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The Sound of Music

The main question (for all of us) that I’d like to try to answer up front here, if only for our collective self-respect, is: Why do we or why should we care about investing fairly serious money in something that the great majority of the world consider at best a curious luxury and at worst a wasteful silliness? The comparison most often made by critics is to model railroaders, who spend enormous amounts of time, effort, and a surprising amount of money on assembling (and playing with) a miniature reproduction of railroads. Having dabbled in their hobby as a youngster, in some limited way I get what they’re about. And it’s mainly about something other than a love of 100 ton locomotives. Just as audio, for a great many audiophiles, is about something other than the fine art of music. What both groups seem to share at the extreme is a passionate quest for ever greater degrees of verisimilitude and lovingly rendered detail.

The fact is we don’t need a high-end audio system to understand music better. After all, many composers get more (and more accurate) thrills from reading a score to themselves than being distracted by an approximation or interpretation of it by musicians. But some of us audiophiles are not extreme, compulsive miniaturists or hobbyists but still love high-end audio. What are we about?  We are a subset of music lovers who are unable to separate the sound of music from music itself: from melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm. Unlike many purer music lovers who get sufficient pleasure from their FM radios because they hear through or around the quality of the sound to the notes. Many professional musicians are in this category. They will tell they don’t need sonic verisimilitude in their sound systems to get the music: they already know what instruments sound like: even very accurate reproductions bring them no especial pleasure. But we sort are different. The sound of the instruments is a huge part of music for us. The timbre of instruments (and voices) excites us. We crave that magic compound of ease, warmth, and clarity of texture that is the sound of ‘live’ music. Our sense of hearing is an emotional organ that seems to connect directly to our very being.   

Are we nuts? No, we are simply highly tuned, to be pretentious about it, to the incarnation of music into the physical bodies of instruments. We get significantly less pleasure from badly reproduced music. We try to be thrilled by recordings of extraordinary performances made back when recording technology was in its infancy, and sometimes we can almost make it. But more often than not, we fail. We can’t bear listening to music through a closed door. Our ears and minds are not just on the music, they are on the sound. The medium is essential to us.

I don’t want to dignify us more than we deserve, just to defend us from both the purists and the boors. And I want to defend the existence of Amherst Audio as more than a business, which in a financial sense it barely is anyway! Amherst Audio is one man’s indulgence, on his own behalf and that of his friends and customers, many of whom are the same, in the love of the sound of music.

Gear

As an audiophile and as Amherst Audio, I have found my way to some extremely satisfying equipment for retrieving and reproducing those aspects of the sound of music that matter the most to me. Which equipment we prefer has mostly to do with such preferences. I have now found three approaches that work for me. Each values a different aspect of sound. The three approaches are not radically different from one another, just quite distinct places on a long continuum whose extremes are far from either.

If you value beauty most, you need to hear Audio Note equipment ? you need to hear an entire Audio Note system. All-Audio Note systems do the best job I've ever heard of getting the seemingly transcendental coherence and beauty of 'live' music. A musical performance coming through an Audio Note system seems less spread out and delineated than through more monitor-like systems, more engaging, with a good deal of liquidity. Audio Note is the perfection of the British sound (Quad, Spendor, Harbeth, etc.), which was the predecessor of and is the successor to the New England sound (Acoustic Research, KLH, Advent).

If you value robustness, physicality, immediacy, fullness, savoriness, and a pleasing touch of warmth, you need to hear Jean Marie Reynaud speakers fed by Blue Circle electronics. JM Reynaud loudspeakers in conjunction with the latest Blue Circle electronics do the best job I've heard at getting the warmth, weight, fullness, physical density, and emotional expressiveness of a live musical performance with the least loss of clarity. No system I know of can combine warmth and clarity as effectively. Blue Circle hybrid electronics contribute mightily to this success, providing a touch of humanity and exciting backbone. Where AN dacs tend to pull our focus in, fitting and blending everything together, Blue Circle dacs spread the music out before us, aiming for total music information retrieval. In the context of a BC/JMR system, this can be eye-opening and pleasing at the same time.

Recently I've discovered a remarkable third alternative, Crimson, from the UK, who make fine all solid state electronics and cable. Both electronics and cable offer a natural but fast, extremely clear and wonderfully clear presentation -- without the least hint of brightness or over-assertiveness. I have never heard solid state sound this good: to me it sounds like a breakthrough product for solid state. It is less rich and full sounding than Blue Circle, less harmonically rich but as refined as Audio Note. It is as well balanced overall as either. Combined with a Resolution Audio Cantata one-box CD player, which comes from the same design philosophy, and paired with Reynaud speakers, Crimson offers great clarity and immediacy. And if you want even more clarity, read about the new Tocaro speakers. Tocaros are crossover-less speakers that aspire to bring out even more clarity and immediacy with Crimson electronics. We have heard the model 40 and model 42 so far and are mightily impressed.

I have listened to a lot of gear out there and have lived with and enjoyed, for short but ultimately unsatisfying periods of time, a lot that is more solicitous, staid, lush, punchy, and alas - duller or more overbearing than Audio Note, Blue Circle/JMR, and now Crimson/JMR and and Crimson/Tocaro. These approaches, as different as they can be from one other, are the only ones I can recommend with a clear conscience and an enthusiastic heart. None is objectively better than the others, each with its distinct personality gets a great deal of what its designer feels are the most important aspects of the sound of music. If none of these approaches as I describe them strikes you as ?right', pass by with my best wishes. But if they sound compelling, read on.

AUDIO NOTE  























Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note
           (Copyright © 2011 Malcolm Steward: audio journalist)

    I do not know which I prefer,

    The beauty of inflections

    Or the beauty of innuendoes,

    The black bird whistling

     Or just after.


It is time to attempt a fresh description of the character of Audio Note sound. And lately poet Wallace Stevens' way of expressing it keeps coming back to me.

With Audio Note, the sound often seems to come from behind the notes, some say from inside them. We hear inner rather than outer, reflected light. This is what induces us to attribue to Audio Note a prioritzing of beauty. It is a delicate matter, which is why using somebody else's cable or even a line conditioner can destroy it.  

It is not a popular approach to music reproduction, especially these days. Most other systems favor 'inflections' -- high resolution of timebrel detail, speed, heightened contrast. This is an approach that can be more exciting and, when done with judgment and taste, captivating. My Crimson and Blue Circle systems using Jean Marie Reynaud speakers frequently remind me how good this approach can be, especially when natural warmth is preserved. But sometimes it's about 'innuendoes.'

Peter Qvortrup believes that most technological ‘advances’ in audio for the past couple of decades have served to put more between us and the essence of music. By working with established designs significantly predating current high end equipment, his company has designed single-ended tube electronics; filterless and non-oversampling dacs; turntables with several motors and lightweight platters; and broad-fronted, two-way speakers designed to sit in corners, all of which together can seem to take us closer to the essence of music. Qvortrup's eloquent and complete line of audio equipment makes his fans feel that the competition is getting just the shell of the music.

Though they tend to sound best in all-Audio Note systems, some AN equipment travels very well. The CD players, digital transports, and dacs match up extremely well with all other lines of equipment I have heard. AN cable is also very versatile, providing an engaging roundness and refined beauty. I have used it in both my AN and Blue Circle/Reynaudsystems. AN electronics and speakers have all of the eloquence of their tubed dacs but generally prefer to work with each other, or at least with other tubed gear. Audio Note single-ended triode amplifiers are especially remarkable for the wholeness of their presentation. Most of them are, predictably, low powered and are usually paired with efficient speakers like Audio Note’s own. Together they can do extremely musical things.

Audio Note electronics may be the key to Audio Note's ability to give us the sense we are coming at music more from the inside, resulting in a less robust, but subtler, more refined presentation than Blue Circle or Crimson electronics, for example. With an SET based, no feedback system, we hear the slightest flutter of low level sound, especially on Audio Note's new HE speakers with hemp woofers. Audio Note, Blue Circle, and Crimson approaches are all extremely effective, and with most listeners the choice comes down to differences in priorities and taste. Audio Note fans find Blue Circle electronics insufficiently subtle or refined and Crimson too bold. Blue Circle fans find Audio Note electronics too precious, too beautiful! and Crimson insufficiently warm and full. Crimson fans find Audio Note too bloomy, Blue Circle too warm and relaxed!

Audio Note speakers provide an interesting alternative to Reynauds. Considered by many to be the perfection of the British sound – as appealing as Spendors but more authoritative from top to bottom, as ‘accurate’ as Harbeths but less staid and diplomatic, and as assured in their sense of touch as Quads but both more ‘rounded’ and more liquid in their presentation, AN speakers make friends easily and tend to keep them. Their sound is more refined and less bold and physical than that of Reynauds. With Audio Note speakers we hear everything but are often aware of how clear and beautiful the music sounds. With Reynauds, the instruments are closer and more robust sounding, though interestingly, not at all bright. We are especially aware of their physical presence. I like both speaker lines enormously and enjoy seeing what sorts of listeners are drawn to each.

My journey to Audio Note's digital products, which is how I met the company, began, in its serious stage with a Krell MDT2 & SBP64X, zigged wildly to a Sonic Frontier SFT1 & SFT2-II, zagged partway back to a Naim CDX/XPS and then on to a CDS2, sampling a Meridian, a better Krell, a BAT, an Audio Aero, a Wadia, and an Accuphase along the way! The arrival at Audio Note was a delightful surprise that dramatically altered my expectations and increased my happiness. It is one of the very few digital front ends I have heard that does full justice to both new state of the art recordings and early 60's jazz. And perhaps more important, every AN digital front end I've heard so far outperforms comparable SACD players, comparing separate CD and SACD recordings. Yes, CD's on the AN rigs beat SACD's on the SACD players.

Audio Note Analogue. In the spring of 2004, I was a guest of Peter Qvortrup in England and got to hear a premier Audio Note analogue rig, the first time I had heard LP’s in over ten years. As a result, I installed an old Voyd Reference turntable with an AN arm and Io1 moving coil cartridge and AN-S4 step up transformer in my reference system; and for a long while I also had an AN Turntable Two, Arm Three/AN-Vx, and IQ3 moving magnet cartridge in my "small room" system. Both in an effort to reacquaint myself with the unassuming but utterly convincing power of analogue. My aural memory is not a great one, but based on what I’ve heard so far, I would not have abandoned analogue in 1990, as I did, if I had owned these rigs, which are far from the top of the line. My current rig includes the new TT2 DeLuxe, an IO1 cartridge and S-4 step-up, and an Arm3/Vx. What distinguishes Audio Note analog is its speed and jump, presumably the result of the remarkable torque provided by the use of light weight platters driven by two and, on the more ambitious turntables, three motors. Bass is solid but clear and fast. Audio Note analog rigs can make some other popular models sound bloated and slow.  

Audio Note interconnects and speaker cable – AN-Vx or the far more costly Sogon - used either as digital or regular interconnect, are great. Pallas and Sootto are superb. Lexus speaker cable is so good I used it with AN-E/SPe speakers while I waited for my AN-SPx to arrive and was startled at how good it sounded. It is an all-copper cable with the same structure as the many, many times more expensive Sogon. Lexus is naturally warm and full, SPe and SPx speaker cable are more open sounding and articulate from top to bottom. Sogon speaker cable for the well to do and maximally self-indulgent is nearly beyond belief. All Audio Note cable in comparison with my other favorite cable from Crimson is warmer and richer sounding, which is its principal attraction to AN fans. It is most at home in all Audio Note systems which share its virtues.

AUDIO NOTE COMPONENTS

What follows is a selected survey of Audio Note products I have heard and come to admire. This will list will doubtless grow as my experience of the line increases. The complete line of Audio Note products is available through Amherst Audio.  Check the manufacturer's web site (http://www.audionote.co.uk) for more details.

Audio Note has enriched its line of digital equipment extensively in the last few years.  Currently there are five transports, four of which use the top loading Philips CD 12 Pro Drive. New to the line are the entry level CDT Zero for under $2500 and top of the line CDT5 and CDT6, using tubes!

There are now four one-box (integrated) CD players, two of which incorporate the Philips top loading drive. 

Audio Note analogue is the owner’s pride and joy and he is in the process of upgrading his entire turntable line. At the moment there is a TT1 and a TT2, both to have optional external power supplies available soon; the TT3 Reference and now also the Half Reference.

TT2, with Arm 3/AN-Vx and IQ3 moving magnet cartridge. This became my first AN analogue rig when I returned to analogue in late 2004. It dramatically outperformed my long lost Linn LP12/Itok/Kharma outfit, mainly by being airier and more transparent, with no sacrifice in bass authority. It maked my LP12 sound plumy in contrast. This is presumably because of its light-weight platter and dual motors, but I can’t do the audio-physics on this, so I’ll leave it to others. This combination will take you back to analogue in a hurry if you let it.

TT2, with Arm 3/AN-Vx, IO1 moving coil cartridge, AN-SL4 step-up transformer. If you’re feeling both flush and ambitious, put an I0l moving coil cartridge into the Arm 3, add an Audio Note step-up transformer, and listen to the whole experience go up at least a level – two levels if you go with the SL4. Among the step-ups, the AN-SL3 is excellent, the AN-SL4 a knockout. As always with Audio Note, you don’t notice anything missing until you move up and it arrives! 

TT2 Deluxe. Same as TT2 but in high gloss black or European birch plinth and with external power supply. 

TT Three Half Reference.  Three large 2.0 PHP Papst external flywheel motors but running at lower power with a basic high voltage power supply adding extra torque to increase rotational mass equivalent to 120 kilos, despite the lightweight Lexan platter. One external power supply with integrated controls. For those of you who know the Voyd line, the AN Half Ref is notably better than the Voyd Reference.

One Box CD Players

CD Zero.  Entry level integrated single chassis front loading CD player in new small Zero chassis. I have not heard this yet.

CD 1.1x . A one-box player, using a Philips front-loading transport mechanism and DAC with a 6111WA tube and tin foil output capacitors. Non-oversampling and filter-free, of course. Both front controls and remote. Housed in a new full-width chassis, which is not as high or deep as the standard DAC chassis.

CD2.1x II. Like the CD1.1x but with Audio Note tantalum resistors, some Black Gates, and copper foil output capacitors.

CD4.1x. Audio Note’s best one-box player, using the Philips CD Pro top-loading transport mechanism of the CDT 2 II and an improved version of the Dac 2.1. 

Digital Transports

CDT Zero II. New entry level CD transport with front loading Philips mechanism. New small chassis to match Zero level dacs. This bargain priced transport sounds truly good. There is one in my family now paired with a Blue Circle BC505 and there is no audible compromise.

CDT 1 II. Front loading CD transort, Philips mechanism heavily Black Gated power supply, RCA and XLR outputs with custom Audio Note digital transformers. 


CDT 2 II.
The current version of the highly regarded CDT 2 is so good I urge you to consider the seemingly radical idea of putting it at the head of even fairly modest systems, from which its price would seem to exclude it. For example, pairing it with the Dac 1: you won’t know how good the new Dac 1 truly is until you hear it with a CDT 2. The current CDT 2 is significantly more dynamic and open sounding than its predecessor. It unleashes remarkable quantities of clean, authoritative bass, and its treble region has less grain. Like all of the best Audio Note products, this new transport solves audio problems we were not aware we had. A breakthrough product that challenges the notion that the dac is more important than the transport. 

