I am on the hunt for some new speakers. No, I’m not ditching the Magnepans … at least not yet (wink, wink). No, seriously, I’m not talking about that system at all. I’m talking about another system, a separate one. Let’s call it System Two.
What? A second system? Why have a second system at all?
Hello there! I’m an audiophile, how are you? Pleased to meet you.
Okay, just kidding a bit, but yeah, it’s not like I really need a reason. I mean, I have one and all, its just that I don’t need one, other than noting that I have this fetishistic approach to audio gear, and really, that’s pretty much all one needs to say, isn’t it? Anyway ….
So, yes, my reason: I want something to compare and contrast with. I have a “big rig” — Plinius separates that usually spend their time pushing gobs of current at some spectacular Magnepan speakers, but are, right now, providing that service for some even-more-spectacular speakers from eFicion. Yeah, I’m covered there.
But that’s kind of a limited sample pool to write reviews from, much less, base comparisons on, isn’t it? And a second system would keep things a bit more interesting. Especially if it was, well, different. Tubes, instead of solid state. A different approach to speakers, maybe (though not sure what, exactly, that would mean). Maybe a second DAC, too, again, for comparisons. Yeah.
Oh, and did I mention I have a seemingly uncontrollable urge to acquire gear? It’s a problem.
I already do have this other system, you see. It’s on my desk. Admittedly, it’s occasionally more appropriate to run that system than System One. Not usually, but sometimes. So, what if I upgraded that system?
So, here’s what I have. I have some Audioengine P4 speakers. A first-gen Streamer II+ from HRT that I’m using for a DAC. I’ve also got a tiny Miniwatt N3 integrated that is as fun to play with as it is desk-friendly.
I also have a pair of Model 1 Signatures from Totem that I pulled out of the home theater rig (a center channel is around here somewhere, too). Those’ll eventually go up for sale, but for now, I’m using them with my loaner Signature 15 from Red Wine Audio.
So, System Two Mark II is kinda already underway. I’m just … tweaking it.
So, starting from the source, there’s really only one DAC that’d I’d be seriously interested in entertaining. Just one. And yes, it’s the Lampizat0r. But that thing is crazy-expensive ($8k with all the options), so we’ll have to wait for divine intervention there. Or maybe not. Hopefully, I’ll have more to say about this soon.
But here’s what I’m thinking. I need a pair of speakers that are reasonably easy-to-drive, fast, detailed, and are relatively compact. They’ll sit on angled, isolated stands right there on my desk. But they’ll also be good enough and beefy enough to head out to the main system to sit on a pair of height-adjustable (in case I bring in other speakers of differing sizes) stands. And yes, I still do have those Rythmik F12G subs and a Velodyne SMS-1 equalizer in case I need to get all fancy.
I’ll also need a heftier tube amp. My little N3 is a spectacular performer, but 3.5wpc is simply not going to cut the mustard with a wide range of, well, anything. It is a suboptimal match for the Audioengines as it is, and outright poor with the Totems. But I still want tubes — again, for variety, but I do really like the footprint. So, for the sake of my dwindling real estate, and in an effort to be more friendly to my wallet than separates are likely to be, I’m leaning toward an integrated.
Here’s a wrinkle. The speakers and integrated can’t be outliers or total unknowns. This is more a professional courtesy, than one of particular preference — it’s so you folks have at least some idea of where my reviews are coming from.
Yes, I’m doing all this for you. You see how this sickness works? Very deftly done, I might add. Bravo, subconscious!
Anyway, some more well known brands would be better than the wonky or the relatively unknown. I’m not saying I have to stick to B&W, Wilson, Harman, JBL or Bose, but custom-made designs are probably not going to cut it. The goal is to identify a new reference that I can use to write intelligently about how other products differ from it.
Notice that I didn’t say, “sound worse”, but rather just different. A reference is just that. It’s a baseline. It can (and usually is) perform at quite a high level, which is useful to point out shortcomings. But it doesn’t have to be “best in class” or even “best in my experience”. It’s just a reference, that is, something I’ll be referencing when talking about other things. It’ll help us both if you, Mr Joe Average Reader, has some idea of what I’m talking about when I trot it out in conversation.
Another thing worth mentioning: it shouldn’t be crazy expensive either. The fact that everyone reading this page has probably heard of, if not actually heard, a Magico Mini (now upgraded to the Q1), doesn’t mean that my using that extremely well-regarded monitor speaker as a reference actually helps. It’s like trotting out observations about a Bugatti when talking about an Acura, or a Honda. If you have no idea what a Bugatti is, try wine. If my reference for Pinot Noir happens to cost $1,000 a bottle, and I reference that wine when talking about a bottle that costs $20, you’re likely to be a bit nonplussed. How many of us have actually tasted $1,000-a-bottle wine? So how is that useful as a reference — except as a way to show that I’m some out-of-touch rich asshole that doesn’t think before making $10,000 bets?
