Strange, how sometimes things that are the least anticipated are ultimately the most enjoyable. I had occasion to travel to London on business in August and decided to try to contact Peter Qvortrup in hopes that he might have time for dinner at the hotel where I was staying, a 150-year-old former manor house on Richmond Hill overlooking the Thames.
The current chef was rumored to have come from a well known Michelin starred restaurant, so dinner seemed to be a good idea. Given Peter’s busy schedule and international travel, I did not hold out much hope that he would be available. As it turned out, he responded almost immediately, suggesting that he pick me up on Sunday morning at my hotel to give me a factory tour followed by a listening session at his office. At some point, he felt certain that we could intersperse a meal.
On Sunday morning, Peter drove up in a vintage black Mercedes SL500, one of a number of Mercedes which he owns. From the hotel we spent the next hour driving to the factory, the first of what was to be a day of many surprises. I am not sure what I was expecting, perhaps a Porsche-like factory where the floor was clean enough to eat. The reality was a small, very well maintained, one-story white building in an industrial park surrounded by a formidable wrought iron fence. The building has about 4500 square feet of useable space that must provide room for storage, manufacturing, shipping and accounting. Every inch of space is occupied by storage racks overflowing with chassis and other parts necessary to build the Audio Note products. Except with respect to Level Four and Five products, most others are built in small runs rather than on a one-off basis. Consequently, at any point in time, there may be five to ten of a model in various states of assembly.
The factory has recently moved production of its speakers to a factory in Austria to alleviate part of the space problem. The last room that we visited prior to leaving was the burn-in room where every piece of Audio Note equipment is subjected to lengthy burn-in, re-measurement and recalibration. At this point, we left the factory and drove to another location closer to his home where Peter maintains a separate office, listening room and storage for the more valuable parts used in assembly of Level Four and Five products.
After a short drive through residential areas, we stopped in front of a row of connected shop fronts which appear to have been constructed in the early part of the twentieth century. The most likely resident would probably be a small restaurant or perhaps a green grocer. Peter’s space is rather non-descript with no signage or other indication of what the building may hide. On opening the door, the first view is floor-to-ceiling record storage racks on both right and left interior walls, and as a wall separating the listening area from the actual office, which as you may have guessed, is very small and incredibly cluttered space with the detritus generated by running a business. On closer examination, one begins to realize the enormity of the record collection (of which this is only a part), its breadth and its depth. Think more collectible British vinyl than you have ever seen in one place including an almost complete set of Decca SXL 2000’s and 6000’s, mostly the original wide-band pressings; early EMI’s with the wheat colored label; Columbia SAX’s; early stereo DGG Tulips, British RCA’s and Mercury’s, Lyrita’s and many , many more.
The next stop was the basement vault. Think here the treasure cave from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Neatly arranged on shelves were all the Level Five parts that go into the construction of very topmost AN equipment: Blackgate caps, hand built silver foil capacitors, spools of silver wire, silver wound transformers and last but certainly not least a separate room filled with vintage tubes. Again, not a few dozens but crates of 1950’s and 60’s Mullard, Telefunken and Siemens small signal tubes. Hundreds of Western Electric drivers and regulators and ultra-rare 211 output tubes. I asked Peter about this and received an interesting answer with respect to the need for such seemingly massive inventories of high cost parts.
Most businesses believe in “just in time” procurement that minimizes the cost of inventory. Peter’s answer was two-fold, 1) the need to guarantee an Audio Note customer that in the future their unit can always be re-tubed or parts replaced with exactly the same parts that were originally provided in the unit, and 2) the desire to guarantee that once a product is issued, it can be manufactured using the same parts throughout the entire product run even if that run is 15 to 20 years. That guarantees that the sound of a particular product will remain unchanged for its entire life whether bought today or in ten years.
I have purposely left the best until last, the equipment that we listened to, the music we heard and the sound. The system was relatively simple consisting of the M9 preamp/phonostage, a pair of 211 based Gakuons, a CDT 3 transport, a DAC 5 D/A converter, AN/SPe Signature speakers, SOTTO and SOGON interconnect, SPX speaker wire and custom stands for the speakers. The speakers were located in the front corners of the room, oriented to fire so that they crossed in front of the listener. Unfortunately, we did not have a turntable as Peter had loaned it out for the weekend prior to my contacting him. The M9 and DAC 5 had massive tube based power supplies, the AN/SPe speakers’ sizeable outboard, silver wired crossovers were sitting atop the much larger and heavier SOGON crossovers.. This was that most unusual of audio beasts, a complete system designed and manufactured by a single company, totally handmade, with at least one of the components having been marketed for twenty years with no changes in parts or design. For better or worse, this was one of those very rare moments when the manufacturer was completely responsible for the sound that was heard. He had even chosen the room.
