absolute sounds ltd.
International Distributors & Consultants of Specialised Hi-End Audio & Video Systems
VOLUME 49 Part Two
detailed advice on all aspects of component-matching, compatibility, and ultimately
the suitability of the purchase of a system or single component.
Dear Music Lover,
We have assembled a team of like-minded, passionate consultants, and these local
specialists will assist you with the design and installation of your chosen system
or component. In some instances, we will further assist the dealer with the home
installation process. Never has high-end audio been more pleasurable, and never
has there been less of a reason to compromise. All you need to do is invite us to
help you create a superlative music system.
One of my favourite traditions, our annual newsletter provides an ideal opportunity
to offer you an insight into Absolute Sounds’ direction and our philosophy in today’s
music scene.
When I founded Absolute Sounds in 1977, having come from the music industry,
my goal was clear: I wanted to bring the very finest components from around the
world into the UK. Such devices were incredibly rare at the time, and I felt proud to
help enable British music lovers to savour sound reproduction at its very best in
the home, in a way no local manufacturer or vendor had attempted. The reference
then as now remains the same: to reproduce the shimmering thrill of live music, of a
magnitude only matched by a well-positioned seat at a live performance in a studio,
concert hall, or club. Although we keep experiencing the latest products from all
around the audio world, we’ve never referenced audio equipment against other
pieces of audio equipment, because that way deviates from the original musical
Today’s overriding obsession in the world of consumer electronics is “convenience”,
coupled to the insidious by-product of having all the sound and none of the music.
The audio and music industries are concentrating on making greater access to
music through the mass production of gadgets which may look cool, but whose
convenience has come at the expense of sound quality. For the portrayal of an
authentic-sounding musical event you need scale, power, realism, authority, and
dynamics – and that is what our systems deliver.For those music lovers who are
thinking of a new system or an upgrade to an existing one as a reward for their
hard work, we offer an unparalleled service aimed at offering comprehensive and
It is always a pleasure for me, through this expanded newsletter, to thank readers
who have entrusted us with their future upgrade plans. We take this seriously
because we always endeavour to offer our carefully-considered recommendations,
tailored to your precise musical needs. All we ask is for your patience, as assembling
and personalising the best bespoke systems can take time. The reward for this
patience is our assurance that you will experience complete and thrilling satisfaction
at the end of the process.
Our newsletter concludes with a ‘press lounge’ delivering our contributors’ views on
the current topics frequently discussed in the high-end audio industry. To this end,
I wish to thank Martin Colloms, Michael Fremer, Robert Harley, Ken Kessler, Nöel
Keywood, Paul Messenger, and Alan Sircom for their invaluable contributions. I also
wish to thank all of our manufacturers for their assistance with their respective
pages in the catalogue. Uniquely, to ensure that you sample the spirit of every brand
directly, we have solicited their own entries, written at source, and thus making the
Absolute Sounds catalogue unique in this respect.
Musically yours,
Ricardo Franassovici,
Absolute Sounds
Our newsletter is more than just the typical sales pitch designed to showcase
products in a favourable light. Yes, of course we have an extensive report on the latest
and greatest high-performance high-end audio equipment in our portfolio of the best
of the best. But more than that, this newsletter is a guide to the ideas and ethos that
drives Absolute Sounds to keep improving what sounds good, plus comments from
outstanding guest writers in the industry, and more.
We are extremely proud of our portfolio of carefully chosen bespoke audio
components; the kind of devices that mainstream brands simply could not produce.