CDT 3. I expected the 3 to be a bit better than the 2, but frankly I was knocked out. I would say the biggest difference is verisimilitude: everything sounds more real and more present. The whole presentation has more dynamic authority. All of my CD’s sound appreciably better, which I have to take into account now when I do CD reviews! The CDT3 demonstrates as well as anything in the Audio Note line what upgrading in a predictable way – better parts mainly but also intelligent implementation – really means. The basic products are so thoughtfully designed that upgrading parts dramatically upgrades performance. The CDT 3 is better at everything the excellent CDT 2 is good at. The improvements at this level are not at all subtle. If you can only afford a CDT 2, relax, you are in good hands. But if you can stretch to the 3, you will hear its benefits throughout your system. I would even consider putting it on an AN dac below its presumed level of performance, just to see if the old saw about source is still true. 

CDT 4.  Larger (M3) chassis, high level Black Gate caps, M10 style transistorized power supplies for each section, silver wired digital transformers.

Moving from the CDT 2 to the CDT 3, we get more dynamics, a bigger and more authoritative sound. Taking the next step, from the 3 to the 4, we get dramatically more refinement and both ambient and timbrel information -- it feels to me somewhat like moving from the Dac 4.1 Balanced to the 4.1 Signature: everything that matters jumps ahead, giving us a taste of analogue’s principal virtues. For some, money aside -- which of course it seldom is -- it may be the perfect balance of digital’s and analogue’s virtues. We have the penetrating clarity of digital along with some of the ‘tangibility’ and airiness of analogue.

CDT 5. Same larger chassis, tube output buffer. Special heavy aluminum chassis with internal sprung suspension derived from the TT Three Reference. 

But for those who find analogue The Truth, which is after all the philosophy of Audio Note and what brings many to the whole line, the CDT 5 takes us several giant steps farther toward the ideal. The advance is so considerable it can be exhilarating. For some, it will feel like Arrival. The 5 is by far the smoothest, fullest, most easeful, and airiest -- in sum, the most beautiful sounding transport I’ve ever heard. The sound stage is also expansive, such that these virtues all seem to blend together into a musical world from which, it often seems, all flaws and hints of distortion have been banned. And I’m told, not having it heard with its intended partner, the Dac 5 Fifth Element/Fifth Force, that I’ve yet to hear all it can do! My impressions are based on pairing it with the Dac 4.1 Signature and Blue Circle BC 501ob LOC, both comparably fine dacs.

I listened to the 4 and 5 transports together, back and forth, for a week, pretending I could afford both in an attempt to achieve maximum objectivity. When all is said and done, I lectured myself, every component, ‘better’ or not, has its own sound and that is what the critical listener must attempt to hear and describe.  For example, what does the period instrument ensemble, the Festetics Quartet ‘really’ sound like? On the 5, their characteristic edge is softened, their bitter-sweet sound sweetened, their leanness filled out. On the 4, with its smaller image and leaner, firmer sound, they have a little more savor, less fullness, and are more bitter-sweet. Their sound is more penetrating, less fulsome, which is how I know them. But I have never heard them ‘live,’ so I don’t know what they ‘really’ sound like. Is the 5 truer to life or truer to analogue? Is analogue truer to life than the best digital? Or is the best digital more objective? And that is where the comparison of the CDT 4 and CDT 5 will invariably take you. And it is the 5 that forces the issue: it is so wonderfully analogue in its presentation that it forces the listener, yet again, to face the perennial question.

So wherever you are on this question and whatever your resources, I urge you to hear both of these marvelous transports and make the comparison I’ve had the luxury of making. It will be an education no matter where you come out.

And the CDT 6 just debuted in Milan...

 Audio  Note  CDT 4  and Dac  3.1x Bal.  

Digital Analogue Converters

The Audio Note Dacs are the key to the natural magic of Audio Note digital. I have yet to hear them all but as soon as I have I will augment the notes below.

DAC 1.1x Signature II . The Signature II’s predecessor, the DAC One.1x Signature, was a fine sounding dac, especially given its extremely reasonable price. It captured the middle of notes better than the competition. Paired with a CDT TWO it could sing, boogie, and roar - easily outperforming two $5000 CD/SACD players in my house, making the whole "hi-res" phenomenon a non-issue. The new Signature II is astoundingly better in audible ways. I have used it in my reference system without fear that anything essential would be lost and have not been disappointed. Moving up the Audio Note dac line always brings revelations that justify the added investment. But I expect more and more audiophiles to find the new Dac 1 Sig II good enough. 

DAC 2.1 Signature, and DAC 2.1 Balanced. The 2.1 Signature, with its tube rectifier, is a nice step up in refinement over the 1.1x Signature II. In its new Mk II configuration I’m told the Dac 2.1 Balanced II is mightily improved, forcing an upgrade to the 3.1! 

DAC 3.1 Balanced II. Coming to the 3.1 Mk I from anything other than a more expensive Audio Note dac would put an enormous smile on your face. Up until several years or so ago, with its analogue filters still in place, it was a very decent sounding dac but not significantly better than the 2.1 balanced. When they were removed, it pulled well ahead of the 2.1 in all respects. Naturally rich, smooth, refined, and clear. I have yet to hear the 3.1 Balanced II but am told it forced an upgrade to 4.1 Balanced. While it gets better as you move up the line, this is where a goodly number of ambitious audiophiles will be happy to settle. 

DAC 4.1 Balanced. The 4.1 is the Audio Note product that introduced me to whole the Audio Note line and until I heard the Signature version, it was the best single component I'd ever heard of any kind. It still sounds extraordinary to me, even when I come to it from the Signature. My review on Positive-Feedback.com says all I can say. (See Reviews section below.) Compared with the 3.1, it is more open through the middle and on top, firmer and clearer on the bottom, and more refined overall. Where funds allow, it should sit at the head of any ambitious music system. 

4.1 Balanced Signature. The Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature is in another game. To be honest, as much as I love the 4.1 Balanced and could be happy with it forever, the 4.1 Sig is the first DAC I’ve heard that truly does enable digital to compete on an even playing field with very good if not state of the art analogue. While the 4.1 Balanced is great digital and an appropriate goal for all but the most self-indulgent audiophile, the Signature version does seem to cross some sort of invisible (and expensive) threshold and take us to a place where the choice of what to play, CD or LP, can be based, as we once hoped it would be, on the music rather than the medium. It does not emulate analogue’s beguiling softness but offers comparable smoothness in the treble and stunning overall clarity and transparency. It can turn a good system into an extraordinary one all by itself. That it takes this level of investment to get to this point with digital tells us all we need to know about the medium’s difficulties in musical communication relative to analogue, doesn’t it. The 4.1 Balanced Signature is considered by many to be the (not so) poor man's Dac 5.

DAC 5 Special and Signature . More information and commentary coming someday!

Dac 5 Fifth Element - Fifth Force. 

Amplifiers

OTO SE. Single-ended, EL 84 based, 10 watt integrated amp. Available with or without phono stage. The best amplifier value in the Audio Note line. Likely designed with the Audio Note K’s in mind, it also makes a wonderful match with the 93dB J’s. I have used it with it with both the JMR Twins, predecessors of the Duets, and Arpeggiones, predecessors of the Euterpes, getting from them a more refined presentation than most of us are accustomed to hearing from JMR speakers. The OTO is satisfyingly full, dynamic, and clear, sounding and wonderfully informative through the midrange. An excellent choice for a $10,000-15,000 system with efficient speakers, it is a fine competitor for the Manley Stingray and the Audiomat Arpege, among others. I am sure I have yet to hear all that it can do.  


Oto Signature

OTO SE Signature. My long awaited Signature version of the classic OTO SE has finally arrived. "Ribbon internal connecting cable has been replaced with silver; Tantalum resistors and foil capacitors have been added in critical locations. Most important, the M4 IE output transformers have been replaced with IHiB double c-core numbers, providing superior magnetic core material in a superior transformer topology for superior results." The OTO SE Sig is both more robust and smoother sounding than the standard OTO SE and to my ears obsoletes it. It is the more versatile and all purpose EL 84 integrated amp that owners of E speakers in particular have asked for. E's and J's are the new OTO's natural mates, but I long to hear it on K/SPx's, if I ever get up the bucks and chutzpa to order one! We now have a fully worthy alternative to a Meishu for those who want the more direct, less atmospheric sound of EL84 tubes.

Soro SE. 18 watt, 6L6G tube based single-ended integrated amplifer with a more robust and fuller presentation than the OTO. Available with or without a phono stage. An ideal mate for Reynaud speakers in particular and a fine contrast to the Blue Circle integrateds for those who prefer the flavor of tubes. I ran it with great success on Twins, Cantabiles, and Offrandes, and expect it will also be a good match for the Emeraude, successor to the Evolution 3. 


Meishu, Meishu Silver, Meishu Silver Signature . 9 watt SET, 300B based integrated amplifier. Available with or without phono stage. This is the best way to bring 300B tubes into your system if you’re a prudent rather than self-indulgent audiophile. Naturally, warm, and full sounding, it can be upgraded with NOS tubes to take it pretty much any direction you like. Its natural mates are Audio Note AN-J’s or AN-E’s. Its three different models parallel the Quest monoblocks amplifiers below in its internal components. The Meishu Silver is a great upgrade. 

M3 single-ended, tubed preamplifier. Available with or without phono stage. With its improved power supplies, whose technology has trickled down from the M10, the current iteration of the M3 has made it the great preamplifier value in the line. Dave Cope and I agree it sounds miles ahead of its predecessor. A natural match with a P3, P4, Quests, or Conquests.

M6 single-ended, tubed preamplifier. Available with or without phono stage. The M6, which has also acquired new power supplies derived from those in the M10, is the finest preamplifier I have heard at what it does. I consider it a reference component. It is the perfection of the M3 school of preamps. 

Quest. The Quest amplifier is a 9 watt SET monoblock amplifier, which gives us the rich glory of the 300B tube. It comes in standard, Silver, and Silver Signature models. As the Conquest, it offers us 18 watts with paralleled 300B's. 

Conquest Conquest Silver Signatures
Conquest . 18 watt SET monoblocks amplifier. More information and commentary coming. 

P3 and P4 stereo amps. 9 watts, 22 watts. The Quest and Conquest monoblock amplifiers are also available (for less money) in single chassis as the P series. My principal Audio Note demo amp is a P3 Silver Signature, and I’ll have to say, coupled with my M6 Phono preamp, it’s superb. My aural memory of Quest Silver Signatures, which visited briefly some 5-6 years ago, albeit with less ambitious cabling that I have here now, is that this P3 version is at least as good, conceivably better. There may be technical advantages to a single chassis amp I know not of.  I have not heard the P4 amps, with the exception of P4 Balanced below, which is a whole other animal.

Neiro
. 8 watt SET monoblock amplifier. A pair of Neiros offers the passion, penetration, and deeply saturated colors of parallel 2A3's coupled with a C-core transformer with copper primary and silver secondary windings. More elegant, informative, and possessed of firmer and clearer bass than the 300B based Quests and Meishus in the line, the 2A3 Neiros are also a bit less meaty and sensuous. They sound startlingly more powerful than their meager eight watt rating suggests. In conjunction with the M6 preamplifier and a DAC 4.1 Balanced, they soundstage wonderfully with depth and air, putting a natural finish on notes that is strikingly real. 

Shinri. 10 watt monoblock amplifier, identical to the Neiros, but with a single 300B output tube in place of parallel 2A3’s to provide a more nuanced, disciplined, and refined perspective than their 2A3 brothers. They are Mozart to the Neiro’s Beethoven. Great sense of control on harpsichords and pianos. Remarkable delicacy and suavity overall. Where the Neiros are notable for drama and contrast, the Shinris lead with poise and control.

P4 Balanced. While clearly related to the Quest/Conquest line of 300B amps, the P4B’s with their interstage transformers take us into another sound and musical world. Far better bass, a huge soundscape, increased spatial presence, with a degree of clarity that leaves its less ambitious siblings in the dust. I feared their copper wound transformers might mean too much warmth but after just one day of play, that demon retreated. Warmer than Neiros but far more transparent than the Quests and Conquests. I drove my demos with an M6 but Audio Note says they’ll respond well to an M3 as well. If the price tag is beyond your means, try to hear  its integrated cousin, the Jinro at the next audio show. $31,000.

Jinro. 20 watt SET integrated amplifier with Chinese 211 tubes. Debuted at CES in 2010. More information and commentary coming.

Tomei. 25 watt SET integrated amplifier with 211 tubes. More information and commentary coming.

Ongaku. 25 watt single-ended integrated amplier with VT4-C tubes. Information and commentary forthcoming. 


SPEAKERS 

Audio Note speakers present a viably different perspective from Reynaud's. Peter Qvortrup says they are "correct and accurate to the recording," an argument I have heard in favor of a great many speakers I admire but am not (any longer) drawn to. Harbeths, for example. But Audio Note speakers are extremely persuasive, whatever the philosophy behind them. Perhaps Peter has sprinkled some fairy dust on them and not told us.

They did not take me by storm. I expect this is mainly because they don’t sound at all like Reynauds, which is the speaker voice that had occupied my head for the previous few years. Reynauds generate a sense of almost palpable emotional atmosphere about them: they are wonderfully breathy, naturally warm, and full of physical musical presence. They are so effective at this that they can make other, quite excellent, speakers sound light or lean in direct contrast. Which is exactly what they did to a pair of AN E/SPe’s the first few weeks I had them here.

Though, being two ways, they do not convey as much weight and mass, Audio Note speakers are neither light nor lean, they are as clear as a New England fall day, exhilaratingly open and gloriously transparent. Violins in particular are transcendent. Human voices are strikingly clear, instrumental voices remarkably lifelike. Unlike Reynauds, they are not especially indulgent of bad digital transfers. But to most of mine, and I have a great many, they sound fine and are full of nice surprises. I have never much enjoyed the sound of Chandos CD’s for example, and they sound very good on AN speakers. They seem to give all decent recordings more than a fair chance to show what they’ve got. The best recordings sound extraordinary. Every recording sounds distinct from every other recording, which is their designer’s criterion for excellence and has become mine.

Like Audio Note electronics, they are eloquent rather than ingratiating. This seems to have a great deal to do with their speed, their responsiveness to an audio signal. I have never quite understood the importance of this attribute until now, and I expect it has a great deal to do with the simplicity of the signal path. It seems to be what gives AN speakers their extraordinary verisimilitude. Music coming through them sounds a great deal like what I heard in the spring of 2004 at the Aldeburgh Festival in Norfolk, England. (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue14/festival.htm) Notes break the air with great speed and little effort. 

All Audio Note speakers are designed to occupy the corners of the room, toed in such that their ‘lines’ cross about a meter in front of the listening position. This said, I have found that most AN speakers work fine out in the room, especially the K’s; so the fact that your room has no useable corners does not rule them out. My main listening room’s corners are eighteen feet (!) apart, so the toe-in here is absolutely essential. Set up properly, Audio Note speakers create a very broad sweet spot. Peter Qvortrup likes to demonstrate this attribute of his speakers by pointing out to visitors that his accustomed listening position is to the far right! They love low-powered SET’s. Once I got my demo E’s (and J’s) snugged back into the corners, the full length drapes (behind them and in front of my floor to ceiling glass wall) drawn a couple of feet past them (to take the glass out of the equation) and pulled away from their rear-firing ports, they began to have their way with me. I drive mine with 300B based amps, of which Audio Note makes a great many.

