Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor
by Doug Schneider
When I had my first contact with the worldwide distributor of this product, who happened to reside in Singapore, I thought that perhaps our lines of communication might have gotten crossed. Obviously, were a publication that deals with audio-related products. Ortho Spectrum certainly didnt sound like it was an audio product, or any other thing that we deal with, but I didnt want to look too dumb too soon. So after my initial e-mail discussion with its distributor, I phoned our editor-in-chief, Marc Mickelson, a person who keeps his ear to the ground on new products, and asked him about Ortho Spectrum. He, like me, didnt have a clue.
Whats in a name?
"Does it have some sort of medical purpose?" I wondered aloud as I fired up my browser and began to type in the name as the URL, hoping it would come up. It certainly did come up, and my answers came quickly. In just a few moments of browsing I learned a lot about this product, including that it can be used with some types of medical equipment, at least thats what the company says in their online literature. But nestled in all this information is the products real purpose, which will pique the interest of tweak-hungry audiophiles.
To clear things up, Ortho Spectrum is not really the products name, although I suspect many will call it this regardless. I still call it the Ortho Spectrum and its been here for months. The product itself is actually the model AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor and Ortho Spectrum is more or less an umbrella name for the maker's products. The model name at least sounds a little more audiophile-like and is more indicative of the purpose for which the AR-2000 is intended. The AR-2000 comes from a company in Japan called Infra Noise Laboratory, Inc. Still, Ortho Spectrum, once you get used to it, has a certain ring, and Im sure thats how it will be known -- strange, but catchy.
The AR-2000 is an active device meant to be placed after any type of digital-to-analog converter to eliminate non-audible, high-frequency noise. The key here is that this goes after the D/A-conversion component. This means that it is working in the analog, not the digital, domain even though it kind of looks like a DAC. You use interconnects (balanced or single ended), and you can use it with either an external DAC, CD player, a DVD player, or whatever else seems fit for it (in the case of the DVD player, use the analog stereo audio outputs, not the surround-sound or video ones).
An important question to ask is: Why eliminate "non-audible" noise that is, according to Infra Noise Laboratory, a by-product of the digital-to-analog conversion process? Shouldnt we just want to be concerned with what we hear? According to the company, all this noise supposedly contaminates the audible band and is part of the reason that some people find sound stored in and decoded from the digital domain objectionable. Objectionable? To some, the thought that digital sound is not perfect will seem strange. After all, havent we been told for years that it is?
Perfect sound for now
I can almost see the early marketers of CD laughing themselves silly. "They believed it, they really believed it!" they gleefully squeal. Some 20 years after the CD was released, were still improving on this supposed perfection -- and were not quite there. In fact, perfection is going to come in a whole new package that will likely be called SACD or DVD-A, depending on who wins the latest digital war. Forever is certainly a long time; for now seems more accurate.
That said, I cant blame the marketers for trumpeting the idea that CD is perfect, even if its not even close. CD was not, is not, and will never be perfect. But then again, what is? Your turntable, you say? Try again. Turntables can sound extraordinarily good, better than CD in some instances, but this is hardly the rule. Besides, vinyl playback is besieged with problems of its own which make it very far from perfect. Is tape perfect? No, but you have to realize that there are pros and cons with any playback medium.
Once you come to grips with the fact we dont have perfect sound and likely never will (at least in my lifetime), then you can start doing the things you need to in order to attain the best sound you can. When it comes to CD playback, the obvious place to start is by getting a CD player or transport/DAC combination that sounds best to your ears. Dont look to something like the AR-2000 to fix a really faulty source. Get that right first. However, once you have the best source you can find (and that doesnt mean the most expensive), then you can try and improve upon it with things like the AR-2000. This review has been done in such a context.
The fit, finish and overall construction of the AR-2000 are very nice and quite unique in the realm of audio electronics. The AR-2000 measures a plentiful 19" wide by about 2" tall by almost 11" deep. Its about the size of my Theta Pro Prime II DAC, just a little shorter. However, it weighs in at less than five pounds. You can flip it around with one hand.
