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Stuff that dreams are made of

Visiting Aaudio Imports in November, 2011

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My visit to the Aaudio Imports this year marks my fourth annual excursion to this wonderland that is also home to Brian and his lovely wife Debra and daughter Sarah. Each year, Brian injects new excitement into this hobby by demonstrating products that sets a precedence in performance and uniqueness. The highlights of my past visits included auditions of his Acapella Triolon Excalibur loudspeaker system in 2008 and 2009, and the Acapella High Violon IV in 2010.

The $211,000 Triolon Excalibur has been my dream loudspeaker ever since my first visit and each subsequent encounter of it at the CES and RMAF conjured up the same sweeping experience I had during my stay at Brian’s home. Being the busy body that he is, Brian made another breakthrough in his product makeup yet again this year by importing the only other loudspeaker company on this Earth to possess expertise in ion plasma tweeter design, Lansche. The main speaker being demonstrated in the Aaudio Imports showroom is the $100,000-per-pair No.7 in the Black American Walnut Satin finish:

Type:
3-way passive ported speaker system
Frequency response:
25 – 150kHz, ± 3dB
Sensitivity: 92dB/1W/1m
Impedance:
6.8Ω nominal, 4.9Ω minimum
Maximum level: 114dB/1m
Drivers: 1 x 0.3-inch Corona Plasma tweeter, 2 x 4-inch Audio Technology midrange, 4 x 8.7-inch composite glass fiber/polyester fabric cone, coated
Crossover frequencies:
200Hz / 2.5kHz
Dimensions: 69 H x 17 W x 24 D (inch)
Weight: 286lbs each

According to Brian, the original individual inventor of the ion plasma tweeter received two patents, and they were bought up by Acapella and Lansche. Per Brian, while Acapella’s ion tweeter has remained largely unchanged all these years, the Lansche design has seen considerable technological updates over the years. In contrast, while the most affordable ion tweeter-equipped Acapella model retails for $51,000 the pair, a $26,000 pair of the Lansche model No.3 in Satin Veneer finish also features the same Corona plasma tweeter of the $100,000 No.7, this time accompanied by an 8-inch, coated paper cone woofer in a ported cabinet. Audiophiles rejoice!

Across the room from the No.7 was a pair of the No.5.1, complete with an all-BMC system, comprising the BDCD1 CD-Beltdrive Player/Transport ($5,990), DAC1 PRE Digital-Analogue Converter with DIGM+PREAMP+HIGH RES USB ($6,290) and M1 monoblocks ($7,790 each).

Lansche No.5.1 loudspeakers with BMC electronics

BMC BDCD1 CD-Beltdrive Player/Transport ($5,990), DAC1 PRE Digital-Analogue Converter with DIGM+PREAMP+HIGH RES USB

The BDCD1 connects to the DAC1 PRE through a proprietary system called Superlink, in which four supplied 75Ω BNC cables carry left/right clock, bit-clock, digital music data from the transport to the DAC, while the fourth BNC cable sends the master clock signal from the DAC to the transport. BMC’s expertise in belt-drive CD transport hails from its OEM productions for CEC, and the new belt-drive design in the BDCD1 features a 50-micron precision bearing. The CD is to be put to the flat underside of the clamp and then placed onto the spindle together. A transport-only version retails for $4,990.

The DAC1 PRE packs more innovations than its price suggests. Firstly, two Burr-Brown 24-bit/192kHz PCM1792 DAC chips with current output are coupled to fully balanced I/V converters. The 4-cable Superlink design purports to rid the sonic presentation of coloration induced by common sample rate converters, thus producing the purest-sounding upsampling operation. Available upsampling rates are “Low” at 32fs, and “High” at 128fs. BMC claims the former to have “a more dynamic and detailed presentation, while ‘High’ is softer and smoother.” Selectable digital filter options include “Flat” for frequency response optimization and “Pulse” for best dynamic response and minimized pre- and post-ringing. The large round knob up front controls the BMC DIGM (Discrete Intelligent Gain Management) volume control system. BMC claims lossless volume adjustment in sixty-six precise 1dB increments. The upsampling rate selector, digital filter and volume can all be controlled via the remote. Fun!

The DAC1 PRE also features a dedicated USB digital input that is activated by a free custom driver program to be installed on your computer. My audition of the Lansche No.5.1/BMC system entailed the use of the CD transport and the DAC.

With me sitting 10.5 feet away from each ear to the corresponding speaker, with 9 feet from my ear to the back wall, the No.5.1 were spread 9 feet apart, 4.5 feet away from each side wall, and 5 feet to the front wall. This is my first encounter of a plasma-tweeter speaker system with all dynamic drivers and no horn, and the result was very satisfying. For horn aficionados, there is no substituting an Acapella horn. But for the adventurous, the high-outputting nature of the No.5.1’s two 8.7-inch coated, composite glass fiber/polyester fabric cone woofers were the first surprise element in the speaker’s sonic makeup for pumping out fulsome but judicious levels of bottom-end notes. To my ears, the kind of weight and scale produced by these two 8.7-inch woofers qualifies them as a solid contender among similarly priced competitions. Even more fortuitous was how the Audio Technology midrange complemented the Corona plasma tweeter.

