by Rafe Arnott
You ever seen a big rock ‘n roll show from the front row? How about closer than that?
I’ve been a newspaper photographer (among other jobs at a big daily) for a number of years, and when you get assigned a stadium gig, you show up about 15 minutes before the first song, and then the biggest security guards you’ve ever seen in your life escort you into the roped-off area in front of the front row and you get to take pictures for the first three songs.
The hottest ladies you’ve ever seen are always in the front row, they’ve usually had a few drinks, and now you’re standing in front of them and they want to know, “who the f*ck are you?”
My answer is always the same “I’m Malachi Kenney…” But I digress.
My whole point for bringing up this somewhat inane tack is that when I found myself sitting in the ‘front row’ of the Astell & Kern, Mark Levinson and Martin Logan room that Sergei Shinder of Yana Imaginative Audio Video Solutions helped set up, I got the same rock ‘n roll stadium concert vibe in my gut.
It didn’t hurt that the enormous Levinson No. 53 Reference Power Amplifiers ($34,000 CAN each) and gigantic Martin Logan Neoliths ($100,000 CAN – which were finished in a deep Ferrari arrest-me-red that they call Rosso Fuoco) were lit up in a stage-like presentation that looked ready for Kanye West.
The mood was set. They could have played Van Morrison and I would have swooned and held up my lighter in tribute… Luckily Sergei came over before I set anything on fire and asked me if I was familiar with the gear in the set up.
He then walked me though the kit: Astell & Kern AK500N MQS network audio player ($15,000 CAN) with “one-click CD ripping and perfect noise isolation through battery-only operation. PCM to DSD conversion… DNLA-based networking and high-reliability SSD.”
Whoa. OK. Cool. Looks the biz too. Very slick, and oh, did I mention you can jack it into the Levinson No. 53s without a pre-amp?
But, Sergei wasn’t doing that today. Today he was running the AK500N through a Levinson No. 52 Reference Dual-Monoaural Preamplifier ($42,000).
He asked if I liked Rush And I mean, c’mon, who says no to Rush. I smiled and said “of course!”
He said a fellow had been in on Friday with a Rush CD and asked to play it, it sounded great so Sergei ripped it using the AK500N and wanted to know “did I want to hear it?”
I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the sound. These are really big speakers and I was sitting about seven feet away. That old Maxell ad popped into my brain, and I just went with it.
These are baller speakers and amps. The soundstage is huge and all-encompassing, and literally makes you feel like you’re sitting in the front row of a concert.
A big nod to Astell & Kern as well, their proprietary 1x ripping formula extracted the most detail and slam I’ve been able to discern from a crappy ’80s CD in my entire life.
A friend who also heard this system said the top-end was a bit much, but I felt it was just right, especially considering the source material. Plenty of dynamics, (a little light on texture) tonal accuracy and timbral realism. Leading edges of notes were lightning fast and the decay on Peart’s cymbals and high hat were completely and utterly realistic. Spatial imaging of every ‘whack’ on a drum’s skin was etched into the air between the speakers. And another thing, no two ‘whacks’ sounded alike. Always a good sign of a great amp.
Listening to this combo I felt like Geddy Lee was right in front of me, ditto for Neil Peart (slightly higher than Geddy) and Alex Lifeson… Peart was elevated just enough in the 3D imaging to believe his massive drum kit was all around him, Geddy just in front and slightly lower and Lifeson to my right.
I laughed several times at how enjoyable this system sounded and how it gave you absolutely no choice but to rock out with it. To me, this wasn’t hi fi per se, it was an experience like no other I’ve had from a two-way stereo. And at this price point, it should be. Performers were presented completely life-sized and exuded all the air, breath, punch and visceral individuality of a live band right in front of you.
I can’t say how this set-up fared with well-recorded jazz, or classical, or what an analog front end would sound like through it (would LOVE to hear that) because I only heard Rush on it, but what I heard left a strong impression.
This is a big, meaty, juicy sound that definitely won’t be for everyone, (I could see many saying “it’s too much…”) but for those pursuing that front-row seat to the concert they couldn’t ever get to, the Neolith and No. 53’s in conjunction with the A&K digital source will get you there.
With any luck, I’ll be right in front of you when you arrive.