English review of ASR EM.II Exclusive ,The

English review of ASR EM.II Exclusive ,The
Oct/Nov 05 issue#156
ISSUE 156 n OCTOBER 2005
B&W 800D Loudspeaker
B&W ups the ante on its designs with diamond tweeters and other
refinements. Sue Kraft listens to the 800D, while Manoj Motwani
comments on the smaller 803D.
104 HP’S WORKSHOP: Revolution in a Black Box
The ASR Emitter II Amplifier
An extended essay by TAS founder Harry Pearson on an integrated
amplifier he is calling nothing short of revolutionary.
The Art and Science of Loudspeaker Design
Robert Harley gathered Revel’s Kevin Voecks, MBL’s Wolfgang
Meletzky, Matthias Ruff of Avantgarde, and Magnepan’s Mark Winey to
explore their different approaches to the absolute sound.
Absolute Analog
Great analog is like a drug, says Wayne Garcia, as he gets euphoric with
the Tri-Planar Mk VII arm, Clearaudio’s Solution and Master Solution
turntables, and the Redpoint Audio Model B turntable.
Arcam Solo Stereo Receiver/CD Player
Chris Martens thinks this all-in-one music-maker may turn skeptics
into believers.
Bright Star Audio IsoRock GR3 Speaker Stands
Bob Gendron evaluates to a dedicated stand for Gallo’s Nucleus Reference 3.
The Headphone Diaries—Coffee Table High-End
Recording engineer and bass player Dan Schwartz surveys a slew of headphones. Our own BMI-credited songwriter, Neil Gader, comments.
PrimaLuna ProLogue Three Preamplifier & ProLogue Five
Power Amplifier
Sallie Reynolds on some inexpensive gear for the tube lover.
Triangle Esprit Altea ES Loudspeaker
A French contender for affordable excellence, says Neil Gader.
Vincent Audio SV-236 Hybrid Integrated Amplifier
Barry Willis reports on a German-designed, Chinese-built amp.
Quad 22L Loudspeaker and L-series Subwoofer
Jim Hannon ponders whether a non-electrostatic Quad can be a true Quad.
Plinius CD-101 CD Player and 9200 Integrated Amplifier
According to Neil Gader, this new Plinius gear delivers high levels of
sound and style.
Audio Physic Padua RR Loudspeaker
Robert E. Greene on an elegant, well-engineered German speaker.
Ayre C-5xe U2 Multi-Format Disc Player
The best stereo-only digital playback Shane Buettner has heard.
Balanced Audio Technology VK-31SE and VK-250
Wayne Garcia listens to BAT’s newest preamp and amp.
Issue 156
Ever ?
Revolution in a Black Box
The ASR Emitter II Exclusive
Harry Pearson
No component since the magazine’s inception in 1973 has troubled me as much as the
ASR Emitter II Exclusive, a German-made-and-design solid-state amplifier.
Not because it is a flawed product – quite the opposite.
This amp is so far beyond the usual that I call it “revolutionary”, and this in a field
where design breakthrough are, at best, evolutionary.
It has taken me six months to try and get its measure, and in the process I’ve had to
upgrade the reference system to meet the ASR’s mettle. The essential elements of its
performance defy usual descriptions at least with the audio language we have at our
disposal today. And that is why it is troublesome.
What words do you use to describe the absence of the usual colorations indigenous to
electronics – when they just aren’t there ?
I have been asking myself : how can I find the words to give the reader not just the sense
of what this amplifier sounds like but of the experience of listening to music through it ?
How do you convey how something doesn’t sound, at least in the ways to which we’ve
grown accustomed ?
There is enough sophistication in the design of the circuitry to
give technofreaks the frizzies.
The Emitter’s technical intricacies are ferocious and would require an entire essay onto
themselves and that is not something I am, at this point, inclined to tackle.
However, one of, if not the, most critical differences lies in the amplifier’s topology.
With the Emitter II Exclusive you do not need an intervening linestage.
It comes with a battery-powered input stage ( some might liken it to a passive “preamp”,
which it isn’t, but if it were, it would be one with balls ) so powerful that the usual
criticisms we have about battery-operated devices – restricted dynamic and frequency
ranges – just don’t apply here. In this regards the Emitter is not dissimilar in performance
characteristics to ASR’s justly acclaimed battery-driven phonostage. ( i.e. the Basis
Exclusive phonoamp )
There is enough sophistication in the design of the circuitry to give technofreaks the
frizzies. But for now, let’s start with the fact that the amplifier section, a dual-mono
design on a single chassis, is conventionally powered – if the word “conventional” isn’t
being bent in describing the 20 MOSFETs that drive its output. Its innards even include
an integrated circuit (IC), usually considered the bete noire of good sonics.
There are not, and this isn’t incidental, any relays in the input stage, so it is as pure as
pure can be in this regard. Our unit is rated at 280Wpc into 8 Ohms, 500 into 4,
and 900 into 2. In addition to its sleek-looking basic chassis, the ASR comes with two
outboard power supplies as well as a separate battery-powered supply for the input stage,
good for a hundred hours or so, and simple as can be to recharge.
The virtue of its input stage is that you can plug the outputs of a phonostage or CD player
directly into the amp, and so the ASR’s designer, Friedrich Schafer, call this an integrated
amplifier, but it is not integrated in any sense that this reviewer has ever thought of.
It is so versatile you may, if you must, use its input section with an external (AC-powered)
linestage. But why bother ?
By high-end
standards, its US$
27,000 cost is
considering that
you don’t need a
duded-up linestage,
that its power
output ( and like
tube vintages of
yore, this amp
sounds more
dynamic than its
power rating
would suggest ) is
more than
sufficient, and that
( given the value of
today’s dollar
overseas ) it is
It’s “authority” was evident from the start.
I was half expecting a Teutonic solid-state
sound. But that I didn’t get.
Indeed, there was no transistorized “footprint” I could detect. No hardness, no
constrictions, no electronic “glare”.
Some of my listening panel members suggested at first that I was impressed with the
Emitter in part because it did not exhibit the sonic signature of solid-state devices.
But that just wasn’t so, because neither did it impart the identifying fingerprints of tube
electronics – no softness of focus nor any of the forgiving character of most tubed gear at
the frequency extremes.
No dynamic compression of fortissimo blockbuster passages nor any dynamic smearing,
either, Nope .