I had a prolonged exposure to another pair of speaker system that featured two, larger-diameter version of the Audio Technology midrange, the $35,500 Rockport Technologies Mira Grand II. To this day, I can still recall the sumptuous tonal texture of instruments and vocalists that the Audio Technology midrange imparted. The Lansche No.5.1 exhibited the familiar tonal richness, this time via a 4-inch AT midrange. But as opposed to the volume of output of the two Rockport midrange, the Lansche’s lone midrange presided over the twin woofers with surprising ease. Not only was it able to place pianos and violin groups on the same playing field with incredible, differentiating dynamics and finesse, the No.5.1 was able to throw very convincing portrayals of the physique of the instruments onto the stage as well. There are plenty of midrange driver choices for different design budgets; but there aren’t too many to choose from if the midrange is to complement one of the most exotic tweeters in history.

Whether it was Acapella’s or Lansche’s, I haven’t heard any other tweeter design traversing the upper-mid to top-end so effortlessly, floating over the vast, complicated sonic landscape faster and cleaner than any material-based design. Regardless of type of diaphragm material used, be it diamond or carbon or ceramic, all driver designs energizes that thin layer to vibrate and excite the air. The result will always be an inherent coloration native to the diaphragm used as well as loss of energy, however minute. The Corona plasma tweeter, on the other hand, energizes the air directly. I look forward to the day when Lanshce comes out with a full-range plasma driver! An illuminated switch at the back of the speaker cabinet turns on the power to the plasma tweeter, which is plugged into the wall.

For the readers among us sporting deeper pockets and a medium-to-large listening rooms, a more immersive listening experience awaits in the form of the $100,000-per-pair No.7. To my ears, the five-foot-nine Lansche delivered consistently one of the most definitive musical high-end audio experiences I’ve encountered. Unlike the Acapella Triolon Excalibur that reinforces the most spectacular horn speaker experience via its large lower-midrange horn, plus the iconic ion tweeter and a column of four woofers nonetheless, the Lansche No.7 harkens back to the dynamic drivers system in its most explicit expression.

First, some system details. Situated 9 feet apart from each other, 3 feet from the back of the speaker to the wall behind it, 4.5 feet from edge of each speaker to side wall and 12 feet from front of speakers to my ear, the No.7’s were driven by a complete Ypsilon system. It includes the CDT100 CD player/transport ($26,000), the DAC100 tube DAC ($29,000), the PST100 MKII preamplifier ($37,000) and last not least, the Aelius monoblocks ($36,000 the pair). It is a hybrid amplifier, inputting via a pair of Siemens C3g input tubes with 6CA4 rectifier tubes, and producing 220 watts into 8 ohms via a MOSFET output stage, of which the first 60 watts are in pure Class A bias! The exotic-looking monoblock pumps up its output to 380 watts in to 4 ohms, and 500 watts into 2 ohms. The Aelius features switchable XLR and RCA inputs, has a frequency range of 11 to 75 kHz and weighs 100 pounds.

Ypsilon Aelius monoblocks

Ypsilon CDT100

(Top left) Ypsilon PST100 MK II preamplifier, (top right) Ypsilon DAC100, (bottom right) Ypsilon VAC100 valve phono stage

The beauty of Ypsilon electronics is their use of the Siemens C3g NOS tubes as input tubes, implemented in conjunction with high-compliance solid-state output stages, as exemplified in the DAC100, the PST100 MKII preamplifier and, of course, the power amplifiers. Music by the Ypsilon system took on a force eminently lively and musical, complex and crystal clear, and yet infused with a judicious touch of single-ended triode sweetness, and propelled by such familiar solid-state aplomb as to be fantasy-mayhem inducing.

In the bottom-end, the No.7’s performance exhibited a level of prowess and speed I’ve never experienced in sub-$100k speaker systems. The now-$211k Acapella Triolon Excalibur’s woofer towers had superior, unworldly integration to the rest of its horns, yet it wouldn’t approach the Lansche in sheer muscle. Deep-riding electric bass notes and wall-shattering tympani roaring are served equally well by both German speakers, diverging primarily in the way the bass notes are produced and the sonic preference of the listener. Again, I felt both speakers would do justice to rock’n roll and orchestral basses at concert volume levels nonetheless. The Lansche, however, seems to push the bottom-ends harder as augmented by the dual rear ports, and with livelier transients via the smaller, 8.7-inch woofers. This, my friends, is what translates into what I felt was dynamic drivers system in its most explicit expression: Four fast woofers pressurizing the room beautifully. If you and I are lucky, I may even get to experience the $208,000 No.8.1 in the not-too-distant future and write about it, with its two 10-inch paper composite woofers and two 15-inch pure aluminum active subwoofers! It’ll be a riot.

