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!