Over time, I became aware that there is am almost ineffable “something” about the way
this amplifier refuses to interact with pre-recorded signals that is unique in my listening
experience. It seems as if it keeps its own counsel, refusing to add or subtract
anything when it sees an analog or digital source, thus allowing the two very different
encoding process to speak more purely, each with its own individual voicing.
One of the great astonishments, at first, to every person who
auditioned the system, was the way the best digital recordings
Before my sections with this amp, I was only half-conscious of all the ways in which
digital recordings interact, to their detriment, with the sound of solid-state, and only a
little more so of some of the more esoteric ways analog recordings and tubed electronics
combine to produce (and often too) lush and forgiving synergies – those not inconsonant
with what the ear hears as natural.
I found the ASR’s performance so bewitching, authoritative, and just plain dazzling,
that I invited other trained ears in for an audition and asked several of them to write
their unvarnished observations and impressions of the amplifier.
I assembled this impromptu listening panel to confirm ( or not ) my enthusiasm, and their
thoughts and reactions (somewhat edited and not all of them used) accompany this article,
and not always in ways I expected. I certainly didn’t need anyone else’s opinion to
confirm mine about the singularity of this product, but it is a comfort to have some
backup when you begin throwing around the word “ revolutionary”.
By a fluke of circumstances, the listening sessions with the ASR began with digital
sources. The road to analog was fraught with difficulties that discussed elsewhere in the
Analog aside for the moment, the initial setup was relatively crude compared with
what we would be able to achieve as we upgraded the system to meet the amp’s sonic
potential. As it begins to turn out, the ASR provide so much resolution, and without
any of such annoying anomalies we’ve come to associate with the so-called highend
electronics, that we were able to radically improve upon the overall sound of the Sea
Cliff reference system. Indeed, each new component introduced into the chain
immediately and definitely expose individual differences, for the better, and sometimes
for the worse.
The speakers were the Alon exotica Grand Reference, which were to go through several
iterations (nor to mention a name change to Nola, Alon); most of the basic wiring are
Nordost, and much of that Valhalla. This too would go through extensive modifications.
And we started our using the two-piece Lector CD player, the CDP-1T.
After some experimentation, we found the Hurricane tubed monoblock from Antique
Sound Lab the best match for driving the Exotica woofer tower and providing continuity
with the ASR, whose “character” they match. This is the way we began the listening.
Back to digits. One of the most astonishments, at first, to every person who auditioned
the system (included yours truly), was the way the best digital recording sounded.
Shockingly musical, given our uniformly low expectation, was the sound, even with
the simple CD player we used, the original Lector.
In the last issue, I mentioned one recording we used as reference from the beginning,
recordings that were almost indistinguishable from excellent analog and in some respects
preferable to their LP counterparts. One was Hanson’s The Composer and His Orchestra
<Mercury>, the other a compilation disc with cuts from the original Winds in Hi-Fi album,
most spectacularly those from Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, notably “The Lost
Lady Found.) ” ( Later on, we came across the superior JVC XRCD transfer, done in L>A>,
not in Japan, of London/Decca recordings of Mehta’s classic take on Holst’s The Planets,
particularly “Saturn” and “Uranus”, and the Ricci/Gamba hifi frolic through Sarasate’s
Carmen Fantasie, a set of transcriptions for violin and orchestra. )
It’s what we hear in unamplified sounds, be they in a hall or
from the voices of people hearby.
There was none of the strain almost always evident on high-level fortissimos, none of
the glass and grain, and none of the high-frequency edginess or stress on expects.
We always had a sense of power in reserve, even at those very moments that before on
these discs had sonically undone the sense of realism that digital was supposed to afford.
Not only was there a top octave, but also a heretofore unrevealed airiness and often
delicacy way up yonder. Most striking was an immediacy to the sound that was more
analog-like than digital. None of us had, I think, suspected that the 14/44 system had this
kind of potential.
The insertion of better sounding CD player into the system – the four-piece Lector digidrive setup, the Stibbert player from Bluenote, and , to top them all, the US$40,000 superplayer, the Jadis JD-1 MKII (available along with the company’s tubed electronics, in
North America) – led to a much more spectacular naturalness (I hope this isn’t an
oxymoron). The Bluenote and the Jadis, in particular, did not exhibit the darkness of the
Lectors; the Bluenote was on the yang side, with the kind of lightness we’ve encountered
with the Edge electronics, while the Jadis’ inherent “character” was reminiscent of the
best tubed units, say, Audio Research during Wm. Z. Johmson’s desigh heyday there.
The Jadis, in particular, rendered a spectacular width of Macrodynamics. As the quality
of CD player increased (and none we used were less than inherently musical, something
we could not have said about the pre-Burmester designs), we got significantly better
resolution of hall ambience. Actually, the amount of hall ambience on these records
proved illuminating to more than one panel member, including this writer, who had
always supposed that digital vitiated the ambient signature of a recording site.
On the Hanson CD, you can clearly tell that Hanson has recorded his comments in an
empty hall, and the better the player, heard through the ASR, the more ambience
retrieved. You can even hear the walls behind Hanson. When the instrumental
excerpts are played, you hear the sound bounce off the opposite and back walls; it is the
clarity of this that is the revelation.
Remember that this transfer was overseen by the one and only Wilma Cozart Fine, a key
player on the Mercury team and possessor of some of the best ears I have ever come up
against. And the transfer was done in 1996, well before the important improvements in
digital transfer technology. I am sorry to say that a few listeners, who did not hear the
analog playback once we had it perfectly dialed in, thought the ASR made digital sound
better than analog. In time, this would set me to thinking about the way the ASR did not
(or refused to, if you want me to be poetic about it) modulate with the digital signal (on
any of the players). Which is why, I think, the digital just didn’t sound any more
“digital” than the ASR sounded “transistorized”. Once upon a time, I did speculate
on the way transistors modulated noise components as if they were part of the music, as
opposed to the way tubes modulated noise elements in a separate plane (like degrees of
dirt upon a wind-shield).
The raison d’etre for a battery-operated input stage, of course, is the reductions of the
exaggerated noise floor in the electronics. This reduction is the result of the isolation of
the input stage from the power line. If it is, as I suspect, then the audibly reduced noise
floor inherent in this design pays off in allowing greater “purity” (yes, purity) to shine
through from digital sources. The transistor cannot modulate with the noise, cannot
treat it as part of the musical signal.
