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System Two, Part Two-ish

Several dozen posts about an audio show ago, I wrote about my desire to build out a second review-class system, which I’m very cleverly calling System Two. This would be something of a counterpoint to my main system, which is some expensive solid state gear into Magnepan 3.7 panels. The goal isn’t to replace that system, but simply to have a second system I could cycle interesting products through so I could better serve you, my faithful readers (all three of you).

Time for an update!

Since the last time we chatted, you and I, I’ve had about 30 million sidebar discussions with just about everyone I’ve ever chanced to meet (and their grandparents) about what would be a “good fit”. Just to recap, I’m looking for compact speakers (usually translated variously as “monitor” or “bookshelf” or “stand-mounted”) that I can use both in the near field (on a desk, say) or in the far field (on stands, out in the middle of the room). This means that the speakers can’t be too big (16″ tall is pretty big for a desktop, and 12″ wide is pretty wide, and … you get the picture).

The speakers really ought to be 8ohm nominal with a minimum that doesn’t vary too far from nominal. Why? I want to be able drive the speakers with tubes, even if those tubes are mid-powered (~50wpc or so). Yes, tube amps can successfully drive a 4ohm speaker. Yes, the primary concern is the evenness of the impedance response, I get that. So, yes, you can have 4ohm speakers that are very “tube friendly”. I’ve heard the argument and I think it’s a load. I have a pair of Maggies, which present a very smooth 4ohm load. Tube friendly, right? Hah. Not even close. With my big ass Plinius putting out 450wpc into 4ohms, I have plenty of power to make those suckers sing like songbirds — and they do. But that amp gets hot — even in the I’m-not-supposed-to-get-hot Class A/B setting. By contrast, on my 8ohm loaner eFicion F300s? The amp never registers above room temp in Class A/B mode. Easy at 4ohms, right? Bull. Moving on.

High sensitivity, from what I understand, will be hard to get in a compact package, so I’m not losing sleep on this spec, but low-90’s will be favored over low-80’s.

Another word on the sensitivity thing. Usually, when the words ‘tubes’ and ‘high sensitivity’ come together in high end audio, someone will invariably mention ‘Lowther’, ‘Fostex’, and/or ‘single driver’. While there are numerous examples of fine sounding speakers that feature all or some of those features, this isn’t what I’m shooting for. I need a speaker that has a pretty generic design, and the more mainstream the better. Not shooting for a particular sound, or a speaker that can support a particular amp or amp style, but a speaker that can be used with as wide a variety of other things as possible — and one that folks will at least recognize when I mention that I’m using it as a reference and not simply scratch their heads at.

And another word about the term ‘reference’. This does not mean, necessarily, “the best I’ve heard”. That isareference, sure, but “the best” isn’t always useful when doing reviews. If your reference is the best you’ve ever heard, chances are that the thing you’re comparing it to won’t be as good. The question will be, how close does that other thing get? No worries, and your answers here will hold up well … and probably still hold up well for 3-4 more things. But if you have 10? More? Someone, somewhere is going to ask the very intelligent question of how all those other things relate to each other … and if your metric is “not as good as this thing here”, this is hardly granular and likely not very informative. Okay, so, no, this speaker doesn’t have to be the “best ever made”, not that I’d have any idea of what that was or would be able to afford it.

Which brings me to another point. Cost. I can’t spend $25k for a pair of compact speakers. Wish I was that guy, but no, I’m not one of Mitt Romney’s billionaire sports team owners. Sad, I know. So until the Lotto Fairy pays me a surprise visit, I’m trying to keep it reasonable and have the final to-me cost to be something in the “several thousands” and totally out of the “tens of thousands” ballparks.

Okay, got all that? Excellent. Here’s where I’m at.

The Joseph Audio Pulsars are $7,000. This is a lot of dough for a pair of stand mount speakers. Okay, being absolutely real for a moment — this is a lot of money, full stop.

On the other hand, it’s also one of the best sounding monitors I’ve heard. Admittedly, I haven’t heard everything out there. Not even close. But my admiration for these guys has company. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I’ve met that has had anything bad to say about their sound quality (though I recall somewhere that some weren’t fond of the aesthetic, which is weird).

On the downside, they aren’t terribly sensitive, call it mid-80’s in the dBL department. Jeff himself has commented that with “at least 50wpc”, his speakers open up. Not that they’re bad with less, just that they’re great with more, if you know what I mean. Does mean that any low-power tubes will require a different solution, though. Hmm.

