Beauty is Truth
People who characterize the sound of Audio Note gear as ‘analogue’ are not wrong. I can think of no other word that serves as well. Analogue prioritizes beauty, which is an essential attribute of live music, some would say the most important one. ‘Analogue’ is not as transparent, fast, or present as the best digital when coupled with the best solid state electronics. Those are also attributes of live music, equally essential to some listeners. There are audio companies who more or less agree with Audio Notes approach but none I’ve heard do it as well.
The secret is tact: understanding that analogue does not mean warm and cozy, it means beautiful the way live music is beautiful. This has to do with refinement — a subtle refinement applied with consummate tact that only becomes evident in contrast with other gear. Audio Note systems can make their competition sound…unfinished. Audio Note speakers are more transparent and less overtly charming than Classic Spendors, more present and less restrained than Harbeths, to cite their principal British brethren. There is also a pleasurable leanness (when have you ever heard leanness called pleasurable?) to most of their gear, a tautness that penetrates to the sonic core of recordings, especially with their “Signature” electronics. Note: live music does not sound loose or fat. Edges through Audio Note speakers are clear but tastefully attenuated, less so the more silver used in their wiring. Audio Note clarity has a humane glow to it. It is the only audio line I have ever heard referred to as beautiful.
Like the the body and natural warmth of Gilbert Yeung/JMR based systems, Audio Note beauty (there really is no better name for it) can be deeply and permanently addictive, irresistible. No one has ever called any other British speaker irresistible. The Audio Note sound is not dependent on triode tubes, single-endedness, or silver cabling; but it draws on all of them. And there is no single Audio Note sound. The 300B, EL 84, and 2A3 amps sound distinctly different from one another, though you would never mistake any of them for anyone else’s product.
Peter Qvortrup believes that most technological ‘advances’ in audio for the past couple of decades have served to put more between us and the essential beauty 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 missing the real beauty of 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, adding an attractive analogue flavor to them. 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 single ended 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 the Audio Note sound. 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 and Gilbert Yeung/JMR approaches are both extremely effective, and with most listeners the choice comes down to differences in priorities and taste.
Audio Note speakers provide an interesting alternative to Reynauds. Considered by many to be the perfection of the British sound, AN speakers make friends easily and tend to keep them. Their sound is more refined and less overtly physical than that of Reynauds. With Audio Note speakers we hear everything but are often aware of how pure 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 I01 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. 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 with external power supply, a IO1 cartridge, 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 lovely. Still more costly 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’s to arrive and was startled at how good it sounded. I’m also told the newer ISIS cable is very fine and it’s definitely time I had some here to audition more critically. Both Lexus and ISIS are all-copper cables with the same structure as the many, many times more expensive silver cables. Lexus and ISIS are 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. 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, though you will find more up to date information under their News section!
Audio Note has enriched its line of digital equipment extensively in the last few years. Currently there are seven (!) transports, five of which use the top loading Philips CD 12 Pro Drive. New to the line are the excellent entry level CDT Zero for under $2500 and top of the line CDT5 and CDT6, using tubes!
There are now five one-box (integrated) CD players, one of which incorporates 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 which has an optional external power supplies available; the TT3 Reference; the Half Reference; and a new TT3.
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 IO1 moving coil cartridge into the Arm 3, add an Audio Note step-up transformer if your phono preamps needs one, 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 available.
TT3 Just into production. I would expect that the boost in torque from the third motor will yield a quicker and more lively presentation. Stay tuned.
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.
CD 3.1x II. I can’t believe I’ve not heard this unit other than at shows, where it is often preferred to the more costly 4.1x. (Don’t quote me on this or I’ll lose my franchise!) Time to consider this, especially since I’ve already started recommending it…
CD4.1x. Audio Note’s top of the line 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.
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 are two in my family now!
CDT 1 II Front loading CD transport, Philips mechanism heavily Black Gated power supply, RCA and XLR outputs with custom Audio Note digital transformers.
CDT 2 II Top loader. 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 Balanced 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…
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.
