[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
September 1999

Highly Biased

Writing about a standout system reveals more about the assembler’s biases than coverage of any individual components. I feel this is the true benefit to SoundStage! readers. In one column, the reader is delivered not only information concerning individual components and their respective synergy, but also is afforded a glimpse into a writer’s aural hierarchy and preferences. Not a bad deal as these things go.

My initial offering addresses my personal reference system, as it has finally (hopefully!) settled in for the long haul, accompanied by a caveat or two. This collection of components exemplifies the system-building approach of assembly. I have not met an audiophile who has the resources to purchase a complete system outright. But then, I don’t travel in rarefied air either. With minor exceptions, this system is built around components representing the most value for the dollar in their category. In regard to my (aging) digital front-end, I have chosen to put my money where my mouth is. I’m specifically referring to the upcoming new digital standard and my willingness to wait until the digits clear before upgrading.

The transport is the EAD-T1000 ($1195), one of the first transports, I believe, to incorporate the Pioneer Stable Platter mechanism. Standard with remote and AT&T glass-fiber optical output, this unit has vanishingly low jitter levels. Producing silky highs and a clear and open midrange, this was one of the first affordable units to portray a realistic (for digital) sense of space and proportional soundstage. It was one of the best buys of its day and, given the stagnation of the present digital standard, probably a steal on the used market. An alternative transport that bettered the EAD in every way in a recent home audition is the Camelot Technology Merlin Pro CD transport ($2195), also a very good buy.

Jitter reduction/resolution enhancement is accomplished with the Camelot Technology Dragon Pro 2 Mk II ($1495). This unit was purchased to help close the gap between the aging digital standard and the (wait, wait, wait) new format. And close the gap it handily does. It’s one of my no-brainer, bang-for-the-buck upgrade recommendations. Just have a look at your present CD collection and ask yourself just how many of these you will be replacing with the new discs. Your answer will decide this unit’s worth. Every aspect of digital replay is enhanced with the Dragon. Highs have more extension with far more air and much less localization. The midrange is a touch more articulate with far more dimensionality. Bass is just a bit more solid, but accompanied by an increase in articulation, which is almost worth the cost alone. And this performance increase will be obtainable with every disc in your collection.

Digital decoding is performed by the venerable Theta DS Pro Gen. III ($5600). Fully loaded, balanced with AT&T input, this was purchased new just before the release of the Gen. IV. (Actually, I purchased it the day after returning from our honeymoon. Did I marry a great gal or what?) Delivering some of the best soundstaging and bass in the business, this is a wonderful unit. Dynamics are nothing short of stunning, small scale to large. This unit breathes new life into most any disc in my collection. The Gen. III’s proclivity to highlight the upper midrange is greatly ameliorated with careful system/cable matching. (The Gen. V does not possess this shortcoming.) Once again, one of these would be a great deal on the used market. Wait a few months and take advantage of Theta’s non-obsolescence strategy and upgrade to the Gen. V/VI.

Stepping into the present day, preamplification is performed by the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i. Usually found on everyone’s best-buy list (seeing a trend here?), this unit has performed flawlessly for over a year now. Possessing none of the proverbial tube coloration, it delivers clean, airy highs, walk-into midrange transparency, and surprisingly robust midbass and bass performance -- all for $1995. This is also the unit most responsible for taming the Theta’s upper-midrange highlighting. The BAT possesses a wonderful bloom in this region that perfectly mates with the Theta’s output.

Further down wire is the Bryston 4B-ST amplifier ($2397). Hand on heart, the 4B ST is one of the best buys in solid-state amplification today. It offers full-spectrum performance with no glaring faults. It has very, very slight grain in the treble, a perfectly voiced midrange, and upper midrange dimensionality that is definitely not solid state in character. Frankly, it also has big-league bass performance. In the real world, it is all the amp you’ll ever need. I’m presently using a system full of MIT cable, save for one link. While I realize any "interfaced" cable generates a healthy amount of skepticism (which is a good thing actually), the MIT cables have consistently proven to me their ability to interact with my components in a way consistent with my biases.

