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In the past decade, the ubiquity of the Apple iPod and other portable music players has dramatically increased the market for headphones. While the prices of these new offerings run the gamut from throwaway to four figures, most, in keeping with the emphasis on portability, tend to be earbuds or in-ear monitors -- full-size, high-quality headphones are still the province of audio engineers and a vocal minority of audiophiles. Still, headphone companies continue to release statement-level products to appeal to that niche market. One such example, the Edition 8s, from Germany's Ultrasone ($1499 USD), is the subject of this review.
Ultrasone has been designing and manufacturing headphones since the early 1990s. That makes them a relative newcomer in a product category in which most manufacturers have been in business since the early years of electronic recording. Unlike those other companies, Ultrasone makes nothing but headphones. Twenty years is more than enough time to have built a solid reputation, and Ultrasone has won numerous accolades and a devoted following of audio professionals.
Yoav Geva, founder of YG Acoustics, must have some kind of nerve. After all, he’d proudly proclaimed his flagship Anat Reference II loudspeaker “The Best Loudspeaker on Earth. Period.,” even before a single review had been published. But given the critical acclaim the Anat II would eventually achieve, he was obviously on to something. Not only did this speaker win rave reviews, its published specifications were pretty impressive. In addition to the Anat Reference II, YG’s product line has since been expanded to include the Kipod and the Carmel, reviewed here. Given the reception that YGA’s flagship model has received, the Carmel has some big shoes to fill. I can just hear the skeptics: “So, is this the third best loudspeaker on earth? Period?”
Despite its appearance in YGA’s ads, the Carmel ($18,000 USD per pair) is actually quite attractive. In the ads, the speaker looks monolithic; in the flesh, it’s a sleek design in the Danish or German style that will complement contemporary and modern décors, yet won’t look out of place among more traditional furnishings. The upright upper segment contains a recessed tweeter; a 7” midrange-woofer is at the top of the much larger lower segment, with its sloped baffle. The Carmel utilizes Scan-Speak drivers, modified to YGA specifications. The tweeter, assembled in-house, is a modified 1” ring-radiator type claimed to have greatly extended frequency response, linearity, and power handling. The 7” midrange-woofer, a modified Scan-Speak Revelator, is claimed to provide clarity and bass extension in a compact enclosure.
When you’ve been immersed for several years in high-end audio, chances are you take for granted certain things that may surprise non-audiophiles. One of these is that a lot of today’s audio gear uses the venerable vacuum tube. In fact, many audio “civilians” are surprised to learn that vacuum tubes still exist in the 21st century, and that companies such as Atma-Sphere have been using and refining tubed circuits in their amplifiers and preamplifiers for over 30 years with no plans to change. The Music Amplifier M-60 Mk.3.1 is an example of how Ralph Karsten, founder and president of Atma-Sphere, has refined the sound of a venerable circuit.
Atma-Sphere is one of the few companies whose tube amps don’t use output transformers -- the output tubes drive the speakers directly. Transformers tend to smear the sound and limit the frequency response, and while many manufacturers wind great transformers, there’s no transformer like no transformer at all -- something that becomes clear when you hear an Atma-Sphere amp. You hear bass as deep as that from a solid-state design, but with levels of detail and tunefulness that most solid-state amps miss. The difference is not subtle. And unlike some output-transformerless (OTL) amplifiers, Atma-Sphere’s have been, in my experience, virtually bulletproof. You can even remove or insert output tubes while an Atma-Sphere amp is playing (an oven mitt is recommended). Most tube amps will be damaged if you turn them on with no speakers connected to them, but not the Atma-Spheres; being OTL, they can withstand that normally fatal condition. I don’t recommend that you actually try either of these, but if a connector slips off an Atma-Sphere’s speaker terminal, it’s nice to know it won’t trash the amp.
I’ve enjoyed AudioPrism products for quite a while -- all the way back to CD Stoplight, introduced 20 or more years ago. This is a green paint marker with a notched tip that fits the edge of a CD. You paint the disc’s inner and outer edges with the marker and let it dry. AudioPrism claimed that the green paint absorbed stray infrared reflections of the beam from the player’s reading laser. CD Stoplight has remained one of the most controversial CD tweaks ever since it was introduced.