Its made of aluminum and finished on the sides with 5mm teak or ebony. The company name, model, and some other things are displayed prominently on a special phenol top cover. Adding to its peculiar nature are three circular feet that it rests on. These are somewhat hard to describe. They are made of some lightweight material in the form of layered discs. The front foot differs from the back two in terms of material used, and also because it has what appears to be a little cork nib on it. The AR-2000 has an elegant and nimble feel commensurate with a product at its price point. The AR-2000 retails for $1500 and comes with a two-year warranty.
On the front of the AR-2000 is a red power switch along with single sets of stereo balanced inputs and outputs should your DAC or CD player offer balanced-connection capability. Alternatively, on the back are the single-ended inputs and outputs for those, like me, who connect via RCA-terminated cables. Hooking up the AR-2000 is a snap, and once its done, there is nothing more to touch on it. I leave it powered up for days at a time, but you may wish to turn it off between listening sessions.
Im not even going to try to explain the technology behind the AR-2000. If I did I would just be rehashing the literature because I cant really add anything myself. I dont know exactly what its doing. Furthermore, I wont even be able to add any past experiences or insights into their explanations because I can say that, without a doubt, Ive never used a product quite like this and have no real frame of reference. Probably the closest product is something like the Taddeo Digital Andidote II, but they seem to work quite differently in terms of technology (although both do work in the analog domain). Ive never used the Taddeo unit, but our other reviewers have and have found some benefit with it. Although I cant tell you too much more about AR-2000, I can tell you what it sounds like in my system.
I used both the Bel Canto DAC1 DAC hooked up to my Theta Data Basic transport with Nirvana Audio Transmission digital cable, and also the Simaudio Moon Eclipse CD player. Why I chose the Bel Canto and Simaudio units is because in their own ways they represent extremely good value and performance. They are about as close as it gets, at least today, to the best of digital playback in terms of neutrality and resolution. On the other hand, the type of improvement that the AR-2000 imparts did not help the Audio Aero Capitole CD player I have in for review to the same degree. The Capitole is not perfect, but its strengths mirror what the AR-2000 seems to do with other sources. Other pieces of equipment used during the review were the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver, Blue Circle BC2 monoblocks and BC3000 preamp, Cliffhanger Audio Bulldog and CHS-2/W-2 speakers. All cabling was Nirvana S-L.
Improving on perfection
Inserting the AR-2000 did not impart a drastic night-and-day type of difference that makes you gasp in disbelief. This isnt really surprising, though, if you look at the specs -- 0dB of gain added and a frequency response that is basically flat. As a result, there is no shift in tonal balance and no apparent increase or decrease in frequency response that would add more presence, pleasantness, ease or what have you. Although I could definitely discern some sort of difference in short order, it was tough, really tough, to fully understand the nature of the change to the point where I could describe it in words. When I figured it all out, I also learned that the differences made were consistent between the digital sources I used for testing. What the AR-2000 does is subtle, but effective nevertheless and something that many will label as quite analoglike (turntable lovers take note!).
It was only after extended listening that I noticed when the AR-2000 was inserted into the system I would start at the same volume setting as without it in use, but then I would naturally move toward a higher volume level for listening (sometimes much higher). This was my first real clue to its effect. It wasnt that the AR-2000 was muting the sound or anything like that. An immediate switch back would reveal, subjectively at least, that the sound was coming out at the same volume throughout the frequency range. No, it was just that the sound would become that wee bit more enjoyable and easier on the ears. As a result, I would naturally want to turn up the music just a little louder to something closer to lifelike, something I couldnt always do before. Once I realized this tendency, I tried doing the same without the AR-2000 in signal path. Without it, as I approached certain volume levels (the exact volume level varied widely with different recordings), the sound became increasingly unpleasant, to the point that I would immediately want to turn down the volume again. I would want the music at the higher volume level, but I just couldnt always put it there. While no one sound could be pinpointed, if pushed to categorize the type of change I heard, I would say the ease was akin to a very subtle reduction in grain, hashiness, and edge across the entire frequency spectrum. To summarize, the AR-2000 gives the music more ease and flow.