The sonic universe that Audio Note speakers propose can take me over. Their openness and clarity throughout their surprising range can be magic, and you don't need to go 'up range' in the product line to hear it.  As with the OTO integrated amplifier and Dac 1.1x Signature II, the magic is there from the beginning. One of my favorites is the modest K/SPe, though I'll confess I have daydreamed of indulging in legendary K/SPx SE's to give myself a present!

All of the Audio Note speakers are based on classic Snell designs, improved upon by Audio Note designers. They are available in an extraordinary variety of finishes and degrees of technical refinement. The notes below refer to the SPe models which strike many of us as the best AN speaker values.

AN-K/SPe While there are speakers, (notably Audio Note J’s and E’s) that go lower and higher with more ease, and make a bigger and arguably more accurate impression, the 90 dB, 8 ohm K’s have a special quality that larger, more effortlessly full-range speakers generally lack. Those who remember with fondness the KLH Six (compared with the Five and Twelve), the larger Advent, and the Celestion SL6 will know what I’m talking about. The K/SPe’s are better speakers than any of those classics; but they share their appeal, their ability to speak incisively and almost personally through the essential midrange, which, because of the K’s lighter low end, is where their balance is centered. They have an immediacy, a presence, exciting leading edge behavior, and tactile musical excitement, along with a beguiling hint of opacity (!), just as their predecessors had. The smaller Reynauds have some of this strange blend of tactile immediacy and opacity. The K’s have sealed cabinets, which clearly account for some of their sonic quality. The KLH, Advent, and Celestion were all sealed; the Reynauds (and Audio Note J’s and E’s) are ported. A substantial benefit of the K’s is that they perform superbly on the modest OTO integrated amp. Designed with smaller rooms in mind, they also sound excellent in my 18’ and 28’ living room.

AN-K/SPx SE. SPx silver cable, crossover with solid Audio Note silver inductors and Black Gate bipolar capacitors, Audio Note copper foil adjusting capacitors. Someday I hope to have a pair here to brag about. They should be THE SPEAKER for small rooms where cost is barely a consideration. Peter has a pair in his bedroom.

AN-J/SPe The considerably larger, ported J’s are unquestionably "better" speakers than their little brothers, in the sense that they go lower with more authority, go higher with more ease – they are smoother and more open sounding; and they create a larger image. They have less ‘personality’ than the K’s (as KLH Fives and Twelves had less than the Sixes) because they make fewer compromises (cabinet size mainly, which means the smaller speakers have to work harder to cover the spectrum) – and it is compromises that bring personality to a speaker, for better and for worse. The J’s bass comes remarkably close to that of their big brother E’s. In small and large rooms alike, with their 93 dB sensitivity, they are quite happy on the OTO. Actually, the OTO/J-SPe combination is one of my most popular. 


E/SPe HE

AN-E/SPe.The E was the first Audio Note speaker I heard and as much as I like the J and K, if you have the room for it, the E is the speaker to have. Its additional half-octave on the low end clarifies the low bass fairly dramatically. It also gives the impression of being more open and easeful from top to bottom, likely the result also of the clearer low end. The E’s like a bit of space, but seemed just fine in Peter Qvortrup’s approximately 12’ x 16’ study. Most folks put at least a Meishu or M3/P3 on E’s. 

AN-E/SPe HE. An AN-E/SPe with hemp High Efficiency woofers taking them to 98 dB! My favorite Audio Note speaker. They strike me now as the sweet spot in the line. Not as absolutely resolving and refined as the more than two and three times as expensive E/SPe SE's and E/SPx SE's, but a bit sweeter and absolutely endearing. A great upgrade from the standard E/SPe which makes possible use of ultra low powered 45 or 2A3 based amps. That said, the speed of the hemp woofers seems to make these E's demonstrably more exciting on the same amps you'd use with the standard E/SPe's. No wonder Art Dudley fell for them. 

AN-E/LX Signature. A copper wired AN-E with the High Efficiency woofers and external, separately boxed crossovers using solid copper wired inductors with Audio Note copper foil capacitors. Wired with Lexus cable. Excellent review of the E/LX Signatures by Art Dudley in Stereophile...written before he heard the E/Spe HE's...http://www.stereophile.com/standloudspeakers/506an/index1.html For those who love copper wired speakers or whose overly bright listening rooms require them, these are jewels. 

AN-E/SPe Signature.   With silver wired inductors in the external crossovers, this beauty is the first of the upscale silver wired E models. More resolving and thus more articulate across its entire range, it can be stunning with the Level 4 electronics it invites. Audio Note afficionados will insist on this level of refinement. The rest of us will find great satisfaction with E/SPe HE's. 


AUDIO NOTE CABLE 

Audio Note interconnect and speaker cables - and power cables as well - can compound the virtues of AN systems. 

Modestly priced copper Lexus is terrific in a modest system, offering a naturally warm, detailed, and full presentation. As an interconnect, I prefer it to the less weighty sounding, silver-based AN-v and in Reynaud-based systems, I even prefer it to SPe speaker cable. And it is cheaper than both. When you get to AN-Vx, the interconnect game begins to change: everything begins to open up without any loss of the Lexus solidity or smoothness. With speaker cable, in most cases you have to get all the way to SPx before things get noticeably better than Lexus. Sogon interconnects, with twice as many strands of silver as Vx, is simply astonishing in its clarity and sweetness. And the Sootto, with twice as many strands as Sogon (!) can take your breath away. Big, hugely present, and still beautiful. It clearly crosses a line into territory where adjectives flail and reality seems to begin. Sogon speaker cable, prohibitively expensive for most unless you bi-wire by splitting the 96 strands cables to 48, is the finest speaker cable in the line, by far.

The strategy, unless you're rich, is to put the best cable you can afford at the head of the system chain, say between a digital transport and dac or between a CDP and amp: that way its advantages get passed along. Even putting a single run of Sogon, or better yet, the new Pallas, between the transport and dac in a system with all Lexus delivers a dramatic improvement.

Upgrading from Vx to Sogon to Sootto interconnects is like opening sonic doors. At each step we feel we are hearing it all and then suddenly, in each case, there is more. More instrumental and spatial detail, more pure physicality and presence, more beauty, and more shear excitement. This is directly attributable to the near doubling of strands of silver, the doubling of channels through which musical information can travel:  it is as if twice as much on a recording is being unleashed. I can't tell you now exhilarating it is to hear more of a cello than you've been accustomed to thinking there is: the prodigious sound of its physicality accompanied by the stunning beauty of true timbre. This is what this whole enterprise we are involved in truly is.

With Audio Note cable, every step of the progression is a revelation, so there is no need to complete the journey through the last door. But I promise you there is no other way to get it all. If all of the musical information can't get into your system, it ain't going to come out!

LEXUS interconnects. All-copper 50 strand interconnect with the same architecture as Sogon. One of the best buys in IC’s around. Full and smooth sounding, it has more clarity than we usually find in copper cable. 

AN-V interconnects. 99.99% pure silver, 15 strand litz wire symmetrical, copper screen. A respectable interconnect for modest high end systems for those who have to have silver but can't afford AN-Vx. I heard it between a CDT 2 transport and Dac 1.1x Signature II dac and between the dac and an OTO integrated. Less full sounding than copper Lexus but just enough silver to throw a bit of natural light over everything.

AN-Vx inteconnects. 99.99% pure silver, 27 strand litz wire symmetrical, copper screen. A significant jump in openness and refinement from AN-V, this is the interconnect of choice in most reasonably priced systems. No need to go beyond AN-Vx unless you’re truly ambitious but definitely worth stretching to from AN-v and from Lexus if you can. A good choice in even a perfectionist’s system that requires a long run, say to mono-blocks. 

SOGON interconnects. 99.99% pure silver, 50 strand litz wire symmetrical, copper screen. Wide open and noticeably refined.  A great cable to run from a transport to a dac to give a Vx based system a great start. More and more listeners are considering this option even in modest systems because of the startling degree of improvement it provides. 

PALLAS interconnect. An even more dramatic improvement in the run from the digital transport to the dac. Better than Sogon in this role, if those of you who have heard Sogon can believe it. 

SOOTTO interconnects. 99.99% pure silver in 110 strands. Big, bold, clear, and still beautiful. Arguably the most 'real' sounding AN cable. Head to head with Sogon, it sounds less refined and less sweet because it is holding absolutely nothing back. Not at all clinical, just stunningly present. Scary good stuff. Even just one pair near the head end of a system can be an existential joy.

Lexus XL speaker cable. Pure copper 50 strand Lexus is all a modest system will ever need and also my  first choice for Reynaud Blisses, Cantabiles, Emeraudes, and even Offrandes. Way better sounding than it has any right to be. A great cable value. An all-copper wire but built with the same architecture as Sogon, so it offers the classic warmth with detail. 

AN-SPe speaker cable. 99.99% pure silver litz conductor, 17 strands. SPe is comparable to an interconnect halfway between AN-V and AN-Vx: a great sounding cable that will satisfy most audiophiles. Ideal for K/SPe's, J/SPe's, and E/SPe's. 

AN-SPx speaker cable. 99.99% pure silver litz conductor, 27 strands. Weightier sounding overall and more brilliant in the upper midrange. Good match for JMR Orfeos and Concordes. 

SOGON LX 96 speaker cable. 99.99 pure silver conductor, now 96 strands. Probably the best there is and single cables can be split rather than doubled for biwiring, resulting in 48 strands, close to what Sogon was for years. Even in that configuration, it is gorgeous. 


SOGON AC CABLE. A new product entering the market in the summer of 2010, offering a chance to run with a full AN cabled system.  Sogon AC cables used judiciously (you don't need them on all components) complete the chain and unleash a system's full potential. We have the sense that sound is extended farther up and down the audio spectrum; through to the world where tiny details live; and out into the physical space where the music was recorded. Everything feels more 'live' and present. Instruments sounds like better versions of themselves, human voices are more emotionally affecting. Both inflections and innuendos are more noticeable. Even if you’re used to extremely high end power cables, these new Sogon cords need to be heard. In my system, using cables on just the dac and preamp, replacing very good custom cords designed by Audio Note and built by Dave Cope of Triode and Company, it was like opening a flood gate: more of everything came into the room. 

JM REYNAUD 

Jean Marie Reynaud, master designer and builder of some of the most musically compelling loudspeakers in the world, died on March 31, 2011, after a long illness. He was seventy-two. He is succeeded by his son, Jean Claude, who has worked at his side, involved in both design and management, for the past few years. The audio world mourns the passing of this great man and extends best wishes to Jean Claude, who pledged to his father to "continue his brand and business respecting his philosophy and sound."

Jean Claude Reynaud and the late Jean Marie Reynaud.

JM Reynaud speakers pursue the natural warmth, body, and immediacy that give many listeners their chief emotional charge from music. They are 'natiurally' warm and robust but there is also, especially with the latest generation of Reynauds, greater transparency and spatial magic.

Reynaud speakers have a way of providing the perfect marriage of sonic information and musical expressiveness that seems to elude so many other designs. My zig-zag to Reynaud began with Kefs, proceeded to Meridian M-2 actives, Linn Saras and DMS Isobariks, B&W Matrix speakers, Spendors (BC1's and 1/2's), and on to Harbeths. The arrival at Reynaud was both satisfying and definitive. No speaker I have heard does as well at getting the elemental emotional feel of a live musical performance into our living room, which is their designer's express goal. In contrast to the vivid kind of clarity that distinguishes some of the most popular contemporary ‘for a clear day you can hear forever' speakers, Reynauds offer a natural but also spirited and energetic version of transparency, resulting in a physical immediacy that can take your breath away. To my ears, had the Spendor BC-1 evolved in a straight line rather than thinning out its heritage into the Classic line, it would have turned into a Reynaud.

JEAN MARIE REYNAUD LOUDSPEAKERS

Again, for more detail and a look at the full JMR line, go to the manufacturer's website, http://www.jm-reynaud.com. All JMR equipment is available through Amherst Audio. Amherst Audio is the North American sales agent for JMR as well as a retail dealer.  A current list of U.S. dealers appears at the end of the JM Reynaud section. 

Below are subjective descriptions of my favorite Reynauds. 

The Bliss (formerly called the Duet). 

After thirteen years and four different versions, JMR decided it was time for the famous rustic & romantic Twin to retire to make room for something altogether new. Well, not absolutely altogether. The drivers are the same and the enclosure is almost the same --slightly smaller in volume (2 inches shallower, 1 inch wider). But the interior of the enclosure has been completely re-engineered to take advantage of what was learned from creating the Offrande Signature. There is a new crossover.  And the sound: still JMR warm and expressive but much more immediate, with chest rattling bass. These are more passionate and physical speakers than their predecessors. They are not as open and smooth on top as Bliss Silvers nor as refined as Offrandes and Orféos; I would call them natural cane sugar speakers with a physical quality in the midrange and upper bass that is unique to them, a voice that loves jazz in particular. 

The ideal for JMR has always been that elusive marriage of warmth and clarity we hear in the concert hall and jazz venue and that has eluded speaker designers for years. Over the half-dozen or so years that I have been listening to Reynauds, father and son, have steadily and conspicuously moved closer to this goal. But in the latest speaker iterations they have taken a giant step - and with the new Bliss and Bliss Silvers they have brought this level of improvement to the entry-level speaker. I loved the MK III Twins, I loved and admired the Twin Signatures. But the two Blisse models really are a new ball game.  Again, the most dramatic improvements are in the immediacy of the midrange and authority of the bass. Where the Twins used to seduce with a degree of beguiling opacity, the Blisses amaze with the warmth, speed, and immediacy of a 'live' performance. And where the Twins sometimes wanted a subwoofer to fill them out, the Blisses often sound as if they are already subs somewhere in the room. Still no hint of the brightness or over-assertiveness that often accompany great presence. Just there-ness. The Blisses are warm, immediate, passionate, and fast. What they do for saxes and cellos will amaze.

They strike me as more versatile than the Twins. Within reason, you can get almost any sound out of them you like. My favorite combinations have them with the new Blue Circle 6922 based FtTH 2 hybrid integrated, which brings out their dynamic capacity and phenomenal low end; music has great weight and body through this amp; and the Crimson 710 and 640E's which wrings clarity from them I didn't realize they were capable of. The 6SN7 based Blue Circle DAR integrated also performs well with the Blisses, bringing out their latent romanticism: a fuller and more blended sound, a more fluid midrange, increased holography & deep sound stage, and lots of energy, all at the cost of some authority and tightness in the low end and some overall definition.

I am getting the sense it will take me quite a while to discover all that these little miracles can perform, especially on the JMR Magic Stands. More than even their predecessors, the Blisses are the kings of the under $2000 speaker market.  $1995.

Review of Duets [Blisses]  on Positive-Feedback

Bliss Silver.

