[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
October 1999

The Menagerie

A high-end system is worth its weight in gold when it disappears, leaving only the music. The illusion works when the reproduction becomes a sonic hologram stretched throughout the room. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be one clear formula for attaining this magical sound. This is precisely why we audiophiles become skilled in the art of component alchemy, albeit with varying success. I’ll be the first to admit my past failures with respect to component-to-component and component-to-room matching. I’ve owned a fair collection of quality gear that in a certain system context did not perform well, or even adequately. If there are two sure rules I could pass on to the new audiophiles, they would be: (1) treat your room as a component, and (2) audition any component in the context in which it will be used -- your system. Adhering to these two principles has helped me assemble a system that takes me into the musical performance with finesse and poise. Much as with a great dancer, seemingly impossible feats of power and agility are accomplished with relative ease. This was not always the case.

The mistakes

On two occasions I’ve owned loudspeakers that did not properly interface with my room. The first, when positioned at a reasonable distance from the listening position, overloaded the room with a 60Hz bump. When positioned far enough from the wall behind them to lessen the peak, there was not enough distance to the listener for the drivers to integrate. With these speakers, there was no middle ground. They just plain and simply did not work in my room. This was a shame, as I’ve heard this same speaker sound marvelous in a friend’s system. The second pair, placed in the same room, had just the opposite result. I could get no midbass power or punch. You could overhear me saying to my buddies during a demo, "Drum solo, forget about it!" Although I believe there was a design flaw in this pair, I had previously auditioned them without detecting the weakness. The bottom line was still unsatisfactory sound.

I have experienced similar dilemmas with my choice of preamplifier. The sound with most preamps was either at one extreme or the other: too tubey with the accompanying high noise floor, or too sterile with not enough body. Over the years, components of many types and brands have come and gone, and it’s been a long road to my present setup. But at this point in time, my system is working like a charm.

The collection

You’ve probably never seen a more eclectic collection of components. This grouping spans the price range from the downright cheap to the "if you have to ask." The front end is a Pioneer DV606D. At a street price of around $500, it has proven to be a giant-killer with CDs, audio-only DVDs, and of course movie soundtracks. I’m sure that much better players are coming down the pike, and the availability of after-market 24/96 DACs promises even better performance, but this player smokes most older CD players, some costing upwards of $4000.

My choice of amplifier is the two-channel Mark Levinson No.335 ($7495). This amp has proven much better than previous designs from Madrigal due to its ultra-quiet operation and grain-free top end. Bass power and control are excellent, bettering everything I’ve had short of the discontinued reference monoblocks from Krell. The overall sound of this amplifier is silky smooth and indicative of how good current solid-state amplifiers are. If you’re thinking sterile or dark, you’re a few years behind the curve. The No.335 is one sweet amplifier.

As noted earlier, choosing a preamplifier has not been easy. I’ve auditioned a cross-section of line-stage units that fit my system requirements. The contenders have been both tubed and solid state, single ended and balanced, remote controlled and manual. I’ve grown fond of the midrange body of tubes, but the noise floor has always reminded me of the existence of my system. In fact, noise in whatever form, is a characteristic I find impossible to overlook. A lesser evil, but one nonetheless, is the sometimes threadbare representation of the solid-state breed. This dilemma has brought me to the Coda 04r ($2750). This preamp employs a single FET in the signal path up to unity gain (around three volts or higher for most CD/DVD players). If needed (which I have not), a logic circuit activates a minimalist gain stage. (Check your power amp to be sure of compatibility. It may be the case that unity gain will drive your amp into clipping. If this were the case, you’d never get to the gain stage, only the FET buffer.) In my setup, the buffer circuitry is dead silent. The sound of this unit is quiet and transparent without even a hint of grain. In this respect, it’s a great match for the Levinson amplifier as their strengths combine for a highly neutral presentation. I use a balanced connection for these components, which is slightly more coherent than the single-ended mode. I should mention the convenience factor with the Coda, which is especially useful when considering a preamplifier. In addition to a full-function remote, dual volume readouts are provided.

My speaker of choice is the Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMM Series II ($75,900). You can read a detailed description of both the technical and sonic attributes of these speakers in the SoundStage! archives. Finding upstream components that are capable enough to let these speakers perform to their potential is a quest that I’m sure will consume several more years. High-resolution components seem to be the ticket. Proper setup is the most crucial aspect of owning the Wilsons -- crucial to the extent that a single inch of toe-in or a quarter inch slide of a module makes a clearly audible difference.

There has been some discussion around the Internet about neutrality, and what exactly it means in the context of an audio system. It seems quite debatable when the technical among us (including manufacturers) can’t agree on which measurements really reflect accuracy. For me, in the most pedestrian methodology, neutrality can be described as the lack of reminders. That is, reminders that I can attribute to system-induced coloration. This is purely personal, I know, but then it is the only perspective that I can comment on with confidence. Having said this, the speaker end of the chain has always proven the most frustrating, due to the reminders mentioned above. The X-1 Series II has removed these roadblocks better than anything I’ve experienced. Therefore, using my definition, they are accurate to me. The remainder of my system was chosen with this in mind, and therefore reflects my priority in this area.

As most reviewers can attest, cables seem to come and go with the wind. I’ve used many brands, both as complete systems and mix-and-match collections. Right now I’m experimenting with different combinations of Transparent Audio and Harmonic Technology cables. They are both very good, each lending its unique set of strengths to the sound of the music. With my collection of components, I can be quite happy with either. It should be noted that the Harmonic Technology cables, at their price, provide tremendous value to the audiophile.

The purpose

Whether I’m listening to Pink Floyd or Rebecca Pidgeon, Shania Twain or Aaron Neville, I can just listen for hours on end without even thinking about sound. For me, that’s the key. When entertaining or watching a movie, I’ve got the dynamic range and "rock out" factor covered. If it’s time to evaluate a new component for the readers of SoundStage!, I’ve got a system of awe-inspiring resolution. However that component deviates from my reference, it’s usually pretty easy to get a handle on with this system. At the end of the day, though, it simply provides enjoyment for my family and me. This is the point of it all, I suppose.

Can it be improved? Surely! I’m definitely looking forward to head-to-head shootouts with some of the new digital rigs available. I’ll also be evaluating the Wilson XS subwoofer to see if the X-1’s bass can really be improved upon. And, of course, there are always mono amps….

...Jeff Fritz


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