I am a faithful user of AudioPrism’s WaveGuide and Noise Sniffer. Their other products have included power conditioners, radio antennas, CD Backlight (a luminescent disc to put on the back of a CD during play), and tubed preamplifiers and power amplifiers. AudioPrism’s electronic components were so good that, for a while, they made preamps and amps for Mark Levinson’s Red Rose brand.
AudioPrism went dormant for much of the 2000s, but has now been rebooted by Byron Collet, who was with the company in the 1990s. AudioPrism will bring back many of their older products, along with some new ones -- of which the Ground Control ($149.99 USD per pair) is one.
The Ground Control is claimed to improve the performance of the ground side of loudspeaker and amplifier connections. It would be considered a tweak product by most audiophiles, many of whom consider tweaks a waste of time and money. However, in my experience of tweaks in my own system -- in subjective evaluations, with occasional objective measurements (when possible), and even some blind testing -- tweaks have almost always changed the sound. These changes have not necessarily been huge; some have been for the better, some for the worse, and some have simply been different. But I can’t recall any tweak product that has done nothing to the sound, and the Ground Control is no exception.
Opening a box of audio cables is a uniquely Zen-like experience: the exposing of silent components that are so important to your system that it can’t function without them.
And who doesn’t enjoy opening up a box? It’s just like Christmas! And when that box is full of cables, it’s like the best parts of Christmas morning all rolled into one: there’s not just one big gift -- a single stinking CD player -- in there. No sir! There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the box. The opening process is deliciously extended.
Then you get to plug it all in, down there on your hands and knees disturbing dust rhinos, crumbs, and that button you lost a few years back. Plus, if you’re sufficiently obsessive and were toilet-trained early enough, you can take the opportunity to clean off all your connectors with some metal polish. What fun!
These observations recently roiled around in my head as I spent the better part of a day installing a full set of Nordost’s Norse Frey cables. It had been quite a while since I’d last changed the cables in my system, and let me tell you, I was due.
Confronting Diax Rake
In Neil Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem, his protagonist cautions, "You should not believe a thing only because you like to believe it!" Reiterated throughout Anathem and referred to as "Diax Rake," this admonition is a reminder to prevent subjective emotions from clouding objective judgment. Repeating this mantra can benefit anyone, but it is especially important for reviewers and buyers of high-performance audio gear. I remind myself of the wisdom distilled into Diax Rake whenever I audition pedigreed equipment, and particularly when I audition components made by Ayre Acoustics of Boulder, Colorado. That company, its design team and products, have earned my respect and admiration again and again. When I bought an Ayre K-5xe preamplifier in 2003, my passion for music was revitalized, and I started down a path of system building that resulted in my writing for several audio publications before graduating to contributor status at the SoundStage! Network.
Touches of luxury, a ton of metal
The KX-R preamplifier costs $18,500 USD, and its packaging understandably departs somewhat from Ayre’s usual austere, less-is-more packing. On opening the double-boxed enclosure, I first saw a heavy-duty ziplock poly bag containing a copy of the high-gloss product manual, a product registration card, and a pair of white gloves with which to protect the gleaming KX-R from fingerprints. Also included was a remote control of extruded aluminum. Under these was the KX-R itself, entombed in form-fitting, closed-cell polystyrene foam. Under the top panels of foam, the component itself was double-bagged, first in thick poly, then a close-fitting sheath of padded velvet, to protect its finish from any scratch or blemish. Extricating all three components from their packaging required a bit of muscle. Despite their relative smallness, the Ayres’ weights were surprising: At 40 and 52 pounds, respectively, the KX-R and each MX-R monoblocks ($18,500/pair) are extremely dense.
I suppose there were good reasons, some 50 years ago, for the transistor’s replacement of the vacuum tube in homes all over the world. Tubes ran hot. They broke. Their quality varied from tube to tube. And while the tubes themselves weren’t much heavier than light bulbs, the amplifiers they plugged into could weigh down a tarp in a gale.
To a degree, these criticisms are valid today, although improvements have been made. But while many of the world’s finest integrated amplifiers, ranging in price from $2500 to $25,000, boast solid-state electronic engineering, rarely does anyone long for that distinctive solid-state sound. You almost never hear anyone say, “I love that solid-state warmth,” or “I wish this amp sounded more like solid-state.”
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, a technology that seemed to die a swift and irrefutable death has been revived. Possibly due to the same backlash against digital that has spurred vinyl’s comeback, and probably thanks to the desire of the Chinese to affordably manufacture anything that might sell.
