Tuesday, April 28, 2009
As the music industry decides what its next medium for mass marketing shall be the music file industry has been a runaway train. I have been writing and testing PC-related products for almost 6-years now for http://www.madshrimsps.be/ among others, and recently have re-discovered my once favorite hobby. No its not surfing 25-ft swells in late September off Marconi Beach State park on Cape Cod Massachusetts, its High End Audio. When I suffered a spinal injury some years ago racing MTB bikes I was forced to liquidate all my High End Audio gear long before my humility would allow me to collect Social Security Disability (although this is an earned income everyone pays into). As I sold all that stuff, Futterman NYAL OTL prototype amps, panel speakers, a Sony x777 CD player (their $3k audiophile model) and thousands in cables, I realized I had begun several years before as a pure music lover and by that time I had actually lost that passion. I began after hearing a High End system running out and buying every CD I could find and by the time I sold everything I had just two CD's I considered Audiophile quality recordings. I wasn't listening to music, I was listening to the nuances in hardware.
I had spent well over $10k on my own system which consisted of Dealer Demo "bargains" and then spent years siting in front of over one hundred different types of loudspeakers. I was isolated, and frustrated in my perfectionism. High End Audio cost money and to reproduce a true 20Hz ~ 20kHz costs big money. When you want Joni Mitchell in the room it costs about as much in High End Gear as it would to have her perform live at your home. Its a world onto its own and a absolute pleasure for the electronics hobbyist with a open bank book. When it comes to Affordable High End what we have is another misnomer like PC-Audio.
PC-Audio has always been driven by multi-channel affairs which were designed for Gaming, hence surround sound. Recently this has begun to change. Influences from High End Audio are slowly influencing PC-Audio. When I was into High End separates were the rule. Isolate and specialize each function, purifying it. Instead of a CD-player you have a transport and separate DAC and then a distinct power unit for that device. Now the digital cable between transport and DAC becomes an industry onto itself. From the DAC's Analog outputs we now need silver wire kapton insulated interconnects. Then the pre-amp and if there's a phono-stage this is separate with separate power supply. Now we have the interconnects from Pre-amp to stereo a,p or monoblocs. Either way once again the laws of physics meet engineering as an art form. For example read this little gem about a pair of "vacuum" sealed interconnects which cost $14,900 per 1m pair, Tara Labs Zero interconnects. I understand the science, I understand the potential for why they"sound" better, I also understand that's what I spent on my entire system in 1992. In that Tara Labs article the Reviewer's speakers are my 10.0 drool factor, in the mbl 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker costing a mere $44,900 or about the same as a P-Class Mercedes (P=Poor). And the mbl 101E are still considered a value given what some other High End models cost.
So, is there a silver solder trickle down effect in High End Audio? Erm maybe, the current trend are chinese assembled integrated tube amplifiers, especially single ended Pentode and many incorporating USB fed (or TOSLINK) DACs. This new breed of Audiophile quality Plug and Play integrated amps with on-board D/A conversion are made for use with the modern PC or Laptop, a first. This transforms your PC's HDD into an instant music file server and provides access to thousands of free streaming Audio websites the world over. My favorite has been Deezer.com which offers one of the "cleanest" signals especially in their high quality stream Chanson Francaise. There you'll find many live studio recordings, those which allow a a system capable of 3D imaging to come into its own. There many strong acoustics and clear vocals as well as rock, and some funky folk. Rare in the annals of High End I recently auditioned a Single Ended Pentode integrated amp with on-board Burr Brown USB DAC, from Tecon. Their Model 55 reviewed here cost a mere $389 shipped in the USA and all that's required is a PC and passive speakers. I mated the Tecon to the venerable Lovecraft Designs, Abby also reviewed by me, although at $2k this defeated "affordable" at least relative to what "we" might conisder. In the High End world some wouldn't make this purchase out of some discombobulated sense of pride. An ideal match for the Tecon Model 55 would be the affordable Tekton Model 6.5 which cost just $350 and Tekton makes models as low as $200 or as high as $3,300. Basically $600 will get you one of the best sounding systems you've ever owned if your an owner of mass-market mid-fi. And very respectable, accurate and their ability for three dimensional imaging will certainly launch your High End Audio love affair.
Undoubtedly the gradual decline of the CD will not necessarily go the way of vinyl, vinyl still has in its favor a true analog signature and will be favored by a large majority of the Purist Audiophile Crowd so long as they continue to press it. Except for the Compact Discs sitting on shelves, the future is the music file albeit Lossless, Mp3, Mp4 etc.
