SET Blues

I’ve written quite a bit recently about pricing and the cost of manufacturing, and I feel that I can say, with no little degree of confidence, that I “get it”. Prices (generally) don’t get created with a voodoo ritual, a dart-toss, or fall out of a plot to overthrow the Galactic Overlords. Usually, it’s math. Just math. My old nemesis….

So, with that said, I’m going to whine a bit about how I want everything to be just a bit cheaper. Why? Well, I want an SET amp. I don’t really know why I want it. Why don’t I know why? I dunno. Get away from me. But I do want an SET amp. I even know which one. But — and I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before — the last 15 months haven’t really resolved my underlying problem: the loudspeaker.

Yeah, notice the side-step there? I went from pricing to amps to speakers. Sneaky, right? Heh. Okay, maybe not. The point, that I’m just going to wave at for the moment, is that it’s all a system. In that system, the most important relationship is the one between the amp and the loudspeaker. Buying an amp (for any reason) without having a loudspeaker to pair it to, is stupid. [Insert gratuitous smack to the back of the head here]. Bad form! Seriously. Even if that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. Ahem.

So, I’m forced to note that it’s been a while since I’ve revisited this topic. I think the last big jag I made about this was back in November of 2011. I had just invested way too much money on my analog front-end and thought that finishing that second system with a flea-powered amp and some highly sensitive speakers would be just what the doctor ordered. But where to go?

A couple of months later, I opined that there were a few things on my audiophile to-do list (aka, “want to buy” list) that might fit the bill. I had then recently picked up a pair of Tekton Pendragons, hilarious over-performers, but even though they had a really high overall sensitivity, they nonetheless loved the juice. Great loudspeakers, yes, and yes, they “do triodes”, but it wasn’t quite the match I was looking for in a low-powered reference. The SEAS-version of the Pendragon might be a viable option, and supposedly one that will actually be en route soon, but at 4 ohms and 95dB sensitivity, I’m thinking a handful of watts may not be the way to get those bad boys to sit up and bark like the big dogs I know they are.

Anyway, the quest continued, and swept up a then-new design by DeVore Fidelity, the $12,000 Orangutan O/96. They’re amazingly good, and even though Stereophile’s Art Dudley has “blessed” them with the distinctly faint praise of Class B status, they’re far better than this, and far better than most of Stereophile’s so-called Class A loudspeakers. But 96dB, while tube friendly, isn’t necessarily SET friendly — my knee-jerk recommendation is for something in the double-digit watt output range. For SET tubes, that means an 845 or maybe a Kronzilla tube, just not really a 300b, and certainly not a 45. Those small-output amps would drive the O/96, but with that big woofer, I’d expect that the more powerful amps would have far more fun. Not ruling it out, though, so don’t get too sweaty. Just tossing some observations out there.

The next up was the $24,000 Hørning Hybrid Eufrodite Ultimate Zigma Plus. This  Hørning recently got a facelift, so buying them now is a fair idea. They’re also rather svelte, with a narrow face and a deep cabinet, so they seem maneuverable, a huge benefit for a reviewer. They’re 98dB, which is great and the bass is rather solid. I’ve heard them rock the heck out on a Thöress F2a11 monoblock, so I know they’re SET friendly, even if 2dB isn’t a lot of difference from that O/96. Interesting.

Last up was something I hadn’t considered back in 2011 but sure spent a lot of time wondering about in 2012: the Volti Vittora. At 104dB, this is a made-for-SET loudspeaker if I’ve ever heard of one — and I spent six delicious weeks driving them with my all-time-favorite SET amp, the S10 from BorderPatrol. This is a spectacular pairing! But that loudspeaker is so big … getting it into the listening space is one (very non-trivial) thing. Moving them out of the listening space when I need to review something else is quite another. ‘Daunting’ is a word that keeps coming to mind.

Zu Audio is another direction that I also haven’t explored as much as I’d like. High sensitivity paired with large drivers tends to say all the right things to me, but alas and alack, I’ve never been able to bring a pair in-house. 2013 is supposed to change that, but  my first pair from Zu probably won’t walk in the door till the back half of the year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

There’s also the “Big Tannoy” loudspeakers, like the Westminster. Aside from being enormous (see the comments about the Volti), they’re 99dB and very expensive (not that any of this stuff is cheap). Also, my understanding is that all Tannoy concentric-driver speakers tend to also love the juice more than you’d think. Hmm.

I understand that there are some really nice/new designs from AvantGarde these days that solve some of the bass integration issues of the older designs. I’m not sure any of these tweaks has solved the far-field listening requirements (rumor has it that AG speakers need a bit of space to knit the sound field together), but they’re on the to-do list.

And no, I’m not seriously considering single-driver loudspeakers at this point.

Anyway, that’s my problem. If you’re putting together a reference system with SET aspirations, your choices are rather limited.

Happily, the speakers are the only gating item. Assuming all things are equal, a BorderPatrol will do precisely what I want it to do. I’ll just need a preamp and I’ll be done. My Thöress phono pre and TW-Acustic AC-3 turntable are ready to go.

More on this soon, but feel free to chime in. I’m curious. What would you choose?