There are a couple of other contenders here. The first is the much lauded Gibbon 3XL from DeVore Fidelity. I’ve read so many great things about this speaker, but alas and alack, have not had the pleasure to spend much time with a pair myself. My loss, I’m sure, but I’m working on rectifying that conspicuous lack.

In the monkey’s favor are the form factor (smallest of the bunch), the price ($3700), and it’s moderately high sensitivity (90dB). These things were made with tubes in mind!

A late-comer to the party, or at least to my party, is the Duke from Marten Designs. This $8500 (!!!) speaker is sporting the fanciest gear of the bunch, including Accuton drivers and non-parallel cabinet walls.

I’ve never heard this particular speaker. Or spent any significant time with any speaker from the Marten Designs team. The FormFloor, a stand-mount from their entry-level line up, I did hear quite a bit of at the last two RMAF. At those shows, I remarked to myself (yes, I talk to myself out loud) that the sound of the Marten speakers was quite fine … but … I’ve never heard the speakers with anything but E.A.R. tube gear. However, that does mean that tube gear works well!

The feedback/advice that I’ve been getting through the super-secret audiophile grapevine is that this speaker is possibly the most revealing out there, perhaps even rivaling an ESL for speed and accuracy — without sounding bright, brittle, etched, or any other adjective usually used to describe sound quality that is in some way construable as negative. This sort of endorsement tends to perk up my ears and my natural BS filter, in pretty much equal measure. That said, I’m still finding it hard to discredit and dismiss “those in the know” who keep saying that the Marten is amazing … which is why it’s on this shortlist. Ultimately, however, I think it’s unfamiliarity may undo it in this particular run up. It’s also the priciest, so perhaps that’s a blessing.

This is pretty much it. There’s a ton of other great speakers out there, and a huge selection of compacts that look like they’d fit the bill. But precious few are both compact and flexible enough to be friendly to a lot of different types of gear. So, there you go.

Yes, there are a lot of speakers I’ve ruled out here and for that, I’m sorry. No, I’m not hating on Harbeth, Reference 3a, Amphion, Fritz Frequencies, Vaughn Loudspeakers, Neat, Transmission Audio, Davone, Trenner & Freidl, Magnepan, Proac, Nola, Evolution Acoustics, Heil, Dynaudio, Soundsmith, or any of a bazillion others. The selection against many of them were on the grounds raised above. 4ohm speakers? Out. Taller than 16″? Done. Wider than 10″? Next time! Less than 86dB sensitivity? Not a great idea. Some, I simply had to trim because they were too hard to audition, the distributor/manufacturer never got back to me or expressed no interest in selling to me, or they were simply not brands that swam near enough to the main stream that an average reader would recognize them, understand the sound I was using as a baseline, and be able to relate in any reasonable way. Harsh criteria? Maybe so.

But now that its out of the way, we’re on to stage two: auditioning! I plan to get some time on the DeVore speakers at some point in the near future — a semi-local dealer, down outside DC called Command Performance A/V, has picked up the line and should have those specific speaks in somewhat soon. Interestingly, they’re also picking up a pair of Django’s from Marten. While not the same as the Duke, the Django actually appears to be derived from a now-discontinued product called the Duke/Ellington — which is a Duke sitting on top of a pair of powered sub cabinets. Hmm! Probably similar enough, don’t you think, at least to get the flavor for what the Duke might be able to do? Last but not least is the Pulsar, and, well, I’ve heard a lot of that speaker (and still love it) — but wonder of wonders, they’re also at Command Performance. Okay, so this is now a Command Performance advert. Hmm.

What’s happens then? Stage three will be system building. I’ve committed to picking up a LampizatOr Level 4 DAC, and with luck, that should be here in a month or so. The piece after that is an amp. This is the lowest priority as I’ve already got a Luxman L-505u integrated just sitting around that will be perfect for this. But aside from that, I’m still looking for tubes — again, gotta build out that demo suite of gear.

So, what to get?

After talking with various folks, it occurs to me that I’d probably be best served by separates. Given that I already have an awesome integrated, this makes sense. While SET amps have a lot of appeal, their applicability is dramatically less than universal. Sure, my Maggies will make sounds when connected to my 3wpc Miniwatt N3, but they’re not going to make music. Admittedly, most speakers aren’t as power-starved as my Maggies, but again, most speakers wouldn’t exactly light up my life with less than 15wpc, regardless of how ballsy those 15 watts are. No, SETs are probably out at this point, at least for the first amp. I’ll reserve the right to jump all over one if I ever get around to needing or wanting a second tube amp to round out my amp collection.

Did I really just write “amp collection”? Yikes. That was totally Freudian.

Sounds like a plan!

