In the past four years, I have reviewed Audio Note’s previous base “E” loudspeaker, the $2,750 AN-E/D, as well as a previous version of its former champion, the $19,500 AN-E SEC Silver, the latter of which I continue to regard as my personal preference.
In late 2004, Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note and his gifted engineers introduced the $125,000 AN-E Sogon to the world, setting a new record of attention and efforts put into a 2-way loudspeaker design. According to information on Triode & Company’s website (www.triodeandco.us), AN’s U.S. Distributor, at least a pair of those has been sold. There is no shortage of Audio Note patrons.
It is gratifying to reap the level of satisfaction derived from music-listening via a lovingly assembled budget system. Retrospectively, tremendous satisfaction is also found in listening to a system of the opposite budget scale, especially for those of us willing to forego a cruise vacation, or a new house, in search of a lifetime of ultimate audio experience.
And Audio Note UK seems to understand the polarities of our hobby the most, although it must have been difficult for Peter Qvortrop of Audio Note, or any top companies in the world, to create anything beyond the best products, in this case, the Ongaku, Audio Note’ crown jewel. Peter and his team created the best amplifier they knew how, sparing no effort and finance, but attaining a bigger triumph means Peter will need to apply his brilliance learned from the Ongaku Experience and to create more affordable products, so that even non-millionaire audiophiles like most of us can experience music via his methods.
Hence, it was the same spirit that Peter created the subject of this review, the $39,775 AN-E SEC Signature, a derivative of the AN-E Sogon, the ultimate loudspeaker worthy of the Audio Note name.
Silver & Signature
Among properties most difficult for a loudspeaker to attain is the ability to reproduce low-level details in greater distance. Headphones, regardless of price, are inherently superior in this regard for its close proximity to the ear; but for loudspeakers to recreate same amount of low level details ten or fifteen feet away in the acoustically complicated listening room is a major undertaking.
Instead of directing his R&D efforts into new cabinetry and driver technologies, Peter stays his course and channels his energy and resources into exploiting all possibilities of the Snell E-type, 2-way backbone on which the E speakers are based. To date, Audio Note is the only company whose loudspeakers advance in performance by way of incorporating materials of higher conductivity strategically with more vigorous designs.
Contrasting the $19,500/pair of Audio Note’s AN-E SEC Silver that I reviewed two years ago, present day’s SEC Silver’s internal wiring has been upgraded from Audio Note’s AN-SPx, a $1,500/meter, 99.99% pure silver, 27-strand Litz single conductor speaker wire, to the Sogon LX, a new, $7,980/meter, 99.99% silver, 4 braided strands/80-strand single conductor speaker wire. The cost of the Sogon LX internal wiring and the stronger Euro pushed the pricing of the latest version of AN-E SEC Silver to $30,500 per pair.
When a review sample of the latest SEC Silver becomes available, I shall share my findings with Dagogo’s readers. Meanwhile, the $39,775 SEC Signature’s burnt-in process continued to manifest improvements since January 2005, as I continued to press onto reviews of other speakers.
Upon arrival, the SEC Signature had notable sophistication in tonal composition. However, Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note suggested a nominal burn-in period of several months, as burning-in the SEC Signature no longer involves the same driver units and internal foil capacitors, inductors and wiring as in the SEC Silver, but rather the breathtakingly more substantial proportion of everything, sans driver units, in the sizeable, external SEC Signature crossover.
The loudspeaker’s Signature status represents a significant step beyond the Silver version, a distinction bestowed only upon the company’s full-range, E class series. In terms of value, the $40k SEC Signature represents a decisively higher return than the $30k SEC Silver.
In addition to the utilization of substantially more generous proportions of foil caps in AN copper, the SEC Signature’s external crossover also runs on 3 braided strands of the $8k/meter, Sogon LX speaker wire. Then, to remove the last performance barrier of his painstakingly crafted SEC Signature, short of hardwiring a customer’s entire system into his celebrated Ongaku, Peter hardwired his speakers with his Sogon LX speaker cables. The notion of having his best creation compromised in actual use, with suboptimal speaker cables, and by his best customers, must have gotten to Peter Qvortrup finally.
Each tweeter-hardwired Sogon LX from the speaker’s rear panel is then plugged into the designated “HF” high-frequency input on the external crossover of matching serial numbers, likewise for the ALNICO woofer to the “LF”.
As the SEC Signature’s hardwired, biwiring Sogon LX cables connect to the external crossover’s “OUT” terminals, a second, freestanding pair of the biwired Sogon LX would connect to the crossover’s “IN” terminals. Due to the shortening of distances by virtue of placements of the external crossovers between the loudspeakers and the amplifier, application of a five-foot pair of the freelancing Sogon LX was therefore enabled.
On Audio Note’s resistance to speaker designs other than the 2-way, tweeter-and-woofer approach, allow me in quoting Peter’s words from my February, 2003 review of the AN-E SEC Silver:
“Getting two drivers to work together so the overtones when present are distinct and join coherently to the
fundamental is extraordinarily difficult and getting three drivers to do this is virtually impossible.”