These are products made as the result of passion for good music, not a desire
to make a fast buck. Consequently, many of these brands are the brainchildren of
passionate individuals; from Gabi Rijnveld at Crystal Cable and Dan D’Agostino at Dan
D’Agostino Master Audio Systems through to Alon Wolf at Magico, Karen Sumner
at Transparent Audio and the father-and-son team of Dave and Daryl Wilson at
Wilson Audio, these companies are driven by driven people, and the direction of travel
is consistent in terms of sound, performance, and build quality. We like to think our
own input in selecting and building high-end audio systems is born out of the same
passion and intensity.
in recent months is the inclusion of digital experts dCS into the portfolio. This is a
new departure for both Absolute Sounds and dCS because neither have sought UK
distribution for a UK brand before, but we feel this is more like a meeting of minds than
a simple business transaction. We are both looking for the pinnacle of performance,
and now the drives coincide. We have to admit that prior to the Version 2.0 firmware
and hardware upgrades to the Vivaldi, we did not feel the dCS sound was a good fit
with our ethos, but all that began to change with the Rossini player and subsequent
upgrades to the Vivaldi. Where before we respected the direction dCS was taking,
now we can add that the products sonically live up to their outstanding objective
This passion for good sound doesn’t come cheap. We’d love to find products that
are the result of a similar drive to provide stunning sound at bargain prices, but
we’ve all too often found that in cutting back the price, something gets lost in the
process. Regrettably, often what gets lost is the sonic performance. There are some
outstanding products at all prices in audio, but it’s difficult to reconcile cost-no-object
performance when cost is a major consideration. However, we continue to look for
the best and the brightest stars in the audio firmament irrespective of cost.
A core part of our ethos is to go where the sound takes us, and this has posed
something of a problem recently. We still maintain that the sound of well-engineered
digital disc replay outperforms stored or streamed media, and this is being realised
by many as CD slips out of favour and new players become increasingly hard to find.
In order of performance (where performance is uppermost), we still think the vinyl LP
and reel-to-reel tape have yet to be bettered, but these are followed by SACD and CD
replay, with ‘non-physical media’ at the back of the pack. However, one of the reasons
why we are so excited by the inclusion of dCS in the portfolio is the company is one of
a handful of brands that has revolutionised streaming and brought it closer to being
in harmony with the spinning disc. The streaming and stored music capabilities of the
dCS Vivaldi – along with that of The Beast by ReQuest Audio, the Kalista DAC and the
Music Centre 1 by Métronome Technologie – are truly state of the art and catching
up with the sound of spinning polycarbonate discs. We still maintain that streaming
still has a long way to come before it is fully realised as a viable alternative to CD, but
we are pleased to be closing the gap!
To this end, perhaps the biggest news in the Absolute Sounds high-end community
So, what is the core ethos of Absolute Sounds? Ricardo Franassovici, managing
director of Absolute Sounds spent many years working in the music business before
shaping the high-end audio world, and those years in Rock ‘n’ Roll helped define the
company and its philosophy. It remains his desire to bring the sensation of the live
studio, concert hall, and arena back to the home. To this end, Absolute Sounds has
avoided the trap of comparing products to an audiophile baseline and instead focused
on the real deal, not the audiophile recreation. A large part of this original ethos is
derived from the work of the late pioneering audio writer Harry Pearson, who strived
to compare audio components to a benchmark of unamplified instruments in a live
acoustic environment. However, this can be too narrow a definition, and we have
extended this definition to include the live event in all its visceral, dynamic glory. It’s
as important to incorporate the sound of a Fender Strat played through a Marshall
stack on stage as it is to include the sound of a lone cellist playing in a reverberant
Our ambition is to be able to build systems that recreate this live event better than
most, and to be able to communicate that live musical passion to anyone, not simply
those seeking an audiophile soundstage or fine detail. The finer things in life are easily
identifiable even to those not well versed in those finer things; we know by feel, weight,
build, finish, appearance, and use when we are holding a high-quality writing instrument,
even if we’ve never heard of Mont Blanc or Omas. Someone who has only eaten
hamburger meat before would be able to tell the difference between brisket and
porterhouse, and it doesn’t need the palette of an oenophile to nose and taste the
difference between wine from a box and a glass of Ch. Margaux. So it is with good
audio, when properly selected, carefully matched, and correctly installed.
