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Buy an audio component and you buy its designer’s vision. Buy a loudspeaker, amplifier, or turntable from PBN Audio, and it’s Peter Noerbaek’s vision you’ve brought home. PBN’s success is a testament to the power of his vision, and proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in high-end audio.
Founded by Noerbaek as a part-time business in 1992 and full-time since 1993, PBN Audio took a while to gestate. Although trained as an electrical engineer in his native Denmark, in 1986 Noerbaek was transferred by his company to their office in San Diego; apart from a brief interval, he’s been there ever since.
Only a few years ago, the conventional audiophile wisdom was that the best sound from computer audio could be had for the price of a Mac computer and downloaded aftermarket music-player software from the likes of Amarra or Decibel. There wasn’t much else you could do to improve that setup, except maybe a few tweaks to make the computer run its best: RAM upgrades, better USB cables, and so on.
But computer audio continued to evolve: Enter the standalone music server, built not for the masses -- that is, not for convenience and for simultaneously performing a multitude of tasks -- but for the hardcore audiophile for whom high sound quality is paramount. It’s the audiophile way: The quest for better sound required a rethinking of the computer as music server, and a number of companies have taken up the challenge.
An ever-increasing proportion of audiophiles now seem to be fully committed to music servers as high-end sources. And where a need is perceived, someone will be ready to fill it, which is why standalone music-servers from various companies are popping up like weeds in fertile ground.
Years ago, when I was first getting into high-end audio, I remember walking into a dealer’s showroom in Austin, Texas, interested in listening to some subwoofers for two-channel music. At the time I was using a simple two-way speaker that was restricted to about 40Hz, so I figured a good sub would help fill in what I’d been missing. The dealer had a stereo set of subs set up with a pair of speakers that were also restricted in the deep bass. When the subs were switched in and out, I heard a bit more bass depth, a bit more ambience, but nothing earth-shattering or obvious. Where’s the bass? I kept thinking. It’s like the things are barely on -- they’re hardly doing anything! No sale that day.
Friends ask me why, in this day and age, I’m reviewing a CD player.
"Because," I tell them, "you keep bringing CDs for us to listen to."
CDs are still a viable music format. I have a great appreciation for what’s being done with music servers and other types of computer-driven audio components, some of which are astounding in their level of performance. But at the end of the day, when I go into my listening room, I have a ton of CDs to choose from. For me, it’s just as easy to load a disc, sit back, and get into the music.
Copland, founded by Ole Møller, has been making high-quality electronics in Denmark since the 1980s. I first encountered Copland’s offerings at a late-’80s Consumer Electronics Show, and found them extremely well made and well regarded -- as they are to this day. Copland has seemingly always provided high-quality European construction without going overboard on price.
So when the opportunity arose to review Copland’s new CDA825 CD player ($6500 USD), I was more than a little excited to hear what it could do in my system. I was put in contact with Diane Koebel, of Divergent Technologies, which distributes Copland products in North America. She set the review in motion, and shortly thereafter a Copland CDA825 arrived.
TW-Acustic, a small German company, has made quite an impression on the analog world since it introduced the Raven AC turntable at Munich High End 2005. In quick succession, TW-A introduced five attractive turntables, each with features that made it distinct from its predecessor, yet with an overall design philosophy that demonstrated unifying principles regarding analog sound and the production of precisely wrought mechanics to execute those principles. The eye-popping Raven AC cocked heads with its gorgeous copper platter mat, innovative plinth and platter materials, cantilevered armboards, the number of tonearms it could accommodate (as many as four, à la Micro Seiki), outboard Pabst motors, fine-spun yet lavish sound, and easy operation. Then, in 2007, came the Raven One, a simpler (one motor, one arm) and more affordable version of the AC, but with the same sonic character and precision machining. Introduced with the One, the Raven Two featured the ability to mount two tonearms simultaneously. The Raven .5, introduced in 2008 and discontinued shortly thereafter, was the entry-level baby of the family. The Black Night, TW-A’s Gothic flagship, debuted at Munich High End 2009 and is a veritable Batmobile, with a huge and hugely ingenious motor mechanism, a solid-copper platter, astonishingly attractive lines, and a feeling of a sensuous organicism wedded to finely machined industrial design. Finally, the single-chassis Raven Limited, with inboard motor and controller, debuted in 2011. Though only 50 of these handsome units will be made, each comes standard with the subject of this review: TW-Acustic’s new Raven 10.5 tonearm ($5500 USD).
I think my powers of observation are weakening as I grow older. When a courier showed up at my house with a diminutive box sent to me from the UK, I was mystified. The audio hobby has conditioned me to expect things to be bigger than I had anticipated, and so entombed in packaging that I end up buried in a mountain of paper and cardboard, and dreading the day I must repackage the bloody thing and ship it back. (Esoteric’s E-03 phono stage packaging could make an environmentalist faint dead away: It still holds the record for the greatest ratio of cardboard to gear in my experience.) I looked at the delivery person, wary as I am of the breed, and asked where the rest of the bits were.