For musical integrity, the 2-way approach is the only viable concept in Peter Qvortrup’s mind; and contrasting many other high-end loudspeaker manufacturers’ ambitions and flamboyancy, Peter decrees for Audio Note to make its speakers available in an array of luscious wood finishes, overlaid with layers of manually applied laminations.
Audio Note’s lacquered wood finishes are among the most exquisite, endowing considerable chic to its models. There are ten finishes available, and my $20k AN-E SEC Silver’s Madrone is my wife’s favorite, one of the reasons she supported the purchase a few years back; and the AN-E SEC Signature’s dark-tone, lacquered Makassa is no less classy. Visually, one can still see the joints on the wood, but they are beneath the lacquer layer and out of reach. It’s quite surreal in person.
For more background on the AN-E, check out the AN-E SEC Silver Review.
Peter intends for his full-range, AN-E series loudspeakers to have their ported designs’ spectral makeup fully complemented by corner placements, effectuating a bottom-end frequency response of 18Hz. Fortunately, he also seemed to be rather resigned at the fact that a good number of his U.S. users, me included, have taken a liking to listening to his AN-E placed well into the listening space, and that we enjoy his speakers this way just as fully.
After I reviewed Audio Note’s $19k AN-E SEC Silver in 2003, I would listen to the speakers in corners once in a while, just to make sure my preference hasn’t changed. Corner placement for the AN-E allows the speakers to deliver a truly prodigious bass line that can nullify any audiophiles’ arguments about the design’s bass deficiency, although such placement in my room also produces intensified room-induced sonic traits all of its own inadvertently.
To avoid a significant dosage of out-of-phase bottom octave from bouncing off behind the speaker and mingling with the front-baffle dispersion, I have grown to favor positioning the AN-E SEC Signature and Silver alike 10 inches further into the room than that in the 2003 AN-E SEC Silver Review, and 8 more inches from the side walls. At 58 inches from the front wall and 22 inches from each side wall, both AN models offered more immediacy and spatiality. The original 10-inch stands of the AN-E SEC Silver continued to serve the SEC Signature in this review.
The SEC Signature’s external crossover renders the speaker system an easier load for amplifiers, as it played louder than the similarly rated SEC Silver. Most importantly, the external crossover preserved the signal’s tonal purity to a much farther extent than the SEC Silver’s internal crossover.
System prepared for this review included the 47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport, Audio Note’s own DAC5 Special and M8 preamplifier. Power amplification included the Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 300B stereo amplifier and the Audia Flight 100 solid-state stereo amplifier. In the case of the DAC5 Special and M8, both are of the latest generation equipped with the Galahad-class power supply. Cabling were Audio Note’s Sogon throughout, except that the lower-strand AN-Vx silver interconnect was used between the preamplifier and the power amplifier. Four of Harmonix Reimyo’s X-DC Studio Master Wattagate 330+350 power cables drew power from four of Isoclean’s ICP-002, 2-positioned gold-plate AC outlet.
The original, $20k AN-E SEC Silver remained Peter’s ultimate iteration for a decade, surpassing every other loudspeaker I’ve listened to in resolution.
Yet, concurrent with its improved efficiency over the 2003 AN-E SEC Silver, the Signature was more transparent in passing the intrinsic substance of signals from the PiTracer and onward. With the M8 preamplifier at the helm, whether it was driven by the Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 or the powerful, solid-state Audia Flight 100, the SEC Signature revealed the fullness of the PAT-777 amidst the dynamic control of the Flight 100 more readily than the SEC Silver.
On a definitive and wholesale scale, the SEC Signature’s superiority in dynamic capabilities, texturing prowess and tonal complexity was of such proportion, that its recreation of the simple piano (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-63535-2, Chopin – 24 Preludes – Sonata No. 2 – Polonaise, Op. 53, Evgeny Kissin, piano) when driven by the Audia Flight 100 attained the most robust body volume ever, amidst an uncharacteristic textural intricacy that draws the listener into it.
In a most assured way, the SEC Signature is designed for the financially affluent audiophile with a burning passion in music exploration. If he were to play the heavy-metal Metallica (Elektra 9 61113-2) through the Audia-driven SEC Signature, he would surely not be as quick to accept the gratifying, punctual recreation of electric guitars and drum initially from a decidedly polite-looking pair of SEC Signature. But gradually, his exploration of music via the SEC Signature would take on a meaning beyond his expectations once he begins to submerge into the differences of realism from the respective perspectives of the tubes and transistors.
The SEC Signature’s dynamic prowess also traverses beyond those conveyed by other 2-way speakers I’ve come to know of. Although armed with only an one-inch silk dome tweeter and an eight-inch ALNICO woofer, the congregated drivers’ prowess in reiterating a wealth of levels in dynamic scaling/tonal shading of a piano — as sandwiched between an unbelievably encompassing room-pressurizing ability, so much that it can be heard and felt by the listener — was somewhat of an experience parallel to that from the likes of Pipedream speakers.