As good as the Blisses are, the still relatively new new Bliss Silvers, introducing the new woofer suspension technology and other upgrades, are dramatically better.  Not a replacement for the Bliss, which remains happily in the line, but a refined and stunningly upgraded Bliss. Everything I said about the Bliss applies but the upgrades place the Silvers among the clearest sounding speakers I’ve ever heard in anywhere near their price range. Overall definition is outstanding. The midrange is as clear as the Harbeth Radial but both sweeter and robust, at the same time.  An overall natural warmth with a surprising sense of ease for a stand mounted speaker. Not a hint of brightness or assertiveness. Listening to a cello and piano duo: the two instruments are each perfectly and separately realized. Treble range is clear and smooth, midrange present, savory, and clear. Bass is solid with good body, tight, and extremely well defined. Clearly it’s stand-mount bass, but the absence of low end authority is not conspicuous because what is there is so well defined.  Most interesting - and this is a feature I am hearing in all of the Reynauds which use the new technology - there is a dramatic increase in sense of space and imaging.

They are the most musically accurate speakers under $5000 I’ve heard, an enormous upgrade over the Bliss for $800. Twice as good? Quite possibly.

The US price is slightly less than the Euterpe, floor-standing version of the Bliss, at $2700.

EUTERPE SUPREME

EUTERPE SUPREME.

For those who have endured the long wait for the floor standing version of the Bliss to benefit from the new research and technology that have transformed the Bliss, Cantabile, Offrande, and Concorde into Supremes, your patience has been finally been rewarded. As I have yet to hear it, here is what Jean Claude has to say:

The EUTERPE SUPREME is the result of the optimization of all components and uses the most advanced technologies of our newest Supreme models. It is in essence a floor-standing version of the Bliss Silver for those who crave more generous bass [5 Hertz plus added fullness and bass energy]. Like the Bliss Silvers, it has silver capacitors, ferrite coils with large diameter of winding cable, the tensioning system for the woofer, and WBT connectors. It has a different crossover with a new cutoff frequency and new phases plugs on the woofer and tweeter, both changes designed to suit the different demands of a floor-stander. It has the same spirit as its stand-mount brother but predictably with a more extensive, better controlled low end?. the new Euterpe is more open sounding than its predecessor. Its overall sound is lively, wonderfully lit, and particularly homogeneous, with rich and varied timbres. There is a deep and stable extensive stereo image untypical of floor-standing speakers. Equally important, unlike its predecessor, it has a highly articulate low frequency range along with the frank impact all fans of floor-standers crave.

And no need for stands! For now, the price in the U.S. is just $200 more than that of its predecessor. $3700.

 


Cantabile Supreme: The Cantabile Supremes, using the same technology that have made the Bliss Silvers excitingly better than the standard Bliss, are a huge upgrade over their predecessor Cantabile Signatures. They have the smoothest midrange I’ve heard in years. They are smooth, clear, airy extraordinarily ‘musical.’ Refined in the way of Spendor SP 1/2’s but clearer and with stunningly better imaging. Smooth like the Spendors but not so reticent. Tonal and timbrel reproduction are exquisite. These speakers are balanced toward the midrange, such that low level detail and sense of touch are very fine. They are naturally but not conspicuously warm because they are so clear and liquid and because, especially in my 18’ x 30’ x 10’, 5000 cubic foot room, they lack the fuller sound of larger floor-standers. Bass is clear and tight in my room rather than weighty, which should make them ideal for small to moderate sized rooms (12’ x 14' x 16’ say), where more substantial bass would tend to induce booming. Nearby walls and ceiling in smaller rooms will tend to reinforce and augment the new Cantabiles’ bass naturally.

Some could find these speakers a tad light weight in a very large room, where the larger Abscissas or even Orfeos would be more suitable. The Cantabiles are smallish floor-standers, just 40 inches high compared with their big brother Abscissa’s 45 inches. And while they have dual midrange/woofers, the drivers are 4.75 inches in diameter compared with the Bliss Silver’s single 6 inch and Emeraude’s pair of 5.2 drivers. That said, even in my very large room, these new Cantabiles are dynamic and fast on rock and jazz; and while symphonic music doesn’t make my chest contract, the clarity and especially the spaciousness of the imaging spreads an orchestra out convincingly in front of me. I can hear both individual instruments and groups. And they do go to 35 Hertz!

Easy to drive at 91 dB and a great match for Blue Circle DAR or FtTH.  $4800.

Abscissa. A brand new speaker, the first from Jean Claude Reynaud’s hands alone. Though, in a sense, a replacement in the line for the Emeraude, a speaker that brought the tradition of Evolution 3 to its final form, it moves way beyond the sound of the speakers it supplants. Like the Evolution/Emeraude speakers, the Abscissa is designed to bring some of the fullness and low end authority of the Orféos into smaller rooms. There are two 5.2 inch woofers, the ribbon tweeters of the higher end Reynauds, and the pioneering driver tension technology already in force in most of the rest of the line.  As a result, like the Bliss Silvers, Cantabile Supremes, Offrandes, and Orféos, the Abscissa is fast, highly articulate, but still naturally warm like all Reynauds. 

The Abscissas may be smaller, more room friendly Orféos,  as intended, but they have a distinct identity of their own that may ultimately make them the most popular Reynaud's, especially in typical sized listening rooms. They have an exquisite, remarkably coherent, forceful, and meaty midrange. The ribbon tweeter (same as on the Offrandes, Orféos, and Concordes) is mounted closer to the midrange driver, which may account for some of the increased coherence. The Abscissas go as deep as the Orfeos but with their smaller woofers and smaller cabinets, they haven't as much bass energy as their big brothers, at least in my 5000 cubic foot room. This is what likely made them perfect in this regard in the moderate sized room (13 x 19) at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. 

On both vinyl and CDs, it is the wonderful clear, smooth, and exciting midrange that identifies the Abscissas. Overall, the speaker is less refined and easeful than the Orfeos, but more present, reminding me a little of the difference between Orfeos and Concordes. Interestingly, the Abscissas image extremely well, which may cause Offrande lovers who miss some of the weightiness that comes with floor stand speakers to consider the new speakers. As I say, I would not be surprised if going forward the Abscissas become the most popular speaker in the line, not least because of their reasonable price.

Frequency response: 35 - 25000 Hz
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Efficiency: 91 dB/W/M (2.83 V)
Power handling capacity: 100 watts peak power: 200 watts Recommended power 40 to 250 watts
Connection: mono and bi wiring (bi amplification possible in passive mode only)
Dimensions: H 45.2’’, D 11.8’’, W 7.9’’
Finish: Black mat lacquer, pearly ivory soft touch, pearly anthracite grey soft touch, black soft touch,Weight 32 Kg 70.4 lbs.

$5500



Offrande Supreme, V2

THE PERFECT MONITOR?

The eternal conflict in the minds of both designers and the audio public between the perfect recording monitor and the perfect music monitor is fascinating to track in the evolution of the Offrande, the definitive center of the Reynaud line. Early models, V (version) 1 and V2 (1994-1998), on which reputation of the Offrande was based for years, had a presentation which its fans claimed captured the emotional heart of a musical performance and which its detractors found overly romantic or even somewhat opaque. Monitor purists scolded them for the liberties they took. Version 3 (1998), with a new tweeter and new crossover system, all of us agreed, moved toward a more ‘objective’ presentation but kept the engaging ‘natural warmth’ of its predecessors. We were beginning to learn that capturing recordings accurately need not lose us what we valued most in music. Version 4, four years later in 2002, struck many of us as achieving a near-perfect balance, rendering more detail that rewarded the evident improvements in digital recordings. At this point, the Offrandes were still conspicuously Offrandes, just more exciting and informative ones. Comparing them with earlier versions made it clear to even the V1’s and V2’s fondest fans that significant musical and sonic progress had been made.

Then in 2007, the gradual and measured evolution of the Offrande accelerated with the arrival of the Offrande Signature. With a new woofer, double ribbon tweeter, and virtually flat upper midrange, the Signature took what sounded like a giant step towards greater transparency to recordings, earning accolades from recording engineers, who raved about its accuracy at that year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. But the new speaker also raised some doubts among amateur listeners and music lovers, who live and listen in moderate sized rooms rather than recording studios. The midrange of the Signature was truthful but could be somewhat unkind in rooms where nearby room boundaries reinforced this portion of the spectrum, creating what struck most of us as an overly assertive presentation. At the RMAF, they sounded wonderful with SRO listeners standing along the bare walls ⎼ which they frequently were ⎼ to absorb the first wave of sound. (And they sounded very fine in my 18’ x 28’ x 10’ living room in Massachusetts.) But when the RMAF room emptied out between listening sessions, the Signatures clearly sounded too pushy. Accordingly, the market voted against the Signatures, sending the Reynauds, father and son, back to the lab. And a year later, they emerged with a new Offrande, the Supreme, that brought the presence region back into a more acceptable balance, allowing the superb double ribbon tweeter to show its true colors. In addition, newly designed stands and internal and external (return to the use of solid beech batten board front frame) changes to the enclosure seemed to firm up the low end.  To most ears, the Supreme amounted to a return to the path the Offrande had been on with the V3 and V4: in effect, it sounded like a (considerably) better version of the V4.

The Supreme was (still is) a fine speaker and it would be with us still (which is why it was called the Supreme), if the Reynauds hadn’t developed two  independently conceived innovations that are now working their way through the whole line: a unique driver suspension technology and precise matching of components. Beginning with the Bliss Silver, an upgraded Bliss, the midrange/woofer driver was secured to the enclosure with a precisely measured tensioning system of stainless steel rods that dramatically reduce driver-enclosure interaction. And then, as a result of an experience Jean Marie had listening to a quartet using instruments made from wood of the same tree...well here he is in his own words:

During one of the musical meetings of La Baule, I was struck by the beauty of the sound of the quartet of instruments named " evangelists " played by the Modigliani Quartet. These four instruments, made from the wood of one tree by nineteenth century instrument-maker JB Vuillaume, made me understand how much harmony could arise from a set of instruments conceived as a set rather than as individual pieces. Moved by the sonic beauty and sublime complementary harmony of these four instruments, I determined to apply a new methodology to the conception and the development of a pair of loudspeakers, designed not as single units but as a pair, to be played with each other for stereophonic listening. I saw that what was needed to achieve perfectly harmonious musical results would be an absolute match of the electric and mechanical performance of the pair. I thus began the study of the BLISS SILVER, which had to meet these specifications.
 
Genius never sleeps. All capacitors, coils resistors, and drivers were measured and paired so they were exactly matched at a very low tolerance. The results, with both tensioning system and matched parts in place, reportedly shocked both Jean Marie and Jean Claude: the differences in imaging, tonal richness, and overall balance were extraordinary. And once I heard the Bliss Silver, the results were stunning to me too. Overall clarity was dramatically enhanced and the ability to reproduce spatial relations on recordings was up several fold. The Silvers lost none of the Basic Bliss’s virtues but leapt ahead of them in overall performance. I couldn’t believe I was hearing $2700 speakers. It was immediately clear what would have to happen next.

In the fall of 2010, the current Offrande, the Supreme V2 (the seventh Offrande), debuted at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, with the innovative driver tension system, matched internal components, more ambitiously damped tweeters ⎼ and with silver capacitors. And by the third day of the show, their new drivers finally fully broken in, it was clear to all of us that we were listening to as near perfect a monitor for normal domestic environments as we could imagine, with neither recording accuracy nor musical accuracy compromised! In our 13’ x 19’ x 9’ hotel room, the Offrande Supreme V2’s simply disappeared in front of us: all we could hear, spread out across the room, was music. The new technologies had sent the Offrande through the roof.

To my ears the Offrande Supreme,V2 is as close to the perfect musical & recording monitor as I ever expect to hear. (http://cookiemarenco.com/images/pdf_articles/eq_0605_perfectspeaker.pdf) Everything about this speaker says ‘live’ music, rows A-E. The performers are here, we are there, right down front. I think it’s now fair to say that the original vision Jean Marie had for the Offrandes, his musical ‘offering’ of a consummately ‘intimate’ speaker, has been realized. We all expect this Offrande to be with us for the foreseeable future. If you have a large room, love nineteenth century orchestral music or big jazz bands, and prefer to sit back farther in the hall, read on. But in the kinds of listening rooms many of us occupy, listening to chamber music, jazz ensembles, rock, and even orchestral music up close, there is no need to look elsewhere. After all, Offrandes are virtually flat to 30 Hertz. They cannot move as much air as their big brothers who have more drivers and larger cabinets. But they can hit all of the notes: you should hear what extraordinary things they do with an acoustic bass!

The newest Offrandes are still 8 ohms, 91 dB, happily drivable with moderately powerful amps (my choices are the Blue Circle FtTH hybrid integrated or Crimson 710 preamp and 640E monoblocks), and love Crimson speaker cable. $7500 including integral stands.


Orféo Supreme, V2Note: A new, slightly revised, Orféo Supreme, the V2, has just been introduced. Internally changes are subtle; externally the tweeter housing has been brought closer to the woofers for increased coherence. Essentially the same wonderful speaker but Jean Claude felt it should be designated the V2 so there would be no question that some alterations had been done..

With the Orféos, we move back another 8-10 rows from the Offrandes, where the instruments begin to blend, where immediacy is down around 10%, beauty, fullness, and air up 20%. You are now listening to the Supreme version of the Orféo, successor to the much loved and lauded Orféo II. The Orféo II's were the perfect complement to the Offrande Supreme; the Orféo Supremes are the perfect complement to the new Offrandes. All of the Orféo II's virtues are present but also the ability of the Offrande Supreme V2's to disappear. The warmth, fullness, and most important to me, the speed and jump are all there; but there is new magic. The woofer tension system, meticulous balancing of parts, and silver capacitors do as much for the Orféos as they do for the Offrande Supreme V2's, most dramatically in the area of imaging, which is startlingly good. Some will hear these floor-standers as Offranded Orféos.

Orfeos My favorite seat in the hall is around Row M or N, fourteen rows or so from the stage. I want to relish the timbre of each instrument but I want a bit of the hall too: I want the coherence and weight of an orchestra. And finally, I want a hint of the sweetness that the air adds to sound as it travels those extra ten rows. To my particular ears, the Orféos have always achieved the perfect balance of "live" music's wonders. They may well have the best overall balance I've ever heard. They are not as immediate, edgy, and exciting as Offrandes or Abscissas; they are not as grand, full, easeful, and authoritative as the Concordes. (Stay tuned.) They give away a little of both perspectives to give us the savor of everything. They are not a compromise. If anything, they may be for many of you, the golden mean, the possible best of all worlds.

Orféos are the reference speaker for David Elrod of Elrod Power Systems: "To me, the Orfeos are far more than a well designed loudspeaker. They are a finely tuned musical instrument that will thrill and astonish you. They are a masterpiece."

4 Ohms, 92 dB. While you can run Orféos on as modest and versatile as amp as the 100 watt FtTH2 integrated (especially with the KQ upgrade), they give you much more on separates. I am currently running mine on a Crimson 710 and 175 watt 640E's or a Blue Circle BC3000II GZpz and BC204KQ, 150 watt hybrid amp, and they?re all I?ll ever want. $8500.

Great review from Tom Campbell on Positive Feedback.


