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In the world of high-performance audio, brands come and go -- an audio firm should be considered well established only after it has survived its first decade. But given that so many hi-fi companies embody the personality of a single visionary, it’s difficult for them to survive, let alone thrive, for longer than 25 or 30 years. One venerable brand -- Audio Research Corporation (ARC), of Minneapolis, Minnesota -- has defied the odds. Founded by William Z. Johnson in 1970, ARC is now thriving in its fifth decade, even after technical and corporate leadership passed from Johnson to his protégés. ARC is devoted to the musical accuracy and integrity offered by tube-based designs; their stated goal has always been to advance the state of the art of music reproduction, and they’ve never lost sight of that goal. Yet to flourish for the better part of half a century has required more than just adherence to an ideal; also needed are sound business practices, constant evolution and innovation, a commitment of service to its customers and dealer network -- and a seemingly endless series of good-sounding, fairly priced components that stand the test of time.
Several achievements stand out in any survey of Audio Research Corporation’s accomplishments, but perhaps it’s the series of preamplifiers bearing ARC’s “Reference” badge that loom largest. The Reference 5 line-stage preamplifier is the current torchbearer of this storied procession, and the subject of this review.
Recent Western literary theory makes a distinction between the author of a book and its writer. The author is the ephemeral entity conjured as the consciousness within a given work -- a novel, say -- while its writer is the actual person who wrote it. The essential difference is that the writer has a life outside the scope of the book -- s/he eats, sleeps, messes around, plays with stereos, etc. The author resides only in the work itself, spectrally, a being conjured by the words of the text -- limited in existence, only a voice or a presence behind the words. There might be a parallel to this in hi-fi: an audio component not only has its "writer" -- the designer who goes on living life, designing other components, showing up at Consumer Electronics Shows, racing balloons in Kansas, shredding the break on the Inside Reef at Makaha -- but also its "author," the virtual voice within the machine.
In this sense, the "writer" of the Valve Amplification Company is Kevin Hayes, president and chief designer of fine audio electronics since VAC's inception. I have met Hayes, exchanged jokes with him at audio shows, and spoken at length with him on the phone. He is definitely a personage. And yet, each VAC component has also its "author," a specific character conjured in the sound of the individual piece of gear itself, a kind of spirit in the sound. If we apply this philosophic notion of split entities to audio, it runs counter to the traditional audiophile view that identifies a particular "house sound" throughout a given line of electronics, insisting that all components produced by a company share, by design, a common character.
Ortofon, the venerated Danish firm that three years ago marked its 90th anniversary, has long been known for its celebrated SPU-style line of mono cartridges. These old-style, low-compliance pickup heads have a stylus radius of 25µm to play the 33.33rpm mono LPs pressed since 1948. The SPUs are made to fit "international," bayonet-mount tonearms of relatively high effective mass such as the reissue EMT 997, SME 3009 and 3012, and my Ortofon RS-309D. Their spherical styli trace the groove at a vertical tracking force (VTF) of about 3.5gm. I own an Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mk.II, which outputs 3.0mV, and I use it to play, with great satisfaction, my collection of vintage mono LPs.
Now Ortofon has introduced the Cadenza Mono ($1120 USD), a half-inch-long cartridge with a modern, nude, fine-line stylus (8x40µm) designed to track at 2.5gm. With a dynamic lateral compliance rating of 12, the Cadenza Mono outputs 0.45mV and can be used in a range of tonearms that have either fixed-mount or detachable headshells.
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.
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