With such a bleak economy and so many audiophiles wondering whether now is an appropriate time to make any audio purchase, I had to wonder about the recent launch of Synergistic Research’s new Galileo models. At $40,000 for a pair of top-of-the-line speaker cables and $50,000 for two sets of flagship interconnects, these products will be on the holiday shopping lists of the very few who are accustomed to such luxuries as American Express Black Cards, Bugatti Veyrons, and stays in the Presidential Suite of New York City’s Plaza Hotel.
I don’t have a Black Card or a Veyron, and the only times I’ve been to the Plaza have been to attend weddings. Needless to say, I won’t be reviewing the Galileo cables any time soon.
All is not lost. Synergistic has trickled down the technology used in the Galileo models to its Galileo Universal Cells: small black boxes that, when attached to any brand of speaker cable and/or interconnect, are claimed by Synergistic to turn almost any wiring system into an audiophile version of the proverbial silk purse. According to Ted Denney III, Synergistic’s lead designer, the Cells will decrease the system’s noise floor, increase its resolution and air, improve its dynamics, and enhance its soundstaging and presence.
At $2500 USD for a pair of Galileo Universal Speaker Cells and $1500 (RCA) or $2000 (XLR) for a pair of Galileo Universal Interconnect Cells (two pairs are needed for a system that uses a separate preamp and power amp), these things still ain’t exactly cheap. But $5500 isn’t Bugatti money, and that kind of loot didn’t seem too out of line with the cost of my midpriced system, so Denney arranged for a full set of Cells to be sent to me.
I was also sent matching sets of Galileo Basik speaker cables and interconnects. For a limited time, the Basiks are being given free by Synergistic with each purchase of matching Galileo Universal Cells. The company’s least-expensive Quantum Tunneled cables, the Basiks retail for $250 for a 1m pair of RCA interconnects (add $95/pair for XLR), and $375 for a 6’ pair of speaker cables.
To further spice things up, Denney arranged for me to receive a handful of Galileo Mini Power Couplers ($400 each). These upgrades of Synergistic’s standard Mini Power Coupler (MPC) power supplies can be used not only for the Cells’ active shielding, but for any active Synergistic cable.
The first Valve Amplification Company component I ever heard was in the system of a good friend: a PA-80/80 stereo amp, first made in 1994. He’d invited me over for a listening session with his system, which included Verity Audio Parsifal Encore speakers hooked up to what he called "the VAC." Its looks were retro black with distinctive gold bars and a lightning-bolt logo on the faceplate, and the sound was so gorgeous and involving that I went right to the Internet and bought one used for myself. I still have it -- an old and precious friend.
I’ve recently struck up conversations with Kevin Hayes -- VAC’s founder, president, and chief designer -- first on the telephone about replacement output tubes for my PA-80/80 and then at audio shows. When his new Renaissance Mk.3 preamplifier and Phi-200 stereo power amp debuted at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I asked to review them, and Hayes agreed -- although, famously, it took some time for units to be made available. VAC rarely sends products out for review. My review of the Phi-200 will appear in a future issue of Ultra Audio.
I’d long been curious about Accustic Arts, not only for the positive press they’ve received, but also for what I’d heard about the company from audiophile friends. Given the quality of electronics coming out of Germany these days from such companies as ASR, Burmester, and Tidal, I was interested to see if Accustic Arts was up to that standard of performance. So when Jeff Fritz gave me the assignment of reviewing Accustic Arts’ combo of Reference Tube-DAC II SE D/A converter ($11,000 USD) and Reference Drive II CD transport ($12,000), I struggled to contain my enthusiasm. Now I would experience the Accustic Arts listening experience.
When FedEx delivered the Reference Tube-DAC II SE and Drive II, I was a little annoyed that they left them sitting on their sides against my garage door. That’s not how they were meant to be delivered, but once I’d got them into my listening room, all was well. Both the DAC II and Drive II were double-boxed, and packed very carefully and securely. After checking that nothing was missing, I began setting them up.
I was impressed with the build quality and finish of the DAC II and Drive II. Each had a stunning finish of brushed, silver-anodized aluminum that looked attractive in my equipment rack. Both were solidly constructed, and it seemed a lot of attention had been paid to the details: no sharp edges, the lines looked straight, and the layout of the controls and connectors seemed well thought out.
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