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 until the arrival of the Signature version a couple of years ago. 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 several JMR stand-mounts, 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.
OTO SE Signature. The long awaited Signature version of the classic OTO SE arrived a couple of years ago. “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. In my house it is currently driving a pair of E/SPe HE’s. 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 amplifier 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 Jubilee.
The Signature version of the SORO SE is probably a sleeper in the Audio Note line. I’ve yet to hear one but a friend in Denmark tells me it’s a jewel: “It’s not as light or lively as OTO SE Sig version, but like the OTO Sig it has higher grade components, including double c-core output transformers. It is both bolder than the OTO Signature and, at least to my imagination, better captures the true tone of instruments.”
Meishu, Meishu Silver, Meishu Silver Signature Tonemaster! What’s a Tonemaster? It’s the first new Meishu integrated amp in many years and cause for celebration even before I heard one. The most popular Audio Note amp has gotten the full Andy Grove treatment. “Basically after 25 years we have upgraded the circuit to the same configuration as the JINRO, with driver transformers, upgraded power supply and better parts (as we have developed in the past 25 years.” PQ.
Still a nine watt SET, 300B based integrated amplifier, still available with or without phono stage; still the best way to bring 300B tubes into your system if you’re a prudent rather than self-indulgent audiophile; but now the Meishu has moved up a few notches. With the upgrade of the OTO, this upgrade was just a matter of time. 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 but I plan to pair it with K/SPe’s and K/SPx SE’s as well. Its three different models parallel the Quest monoblocks amplifiers below in its internal components. The new Meishu Tonemasters are the Audio Note news of the year.
Here are my listening notes based on a month of listening now, the last two weeks with the new 4300E tubes:
I have long been an EL84 and 2A3 fan, preferring the clarity and impact of the OTO Signature, Empress, and Neiro to the beguiling softness those 300B Audio Notes amps I’ve heard, including earlier iterations of the Meishu, the P3 SS, Quest SS’s and even the heavenly, Mozartian Shinri. The amp I have here is a Tonmeister Silver Signature version. I’ve learned from experience with Andy Grove’s designs and from conversations with him about them that Peter really lets him go with the SS models. They are a luxury — all high end audio is a luxury — but where value is concerned, I don’t consider AN’s silver signature models overly indulgent ones. I brought this amp mainly to find out how much this most popular of AN amps has evolved. The last Meishu I heard, some 15 years ago, sounded lovely but also warm and humid! Andy assured me, this is an altogether different animal.
My Meishu Tonmeister now has around 75 hours on it. I have it hooked up to a Resolution Audio Cantata 3.0 but will eventually try it with an AN CDP just to reassert my loyalty to the marque. I am using the amp mainly with Audio Note K/SPe and K/SPx SE speakers. I am extremely fond of the Audio Note K’s. As I’ve said before, while they don’t have the range of their big brothers, they have something I very much value that the J’s and Es lack, an immediate and tactile quality that is presumably at least partly the result of their being sealed enclosures. Like the KLH SIX and the Large Advent, which are their sonic ancestors. I am running Crimson cable from the Cantata to the Tonmeister, Audio Note SPx bi-wired speaker cables to the K’s. I have an Audio Note Sogon AC cable on the amp. This cord does not improve everything it’s put on, my OTO Signature, for example; but the Tonmeister appears to love it. Music for my first sessions with the new amp were from a Ricercar box set of German Baroque Sacred Music; Christmas; and from jazz pianist Emmet Cohen’s trio, Dirty in Detroit.