Now, the Lampi will have a nice (and defeatable/completely circumventable) volume control on board, so hopefully I won’t have to run out immediately and get a preamp. So, first, an amp. And I think I’ve found my huckleberry.

Yes! That’s the latest tube amp from Conrad-Johnson, the Classic Sixty SE. This sucker uses KT120 tubes and is reasonably priced (for a tube amp). It’s also mainstream, has a pretty good following, but … this is not your daddy’s C-J. No, those KT120s are supposed to have much better linearity, but will bring some of the mid range sweetness that the KT88/6550 lacks, and adds a robust bottom end to a beautiful treble to round out the package. Super tube for the 21st century? That’s what folks are saying. I’m interested in trying it out!

About Scot Hull (976 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and "The Occasional Magazine"

28 Comments on System Two, Part Two-ish

  1. Mike in SC // March 30, 2012 at 11:26 PM //

    You’ve convinced me. I’m voting for Mitt.

  2. Nothing wrong with the Devore’s they’ve developed a cult like status and the bamboo cabinets and custom drivers look like the ticket. Now I know B&W has the kind of ‘boring’ label attached but those new little PM1’s really sing, carbon tweet actually works well. However the future of audio could be a laptop with a transmitter, active speakers with a Class D amp and you’re done. Then again with the vinyl resurgence who knows….
    I am curious though for those of you have run both solid state (watts are cheap I run NAD) and tubes, are tubes worth all the effort and space they get in the mags ?

    Charlie.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 20, 2012 at 6:29 PM //

      “Worth it”? Hmm. Yes?

      I mean that in the following way — tubes are interesting, in pretty much exactly the same way that vinyl is interesting. Both evoke a certain retro nostalgia. Both remain, despite rumors to the contrary, quite popular. In fact, many would argue they’ve never really gone out of style. The reason? They work — and can work quite well.

  3. Contact Gordon directly.

    J. Gordon Rankin

    Look, you are an emerging positive force in the high end audio review world, I’m pretty sure Gordon would be delighted to speak with you and I’d be shocked if he couldn’t find a way for you to audition the Crimson or Cosecant and have you review it.

    Definitely worth a shot.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  4. I second the thoughts mentioned above regarding “Your Blog”.
    My thoughts;
    Entertaining, enjoyable, concise writing style.
    Very thorough show coverage with pictures galore (better than the pros’!). And, faaaast! Your show coverage info. is up well before any others. Thanks for that!

    Speaker choices? I’m enjoying reading the decision process, but hoping the Gibbon doesn’t win out. They don’t appear to be good enough for this project. They are far from mainstream, drab looking, and appear to be nothing really special. Something more beautiful and extravagant is what I think readers’ are hoping to see.

    Pulsar sounds good, but doesn’t appear that they would really capture the beauty of tube gear; seems more about speed, big sound, and solid state. I heard the Pulsar at The Show Newport and was impressed. One thing that bothered me, however, was that, for me, there was much too much “fake bass”. 61/2″ driver trying to go too low? Did you notice that with yours? I was considering these, but not hot on the looks.

    Marten Duke doesn’t seem to be particularly tube friendly at 87db. Mainstream? Not so much.

    I still say Focal Diablo. Absolute reference speaker! No doubt about it. No need to upgrade… ever. Sure it demands more power than it’s sensitivity rating suggests (I think every speaker below 91db demand more power these days), but for a desktop it might be OK. Also, Focal 1008BE (don’t think you’ll find better spec than 89db/8ohm).

    4ohm option…SF Auditor Elipsa. I wouldn’t be so quick to disregard 4ohm speakers. Regarding your experience with your Magnepan and Plinius. We’re talking Magnepan!!! I think Magnepan would make a Bel Canto run warm. And, I thought Plinius always had a reputation for running warm, even in class A/B.

    Sorry for the repeat suggestions, but you won’t find a single bad comment regarding either of these speakers (Diablo,SF). Meaning they would likely remain in the long run. No upgrade-itus. And all are very mainstream.

    Sadly, there aren’t many tube friendly options. So, in my humble opinion, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off 4ohm, or speaker power real-world claims. Be open and demo if possible.

    Why can’t manufacturers’ make a sensitive speaker? Too bad it wasn’t 1999. The original Micro Utopia would have been a nice option.

    The Conrad Johnson is a beauty! In their specs it appears that they almost recommend it be used at a 4ohm load (60wpc). Looks like a bargain, if I saw the price correctly. Can be had for 3K?

    Apologies if sounding overly opinionated. Good luck!

