley told me that the “cabinets are solid 3/4” hardwood with additional hard maple bracing and layers inside for a very solid cabinet. It would take at least a 300-pound MDF cabinet to be close to this stiff. Finish is an old-world-type oil varnish, which is very durable, long lasting, and easily repaired and restored.”
Tubes or transistors -- which sound better? Ask a typical group of audiophiles, then stand back as the argument heats up. Octave Audio, a German company, is firmly in the tube camp, contending that “true musicality in high fidelity can only be realized with tubes.” Their wide range of preamplifiers, amplifiers, and integrated amplifiers all use a combination of tubes and modern circuitry.
Octave Audio’s V 70 SE certainly looks like a modern integrated amplifier. Available in black or silver, it measures 17.8”W x 5.9”H x 16.3”D and weighs 48.5 pounds. It’s low-slung in front, with a streamlined tube cage that protects the tubes, and tiny fingers and noses, from contact with each other. I’ve never seen a tube cage that I could call handsome, but the V 70 SE’s looks better than most. Unlike in older designs, the V 70’s transformers are inside its case, which certainly looks sleeker. The V 70 SE sells for $7000 USD, or $7600 with optional moving-magnet or moving-coil phono stage. The phono board uses solid-state devices, and the MC version has a fixed input impedance of 150 ohms, with a signal/noise ratio of 73dB and an input sensitivity of 0.5mV. Those values should work with a wide range of MC cartridges, but wouldn’t with my van den Hul Platinum Frog cartridge, with its recommended input impedance of 500 ohms (I prefer 1000 ohms).
When thinking of loudspeakers, Contrast Audio is not a name that usually comes to mind. In fact, before being assigned this review, I’d never heard of them. However, Contrast has been in existence for over a decade, making speakers in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Founded by a group of engineers, Contrast strongly values what it believes to be the inherent musicality of naturally occurring materials, and so makes many of its driver elements from substances such as paper, cloth, and wood. All of Contrast’s drivers are designed for their own speakers and are built entirely in-house, and they take great care to produce identical stereo pairs of speakers through careful parts selection and detailed listening tests. Contrast believes that their handcrafting of natural materials helps maintain close tolerances in the drivers and thus superior sound. Furthermore, they don’t use complex crossover circuits, preferring instead the simplicity of a single, capacitor-based crossover. This, they claim, helps their speakers achieve high levels of sensitivity and minimum distortion.
Contrast makes one floorstanding and three stand-mounted models. The subject of this review is their largest stand-mounted design, the rather awkwardly named Model One As3-Ref.
When I met KR Audio’s Eunice Kron at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, we spoke briefly about where we thought the high-end industry was going and about KR Audio in general. I found her to be very knowledgeable about music and about what’s going on in the industry, and we tentatively agreed that I would review one of KRA’s new amplifiers. After clearing things with my editor, I was in touch with Alfred Kainz, of Highend-Electronics, KRA’s US distributor (KRA is based in Prague, in the Czech Republic). I had worked with Kainz when I wrote about Artos Audio’s Sunrise speaker. He was most helpful, and extremely punctual about getting equipment out and answering my questions. Several days later, the KR Audio VA910 mono amplifiers ($16,500 USD per pair) were delivered.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing reviews, at least for me, is witnessing the various approaches designers and engineers take to transform recorded media into convincing sound. Be it speakers or electronics, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve researched a product or company and found myself smack dab in the middle of a “who’da-thunk-it” moment. I experienced such a moment while looking into the recently released Criterion TCD 110 S loudspeaker, from T+A Elektroakustik. To most of us on this side of the pond, T+A (the letters stand for Theory and Application) is synonymous with designing and building high-end electronics -- amplifiers, preamplifiers, and digital sources. It surprised me to learn that things have not always been so. In fact, this German company, based in Herford, a district of Eastern Westphalia, opened its doors in 1978 as a maker of loudspeakers.
As I dug deeper into T+A’s history, I began to understand the culture behind their products and appreciate that, from the get-go, T+A has consistently striven to create products that differ from the competition in not one but every facet of design and performance. In 1982, T+A put this philosophy to the test when they decided to develop a groundbreaking series of loudspeakers, to be called the Criterion models, that would be designed as benchmarks against which all other T+A speakers would be measured.
“The allure of single drivers is enticing as it can do things no other speaker can attempt: perfect impulse response, time and phase correct, single point source imaging, filterless connection to the voice coil, extreme efficiency.”
So says Birch Acoustics’ website, and I agree. But single-driver speakers can have some less appealing characteristics, too: restricted frequency extension, limited power handling, and a need for horn or other enclosure designs that try to circumvent the driver’s limits. Still, I’ve found wonderfully appealing the directness of sound from a speaker whose single driver is connected directly to the amplifier without any intervening crossover network, and so have pursued several such speakers. All of these have had significant drawbacks that I’ve had to live with or try to minimize. For me, their attractions have outweighed their drawbacks, but I realize that others won’t be willing to live with their shortfalls.
There’s a class of speaker manufacturer that gets little respect in this close-knit, parochial universe of high-end. If you lurk about in any of the many Internet audio forums, you’ll see much praise heaped on boutique speaker companies -- those small, exclusive shops that turn out speakers ranging from very to offensively expensive. This is all well and good -- I’ve often reviewed and raved about speakers from such companies. What I find odd is how the same audiophiles who rave about the boutique manufacturer du jour seem to have little love for larger companies -- the ones with huge resources who, in many instances, have forgotten more about speaker design than the boutique shops will ever know.
I think I know why. First, audiophiles can be arrogant. Read a bunch of magazines, digest some reviews, and you’re this close to being an expert. Then, you need some deep pockets and a hunch about a long-shot company. Buy the speakers, and become a shrill supporter on a forum. There you go.
Once the supporter of a boutique company has drunk the brand’s Kool-Aid, the result can be a disconnect too wide to even acknowledge the possibility that a company with an R&D budget the size of Luxembourg’s GDP probably builds a speaker with significantly better performance and brings it to market for one-fifth the price. And if that company also makes -- the horror -- lifestyle speakers, so much the worse.
Many years ago, shortly after taking an interest in high-end audio, I learned an unassailable audio truth: never, ever doubt the performance benefits of good AC power. But even after many years, whenever I upgrade my power cords, line conditioners, AC outlets, or fuses, I continue to be amazed at the reduction in noise and the improvements in detail, transient speed, dynamic range, imaging, and three-dimensionality. It’s a lesson I learn over and over.
I frequently receive new power products for review, and am pretty good at keeping up with industry news. Yet it seems that every few weeks I discover another maker of power products I’d never heard of. Reading the company’s website or new-product announcement, my eyes usually glaze over, and far more often than not, I never hear about that company again.
But when my editor mentioned Essential Sound Products, my interest was piqued. First, it’s been almost 20 years since ESP’s Essence power cords and distribution strip made a huge splash. Back then, the fact that a high-quality power cord could improve a component’s sound was not as generally accepted as it is today. ESP was one of the first companies to prove otherwise.
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