Hi-Fi Choice - August 2011
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PASSION FOR SOUND August 2011
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Real-world high-end: Audio || |
Note’s Zero system puts |
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PD 1 DAC worth
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66 €3
AUDIO NOTE ZERO SYSTEM: CD/II, IZERO AND AZ-TWO
CD PLAYER (£1,742), AMPLIFIER (£1,548), LOUDSPEAKER (£1,294)
DETAILS
PRODUCT:
Audio Note CD/II,
IZero, AZ-Two
ORIGIN:
Lithuania/(speakers)
Denmark
TYPE:
CD player, integrated
line level tube
amplifier, two-
way bi-wireable
quarter-wave design
loudspeaker (with
simple crossover)
WEIGHT:
3.5kg, 7kg, 14kg
DIMENSIONS:
CD/Il and
IZero (WxHxD)
300x96x310mm,
AZ Two (WxHxD)
250x900x300mm
FEATURES:
e (CD/II) Philips
L1210 CD transport
modified by
Audio Note
* TDA 1543 DAC —
used without
upsampling and
AA filterless
* Long-life 6111WA
tube used for the
analogue output
* Coaxial digital
output
* (IZero) Paired
SWRPA] ES
delivering 8-watt
output per channel
e Special Audio Note-
designed mains and
output transformers
* Short signal paths
* Class A output
over most of the
operational range
* Long-life tubes
(AZ-Two) Folded
parabolic rear-
loaded quarter-wave
quasi-horn
TS A1
8-inch bass/mid
3/4inch tweeter
* Wood pulp or hemp
bass/mid driver
(wood pulp
extra £250)
DISTRIBUTOR:
Audio Note (UK Ltd)
TELEPHONE:
01273 731498
I SL
audionote.co.uk
Choice AUGUST 2011
Why Zero
E
Is our hero
Makers of some of the most exotic hi-fi on the
planet, Audio Note’s Zero system is, says
igh-end audio tends
to be a tad expensive.
When a manufacturer
sets out to employ
specialised military-grade internal
components that are large and
massively over-specified, you
can’t expect prices to be low.
Nevertheless, some high-end
manufacturers relish the challenge
of designing products that deliver
a taste of high-end performance
at more wallet-friendly prices.
After all, it’s not easy to produce
Jimmy Hughes, refreshingly affordable
outstanding results within tight
budget constraints, but Audio
Note's Zero System aims to do
just that. It offers high-level
performance at prices that
are realistic.
Individually, each item boasts
sonically excellent results which
compare favourably with similarly
priced (and more expensive)
competition. But, at the same
time, there's the promise of
something more: an overall
result that’s greater than the
WorldMags
sum of the parts. And it's when you
put the whole thing together that
the magic begins.
IIA Df:
In keeping with the minimalist
ethos of high end, each Zero System
component is a simple no-frills
design. Audio Note takes a less-is-
more approach, so don’t expect to
find anything more than the absolute
basics. The Zero integrated amplifier
offers four line-level inputs, plus a
set of loudspeaker outputs. There's a
volume control and an input selector,
and that’s it!
The Zero CD/II CD player is only
a little less Spartan: you get the
usual operational controls, a single
set of unbalanced analogue outputs,
plus a digital output.
A remote handset is supplied with
the CD player and there are buttons
for direct track-selection and fast-
search, a button to dim or turn off
the illuminated display, plus buttons
for repeat (one track or the whole
disc), random track playback and
time — either track elapsed time,
remaining time (track or disc) and
LE der
VALVE CD PLAYER
www.hifichoice.co.uk
total elapsed time. There are
additional buttons for volume
and input selection that,
unfortunately, have no effect
on the [Zero amplifier.
Both amp and CD player feature
tubes. The amplifier employs four
ECL82 output tubes (two per
channel), run in Class A up to
about 80 per cent of their power
and then switched to Class A/B.
The CD player features a single
6111WA tube in the analogue
output stage, with a Philips TDA
1543 filterless DAC used without
up-sampling. The transport is a
modified Philips L1210. The 6111WA
tube is soldered in place and Audio
Note claims its lifespan should
exceed 100,000 hours.
Retro appearance
Audio Note offers its Zero electronics
with a choice of fascia plates — silver
alloy, or black acrylic. Our review
samples came in the former and look
understated, but smart.