With the ASR battery-operated phonostage – even before we laid hands on the Emitter –
we were able to build on this insight and reduce the noise floor in other parts of the
system, e.g., the wiring setup, the isolation devices, and the turntable itself.
Several of the listening panel invitees became convinced that the merit of the sound lay
not so much in the ASR amp as in the entirety of the system itself. simple enough My
response to this is simple enough : Before the ASR we did not get and were not able
to get this degree of realism – the ASR made the critical, even magical, difference.
I think this
amplifier is
because, mostly,
of the things it
doesn’t do.
Having said this much, I think I
should say that the ASR Emitter
is not without an inherent
coloration of its own. It is on the
yin side of the yin/yang spectrum,
by which I mean it is more darkly
hued than any competing design
from Edge in the solid-stage field
or Audio Research in tubes. It is
not as dark as some of the older
Madrigal/Levinson designs, but its “colour’, now that I think it over, is close to that of the
Hurricane amps.
(In the case of darkish sounding tube and solid-state gear, both then and now, that
character came from the application of large amounts of distortion-lowering feedback.)
And the Emitter can be temperamental, you have to take care in using its switches or
you’ll cause it to shut down. A few minutes with a knowing dealer, getting a feel for its
functions, will save you both confusion and grief once you get it home.
But then, if it weren’t difficult at times, it wouldn’t be high-end, would it ?
The ASR has no difficulties in recreating soundstage width. Its performance in
generating a field of depth is striking – just maybe the most realistic I’ve heard.
Normally, even with “layered” depth and a sense of great front-to-back spaciousness, the
best amps are missing something tricky to describe (using our current language) but
instantly audible.
Before I get around to the differences we perceived on analog sources once we got the
setup optimized, I want to discuss the changes wrought in the system itself.
The ASR served as the focal point, the “enabler”, if you will, that allowed us – me,
Danny Gonzalez (the successor to Scot Markwell and Mike Mercer) and some of the
designers themselves – to fine-tune the jazzy-wits out of the primary reference.
I have in past issues described the sound of most of the components we had on hand
when the ASR arrived, and more recently, I have tracked some of the improvements
in the associated equipment, while delicately sidestepping the performance of the
ASR that enabled these upgrades.
Carl Marchisotto, the designer of the big Nola ( Alon ) speakers, upgraded the main
tower’s three-way crossover unit – fancy new transformer windings – and that provided
smoother integration of a system that had already demonstrated a degree of
continuousness difficult to find in other major designs. He also devised better isolation
for that external crossover box and ditched the wires connecting it to the speaker system
in favor of Nordost wires, and this led to an improvement in clarity and low-level
Harry Weisfeld upgraded his modestly (for highend) priced Scoutmaster turntable in
several respects, which we have already detailed. It is now a Super Scoutmaster Plus, and
there are still improvements to come. The most audible mods were his installation of
Nordost wiring in the turntable and arm, as well as his inclusion of the HRX motor
assembly to drive the table. The noise floor was further lowered and the Nordost led to
far greater clarity, like unto Salome removing a veil or two.
While we flirted with several cartridges, most notably the Benz Ebony LP, which was
much to our liking for its sheer musicality, we chose to stick with the Dynavector XV-1S,
which is the first five-star cartridge I have evaluated. Though the importer would rather I
didn’t, I have to say that, in our experiment, the XV-1S had to be tracked at higher than
recommended force. We worked with both 2.7 and 2.9, each provided a degree of life
and tracking stability simply not present at 2.1 grams. Since we had a second sample of
this cartridge we were able to do some A/B work, especially useful when the Kuzma
straight-line air-bearing arm and table arrived as a challenge to the VPI. More on this
another day.
Not all was happy times in the analog-playback games.
Clearaudio’s “Everest” system (so named because it rises to waist-high level from the
floor) struck me, with all cartridges we used with its two modified Souther straight-line
arms – perfect nightmares to setup and keep tuned – as being oddly heavy in the bottom
octave or so. In this regard, it reminded me, at a somewhat more leaden level, of a similar
rise in the Miyabi Lab 45 cartridge that we did not use in these sessions.
There were more changes than I can document in this part of the essay. However, two of
the more striking ones came when we made changes to the system setup that we could
have done well before.
One, at Hi-Fi+ editor Roy Gregory’s insistence, was a two-stage revamping of the
Nordost speaker cables and interconnect installation.
The second stage came when we installed the Nordost Thor AC distribution device.
This second modification, at Classic Records’ Mike Hobson’s urging, was the removal of
a slew of components we had stashed away in Music Room 3, which effectively increased
the size of the room & reduced some unwanted diffraction effects.
And, lest we forget, there was the aforementioned upward evolution in the quality of CD
playback gear to the remarkable Jadis JD-1 MKII, a tube based deck and decoder that
does for digital playback what a massive tubeamp, like the Audio Research 600 Watter,
does for inefficient multi speaker systems.
I have not, as many of you will observe, tried to describe the sonic effects of each of the
improvements we made. Each effect, though, was immediately audible and worked to the
advantage of the music reproduction. There were, however, two consistent ones.
First, each change brought about a lowering of the noise floor, which could be heard in
the way that low-level details, normally buried in the muck – bass harmonics for
instance – came to life, or to audibility. You could hear more of music’s subtle cues, the
things that lend a “life” to reproduced sound, not the least of which was an enhancement
of the microdynamic contrasts that give unamplified music its “kick”.
And, secondly, the changes increased the sense of transparency of the entire
Now, I, for one, had never associated transparency with the kind of velvet-colored
“character” or signature of the ASR, but there it was. We found that we could “see”
more deeply into the soundfield. To summarize, with a kind of believe-it-or-not
assertion, each improvement in other part of the system was immediately audible as
greater “clarity”, with even less of an artificial reef between the listener and the sound of
the music – the window on the soundfield just kept getting cleaner (if you are of the more
vivid disposition, you may say the effect was like that of Salome doing a strip-tease).
Onward to analog !
The first problem we encountered came with when the ASR was
newly installed in Music Room 3 and designer Friedrich Schafer himself came to check
out the sound. He decided to update the phonostage on the spot, rather than send in an
entirely new unit, a decision that threw the evaluation process into limbo.