Starting with 3/4 meter of Kimber KCAG from transport to jitter reducer, this was one of the better-balanced digital cables of its day -- still is actually. Jitter reducer to DAC is a meter of the mighty MIT Digital Reference. The strength of this cable lies in its wonderful weight in the midrange. It seems to help any thin digititus intrinsic to CD sound. Worthy of special mention is the MIT Z-Cord Series II power cord. This cord is a must-audition for use with anything digital. It literally strips away several veils of digital grunge. From the balanced Theta, the MIT 330 Proline Terminator balanced interconnect runs to the balanced inputs of the BAT preamp. The addition of this cable had a dramatic effect on taming the weakness of the Gen. III DAC (remember that the Theta running single ended is only using half of the processor). Image specificity and a general system "quieting" were the effects here. Preamp-to-amp interconnect is the MIT 330+, providing more of the MIT attributes and generally being a very good all-around cable.

The real fun starts with the MIT 750 bi-wire speaker cable. While at this time I’m not too sure about the interaction with my new reference speaker, this cable was the one that spun my head in first audition many moons ago. In short, it has a soundstage to die for. Actually, just as MIT’s colorful ads state, the soundstage literally grew wall to wall and dramatically increased in depth. Image specificity, or the soft halo-like outlines of individual instruments in the soundfield, was never better to my ears. More importantly, the upper midrange brightness inherent in 90% of the discs manufactured today is reduced a great deal. This allows even some of the most poorly recorded material to at least be tolerable upon playback. This attribute alone is worth the price of admission.

The end of the line for all these happy electrons is my new reference speaker, the Vandersteen 3A Signature ($3500) coupled with the Vandersteen 2Wq subwoofer ($1250). I’ll be the first to admit for many years I was caught up in the (sniff) "Vandersteen’s are good but, they’re not quite high end " school of thought. Please don’t you make this mistake. As this article precedes the upcoming major review of this speaker, I won’t go in to much detail here. I would like to address one oft-mentioned critical comment on the 3A, that of a slight fullness or chestiness in the midrange. While I too hear this, further investigation has led me to believe this is not a detriment but the way the signal should be all along. I posit this: most "conventional" speakers have the midrange mounted quite high in the cabinet with a somewhat bottom-mounted woofer. This sets up "floor bounce" comb filtering, which causes a sharp suck-out in frequency response usually found in the lower midrange. With the Vandersteen 3A Signature, the front-firing woofer is mounted high in the cabinet and as close to the midrange as possible. This mounting, in conjunction with the first-order crossover, lets the woofer "fill in" this comb filtering. I suggest that most other speakers aren’t addressing this problem. This speaker is full and rich, but never plumy or fat.

With the 2Wq subwoofer, I again almost missed the boat. Auditioned on a whim and delayed for the same reasons stated earlier, this piece never left my room. This is a sub for music. Very tight with little or no overhang, this sound actually was a bit misleading at first. Lacking the boom of many other high-Q subwoofers, the 2Wq at first made me suspect a certain lack of power. It is a joy at times to be so wrong! When the notes are there, they get produced; when they are not, they don’t. This subwoofer has no masking, high-Q resonance, no lumpy peaks, and a seamless transition to the main speaker with most every brand I have tried. Audition and your preconceptions are at peril.

Last but certainly not least is the room treatment. I’m unabashedly a fan of Acoustic Sciences Corp. (ASC) products -- check any of my reviews for a complete list of units used. The room and its acoustical tuning should be considered the first step in building a high-end system. With every dollar spent in this area, the improvements gained in articulation and soundstaging are double those spent on the actual hardware. These products and their proper usage of are the major contributor to the performance obtained in my room.

While this system could be considered being at the bottom rung of he-man status, clocking in around $19k, it certainly isn’t a front-loaded Wilson Grand SLAMM- or Genesis 200-based system. Then again, I’m not so sure I want to live day in, day out with such a microscope of a system. What I have delivers exquisite delicacy to shear bombast, with a soundstage projection that is most times totally enveloping. More importantly, I can check off the usual audiophile minutia while thoroughly enjoying the music presented.

A system such as this is not terribly hard to assemble. All it takes is a few well-laid-out plans as to the direction you want to go. The goal is being true to the music rather than a slave to the hardware. Also, a realization that our software is far from perfect is essential -- if that means assembling around this fact, so be it. Now when is the last time someone publicly said that? Remember, a solid understanding of your biases and an honesty within yourself will take you further than any ego-driven recommended-components list or voodoo pronouncements from the priests on high.

...Jon Gale


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