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AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

AudioKinesis-1030047

by Josh Emmons

I’m sitting in the Essential Audio room, notepad open, pen in hand. Eyes unfocused, listening intently. But writing nothing.

And I should be writing something. It’s my job to write something. But I’m not hearing anything. Well, okay, that’s obviously untrue. I’m hearing some fantastic music. But it’s not my job to talk about music. I’m supposed to talk about how the music sounds. And I just can’t figure it out. So I’m going to talk about The Matrix.

Do you remember that moment when Agent Smith reveals to a drugged Morpheus how the first version of the Matrix failed horribly? It was designed to be a perfect paradise, but our human brains rejected it as obviously unreal. Without little imperfections to hang on to, our consciousness had no way to relate to what we were experiencing.

As I’ve made much hay from already, this is my first hi-fi show. And as such, I rarely know going into a room what I’m supposed to be listening for. So I sit in the sweet spot, close my eyes, and listen for imperfection.

Once my ears catch it, I can tease it out. Does it reoccur? What is that, a frequency thing? Or something with the timber of the treble, maybe something resonating? Is it too bright? Is it the amp? The cables?

So I sit in the Essential Audio room, and I’m hearing nothing. And I’m writing nothing. And my overall impression is, “This sounds okay.”

This is how we end up with Beats headphones, loudness wars, saturated TVs, and Pepsi ever winning the Pepsi Challenge. If we aren’t given imperfections we have no way to differentiate our experiences from “normal”. If it’s not deeper, louder, brighter, or sweeter, it’s “okay”.

Consider that, by definition, the more natural something is, the less remarkable we find it. And so it is with the Essential Audio room. It is not okay. It is exceptionally okay. Surpassingly normal. It is incredibly, unbelievably natural.

And why? At least part of credit lies at the feet of the AudioKinesis Zephrin 46. I mean literally at its feet. If you haven’t seen a 46 before its rear drivers are mounted in its feet pointing up to provide what AudioKinesis calls Late Ceiling Splash.

After learning about LCS, I expected to hear a slight echo or even subtle chorus-like sound from the Zephrin. But that’s not at all how it works. I would say the effect is completely transparent, but for how life-like the system sounds. Its front-facing beryllium compression driver probably doesn’t hurt in this respect, either.

Still, if you’re building your sound up with late reflections and reverberant fields, you want your source saturated with as much depth and space as possible. That’s the job of the twin Atma-Sphere M-60 monoblocks. They’re huge, have VUs, and are full of tubes. Hand wired, fully point-to-point, and continuously refined for over three decades, these amps are the undisputed heavyweight champs of OTL.

These are fed with signal decoded by Exogal‘s Comet Plus DAC. Here’s the thing to know about Exogal, these guys know their DSP. They cut their teeth in other industries like wireless broadband, GPS, image processing and more before bringing it all back to the PCM decoding scene. This DAC does magical D to A in ways never before seen in the hi-fi community.

All this resting on a very handsome rack from Teo Audio that, at first, looks like it’s molded out of some sort of injected insulation material, but upon closer inspection is actually metallic. I have no idea what they did to aerate metal and cast it into shelves, but the look is striking.

So when it comes down to it the Essential Audio recipe for a shockingly natural sounding system is pretty unnatural sounding. Whip some metal up into foam. Take signal processing technology from cell phones, use it to decode bits that get piped through an amp that’s completely omitted the transformer from its output stage to drive a pair of “Z” shaped speakers that have two-thirds of their cones pointing at the ceiling.

The result is remarkably unremarkable. Unnaturally natural. Indescribable only in as much as there’s nothing to describe that’s not the thing being described. If you’re ever in the Illinois area, you simply have to stop by Essential Audio for a personal audition.

It’s then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Prices

  • Aurender N100 Music Player: $2,499
  • Aurender X100L Music Player: $3,499
  • Exogal Comet Plus DAC: $3,000
  • Atma-Sphere UV-1 pre with low ourput MC photo section: $2,900
  • Atma-Sphere M-60 MkIII.2 amp with copper foil V-Cap options: $7,700/pr.
  • AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 loudspeakers: $4,900/pr., beryllium compression drivers: $1,000/pr., Automotive paint finish: $1,000/pr.
  • Kuzma Stabi SD Turntable: $2,550, Stogi S CS tonearm: $1,425, Stogi S 12 VTA tonetarm: $3,150, CAR-40 cartridge: $1,195
  • Clarity Cable Vortex power cords: $750/ea. Power Distributors: $1,200/ea., Organic USB, 1.5m: $1,000, Organic Speaker Cables, 8ft.: $3,750/pr.
  • Teo Audio Equipment Rack: $7,500

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5 Comments on AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

  1. Josh, one component omitted from the listing above is the AMR CD-777 CD player ($4995). We used it a fair amount and demonstrated Essence of Music digital treatment with it to good effect.

  2. Great review and photos as always Josh. Loving it man.

  3. The original tone and quality of this review is what keeps me coming back for more.

    Duke LeJeune of AudioKinesis and I co-invented the Late Ceiling Splash radiation pattern employed in Zephrin 46 and two other AudioKinesis speakers a little further up the food chain (also sold by Essential Audio).

    Zephrin 46 pricing increases $500 effective, well 1 July IIRC.

    Soon we shall offer a separate smallish loudspeaker called LCS-U for Late Ceiling Splash, Universal, $2900/pr, HWD 12-3/4″ x 13″ x 17″, black paint over maple, standard real wood veneer walnut, maple…cherry might cost slightly extra. LCS-U sites on the floor behind the main speaker, firing up toward the ceiling.

    We also offer a 60W amp w/volume control to power LCS-U for $95, barely larger than a flask. While my enthusiasm lasts, I shall offer for <$100 a small custom box to convert speaker level to line level, for systems lacking spare RCA preamp outputs.

    Brian Walsh of Essential Audio offers LCS-U when it becomes available.

    LCS-U adds Late Ceiling Splash (and more described below) to any pre-existing speaker, regardless its radiation pattern. LCS-U "uncorrelates" the reverberant field from on-axis signal via a certain architecture unlike no other speaker, even the most costly dipole or bipole. Yes, LCS-U can even improve dipole and bipole radiation pattern.

    LCS-U also adds three other features. The nearby floor boundary allows it to achieve bass cutoff in the low 30 Hz range, lower than many speakers, especially stand mounts. It also offers some of the bass mode damping quality of Duke's SWARM distributed array sub woofer system, winner of March 2015 TAS Golden Ear Award.

    LCS-U increases system gain about 1.5 dB, but not the same as turning up the volume 1.5 dB. Instead, "density" increases, blessing the system with some of the qualities associated with the best horns. One interesting way to confirm the difference is to listen in a room other than the one in which the speakers are located. Switching LCS in and out (and compensating with the volume control 1.5 dB) is quite revealing.

    Thanks again to The Audio Traveler and staff for their highly valued support.

  4. Ken Micallef // May 23, 2015 at 10:19 AM //

    Wow, my table with a second arm. WANT

  5. Thank you. With such gifted designers behind these products and great teamwork, we consider ourselves fortunate.

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