The new parts was not a happy marriage, and the sound from the so-called improved unit
was hard, bright – it had all the characteristics we have come to know and despise from
solid-state sound. Now this wasn’t the way the original Basis battery unit sounded (see
review, Issue 151, page 106). Schafer decided, after giving it some thought, that we had
best hear a completely new production unit. And so it arrived.
We let it burn in for ages, but not with much improvement in the sound over the hybrid
unit. Finally after what seemed like forever, a technical change to the circuitry that
Gonzalez could effect – lowering the unit’s drive voltage—put us on the track to solving
its problems. (The current production units incorporate this change.)
The improvement in sound were most notable: greater high-end extension, a lowered
distortion that led to increased purity on transients & increased resolution of quite high
overtones. More remarkable to these ears, used to the somewhat softer bass of the Nola
woofer towers, (four 12-inch units, ported per side), was the now articulated and tensile
strength of the bottom fundamentals. And finally there was a degree of integration in the
Exotica system that we had despaired, well, not quite despaired, of course, of eliciting
from the design.
But that was nothing compared with what the ASR gear, and the system itself, could
elicit from information-rich analog sources, both from the standing references of the
LP SuperDisc list and from the new Quiex, 200-gram pressings from Classic Records.
One overlooked recording that survived the 1985 fire was the Benjamin Britten led
performance of his ballet, the Prince of the Pagodas, on the budget priced Decca Ace of
Diamonds label, a two disc set out of print but not impossible to find through the
specialty record hunters, and on eBay. It is as good a recording as Decca, at its very best
ever made. And played back on what was now a kind of Super System, it has sonically &
musically too, floored everyone who has heard it.
We went back into older recordings, some Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and Art Garfunkel’s
“Breakaway” and the eponymous America album on Warner.
It is easy to get lost in the details of the specific recording & it is a temptation to describe
all aspects of these great recordings that once were buried and now stand out clear, so to
speak, in the open. But there is more to it than that with the ASR in the reference.
In the best recordings of yesterday, with the best systems, we could often achieve
moments of reality, moments when a sound seemed to be “there” in the room. These
were occasional & always impressive, seeming to be almost prescient of days to come
when we might extract more reality, more living presence from the music we love.
With the ASR, things do not sound real. But, and this is an important point, and the thing
that makes it so hard to describe the sound of the “amp” and how it performs in a great
system : The sound is less unreal, less artificial, less electronic ; there are more of
those moments when you might well be fooled into thinking you are, indeed, in the living
presence of a performer. In other words, there are more “real” sounding moments.
Such a thing happens on one of the simplest of recordings, that of Bill Henderson,
accompanied by piano and bells singing in a small L.A. nightclub.
The song is an exquisitely and heartfelt delivery of Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The
Clowns, and Classic Records has made it available on a single LP, one side cut at 33 &the
other at 45rpm. It’s from an album of no particular sonic distinction otherwise, but it was
originally analog. Even on the CD where most of us first heard it, the sound is
remarkable. But on disc, on this disc, with the lights down low, and late at night, you are
transported into the small room of the club itself – your room has disappeared, even its
boundaries. (With the demonstration –quality CDs, we never get this effect of the
listening room boundaries being subsumed by those of the recording site.)
The illusion of Henderson, there before you, this great blues singer, is as uncanny an
experience as I’ve hand in audio. You forget to listen to the sound, as I have many
another time during the extended evaluation (and not a good thing for taking notes),
and instead get pulled into the music. There has, in the past, always been a tripartite
separation between me, the system, and the music itself. Now, some of that, maybe much
of it, has dissolved and the listening process becomes a more intimate, more involving
experience. The Henderson disc is not flawless – he gets too close to the mike at one
point, and with the greater clarity, you can hear extraneous nightclub sounds much more
clearly (clinking glasses, whispered word or two). Oddly, as the system has grown more
transparent, those very extraneous noises increase the you-are-there experience.
Henderson’s interpretation is so deeply felt it will make you hold you breath and may
make you weep, such is his impeccable phrasing and timing (even down to his deliberate
bending of time with the phrase “losing my timing this late in my career”).
There is a quality the ASR suggests on some of the best digital recordings that becomes
dominant on the best analog. We might describe that as the sound of the back wave, or
better yet, that of a 360-degree radiating pattern from individual images within the twochannel field. I am most definitely not talking about a “surround” like effect in the
listening room. I am talking about being able to hear the sound emanating in all
directions (including from the back of the singer or instrument or what not).
Imagine a singer before you, and image that you can hear, as you will with the best gear
and recordings, the sound of his/her chest tones, and the waves in the air generating from
the voice itself. Now imagine an amplifier that can let you hear not just these waves, but
the separate and distinct pocket of air surrounding the singer her (him, its) self (these are
not, not the same thing).
And if you want to carry this further, you can hear the same phenomenon of pockets of air
surrounding ensembles and even players within the ensemble.
It’s what we hear, but are seldom conscious of, in unamplified sounds, be they in a hall or
from the voices of people nearby. So instead of a portrait of 3-dimensional space, one
we’ve been able to achieve in modern component design, we can now dissolve some of
the artifice that separates the sounds from true continuousness. And what , you ask,
is this so-called artifice? I say it is noise. Artifacts of noise. Added electronic noise.
The crux of the matter is this: We have grown so accustomed to a kind of electronically
reproduced sound, one we can instantly divine as not real, that there is the shock of the
“new” when something comes along that robs us of the anchors or our expectations.
There is just less in the way of our getting into the music – our imaginations don’t have to
work so hard to convince us that we are enjoying “music”. Because I love music, so my
encounter with the amp in this system have been exhilarating ; nevertheless, if you
haven’t been sitting there in the listening room, you can’t know the effect it will have on
you. You won’t have heard anything quite like this, I hadn’t.
I think this amplifier is revolutionary because, mostly, of the things it doesn’t do,
and because of the see-into-and-through transparency that results from its
dramatically lowered noise floor (which allowed us to make similar reductions in much
of the rest of the audio chain). It has other distinctive attributes, including a sense of
“ease” on everything you can throw at it, and maybe to a degree I’ve never heard from
any solid-state product before. It also packs a genuine wallop of those big bass notes that
allows you to feel, for example, how tight the skin of a drum is. In other word, it has all
the best attributes of the most serious state-of-the-art amplifier contenders.