The other half of the No.7 story is, of course, the complete sonic experience of the system as a whole. The No.7 is essentially stacking two No.5.1’s head-to-head over each other, but it would not conjure up the sound of the 5.1 en masse. A mere increase in quantity of sound is often the sole benefit achieved by designs I’ve experienced; the Lansche achieved so much more. Soundstage density was enhanced to such extent that I was at once transported to the front rows on the ground level of concert halls. Height of venue was immaculately reenacted, and volumes of air rushed forward. One could get lost in the mere sonics of the No.7 and not mind the actual musical type being played. Still, meaningful music, like the rumbling of the pipe organ in First Impression Music’s K2-version of the Proprius reference disc Cantate Domino sent waves of clean and highly articulate shockwave, complimented very nicely by the solid boundaries of Brian’s sound room. Yet, the vast energy of the bottom-end did not drown out the complex midrange and the airy vocalizations of the choir. The privilege of being able to purchase such a loudspeaker system is to be able to experience music so natural in dynamics and uninhibited in dimensionality. There is no greater love than that of the parents for their children, and there is no greater downfall for a man who feels more than just love for music through the most perfect loudspeaker he has discovered and experienced to date. Never mind the expensive electronics that went with it.

The resultant performance is arguably the most tonally musical and dynamically powerful, of both single-ended triode low-output tube amplifiers and steeply-biased pure Class A massive-output solid-state behemoths. And in Brian’s system, everything just came together in the most amiable form possible, including the one key element in the chain: the cable systems. Cables are the kind of stuff that you want to forget about once you put them in place. The less you spend on it, the sooner you want to forget about it; especially when you are spending not nearly enough on it to complement your sound system, and you are not proud of it. Anyway you want to see it, there is only the constant reminder that you get what you pay for. In my experience of cable systems, there is no magic carpet ride where some strangely affordable cables can outperform products from reputable, well established brands. It is all about how much we want to compromise and how that compromise manifests itself in our system.

If you choose to build a budget systems, then your focus will not be on ultimate resolution and lifelike dynamics but listenability, and most importantly, getting oneself closer to the music through reasonable means. But if you choose to dispense with considerable finance on your audio system to attain realism in dynamics and resolution, then you must allocate a good portion of that investment in cable systems. Stage III Concepts cables was Brian’s reference. His association with Stage III Concepts began in 2001, when he was its U.S. Distributor. In 2008, when Stage III Concepts relaunched its product lines with significant changes, Brian took a listen and signed a contract to be the company’s global distributor. Stage III Concepts was Brian’s wish coming true for a cable brand that would do his products justice for the many years that I’ve known him.

For the Lansche No.5.1 system, the following Stage III cable system was used in my auditioning. All prices are in pairs unless otherwise noted:

Signal cables
Amp to speaker: S III C Magnus Prime, 2m, spades, $7,300
DAC+Pre to monoblocks: S III C Gryphon, 1.0m, XLR, $7,100 (plus factory Toslink from DAC to monoblocks for volume control)
CD Drive to DAC+Pre: 4 x factory Superlink cables

Power cables
CD Drive: S III C Zyklop, 1.5m, $6,600
DAC+Pre: S III C Zyklop, 1.5m, $6,600
Monoblocks: S III C Minotaur, 1.5m, $4,600 (one per monoblock)
Weizhi power distributor: S III C Minotaur, 1.5m, $4,600

Accessories
Weizhi PRS-6 power distributor, $3,200
Acapella Platforms, 4 x $3,200 (21″ W x 20″ D)

Weizhi PRS-6 power distributor in Lansche No.5.1 system

The following are breakdown of prices of Stage III Concepts cables for the Lanshce No.7 system:

Signal cables
Amp to speaker: S III C Mantikor, 2m, spades, $14,900
DAC to Pre: S III C Gryphon, 1.0m, RCA, $6,400
Phono to Pre: S III C Gryphon, 1.0m, RCA, $6,400
CD Drive to DAC: Chimaera digital cable, 1.0m, XLR, $5,900 (each)
Turntable to Step-up transformer: S III C Analord Prime phono cable, 1.0m, RCA, $3,100
Step-up transformer to Phono stage: S III C Analord Prime phono cable, 1.0m, RCA, $3,100

Power cables
AC outlet to Weizhi PRS-6 power conditioner: S III C Minotaur, 1.5m, $4,600
CD Drive, DAC, Phono stage, Preamp: Stage III Concepts Zyklop, 1.5m $6,600
Amps, Weizhi PRS-6, Lansche Corona plasma tweeter: Minotaur, 1.5m, $4,600

All electronics rested on five Acapella Platforms that retails for $3,200 each.