In referencing the music, not other components, common themes emerge. Central to
this is simplicity of – and a respect toward – the signal path. Many of our products avoid
being festooned with extraneous tone controls and loudness buttons, and internally
go to great lengths to minimise the number of components in the way of the music.
Often, this means just a few resistors and capacitors in the pathway, held on circuit
boards with unusually large copper tracks for the best possible signal integrity. This
also typically means drawing upon a single brand of cable for interconnect, loudspeaker,
and mains use. The analogy here is one of many voices, all singing in tune.
We have also found that ‘tweaking’ a system with aftermarket devices is all too often
an expression of the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We have
to admit to taking something of a wrong turn – as did many – in the 1980s, where we
got caught up in the ‘tweak trap’ of experimenting with accessories that changed the
sound, yet rarely improved it. While this can be a fun diversion, the key word in the first
part of this sentence is ‘diversion’ – since re-evaluating the world of ‘tweaking’ systems,
we have rarely (if ever) found these devices to have a universally positive effect on an
audio system. Our advice today, mindful of those years of messing around with hocus
pocus, is simple: stick to the basics. Build a system to a high standard, place it in the
context of commensurately high standard cables and equipment support systems,
and enjoy it. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is not required to extract a good sound
from a good system, and once it is installed to deliver the best possible performance
at the outset, leave well alone and enjoy the music that system makes.
Audio has a unique position within the consumer ‘zeitgeist’. It is perceived as the
‘old man of consumer electronics’ whereas in fact it’s still relatively young by some
standards. The quest for high fidelity (as opposed to the drive to be able to play music
in the home to adequate performance levels) really began in the mid to late 1950s,
by which time the world already had most of its white goods (toasters, refrigerators,
washing machines, etc). The birth of the high-end audio movement began in the 1970s
(after William Z Johnson of Audio Research began to re evaluate the importance
of tube amplification in a solid-state world), by which time the burgeoning computer
industry had sprung to life and the benefits of the space race were beginning to be
felt in the home. Moreover, high-performance cars, cameras, pens, and watches all
predate high-fidelity audio by dozens or even hundreds of years. In other words, highend audio has reached a level of maturity with age, but it’s not quite ‘over the hill’ yet.
With the continued rise and improvements in streaming and other changes in the
high-end audio world, we expect it to continue to be a fascinating and fluid market for
years to come.
However, with this maturity comes a drive to go for classics, rather than the flavour
of the month. This is a double-edged sword, as it can lead to being too conservative
and rejecting outstanding new products simply because they are new, or it can mean
taking on newcomers that may come and go with a sharp trajectory. In continuing
to strive for the best, we try to look for brands with staying power, discovering and
nurturing future classics to work alongside today’s masterpieces, and still retain a
good ‘hit rate’. And this means we always look forward to what tomorrow may bring!
However, if tomorrow bears fruit as sweet as today’s new products in the Absolute
Sounds portfolio, the future is bright.
The company has gone from strength to strength, and now extends its scope with
a new entry point. The Integrated 1.0 amplifier delivers much of the performance
common to Constellation Audio components at an attainable cost. The ‘dream
team’ of the world’s best designers pull together to create each Constellation Audio
product, and that applies just as much to products in the Inspiration line, as it does to
the company’s more up-market Performance and Reference models.
And in the Performance line, the latest Centaur II stereo and Centaur II mono power
amplifiers are a paradigm shift in what is thought possible from a power amplifier.
Pulling in many of the design concepts of the mighty Hercules II power amps from the
Reference range, the 250W designs don’t just deliver effortless power, but do so in a
manner far beyond what you thought possible from solid-state designs.