It is the second component from which I see a revolution springing. The seeds are here
for a sea change in conventional electronic design. The other was the Infinity/Magnepan
QRS/1-D, a hybrid marriage of two ribbon/quasi-ribbon systems that allowed, for the first
time, a realistic and believable recreation of soundstage width and depth. Speakers that
followed in the path of the QRS/1-D eliminated the diffraction effect that prevented a
soundstage from developing, and gave an entirely new meaning to the word “imaging”.
I can’t imagine that the ASR will remain a unique hybrid for long. Other designers of
“statement” amplifiers will surely find a way to create a good battery operated input stage
with their amplifiers, tubed or otherwise. And who knows where that will lead?
In time, perhaps inevitably, to a fully integrated system? The door to the future opens.
The journey is not over. In another essay, soon to come, I shall evaluate the
ASR Emitter II Exclusive Version 2005, which, to my genuine surprise, went
the one reviewed here several steps better. Also I have not subjected the amp
to other speaker systems to see what happens with less than “statement”
type design.
Also we now have the capability of using another ASR on the Grand
Reference, making the sound full range; obviously I am curious to see
whether the difference is revelatory or just adds to the coherency.
Also, the Emitter provides, a bit further down the road, the ideal device for
A/B –ing the linestages we recently reviewed and those we have on hand.
I did not discuss our reactions to the absence of an external linestage in the
chain but I will then.
Atul Kanagat,
TAS Cutting Edge Advisor
Take three pillars of audiophile doctrine, that is separates are better sounding than
integrated amplifiers, monoblocks are superior in resolution of soundstage reproduction
than stereo amps, and tubes sound different, and mostly better, than transistors.
Yes, this is an integrated, stereo transistor amp that, at least when paired with the Nola
Exotica Grand Reference via Nordost Valhalla cables, reproduces music with an honesty
of expression that I have never experienced before in my 20-something years of
audiophile pursuits. I have been a regular visitor to Sea Cliff for over two years and have
witnessed and enjoyed the incremental changes to HP’s system.
There was nothing incremental, however, about the Emitter’s impact on the sound of an
already spectacular sounding system. So moved was I when I first heard it, I told Harry
that I felt the way I did the first time I entered the Sistine Chapel – in almost religious
So what is all the fuss about ? the amp played through the Nolas recreated the soundstage
in a mesmerizing way. While many amps are able to create height & width as accurately
as the ASR, the depth of the soundstage it produces is truly spectacular. The rear of the
stage has the same proportions as the front. Music and sound emanating from the rear of
the soundstage have the same energy and tactile feel as the front. And the singer, on
vocal recordings, stands out in front of the band, leaving the listener with an uncanny
sense of being right there.
There is nothing ‘transistory” or “tubey” about the sound. Transients develop as sharply
as with the best solid-state amplifiers, and decay with all the richness of overtones that
tubes so musically replicated. Bass notes are perfectly controlled and flow without
colorations, at ground-shaking decibels and in the quietest of passages. And all this with
Antique Sound Labs Hurricane driving the Bass towers; who knows what will happen
when Harry replaces them with a second Emitter ?
Will the Emitter sound the same with other fine loudspeakers or is there some strange
synergy going on with the ASR/Nola/Nordost combination? I can’t wait to find out.
For now, I say if Heaven does not have this combo, I’m not going.
Distribution Information in the US :
500 East 77th Street, Suite 2923
New York, New York 10162
(212) 734-1041
December 05 issue#157
33 and 45rpm strobes for both 50Hz and
60Hz turntable motors. Side 2 features
33 and 45rpm strobes for a 300Hz bluelight laser. This is infinitely easier to use,
due to both the ability to shine the laser
directly on the Test Disc and the higher
frequency used for speed tuning. Both
sides of the Speed Test Disc feature cut
grooves so you can speed tune the
turntable with the actual stylus drag
accounted for. Lastly, both sides feature
break-in grooves to assist in putting
time on a new cartridge and to warm
up your cartridge prior to serious listening sessions.
The Speed Laser, which is the
matching 300Hz blue laser for the
Speed Test Disc, costs an additional
$150.1 It looks like a blue laser inset in
a fancy keyholder. Shine its little blue
light on the disc, and, voilà, speed can
be calibrated. The Clearaudio Speed Test
Disc and Speed Laser have become part
of our reference accessories list. And
much welcomed.
Back to the turntable, briefly. We
have a new motor, filched from the VPI
HRX turntable that we were are about to
install in a new setup in Room 2, and the
Scoutmaster is holding speed (with the
“white” belts), and all is well. Just for
kicks, we ran the Clearaudio stuff on
another turntable we were contemplating
reviewing, and found it slightly fast. And,
wonder of wonders, the Clearaudio
Everest that Leerer himself set up ran even
slightly faster than that. Makes me, and
maybe you, wonder, doesn’t it?
Follow-Up: The ASR Emitter II
Exclusive, Version 2005
In the last issue, I assessed the revolutionary ASR Emitter II amplifier. And
promised a second part in which I would
look deeper into the amplifier’s performance with other speaker systems and use
the amp as the basis for a second look at
At the time, the ASR amplifier I had
only covered the two front towers of the
Nola Grand Reference (these operating
from about 40Hz up), while the closest
match I could find to drive the twin bass
towers was the Antique Sound Labs
tubed monoblocks, the Hurricanes. A
second ASR arrived, of even more refined
sound than the first—designer Friedrich
Schäafer is always tinkering improve-
1 My associate and set-up man Danny Gonzalez’s thought that this device could be made for about $10.
ments into the design—and so we
moved the tested amps to the bass towers, and, thus, had ASRs covering the
entire frequency range. (The amplifiers
can be strapped together so that one volume control works for both.)
I wasn’t sure what differences I would
hear, and was not entirely convinced that
if there were any, they would be major.
Well, there are, and they are. But, as
with the first time I tried to describe the
sound, I found myself almost at a loss for
words, meaning, it is, as I suggested
before, difficult to describe a kind of
sound that has few of the guideposts we
can use for sonic orientation.
