CD’s used for Test Purposes
Brothers in Arms – Dire Straights (XRCD 548 3572 Universal)
Rosa Passos & Ron Carter (Chesky Entre Amigos SACD 291)
This is K2 HD Sound (FIM K2 HD 078)
Solveig Slettahjell – Silver, ACT 9715-2 – acts 1-&5 Kelly Blue – Wynton Marsalis (JVC XRCD JVCXR – 0050-2)
Ruth Ann Swenson – Positively Golden EMC Classics (CDC 07777 5482720)
Jacqueline du Pre Dvorak Cello Concerto/Elgar Cello Concerto – EMI (Classics XRCD 22438267702)
Beethoven Plano Concerto No. 3 (Serkin) (Telarc CD 80063)
David Oistrakh Legend Beethoven and Mozart (EMI Classics 7243 5 58029 03)
Claudio Arrau 11 Great Pianists (Beethoven Emperor) – Great Pianists of the 20th Century (456 709-2)
Via Crucis – Les Soft Pavo less Du Chvist Liszt/Dubois (Fidelio FACD 012)
Cassandra Wilson- Belly of the Sun Track 8
Brinkmann Balance TT & Brinkmann 10.5 Arm
Lyra Titan Cartridge
Audio Note Fifth Element DAC & Fifth Force P/S
CDT5 CD Transport
Audio Note DAC 5 Signature
EMM Labs XDS1
Audio Note M9 / S9
HRS M3x Isolation Bases and Nimbus isolators
Nordost Odin interconnect and one 10 meter Valhalla interconnect from preamp to amp
Jorma Prime Speakerwire bi-wire
Audio Note Ongaku Power Amp
Marten Coltrane Supreme Speakers
Nordost Odin Power Cords
This should perhaps be entitled “over the mountains and through the woods”, or perhaps “in the woods”. Mike and Neli Davis own a lovely threestory chalet outside Boulder, Colorado, which is perched on the side of the Rocky Mountains. The house is modern in appearance externally, but Rocky Mountain ski lodge inside, including a great room with a 20+ foot ceiling, massive native stone fireplace and floor to ceiling windows which look out on Boulder and the surrounding landscape. As it turned out, it snowed during my visit making the roads somewhat more difficult to negotiate. Mike and Neli own Audio Federation, an ultra high end audio dealer and also import Audio Note products into the U.S. The real purpose of this trip was to audition the new $189,500 Audio Note Fifth Element/Fifth Force/CDT5 Transport and compare it with the much less expensive EMM Labs XDS1 which I currently own. The visit also provided an opportunity to hear the exquisite Marten Coltrane Supreme speakers in the same room in which 5 years ago I auditioned and subsequently purchased Acapella Triolons. While this is not intended as an exhaustive review of either the speaker or the Fifth Force, it does provide an initial impression formed over four days of listening.
I have for many years had great respect for the Marten speakers, having heard the Coltranes about five years ago at Mike and Neli’s driven by Audio Note Kegon single ended amps. The Coltrane Supremes have similarities to the smaller Coltranes. Both use ceramic drivers and a diamond tweeter mounted in a very sophisticated cabinet internally wired with Jorma cable. I am tempted to say that the Coltrane Supremes are the Coltranes on steroids but I think that would do an injustice to what Marten has achieved with the Supremes. Prior to this visit, my personal Pantheon of the great speakers would have included the Wilson Alexandria, the Kharma Grand Exquisite, and one of the larger Acapella speakers, either the Triolon or Sphaeron. Now, I would add the Marten Coltrane Supremes. Each of these speakers meet one of my primary criteria, namely the ability to be driven by a relatively low power, single ended, direct heated triode amplifier, preferably employing 300B or 211 output tubes [I would include the 2A3 but for their power limitations]. The Supremes have gotten around the normal; inefficiency of multi-driver speakers with the clever use of an external crossover and amp to drive the woofers. In comparison to the Triolons which I heard five years ago in this system, the Supremes sacrifice some air and detail at the top to the Acapella’s plasma tweeter but make up for that with superior detail throughout the mids thanks to their diamond/ ceramic drives. In both speakers, the integration of drivers is superb. Likewise, both have what I refer to as the “jump factor” with the Acapella having superior dynamics. While they are different, it would be difficult to choose one over the other.
The 1st cut played was the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto (Telarc).
On the EMM Labs:
The disc displayed a deep stage, good string tone, and great clarity. The stage was very nice stage left to right. Focus was a bit soft. Piano was nicely integrated with the orchestra, but clearly forward and distinct. Piano tone was good but lacked some body. The power of the piano was somewhat diminished and not as clear as I have heard it on other systems. The tympani lacked some impact.