Our collection has grown extensively during 2016, and here are just some of the
The Minnesota based electronics experts have been exceptionally busy this year. Not
only has the company radically improved its top Reference 250 and 750 monoblocs,
bringing them to ‘SE’ level with the inclusion of the outstanding KT150 power tube, but
also the brand announced a completely new line. The new Foundation series, currently
comprising of the DAC streamer DAC9, line preamplifier the LS28, and phono stage
the PH9, is derived from the Reference series, but sets new standards of price vs
Audio Research’s product line now takes on a commanding lead in the high-end amplifier
stakes. The company’s Reference 6 line preamplifier and Reference Phono 3 phono
stage have already moved into the realm of true ‘classic’ products despite still being
comparatively new. With products of this calibre, we are truly in a golden age of Audio
Research, and some of the best sounds we’ve ever heard have been coming out of
the latest Reference designs.
This year sees the welcome return of an old friend, in the shape of Continuum Audio
Labs. The company set a new standard of turntable replay with its previous Caliburn
turntable and arm combinations, and the new Obsidian turntable and Viper arm look
set to follow suit.
The new turntable differs from its predecessor by eschewing vacuum hold-down
systems and instead is a plinthless design with an isolated arm board. The turntable
features a massively oversided bearing for best possible sonic integrity, a nested
platter in the style of its predecessor, but this time treated to ten year’s worth of
improvement in finite element analysis measurement. The result is a turntable that
– like the original – changes everything you ever thought you knew about turntable
A busy year for D’Agostino, as the company has improved the performance of its
popular Momentum 250W stereo and 400W mono power amplifiers, added an
awesome phono stage to the Momentum line, and introduced a wholly new high-power
Progression power amplifier line, starting with the Progression Mono amps, which
are capable of delivering up to 2,000W into a two ohm loudspeaker load.
What Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems has done here is address all the needs
of any amplifier user. Whether you are after a rich, tube-like amplifier or a clean, detailed
powerhouse with endless current delivery, the latest amplifiers do it all!
diamond-coated beryllium tweeters, new crossovers, panels, and more, radically
improving every model in the line. From the S1 Mk II on up, Magico is proving to be a
force to be reckoned with in the high-end loudspeaker world, with loudspeakers that
combine absolute fidelity with high passion.
Our newest addition to the portfolio, Cambridge-based dCS has transformed its
performance with its Version 2.0 upgrades to the four box Vivaldi CD/SACD replay
system. Meanwhile, the company’s Rossini CD/DAC and clock system delivers much
of the Vivaldi’s high performance at a fraction of the cost. The company’s latest
product – its Network Bridge – brings much of the streaming performance of the
latest products to existing models and other brands
One of the constants in the audio world, MartinLogan doesn’t change products on
a daily basis. But this year the company launched a new hybrid electrostatic in its
Electromotion range, and an entire quartet of new products in its Masterpiece series,
with models ranging from the sublime and fully passive Classic ESL 9 that will fit snugly
in even the smallest room, through the active Impression ESL 11A and Expression
ESL 13A, right up to the awesome Renaissance ESL 15A. The active loudspeakers
can all benefit from Anthem room correction to produce the ultimate electrostatic
sound in the room. This is going to be an exciting year!
The European turntable and tube specialist has two new products this year; the
C-Major turntable, which brings the performance of the brand’s popular C-Sharp
turntable to a more attainable level, and the new E-Glo S hybrid phono amplifier.
EAT’s outstanding turntables combine high-performance, high end built quality, and
outstanding value for money, and the C-Major and E-Glo S both look set to continue
that trend
Our French digital friends have introduced a new Music Center 1 music server,
cd player/ripper and a new DAC the Kalista with dual DACs, one for PCM up to
24bits/192kHz and the other for higher resolution PCM files and DSD up to 512kHz.
Metronome has a commanding reputation for making some of the most insightful
and passionate digital sounds ever, and these two new designs from the brand are
every bit as breathtaking!
Experts in ultrasonic record cleaning, Klaudio have announced a stripped down version
of the popular LP200S cleaner, that lowers cost without any sacrifice in performance
Whether it’s making among the very best digital audio sounds its possible to make in
the Kalista, or building the best in digital audio music servers at an attainable cost in
the new Music Center 1, Metronome understands digital music perfectly!