But this little box turned out to be Box 1 of 1. It contained precisely one small, extremely lightweight phono stage, a very compact user manual, and no power supply. In fact, the Artisan Silver moving-coil phono stage is so small and lightweight that I had to tussle with my interconnects and position the whole assembly just so, to keep its rear end flat on the rack! Artisan, of course, doesn’t hide the fact that the unit is small -- that’s down to me not paying attention while visiting their website. Nor do they hide the small price: £209, or about $305 USD or Canadian at the time of writing.
“If You’re Not Getting into Computer-Based Audio Now, You’re Crazy.” That was the title of the “Opinion” editorial of April 1, 2011, by Doug Schneider, Publisher of the SoundStage! Network. Although our esteemed publisher admitted that the title was a deliberately provocative overstatement, he closed his article with this: “but you may well be nuts if you invest big money in a new CD player when it’s pretty obvious that the present and future of digital playback are computer-based solutions.”
Yet what follows here is a review of another disc player. Does that make us guilty of rank hypocrisy or, even worse, of capitulating to manufacturer pressure?
Worry not: The MSB Technology Universal Media Transport ($3995 USD without power supply) redefines universal to include the playback of music files from a computer, as well as every major audio format found on a 4.7” (120mm) disc: Blu-ray, DVD-Audio, SACD, HDCD, and CD, plus a number of video formats. It will also play FLAC and WAV music files from a USB or eSATA hard drive plugged directly into it, or from one of Reference Recordings’ HRx discs. It will also play computer audio files streamed over a wired or wireless network. So when MSB claims that the Universal Media Transport is universal, they mean a lot more than do most makers of “universal” players.
A record player works according to a set of principles wildly different from those on which other audio components are based. The LP groove and how it affects the stylus function at the level of the micrometer, or millionth of a meter (0.000001m); given the delicacy of those effects and the relatively blunt instruments that must read and amplify them, it’s a wonder they reproduce any recognizable sound at all, let alone the sonic delights that can come out of even a budget turntable, tonearm, and cartridge.
While the physics by which the analog system produces music are well-known and well-understood phenomena, in my opinion there isn’t a heck of a lot of leading-edge research dedicated to its advancement. Although some manufacturers do actually measure the turntables they design and build, my experience has been that most do not. As I said, the general principles of analog playback are well understood, so the game plan is usually quite straightforward: add a bunch of mass to the plinth and the platter, suspend or otherwise isolate the plinth from vibrations from the outside world, find or design and build a good tonearm, and use as smooth-running a motor as possible. The rest is in the details. Of course the designers also need to listen, listen, listen. I’d wager that, quite often, the results don’t reflect the efforts that went into it, and back to the drawing board they go.
Have you ever had the feeling that you knew someone whom you previously had never met or spoken with? Weird, isn’t it? That’s what I felt when I met Joe Jurzec, part owner of Purity Audio Design.
Four or five years ago, I was talking with a friend about Roger Paul’s H-CAT preamplifier. Seems he knew of a dealer that carried the H-CAT, Jam’n Audio, in Lake Villa, Illinois. As soon as I heard “Lake Villa,” which is more than an hour’s drive from my home, the conversation, as far as I was concerned, was over -- any drive of longer than an hour is too long for me.
Fast forward to October 2010 and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, at which I had a pretty good time -- the event turned out to be much larger and more involving than I’d imagined. I entered the Purity Audio Design room, though it seemed a little too busy for any kind of serious listening. What caught my attention was a preamplifier whose shape was different from those of most preamps I’ve seen. I’d already been keeping an eye out for tubed preamps, especially after having been treated to a rousing demo given by Emmanuel Go, of First Sound, earlier that afternoon.
This review has brought me full circle -- the Sonatina Mk.I was the first tube-amp-friendly speaker I ever owned. This, of course, led to an overwhelming desire to experiment with a tube integrated amplifier, which I satisfied with the purchase of a bargain-priced Cayin TA-30. I still use that amp (now heavily modified) daily, and it’s an overachiever by any definition. That purchase was followed by a turntable, and a sizable investment in rebuilding a vinyl collection. Who would have thought, as I approach the half-century mark in the midst of the digital age, that I would be returning to analog with such great interest? I owe it all to that first pair Sonatinas.
I sold my Mk.Is not long after moving from a largish colonial tract house in flyover country to the drastically more expensive real estate of the Pacific Northwest. My beloved Sonatinas, and their penchant for requiring more than the usual amount of space between them, sadly fell victims to a much smaller listening room. In fact, it was the Mk.Is’ desire for wide spacing that at first made me somewhat reluctant to review the Mk.IVs -- I was afraid they’d require the same treatment, which would have relegated my listening to the home-theater room -- a task not insurmountable, but still difficult. Happily, they didn’t.
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