Concorde Supreme. 
With the Concordes we are moved still farther back,  farther still if you lower the volume. We are in the rear of the orchestra section, nearing mid-hall. Everything on the stage is marvelously clear but so is the room. There is ‘room presence’ not just musician and instrument presence. We are as much aware of what is around us as before us. And there is an ease to the proceedings as suits their perspective, the gift of a true three-way speaker design with a dedicated midrange driver. With Offrandes and somewhat with Orfeos, there is the greater intensity that comes from their closer perspectives. With the Concordes, there is more ease, fullness, and authority.

Authority. While the Concordes have essentially the same bandwidth as the Offrandes and Orfeos, their presentation is weightier, more impactful, and fuller: there are three large drivers to move more air and the cabinets are considerably larger (over one and a half times as much volume as Orféos) and heavier (nearly twice as heavy as the Orféos). We are acutely aware of the physicality, the body of instruments, and of orchestras. And everything feels as if it’s life-size. What keeps this quality in natural balance is the dedicated midrange driver at exactly ear-height assuring a marvelous clarity to the territory where cellos and human voices live. I hear things in women’s voices especially I’ve not heard before, tiny but essential inflections. The new midrange and woofer suspension technology and silver capacitors, here appearing in the Concordes for the first time, also contribute to the clarity in the midrange; but in addition improve the accuracy of sound-staging and the tightness of bass. Concordes can now work well in smaller rooms than before, though the height of the ribbon tweeter assembly (around six inches higher than on the Orféos) rules out nearfield listening. I find that around 12-13 feet is an ideal listening distance: at that distance, treble/bass balance is ideal and instruments begin to float free of the speakers -- another contribution from the new technology!

I expected these speakers to present a spectacular listening experience, which is why I leapt at the opportunity to hear them. They do not do that. Rather, and this may be the most important thing to say about them, they offer an utterly natural and whole presentation. Everything is just effortlessly there, solid and in its place. Everything. There. Nothing is projected or emphasized. The Concorde Supremes are not sensational or overwhelming, they are simply true to the experience of live music heard from what many listeners, especially those who favor orchestral music, consider the perfect location.

The Concordes are 4 ohms, 93 dB, providing an easy load to amplifiers. That said, the Reynauds urge us not to scrimp on power or current in order to let these speakers do all they can do. I drive mine happily with a Blue Circle 150 watt hybrid BC 204. $14,000.

 

 

 

 

 

MAGIC STANDS. JM Reynaud has resumed production of the famous Magic Stands, designed specifically to improve the performance of stand-mounted speakers, the Bliss and Bliss Silver in particular, though some customers use them with other manufacturers? speakers. Making use of the principle of the Helmholtz Resonator, Magic Stands not only clarify low end performance dramatically, they also have the effect of evening up response in the midrange. Price, $450 plus shipping if ordering without speakers.

For a definitive presentation of the theory behind the Magic Stands, go to:
http://www.jm-reynaud.com/jmr_us/archives/magic.html


 

JM Reynaud Dealers


Craig Jensen
Great Plains Audio
7535 Hwy 212 Chaska, MN 55318
(612) 590 - 2248
cmjncf@copper.net

Louis Hernandez
Stereo Shop
4319 Columbia Rd
Augusta, GA 30907-1469
(706) 863-9143
Louis@thestereoshop.org

John Guidi
Evolution Audio
5341 Derry Avenue Suite S
Agoura Hills, CA 91301
818-879-1312 or
800-836-8577
John@eavht.com

John Geisen
Wellington Audio
West Palm Beach, Florida
561-798-1059
561-389-3455 cell
jgeisen@mac.com
www.wellingtonaudio.com

Bob Neill
Amherst Audio
164 Red Gate Lane
Amherst, MA 01002
(413) 549-6171
www.amherstaudio.com

BLUE CIRCLE


Gilbert Yeung of Blue Circle                                    (Copyright Soundstage, Inc.)

Gilbert Yeung's quest to reproduce the essence of 'live' music has led him to design electronics with a combination of authority, dynamic energy, natural warmth, and clarity. His career has yielded some of the most satisfying (often hybrid tube/solid state) preamplifiers and amplifiers in the world.

Amherst Audio began with Blue Circle. The zig-zag that got me to this musical line of preamps and amps followed one of the predictable routes: zig from Krell to Conrad Johnson, zag halfway back to Plinius. It could just as well have zigged from Bryston to Cary and zagged halfback to Plinius. To my ears, Blue Circle, especially in its current designs, comes remarkably close to achieving the mean between an accurate version of what's on recordings and a presentation of what ‘live’ music really sounds like. Avoiding both the clinical and the cloyingly colored, Blue Circle preamps and amps, in both single-ended and balanced, in both solid state and tubed topologies, have pleased me for many years. There are stars in the line –  the FtTH 2 hybrid integrated amplifer, the MKII versions of the classic BC3 series tubed preamps, the new 200 series hybrid power amps, and especially the reference quality dacs and a new BC6020 line conditioner. But I have yet to hear any Blue Circle component that does not have a musical point to make. With Blue Circle, the preamp is the key: this is where designer Gilbert Yeung speaks most meaningfully. To compare any digital front end direct to amp system with one that has a Blue Circle preamp in it will tell you a lot of what you need to know about Blue Circle. Blue Circle used to sound warmer and softer than most of its components do today. Lately, the designer has moved to a more realistic balance of warmth and transparency, which his widespread use of balanced topology has helped to mature. Especially when paired with JM Reynaud speakers, they are dynamic, weighty, and present. Yang to Audio Note’s Yin?

In the last year or so, in an effort to broaden the Blue Circle paletteand complement the clarity of the FtTH and 200 series amps, we now have the DAR and 400 series amps, making use of the much-loved 6SN7 tube, bringing back some of holographic qualities of the classic BC 2 and BC6 amps of yore. Also, an all solid state 100 watt stereo amp, the BC 1022, is due here in March. Stay tuned.

BLUE CIRCLE ELECTRONICS

For full and more objective descriptions of Gilbert Yeung's line of electronics, see the company's web site: http://www.bluecircle.com . What follows is my subjective opinions of a selection. All Blue Circle products are available through Amherst Audio. Note: All prices are Canadian. U.S. prices are currently running around 10% higher.

Preamplifiers

BC3PLS. A preamp for those can’t quite stretch to a BC 3 Despina II. Not a replacement for the no longer available BC 2l.1 but a whole new design. Price: $3625. For more information go to:

BC 3 Despina II. Tubed, single-ended. The "original" Blue Circle preamp, now upgraded to MK II status, which tightens its low end and adds dynamics, reflecting its designer's move toward more incisive, bolder, and somewhat faster reproduction. Retains enough of the classic Despina sensuousness and remarkable midrange clarity to keep the BC3 faithful in the fold. The BC Despina II, Galatea II, and BC3000 II make excellent mates for cooler solid state amps. The Despina II is available in balanced topology for an additional $750. The BC 3 Despina is at the heart of many fine music systems. Price: $4945.

BC3 Galatea II

BC3 Galatea II

BC 3 Galatea II. Tubed, single-ended. The upgrade from Despina II to the Galatea II, which amounts to the substitution of the 3.1 II for the 3.0 II external power supply, takes this extremely popular preamp a significant step forward. Bigger power supply means better bass and a bit more refinement through the midrange. The Galatea II is available in balanced topology for an additional $750. List price: $6395.

BC 3000 II. Tubed, single-ended. The 3000 II represents a huge sonic upgrade from the Galatea II and is probably the most sound per dollar in the preamp line. When it is coupled with the optional GZpz power supply, it gets more refined and picks up an astonishing sense of ease on large orchestral and big band music. The BC 3000 GZpz is currently the top of the BC preamp line. List price for stock 3000 II: $8795. With GzPZ power supply: $10,995. The BC3000 II is also available in balanced topology for an additional $750. Pair this reference preamp with one of the new BC200 series hybrid amps.

BC 109 and BC109CP1. Solid state preamplifiers with dual mono Ultracap power supplies. I have only heard a prototype of these realtively new products, which was startlingly clear. More information down the road. BC 109: $4725; BC 109CP1: $7695.

Amplifiers

GDC. Entry-level integrated solid state amp. 95 watts. Considerably clearer from top to bottom than the former CS, it changes JMR Duets into more penetrating and faster sounding speakers, at a bargin price. $1975.

DAR. A 100 watt integrated hybrid using the 6SN7 tube to achieve a warm, appealing but still delightfully clear sound reminiscent of the vintage BC2 and BC6. It made its debut at the 2007 Rocky Mountain Audio Festival and was extremely well received playing with Reynaud Cantabiles.

The DAR midrange is open and full of musical timbre. There is a slightly warm, airy and breathy immediacy and clarity in the mids and upper mids reminescent of the BC2, which enables it to mate predictably well with JMR speakers. So far I’ve heard it on the Cantabiles and Offrande and while it sounds very good on both, I prefer it slightly on the Cantabiles which seems the more appropriate and natural match.

 $3295. With recommended (by me) active gain stage and Shallco volume control, $4115.


FtTH 2 KQ

FtTH 2. New version of Blue Circle’s classic integrated which debuted at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011 in Denver. Hybrid integrated using just one 6992 tube now to make tube-rolling less costly with no loss of magic. Single Shallco volume control. No preamp out or processor loop in order, Gilbert tells us, to improve sound, though they, along with a second Shallco, are still available as options. Now 100 watts into 8 ohms, 150 watts into 4 ohms. True-balanced typology. Separate external power supply, with KQ upgrade available in matched chassis (see image above and description below). Great new review of the FtTH2 on Positive Feedback. $6155. KQ adds $2585.

Backbone and Grace: Listening Note on the Blue Circle FtTH 2 Integrated Amplifer

If you know the FtTH well, you will notice a bit more purity/clarity through the midrange and clarity in the bass in the FtTH 2 that essentially defines the character of the upgrade. How much of this has been accomplished by the simplification of the signal path, how much by the new output devices is anybody’s guess. If you loved the FtTH 1 for the smidgen of beguiling warmth in the midrange that accompanied the tasteful drop of liquidity provided by the 6922’s, fear not.  Nothing of consequence has been lost and a new level of musical 'reality' has been added. When a Blue Circle component is upgraded these days -- by a new model, an enlarged power supply, the addition of a KQ, what you invariably get is more clarity and directness -- with an actual increase of smoothness. That is what Gilbert has learned how to do, what separates him from most of his competition. Upgraded Blue Circle components do not change: they simply sound like better, more refined versions of what they are already are.

To my ears, which approve the direction Blue Circle has been moving during the last few years, the 2 is clearly the better amp, especially if you continue to sub in an Amperex 7308 for the stock EH 6922. To those who own the FtTH 1, you have not been obsoleted. This is not a monumental upgrade, nor was it meant to be. It is simply Gilbert taking advantage of misfortune, something only true design geniuses can accomplish.  A year or so ago, when the supply of output devices for the FtTH went out production, Gilbert hunted around, tested, and finally found some new ones. And then, since they required some amp redesign, he took the opportunity to apply a few of the discoveries (!) he’s made since the FtTH was designed in 2005. Voila: FtTH 2.

Another note to FtTH 1 owners: the new KQ upgrade for the FtTH 2 that I’ll describe below is also available for the 1.

So to slightly revise what I have said of the FtTH 1, listening to the new Blue Circle FtTH 2 on either my Reynaud Bliss Silvers or Offrande Supreme, V2’s, I still do not get the sense that everything is unusually beautiful, refined, sexy, or radiant, but that it is naturally, forcefully, and completely present, as it should be. The music simply enters the room with grace and authority, perhaps a bit more of the latter than before. When I listen to live music, I’m not smitten with beauty or radiance, I’m smitten, when I am, by the firm, clear presence of real instruments. I am not taken, at least consciously, by aspects of sound but by music. There is nothing diverting me, positively or negatively, from the music. Likewise, with the FtTH 2, the instruments have their individual character, nothing more. And most especially, nothing less. It is a very reassuring experience. I invariably find myself saying, "oh, of course." That is why I will always have Blue Circle electronics in my house. This is the way they present music. They remind me what instruments sound like. I admire this amplifier enormously, as I did its predecessor. It is my Reality Check amp. That does not mean it is Plain Jane, clinical, dry, solid-state-like, or dull. It is real. And reality can be a wonderfully uplifting thing. In audio, it may ultimately be the most uplifting thing, which lasts. I am amazed that it serves both the modest Blisses and demanding Offrandes equally well.

Very few other audio designers can live with this approach. They fear, with good reason, that it won’t grab potential buyers, who want to Hear Their Gear. Want to be seduced or bowled over (or both). They want to hear and be able to characterize the voice of their system. While I’m listening to my FtTH 2 on my JMR speakers, in my mind other systems sound overly refined or harmonically enriched or too lean 'n' light or too charming or two patrician or too assertive: artificial, affected. Again, with the FtTH 2, more than ever I feel as if I am getting real thing. The real musical thing. I realize I have forgotten how good reality sounds! What a wonderful combination of backbone and grace it has. I want nothing more...

FtTH 2 KQ.

Unless it’s the FtTH 2-KQ! The KQ upgrade apparently has different degrees of effect on the various amps it’s used with. With a KQ upgrade, the FtTH 2 takes on a dramatically enhanced sense of ease and effortlessness, as if the speakers were being driven by a considerably more powerful amp. That's the most obvious and important difference, what makes the KQ upgrade worth the dough. Also: low level detail is clearer -- not more prominent, just more audible. And the whole presentation sounds...grander. Unleashed, more spacious, more authoritative. This assessment is based on its performance with JMR Offrande Supreme, V2’s, the kind of speakers the amp is intended for.

What if you put it on something that wants more power? Like Orféo Supremes? Surprise: that combination sounds very good. It is not quite up to  what a far more expensive and powerful rig like my BC3000II GZpz and BC204-KQ can produce. There is a bit less refinement, ease, and sense of space. But it is not a huge difference. I prefer the new amp on less demanding speakers, which it clearly enhances. But it’s a fine tribute to this little gem of an integrated.


 

 BC 204


BC 200 Series Power Amps. I have now heard the first two of these hybrid and balanced stereo amps, which are rapidly becoming the stars of the line. Once we move beyond the practicality of integrateds, these are the amps we aspire to.

BC 202. Coupled with the Galatea II, the 202 is a clear step up from the FtTH, providing noticeably more authority and clarity through the midrange. But to my ears, as good as it is, it is more a promise of what's to come in the 204 than a logical stopping place. But for $3000 less, it's a great high-end bargain. 125 watts. $8245.

BC 204. The BC 204 is a dream amp, which coupled with a BC 3000II GZpz now occupies the center of my Blue Circle/JM Reynaud reference system. More authority, more refinement, more everything. It is the FtTH of Blue Circle stereo amps. I'm sure the BC206 and especially the BC208 are better. There's always something better! Gilbert is clearly on a roll with the 200 series amps and I'm eager to hear them all. But I'm here to tell you that once you've heard the 204 surrounded by comparable components, you'll feel little temptation to venture further. For a while. 150 watts. $11, 695.

BC 206. 180 watts, $16,495. Available as monoblocks and called the 206ob with 160 watts, $22, 995. And don't be fooled by the lower power. Gilbert assures me the 206ob is a better amp than its single chassis brother. 