One thing was immediately obvious. Most of the ambient cues in recordings are at the bottom end of the sonic
spectrum. And once the noise floor is
lowered in that area, the soundspace
expands to a much greater extent than
before, and the apparent size of any
instruments in the nether region
assumes the kind of proportions they
have in the concert hall. For instance,
the tuba on the Howard Hanson disc
The Composer and his Orchestra, impressive
though it was with a single ASR,
became Wagnerian in impact—tubas
move a great deal of air, and in every
other system in my experience, they are
miniaturized; ditto for the tympani, also
on this demo disc.2 But smaller sources,
like Hanson’s voice, aren’t “larger” in
any sense. This provides a range of contrasts in scale that I find quite unprecedented in a system, and much more like
life itself. More intriguingly, the dynamic shadings are—how to say it? While
wider in contrast, they are much more
microdynamically correct. The acoustic
space in which the instruments are playing has become much more threedimensional, and, with good analog
material, there is a much greater sense of
being in the space with the performers,
as opposed to listening to hi-fi from
your chair.
The effect now is spooky at times. I
am not, you must note, saying it sounds
“real,” for that occurs only in short
bursts. What I am saying is that it dissolves veils between you and the recorded experience, and enables you to, nay
makes you, listen to the music as music,
not as an aural experience.
2 In Issue 155’s edition of the Workshop, I bemoaned the fact that this Hanson Mercury recording, a touchstone of mine, had gone out of print and was now commanding out-of-sight prices. It is now once again available in a multidisc set that includes other Hanson works.
recommended products
aging 8150/8200. Still compact
in size, it pumps out a healthy
200Wpc, and thanks to its strong
Class A bias, the 9200 is sweeter
and richer than ever. Even the allnew phonostage is quieter and
more dynamic. Sonics have developed a beatufiful patina in the
9200. Bass doesn’t sound as
darkly ominous or extended as in
years past, but control and definition are strikingly improved. A
major leap forward for a reference
integrated at its price—and perhaps any price.
Reviewed by NG, Issue 156
aren’t fatiguing, even after hours
of listening.
Reviewed by JD, Issue 152
Reviewed by WG, Issue 148
$4650 ($4800 w/phono)
Elegant execution and jeweler-like
attention to detail—both inside
and out—make this 100-watter a
top-flight contender. Isolation of
the internal components from
vibration contributes to the vivid
imaging, excellent resolution,
transparency, and wide soundstage. The Passion is competitive
with any integrated amplifier of
similar output near its price, and
a high-quality remote control is
also included.
Reviewed by WG, Issue 138
Although it lacks some of the
technical refinements that make
Edge’s separates special, it’s
remarkable how close this integrated design comes to the
sound of those designs. At
85Wpc, the G3 doesn’t have the
tonal “darkness” and grain frequently heard from transistor
gear. It’s quite neutral in balance,
with a lack of electronic artifacts—brightness, edginess,
hash—that makes it unusually
easy to hear “into” the music.
Reviewed by WG, Issue 152
While the Chord does not have
the last molecule of “reach out
and touch it” presence that a
great tube amplifier has, its intoxicating bass performance and
large, well-defined soundstage
had our reviewer lost in the
music. Its smooth midrange and
extended high-frequency response
Under $1000
Reviewed by NG, Issue 148
$3995–$5995 (depending on
Available in your choice of three
different preamp stages—solidstate, tube, or 6H30
“SuperTube”—BAT’s VK-300X is a
great integrated amplifier.
Although refinements occur with
each upgrade, its basic sound is
airy, detailed, harmonically wellstructured, and very immediate.
And with 150W output, it will not
only drive pretty much any speaker, but it will do so with dynamic
authority as well as agility. Music
Editor Bob Gendron’s reference.
listener or speaker, but its transparency and inherent musicality
will win over many.
This beautifully retro-looking
model delivers 80Wpc via a quartet of KT88 output tubes. Its
sound throughout the midband is
simply gorgeous, while the frequency edges are likewise lovely
and a touch romantic—seductively soft and airy on top, with a
roundness, warmth, and good
weight to the bottom end.
Excellent spatial resolution, too,
particularly in the depth department. Because it has identifiable
sonic fingerprints and power limitations, this amp is not for every
NAD C 162
Arguably the most powerful integrated amplifier on earth, this
500W tube/solid-state hybrid can
drive just about any load you care
to throw at it. The kW500 builds
on the strengths of Musical
Fidelity’s Tri-Vista 300, offering
greater resolution and inner
detail, slightly better imaging,
more expressive dynamics, and
even tighter and more extended
bass. It comes with a good
(though modest) phonostage.
Following other legendary NAD
performers, the C 162 delivers
plenty of resolution and threedimensionality while—more importantly—emphasizing the kind of
overall musicality that draws out
the natural warmth and expressiveness of instruments and voices. To get the most from it, try
matching it with the companion C
272 amplifier via a set of PNF
Audio Icon interconnects and
Symphony speaker cables. Also
features an astonishingly good
phonostage; some listeners may
buy it for that feature alone.
Reviewed by CM, Issue 152
Reviewed by CM, Issue 148
MODEL 2005
In every respect, a triumph of
audio design. It is a solid-state
unit that has no transistor
“sound,” nor tube-like colorations
for that matter. It doesn’t require
an input stage, having a sort-of
one in its battery-operated front
end. Its noise floor is so spectacularly low that analog and digital
can be heard at their unmodulated best, and its output devices
(20, count ’em) provide seemingly
unlimited amounts of power, without ever crossing the line into
hardness or distortion. But most
of all, the ASR is like unto magick
in its ability to let you hear so
deeply into the soundfield that
you’ll almost believe you are really “there” with the music.
HP’s Workshop, Issue 156
$999 (each)
Along with a dandy mm and mc
phonostage, the Quad 99 features a novel tilt control for tone
correction that works like a charm
when you need it—a solid middlelevel performer lacking mostly the
ultimate transparency, liveliness,
and dynamic openness of the
very best units. The all-tube QC24 linestage is the least expensive to suggest that elusive quality of “continuousness” in its presentation. The QC-24 has first-rate
imaging in all dimensions, and a
lively, engaging, remarkably neutral presentation.
Reviewed by PS, Issues 128 and 135
The vacuum tube-powered
ProLogue 3 preamp makes an
ideal companion to PrimaLuna’s
ProLogue 5 tube power amp. Like
the power amp, the preamp combines traditional tube warmth and
richness with a clear, crisp, pre-
recommended products
Under $2000
and distortion, and greater transparency. Some listeners may want
more dynamic “punch” and personality, but this is hard to beat
for low coloration. Add $600 for
BPS power supply.