As if uprating its existing S-series loudspeakers wasn’t enough for the San Franciscobased brand, the outstanding Magico LLC has also launched a completely new M3
floorstanding loudspeaker, which looks set to take the high-end world by storm. The
company is now revising its S range to include state-of-the-art graphene bass drivers,
Our most regularly affordable line, PrimaLuna manages to make valve-based
components that not only sound right, but look right and don’t cost a fortune. This all
happens thanks to Herman van den Dungen’s sublime skills at blending the affordable
with the elegant, and making a great sound in the process.
From the ProLogue Classic integrated amp to the DiaLogue Premium HP mono power
amplifiers, this sophisticated line of integrated amplifiers, CD players, preamplifiers,
and power amplifiers are shockingly good value for money.
SAT is a Swedish brand specialised in the development and production of very high
performance pick-up arms. SAT has taken the market by storm and established itself
as the reference pick up arm to sit on all serious super high end turntables. This is a
truly handmade product its supply is very limited. Michael Fremer who is probably the
most respected high end guru writers for analogue playback systems, bought one to
fit his Continuum Caliburn. What more can we say.
The Italian style-masters are concentrating on delicious variations on three classics
this year; the Elipsa Red, the Guarneri and the Amati Futura. Few loudspeakers look
quite as beautiful as these two designs, but they also have the performance to match
the looks.
The company also returned to its earliest roots this year with the Sf16 integrated
system. Reminscent of the original Franco Serblin ‘Snail’ design that was Sonus faber’s
first ever model. The Sf16 is a new departure for the brand, but one that combines
all the elegance of classic Sonus faber with all the convenience needed by tomorrow’s
music lover, today!
The Air Force line of turntables is now fully formed, with models ranging from the
outstanding Air Force One Premium to the attainable and flexible Air Force Three.
The Air Force One Premium builds on the already monumental strengths of the original
Air Force One, but adds superior air charging with more air chambers, an automatic
and constant air suspension level detection system, a better looking chassis and
redesigned and polished platter (with three platter options), improved circuitry and
power supply, and even a tapered spindle for greater record centring accuracy. In
other words, the best turntable in the world just got better!
Currently launching hit after hit at a rate of at least one loudspeaker per year, Wilson
Audio surprised us with the launch of both the ALEXX top-end modular floorstanding
loudspeaker and the Yvette integrated floorstanding loudspeaker designs, both
of which are proving immensely popular. These loudspeakers are changing what is
thought possible from loudspeaker designs at the top-end of the high-end and the
entry level respectively.
And the hits keep coming, too. We are expecting the imminent launch of the new
WAMM flagship loudspeaker. This cost-no-object statement design builds on the
strengths of the ALEXX and Alexandria XLF to deliver a giant loudspeaker of truly
awesome performance.
Watch this space!
Most music and audio enthusiasts have a fair collection of CDs. These remain widely
available, while newly released material keeps on coming, even though most CD material
may be streamed in real time from the internet, thus avoiding physical ownership and
storage. The second user market is also huge for CD, often with very keen pricing,
encouraging an enthusiast collector to add back catalogue.
If on-line ‘radio’ streaming, with its moderate quality losses, (even if it is improved with the
non data reduced ‘CD’ grade suppliers) is declined, there is the convenient alternative
of loading all your music into a local digital audio cache. This usually provides reliable
high quality replay, assuming you have put protective back up facilities in place. Such
a storage drive operates with a suitable app controlled streamer/DAC arrangement
and the benefits are undeniable. If considerable care is taken with devices and set up,
local HDD streamer sourced CD files can sound very, very good.
But some uncompromising audiophiles want to enjoy their physical collection of CD
format music at the very best possible quality, used with well set up audiophile systems
at £100,000 and more. There really is an audible improvement to be had from the CD
catalogue by replaying CDs in real time, either with a top class CD player or with a CD
transport/DAC combination of exacting performance.