BC 208. 215 watts. Top of the line monoblocks. $31,995. Believe the review: http://www.soundstage.com/revequip/bluecircle_bc208.htm

KQ.  Blue Circle has developed what they call the "KQ," an optional additional unit which can be attached to virtually any Blue Circle amp, including the integrateds, to substantially upgrade sonic and musical presentation. Ambient information is more audible; overall presence and immediacy increase dramatically : everything feels more real, effortless, and 'live.' So far, I have experienced the KQ upgrade with my BC204 amplifier and can never look back. I will soon have the first edition of the long promised FtTH Mk II integrated, which will also come with KQ upgrade. Stay tuned.

The KQ is essentially a very large conglomeration of capacitors working together to enable an amp to approach a battery level of stable DC power supply without the chief downside of a batteries: chemical noise. Because the chemical reaction of a battery is absent, the traditional chemical noise of a battery is also absent. In addition, the KQ has a special proprietary filter network covering an extremely wide range of frequencies, killing virtually all noise, so DC is pure and quiet. Finally, the KQ deals with the AC powerline noise when it comes from the wall, using technology based on the BC6000.

Prices for the KQ upgrade vary from amp to amp but begin around $3000 for the integrateds Prices for the KQ upgrade vary from amp to amp but begin around $3000 for the integrateds and run as high as $9000 for some of the amplifiers. Check with me for price on a particular amp.

NSL and NSL Junior

BC 1022 and 'N' Series Amplifiers a new development within the Blue Circle line. All are solid state but none has the sonic signature of that breed. All are slightly less warm and more transparent than Blue Circle hybrids.

BC 1022. Benefitting from a technology trickle down (mainly its input stage) from the top of the ?N? line, the NSL, the BC1022 is a 120 watt stereo amp which, used with an appropriate solid state amp (like the BC109), produces a somewhat purer and clearer sound that we?ve heard from Blue Circle up ?til now. It also puts out over four times the power of the NSL. Among the four new amps, the BC1022 is distinguished by a firm low-end grip and a subtle and beguiling bit of warmth that contributes to a remarkable sense of intimacy through the midrange. It sounds great on both the JMR Abscissas and Offrandes. Clearly the best value of the four, it sells for $4795.

NSP. The NSP is the result of Gilbert's attempt to see how much better he could make the BC 1022 within the space allowed in his larger (BC 200 series) cabinets. Power is around the same but capacitance is way up from 488,000uF to 5,600,000uF! It too makes use of the NSL front end and can sound like a sibling of the 1022; but it has its own distinctly different sound.

Moving from the BC 1022 to the NSP, using a pair of JMR Abscissas, the larger amp found things on recordings that neither the 1022 nor my beloved FtTH2 could find and delivered them with magical grace, clarity, and speed. It was a startling experience, as if someone had suddenly thrown open the windows. In the upper mids and treble, the NSP can be gorgeous. Reproduction of timbre in the lower midrange and upper bass can be spellbinding. In combination they give a whole new meaning to the concept of transparency. The NSP has less of the bass grip and sense of weight than the 1022. It also lacks its subtly beguiling midrange. It has less personality, less character. But it has the magic that more clarity -- especially timbral detail -- more focus, discipline, control, speed, precision, and a quieter background can bring. The breadth of tonal values is extraordinary.

Some listeners accustomed to a simpler, warmer sound will be willing to trade off what strikes me as the NSP's overall superiority for the less ambitious amp(s). I find listening to the FtTH2 and 1022 very pleasing on the Abscissas. But in the end, for me and my particular audio taste, it is no contest. On the matter of bass, the NSP won?t get more bass out of your speakers than they have. It is not a particularly meaty sounding machine. But, as I found on Erik Traffaz's Bending New Corners, where the acoustic bass near shook my 5000 cubic foot living room, it will get all of the honest bass that's on a CD and that your speakers can reproduce. And the quality of the bass can be stunning. I would say it is true, honest bass.

Looking over my comparative listening notes on the NSP, the words that come up most often are "beautiful" and ?interesting.? The NSP made some of my recordings sound more beautiful; it made all of them sound more interesting. I wanted to hear them again. I wanted to hear more CD's. I was pleased, sometimes really turned on -- and interested. Interested, fascinated, and intrigued.

But again, I can see how listeners could go either way on this. Some may not want to give up the 1022's particular virtues for those of the NSP; others will laugh and say, ?Are you nuts? Listen to the different textures of the different viols in Purcell's Suite for Viols. Listen to how the NSP clarifies the bass. Listen to how real and present everything sounds.? All true. $9,995.

NSL and NSL Junior. In the world of amplifiers, these two lower power solid state amps are unique, so far as I know, in generating their output from a great many op amps wired in parallel. The upside of this approach is an extraordinary gain in control, subtlety, and refinement -- with no sacrifice in overall response from bottom to top. The downside, for those who consider it such, is that their output power is 28 and 25 watts into 8 ohms respectively. Both amps can be supplied with additional power on special order, but this requires many more op amps. From my listening experience here and from the two reviews I?ve read, you should be sure you need extra power before even considering that option: they don?t sound anything like 25/28 watt amps is what I?m saying. I would be comfortable pairing them with any speaker of around 92 dB or more, maybe even something less sensitive in a smallish room. Tocaro 40's and 42's and Reynaud Abscissas come immediately to mind, though the latter seem supremely happy on the NSP.

The NSL amps sound like a cousin of Crimson 640 monoblocks (175 watts!), but what distinguishes the Blue Circle amp is its slightly more liquid, sonorous, and engaging quality -- like a Blue Circle amp at its ideal best: while maintaining the right amount of objectivity to get all of the information it's fed, it draws you in and thrives on innuendos. It relishes and celebrates the body of instruments, preferring beauty to the bite of the Crimson amp, for example.

I have yet to hear the NSL senior but Gilbert says the full NSL is "a bit fuller, rounder and warmer and has a little more kick in the bottom."

NSL, Junior. $15,000. NSL, $19,500.

Digital to Analogue Converters

Blue Circle's best dacs are the most honest I've heard and do their best to tell us that digital will be around for along time. 


BC 509, 507, 505. A relatively new series of affordable dacs that are already receiving high praise from customers. Stay tuned. $1205, $2195, $4750.


BC 501ob with optional purple-heart walnut faceplate.

BC 501, BC501ob, BC501ob LOC. The ob version, with its extermal power supply, can hold its own with any dac I have heard, for as much as three times its price. Dynamic, spacious, clear, physical, and smooth, it presents music with natural presence and authority. Instruments have has their true character and full weight through this all-solid-state dac. Compared with Audio Note tubed dacs, the 501ob gives the impression of greater transparency but less harmonic enrichment: it is clear from corner to corner like a Leica lens; and it has more natural texture and backbone The Audio Note dacs prioritize beauty, sounding sweeter, a bit softer, harmonically richer. Which you prefer will be entirely a matter of personal audio preference. Both work extraordinarily well.

The LOC version expands on all of the standard 501ob's virtues in the same ways all of Blue Circle's various power supply and capacitor upgrades do in other Blue Circle components. Essentially more ease, dynamic headroom, and realism.

Match your Blue Circle dac with an Audio Note CDT 2 II, CDT 3, CDT 4, or even a CDT 5 transport and you’ve got a great digital front end. I have yet to hear the baby dac. Price for BC 501 $4780, the 501ob for $8630, 501ob LOC for $11,500. The basic  501 can be ordered with outputs for the addition of the ob external power supply at a later date for an addtional $350.


Blue Circle Line Conditioners

Blue Circle’s Music Ring line conditioners have been around for a while now and do a very creditable job. I have used an MR800 in the past and was pleased with it. But I wanted more, so I brought in an Audience AdeptResponse and got a LOT more. I got more of everything I wanted but also an uninvited boost in testosterone. I liked that – it improved the performance of both my Blue Circle and Manley amps, so I didn’t complain. In its new, revised version it is even better and has less testosterone, good enough to merit an award from me on Positive Feedback for 2007. But.

BC 6000, BC 6020

But, in late fall of 2007, I heard the BC6000. And the AdeptResponse had to leave. The BC conditioner made both my Blue Circle and Manley amps sound better still, but this time in the areas of clarity, refinement, and beauty, which are important to me. On my Audio Note M6 preamp and Neiro monoblocks, I got more ambient information and a noticeable increase in musical energy. This is the best piece of line-conditioning equipment I’ve heard and given the price of the competition, it is a steal. It is so much better than the Music Rings that I’m not even going to talk about them any longer. Go directly to the BC6000, in either the six, twelve, or fourteen outlet versions, and don’t look back. Probably the most bang for the buck in the Blue Circle line. $1975, $2560, and $2680 respectively.

Of course you could also jump directly to the new BC6020! More filtering, more everything good. $2995.

Crimson Electroncs and Audio Cable

Crimson Cable

I have always considered the words ?neutral? and ?uncolored? too puritanical to characterize the sound of those surprisingly few components that let the sound of instruments come across to us with absolute, uncoated, unenriched directness, which trust the information they receive absolutely. Their sound is simply too satisfying for joyless adjectives.

Audio Note audio cable, while not entirely innocent, enables Audio Note components to deliver the refined and beautiful Audio Note signature sound that many love and admire. I have learned that it's something most folks don?t want to mess with. Even otherwise first rate line conditioners can screw it up. But for Blue Circle and Reynaud, I have found a cable that reveals different virtues. I say a cable, not a line of cable because there is only one ?model? and the speaker cable and interconnects come off the same reel: they are identical except for termination. I find that encouraging.

Crimson cable, made in the UK by Crimson (http://www.crimsonelectronics.com), alters my BC/JMR systems? personality: I have the sense that I am hearing the quality of instruments more clearly. Apparently that's the kind of thing people who are new to Crimson say about it, whatever gear they're using it on and whatever cable they come to it from. The tactile quality of the sound, an almost visible sense of timbre, flies out of my Reynauds. Clarity is too modest a term to describe what we hear. Initially I thought it was a tad light-weight, that the Crimson might be trading off weight for clarity -- another thing newcomers to Crimson say about it, for a little while. And then we realize, as we've learned before, that the clearer bass gets, the lighter it initially seems. A double bass is plucked, a bass drum thwacked, and suddenly it's all there. It's just not there when it's not there. The air around the instruments is clear rather than thick; it's clear and charged with energy as it is in a great listening venue.

This is cable that seems to understand better where BC and JMR in particular want to go; and it lets them go there as I've never heard before. John Geisen of Wellington Audio, my JMR dealer in Florida, who introduced me to Crimson and who also sells Audio Note (and Quad, Naim, and some other lines), tells me it has the same effect on all of his other non Audio Note gear as well. He too is reluctant to mess with his Audio Note system.

I would say, now that I've been living with Crimson in my BC/JMR systems for a while (including use as a digital interconnect) and comparing it with Audio Note Pallas, Lexus, Sootto and Sogon, that where Audio Note cables tend to be more fulsome and weighty (Lexus), more refined and liquid (Pallas, Sogon, Sootto), and harmonically richer (all four), Crimson is clear, fast, immediate, tactile, trim, direct, ?naturally warm,' and airy. As I've said somewhere else, Audio Note cable sometimes gives us the sense we are coming to music from the inside; Crimson comes from the outside, capturing the color, details, and textures that live on the surface of instrumental sound, enabling us to recognize them. Crimson is also wonderfully dynamic. I could not have characterized Audio Note cable as especially rich and refined had I not heard Crimson. Audio can be like that. Through contrast, differences can reveal character, though, alas, it is always relative character! The difference between Audio Note and Crimson is something you really have to hear and you really should hear. As I often say about differences of this kind, which you prefer will tell you more about who you are than what ?the truth? is. My ears tell me Audio Note cable is the appropriate cable in an AN system if you prefer the traditional sound of that marque and don?t want to risk changing it. But I urge you to at least consider trying some Crimson there, if only to discover what else Audio Note gear can do. I no longer recommend Audio Note cable for Blue Circle and JMR gear. Crimson seems to understand it better at a far more attractive price.

Almost needless to say, Crimson cable also enables Tocaro loudspeakers to be what they are. Tocaros and Crimson seem to have come from the same quality of imagination. It would be unthinkable now to put any other cable on my Tocaros. Almost needless to say, Crimson cable also enables Tocaro loudspeakers to be what they are. Tocaros and Crimson seem to have come from the same quality of imagination. It would be unthinkable now to put any other cable on my Tocaros than Crimson.

Crimson cables are excellent. The presentation is so natural and so right. That cable allows all the emotion through without sounding the least bit romantic. In a way, it was a bit like the time I moved from 300b amplification to 45s. The tone is right on – no smearing, no blending, no overhang; perfect. I was worried that ‘clear’ was going to sound analytical, or hi-fi, or tipped-up, or anaemic, or aggressive, but none of that is the case.

Among the astonishing moments last night was listening to the solo in “Dazed and Confused”: I didn’t hear a guitar, or even a guy playing a guitar, I heard Jimmy Page playing a guitar – right there in front of me. This happened many times – for the first time I heard/saw the musician and not just the instrument.

Crimsons also have the ability to get ‘space’ correct. I’m assuming that they do this because they get timing right. I’m also assuming that thick cables and multi-strand cables can ‘get in their own way’ and when they do, one of the things that happens is images and the music projecting from them get sort of stuck at the line of scrimmage along the speaker plane. I was listening to Beck’s ‘Sea Change’ album and I swear there was music wrapping around behind my head. The Crimsons give music freedom in space – and not at the expense of making the music sound ethereal and otherworldly. DH, Toronto. Customer

Single-Ended Stereo Interconnect Cables with E.T.I./Eichmann Bullet Plugs:
(prices are for a pair of cables and include termination)

0.5 meter:$ 320.00
1.0 meter:$ 360.00
1.5 meter:$ 400.00
2.0 meter:$ 440.00
2.5 meter:$ 480.00
3.0 meter:$ 520.00

Balanced Stereo Interconnect Cables with Neutrik XLR connectors:
(prices are for a pair of cables and include termination)

0.5 meter: $ 457.00
1.0 meter: $ 537.00
1.5 meter: $ 617.00
2.0 meter: $ 697.00
3.0 meter: $ 857.00
4.0 meter: $ 1017.00
5.0 meter: $ 1177.00

Stereo Loudspeaker Cables with M.C. banana connectors or E.T.I./Eichmann spade connectors.
(Prices are for stereo pairs, double price for biwired)

6 feet: $ 486.40
8 feet $ 535.20
10 feet: $ 584.00
12 feet: $ 632.80
15 feet: $ 706.00
20 feet: $ 828.00
25 feet: $ 950.00
30 feet: $ 1072.00

Crimson Electronics


CS710 solid state preamplifier. CDS640E solid state monoblock amplifier


It is a good thing that there have always been a few brave souls among audio designers who cling to the belief that solid state electronics done absolutely right can reproduce the most accurate and most truly beautiful sound. Even some of those who are known for their tube gear have been known to harbor secret dreams of a perfect amp made of sand.