There is one product out there which has recently captivated me, this is a unique active speaker system by a company known as Avi HiFi Originating out of the UK like so many great loudspeakers, they have released the Avi ADM9.1 active loudspeaker system. In my many years of "High End Audio" this system has completely redefined what I've come to expect from High End Audio as well as what is considered a value. How are they different? The typical powered speaker system utilizes a single amplifier in a main enclosure from which zip-cord feeds the right or left passive unit. Already we have problems with such a design, since the additional electronics in one enclosure give it slightly different sonic characteristics and other potential offsets. Avi in the Purist tradition has placed bi-amplified 250W mid/bass driver and 75W tweeter in each enclosure. Therefore each speaker is a true active unit under its own power, ergo each has its own power cord. The main unit contains two TOSLINK inputs which feed a Wolfson 8741 DAC. Two analog inputs allow you to bypass the Wolfson DAC (although I can't see any reason why) which is one of the most neutral sounding I've had the pleasure of hearing. It simply invites streaming music files and gives back all it takes. Another RCA out supplies the right speaker and if its more bass you desire there is a dedicated subwoofer output. Avi makes a subwoofer which was designed with the ADM9.1 speakers in mind. The following was taken from Avi's webpage:
Therefor we've produced a special dedicated, ultra high powered 10" model for the ADM9's. The voice coil is 3" diameter, maximum excursion is 2" and it's in a sealed box and driven by a linear, analogue bipolar amplifier that can produce up to 30 Amps and 200 Watts. The filter can be set to 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 or 100 Hz and gain adjusted to suit room acoustics. In practice it extends low frequency excursion to below 30Hz...
I do not feel the need for a subwoofer since I don't feel as if I am missing much. The ADM9.1's are rated down to 60Hz and I am certain this is the most honest 60Hz I've ever heard. Given the number of speakers I have owned and heard rated down to "50Hz ~ 40Hz" based on budget constraints, this is a region I am most familiar with. The sound from the ADM9.1's is like nothing I've ever heard from a active speaker system, indeed from any combination of separates up to $10k and beyond. They are as fast as planar ribbons (there will be consequences for that description)image as if they were 360 radiators, and pack bass worthy of full range. If any of these attributes were lacking they would still be a bargain at approximately $2k USD. The fact they present a realism which flows into and and fills the room with live music level, even the most critical listener can't deny they perform far beyond their stature. Listening to Joni Mitchell BLUE, the ADM9.1's were able to maintain what are some of the highest pitched vocals and still allow you to hear her diaphragm expand, the moisture on her lips and know exactly where she sat when letting loose on the microphone bested my Proac, Cary, Audible Illusions combo from years back. If i can summarize these speakers in one word that would be, "Effortless." They just don't seem as if they have to work as hard as many to give what most cannot.
If I had $10,000 to spend on anything I wanted in High End Audio, I would still buy the ADM9.1 and spend the rest on a Tapestry. They are the best value in Audio I've seen in many years, especially when you consider you don't have to leave your seat to enjoy streaming audio from your PC. I've neglected other reviews since the ADM9.1's arrived and if I could afford them I'd own them by now. The highest compliment I can given them, is that I don't want to give them back :)
I feel a bit like a guy from the past who knows and loves the stuff AVI used to make.... I know that the success of every reputed scenario writer is in the ability "to kill your babies", bit still: I felt a bit sad when I found out that AVI doesn't produce it good old speakers, (pre)amplifiers and CD-plauers anymore... Because that was really, really good stuff.
After the initial disappointment I got puzzled: because it's the same guys who made those things who are now so enthousiastic and apparentluy very confident about what they believer to be a break-through product. That's when I started reading about the new ADM9.1 speakers. I was immediately fascinated by the concept (my living room is "cd-free" for several years already, when the iPod saw the light it became my source of "noughts and ones", and I immediately replaced it with my laptop since Apple's Airport Express allowed me to play my music at home wirelessly via my laptop.
So, now at last the hifi industry seems to haver woken up! Well, AVI that is: here are the ADM9.1's to make the revolution in music complete: after the iPod and iTune there is now at last.... iFi !!
But as with every revolution the stakes are high and so the emotions run high. When I read all the forums on the ADM9.1's after googling "adm9.1" I was baffled by the sheer agression on a lot of forums. Including editors from well-known hifi magazines who were quite intimidating in their demand that AVI should provide them with a pair of speakers for free to review or else shut up...
But there are also reviews like the one here from Keith. I guy enough into Hifi not to be fooled, but primarily a music lover. ANd every time again these independent-minded people seem to be very fond of the ADM9.1's. So I decided to give it a try and order a pair. I had the guts to do so without listening, because I know the great stuff that AVI used to make which they themselves now consider not to be good enough anymore! The speakers are to be delivered shortly, I am very curious.
There is just one thing that puzzles me: AVI designed a subwoofer for them. In my view this can only mean that the speakers aren't good enough in the lows by themselves, Which seems to make sense, because they just don;t have the physical size to do lows properly. But on the other hand a lot of "parochial" fans don't want to admit that. Well, some of them say things lik that the speakers are and always have performed 100%, but since they have bought a subwoofer they do even better! What nonsense.... I think that you should judge speakers not only by what they give to your ears, but als by what they do NOT give.... So don't just play easy "small" live music, but for exampe also the opera Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, which goes from the intimacy of one solo singer to an orhestra of 120 people. Sure, "What You Hear Is What You Get", but that is not the point. It's also about what you don't get and hear. Hifi speakers should bring you the "Audio Truth", that is: the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
SInce "no product is perfect" I am therefore not just curious what it is that the ADM9.1's (including subwoofer?) can do, but also what they cannot do.
P.S: And if the subwoofer is by some higher quality standards actually a must, then why not also manufacture slightly bigger speakers, AVI?
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