The decisiveness of the AN sound as driven by either the Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 or the Audia Flight 100 was of no less magnitude, for even when the loudness progressed quite naturally and subliminally to maddening levels in my casual-turned-fanatical listening sessions, there was no loss of control from the drivers as vanquished by either the supposedly under-powered Harmonix and the excessively powerful Audia.
For one to appreciate the SEC Signature, a certain “pre-requisite” in experience is probably a defacto. In the instance where such experience is not present, then it can conceivably become a quarrelsome experience in misinterpreting the SEC Signature’s progressive refinement as common traits existing concurrently on models of different makes.
Case in point being aspects of dimensionality. Dagogo’s Laurence A. Borden lamented upon irrelevancy of pursuing soundstaging in his commentary, “How Important Is Soundstaging?”, yet he also allowed for sentiments of the opposing minds courteously. Likewise, Peter Qvortrup designed his loudspeakers to reproduce musical instruments in their most complex forms, and oftentimes dimensionality need not be present for many listeners to declare palpability.
Therefore, the experienced listener will be able to draw from his own experience with loudspeakers of various attributes and appreciate the SEC Signature’s methods in dimensionality. Here, at least for the U.S. audiophiles who are known for their preference in removing their speakers from immediate wall boundaries, the SEC Signature produced pristine tonalities of such body and sophistication, conjuring up a presence not unlike having the musician performing live in front of you. In this case, dimensionality becomes a mere quality in attendance of the sound of the instrument.
Ironically, the caliber of the SEC Signature was more readily revealed via testimonials provided by another speaker, such as the supremely refined SEC Silver. As superb as the Silver was, the Signature was perhaps even closer to a musician’s heart not for the prevalent tonal prowess or dynamic superiority, but for the absence of compression that would relieve the listener of fatigue. In this regard, the SEC Silver was beyond reproach, and the SEC Signature proved that achieving the impossible requires merely an open mind.
The SEC Signature’s modest dimensions make positioning a task that is easier than anyone can fathom, and its level of sonic resolution is incomparable and superior to all speakers I’ve listened to in my home and at dealers’. Lastly, its increased efficiency as accorded by the external crossover makes it the ultimate candidate for partnership with the most exotic amplifiers of all time.
Loudspeaker art has entered another era with the Audio Note AN-E SEC Signature. A Sogon-cable hardwired AN-E SEC Silver with external crossover, the SEC Signature dispersed sound of the most abundance in order, enunciating textures of the densest I’ve ever experienced. With the AN-E SEC Signature, the joy of audio now conjures up not a mere recreation attempt, but a redefinition of the world only audiophiles will get to appreciate.
For what the AN-E SEC Silver achieved in terms of musicality and resolution, the Signature has reinvigorated and complemented with higher musical conduciveness, culminating in a supreme effort in electrical/mechanical conversion. The Signature makes the Silver sound modest and passive in comparison, while the Silver already maintains superiority over a vast majority of designs with Peter Qvrotrup’s proven, systematic application of silver.
Modern electronics concede to the SEC Silver’s critique, but the SEC Signature systematizes stages upstream via its external monoblock crossovers, and churns out sonic canvases consistently powerful and sultry in presentations. With the Signature, the owner is assured of a loudspeaker with the unique ability in minimizing the usual performance gaps between amplification and transducer.
For $40,000, I shall not say the Audio Note AN-E SEC Signature is as worthy to all audiophiles as it is to me, but it simply has no equal that I know of. The same money can provide you with access to plenty of top-quality loudspeakers, but for a room of medium size, the Audio Note AN-E SEC Signature is the most exquisite loudspeaker one can have.
If you are the financially well-endowed and your listening room is like a large boardroom and need large loudspeakers to fill it with, then the AN-E SEC Signature may not have the size and volume you require. But if you have a medium-sized room dedicated to music listening and will not hesitate in acquiring the finest electronics, then you must audition the AN-E SEC Signature, for it is the only 2-way loudspeaker in existence at its level of refinement.
It is a daunting task to stay one’s course in the purveyance of 2-way speaker design, in a time when the change-pervasive speaker manufacturing segment of the audio industry is besieged with energy and innovations from some of the most talented minds on this planet. Just as the emergence of new cabinetry and diaphragm technologies from enterprises in every continent is vital and welcomed to the purveyance of the industry, so is Audio Note’s stern belief in the potentials of 2-way designs, as well as an unrelenting quest in producing the supreme 2-way transducer.
Actual auditioning of a $40,000, modest-looking pair of 2-way loudspeaker may and may not persuade you of its worth more than a $20,000 five-way design, because sound quality is never the only factor involved in a purchase decision. But were we living in a world in which we were all judged ultimately by the contents of our character, and loudspeakers were judged qualitatively and not quantitatively, the AN-E SEC Signature would sell like pancakes.
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