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An earful of sound

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It never ceases to amaze me how people with like interests can be drawn together even when they live thousands of miles apart. About two years ago, I was contacted by a reader of Dagogo seeking advice on his sound system (let’s call him Encinitas Jim). We later met at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and have since become good friends. I have now visited his home twice, the first time to hear a pair of Wilson Alexandria X-2’s (latest revision) driven by an Audio Note Ongaku amplifier and an EMM Labs XDS1 SACD player. For various reasons, the sound was disappointing. This is not to say that the sound was bad; although the system did many things right, it lacked detail and extension at the top and control in the bass. It did a nice job of filling a very large room; however, in comparison to what Jim was achieving in another room with Marten Coltrane 2’s and EAR electronics…there was just a night and day difference. He has told me that in his smaller room, the X-2’s are much better but I have not yet heard that combination. Fast forward to two weeks ago when I once again visited my friend and heard the following:

Marten Momentos (the only pair in the U.S.)
Triode TRX-M845 mono blocks (50 watts)
EAR 912 preamp
EAR Acute CD Player
EMM Labs XDS1 SACD Player
EAR 890 amps (bridged for mono operation)
HRS MXR Equipment stand, M3X Isolation Platforms, Nimbus couplers/ spacers
SME 20/2 turntable, SME V arm and Transfiguration Orpheus cartridge
Jorma Origo and Prime cabling and power cords

The music used for comparisons was at various times:
Beethoven Complete Concertos Vol. I, Stephen Kovacevich, Phillips 442 577-2, Piano Concerto #4 (Disk 2 Tracks 4-6); Romances
RCA Living Stereo 60 CD set, Disk 02/60, A Hi-Fi Spectacular, Boston/ Munch RCA S70475C/ Sony 88697720602, St. Saens 3rd Symphony (organ) (Tracks 1-4), Disk 32 Rhapsodies Stokowski, Smetana, The Moldai,Track 3, CD 32/60
Michael Murray, St. Saens 3rd, Philidelphia/ Ormandy, Telarc SACD 60634
RCA Living Stereo, Boston/ Munch, St. Saens 3rd, 82876-61387-2 REI (SACD)
Maid in China, Carol Williams, The Austin Organ, Forbidden City Concert Hall, St. Saens 3rd Symphony IV (Track 17) Beijing Symphony Orchestra, Melcot Music MCT CD 015
The Complete Marches of John Philip Sousa Volume 5, The Stars and Stripes Forever, the Detroit Concert Band/Leonard B. Smith, Track 24, Walking Frog Records WFR 305
Listz/ Via Crucis, Les Sept Paroles du Christ, Dubois, Choeur Radio Ville Marie, Fidelio Audio FACD 012
Getz/ Gilberto, Verve/ Analogue Productions CVRJ 8545 SA
Neil Young at Massey Hall, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, Reprise 43328-2
Julie London, The Ultimate Collection, EMI 0946 3 67270 2 8
Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River, Water Lilly Acoustics
Sofia Gubaidulina, The Seven Last Words, Naxos

First, a few notes about the software used. The EAR Acute plays only Redbook; consequently, we for the most part listened to Redbook even on the EMM Labs. While I generally find SACD to be superior for recordings originally recorded in DSD, this does not always hold true. For instance, in the case of the 60 CD Living Stereo box, many of the same recordings had previously been issued as SACD’s. The compilation made a point in the booklet provided of saying that the CD’s were from a remastering and not the same as the Redbook layer on the SACD. In this instance the compilation was in every instance far superior to the individual SACD’s. This set is a must-have and can be purchased on-line for about $160, sometimes less. Likewise, the Beethoven Piano Concertos was excellent. We found ourselves returning to this again and again during the three day listening session. Two other selections which were very well recorded and had superb sonics were the Neil Young and the Ry Cooder. For those with adventurous spirits, the Via Crucis and Gubaidulina are worth a listen.

The intent of these listening sessions was to audition/ assess/the Momentos and make comparisons to determine which choices were right in this particular system, particularly, 1) the XDS1 vs. the Acute, 2) the bridged EAR 890 amps vs. the Triodes, and 3) the Jorma Origo vs. the much more expensive Prime. We were aided in these comparisons by Dan Meinwald, who imports EAR, Jorma, and Marten, and Santos Oropel, who imports Triode.

I had previously heard the Coltrane Supremes (and the smaller Coltrane 2’s) both at the home of Mike and Neli Davis and at RMAF ; however, neither had properly prepared me for the Momentos which I would rank as one of the four or five best speakers I have heard. The speakers are visually and sonically stunning. It is essentially a three-way using a diamond tweeter, a ceramic midrange and four ceramic woofers. They are full range, accurate, very detailed and, at least with the right electronics, harmonically spot on. They were clearly capable of bringing out the best in the system components used with them as well as highlighting the differences. Changes in interconnect or power cord were easily audible. They are best when bi-wired.