Enter, Peter More and Brian Powell of Crimson electronics in the UK. To date, I have auditioned their CS 710 premier preamp and 175 watt CSD 640E monoblock amplifier pictured above and been deeply impressed. The principal qualities of this gear are the clarity & definition, speed, and the overall natural sound we recognize from Crimson cable. The latter is not something we generally associate with solid state, so it’s worth repeating: the sound of this gear is both clear and natural.  As a whole sonic package, this Crimson gear makes the dramatically compelling case for solid state I have heard.

First impressions can be -- may well be -- misleading. If, like me, you come to Crimson gear from superb single ended triode electronics or state of the art hybrids, which provide, in their different ways and degrees, fullness and an overall sense of weight and harmonic richness, your first impression of Crimson may be that something’s missing.  That is essentially what I heard from Crimson, at first. But once the gear had time to settle in and make its case, I was brought to consider the following:

Does live music sound harmonically rich and blended?  Is an orchestra a wall of sound or an army of instruments? Who should blend them, our systems or our ears/brains? When a solo bassoon enters, does it glide in or break the air with a startling newness? Are ease and speed compatible? How about beauty and speed? Do violins always beguile us with ribbons of sound or sometimes come at us with an acute mixture of brilliant beauty and unrefined rawness? And if the latter, is that the sound we want in our living rooms? Do cellos go for the chest or both the chest and the skull? Do low brasses rumble or snarl? Can they do both? In real life, are whispers generally clear and articulate or mainly rustling air. You see how this is going. When the priority is the sound of live music and reality rather than domestic tranquility, these are the kinds of questions that come up. And the answers you give will steer you toward or away from Crimson electronics.  For some, Crimson will not provide sufficient comfort; for others, it is likely to be a revelation. It can quite literally modify the sound of other gear you are accustomed to considering your reference. As T.S. Eliot warned us, the creation of something truly new can change the ideal pre-existing order our ears and minds have created.

Crimson electronics do not enrich, fill out, round off, blend. They achieve beauty but are not solicitous: they do not sweeten, add ‘a touch of soul,’ a calorie or two of warmth, or a touch more body.  They are exciting: they have that elusive quality often called drive or jump, the former in rock and the latter in Bach cantatas. They are wonderfully clear -- they can search through and sort out recordings, finding all kinds of interesting things in them. They are unaffectedly beautiful, and perfectly balanced, from bottom to top, especially if you have the good sense to plug them directly into your AC outlets with stock Volex AC cords, bypassing even very good line conditioners and after-market power cords. They capture the leading, defining edges of instruments before securing the body: they are tactile. They are not at all bright, nor are they dark. They are neither noticeably warm nor cool. They seem to give us everything on the recording but they do not exaggerate anything -- they are a window not a magnifying glass. They make us feel we are looking directly at the musicians and their instruments -- there is nothing between them and us, not even the bloom of air many have long believed essential. They seem to snap things into focus, making many other presentations seem...well unfocused.

On a good recording, they will dazzle you with clarity and grip. They make some of my best recordings sound startlingly clear. On weak ones, while Crimson will not compensate or airbrush, it remarkably, seems to see around the compromises,  finding the good stuff that’s there under the junk.  Some older recordings seem to take on new life, especially LP’s coming through the CS710‘s really good phono stage. All in all, I'll have to say that whatever indulgences Crimson electronics may lack, the cumulative effect of their virtues can be nearly overwhelming. They have the power to change ideas about what definitive is.

So where does Crimson fit into the Amherst Audio picture? Crimson electronics offer a clear alternative to Blue Circle and Audio Note, sounding as different from both as the other two sound different from each other. All three lines deliver what I consider superb overall balance and exemplary clarity, but each has its priorities and creates different ’sound worlds.’ You can adapt to any one of them but switching between them can be destabilizing! They take three distinct and effective approaches with very little overlap. For those who especially prize clarity and excitement, would like to not deal with tubes, need a considerable amount of power, and have limited space for components, Crimson may be the choice.

The CS 710 preamp has five inputs, including, as I say, a superb phono stage that comes with moving coil setting as standard (!), which can be reset to moving magnet. The remote selects inputs, controls both volume and balance, and mutes with no audible degradation of sound quality, a feat in itself. Both preamp and mono-block amps are very small, together barely taking up as much space as a conventional preamp. All three parts are smaller than shoe boxes unless you have very small feet. All three units measure 4.25” x 3.75” x 14.”


CS710 preamp, $6995. CSDS640E, $6000. Stay tuned for the new 50 watt 620E3 stereo amp coming soon, $3000.






Resolution CD Player.

Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center

For those who have been smitten by the sound of Crimson electronics and cable, there is another prize at hand. The Resolution Audio Cantata one-box CD player (actually all purpose music center with USB, Ethernet, and Toslink/AES/Coaxial digital inputs built in) has all of the virtues of the Crimson gear, complementing it beautifully. Completing it, you could say.

Again, it may be somewhat of a shock for those used to a richer, fuller sound of a front end like the Audio Note transport coupled with either Blue Circle or Audio Note dacs. It may also sound a little light at first. But it will also likely sound captivating. That was the adjective I stuck on it first. When I thought ‘light,’ I turned up the volume a bit, listened for a while, and that concern disappeared. The air around instruments and voices is simply not thick: there is no humidity, none of the added harmonic enrichment many of us are accustomed to. It is almost as if Peter More and Brian Powell foresaw this player when they designed their Crimson electronics.

It is “captivating” partly because it has great speed and immediacy. It gives a system lips. Music leaps out of the speakers in all of its natural detail. Instruments in the back row are as clear as the soloists up front: not unrealistically projected forward, just clearly located. The Cantata does verisimilitude where Audio Note digital favors beauty and Blue Circle, physicality. Those who prize verisimilitude above all else will love the Cantata. Its bass impact and clarity are also very impressive.

The Cantata loves Crimson electronics. It also tends to clear the air somewhat when used with other gear, in my house Blue Circle and Audio Note. There is a change of audio climate. It takes the effects of adding Crimson cable to a Blue Circle system another step away from the latter’s classic warmth and fullness toward greater immediacy and transparency. For some listeners this will require an adjustment to appreciate. You will have to decide, again, how much reality you want in your living room. ‘Musicality’ has many meanings.

There is no confusing a Cantata front end with an Audio Note or Blue Circle front end. Three different perspectives, which as I frequently say, will tell you more about who you are than what is true. $6500.

 

Tocaro Loudspeakers


Models 30D 40D 42D 45D

 

Tocaros, direct descendants of the legendary Rehdekos, are a new line at Amherst Audio. I believe, based on extended listening time with the three principal Tocaros -- 40E's, the 42E's, and 45E's, that they are a significant and wonderful departure from the current world of speakers. Amherst Audio has the 40E's and 42E's here for demonstration.

Tocaros sound distinctly different from Reynaud or Audio Note speakers. They pursue and achieve startling natural clarity, coherence, and speed while making no attempt to warm, cool, soften, enrich, refine, fill out, or thicken the information they receive. Their designer has a singular belief that the naked truth faithfully reproduced will be enough, will be more than we are used to imagining. Coming to them from Audio Notes and Reynauds, they can either sound honest to a fault, discomfiting ears accustomed to the often more fulsome presentation of traditional speakers; or they can sound as if you're been in a forest and suddenly come into a clearing. Strikingly direct, more so than most of us are accustomed to in our homes, Tocaros sound like...Crimson electronics and cable! Unlike JMR Offrandes, for example, they do not sound like monitors of recordings so much as monitors of performances. The Tocaros place the performers absolutely in the room, but the results are not assertive or especially intimate. We are not in the first 2-3 rows with Jean Marie and his Offrandes; but we are in the performing space and nothing is between us and the musicians. And unlike Audio Note speakers, which I have singled out for their remarkable ability to do innuendos, Tocaros do inflections. It is the designer's credo that if you get the inflections perfectly, the innuendos will come naturally. His speakers tend to bear him out, though Audio Note fans will tend to differ!

Many of our favorite speakers generalize --- in an attempt to take us closer to our (or their designer's) personal ideal. And we choose the generalization we prefer. Tocaros go in the other direction: they specify, in order to take us closer to an impersonal ideal -- reality -- in an attempt to persuade us that at least in the reproduction of music, this is the better and ultimately more rewarding choice. They force the question of whether we want the particular unaugmented sounds of musicians and their instruments in our living rooms. They excel at what I consider the most important test of a speaker: they can almost make mediocre music sound interesting! Because they get the speed and timbre of the instruments we love so accurately. While the 40's and 42's (not entirely sure about the 42's) do not go down into the 30Hz's, do not quite make the walls tremble, their bass reproduction, notably of cellos, acoustic basses, and percussion is formidable and wonderfully accurate, causing me to rethink the conventional wisdom about the relationship between speaker size and bandwidth on the one hand and actual bass performance on the other. What will prove more important to many is that they know exactly what instruments sound like. Not what we sometimes wish they sounded like but what they do. In my experience this is a remarkable feat for any speaker, let alone what are crossover-less stand-mounts.

The unique ability of Tocaros to recreate the true sound of performing instruments can make them addictive. We come to value immoderately this particular thing they do more than some other things we once thought essential. To crave it, to need it. And then it can become central and definitive. It can make other speakers move over. This may have something (a lot?) to do with their being crossover-less speakers, I don?t know. I?ve had very little experience with single driver and crossover-less, full range speakers and none of it has been very appealing: too stark, too conspicuously limited in bandwidth, faults which the Tocaros do not share.

Comparing 40E's and 42E's, the latter with their laminate tweeters and somewhat larger enclosures project a larger, fuller, and more spacious image. The low end feels a bit deeper and more authoritative. The top end is more open and refined. Orchestral music has more body, sweep, and bass clarity; on good recordings that aren't miked too closely, strings now have a sheen. Everything else has a bit more presence, feels a little meatier in some cases, a little more delicate in others. The 40E's, being true single driver speakers, seem more absolutely coherent. As a result, they have their own kind of magic, a quality that can make their limitations almost disappear. Some listeners may well prefer the smaller speakers for these qualities.

Tocaros are speakers with their own priorities which, while they may be the right ones, may not initially be yours. They do not take all prisoners on first hearing. My house is still happily full of slightly softer & more forgiving and fuller Reynauds; and of more conspicuously beautiful Audio Notes. But the Tocaros have found a permanent place here. Come to them with a clear head and open mind and at the very least, they will mess with you, I promise you that.

For more information, go to: Tocaro

Pricing with proprietary stands:

  • Tocaro 30's: $5500
  • Tocaro 40's: $9500
  • Tocaro 42's: $14,000
  • Toocaro 45's: $28,000



A Brief Essay on Digital and Analogue Sound

Digital

Digital, since the ballyhoo and bravado of its introduction in the late 1980’s, has spent most of its twenty plus year history, at least in the world of high end audio, fighting (or defending itself from) what many analogue fans characterize as ‘the problem of digital.’ Most agree that even at its best, which of late can be very good indeed, digital CD’s take somewhat of an analytic slant on things. If we like it, we hear it as stunning clarity and transparency and are drawn to the crispness of its leading edges. We admire its speed and transient response. Its fans tend to call all of this "accuracy to source." Its critics hear instead a relative starkness, a lack of roundness and fullness; a sense that instruments have had some of their rich timbre stripped away. At its worst, which is rare these days, it comes through as edginess and/or glare. Those who speak of digital’s presentation as having a ‘problem’ attribute it to many things – too low a sampling rate and jitter chief among them. Based on my experience with some extremely good CDR’s made by recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, I have come to believe that what the critics of digital are talking about can be attributed at least in part to the manufacturing process, which is why so many tweak treatments to CD’s are at least to some degree effective. Recording engineers are frequently dismayed by the degeneration in quality from their masters to the CD’s we buy. Optrix, Auric Illumiunator, Vivid, Bedini’s Clarifier, even copying commercial discs onto CDR’s all seem in varying degrees to relieve edginess and glare, softening things up a bit and rounding them off appealingly. Upsampling, noise-shaping, and more radical nostrums aimed at CD’s allegedly too modest sampling rate strike me as less successful. Having heard redbook CD’s sound extremely good without any of this (and somewhat artificial with it) persuades me they are dead ends. Filtering, in both the analogue and digital domains on the premise that distortion is the root of ‘the problem’ have also demonstrated to me, through its absence in Audio Note dacs, that it too is a false path.

Audio Note. Blue Circle and Resolution Audio digital are virtually free of the qualities critics object to in the medium. And on truly good CD’s, treated with one of the elixirs – my latest find is Nanotec Systems’ Intro Project 8500 CD-DVD Coating Liquid - the ‘problem of digital’  seems no problem at all. In my house we find ourselves choosing music, not media.

Analogue

The truth behind the truism ‘if you have to ask yourself whether or not you’re in love, you’re not,’ is that, like grace to which it often likened, love comes unbidden. This is the kind of talk we frequently hear in talk about vinyl. It is true that with CD’s, we sometimes find ourselves reaching out with a willful effort at belief. The music itself can sometimes seem to have a forced quality about it.  With most vinyl, we more often find ourselves in a passive mode of acceptance. There is a perceptible ease about the proceedings and the issue of ‘belief’ seldom comes up. What does come up is a tendency to talk like this!

This lack in CD’s of ease and solicitousness, what some call appropriately "liquidity" in contrast to the somewhat dry sound they attribute to digital comes across to digital fans – to repeat myself – as objectivity or transparency. It can sometimes sound like that. But extended time spent listening to live music tends to challenge this belief. CD’s almost deathly silence and uncanny separation of instruments can sometimes give digital reproduction a distant, unorganic, unworldly, astral character. Especially on pianos and most especially on harpsichords. It takes one hell of a good digital front end to handle, let alone capture the beauty of, a harpsichord. And then there is the difference between hearing the initial breaking of silence by an instrument – the first vibrations of the air which precede the impact – and the last vibrations fading away; and not hearing them. Coming to an analogue LP from a CD, this first arrival and final departure can sound like touches of softness, for which vinyl is both praised and criticized. Because CD’s generally don’t capture either of these as well as vinyl, dithering notwithstanding, they deliver a crispness, for which they are both praised and criticized. A clarinet’s reed must start out at very few milli-Bell, even if it only remains there for a millisecond. That is part of why we find even the most raucous clarinet appealing – it enters on a cloud. We notice that. We sometimes call it "air." Digital adherents call it euphony or color. Its adherents tell us it is actually the difference between what a real clarinet (or violin) sounds like contrasted with a brilliant but incomplete imitation of one. This aspect of real sound reproduction can be mimicked by playing with output curves, filtering, up- and over-sampling, richer and softer output devices. But once you grow accustomed to the real thing or an excellent analogue of it, the vinyl fans tell us, you will not be fooled.

And then there is the sheer physicality and meatiness that many hear in analogue sound. Peter Qvortrup calls it "the medium." Music coming from an analogue recording has
avoirdupois
, a substance, a body, a roundness that we generally miss in digital.

Closely related to this physicality and the entry and exit quality I spoke of above and perhaps drawing on them both, is beauty – not prettiness but the savor, the quality of the sound of musical instruments that we respond to immediately at concerts of live music. This is the aspect of sound that makes even the raucous clarinet appealing in the midst of its rancor. It is what audiophiles are referring to when they praise an audio system for being ‘engaging’ or ‘involving.’ It is a feeling of satisfaction. Exceptional digital recordings can get some of this quality. I have heard it in some of the record engineering of Tony Faulkner and Da-Hong Seetoo. Good analogue recordings do seem to get it as a matter of course. It is, in the end, what music lovers come to analogue for.

