Years ago, long before I finally had some seat time with a complete Audio Note UK system, someone asked me if there were any high-end audio brands that excelled at complete systems, everything from speakers to amps to digital sources to analog sources to cables. There are, of course, many companies in mainstream home electronics that offer a system that has the same logo glued on every component from top to bottom, but the implied subtext of the original question is that the company had to develop each product segment independently, and it needed to aspire to high-end audio standards–in other words, something I would consider for myself.
I immediately thought of two brands that qualified on a deeper level. First was Shindo Labs, considered at the time because I had a huge crush on that Shindo/Garrard 301 turntable, and the second was a complete Audio Note UK system.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
Now that I’ve spent the last few months with that complete Audio Note UK system, I have a whole new respect for a high-end audio company that can make everything and make it well. In the past, this sort of comprehensive approach to audio by one group of designers and engineers split audiophiles into two camps–those who thought it was impossible for one company to do everything well, and those who knew it was advantageous to voice components together as a complete system. I agree with both approaches, and they co-exist in this industry to some degree.
A complete Audio Note UK system has a third approach, however, that’s focused on a specific vision–in this case, that of Audio Note UK’s illustrious Peter Qvortrup. This goes further than merely voicing things together, it’s getting everything to contribute to an overall sonic signature. While there are certainly levels to design commitment at work here, which is why Audio Note UK offers Level 0 through Level 6 components at very different price points, I was able to dwell among the lower levels in the Audio Note UK hierarchy and still see that vision clearly and walk away incredibly impressed.
The Audio Note UK Mystique
Some audio brands have a mystique to them. They build brand loyalty, so that you’ve automatically joined a very special club when you buy one of their products. Audio Note UK is very definitely one of those brands. When I first promoted that I had a complete Audio Note UK system in for review, I received plenty of messages and emails from the fans, some of them chanting “One of us! One of us!”
Audio Note UK has also been described by the audiophile community as being distinctive, as in “this sounds different from other audio components.” I know one old-school audio guy who liked to say, “If two amplifiers sound different, one of them is broken.” In my many years as an audiophile, however, I’ve delved into the stuff that sounds different, the 2wpc SET amplifiers, the full-range single-driver speakers, the compression horn tweeters, the idler-drive turntables and more. I’ve never worried about veering away from a singular neutral sound–as long as I was having fun and tapping my toes.
Here’s the funny thing. The complete Audio Note UK system didn’t sound that “different” to me. There were no strange colorations, no deviations from the sonic norm. Once I spent some time with these components, I clearly understood Peter Qvortrup’s priorities. Make it sound like real musical instruments. “Music’s Finest Conductor” is the company’s tag line, after all, and from the first moment of listening I picked up on that. The system instantly impressed me with its tonality, its realism, and its slavish devotion to preserving the emotions behind a musical performance.
I did find these traits to “sound” much different than most of the gear I’ve had in-house for the last couple of years. With my focus on lowered noise floors and class D amplification (done right, of course) and proper grounding and absolute velvety black silence underneath the music, my brain adjusted quickly and saw the benefits of low inductance in the signal path. The complete Audio Note UK system was not noisy by any stretch of the imagination, but there was more presence in the room, a consistent feeling that lot of musical information was being passed on.
Which sound is better? I don’t know, is analog better than digital? Are tubes better than transistors? These are common issues with audiophiles, and I think it distracts from our enjoyment of the hobby.
Are you digging this? In all my years as an audiophile, this is the only question that matters to me anymore.
The Complete Audio Note UK System Breakdown
Was there any single component in the complete Audio Note UK system that I thought was the weak link? That’s the strange part–not really. Even when I paired an Audio Note UK component with other brands, I never once thought that “I need to hear this component in the complete Audio Note UK system in order to determine its true potential.” There were no mismatches.
Here are some brief and somewhat blunt conclusions, however, that I made about each component during the review period:
Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers–“One of the finest two-way monitors under the $5K mark. Never once sounded like a small two-way. Would probably go up the line in order to have one of those gorgeous Audio Note UK veneers, but that’s it.”
Audio Note UK Cobra integrated amp/DAC–“Now my favorite EL-34 integrated, and I have a lot of them as personal favorites. Trouble-free, reliable, sounds superb. Not sure what one of Audio Note’s 300B integrateds would add to my impressions, not sure I would care unless I auditioned one and found it better. I might miss the extra power of the EL-34 to drive more speakers.”
Audio Note UK CDT-One/II transport–“Never thought I’d get excited about a mere digital transport, but I can’t stop playing CDs on this thing. Drawer noisier than I thought, but who cares when the music sounds this good.”
We can stop for a moment right there. Those three components, along with the supplied Audio Note UK cabling, comprised a complete Audio Note UK system for just $15,000–and I would be proud to own it. I’d be happy. Truly, as they say in Lawrence of Arabia.
Audio Note UK TT-Two Deluxe turntable with R Zero/II MM phono stage, Arm Three/II tonearm and IQ III MM cartridge–“Okay, I would like to move up to MC with this rig, but at the same time I think I’ve just listened to one of the best MM cartridges out there. Always wanted to own a TT-Two Deluxe, and nothing has changed.”
The Complete Audio Note UK System Conclusions
The complete Audio Note UK system presents a conundrum to an audio reviewer like me. Once I wrapped up the final review on the Audio Note UK TT-Two Deluxe turntable, I packed up all the AN stuff and sent it along. Adrian Ford-Crush immediately asked if there were any other AN products I’d like to review, and of course that answer was a resounding yes.
I’m very intrigued with the Meishu Phono Tonmeister integrated amplifier I listened to at the 2023 Pacific Audio Fest. I’d love to try a DAC or two. Now that I’ve revisited my audiophile past with the AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers, maybe I’d like to spend some time with the big AN-E series in my larger listening room–although the side walls are close to non-existent. Or maybe I’d just like to try the AN-J/LX. Or the AN-J/SPe. Or the AN-J SE Silver. Or the AN-J SEC. Line ’em all up in a row and let’s see what each Audio Note level brings me.
My conundrum, of course, has nothing to do with all the choices in the Audio Note UK line. For example, let’s say I procure that Meishu Phono Tonmeister for review. Do I review it as a single component in my reference system, or do Adrian Ford-Crush and I sit down and map out another complete Audio Note UK system around it? On one side, you have the viewpoint that an important measure of an audio component’s evaluation is whether or not it plays well with others. On the other side, there’s this feeling like you’re missing out by NOT reviewing it in an all-AN system. In fact, I think that’s the reason why Audio Note UK fans are so loyal–they understand that last part.
My conclusion winds up somewhere in between those two scenarios. I do want to review more Audio Note UK, but if I did it might take up my review schedule for the better part of a year, as this first round did. On the other hand, when it comes to buying something for myself, free from the scrutiny of fellow audiophiles, I could totally envision becoming one of the Audio Note UK loyalists, moving slowly and carefully through all the levels, winding up with something that resembles the high-end audio system of my dreams.
Que sera, sera. And now, back to our regular programming.