XDS1/ EAR Acute

The Acute retails for about one quarter the price of the XDS1 and will only play Redbook. The Acute uses two tubes in the output stage; both stock tubes had been replaced by very expensive NOS Siemens, which resulted in a rather dramatic improvement to the sound of the unit. Both players are much affected by physical isolation and the AC power, particularly the power cord. The XDS1 was generally somewhat more forward, cleaner than the Acute, but with a somewhat different tonal balance. Particularly on the piano, the timing and attack were better than with the Acute as were bass control and decay of struck instruments; however, the Acute surpassed it in the areas in which tubes typically excel (re-creation of air and space). Even the importer of the EAR equipment commented about the space and dimensionality which the XDS1 exhibited. The consensus was that the Prime interconnect was audibly superior to the Origo, but opinions were mixed with respect to the power cord. On the Acute, all Prime was the ticket for the best sound. I should note that the Prime interconnect and power cord represented about three times the price of the Acute but transformed the unit into a state-of-the-art contender. The only disagreement was which power cable worked best on the XDS1 with Dan favoring the Origo and me favoring the Prime.

EAR 890 vs. Triode

In bridged mode, the EAR amps put out about 140 watts. Bridging was accomplished using Origo jumpers. This is clearly some of the best sound that I have ever heard from a push pull tube amp: sweet, extended, dimensional, superb control in the bass combined with excellent dynamics. In conjunction with the EAR 912 preamp, the sound with good CD’s was at times magical. I would never have dreamt that equipment at this price point could achieve this level of performance (again, the cables far exceeded the cost of the electronics). The Triodes with the tubes provided by the manufacturer (Shugang, but not the more expensive “C”) were again a good match for the speakers and appeared to have more than enough power to drive them in the rather large listening room. Initially, there was a rather strained silence as the substitution of the Triodes caused a rather significant downgrade of the sound. Finally someone said something and we made several adjustments to the speaker placement which remedied the problem. Thereafter, particularly on female voice, these amps were luscious: liquid with the ability to convey emotion and nuance. The Triodes sounded like a very good direct heated triode. In this set up, they lacked some control/extension at the bottom and were a bit soft at the top. The Triodes were sitting on the carpet floor, whereas the 890’s were on an HRS stand and isolation platform, so I am reluctant to draw any final conclusions. I will say that the sonics of these amps far exceeds their price. I am hopeful that I can get a pair for review. Jim ultimately bought the pair and has ordered better tubes and HRS amp stands.

Jorma Prime vs. Origo

At the beginning of the listening session, the importer took the position that while the Origo was more accurate than the more expensive Prime, a mix of the cables would produce the best sound. Beginning with the interconnect on each of the CD players and then after listening, the AC cord, we worked through every cable in the system one by one substituting the Prime for the Origo. In every instance (except the power cord on the XDS1), all agreed that the Prime was superior. It was clearly more natural and created a better stage. The sound of instruments was harmonically more complex with better delineation of complex overtones. Detail was also superior. In comparison to the Prime, the Origo sounded a bit lean harmonically. Having said this, at half the price it was excellent, only yielding in direct comparison to the Prime. With respect to the signal wires, substitution in two places seemed to yield the most improvement, one the front end and between amp and speaker. Of the two, the speaker wire was the more critical interface. Strangely enough, the power cables also had a rather dramatic effect.

Conclusions

Never let a reviewer, or for that matter anyone else, tell you that it is possible to recreate the sound of a live event in your home. It is virtually impossible in a home setting to recreate the bass extension, stage width and depth and dynamics of a concert hall. Having said that, once this system had been optimized, on certain instruments (particularly solo piano or voice or small string works), it was possible to create a palpability that the musicians might be in the room. In my experience, this is one of the two or three best systems that I have heard. While the speakers and cables are very expensive, it was hard to believe how good the EAR electronics were in the proper set up. I am very familiar with what much more expensive electronics can do and in this instance, I do not believe that replacing the EAR electronics would have any benefit. I also believe, and this is as yet untested, that much of the excellence of this system could be achieved with the EAR 912 preamp, a single 890 stereo amp, Origo cabling and the Marten Django speakers.

While the listening sessions were great fun, particularly in the optimization of the cables, it was the interaction between Dan Meinwald and Santos Oropel that made the day. It was immediately clear that both love music and are extremely knowledgeable with respect to live sound. Both are inveterate concert goers and Dan is often involved in listening in club atmospheres to small groups. Dan in particular was quick to grasp changes in the system and clearly had a goal on what he was trying to achieve with the wiring changes. As I said, he is intimately familiar with the equipment which he imports and knows how to get the best sound from it. Dan is also a real gentleman. He and Santos interacted frequently and probably are on the way to becoming friends even though they sell competing lines of equipment.

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One Response to An earful of sound


  1. keler says:

    do you think that the ear 912 is competitive with a vac signature preamp or cat sl1 legend or aestheticks io preamps? I am searching a very good preamp with very good phono inside…

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