The best news, with the amp running on standard 300B tubes, is that the humidity of its predecessor is absolutely gone. In its place is flavorfulness: an airy natural overall savor with just a touch of appealiang softness and sweetness in the highs. To obtain that sound you have to slide around, not avoid but slide around, the leading edge clarity and brilliance of some other amps and speakers. EL 84 and 2A3 tubed amps feature the drama and excitement of leading edges, letting the flavor fill in behind and after them. There is no lack of clarity in this Meishu — there is plenty when it’s called for and it’s increasing day by day; but it definitely plays second fiddle to the flavor of the proceedings — what Peter calls “the medium” in his characterization of vinyl. The Tonmeister Meishu seems to go directly to the middle of the notes — where the beauty lives? I have often described Audio Note gear as favoring beauty and this amp is a prime example of that. In my fairly broad experience of the brand, this Meishu may be the archetypical Audio Note amp, which may explain why earlier Meishus have been the company’s leading seller. We hear (and feel) the warmth of the brass and low strings in the baroque works but also the natural glow of their presence; high strings’ sweetness hovers over it all. We feel the body of Cohen’s piano more than the attack on the keys but we also hear the lyric quality of the treble singing through and over it. The piano is as beautiful as it is striking. This sound has traditionally been called “mid hall.” Fair enough but in this case it’s the mid of an acoustically wonderful hall. It’s the sound I heard in Aldebergh at Britten’s Snape Matings when I made my pilgrimage there in 2004. I wrote ahead for tickets to a handful of concerts, asking for “the best seats available.” (I didn’t expect to return in my lifetime, so what the hell.) I was disappointed to find when I got into the hall that my seats were about halfway back and in the middle. When the music began, I realized I was in the best seats in the house.
My way of listening to new gear is not to compare it with what I’m used to — to the extent that this is possible. In this case, having lived with Blue Circle and JMR gear as my chief reference for quite a while, I wanted to revisit a line I have had fond feelings for: I wanted to hear it and evaluate it in its own terms. So far this experience has been an exhilarating one. I had forgotten what going to the middle of notes really means: not so much an absence of clarity and excitement as the presence of real musical beauty. In trying to explain and make the case for Gilbert Yeung’s and JC Reynaud’s latest gear, I often find myself talking about truth being beauty. In this case, I would say that Andy Grove and Audio Note are making an equally compelling argument that beauty is truth. And after all, Keats meant his famous line to be equivocal…
Three weeks in, still on the standard 300B’s, Nelsens’s Shostakovich Syms 6 & 7 on DG with the BSO, Hogwood’s Haydn Symphonies 1-5 with Academy of Ancient Music on Decca’s L’oiseua lyre, and brand spanking new Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions, 1963-1970 on Mosaic. All CD’s. Resolution Audio Cantataa 3.0, Meishu Tonmeister Silver Signature, Audio Note K/SPx SE’s (about a week old).
I spoke of things beginning to open up above and I’d say the amp is now just about all the way open, for a 300B tube amp. The brand new super K’s have a way to go yet. We are still in the middle of the notes but presence is up several notches, thanks in part to the greater resolution of the K/SPx’s. Immediacy, delicious natural warmth, nice overall weight and fullness. Great bark on Mobley’s tenor sax, chirping snarl on Lee Morgan’s trumpet, good weight and clarity on McCoy Tyner’s piano, sweet edges on the eighteenth century strings. I keep trying to hear my Gilbert Yeung/JMR system in my mind (been on nothing but AN for two weeks now, on principle) and I hear clearer air, a bit more bite and definition, more separation…and less love. This mostly AN system is a music lover’s set-up. And it is one that does not invite condescension from the GY/JMR fan in me. It is its own thing and I truly like it. It does not make me miss the more objective sound I am used to. I consider myself now the happy owner of two reference systems!
And now, the new 4300E tubes are here. And I’m floored. I could say take everything I’ve said above up 30-40% if that makes any sense. Or I could say that these new tubes make quite literally everything about the sound of Tonmeister better. More space, more air, more clarity from bottom to top, more refinement, and a clearer version of the characteristic 300B softness. But mainly these tubes simply take the amp’s ability to reproduce music onto a new terrain. Rather than say 30-40% better, I’d rather say that they make this amp magical. They transform it. With under 10 hours on them so far, all I can say is that if you’re even imagining a new Tonmeister (or any other Audio Note 300B amp), be sure to include $800 in your budget for a pair of these new 4300E’s. It makes no sense to settle for the standard tubes. The 4300E’s are the most significant and dramatic upgrade I can ever remember hearing. What I wonder is are they better enough to make them a more sensible upgrade than moving up the line from standard to Silver to Silver Signature Tonmasters. Quite possibly. And if you’re sitting out there with any other Audio Note 300B amps, you have an easy decision to make.