So, where to go from here? Well, let’s start with speakers.
The Ideal and the Bookshelf
Again, we’re talking “bookshelf” speakers, aka, “monitors”. I prefer “compact”, but you get the idea. For my use-case, I’m looking for something that probably qualifies as a “mini-monitor” because I’m not really all that interested in putting an 18″ tall speaker on my desk. It’s just too big. Similarly, a 12″ wide speaker will be inhospitable. So, we’re talking “less than 15″, though even that may be pushing things.
I also prefer two-ways over single-driver speakers. It’s a bias, I know. I simply haven’t heard much in the way of a single driver speaker that manages to do a great job of the entire frequency range. If ever I find a single-driver speaker that makes me change my mind, trust me, you’ll hear about it here.
I mentioned that I want a speaker that’s going to be relatively easy to drive. This is for the obvious reason — I want to run it with a tube amp. This means no 4ohm (nominal) speakers, and no speakers that have crazy dips (no speakers that dip to 4 ohms) in their impedance curve. Personally, I think these performance characteristics tend to indicate sloppy design, but perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, I want a speaker that can be easily driven by a wide variety of amps, including (but not limited to) low power SET amps.
Given that we’re talking about a compact monitor, we’re also talking about a speaker that doesn’t have a high sensitivity. Turns out that small-cone speakers just have to work harder than their larger siblings, and sensitivity goes down as a result. So, while I’d love find an awesome sounding speaker that has a 95dB sensitivity and is only 13” tall, I haven’t managed it yet. 90dB, yes.
A speaker that I wish would work is the Amphion Argon 3. This speaker not only offers superlative bass and a fantastic lateral dispersion, it also sounds amazing — yes, this one I’ve actually heard live and in person. However. It’s a bit big at 15″ tall. It’s also unclear how responsive this will be to lower-power amps, especially tube amps. Again, not that I have any — but I might need to bring some in to write up. Anyway, most reviews of this speaker are most likely done with solid-state amps for a good reason. A real pity, but this is also the problem with a large variety of other contenders, including speakers from PSB, Paradigm, B&W, Focal and Usher. All of them look far more friendly on paper than they are in real life and many of them are downright hogs when it comes to power. Even the much beloved (by me) Pulsars from Joseph Audio fall into this category. Again, this is not a ding on the speakers, their owners or their sound quality — but that does mean they’re all out of scope of this little project. Lastly, the Amphion name is hardly household, if you know what I mean. [sigh]. Oh, well.
Okay, let’s move over to amps for a bit.
The Power and the Glory
For amps, my needs are very similar to those of the speakers. The name should be at least familiar to the general audiophile, or at least rather well reviewed and/or thought of. It should also play well with a variety of speakers. This rules out SET speakers and most low-power designs as a matter of course. Look, this isn’t to say that a given design can’t or won’t be able to drive a particular speaker — it’s just that if that speaker happens to be at all difficult, it’ll be an open question as to whether or not the SET will do it justice.
So, we’re talking really big SETs, like a 211 or 845. Which are really big. And really hot. Really hot. Which isn’t gonna cut it. While I do like the SET sound, most SETs are built around tubes that don’t really play well with frequency extremes. It’s just a sad fact. Again, what my personal choice may have been might not be the best for a reviewer. Hmmpf.
Now, before we wander off in a snit, believing we have to settle for second best, a compromise doesn’t have to equate to crap. That’s simple purist bullshit nonsense. The fact of the matter is that there are a great many designs, including push-pull, that can and do sound amazing. It’s all about the implementation.
So, what to look for? I’m thinking somewhere in the EL34 lineup. This will get me in the neighborhood of designs that can push out bit more power than the average SET and still retain quite a bit of that “tube magic”. Without a lengthy digression into power-ratings and SPL/gain, let’s just say that I’m looking somewhere between 30-50wpc. More would be great, but tends to be larger and hotter. So, what do we have in that spot?
There’s a bunch of other amps out there, too. The Triode Corp of Japan has a pretty decent EL-34 amp, the TRV-35se. Line Magnetic Audio has the 211ia, which doesn’t actually use a 211 tube, but an EL-34 set instead. But I’ve heard neither of them.
And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten to this point. The investigation continues.
I need to do some more listening, obviously. And some more investigations. There’s this crazy speaker from Marten Designs called The Duke that looks really interesting, but it’s expensive and a bit large. So, if I’m gonna go big anyway, why not just get some MM De Capo I’s and be done with it? It’s a valid question.
Got some suggestions? Feel free. I’ve taken a look at Silverline, Nola, Coincident, Sonist, and half-a-dozen other speakers. Hell, I have speakers from Sjöfn HiFi queued up for March, a pair from Teresonic supposedly coming this summer, and a pair of Vaughn’s that are actually being carried across the country by FedEx as I type this. But if you think I need to widen my net, comment away.
More to come, for sure.