There’s nothing flashy about the
build quality. Each item is nicely
finished, but the plain somewhat ‘boxy’
TEGRATED AMPLIFIER
www. hifichoice.co.uk
AUDIO NOTE ZERO SYSTEM: CD/II, IZERO AND AZ-TWO
CD PLAYER (£1,742), AMPLIFIER (£1,548), LOUDSPEAKER (£1,294)
“The ECL82 tubes help
ensure a gorgeously
smooth and richly
detailed sound.”
styling means there’s not much ‘wow’
factor. Both amplifier and CD player
exude a distinct retro appearance
and will appeal to those who prefer
hi-fi with a traditional look.
The AZ Two loudspeakers can
be obtained in black ash, rosewood,
beech, or cherry veneers and again
styling is fairly traditional. No grilles
are supplied, but these can be bought
as accessories for about £60. Given
all this, it’s unlikely that anyone
will choose the Zero system for
‘battleship build quality’ or stylish
appearance. So, whether or not it
offers good value is intimately
related to how highly you rate its
sound quality.
The CD/II and AZ-Two speakers
are both very fine-sounding products
that will easily stand comparison
with comparably priced (and
dearer) equivalents from other
manufacturers. The CD player is
especially good, giving a rich
warm, yet open tonality that is
unusually ‘analogue’ in nature.
The amplifier is excellent too.
While its lack of power makes it
expensive on a pound-per-watt
basis and limits its usage to efficient
speakers only; it sounds absolutely
gorgeous — the audio equivalent of
smooth rich chocolate!
Lively and assertive
Since the [Zero amplifier offers
just eight watts per channel, power
output could be an issue. Fortunately,
the speakers offer reasonably high
sensitivity (around 93dB) and make
the most of the power available.
They seem fairly easy to drive, too;
our guess is they don’t represent
a nasty difficult load and this helps
maximise the IZero’s limited output.
The innate naturalness of the
amplifiers ECL82 output tubes helps
ensure a gorgeously smooth and
richly detailed sound that has
excellent clarity and definition.
And, allthough ‘only’ eight watts,
the sound has remarkable presence,
AUGUST 2011
WorldMags
'
TALKING
POINT
WITHOUT DOUBT,
the main technical
feature of Audio
Note CD players
and DACs is their
avoidance of
oversampling and
an anti-aliasing
filter. When CD
was new, many
unconvinced
audiophiles pointed
to limitations in CD’s
16-bit/ 44.1kHz
specifications. The
reason CD did not
sound as good as
analogue was, it was
said, the inadequacy
of 16-bit/44.1kHz
technology to
capture subtle
tones and
delicate dynamics.
Is the way-forward
to find evermore
clever ways of
‘tricking’ 16-bit/
44.1kHz CDs into
performing as
though the bit
rate and sampling
frequency were
much higher? That's
certainly what many
CD players and discs
seem to promise,
and the benefits of
this approach seem
very plausible. Or,
is getting better
sound from CD
achieved by greater
precision and
increased accuracy?
But what if the
real limitation with
CD (and digital)
is down to the
implementation
of the technology
used? On the
basis that the
cure is worse
than the Disease,
many recommend
getting rid of the
AA filter altogether.
Although the
measured
performance of
filterless DACs is not
encouraging, the
results subjectively
seem very good.
>
Choice 57
=
REVIEW
Q&A...
WE SPOKE WITH AUDIO NOTES
PETER QVORTRUP
2 AZ NAS
HFC: What are the benefits of
having a filterless DAC and why do
you avoid oversampling?
PQ: Non-oversampling and filterless
DAC technology offers several
advantages sonically. The energy of
the notes is more focused and the
bass Is better defined, allowing you
to hear subtle timbral differences
between bass notes more readily.
On massed voices, you heara more
open individual character, removing
that nasty glassy ‘sheen’ most digital
suffers from at higher frequencies.
Each note has more intensity and
there's awider range oftone colours.
Whatabout measurements?
Unfortunately, none ofthese sonic
improvements are measureable.
Indeed, filterless DACs measure
quite poorly in many respects. But,
since Audio Note strives exclusively
for superior sonic performance,
measurements always take a back
seat ifthe listening experience
confirms better sound.