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 18 watt SET monoblocks amplifier. More information and commentary coming.
P3 and P4 stereo amps. 9 watts, 22 watts. The Quest and Conquest mono-block amplifiers are also available (for less money) in single chassis as the P series. My principal Audio Note demo amp for a a long time was a P3 Silver Signature, and I’ll have to say, coupled with a M6 Phono preamp, it was 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.
Empress. 8 watt 2A3 monoblock amplifier available in standard, Silver, and Silver Signature editions. For those who prefer the 2A3 tube to the 300B — and we are not a majority — these ‘2A3 Quests’ are a godsend. They offer elegance with backbone in place of the 300B’s traditional fullness and bloom. The Silver Signature versions I had here were more than I could have dreamed of. Their natural mate is probably an M3 or M3 Balanced, though who knows? maybe my long lost M6 will return. That said, based on what I heard, this is not an urgent concern.
Audio Note’s Andy Grove, in response to my queries about the differences among standard, silver, and silver signature versions of the amps he designs, has always said that the significant jump is to the silver signature versions where he has financial room to put in “all of the fancy bits.” No wonder the price jumps so much; but in my experience the silver sig models are always the best value if you’re talking sound vs. dollars, unless your budget forbids it. That is where Audio Note fans know the essence of Audio Note truly exists.
Empresses are the perfect upgrade from an OTO Signature. I got them for the K/SPx SE’s but they are driving my E/SPe HE’s wonderfully well. A 2A3’s man’s Quest? a poor man’s Neiro? Long awaited, much appreciated.
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.
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. 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.
The sonic universe that Audio Note speakers propose can take you over. And you don’t need to go ‘up range’ in the product line for this experience. As with the OTO integrated amplifiers 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 when I finally realized my day dream of indulging in the legendary K/SPx SE’s,the modest little K/SPe’s for all of their virtues had to take a giant step back.
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. Designed with smaller rooms in mind, they also sound excellent in my 18’ and 28’ living room.
AN-K/SPx SE. The super K. SPx silver cable, crossover with solid Audio Note silver inductors and silver inductors, silvered polyester caps. They are expensive but they really do dramatically expand the performance of the K speaker, upgrading its familiar personality with enhanced transparency and directness. For some reason I expected more beauty, and while I got that I also got more truth, which has the effect of making the SPe’s seem more tame and less forthcoming. I am reminded of the differences between the Celestion SL6 and the SL6S…and SL600. Bass is significantly deeper and authoritative for some reason; and the overall presentation is both smoother (when the music is smooth) and clearer. The midrange is stunningly real, with a smooth incisiveness. These are truly remarkable speakers which for some ears will challenge their larger brothers. For established Audio Note fans, these will be THE SPEAKER for moderate sized (not too small) rooms where cost is barely a consideration. That said, as you’ll see among my favorite systems in the Synergystic Systems section, you can assemble a wonderful system for around $25,000 with K/SPx SE’s at the heart of it. There are probably some who may still prefer (especially in small rooms) the unique, slightly more opaque sound of the K/SPe’s. But not me. I’m fond of the K/SPe’s but the SPxs are in a whole other league. They have become my favorite Audio Note speakers.
AN-J/SPe The considerably larger, ported J’s are unquestionably “better” speakers than their little brothers, at least the SPe version, 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.
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 most of you will want 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! The sweet spot in the line, as in most musical bang for the buck. 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.
Extremely informative review of one of the best AN-E speakers from a man who has been a serious and critical fan of Audio Note speakers for many years: https://www.dagogo.com/audio-note-uk-espx-alnico-loudspeakers-review/
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 excellent 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 it is cheaper than ISIS. 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. 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 all that Audio Note can offer.. 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.
ISIS. Information coming.
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 interconnects. 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.