Reviewed by PS, Issue 133
takes awhile to get used to its
sound. Once you’ve adjusted,
expect to hear “into” your
records in a way unlike before.
Beyond its silence, the PhD has
a tube-like liquidity, terrific detail,
wonderful dynamic nuance, and
remarkable transparency.
Reviewed by WG, Issue 144
This stripped-down little bugger
has a sweet, mellow sound, and
very low noise and perceived distortion. It’s strictly for moving
magnets and high-output moving
coils. The sound is a little veiled
(though remarkably grain-free),
and, while not the last word in
wide dynamics, has astonishing
composure and musical integrity.
Reviewed by PS, Issue 134
This much-praised model now
comes with a much beefier power
supply. Otherwise, features
remain the same, including
switchable mm/mc and limited
options for loading. Now really
wowie-zowie in the dynamics
department, with imaging so stable you could map out each
instrument. Bass is ample and
articulate; transparency is very
good. Principal reservation: a certain “whiteness” that translates
into a mild dryness.
Reviewed by PS, Issue 133
The wood-bodied PH-1 is a versatile unit that works equally well
with high- and low-output cartridges. Though it is susceptible
to environmental noise, the sound
is open and easy, with an expansive soundstage, natural highs,
and bass that has texture, tonal
refinement, and power.
Reviewed by WG, Issue 141
A solid-state, miniaturized hideaway box powered by a wall transformer. External AC plus short signal path yields very wide dynamics
and space retrieval with a comforting middle-of-the-road sonic balance and airy bloom much like
that of the Benz Ruby 2 cartridge,
if a little darker. Warmth is
enhanced by 22k input impedance.
Reviewed by Arthur S. Pfeffer, Issue 127
An Apollonian grace, poise, low
noise, and neutrality characterize
this excellent unit, which includes
options for fine-tuning the loading
and gain of both moving coils and
moving magnets. Add the external
power supply for even lower noise
Ron Sutherland’s battery-powered PhD is so quiet that it
right edges rather than sounding
triangular. Fine build-quality and
outstanding ergonomics are the
icing on the cake.
Reviewed by RH, Issue 151
In its latest revised version, this
battery-operated phonostage sets
the standards against which all
other contenders must be judged.
(And the competition in our
upcoming report is stiff, especially from Tom Evans Designs and
the folks at Aesthetix, whose Io is
a wow-O).
HP, survey in the works
$6000 and Above
Like its companion linestage, the
PL-1 is a tube-driven phonostage
delivering exquisitely musical and
lifelike sound. Record after record
left our editor with that “as if
hearing it for the first time” feeling. Beautifully balanced, with low
noise and a great range of tone
colors, the PL-1 is also dynamically explosive and very transparent.
A terrific achievement from a
young company.
With a superb built-in coupling
transformer to handle lower-output moving coils, the all-tube
Lamm LP2 phonostage has the
inestimable advantage of being
dead quiet, which makes it ideal
for folks, like JV, who live in RF
Valley. Though not as “alive” or
bloomy as the Aesthetix Io on
large-scale dynamics, the Lamm
is rich, beautiful, and extraordinarily delicate-sounding on all music,
with detail, transient response,
and soundstaging that are superior to the competition. Be forewarned: This preamp takes a
good deal of break-in before it
sounds its considerable best, but
its best is well worth the wait.
One of JV’s references.
Reviewed by WG, Issue 155
As with Aesthetix’ matching
Calypso linestage, the Rhea
phono preamplifier redefines
what’s possible at this price level
not only sonically, but functionally.
With three inputs, variable cartridge loading—adjustable at the
listening chair via remote control—and front-panel display of
gain and loading, the Rhea is the
Swiss Army Knife of phonostages.
Although the Rhea has tons of
gain, the noise level is extremely
low, making it compatible with a
wide range of cartridge outputs.
The Rhea’s family resemblance to
the Calypso is unmistakable: transient quickness and speed without etch, a feeling of effortlessness on crescendos, and a deep,
layered soundstage that maintains its depth at the left and
JV, review forthcoming
$6500 without volume control;
$9000 with volume control;
$9000 for Signature without
volume control, $11,500 for
Signature with volume control
Phono fanatics with both space
and cash will want to audition this
24-tube, two (large) chassis beauty. Yes, it eats shelf space; yes, it
throws a lot of heat; and yes, it is
as good as it gets. Exquisite
dynamic contrasts? Check. An
easy, relaxed presentation?
Check. Headroom to spare?
February 2006 issue #159
H P ’ S WO R K S H O P
Golden Ear Awards, and a
Short Think Piece on Digital Domination
Harry Pearson
Golden Ear Awards
ASR Emitter II Series 2005 integrated (fanfareintl.com)
Wyetech Sapphire 300B single-ended triode (wyetechlabs.com)
Integrated Turntable
VPI Super Scoutmaster Signature (vpindustries.com)
Moving-Coil Phonograph Cartridges
Dynavector XV-1S (dynavector.co.jp)
Benz Micro LP Ebony (musicalsurroudings.com)
Compact Disc Players
47/Lab PiTracer CD transport and Gemini converter (sakurasystems.com)
Jadis JD-1 player and JS-1 digital converter (pierregabriel.com)
Bluenote Stibbert (fanfareintl.com)
Nordost Thor power-distribution system (nordost.com)
Multichannel Equipment
EMM Labs CD/SD SACD playback deck (onahighernote.com)
EMM Labs DAC-6e SACD digital-to-analog converter (onahighernote.com)
Edge Electronics G AV 55 modular amp (500-watt module version) (edgeamps.com)
ASR Emitter II Model 2005
his amplifier not only joins the rank of
the great classics of audio design, like,
say, the Audio Research D-150 and
Reference 600s, but also actually advances
the art in its fiendishly clever integration
of a battery-powered linestage into the
amp itself. It sounds as if there is no
linestage at all in the circuit.
The battery-powered linestage is, I
am sure, partly responsible for the vanishingly low noise floor of this high-
powered, solid-state component. If there
is a “new wave” in high-end sound, and
I maintain there is, it lies in those components—like the Dynavector XV-1S
moving coil, the VPI Scoutmaster
Signature, and ASR’s own battery-powered Basis phonostage—that have so
lowered the noise floor that we, the listeners, are able to hear much more
deeply into the recorded soundspace.