What’s wrong with oversampling?
Oversamplingis a corrective
mechanism and performs largely
the same function in digital circuits
that negative feedback does in
amplifiers; it improves the measured
performance, while significantly
degrading sound quality. This is
really obvious when you compare an
oversampling DACto one where the
oversampling has been removed.
Audio Note realised this back in
1995 and we’re surprised no-one
else seems to have noticed. Non-
oversampling DACs were used inthe
early days of CD, but with aggressive
‘brick wall’ analogue filters — which
have an even bigger adverse effect on
sound than oversampling.
What were your reasons for
choosing the ECL 82?
The ECL82 is atriode-pentode. It
contains the driver/phase splitter
within one glass envelope, which
brings significant cost advantages.
In addition, the ECL82 produces a
really gorgeous sound — something
that makes smaller amplifiers like the
|Zero special and unique.
58 HifiChoice AUGUST 2011
AUDIO NOTE ZERO SYSTEM: CD/II, IZERO AND AZ-TWO
CD PLAYER (£1,742), AMPLIFIER (£1,548), LOUDSPEAKER (£1,294)
CONNECTIONS
YVIARNING!
Fr maT EL a TN
© Mains on/off switch
@ Digital output
O Speaker outputs
plus surprising weight and drive,
with impressively crisp transients.
When partnered with sensitive
speakers, like the AZ-Twos, you
never suspect the IZero has so
little power — it sounds unfeasibly
immediate and assertive. If you
push it past its power limits, the
sound tends to compress slightly
and maybe gets a wee-bit congested.
But, on most music, most of the
time, you can play as loudly as
you like without obvious power-
limitation problems.
The CD Zero/II provides a smooth,
clean, refined-sounding source that
combines dynamic presence with
a rich, beguiling silky-liquidity.
It really is a CD player for those
who don't like CD.
TECH LABS
The AZ-Two loudspeakers make
the absolute most of what they're
given, sounding lively and assertive,
with lots of brilliance and detail.
A slight forwardness in the upper
midband, ensures the music projects
into the room with plenty of
authority and presence.
We used the Zero system in a
fairly large room and found it able
to fill the space with relative ease.
It went as loud as we would ever
want. Even on uncompressed
recordings of vocal music (opera,
choral, classical lieder), which
normally test low-powered amps
to destruction, the system covered
its tracks. If the amp was under
pressure, it hardly ever showed
signs of distress.
RESULTS AT A GLANCE - IZERO AMP
Excellent
Above
average
A — В —
Below _
Poor
Noe AO:
VerygoodS/N
ratiointhe
extremes ofthe
audio spectrum
RESPONSE: ne
20Hz-20kHz+/- OUTPUT:
2.5dB 2W(0.5% THD)
Down 1dB by into 8 ohms Good
20Hzwhich could output power at
be detrimentalto ourdistortion
the sound reference
THD AT 10W:
9%. At higher hâte a 14
levelsthe degrees. Phase
| Zero’s fidelity between the
drops quickly channels is
maintained
exceptionally well
www.hifichoice.co.uk
HIDDEN TECH
бр Tube
O Output transformers
We're not recommending this
system for headbangers. But,
although (on paper) somewhat
Challenged in the wattage stakes,
lack of amplifier power is much
less of an issue than you might
think. On rock or classical, the
sound is sharp, transparent; very
clean and nicely balanced. It's subtle
and delicate, yet suitably gutsy
and immediate when the music
demands muscle.
As previously mentioned, the tonal
balance exhibits a mild degree of
upper midband forwardness and this
sometimes results in a sense of
peakiness. However, after listening
for a few minutes, this impression
diminishes and one quickly adjusts to
what's on offer.
The AZ-Two is very good at pitch-
differentiation and has excellent
timing. You're literally drawn into the
music. We found the Zero system
TECH LABS
RESULTS AT A GLANCE - ZERO CDI
ÓN
AUDIO NOTE ZERO SYSTEM CD/II, IZERO AND AZ-TWO
CD PLAYER (£1,742), AMPLIFIER (£1,548), LOUDSPEAKER (£1,294) REVI EWS
©) Disc transport
O Mains transformer
© Disc clamp
63 Output tubes
© Mains transformer
© Input selector
very good at conveying the impression
of people singing or playing in a unified
coherent manner, so that the music
(and performance) makes sense.