    P.S. I’m a bookshelf fan. So I got excited when I saw the AudioMachina CRM http://audiomachina.com/products/crm/. Then I saw the sensitivity. 84db!!! Are you kidding me! So I need 1K WPC just to enjoy this monitor from 10 ft. away presumably. And, the specs claim (recommended amp 20-100WPC). 20watts minimum! Yeah right. Am I missing something here? I still want them anyway. Maybe Rockport Mira Monitor. But, 85db sensitivity! Come on! Egglestonworks Isabel?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 20, 2012 at 3:15 PM //

      Compact speakers seem to be, almost to a fault, a pain in the ass to drive. Someone explained it to me once, but I’m an idiot and didn’t get most of it. 😉 Something about needing power to make that small of a driver do all that work, or something. Oh well. Of course, there are speaker drivers that do this well. They’re called “Lowther” and they do really … creative … things when driven loud or beyond their sweet spot (low or high). Yeah.

      As for the speakers in my lineup, what’s wrong with the DeVore? To all reports, it’s an awesome speaker! I mean, this is Stereophile Class A stuff here! The Joseph Audio hasn’t been reviewed by that august magazine, but I think it’d clearly beat the tar out of just about everything else in that lineup. While it’s not as tube friendly (read: high sensitivity) as I might like, it’s about on par with the rest of the speakers in the this class. And I’ve heard them SING on 50watts of good tube power (though, admittedly, 100watts was even better).

      And, for the record, I have nothing against 4ohm speakers! I really appreciate your enthusiastic nomination of a $13k stand-mount, too. 😉 Wish I had the money for that! But, more seriously, the Utopia line is outstanding. They’re big for what I’m doing — and not only that, they’re all pigs to drive, despite their 8ohm nominal rating. You want 200wpc or more to wake them up! Nothing wrong with that, but that’d be more a replacement for my Maggies than a replacement for my Totem Model 1 Signatures. Moving down their line, the 1008Be is an outstanding speaker as well, but again, needs the same kind of power to wake up as the Diabolo — or just about any Focal speaker, or speaker that uses Focal drivers. They’re great — they’re just power hungry. Must be a honkin’ big voice coil or something tucked away in there.

      I will admit to having a fetish for leather-covered speakers. The Italians (Rosso Fiorentino and Sonus Faber) do make some luscious-to-the-touch speakers. Mmm mmm!

      • Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t criticize a speaker (Gibbon) that I haven’t even heard. It’s just not audiophile eye candy that some of us readers’ love to see. And, I did come across one not so enthusiastic Gibbon review.

        I’ve seen the 13K speaker sell for well below retail here and there. I don’t think Focal is super tight on their pricing, like some other companies. And your an Audiophile, so it’s almost certain that you’ll go over budget. Ha! Ha! Those are the reasons why I suggested the pricey Focal again. But yes, they are much larger than they look, particularly depth; that’s a problem in my circumstance as well. It’s too bad that Focal are now pigs to drive. That used to not be the case. Having owned the old Mini Utopia, I would say that they were very easy to drive, and sounded excellent with the 50 watt Cary 805. O.K., I’ll give up on Focal.

        Nothing wrong with the Pulsar! That would make a great choice. It was one of the best sounding I heard at The Show Newport. I was impressed! I’m considering them myself. Only concern was maybe a bit bass heavy, but could have been the setup?

        One things for sure… slim pickins in the tube friendly monitor category. And certainly a wide range of reader opinions.

        Best of luck in your hunt,
        Brad

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 20, 2012 at 6:39 PM //

        Thanks! And for the record, I’d love to try out some Diablos. I just wish my budget could stretch that far. But you’re right, nothing is ruled out until what cash there is gets spent ….

  5. Hey PTA…about your commitment to the Lampinzinger…er Lampinauzerzeitenburger…um that Lampenzin-german DAC 4 thing you’re comtemplating adding to System 2.

    Have you ever auditioned one of Gordon Rankin’s tube DAC’s such as the Cosecant (~$4K with 24/192 dac) or his top-of-the-line Crimson ($7.5k). American designed and made…and widely acclaimed as some of the best sounding DAC $ can buy. All this and from the inventor of the asynchronous USB DAC. I’ve owned a Cosecant for years…have had Gordon upgrade it periodically as his DAC technology evolved. He’s analogous to the mid-western equipment designer that you can actually talk to about the equipment he’s building for you. That and in some circles he’s considered quite the rockstar in the computer audio world…open, easy to correspond with and the one of most knowledgable chap you will find in the world of DACs (and fine hand-built tube audio equipment for that matter).

    I think it would be worth a look.