App control may have to be exchanged for traditional hand held remote, and CDs will have
to be located and loaded into the transport, but if the replay system is well configured
there’s a definite reward. The differences are subtle but are as important musically
as they are emotionally. Stereo images are slightly bolder, musical expression is more
dynamic, while focus and spatiality are more precisely defined. The bass appears crisper
and bolder, and not least, the sense of pace and rhythm is stronger, more explicit, making
for more satisfying musical performances. The composed pauses and musical silences
carry more weight, and not least the sense of detail and emotional communication is
optimised. Hard to convey in words, you’ll know it when you’ve got it. Such near ineffable
gains are the DNA of audiophile sound quality.
Martin Colloms
Editor in Chief at HiFi Critic
A statistical blip in American
record shipments reported
by the RIAA during the first
half of 2016 has the vinyl
haters smelling blood in the
water. Compared to the first
half of 2015, shipments
dropped in the first half of
2016 from 9.2 million vinyl
records, worth $221.1 million
dollars to 8.4 million records
worth $207 million dollars.
That’s a 9.1% drop in units shipped or a 6.3% drop in wholesale revenue. After years of
strong growth, this is but a modest decline. That’s according to the RIAA.
One of the great promises of digital audio turned out to be more complicated than
anyone imagined. The promise was that because the digitally encoded music is
represented by a sequence of numbers, identical bits meant identical sound.
At the same time Nielsen Music (formerly Nielsen/Soundscan) reports that vinyl album
sales increased by 11.4 percent to 6.2 million albums sold in the first half (CD sales
dropped 11.6 percent). Nielsen also reported that first quarter of 2016 vinyl record
sales were up an astonishing 54% over the past year.
But that conventional wisdom overlooked an important dimension in the process of
converting binary bits into music: the timing of those bits. Specifically, the timing precision
with which the digital samples are put back together into an analog waveform turned
out to be crucial. This timing is controlled by a “clock,” a component found in every digital
audio device. The clock is the master time-keeper that tells the DAC chip exactly when
to convert each sample back to analog form—352,800 times per second in the case
of oversampled standard-resolution audio and some high-res formats.
So whom should you believe? Believe me of course! Vinyl sales have increased 260%
since 2009, Nielsen recently reported and based upon information I’ve obtained the
upward trend is sure to continue.
Firstly, the RIAA and Nielsen Music don’t catch all new record sales and by a good
percentage. According to a pressing plant survey spread-sheet I obtained earlier in
the year, approximately 80 million records were pressed in 2015. That’s a raw figure
including records later rejected and records that will become part of box sets that
count as a single record, so let’s cut the number by a third. That’s still about 55 million
records pressed in 2015—and not because the ordering entities wished to establish
large inventories of unsold records!
I addressed the Barnes & Noble national store manager’s convention in Orlando this
past September—about vinyl of course—and I was privy to their nationwide vinyl sales. I
can’t give you the numbers, but they made everyone smile and some gasp.
Turntable manufacturers are smiling. Some of the biggest are building new factories
while the smaller ones can’t keep up with demand. The same is true of cartridge
manufacturers big and small. Used record stores are having a great year too and if
you’ve ever been to record fair, the demographics are young.
Trust me, the vinyl future looks nothing by groovy!
Michael Fremer
Editor in Chief at Analogue Planet/ Freelance Journalist - Stereophile
The clock’s precision—or lack of—introduces an analog-like variability to sound quality,
even though the digital bits are identical. No clock is perfect—there will always be slight
timing variations from one clock pulse to the next. These variations, called “jitter,” collapse
the soundstage, cause individual instruments to become homogenized, add a glare to
timbre, make the treble hard, and interestingly, reduce bass definition and solidity.
Some companies have gone to great lengths to create clocks with very low jitter.