Our review samples had hemp-
coned bass/ mid drivers. What's
more, the clarity and definition
proved excellent, conveying a clear
impression of forward momentum.
HOW IT
COMPARES
ASKING HOW MUCH
power output is
necessary is like
asking ‘how long is
a piece of string?’
ie Much depends
Subjectively, the speakers produce on the sensitivity
nicely extended bass — the bottom (efficiency) of the
speakers. The more
end might not seem obviously ‘full efficient they are,
or powerful, but it’s clean and free the less hard an
from smearing. Claimed low- amplifier will need
to work.
frequency point is about 28Hz,
but we found a reasonably healthy
output down to 20Hz. Placing the
speakers near to walls or corners
will increase bass output.
Audio Note's IZero
amplifier only offers
eight watts per
channel, but what
it lacks in muscle,
it more than makes
up for in refinement.
The IZero produces
A winning combination
| a very smooth
Audio Notes Zero system 1s a flowing “liquid sort
great advertisement for the benefits of sound.
A larger more
of partnering a good low-powered powerful amplios
might well be
able to play much
louder than the
little IZero, but the
resulting sound
won't necessarily
Excellent
Above _
seem quite so
effortlessly smooth,
average
Average natural, and ‘real’.
Belo It’s like comparing a
average powerful car engine
Poor = 1 | with a smaller one;
the latter is likely
OUTPUT LEVEL: THD+N: (0dBFS) FREQUENCY CROSSTALK: DYNAMIC is ha tar mors
(OdBFS). 0.3%; 0.32% RESPONSE: @ 10kHz(Lto RANGE: 85dB responsive, though
3.020Vrms(L); (-20dBFS); 7.95% 20H7-20kHz R):-61dB; (Rto 10dB difference its top speed will
3.081Vrms(R). — (60dBFS),At +/-0.36dB L):-67dB. Fairly betweenchannels, be limited
Outputsarewell lowerlevelsthe (+/-1.834dBL, poorresultfora althoughthe ;
matched,though channelsperform +/-1.832dBR) modern CD player rangeis maintained
possiblya littlehot verydifferentfrom Thechannelsare acrossthe
one another well matched audio band
www.hifichoice.co.uk
amp with sensitive
It's a winning combination of
cohesiveness and integration;
loudspeakers.
brilliance and detail; dynamics
and attack. With each individual
component being very well matched,
the overall result is superb and,
as we ve already indicated, as
separates they need no excuses
making for them.
Obviously, the lack of power is a
potential limitation that needs
consideration. But,
when partnered
with an efficient loudspeaker like the
AZ-Two, even this is hardly an issue.
Indeed, if you play your Zero system
at full tilt, you’ll probably get
complaints from your neighbours! @
Choice
SOUND QUALITY LIKE:Rich, smooth, open
w x Y w Y anddetailed sound
VALUE FOR MONEY DISLIKE: No digital input
x sr 37 эт and it would have been
usefulifvolume control
BUILD QUALITY worked with amp
Xx Xx Xx Xx WE SAY: With its fine
ECATURES performance, this reallyis
a CD player forthose who
x XX
OVERALL
x KX KX KX
don’tlike CD
Choice
OUR VERDICT - IZERO
SOUND QUALITY LIKE: Clean, open, natural,
w * w Wo Y tonallyrealistic sound
QUE rors and imitedoutputponer.
XX XXX |
WE SAY: The innate
BUILD QUALITY naturalness ofthe lZero’s
TREX Xx output tubes makes fora
EE Dre fine performer that provides
a catalyst for both CD player |
Xx Xx XX and loudspeakers
OVERALL
XXXIX
Choice
OUR VERDICT - AZ-TWO
SOUND QUALITY
x KX KK
VALUE FOR MONEY
x KX XK
BUILD QUALITY
xX XX
EASE OF DRIVE
He AA
OVERALL
LIKE: Sensitive, immediate,
good bass for size
DISLIKE: Slight emphasis
in the presence region
WE SAY: Thisisthe perfect
partner in this system,
delivering allthe best
attributes ofthe CD player
and amp, togetherwith
excellent definition
xX KX XX
AUGUST 2011 HifiChoice 59
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