Bad vinyl? Some LP’s can have a peculiar brittleness or dryness and also a hemmed in quality that reminds me of bad digital actually, though without bad digital’s excessive assertiveness or brightness. Only the most radically sentimental of audiophiles will deny that there is such a thing as bad vinyl. Vinyl is not a holy material: even analogue recording requires good engineering.

Gear? I have heard very few analogue rigs. My own of a generation ago was a Linn LP12 with an Itok arm and Kharma cartridge. I loved it at the time, or rather took it for granted. It had a seemingly natural warmth we all raved about. Next was an Audio Note TT2 with an Arm3/Vx, S-4 step-up and IO1 moving coil cartridge. Great rig, great value. Then a 20 year old Voyd Reference with a new Audio Note AN-1s/ANSgon arm mounted on it with an IO Gold cartridge. Twice as good. Both the TT2 and the Voyd sounded better to me than (my aural memory of) the Linn, mainly in seeming faster and more resolving. I am now enjoying an upgraded Audio Note TT2 Deluxe with external power supply and couldn't be happier.

All of this said, I will not be giving up my new Resolution Audio Cantata, Audio Note CDT 4 transport and Audio Note 4.1 Signature and Blue Circle 501ob LOC dacs in this lifetime. There is a great deal of music, mainly by contemporary musicians and composers, which is simply not available on vinyl. Also, unless I am in super critical A/B mode, digital in my house is so good at minimizing the ‘problem of digital,’ I am only occasionally aware of it. I wonder what a CDT6 sounds like...

SYNERGY and UPGRADING

SYNERGY

Granted all of my talk about individual designers and designs, AMHERST AUDIO is more and more about system synergy. The search I have carried out over the past decade has been for the most natural and emotionally convincing sounding components but, increasingly, also, for the combination of components that expresses the most natural and whole sound.

Synergy outside of audio means the process whereby two or more substances work together to achieve an effect of which each is individually incapable. Its root means literally ‘working together:’ from son or syn and ergon. In audio, the term has come to mean something like energy or work moving in the same direction, toward the same ends. And presumably achieving them more effectively because of this shared effort. Some systems achieve satisfactory results by having components working against each other, by achieving some sort of balance of opposing forces, usually with the help of ‘corrective’ cabling. I have owned several and heard many of these systems; and as exciting as some of them have been, they lack the ease and confidence of systems whose components are all going in the same direction. Unanimity in preference to debate.

Most of the components I sell will, used wisely, sound quite good in many other systems. Blue Circle's tubed preamps, for example, are legendary for breathing musical life into systems with other people's all-solid-state amps. I know for a fact that Reynauds perform well with Audiomat integrated tube amps, and even with Plinius and Bryston solid state separates. Audio Note front ends appear to be the sort of beginning that no system can foul up. And Audio Note cable is legendary for bringing peace on earth and good will wherever it goes. But. But if you were to assemble a system from these same components, with an eye to synergy rather than peace-keeping, I suspect you would emerge much happier.

For example, while one could mate Audio Note electronics with Reynaud speakers satisfactorily, it soon becomes apparent that whereas the Audio Note gear is working toward grace, eloquence, and refinement, the Reynaud speakers want to break out, kick up the dust. They feel unnaturally tamed, held back. You are hearing a workable marriage but not a particularly happy or peaceful one. Then you hook up a Blue Circle or Crimson amp and everything changes: the Reynauds break free and commence to dance, and the whole room rocks joyfully. Even string quartets through a Blue Circle/Reynaud combination have a more robust quality that feels like a shared point of view about music rather than a compromise or decision by committee. 

A comparable ‘situation’ arises when you (as I did) put a splendidly eloquent Audio Note M6 preamp on powerful, incisive Blue Circle AG8000 hybrid monoblock amps. Initially everything sounds terrific: we have both grace and power – all of that iron fist in the velvet glove baloney. And then, gradually, sure enough you can hear the dissension. The two components are working against each other, producing a dramatic but not a natural result. We have sonic not musical drama, an artificial construct. The initial excitement pales before an instinct to call in a referee. Some may prefer an Audio Note M6 preamp to a Blue Circle AG3000 preamp or vice versa, just as some prefer Apollo, some Dionysus. But making the god dance with the faun does not enable either to perform to its advantage.

Audio synergy is achieved when a system is made up of components informed by the same view of what reproduced music ought to sound like, components that are the result of the same design philosophy, such that neither iron nor velvet is required. The supreme example of this phenomenon in my experience is Audio Note, primarily because the same design team controls every link in the audio chain. Every component, beginning with both analogue and digital front ends, through cabling to electronics, and on to the speakers flows from a single approach to musical reproduction. The approach or philosophy if you prefer, is a belief that the simplicity and purity of the signal path so as to maintain the integrity of the information, is the best route to whole musical truth. The DAC’s do not alter the signal they receive: neither do they up-sample nor filter. The turntables use several strong motors driving light platters because heavy platters store energy thereby restricting dynamic energy and clarity. The electronics are single-ended, run in Class A, use directly heated triodes, use tube rectifiers, and use no feedback – in a coordinated effort to keep the signal whole and unaltered. There is no wave reconstruction involved, as there is in push-pull designs. The speakers are two-ways with broad front baffles, which, the designer of the Snell speaker on which they are based discovered, offer the truest reinforcement of speaker output. Setting a modest-sized Audio Note two-way speaker in a corner, so that both the walls of the room and the speakers own front baffle naturally reinforce the bass, results in astonishingly deep and clear bass.

Improvement (upgrading) very simply involves better parts and more pure materials, namely silver and better materials used as windings in the transformers, not new design wrinkles. The most expensive Audio Note E speaker is visually indistinguishable from the least expensive E. The only differences are inside. From the M3 to the M6 preamp, the cabinets and controls are identical. Again, as Emily Dickinson tells us, the inside is where the meaning is. One can put an Audio Note front end into a non-Audio Note system and also use Audio Note cable judiciously in such systems. But when you insert Audio Note gear farther down the chain of a system composed of other gear, something fundamental is lost. The synergistic chain is broken. Unanimity is gone and debate begins.

Blue Circle’s Gilbert Yeung understands that controlling the entire audio chain is the only sure route to synergy and so, among other ventures, he has already designed and marketed three DACs to complement his electronics and is hard at work dreaming up an even more ambitious one as I write. It will be interesting to hear what happens when that young genius perfects this move.  Jean Marie Reynaud seems content making speakers. So at the moment achieving synergy with Blue Circle, and Reynaud, is up to you all. It is worth the effort, especially if the Audio Note presentation is too civilized for you!

 

UPGRADING

The Hyperbola

The key to improving a synergistic audio system that has ‘your sound,’ the presentation of music that seems most real and most satisfying to you, is not changing it but making it better at what it already does well. This route will not produce dramatic alteration but incremental improvement. That is because the direction of improvement in audio is not up so much as over: you are trying to get closer and closer to the sound of live music, which you are already approximating. You are, to borrow an apt image from mathematics, moving closer to the y-axis. Your trajectory is a hyperbola. This truth is disappointing to the kind of audiophile who is in it for sonic thrills, who wants to hear something startlingly new for every new dollar spent. But it will ultimately be more satisfying to those of you in it for the sound of music. Getting ever closer to the real thing can be musically thrilling. Getting 15% closer to the real sound of a violin – more of the resonance of the instrument’s wooden body, of the almost physical sensation of the bow on the strings – gets up into our sinuses with pleasure. Getting more thwack of the bow on the strings of an acoustic bass rather than a slightly vague thrum can seem like all the world when the musical passage depends on it for impact. This is what genuine upgrades give us: more violin, more bass, more sax. And more Anita O’Day!

System Balance I

Another valuable piece of the synergy and upgrading puzzle is that one needs to maintain balance across a system to make genuine progress. Upgrading electronics to the extent that they get ahead of your source (turntable, digital transport, dac) will not improve the system. It will generally not sound better. The new amplifier will simply give you a clearer view into the relative shortcomings of your source. It will be doing its proper job. Likewise, improving your speakers beyond the capability of your amplifier to drive them effectively and without distortion will almost invariably make your system sound worse. If you can’t upgrade your system as a whole at one time, it is generally best to begin with the source, so that the improvements can be passed down the chain. And the same holds for upgrading cable: begin at the source. You’d be amazed at what a little bit of Sogon silver interconnect between a transport and dac can do; and appalled at what it will do if introduced farther down the chain first.

This makes perfect sense but it not generally how audiophiles proceed. They tend to favor speaker upgrades first, which are admittedly sexier, But if the speakers are truly better rather than just different, starting with them will likely prove a disappointment. They can, after all, only reproduce what they’re fed.

System Balance II


Another kind of balance is achieved by keeping the treble, midrange, and bass levels of a system from getting ahead of one another. An economical system that is in sonic balance will outperform one that has extraordinary treble but an overly solicitous midrange or punchy but unclear bass. The best demonstration of this I know is listening to a very good FM station playing classical music. If the equipment in use is sonically balanced, the results can be surprisingly satisfying, more so than from an expensive home music system that’s out of balance. ‘Live’ music, unless the hall is screwed up, has perfect sonic balance: that is our standard. It is neither bright nor dark, cool nor warm, standoffish nor cloyingly charming. If your music system has something approaching perfect balance, you’re halfway there, maybe more than halfway. If you can apply adjectives of color, relative temperature, or emotion to your system, it’s likely out of balance. You may well like it out of balance: most systems lean one (or two) ways because we are drawn to their resultant personalities. We are, after all, human beings with our human preferences. But it’s probably a good idea to know what they are. The unexamined life and all that.

SYNERGISTIC SYSTEMS

Here are a handful of synergistic systems I know of at first hand which provide an example of what I?m talking about. All are very good at what they do. All are assembled with at least one eye to value. One of the systems, except for the CD player, is all-Audio Note, the others mixtures of Blue Circle, Resolution Audio, JM Reynaud, newcomer Tocaro, and Crimson. These systems, most of which can be upgradable or customized at (relatively) modest cost, have different virtues and are among the best I know. For those who want their Audio Note systems pure, that company offers a full line of CD players, digital transports, and dacs -- most of which cost more than the Cantata. Also plenty of melifluous Audio Note cabling for a lot more than Crimson.

All of these systems can accommodate vinyl at a reasonable additional cost with either a built in phono stage (Audio Note amp and Crimson preamp) or stand alone phono stages (Blue Circle) and with one of several Audio Note turntable/arm/cartridge combinations.

Level 1: $15,000 - $22,500
1-A.

Resolution Audio Cantata CD player
Blue Circle DAR (with active gain and Shallco volume control)
JM Reynaud Bliss Silvers on JMR Magic Stands
Crimson interconnects and speaker cable
$15,000
Upgrades:
Audio Note OTO Signature + $1400
Blue Circle FtTH2 + $2,000
JM Reynaud Abscissas + $2400

1-B.

Resolution Audio Cantata
Audio Note OTO Signature
Audio Note K/SPe's on AN stands
Crimson interconnects and speaker cable
$17,000
Upgrade: Audio Note E/Spe HE + $5500


Level 2: $30,000-$36,000

Resolution Audio Cantata
Crimson 710 & 640 monoblocks
JM Reynaud Orféos or Tocaro 40's
Crimson interconnects & speaker cable
$30,000
Upgrade:
Second pair of 640's for Orféos +$6000


Level 3: $40,000 - $47,000

Resolution Cantata
Crimson 710 & (2 pr) 640 monoblocks
or Blue Circle NSL (+ $7000)
Tocaro 42's
Crimson interconnects and speaker cable
$40,000


Level 4: $60,000

Resolution Audio Cantata
Crimson 710 & (3 pr.) 640E monoblocks
Tocaro 45's
Crimson interconnects and tri-wired speaker cable
$60,000

REVIEWS

Equipment Reviews

As many of you know, the journey to Audio Note, Blue Circle, and Reynaud is chronicled in reviews on Enjoy the Music and Positive-Feedback, among others. I have attached links to the relevant reviews below.

Blue Circle AG3000 and AG8000: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/archives/
Blue Circle Music Rings: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/archives/
Blue Circle CS: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue10/system.htm  
Reynaud Offrandes, 1st Review: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/archives/
Reynaud Offrandes, 2nd Review: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue6/offrandes.htm  
Reynaud Twins: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue4/reynaudtwin.htm  
Reynaud Trentes: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue5/trente.htm  
Reynaud Concordes: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue7/concordes.htm  
Reynaud Arpeggiones: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue10/system.htm
Audio Note CDT TWO and DAC 4.1 balanced: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue8/audionote.htm  
Audio Note CDT ONE and DAC 1.1x Signature: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue10/system.htm  
Elrod Power Systems Signature power cord: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue5/elrodeps.htm  
Elrod Power Systems Statement power cord: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue9/elrod.htm
Audience Au 24 speaker cable: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue3/audienceau24.htm
Audience modified Sony NV999 CD/SACD player: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue6/audiencecd.htm  
TG Labs HSR speaker cable: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue4/hsr.htm
TG Lab 688 power cord: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue10/system.htm
TG Lab SLVR power cord: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/archives/  
Audience modified Sony NV999 CD/SACD player, upgraded model: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue12/sacd.htm
Audio Note CDT TWO transport with DAC One.1x Signature: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue12/sacd.htm

Music Reviews

Over the past few years, I have of necessity given up equipment reviewing (confluence of interest!) and taken up music reviewing instead. I bring to this writing more enthusiasm than musical knowledge and so offer it up mainly as news about current offerings in the mainly classical music recording world.

SPECIALS

I generally have some used and demo equipment available at deeper discounts.

Current stock:

Blue Circle BC3000II GZpz. Demo. Stainless steel faceplate, natural cherry knobs. $5000. ($10,996 new).

Blue Circle BC 204KQ 150 watt hybrid stereo amp with KQ upgrade. Demo. Curly maple and ebony faceplate. Around 200 hours on it. $5500. (c. $14,000 with new KQ). $10,000 for the pair.

Blue Circle BC501ob LOC. Demo. Blue Circle's best dac with external power supply and increased capacitance. Stainless steel faceplate, natural cherry knob. $5000. ($10,600 new).

Audio Note Sogon AC cables with Oyaide M1 and F1 premium connectors. Very light use as demos, under 20 hours. 2 meter cable, $3000 (new $7200). 1 meter cable, $1500 (new $3600).

Sales Policy

Most items sold by Amherst Audio are made to order. This means that orders once made cannot be cancelled after 48 hours; and that goods are not returnable unless defective. Defective items can be returned at the expense of Amherst Audio and payment will be refunded in full. Items damaged in shipping will be dealt with on a case by case basis in whatever way seems most sensible to both buyer and Amherst Audio. All equipment is shipped by Amherst Audio insured. Visa and Mastercard accepted.

 

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Photo credits: Yeung, Soundstage. Qvortrup, British Airways. Stephæn Harrell and Audio Asylum.

2013-07-23. Web site designed and managed by J. Perry