Steve Nugent’s Empirical Audio room has been near the top of my list at Newport for three years running. Last year’s show, his first partnered with Missouri’s Vapor Sound, may have been the top of the list for me. With Steve introducing a revamped product line this year, it was absolutely a must-see.
Steve’s new product, the upgraded Empirical Overdrive DAC ($6399), features an entirely new USB front-end that obviates the need for one of his Off Ramp USB converters. Other than the cost savings, this provides what appears to be an obvious cleaner and better nuanced presentation. Compared to the little I heard at RMAF, I’d guess that the increased spatial information alone would make me call this a significant upgrade. It’s not often you see an upgrade like this take more than a grand off the top of the system price, but there you go.
Empirical’s Final Drive Transformers ($2,999 per pair) were also in use here to provide a traditional, transformer coupled output. A Friday visit without the transformers in the system compared to a Sunday visit with the transformers in use showed a lowering of the noise floor, apparently increased dynamics, and a better sense of downward dynamic range. Small details and timbral shifts were presented much more elegantly with the Final Drives in the system than without.
Empirical seems to be aiming squarely at the top of the PCM food chain with this revision. It’s hard to call anything that costs nearly ten grand for the package a good deal, but my first instinct is that it may be justified here. I couldn’t find anything to complain about when listening to a Basie track that Steve had thoughtfully preloaded.
An Antipodes DV music server ($4,000) provided the bits, and a pair of Clayton Audio M300 monoblocks ($16,500) provided the almost stereotypical solid-state power. The Empirical kit handled its own volume duties, so no preamp was needed.
Of course, Vapor had something to show as well.
A pair of Joule White — the left speaker brutally scarred from a CNC mishap — delivered on its promise of a more HiFi sound than Vapor’s fan favorite Nimbus series, displaying an almost scary facility with detail and throwing an exceptional soundstage in the small Hilton room. The bass, a tight, cyborg-like affair, locked into the Hilton’s evil room-boom to provide a true pummeling. This echoed what little I heard from a previous Joule White during an abortive audition at last year’s RMAF. It comes across as a much more tightly coiled beast than Vapor’s Nimbus. Listeners are likely to have a strong preference for one or the other.
Pricing on the Joule White starts at $12,995 per pair, but there are countless internal upgrades and finish options available. The pair in use here didn’t seem to be the base model, so it’s probably best to inquire about actual pricing before you commit.