These clocks can be built into a digital-to-analog converter, or even be housed in their
own chassis. One company even offered for sale a rubidium-based atomic clock! I once
listened to an outboard digital-to-analog converter with and without an external highprecision clock, and was astounded and fascinated by the difference.
It’s hard to believe that tiny timing errors on the order of picoseconds are audible—
or that the same ones and zeros can sound different—but that’s the reality. A large
reason why today’s best DACs sound so good is because designers have gone to
heroic measures to reduce jitter.
Robert Harley
Editor-in-Chief of The Absolute Sound magazine and author of
The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, now in a fifth edition.
A pox on audiophiles who treat high-end audio as a religion
or a political statement. It is not. They have tainted it, made it
unappealing to “normal” people. Superior sound systems are
luxuries, and until they are regarded as such, high-end audio will
never attain its rightful place, nor be understood by those who
denigrate it.
Start with definitions: the ONLY necessities in life are air, water,
food and shelter. Everything else is there to enhance life and music
is one of those “extras”. The definition of luxury? It is ANYTHING
that is more than you need. Everything else is a luxury. You need
a hat? Knit a cap – a Borsalino is a luxury.
So, too, is specialty audio. It is a reward, something you have
desired and earned and can purchase. Hi-fi should be approached
with the same mind-set that leads a watch lover to invest in a
Breguet. A phone shows the time. A Breguet displays it in manner
that turns mere time-telling into a life-enhancing moment.
It breaks my heart that most of the world’s connoisseurs – who
never focus only on one area of life – are unaware of superior
audio systems. They don’t buy hi-fi: they buy seasons’ tickets.
Why? Because high-end audio has been cloaked in a mystique
of bullshit and driven them away. All music lovers need to know
what pleasure it brings. They need to know it exists.
There was a joke that asked, what’s the difference between a
music lover and an audiophile? An audiophile’s hi-fi is worth more
than his record library. That no longer works, because we’ve
moved away from costly physical media: as of the late, you could
listen solely to high-def streaming, so the equation falls flat. But
that message still rings true. High-end audio is a means to a
glorious end for those who appreciate its ultimate reward, and
should be regarded the way one would a tailored suit or bespoke
I have said in print that I would rather listen to Sam & Dave over
a telephone than Coldplay over the finest system in the world.
Because it’s about the music. And don’t you forget it.
Valve amplifiers sound gorgeous,
giving a big, airy and spacious sound
that comes across as unforced and
natural. By way of contrast, transistor
amplifiers sound flat and unengaging,
a simulacrum of what we hear in the
world around us every day, rather than
the real thing.
As a reviewer I live with transistor
amplifiers and as an engineer I know
how they work. Don’t get me wrong –
good ones still offer fine results and, as
they get better, I sometimes wonder
whether differences are worth
worrying about. But then I review a
good valve amplifier and wonder how I could ever harbour such doubt. This happened
again recently when a brand new Single-Ended (SE) design using latest KT-150 power
valves arrived in our offices. We were using Martin Logan Electromotion ESL-X hybrid
electrostatic loudspeakers, 5ft high with their revealing XStat electrostatic panels
and very critical of amplifiers. Connecting up the purist SE brought about an immediate
change. The sound stage between the panels opened right up, singers became focussed
and dimensional in front of me and music gained life and zest, as if freed from an artificial
two-dimensional world, trapped inside transistors.
Poppycock. How can an electronic signal be trapped? Technically, it can’t, but valve
amplifiers – especially SEs – are by their nature far simpler than transistor amplifiers,
are sufficiently linear in themselves not to need feedback and almost never use lifesapping silicon chips. They don’t suffer the often little-understood problems of modern
transistor amplifiers.
And this is what you hear, the ultimate manifestation being triode based Single-Ended
designs, typically built around the 300B power tube (I call it ‘tube’ because it is a US
design). I choose to use a 300B push-pull amplifier, by the way.
Valve amplifiers sound quite different one from another – and they can be voiced. So be
aware that auditioning is needed before purchase. Whilst Single-Endeds are ultimate,
they are big, heavy and produce little power – around 30 Watts maximum from
something that does’t need a crane to move it.
