Gear I’d Like To Own (Part 2)

“What should I get?”

I wish I asked myself this question less, much less heard it from others. The answer is, invariably, “I don’t know.” Not that I’m not thinking about it. Like, semi-obsessively. Or anything. Hmm.

Yeah, okay, I totally am.

So, not too long ago, I ran through this same exercise. Wanna go through it again? Just to see if anything’s changed? Well … okay! Since you asked.

Loudspeakers

At CAF this year, I heard my favorite pick from the DeVore Fidelity monkey house. It’s 96dB, goes below 30Hz smoothly, it’s relatively easy to set up — and it sounds awesome. What I want for Christmas (where ‘Christmas’ = next month) is a brand new pair of Orangutan o/96s. I’m thinking I may have to pull the trigger here earlier than later. SET amps are getting too interesting — so having something to play them on is gonna be cool.

Speaking of CAF and SET amps, I have another two speakers that are actually going to be making their way to me this year! The first to hit the floor will likely be the Definition MkIV from Zu Audio. Sean Casey is an awesome guy and so cool to deal with — it’s enough to make me a bit ill. Here’s the problem with Sean. He’s running his own company. He’s loving what he’s doing. He’s making awesome gear and having a blast doing it. And did I mention he’s managed to avoid becoming a giant slug of an American along the way? The dude is 42 years old — one year younger than yours truly and I think he weighs something like half what I do. Hello, embarrassing. Gah. It’s a good thing he makes great gear or I’d have to have him strapped down and stuffed like a goose we’re trying to get foie gras out of. Seriously, man! Look your age! Okay, rant done.

The Definition was the first Zu speaker that made me sit up and say wha-wha-WHA-??? The fact that the speaker has gone through three major revs since I started drooling in its general direction is a testament to the fact that I’m not the only one drooling near it. Want. One. Yes. Please.

On the opposite end of some randomly differentiated parallel is the Vittora from Volti Audio. Are you a fan of Mad Men? Then these are the speakers for you. The Vittora is a 104dB sensitive non-corner horn that has all the understated confidence and raw sexual appeal of Don Draper but with none of the blatant misogyny. I imagine myself, bourbon in hand, cigar smoke twirling out of the tray, listening to Miles on my very own pair of these magnificent loudspeakers. I live a very rich fantasy life, it seems. But sometimes that shit works out! Stay tuned, but it’s looking like I’m going to need a couple of very beefy friends for an hour or two some time this Fall.

Digital

I’ve always admired dCS. But given that I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to swing a Scarlatti System ($80k), much less a Vivaldi System (~$130k+), I think I’m going to have look farther afield. EMM Labs has a new DAC (the DAC2x, retailing for $15,500) that’s getting some favorable press. I’m just not sure what else to put in that daydream-about-it slot. The Berkeley Alpha Designs Series 2 DAC with the outboard Alpha USB converter is a stunning competitor, and I haven’t heard a better DAC — at least not in my system. My LampizatOr is an outstanding DAC, but the sound is just different — different enough that with some solid state electronics, it really is my preference. The “problem” is that I have yet to find a single solution that clearly betters them doesn’t cost less than an M-Class BMW. So, I’m covered, right? Well, I guess, sure.

Analog

My analog system is still pretty much the total shit, so I have very little interest here at all. My TW Acustic Raven AC-3 is the best there is (or close enough you’ll never be able to tell), and when paired with the matching TW Acustic tonearm, my Ortofon Windfeld cartridge, and my Thöress-made TW Acustic Raven phono preamp, the analog end of my system is pretty much untouchable. I might be able to do “different” but I’m not anticipating wanting to try to do “better”.

Well, okay. There is a couple of things I’m curious about. One would be an all-mono path. Something like an Ortofon 309 tonearm with a Miyajima Premium Mono BE cartridge. That’d actually be kinda slick.

The only other thing that’s caught my ear and eye is the $11,000 DSA Phono Two. This thing is pretty amazing — lots of flexibility, support for three tonearms, and locally designed and made, this phono preamp might be compelling enough to spark a switch. Maybe.

Components

In case you missed it, I have a thing for integrated amps. I love the simplicity and elegance! But when it comes to tubes and amps, things get a little complicated. Single-ended topologies have an intrinsic appeal — they’re the classic when it comes to “tube sound”. The problem is, of course, mating them to speakers that can thrive on minimal power delivery. So, speakers aside, what do I want?

How about an Almarro 318B integrated? Well, okay! This amp uses the same tubes used in Russian fighter jets of yore — and are the same as those used to tremendous impact by Joule Electra in their OTLs. To this day, my time with my JE amps remains a high-water mark of audio ear candy and I still can’t get out of my head how ethereally awesome my sound quality was with those amps. Sadly, the fit and finish was not up to snuff for their price, and, well, OTLs generally suck wind in the bass, so keeping them was not possible. Oh, did I mention that they heated the entire basement by an extra 15 degrees? Those tubes run at something like 300 degrees! Each! Anyway, I’ve been wondering if it’d be easier with only 2 of them (instead of a bazillion). And maybe-perhaps adding a big ass transformer would give that tube some real bass — but still not blunt its awesome mid range and treble extension. Dunno. Want to know. Hook it up!

At RMAF in 2011, I got to hear the DeVore O/96 speakers driven by an 845-based amp, the $8,000/80lb monster LM Audio 219IA. This Chinese-made amp is huge, retro, wildly configurable and most importantly, has dials. Ahem. The 4-8-16 ohm taps are also pretty compelling, especially given my rekindled fascination with high-sensitivity loudspeakers. I think Zu is coming out with more 16ohm speakers, which would make that extra tap fun and useful. It’s really big, though, and I’m starting to wonder if an integrated is really where I want to be — at least at the reference level.

