AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

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by Josh Emmons

I’m sitting in the Essential Audio room, notepad open, pen in hand. Eyes unfocused, listening intently. But writing nothing.

And I should be writing something. It’s my job to write something. But I’m not hearing anything. Well, okay, that’s obviously untrue. I’m hearing some fantastic music. But it’s not my job to talk about music. I’m supposed to talk about how the music sounds. And I just can’t figure it out. So I’m going to talk about The Matrix.

Do you remember that moment when Agent Smith reveals to a drugged Morpheus how the first version of the Matrix failed horribly? It was designed to be a perfect paradise, but our human brains rejected it as obviously unreal. Without little imperfections to hang on to, our consciousness had no way to relate to what we were experiencing.

As I’ve made much hay from already, this is my first hi-fi show. And as such, I rarely know going into a room what I’m supposed to be listening for. So I sit in the sweet spot, close my eyes, and listen for imperfection.

Once my ears catch it, I can tease it out. Does it reoccur? What is that, a frequency thing? Or something with the timber of the treble, maybe something resonating? Is it too bright? Is it the amp? The cables?

So I sit in the Essential Audio room, and I’m hearing nothing. And I’m writing nothing. And my overall impression is, “This sounds okay.”

This is how we end up with Beats headphones, loudness wars, saturated TVs, and Pepsi ever winning the Pepsi Challenge. If we aren’t given imperfections we have no way to differentiate our experiences from “normal”. If it’s not deeper, louder, brighter, or sweeter, it’s “okay”.

Consider that, by definition, the more natural something is, the less remarkable we find it. And so it is with the Essential Audio room. It is not okay. It is exceptionally okay. Surpassingly normal. It is incredibly, unbelievably natural.

And why? At least part of credit lies at the feet of the AudioKinesis Zephrin 46. I mean literally at its feet. If you haven’t seen a 46 before its rear drivers are mounted in its feet pointing up to provide what AudioKinesis calls Late Ceiling Splash.

After learning about LCS, I expected to hear a slight echo or even subtle chorus-like sound from the Zephrin. But that’s not at all how it works. I would say the effect is completely transparent, but for how life-like the system sounds. Its front-facing beryllium compression driver probably doesn’t hurt in this respect, either.

Still, if you’re building your sound up with late reflections and reverberant fields, you want your source saturated with as much depth and space as possible. That’s the job of the twin Atma-Sphere M-60 monoblocks. They’re huge, have VUs, and are full of tubes. Hand wired, fully point-to-point, and continuously refined for over three decades, these amps are the undisputed heavyweight champs of OTL.

These are fed with signal decoded by Exogal‘s Comet Plus DAC. Here’s the thing to know about Exogal, these guys know their DSP. They cut their teeth in other industries like wireless broadband, GPS, image processing and more before bringing it all back to the PCM decoding scene. This DAC does magical D to A in ways never before seen in the hi-fi community.

All this resting on a very handsome rack from Teo Audio that, at first, looks like it’s molded out of some sort of injected insulation material, but upon closer inspection is actually metallic. I have no idea what they did to aerate metal and cast it into shelves, but the look is striking.

So when it comes down to it the Essential Audio recipe for a shockingly natural sounding system is pretty unnatural sounding. Whip some metal up into foam. Take signal processing technology from cell phones, use it to decode bits that get piped through an amp that’s completely omitted the transformer from its output stage to drive a pair of “Z” shaped speakers that have two-thirds of their cones pointing at the ceiling.

The result is remarkably unremarkable. Unnaturally natural. Indescribable only in as much as there’s nothing to describe that’s not the thing being described. If you’re ever in the Illinois area, you simply have to stop by Essential Audio for a personal audition.

It’s then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Prices

  • Aurender N100 Music Player: $2,499
  • Aurender X100L Music Player: $3,499
  • Exogal Comet Plus DAC: $3,000
  • Atma-Sphere UV-1 pre with low ourput MC photo section: $2,900
  • Atma-Sphere M-60 MkIII.2 amp with copper foil V-Cap options: $7,700/pr.
  • AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 loudspeakers: $4,900/pr., beryllium compression drivers: $1,000/pr., Automotive paint finish: $1,000/pr.
  • Kuzma Stabi SD Turntable: $2,550, Stogi S CS tonearm: $1,425, Stogi S 12 VTA tonetarm: $3,150, CAR-40 cartridge: $1,195
  • Clarity Cable Vortex power cords: $750/ea. Power Distributors: $1,200/ea., Organic USB, 1.5m: $1,000, Organic Speaker Cables, 8ft.: $3,750/pr.
  • Teo Audio Equipment Rack: $7,500
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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Felicitous PranaFidelity

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Logo - Blue VectorAs is his wont, Steve Norber of PranaFidelity was once again cheerfully and seemingly effortlessly bringing great sound to the RMAF Atrium. This year, he elected to demonstrate his Fifty90 stand mount loudspeakers ($3,950). Preamplification was from the purna/ca, which is available as a single-ended line stage for $4,500, balanced for $5,950, single-ended with a phono stage for $8,500, or balanced with a phono stage for $9,950. The phono stage accommodates both moving magnet and moving coil cartiges, and has multiple loading options. Amplification was the purna/ma amplifier ($8,950). The sources were a Technics RS 1500 reel to reel with a Charles King outboard tape head preamp, a Kuzma turntable with a Denon DL103 mounted on a Kuzma 4-Point tonearm, a ModWright modified OPPO CD player, and an Exogal Comet DAC with DSD ($2,229).

Norber’s oft-stated goal is to remove barriers between the listener and the music and create an experience that feels musically right. With these goals in mind, he demonstrated how the Fifty90 loudspeakers’ tuning can be tweaked with small toggle switches on the back to suit the listener’s taste or to suit the room or even the recording. With just a flip of a switch, the treble can be brought to the forefront, the bass can be goosed, or one can opt for a more flat, neutral sound.

I had a chance to listen to this system with multiple sources and multiple tunings, and I gotta say, no matter the source or the toggle position, the Fifty90s sounded great. In combination with the Purna components, the sound was dynamic, rich, and lacking in any kind of graininess. The Fifty90s were easily the best speakers under 5k I heard over the course of the weekend. It seems like every time I listen to a PranaFidelity room at a show, I walk out thinking, “Wow, that was surprisingly good.” It’s really well past time I started giving Mr. Norber more credit, and stopped being surprised.

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Classic Audio remains classy, classic

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Filed Under: Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix.

Classic Audio has been bringing the big Hartsfield homage speakers, like the T3.4 ($45k) shown here, in one iteration or another for longer than I’ve been “into” high-end audio. And for good reason — this is a crazy-good transducer. Did I mention it uses a field coil system to “energize” the drivers? No? Well, it does. There’s a beryllium compression driver deep inside that Tractrix horn, and another beryllium driver, here used as a super-tweeter to carry the response up to 45kHz. For the other end of the spectrum, there are two 15″ drivers, one front-facing and one down-facing. All told, this is a full-range, dynamic and high-sensitivity design that is about the size of a refrigerator.  Continue reading

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