    Cheers,

    Bill

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 20, 2012 at 8:29 AM //

      I haven’t! Call it a gap in my world of experience. I’m bad, I know. I just don’t have anything even remotely approaching a local dealer ….

    • Lampizator is Polish and I guess you never heard one. Read PTA’s mini review and check out StereoMojo’s review too.

      Once you go (Lamp), then you KNOW. LoL

  6. Hey Bill – and I was just going to recommend the Dynaudio Confidence C1’s, talk about function before form, ugliest but best sounding monitor this side of a Q1 or Raidho C1.1 – but 4 ohms and tubes just wont get the job done. Back to the Harbeths and that Radial cone…………..in Rosewood of course, find 15 watts and the PTimer has got the job done. Ultimately the monitors deliver mid range then you come full circle back to floorstanders, never ends but it’s fun…………

    Charlie.

    • Hi Charley…call me shallow, but I just can’t get completely past the function over form thing. For instance, I have a lot of McIntosh stuff. This should speak volumes about my form over function hang ups.

      I’ve also been married twice…

      Cheers,

      Bill

    • I too suggested the C1, but noted (ugliest speaker ever). I’m vain with my audio. Too bad the C1 is soooo extremely ugly. As good as it may sound, I wouldn’t take it for 1/2 price.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 20, 2012 at 6:30 PM //

        I’m really not that big a fan of that vented poly cone. Probably just me. But now that you mention it, the aesthetic of the Dynaudio line is … ah … an acquired taste?

  7. I know sound is everything, but I’ve got to tell you that at $7-8.5k the Dukes have all the panache of $1k DIY speakers. Let’s say in a blind listening test the Dukes were like 15% better than the Pulsars…I’d forget about the 15% in a heartbeat and take the speakers that look as good as they sound.

    My two cents…

  8. Stop the presses!

    How about the Volent Paragon VL-2? 6 moons seemed to love them. 6ohms/87db. AMT HF driver, exotic italian woofer!

    http://www.sixmoons.com/audioreviews/volent/volent.html

  9. Charlie Hastings // March 18, 2012 at 8:12 PM //

    Few comments:

    Secondary System

    It aint over till its over.
    Harbeth P3ESR, 6 ohms you need 15 watts and $2K. Still want the Pulsars how about the Usher Be-718 with diamond tweet. 8 omhs 87db 1 watt ant 1 meter and less than half the price of the Pulsars.

    eFicion F300

    I was good until you hit the StillPoint discussion at $7500 – doesnt that fail the Julia test 🙂

    Retrospective

    Any regrets in letting the Merlins and the tubes go ?

    Your Blog

    Stay the course great site, refreshing writing style. You’ve captured what all the Audio Mags and other sites are missing:
    – trials and tribulations of building , buying and selling audio equipment
    – listening and critical analysis by the guy on the street
    – quick insightful overviews
    – sense of humor
    – huge capacity to entertain your audience with all things audiophile, the Axpona info was immense, laid away Absolute Sound and Stereophile.
    – like the Regional Shows the manfrs need guys like you to get the word out with brick and mortar all but gone, think you’ve carved out a niche, very cool

    Keep it going Harry Pearson had to start somewhere…..

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 18, 2012 at 9:29 PM //

      Harbeth … yeah, maybe, dunno. I think the P3 is a probably the only only that would “fit” size-wise, but it’s sealed, rolls off pretty high … would be great for near field. But far? Not sure.

      Usher … needs power. More, better, power. Might look tube friendly on the outside, but like a Focal, it just ain’t.

      eFicion … what a fantastic speaker! Do I need the Stillpoints? No. Would the speakers be better with them? Maybe. Okay, probably. Sometimes, you just gotta go with what you love, no?

      Do I regret letting the Merlins go? Nope. Bought two pair and I’m now very familiar with the sound. They were great for what they were, or more accurately, when they were, but I’m very happy to have moved on. I had an Ars Sonum Filarmonia SE amp that I quite liked, though. That may have been my favorite bit of audio gear. I think it may have been better than the speakers, but in the end, I wanted something more than just a mid range, so both went on to other homes and that cash went elsewhere.

      Everything else … thanks for your kind words! Thanks for tuning in!

  10. Probably an obvious comment coming from me, but what about the McIntosh MC275 tube amp? I know the Golden Anniversary super-hooplah model is $6500 SRP, but I think the standard issue new MC275 is ~$5K which is about what the CJ is.

    Thoughts?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 18, 2012 at 9:14 PM //

      It’s a matter of tubes, actually. I’m just more interested in the KT120s than the KT88s. Oh, and I’ve got a man-crush on Conrad-Johnson.

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