But it isn’t just the lowering of the
noise floor that accounts for some of this
amp’s magic; it is also the reduction of
what Lew Johnson (of connie-j) calls
$25,000 and $3500
“the grunge.” You can decrease the noise
floor of a given component and still hear
above that its electronic or mechanical
signature. In the case of tubes, we have
called this “tube rush,” and in solid-state
gear we have heard it as a kind of subtle
electronic hash or fine-grained sandiness
or electronic glaze.
I came at this backwards when I
noted the way the Emitter allowed a listener to hear through both the compact
disc and the analog LP in a new way,
without their usual seemingly inherent
sonic signatures—the kinds of anom-
H P ’ S WO R K S H O P
alies you just learn to listen around.
Their absence was startling in the case of
the best CDs—e.g., Mercury’s two-disc
set of The Composer and His Orchestra and
the XRCD transfer of The Planets from
the Decca/London original. The best discs
didn’t sound “digital” in the way we have
all come to dread. I just wish I knew,
technically, how the designer Freidrich
Schäfer accomplished this. Especially
since his amps contain two of the solidstate bad boys—op amps and no fewer
than 20 MOSFETs, in the past, sure indicators of rocks in the sonic belfry.
Since I wrote that review, I have gotten hold the of a second ASR (on loan,
naturally) and assigned it the task of
driving the bass towers of the Nola
Grand Reference, thus replacing the
Antique Sound Labs Hurricanes. The
200-watt Hurricane monoblocks were
more than an acceptable match with the
woofer system—four 12-inch ported
drivers per channel that operate below
40Hz—surprisingly so, and in contradistinction to the usual mythology
about tubes and deep bass. Once the second ASR was in place, the shortcomings, comparatively speaking, of the
Hurricanes became obvious: an overly
romantic mellowness in the 30-to-40Hz
range and just enough tube grunge to
create a slightly veiled masking effect.
With the ASR on the woofer towers,
not only was there an articulation and
purity in the bottom frequencies (well
down toward the lower 20Hz mark), but
we could now hear deeper into the stage,
getting even more ambient information
from the recording site and a much
clearer picture of the relative “size” of
instruments from bass drum to bassoon.
Some of the improvement was actually
audible in the harmonics well above the
woofers’ range—and I mean well above.
There was a richer field of harmonic
information past the middle frequencies.
The principal gain in ambience retrieval
came in two ways: (1) with an enhanced
sense of the actual depth and delineation
of real space from front to back, and (2)
in our ability to hear the sounds of the
acoustic shell surrounding players in a
real space, i.e., the walls of the stage
“sounding” as instruments are being
played. This furthers the sense that you
are in that space with the players instead
of listening to a replica of the original
sound. (I am assuming here that those of
you who are serious listeners will have
damped the sidewalls of your music
room to minimize their interplay with
the hall sounds.)
As we discussed originally, because
of the absence of a separate AC-powered
linestage we have been able to plug both
phonostages and CD players directly
into the ASR’s battery-operated input,
and, when it strikes our fancy, to compare both balanced and unbalanced outputs if the gear in question has balanced
outputs. This has given us a much clearer picture (see our notes on CD players
below) of the real capabilities of the new
generation of digital playback gear.
And, again, as noted, we found that
using the balanced inputs does make a
difference in further lowering the perceived noise floor of the playback gear
and, to our ears, in improving the tonal
balance of the sound, perhaps simply
because we can hear more deeply into
the soundspace. Oddly, methinks, the
top octaves become sweeter, more
dimensional, and seemingly better at
the rendition of dynamic contrasts.
The ASR does have a sonic “character,” and that is a “yin”-like darkening of
the original. It is certainly not as neutral
as say the best of the early Bill Johnsondesigned tubed amplifiers, nor is it as
Symphony Hall (Boston) golden in
sound as the best conrad-johnson work.
But it doesn’t sound like either “solidstate” or “tubes,” a distinction even the
audio neophyte can usually make
instantly—in this respect, the ASR is
essentially colorless. It has so much output power (greater, I would think, that
the nominal 275 watt-per-channel rating) that it has the ability to float effortlessly over the most intense fortissimos I
can throw at it (and don’t think for a
moment I am not expert at this). Put all
of this together and you, perhaps, can
see why I am wrung in the withers over
the yin of its character.
Mechanically, things are a bit more
complicated. And the ASR is a bit
kinky. It is best to turn it off if you aren’t
going to be around for extended periods
of time, and best, if you are going to be
around but not playing it, to let its batteries recharge (they are good for 100
hours of play) and to be careful not to
send transient pulses through it, lest you
shut it down. Also, it sounds best after it
has been in the operating position—that
is, at full power—for 30 or so minutes.
Oh, yes, we have begun to test its
abilities with other speaker systems.
From the field reports I hear, the ASR can
drive even a difficult and cantankerous
load, such as the big Wilson speakers.
(SEE FULL REVIEW, ISSUE 152, PP. 104–119)
Wyetech Sapphire 300B singleended- triode monoblock
f you do not insist on overtaxing this
unit with high playback levels on lowsensitivity speakers—those, say, with
less than 95 or so decibels of measured
sensitivity—you’ll be in for the same
surprise as I was. Up until the Sapphires,
SET amplifiers struck me as having a
similar sonic signature despite the
design differences of their individual circuits. That is to say, SET amplifiers had
a “soft” bottom octave, a somewhat protuberant and romantic midbass, a très
sweet midrange, and a vanishing top
octave. Perhaps in a narrow band of the
midrange, they sounded “purer,” more
“alive,” even a shade faster than they did
elsewhere in the frequency range.
Now it seems that the more recent
work with the better SET designs has
licked this characteristic commonality
and that SETs are finally coming into
their own, if we can find good-enough
high-sensitivity speaker systems to take
advantage of their strengths. (Some veterans of the audio wars may remember
how a five-watt amp could drive the
bejeezus out of the biggest and best
designs in the latter days of the mono
LP.) With a speaker system both flat and
highly sensitive and with a not-so-sensitive but highly neutral speaker from
Audio Physic, the Caldera, I have been
playing single-ended games.
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