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“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.
A cure for proliferation and redundancy
One of the downsides of assembling a state-of-the-art audio system is the proliferation of boxes for differing sources. On the digital side alone, my system has relied on three separate devices: one each for computer audio (a USB digital-to-analog converter), for SACD and CD, and for DVD and Blu-ray. Separate boxes mean multiple interconnects, power cords, and rack shelves -- an expensive proposition. Perhaps most frustrating is the knowledge that so much of what each box contains is redundant: digital filters, DAC chipsets, clocks, analog output stages. Nevertheless, no single digital device, to my knowledge, came close to providing edge-of-the-art performance with all of these disparate formats. It was therefore an exciting day last summer when Ayre Acoustics announced the imminent release of its DX-5, a new digital source component billed by Ayre as a Universal A/V Engine ($9950 USD).
The DX-5 is a single-chassis digital player with a transport able to spin all commercially available 5" silver discs -- CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, and Blu-ray -- as well as a USB input capable of receiving datastreams from the "Red Book" standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz to high-resolution files of 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4, and even 24/192. My anticipation was further enhanced by reports that the DX-5 achieved higher levels of performance with audio discs than even Ayre’s own C-5xeMP (my prior reference player) -- or, with computer audio, Ayre’s QB-9 USB DAC. The QB-9 has been part of my reference system for the past 18 months, and both it and the C-5xeMP are SoundStage! Network Recommended Reference Components. As a bonus, Ayre has included video playback in the DX-5, with an attention to detail unheard of in my experience. That all of this functionality could be contained in a svelte aluminum case requiring only a single AC cord, one set of analog interconnects, and one shelf space seemed almost too good to be true.
The upward-spiraling prices of high-end-audio components over the past ten years have exasperated many audiophiles, and understandably so. How many people are actually shopping for $200,000/pair speakers? Just as frustrating, particularly for committed audiophiles who, for a single product, might well spend into the high four or even the low five figures, is just how little, these days, such considerable sums can actually buy. There’s no better example than the power-amplifier department. It’s easy to find five-grand amps made from the commonly available, off-the-shelf ICEpower modules from Bang & Olufsen. Not that these are bad per se, but the same modules are available in products that cost under two grand. What’s up with that?
There was a time when $5000 or $6000 would buy a statement-type stereo amplifier -- say, a Krell KSA-250 or a Mark Levinson No.23.5. Today, used samples of those benchmark products, now almost 20 years old, still command prices of almost half of their original list prices. I wonder if, 20 years from now, today’s ICEpower amps will be doing as well.
The point is that audiophiles need to consider their purchases more carefully than ever, not only to ensure that they’re getting products they’ll enjoy listening to and that will be reliable for many years to come, but also that they’re getting something that will stand the test of time in terms of resale value. In my book, all three criteria need to be met before a product can be considered for purchase.
If you admired any of the behemoth, hot-running, sweet-sounding, solid-state amps of yore -- e.g., those Krells and Levinsons -- but missed out back then, not to worry: For those of you who, like me, have fond memories of the past but who want something fully up to date powering their speakers, there is an oasis in the desert.
Remember the old Threshold power amps? Well, Threshold is gone, and while Nelson Pass, founder of Threshold, has been producing amplifiers under his own name for some years now, other former Threshold employees are also designing and manufacturing power amps. Their company is Coda Technologies, and their amplifiers are completely up to date in terms of parts quality and circuit design, while capturing some of the all-out-assault of the hardware of years gone by.
Sometimes a company’s very name will tell what its driving philosophy is. This is the case with LessLoss, a Lithuanian manufacturer dedicated to the preservation of as much of the audio signal as possible -- the less lost, the better. I can’t think of a better starting point. And as audio company names go, it’s refreshingly honest. They could have called themselves NoLoss -- but that’s impossible. Instead, the name LessLoss states that, “Yes, there will be damage to the original signal, but by cracky, we’re doing everything we can to minimize its impact.”
