System Two

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?

Smashing idea.

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.

Let’s chat about DeVore Fidelity. Let me say this up front: I’m a fan. At every show I’ve been to that DeVore has been showing at, their room has been a pleasant stop. John DeVore is a fine fellow to chat with, and one can’t help noticing that he only shows his speakers with tubes. Now, while not exactly mainstream, DeVore has something of a cult following — enough to make this brand something of an audiophile legend. I mean, it’s not like the Merlin Music fan club or anything — those folks are nuts — but it’s pretty established, and DeVore’s speakers have been reviewed by some of the heavy hitters in the industry, and usually to a chorus of approval. The speakers, at least to me, tend toward neutral, and check the usual audiophile boxes. Speed, detail, imaging, yep, all there. The 3XLs are DeVore’s current thinking around the monitor speaker — and 90dB to boot — but at a hair over 15″ tall, they’re a touch big for my application. That said, I may just suck it up and re-arrange to suit. Yeah, I’m fickle like that.

Next up is Proac. Again, not necessarily as mainstream as PSB or Paradigm, but I think it’s up there with Harbeth and Spendor. Kinda. Whatever, it’s hardly unknown. But it’s also a brand that is fairly well known for being “tube friendly”, which brings me to the latest iteration of their tiny monitor, the Tablette Anniversary. 11″ tall, 86.5dB sensitive and an 8ohm load, the Tablette might be perfect. Like the DeVore’s, the Tablettes are very hard to get my ears on as there really isn’t anything like a local dealer to me (not sure I consider Washington, DC to be “local”). Compared to the Gibbon 3XL, the Tablette is about 1/3 less expensive, considerably smaller (which is good and bad), and significantly less sensitive.

Another interesting contender is the Dulcet from Reference 3a. Considerably smaller, and therefore more manageable for my use-case than the MM De Capo I’s, which I absolutely love (but are huge), the Dulcet is 88dB sensitive, 12″ tall and is crossoverless — that is, very easy to drive. It’s a bit harder to drive than most of the Reference 3a lineup at 6ohms (instead of 8) and the main driver is a bit small. Rumor has it that, like all of the speakers in the Reference 3a lineup, the Dulcets “don’t do loud” as they tend to compress at high SPLs. I have no real personal info on that, but I do know that Paul Candy of 6moons wrote something to that effect back in 2004. I also know that all of the speakers in the Reference 3a line have been significantly tweaked over the years, so who knows where things stand currently. Whatever the case may be, at regular (to a bit high) listening levels, my personal experience with the Reference 3a “sound” has been far better than merely satisfactory. I’m a fan. The question I have is whether or not this speaker is mainstream enough for the purposes of a review. I’m not sure.

Definitely hewing closer to deep audiophile waters is the little Harbeth P3ESR. In fact, this was the speaker I was most recommended. By a lot. I’m sure it’s a great speaker, but I sadly have yet to hear it. Said to have an unearthly mid range, the baby of the Harbeth lineup also has some pretty daunting specs. I think the bass rolls off somewhere around 70Hz or so. The treble rolls off well below 20KHz — not that I can hear that, but that high-treble extension also directly translates into “airiness” and “spatial cues”. Detail retrieval and overall imaging is, reportedly, very high quality. While “everyone” says that Harbeth are easy to drive, presenting a minimum value of 6ohms to the speakers with the rest of the range much higher than that, there is an overall 83dB sensitivity. What this says to me is “tube friendly” where tubes = high output tubes. SET and amps with single-digit output will work fine, but will simply never play loud — or even loud-ish — without compression. And then there’s that bass … a sealed box design tends to mean that what bass there is will be of higher quality (faster, more tuneful, &c), but 70Hz is pretty high. I mean, we’re not talking about a THX compliant receiver here. Anyway, I’m pretty convinced that these just won’t work at all.

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?

This is the amp I want because I’m damaged. The Leben CS-600 is very expensive ($6500), especially relative to the speakers I’ve been mentioning. Too much so? Hard to say. But the design is compact and sports a sweet head-amp, too. Sitting at the bottom of my recommended power range, it has taps that support a wide variety of impedances — very handy — and it’s got a great sound (or so I’m told). It also has gold knobs. Not “gold finish” but real gold. Yeah, that’s how I roll, sucka.

The Luxman SQ-38u is another little desktop friendly beauty. Very similar in aesthetic to the Leben above, the Luxman is apparently voiced more for smooth luxuriousness in the mids and bass. Like the Leben, the Luxman also sports a head amp, and adds to that a rather excellent phono stage, too. Either one of these would be great. They’re both priced in the same neighborhood, so this may well come down to which I can get a better deal on.

Coming a bit down from the prices of the Leben and Luxman is the VTL integrated, the IT-85. Unlike both the Luxman and Leben, however, this one I have actually heard and played with. It’s tiny — and still cranks 60wpc and can drive some pig speakers. Okay, the Magnepan Minis are hardly pigs, but at 4ohms, they’re in no way kind to amps. Interestingly, the VTL is actually built to a 5-ohm standard (just like the Manley amps, for obvious familial reasons), which means that they’re pretty much designed to run tough speakers. But since there’s no switch to change this setting on the amp, this also means that they will have less power on tap for an 8ohm speaker (as much as 30% less). Of course, a higher impedance speaker will probably need less power to run well … assuming the sound quality doesn’t change along with the change in impedance load. For what it’s worth, I prefer the multi-tap and/or switched approach. Not that’s it’s better or worse, it’s just more widely useful. Oh, and this amp isn’t auto-biasing, either. Sounds like I’m talking myself out of this one, doesn’t it? Hmm.

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.

What’s next

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.