My first thought about the AR-2000's effect was a simple one. I wondered if it was rolling off the upper frequencies. Ive heard this done to some CD players in the past, and it is something that can make CD sound more listenable. It takes the edge off, so to speak. So I listened closely, very closely, to things like the brush of a cymbal, the air around an instrument, the pluck of a guitar string, and anything that in one way or another excites the highest frequencies. Nothing seemed diminished in comparison. The sound seemed as extended as before, but just a little less noisy and hashy. No, this wasnt a simple roll-off.
I listened to other frequencies. Likewise, the midrange was not more pronounced or recessed. The same went for the bass range. The overall clarity and resolution seemed to remain the same, indicating to my ears that the AR-2000 wasnt reducing resolution or clouding the sonic picture. No, everything seemed as it should -- flat and neutral -- but better. In fact, after some time, it got to the point where I began to naturally do all of my listening for pleasure with the AR-2000 in the loop.
Another notable benefit includes improvements in imaging. Things seemed a notch tighter and easier to discern in the stage. I first noticed this when playing "Mango" from Bruce Cockburns Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu [True North Records TND 0183]. The percussion and acoustic guitar were just a bit more focused in space and had less hash and grain obscuring them. Most relevant, though, were the vocals of Cockburn and Margo Timmins, which had better clarity and delineation. To sum it up, the overall effect was that the music was a touch smoother, just a little more at ease, and a bit easier to focus on in the soundstage. Taking out the AR-2000 resulted in subtle veil of hash throughout the frequency range.
When I say smoother and easier, though, I would like to clear up something that may be misinterpreted. I dont want to give the idea that this unit adds warmth, liquidity or some other type of euphonic coloration. If your source has these attributes, they will pass through unchanged. If they dont, nothing will be added. To my ears, the AR-2000 simply passes the signal, but it's changed in a way that makes it a notch more pleasant to listen to in the ways I described.
Choices, changes and conclusions
Whats an audiophile who wants to improve his or her system to do when there are so many choices and so many places to start? Obviously, something like the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 isnt the only place to spend money to tweak a system. There are power conditioners, isolators, cables, and countless other add-on items that you can look at and listen to. Sound confusing? Not really. To me, it's pretty straightforward: A component like this has its place.
First off, I recommend that before you tweak your system, including the inclusion of expensive cables, you should first assemble a truly great system. This doesnt mean expensive, but it does mean a solid-performing system regardless of price. And this includes all the electronics through to the loudspeakers. Trying to overcome massive system flaws with add-on tweaks is fraught with problems and will undoubtedly end in complete frustration. In other words, get the basics right first -- and these include having the CD player or transport/DAC source that you really want. Then move into the tweaks like the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000. This approach should take a system from what is already extremely good to something that is outstanding, or even great.
This said, the AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor is a very unique and interesting product that I can easily recommend to those who just arent quite satisfied with the sound of their digital sources but arent convinced purchasing another CD player will solve that dilemma. Its $1500 price is certainly not considered inexpensive and so the AR-2000 cannot be taken as a light purchase. However, the AR-2000 offers a unique set of benefits in overall sound quality and seems to address certain sonic deficiencies that have plagued digital playback for years. Whats more, it seems to work its magic without ill effects of its own. Frankly, Im somewhat surprised that inserting this product into the analog signal path doesnt decrease system transparency or neutrality. Its effect is definitely subtle, but to my ears quite meaningful in terms of finding full enjoyment in digital reproduction. Its definitely a try-before-you-buy component, but beware: the analog ease that the AR-2000 brings is certainly infectious once you have it in your system. Once the AR-2000 works its charm, you may have trouble listening to digital without it since Im not sure you can find this exact type of improvement elsewhere. To me, with the right source, the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 brings the music a little bit closer to perfection.
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