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Channel Island Audio PLC-1, D-200 Class D Monoblock Amplifiers, And XDC-2 AC Enhancing Filter Review

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So, how well did it work? In a word, perfectly. I have had other digital amps in the past, such as the PS Audio HCA-2, which also exhibited a hum generated by DC. Dusty said that other electricity users in the neighborhood can contribute to the problem of DC on your lines from the electricity company’s transformer. One of the reasons the XDC-2 was built was to help the many European customers who run into this problem regularly. The XDC-2 worked so well that I was not able to hear any hum emanating from the D-200’s even when I put my ear up to them!
FLIGHTS OF FANTASY (a listening moment): Mars Lasar’s Escape incorporates synthesized and percussion sound in an orchestrated setting. The title track, “Escape” is replete with subtle sonic tidbits, chirps, zings and low rumblings in the background converging as the piece ramps up. I love the minute details in such pieces and nothing escaped the purview of the PLC-1. It caught every spacey detail. Case in point, on “Unity” the culminating track, the crowd noise that enters the piece periodically made me feel like I had stepped through the door of a noisy arena at the Final Four.

Often there is talk about “roundness” of the notes of an acoustic instrument detectable on a fine system. On this particular track I heard an electronic equivalent; the paced synthesized notes had a peculiar “bouncing” quality to them, almost as if each one were an individual ball of sound bouncing off a hard surface. The effect was most pleasing and reminded me of viewing the “Pipedream” piece from the Animusic videos.

These Channel Island pieces are among the smallest I’ve ever used and are absolutely dwarfed by large floor standing speakers. The look is comical, seeing such superbly crafted brushed anodized aluminum casings smaller than bass drivers! It seems incongruous that such pusillanimous-looking equipment can drive big speakers; but indeed they can! The beauty of these components is that they can be tucked virtually anywhere. They run cool to the touch, so there’s absolutely no heat dissipation issues. They can be put into a cabinet, on a bookshelf, into the most marginal of spaces.

Sonically, the PLC-1 draws little attention to itself. It’s such a reserved-sounding piece, I did not find myself being drawn unduly to just one segment of the frequency spectrum. It’s character was just over the center line toward cool and detailed. If you guessed that I wasn’t initially overwhelmed with the PLC-1, you would be right. After a couple of weeks with it, I wasn’t hearing it – the clarity, the depth, the seeming superiority of the passive design. Knowing that it very possibly was a lack of system synergy, I began to experiment. I reconfigured the rig with the technologically advanced MIT AVt MA cabling in for review.

The MIT cabling seemed made for the PLC-1! The sound had honestly been uninvolving until the MIT’s were inserted into the chain. In my MIT cable review, I remarked about the versatility of the AVt MA interconnect with its selectable impedance. This was yet another case of its ability to almost restructure a component’s sound. The reserved sound promptly went out the window and rip-snortin’ good times walked through the door. Now we were in business!

Thinking back, I must confess, that before the “breakthrough” I wondered why Von Schweikert partnered with Channel Islands at the HE 2006 show. From what I was hearing it didn’t make sense. However, I knew that Albert Von Schweikert was no fool when it came to designing speakers, and that he wouldn’t choose inferior electronics to showcase them. Knowing that pushed me to determine that it had to be the set up. In a sense, during a conversation with Dusty Vawter from Channel Islands, he had predicted what I eventually experienced. He indicated the PLC-1 is designed to be neutral, neutral, neutral. One thing he was going to be assured, I understood, after getting off the phone with him was how neutral CIAudio gear was. Got it.

Dusty seemed to be indicating that CIAudio gear is designed to allow the other elements in the system to shape the sound. The Channel Island gear are to pass it on perfectly. Isn’t that the goal of most audio gear – to pass on the signal perfectly? Sure, but I didn’t know how well the PLC-1 did so until I put the MIT cables into the mix. I hadn’t been in a hurry to do so, since when using their selectable impedance IC’s with active preamps I had heard a subtle difference between settings. But once the MIT IC’s were put in front of the PLC-1, my oh my, did things change! I don’t have empirical evidence to support my hunch, but from what I heard, the gravitas of the change with the MIT IC’s impedance selectivity had a disproportionately greater effect on the PLC-1 than any active preamp I had used. The effect was like stepping into another world.

Recall, if you will, the 1970’s television show in which travelers to a unique resort have their dreams fulfilled. It starred Ricardo Montalban as “Mr. Roarke” and Herve Villechaize as his midget sidekick “Tatto.” Have you guessed it yet? It was called Channel Island! No, correctly it was named “Fantasy Island,” but as you will see below, once the proper combination of gear was utilized, the CIAudio combo transported me to a lovely place.

There was another step when I moved closer yet to the audiophile’s Fantasy Island experience when I again reconfigured; Saturn cdp into the Benchmark DAC1 (acting as both DAC and pre), then the D-200 mono blocks leading to the Von Schweikert VR-4 SR MkII. I haven’t commented too much up to this point on these Class D amps. By now pretty much the whole audiophile community is aware of class D amps, but not all have had the pleasure of hearing them, much less with their own gear. They’re good. Mighty good, kind of like Mighty Mouse (Remember that one? If you’re too young, look it up online for laughs). For the convenience, ease and muscle they generate at reasonable costs, they’re almost silly good.