On the Audio Note Fifth Element:
The sound was tonally richer, the image somewhat higher, but with less separation left to right. Tonal density was superb! String tone was fuller. Piano was quite lovely, but still somewhat lacking in power. It was less apparent that piano is in the forefront of the stage. Strings were far right and less prominent; however, the Fifth Element pulls you into the performance. The sound was more organic! It could have exhibited somewhat better leading edges, but this was not a function of the CD player used.
Jim Lindstrom (another guest) commented that the Fifth Element exhibited somewhat more centerfield and was somewhat more crisp [I am not sure that I would agree with the crisp.] He was however more aware of light midrange congestion and less aware of left right separation than with the XDS1.
Neli thought that the FE showed more a sense of the body at the piano and had better developed harmonics but that the EMM was very pure. Mike felt that the two units were close enough with respect to detail/resolution.
Wichita Linesman track from the Cassandra Wilson:
The EMM was extremely left right and placed the singer behind the orchestra. On the FE, this now musically makes sense – the various complex things happening with the quartet during the opening section are significantly easier to separate. Voice is huskier. Hang time on bells / decay is better. On the FE, you can clearly hear the body of the guitar. Mike felt that chimes had more body, tone was very pure and that he heard more information. On the FE I was very conscious that Wilson’s voice was rough and scratchy as the voices of smoker often can be. The FE on the same cut also seemed to add body and increase apparent dynamics.
American Beauty Cuts 2 & 3:
The EMM had a nice sense of space and air. The FE had a better sense of space, but bells sounded somewhat fuzzy.
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon Reprise 2281-2:
Voice was more detailed and drums had more impact on the FE, also better intelligibility and more body and PRAT. Jim thought that percussion was about equal on both. Cymbals throughout the piece were clearly more prominent on the FE but the question is how prominent should they be in the mix. Bass was somewhat denser, voice somewhat better on the FE, the sound of the stick hitting the edge of drum was more enjoyable – more listenable on the FE – recording quality of CD was very poor – FE is more forgiving, but perhaps not more accurate.
Dubois – Last Words of Christ cut 1:
On the EMM Labs, organ and male voice were rich. Massed voices seemed to overload the system, but perhaps this was just the CD – [SACD layer] “My God My God Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? Some of chorus seems to mush together. In contrast, the FE did a good job of separating the voices of the choir. [CD layer]
The FE was very left/right. Nice airy top end. Good bass impact on drums.
Audio Note DAC 5 Signature:
We also auditioned the Audio Note DAC5 Signature which was overall tonally similar to the FE. The FE had better detail, was more dynamic and had better control on percussion, better space and dynamics.
Thoughts about the Big System
The system had very believable image height, and differentiated well between the heights of the different instruments. The string tone on violins was very natural. PRAT was good as was the integration between the upper and lower frequencies. Drums were very taut with excellent impact. The top seemed extended and detailed without any bite or harshness. Most noticeable was the ability of the speakers to create pressure gradients within the listening room which were noted as density changes in the air of the room. I have heard few large systems capable of doing this as effectively. I should also note that the bass was not ”one note” or overblown. This system had no problem separating the bass lines. Male voice was excellent, particularly in capturing the expression of the singer. I found myself drawn into the music and my foot tapping. The sound was totally effortless, unbelievably liquid and incredibly dynamic. Had I not known better, I would have been searching for the subwoofer. The power of the amp was normally adequate to drive the speakers to listening levels that were quite loud. Unlike many transistor amps, the Ongaku produced depth on the kick drum and other bass instruments. This is one of the best systems which I heard.
There was a certain magic to the sound, a rich warm tonal balance coupled with an ability to look deeply into the texture of the music. Female voice was particularly nice. If I had to nitpick the sound, I would say that leading edge and transients were somewhat soft, depth was foreshortened, and there were times on complex works when a bit more power would have been nice. . This system was true to the music and an absolute pleasure to listen to for long periods. If I failed to say so, the new three-box Audio Note Fifth Element (FE) may well set a new benchmark in digital reproduction.
The Second System
I also was able to listen to a second system in a different space which included:
Audio Note CDT – 3 Transport and DAC 4.1 Balanced
EMM Labs Pre-2
AN/E SEC Signature speakers with Cross over in base
Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable
Lamm LP -2
Rix Rax Grand Hoodoo
This smaller system was also capable of making superb sound. As always, I was amazed by the ability of the Audio Note speakers to fully pressurize a large acoustic space. The EMM Labs Pre 2 was also a standout in this system.
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