The M9 was specifically designed to be a phono preamp to capitalize on a unique new design for lossless RIAA equalization whose accuracy is within a tolerance of less than 0.1 dB. The inputs and outputs are transformer coupled using oversized Level Five silver wired transformers using a core material with a high nickel content. The volume control is hand-built using the highest quality resistors. The outboard power supply is massive, essentially a single chassis version of the power supply used in the M10 with about 70% of its capabilities. The amps inputs use balanced symmetrical silver wire wound transformers. The signal path between the input transformer and the oversized output transformer is comprised of five parts and two tubes, including a NOS RCA 211 and a driver, a silver wound interstage coupling transformer and two resistors. About as simple as you can get but with a massively overbuilt tube power supply.
The DAC 5 is a non-oversampling design provided with a separate massive tubed power supply. It dispenses completely with the usual digital filters and is coupled to other components via silver wire wound transformers. When used in conjunction with the CDT-3 transport, the performance sounds utterly non-digital, effortless, liquid and unbelievably dynamic.
The speakers are not visually impressive except for the large outboard crossover, although the 8″ deep blue paper/hemp woofers are eye catching. You do notice that the speakers are heavy and non resonant. According to Peter, the walls are three quarters of an inch thick and well braced. What you cannot readily see is the attention to detail such as the almost fanatical matching of the drivers, or for that matter the depth of understanding of acoustic and electrical theory that goes into them, but you can hear the difference. When properly set up, utilizing the corners of the room, these speakers are able to energize a room in the bass in a manner that nothing short of a monstrously large horn can do, and this is not the over-damped one-note bass that many audiophiles think of as state-of-the-art. They are also capable of flat response well below 40 Hz but do have limitations in this area. Likewise, they have a smooth, extended top-end but are not in the league of the Acapella ion tweeter. They are however extremely coherent even when one sits in the near field where something like the larger Acapella needs a larger room for the drivers to properly blend.
And now, finally, to the sound of the system. My host’s taste in music is quite eclectic and the CD’s which we played reflected that, ranging from a Grieg piano concerto to Puscifier’s (no, I am not making this up) ” V is for Vagina”. Note that all material was standard redbook CD’s sourced from the local stores. With respect to the Grieg, the system had very believable image height and differentiated well between the height of the piano and other instruments. The string tone on violins was very natural. PRAT was good as was the integration between the upper and lower frequencies.
The next cut was ”MUD” from the album We Can’t All Be Zingers by Primus and “Slipknot” from Subliminal Verses using a track called “Pulse of the Maggots”, both of which could be characterized as very aggressive rock. Drums were very taut with excellent impact. Again, the top seemed extended and detailed without any bite or harshness. Most noticeable was the ability of the 8” driver to create pressure gradients within the listening room which were noted as momentary density changes in the air of the room. I have heard few large systems capable of doing this as effectively as these drivers when corner loaded. I should also note that the bass was not ”one note” or overblown. This system had no problem separating the bass lines.
We next listened to a series of male vocals and acoustic instruments including cuts by Michel Jones, Jacques Brel and Nils Lofgren. Male voice was excellent, particularly in capturing the expression of the singer. The vibrato on the soprano voice on parts of the Jacques Brel was absolutely superb, as was the acoustic guitar on the Nils Lofgren. We concluded the session with the track “Du Hast” from the Ramstein album Sehnsucht, which translates as longing, Nirvana’s Unplugged and Alice in Chains’ Unplugged.
In each case, the system played effortlessly, drawing every single detail from the CD but never sounding bright or edgy. While much of this is music that I would not have chosen, I found myself drawn into the music and my foot tapping. This is probably the best digital performance I have ever experienced. The sound was totally non-digital and 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 more than necessary to drive the speakers to listening levels that were painful. Unlike many transistor amps, the Gakuons produced depth on the kick drum and other bass instruments. This experience has caused me to re-think what can be achieved in a small to medium sized room. With respect to recreating the gestalt of a musical performance (and here, I mean accurately conveying the emotional content/sense of involvement) in the typical European home, this is one of the best systems which I have heard.
Peter was also nice enough to play several tracks from an in-house CD which Peter had recorded with a comparison between an industry standard professional analog-to-digital recorder and the patented Audio Note analog-to-digital converter. The conversion in the newly patented unit is not done with either a Phillips or Sony chipset but with a unit built totally in-house with discrete parts. If the sound on the CD is representative of what Peter’s new technology can do, then the commercial unit should be a revelation.
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