Just as the PLC-1 was sensitive to upstream components, so were the D-200’s. Having a Benchmark DAC on hand was providential, for it revealed a very seductive alternative configuration for those interested in only two-channel listening. As I heard the result of running the Saturn/Benchmak combination running into the D-200’s, I thought, “There is no doubt in my mind that the audiophile world will be using Class D amps almost exclusively in the near future.” In the short span of time that digital amps have appeared, they are already capable of producing head turning sound. With their host of desirable features, including being light, cool operationally, cost effective and powerful, they are the heirs apparent to standard audiophile amplification. They may not be “King of the hill,” yet, but they are advancing rapidly.

I have never been keen on high-decibel listening levels, largely because in most systems I detect distortion and an etched aspect to the music which I find highly distasteful. I also have no desire to create opportunities for hearing loss. So it was quite a surprising thing to find myself listening to not just polite Jazz but classic rock at what previously would have been unthinkable levels. The D-200’s complied effortlessly. To add to the oddity of a miniscule amp with such muscle pounding out bass through the VR4 SR MkII’s dual 8” aluminum woofers, these amps sounded sultry in a very good way.

The epitome of enjoyment of the CIAudio gear came from a most unexpected source, a newfangled component. Recently, I have been reviewing the Eastern Electric BBA “Booster Buffer Amp,” a most unique little number that’s got me quite excited. I placed the BBA, which sports adjustable gain, into the signal path just after the PLC-1 and before the D-200’s. Words nearly failed me to describe the euphoric state of listening I was in. But, I’ll try.

FLIGHTS OF FANTASY (a listening moment): Encores Greatest Hits; Rossini “Barber of Seville”, the London Festival Orchestra. It took me a while to get Bugs Bunny out of my head, as I grew up on his shenanigans. Hearing this piece with the Eastern Electric BBA Buffer Amp inserted into the chain (commented upon below) was a high point of my experience with this equipment. The echoes of the hall stood out distinctly from the well-placed instruments. The breadth of the orchestra on crescendos was most satisfying. I found myself relaxing to what is a decidedly up-tempo piece, which says to me that my ears were enjoying what they were hearing. When the sound is not right to my ears, I find it difficult to relax. But when the harmonics, pacing, imaging etc. are correct, I let down and simply absorb the sound. The combination of the PLC-1 and BBA allowed me to do so as much as any combination of gear I have ever had in my listening room.

The PLC-1 is passive, with all the pristine beauty of that design, while the BBA is most active, to the point of being a component dedicated to crunching voltage! When each piece doing it’s job in synchronicity, the effect was much like the advantages of passive and active preamps mated, with none of the disadvantages. Whereas the PLC-1 alone delivered precisely and cleanly, the addition of the BBA added a soundstage you could melt into. The sound wasn’t being delivered to me, it was connecting with me. The difference in realism is immediately noticeable to the brain; we’re hard wired to tell the difference between reproduced sound and live sound, and we know intuitively when we’re approaching the latter. When the PLC-1 was linked with the BBA, they both linked invisibly to my brain in a way that said, ‘THIS is very natural sounding!”

I know I’m speaking in nebulous terms, but allow me a personal illustration to clarify. When I sought a wife, I wanted someone not just intelligent, but someone who was on the same wavelength, who thought like I did, so that for the next umpteen years we wouldn’t have to clarify, clarify, clarify. (Lucky you. –Ed) When a spouse has that connection with their partner, they are understood innately. In audio, there are special moments when the sound connects to the mind innately. Truthfully, the PLC-1 alone did not do so, but with the BBA – oh yes, it made the connection!

To add the BBA to the PLC-1 and D-200 package would set you back another $850. Yes, that’s almost as much as the PLC-1! Wouldn’t it make more sense to pursue a pricier preamp? No, not without a BBA; you will be very hard pressed to outshine the PLC-1 and BBA combo for anywhere near the money. It yields sound I prefer to some combinations of separates I have tried in the $6,000 range.

If you are not so much into the two channel audiophile thing, then forgo the BBA and enjoy the merits of the PLC-1 and D-200’s which are plenty good for the casual audiophile. But having heard what the addition of the BBA does to their sound, it would be almost irresponsible for an audiophile to not pursue that combo. I offer that the PLC-1, Eastern Electric BBA and D-200’s together can do justice to speaker systems costing up to $15,000.

There is a world full of people who love music and would love the gear if it was more affordable. There are Dagogo readers who don’t want to budget a sizable portion of their income toward a significant rig. They don’t want to lug 70lb+ components every time they move. They only have so much space. They want better than cheesy receivers with 100 buttons on the face. They want something simple and musical. Does it exist? Sure, on Fantasy, er…Channel Island.

*Picture of “Bunny”, a pocket poodle (aka. teacup poodle) with permission by: http://www.smallestpoodle4u.com.

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