What else? Well, if we’re straying from the integrateds, I’d be absolutely thrilled to have a Yamamoto A-08s. A 45-based amp has some serious limitations when it comes to speaker matching (ideally, we’re talking >99+dB of sensitivity), but it looks so nifty. I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing, and hearing one — and yes, I want one.

Another amp I’ve been interested in? The $2,975 Decware Zen Torii. Lots of tubes, lots of options, 25wpc, and everyone and their grandmother tells me that this thing is the cat’s meow. No serious reviews on it yet, but sometimes word of mouth is enough — color me curious! Yeah, I want one. No, really, I do. But I’m definitely getting the V-Cap upgrade.

Speaking of 845-based amps, the $13,500 Audion Black Shadow 2 Mk II is also really interesting. Monos, instead of an integrated like the LM Audio 219IA, are simply more useful for trying various bits and pieces out. SETs are simpler than any other circuit, and simpler is better, right? The problem is that 2-8wpc isn’t terrifically flexible, but 25wpc … well … that’s a whole other thing. Short list, baby. Short list!

Speaking of SETs (don’t you love how all these thoughts link up?), I’ve been very impressed with the Border Patrol amp I’ve had the pleasure of hosting for the last several weeks, so it makes me wonder if I shouldn’t make room for a high-end 300b-based amp. With the new Sophia Electric ultra wide-bandwidth 300b super tubes, I’m really not getting the whole “truncated treble and rolled bass” that 300b tubes are infamous for. Gary Dews probably shakes his head when I say these things, but the 300b is a reference tube for a reason. The entire lineup at Border Patrol is 300b based, and there’s a few choices — single ended, parallel single ended, push-pull. One external PSU or two. Me, I’m torn between a P20 (dual PSU, push-pull) or an S10 (dual PSU, single-ended) — either would go for $13,750 — but I think I’m leaning toward the S10, especially if I can swing a Black Shadow also. Pardon me while I choke back a laugh, but hey, it could happen.

I do have a hole in the lineup, however: a reference preamp. Nothing wrong with my Plinius Tautoro, but I do wonder if a significantly more up-market pre might bring a level of transparency that some of these tube amps could really benefit from. I think the Tautoro is pure genius with the Plinius — or other solid-state — amps, but I’ve been wondering about passives in front of tubes for months now. The problem with passives, of course, are numerous. I’m gonna try out a bunch and see where that goes. First up will be a Walker-Mod Axiom II from Luminous Audio. I think this is probably the most traditional passive — quality parts but a volume pot with a resistor. I’m hoping to also bring in a First Watt B1, which is a transformer-coupled design, and a Slagle AVC which swaps the pot with a autoformers. It’s gonna be a blast.

In that line, I’m also going to bring in a Wyred4Sound STP SE. As the 6moons review says, this is more of an “activated passive”, but I’m hoping to squeeze a lot of value out of this unit. There’s a ton of detail on 6moons, but curiously, very few have actually commented on its audio quality. I have some Odyssey monos that would love to play with this preamp.

The only other component that I’m very seriously considering (actively scheming is more accurate) is an upmarket preamp. Have I drooled publicly on a Purity Audio Design preamp? Yes, I think I have. I’ve got my sights on a Statement, which is offered at $15,000 … and I still want it, even so. The reason for it is what’s in it — and what it does. A Slagle AVC. A ton of caps. Transformers on both the input and the output — no more incompatibilities. Balanced and single-ended. Total transparency … and the designer is a cool guy. I’m loving this thing. I think I’d rather get the Silver, but the box is so expensive already that an extra $5k is enough to make me cringe. But if I can, I will. Seems like a techno tour-de-force. I’m looking forward to getting some more time with a Purity — and that time looks like it’ll be coming soon! Doug, at The Voice That Is, looks like he’ll be bringing in a demo — and if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to compare it to preamps from Tidal and Concert Fidelity. Seriously top-shelf gear here, but worthy of building a system around? I’m thinking “yes”.

The Lottery

Obviously, very little of this will ever happen. Unless I hit the Lottery. Well, you can’t win if you don’t play, am I right?

So, what’s serious? I’m thinking a preamp is my first step. Then an amp. After that … well, it depends.

Come on, Megamillions! Woohoo!

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5 Responses to Gear I’d Like To Own (Part 2)

  1. chuck beaman says:

    Wrong link for Purity Audio preamp…

  2. Dave says:

    You really need to hear Steve Nugent’s Overdrive SE DAC. The USB input is functionally the same as the Off-Ramp 5 – better than the Alpha USB. The DAC section is superior to the Berkeley Alpha, and it’s also a first rate digital preamp. Starts at $6K, maxxed out its $8K. Steve believes that it trounces everything under $10K.

    Two more interesting DACs – the Calyx Femto, and the TotalDAC D1. Both have built in asynch USB. I just don’t think the Berkeley is top dog anymore.

    • Part-Time Audiophile says:

      I’ve not had a chance to spend any time with an Empirical product — love to, at some point, though. The problem I’m facing — and which we all face — isn’t so much “is it as good” or even “is it marginally better”. I want to target something that is “clearly better”. That’s harder. Not saying the Empirical box is or isn’t, but that’d be my goal.

      • Dave says:

        Once Steve’s best effort is fully ready (Short Block USB filter > Overdrive SE > Final Drive) I’d give him a call and get a set to audition. I think you may find that it’s clearly better than the Berkeley set. The TotalDAC is worth a listen because of how unique it is. It’s R2R, using hundreds of Vishay resistors instead of off the shelf DAC chips and I/V conversion.

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