All the same, when I connected a 30 Watt SE to the Martin Logans it was an utterly
superb experience, quite unlike any other. If you can, try and spend time with a valve
amplifier. They bring life and soul to music: they are the ultimate.
Ken Kessler
HiFi News
Noel Keywood
Editor in Chief at HiFi World
It took longer than most people expected for CD
to sound good. If we are being really honest, it took
almost a decade from the first Philips players to
the launch of California Audio Labs, Mark Levinson,
and Krell models that really showed what CD
was capable of. By the mid-1990s, this boost in
performance had filtered right through the digital
audio of the time and even entry-level CD players
had achieved a level of performance that could
commonly be considered ‘good’.
Since the days when hi-fi was invented, a multitude of formats have vied for our
attention and enthusiasm, some with much greater success than others. The humble
Compact Cassette may have come and gone, but it would be foolish to overlook the
growing recent interest in reel-to-reel tape playback, even though the software is
very costly. However, it’s really the vinyl disc and the CD that have largely dominated
hi-fi since the mid-1950s, just as two-channel stereophony seems to have outlived the
more movie-oriented surround sound system that first appeared during the 1990s.
However, the vinyl/CD duopoly has recently been challenged by the personal computer
and the internet. The computer has led to the development of servers, which are
convenient storage devices that may also be controlled by tablets and smartphones.
Furthermore, connecting the computer to the internet has led to widespread
downloading, initially of compressed MP3 files but more recently of hi-res material. And
the internet is currently hosting a number of streaming operations that supply music
‘on demand’ at various resolutions, which looks likely to become the next mass market
in music replay.
The appeal of these options may well depend on the age of the individual concerned.
Since I was born in 1949, my own collection is inevitably vinyl oriented, as I was in my
mid-30s before CD first appeared, and I continue to maintain top quality vinyl replay.
Even though sales of CD players seems to be declining as consumers use servers and
computers to store digital music, those currently in their 40s might well have started
off collecting CDs, and the silver disc is likely to continue as a vitally useful music storage
Those in their 20s and 30s will probably be streaming music first and foremost, but
could well purchase vinyl or CD favourites for longer term storage. Streaming looks
likely to be the next ‘big thing’ in consumer electronics, though it seems unlikely to be
true hi-fi. Rather it seems likely to exist alongside hi-res downloading and CD, both of
which will represent the prime digital music sources. At the same time the vinyl revival
will supply an analogue alternative with its own appeal for consumers of all ages.
Paul Messenger
Publisher - HiFi Critic
And then MP3 happened, and all bets were off.
For the longest time, the collective audio industry
viewed ‘next generation audio’ like chewing gum
on the sole of a shoe; something either avoided
or removed. There followed an ‘Emperor’s New
Clothes’ period, where the collective audio industry
willed itself into preferring file-based audio over CD because of concerns over CD’s long
term future. Gradually, however, many came to realise that in outright sound quality
terms, CD often sounded better than ripped and stored files. What followed was often
a public refusal to accept that CDs still sounded better, with a frantic private search to
find precisely ‘why’ this was the case.
In fact, I suspect the simple explanation might be right; it took us a decade to get to grips
with digital the first time round, and it’s taking the same to get to grips with file-based
and streaming audio too. The level of improvement in recent years (both in hardware
and software) suggests the audio industry is learning how best to handle file-based
audio, and we have got to a point (with products like ReQuest’s The Beast and dCS’
Vivaldi 2.0) where file-based audio is approaching parity with disc-based audio.
For today, though, that means buying the best and most future-proofed digital audio
devices you can, ones that play discs and file-based music with equal aplomb, but are
open-ended enough to accept future developments and improvements.
There’s still a lot of room for growth in digital audio!
Alan Sircom
Editor in Chief at HiFi +
absolute sounds ltd.
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