LessLoss made its name in the product categories of power cables and digital-to-analog conversion. I first came to know of the company when its DAC 2004 was much praised in online message boards dedicated to audio. Later, I read many good things about LessLoss AC cords, in particular the Dynamic Filtering Power Cable Signature, or DFPC Signature ($1149 USD per 2m cord). The DFPC and the Firewall do their things by employing what LessLoss describes as its own “elegant solution” for utilizing the skin effect. In a nutshell, the skin effect is the natural tendency of the higher frequencies of an audio signal to migrate toward the outer surface of a conductor. LessLoss says that its method of passive filtering takes advantage of the certainties of physics -- i.e., knowing where the high-frequency grunge is hiding -- to go about removing line noise.
But despite those positive impressions, I soon forgot all about LessLoss. Fast-forward a few years: I caught wind that LessLoss had an entirely new product to debut, its Firewall power filter ($4686 direct, including worldwide shipping). To say that LessLoss founder Louis Motek is proud of his new baby is an understatement. With the Firewall, LessLoss thinks they’ve really hit on something.
"Going mono" isn’t yet an audio catchphrase, but more and more of us have taken that route for its deeply rewarding pleasures -- a sound some think superior to stereo in richness and immediacy. There’s also that vast treasury of vintage LPs that makes its way to devoted listeners via eBay, other online merchants, St. Vinnie’s and Goodwill hunting, and such bricks-and-mortar establishments as the venerated Princeton Record Exchange, Berkeley’s Amoeba Music, and the House of Records here in Eugene, Oregon. What’s more, a vibrant specialty market has sprung up, with stunning reissues of famed early rock and jazz recordings from such labels as Classic, Cisco, Music Matters, Speakers Corner, JazzWax, and Sundazed -- often pressed on heavy biscuits of 180g and 200g vinyl. My own late-night listening now is almost exclusively devoted to mono recordings.
"But what do you use for a cartridge?" The question sometimes comes up in amiable chats with fellow vinyl rats as we browse the LP bins, trying to beat each other to the next esoteric prize in its split and battered jacket. Hoping to sound truthful but not too technical, I usually say, "Oh, something kinda old-school" and leave it at that. The whole truth is, for the past few years I’ve used Ortofon’s GM Mono Mk.II -- a low-compliance, high-impedance (100 ohms internal), high-output, moving-coil SPU that comes in its own retro, G-style headshell (a 51mm distance from stylus tip to collet edge). It mounts, bayonet-style, directly on my Ortofon RS309-D tonearm, itself a 12", high-mass (with appropriate headshell), current-production model designed as a kind of throwback to vintage arms of the 1950s. Lately, though, I’ve been exploring contemporary, 0.5" MC mono cartridges of low to moderate compliance that are designed to be mounted in fixed or detachable headshells on the low- to medium-mass arms more popular among audiophiles who spin vinyl.
To most audiophiles, Magnum Dynalab is a supplier of very high-end tuners. They certainly are that, but this Canadian company is no one-trick pony; a perusal of their website reveals not one but two integrated amplifiers in their product line. Although their MD 209 has a price ($6500 USD) much closer to those of most of the components I review, this time I went whole hog and requested a sample of Magnum Dynalab’s top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, the MD 309, which retails for a hefty $8750.
The MD 309 is one big component. Measuring a nearly square 19"W x 6.5"H x 20"D, it’s so deep that I had to move my rack 6” farther away from the wall. It’s heavy, too, weighing 60 pounds that feels like more. Also hefty is its brick-like, full-function remote control of machined aluminum, which can also operate any of Magnum Dynalab’s many tuners.
Three interesting aspects of the MD 309’s exterior are its 1”-thick (!) faceplate, its audiophile-spec feet, and, front and center, its 5” LCD touchscreen. Thick front panels aren’t unique in high-end components, but the MD 309’s four feet are uncommon in that the base of each one includes a Vibrapod. These are great isolation devices, and it was a treat to see that MD has put more thought into the MD 309’s feet than the industry norm of just screwing on some cones.
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.
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