On a fine Sunday afternoon, Brian and I visited dealership Audio Limits, where Gene and Darren O’Neal, our hosts, treated us to fine music via a system comprised of a pair of Venture Grand Ultimate speakers ($89,000/pair), BMC electronics and Silversmith cables. The O’Neal’s were playing music in high-resolution format via an Asus tablet with the BMC DAC1 PRE Digital-Analogue Converter with DIGM+PREAMP. The music was a Chinese audiophile track by a female singer against a backdrop of vast instrumental accompaniment. It was recommended to the O’Neal’s by Carlos Candeias, owner of BMC, and was it of demonstration class! The soaring female vocalization was supported by a powerful chorus, and the soundstage was as spacious as the sonic texture was smooth.

Midway through the demonstration, Brian took out his $3,200 Weizhi PRS-6 power distributor and a slew of Stage III Concepts cables; but the O’Neal’s were already using a $6,000 power conditioner. Back into our seats we went, and the soundstage changed from the hollowness of a dome-shaped sound field to one that was wide opened, all the way to the edges of the front walls and beyond. The ceiling of the soundstage was escalated by a story or two seemingly, and the specificity aspect of instrument localization was transformed in such manner, making the sonic performance under the $6,000 power conditioner two-dimensional by comparison.

I am not giving up my Isoclean system of 80A3, Supreme Focus and Super Focus yet; but I am legitimately concerned. Brian, don’t expect me to give my full endorsement to your new Weizhi products without a formal auditioning in my system. And they better be superior.

Audio Limits

On our drive back to the Ackerman residence, the one lingering thought in my mind was the one product the value of which stood out like Stop signs to me. No, it wasn’t the Lansche No.7, although I will declare that they were the most fantastic and musical dynamic loudspeakers I’ve ever heard. The performance of the No.7 was at once nimble and whispery, while producing dynamics and spatiality of such magnitude as to be awe-inspiring. I did not feel compelled to compare the No.7 to the Acapella Triolon Excalibur during my entire stay, which was the perfect speaker system for me before the Lansche. The fact is the Lansche will now fit into my listening room very, very nicely, with dynamics and bottom-ends that will rival the Acapellas. If I had a huge room and twice the money needed to acquire the Lansche, I would still get a pair of the Acapella TEs, for they do make quite a visual statement first and foremost. Until then, the Lansche No.7 is now my dream speaker.

The thought of the Lansche No.3 became more and more relevant to me. For the first time in audio history, a speaker with plasma tweeter can be had for $26,000 the pair, and it is the same model used by the No.7 and No.5.1. The Corona is accompanied by an eight-inch paper cone woofer, and the system is specified to produce bottom-ends down to 40 Hz, +/- 3 dB. Not having heard it in person, I will not endorse it without reservations, but if the No.7 and No.5.1 are any indication, there is every reason to believe that the floor-standing two-way will impress just as profoundly in a small- to medium-sized room as its larger siblings in correspondingly larger spaces.

Lansche No.3

Lansche No.5.1 in Ebony (left) and Maple Burl (right).

And then there is the Ypsilon Aelius push-pull hybrid monoblocks. The reference amplification in my own system is the Pass Labs XA100.5 solid-state Class A monoblocks. They are the closest in handling of low-level resolution and textural delicacy as those from Audio Note UK’s SETs with silver transformers and all the precious metal innards, and the Ypsilons are able to make the one proverbial step further than the Pass Labs, albeit at about twice the price, in being the perfect amplification balancing act. At $36,000 the pair, the Aelius monoblocks is the most relevant reference amplification of the highest caliber I have come across.

Above all, the most memorable moment of my visit took place on the evening before I left. The Ackerman’s took me to a farewell dinner customarily, and we played a board game afterwards. Hedbanz was the name of the game, and each of us guess the object on the card placed on a headband over our head by asking the other three players questions within the allotted time. In addition to proving that I was far from being the smartest, the game also revealed a side of the Ackerman’s I’ve never known when it was Debra, wife of Brian, to take her turn.

Debra: Is it an animal?

All: Yes.

Debra: Does it live on land?

All: Yes.

Debra: Is it large?

All: Yes.

Debra: Do we eat it?

All: YES.

Debra: I’m a cow!

All: Yay!

Brian to Debra (coldly): I never thought I would hear you say this.

It was a riot at the Ackerman’s.

Aaudio Imports
4871 Raintree Drive
Parker, CO 80134

Tel. 720-851-2525
Cell. 303-264-8831
Fax. 720-851-7575

URL: www.aaudioimports.com
E-mail: brian@aaudioimports.com

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