FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
Delivering on DSD: An Inquisition into Inaccuracy
(Harbeth images supplied by Winter Tree Audio www.wintertreaudio.ca)
I recently celebrated my first anniversary of an exclusively-SACD lifestyle. For sure, the novelty of my initial exposure to SACD has subsided since it first rocked the foundations of my listening room (and blew off the ceiling). This by no means implies that I have grown blase about the paradigm upshift afforded by SACD over CD. On the contrary, I now take SACD for granted as the new performance baseline from which to further improve system fidelity. For sure, there is no chance of any post-DSD regression to PCM 16/44.
Having tweaked my Marantz SA-1 thoroughly over the last twelve months, my attention has turned to assessing the amplification and speakers. The DSD experience raises musical reproduction to such lifelike peaks that, for me, SACD playback no longer bears comparison to other hi-fi experiences, but tempts the listener to judge it alongside the actual musical event. In this league, amplifiers and speakers must either prove capable of preserving intact the fine analog of reality which is the DSD signal as it moves downstream, or falter as tenuous vessels, unfit to bear the full glory of SACD.
The debate surrounding audio realism is a contentious one, which has certain parties brandishing test bench equipment, while others flap their golden ears. With components sporting such dissimilar sonic characteristics, each sounding equally "musical," which is most accurate? Here, I should qualify my personal perspective of musical accuracy, which is primarily from the podiums of the orchestras I conduct. From this vantage point, the unique tonal personality of each instrument stands out defiantly against that of the others. Each instrument also dominates its own spatial territory. Additionally, the unique artistic intentions of individual musicians can be sensed distinctly, in constant counterpoint with those of other musicians. I judge any hi-fi system the more accurate which allows me to experience a greater, "living" sense of these tonal differentiations and stylistic tensions.
Large speakers have always sounded unacceptably muddy and sluggish to me, inspiring a fervent fetish for bookshelf speakers and their clear articulation and agility. From Rogers LS3/5as, Celestion SL600s, and Pro Ac Tablettes to Silverline SR-17s, my lineage of speakers forms a parade of midgets. Although deep bass and thunderous SPLs are nice to have, I adhere to the philosophy that a three-quarter cut of prime filet mignon is far better than a whole meatloaf.
Two years ago, I fell for the charms of the Sonus Faber Signums. Not only did these little Italians gush with mini-monitor attributes such as immediacy and vivid imaging, they also offered bass extension and dynamic power transcending their size. Most of all, I was smitten by the walnut panels ability to "sing" along with the music. Familiarity, however, exposed this attractive resonating quality as an unnatural hue overlaying the tonal shades of the music. Furthermore, the Signums superlative imaging is attained via a simple crossover which proved incapable of smoothing the tweeter/midrange transition, creating a ringing mid-treble glare. Finally, the Signums big sound is wrought by excessively porting the tiny cabinet, at the cost of a mild, boomy wildness around 40Hz.
The Signums typify many brilliant and passionate audiophile designs, which achieve outstanding performance in one sonic parameter by mangling others. This made me wary of adopting speakers that would simply swap one set of compromises for another. At this point, my audio buddy and neighbor Jules, a Sony executive involved in promoting SACD, suggested that the studio monitor genre might offer the accuracy that SACD required. I checked out the PMC and ATC lines, but my interest was particularly drawn to the established UK manufacturer Harbeth, one of the last enduring expressions of the venerable BBC discipline of monitor design. Harbeths approach fuses modern technology, materials, and performance standards with a venerable tradition of designing studio monitors that convey the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth.
Harbeths lilliputian HL-P3es, a redesign of the classic BBC LS3/5a for the new millenium, seemed just right for a mini-monitor fan. Harbeths dealer in Singapore, the perennially gracious Jimmy Goh of CD Acoustic, kindly offered a pair of HL-P3es for home audition. Out of mischief, I also trundled along a larger model, the Harbeth HL Compact 7es Mk IIs, to convince myself again why small bookshelve speakers always sound superior. As anticipated, the P3es beautifully capture the winsome, lifelike qualities of the discontinued LS3/5as, while offering a more neutral balance, a larger soundstage, and better bass extension. Turning from David to Goliath, I noted that one very uncompact Compact 7es Mk II could easily swallow five P3es. Although solidly built and beautifully finished in natural wood veneer, their appearance is unfashionably plain. With no sloped baffle for time coherence, no resonance-smoothing hexahedron shape, and an alarmingly broad frontal profile, the Compact Sevens more closely resemble the boxes they were shipped in. Using the rap test (involving knuckles, not Fatboy Slim), their panels felt lightweight compared to the ships-hull solidity characterizing expensive high end cabinets. Most of all, the un-ecological bulk of the speakers gave me the shudders. Just by their looks, I simply knew the Compact Sevens would sound blurry, boxy and boomy.
Listening proved to be a totally different matter, for the Compact Sevens sound nothing like they look! As expected of larger speakers, musical climaxes explode with unfettered conviction, but the surprise is how this power is manifested within images just as pure and uncolored as those produced by bookshelf speakers of high caliber. Listening to the Birdland SACD by M. Sasaji and the L.A. All Stars (an outstanding direct-to-DSD big-band recording), the flavor of each instrument "tasted" startlingly distinct and separate from the others, like the ingredients in a fresh multi-layered sandwich. Alan Shaw, Harbeths CEO-cum-designer, attributes this to his radical SuperTunedStructure cabinet design, which dissipates panel resonances through "lossy transmission." The superiority of this innovation is strikingly apparent compared to conventional heavy enclosures, which store energy, thus bleeding musical timbres into each other in a sonic osmosis, like what happens with the contents of a squashed day-old sandwich. The SuperTunedStructure allows music to breathe as naturally and freely as in a planar speaker, but without the attendant mylar "clanging." As with the silent aluminum honeycomb panels of my vintage Celestion SL600s, the Compact Sevens soundstage seems to float as a living, autonomous entity, while the boxes aurally vanish.
Lossy transmission is hardly the only trick in Alan Shaws bag. Just as exciting is Harbeths patented Radial driver, utilizing a lightweight and rigid compound formulated through cutting-edge government-funded research. Alan is not joking when he describes how his Radial cone overcomes the blurring sonic effect caused by the flexing of conventional polypropylene cones. Grooving to the Tower of Power Live SACD through the Compact 7es, the depth into which subtle layers of performance detail can be perceived is in a distinct class above equivalently-priced speakers using conventional cone material. I heard gradations in the touch and plucking of the bass guitar and could identify the type of strings used. I sensed expressive fluctuations in the athletic tonguing of the winds. I also perceived the diverse angles from which the snare was struck and poetic trends in kick drum intensity.
Radial technologys most impressive quality is its uncannily realistic portrayal of the human voice. In her new Delos SACD of opera arias, it was unnervingly palpable how mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenkos vocal presence was presented in its natural forcefulness and fluidity. In comparison, more traditional cone material gives the impression of listening to music through a sluggish, honky membrane. The integration of the Radial mid/bass driver with the equally revealing SEAS tweeter is the very epitome of coherence and seamlessness. This is achieved through a sophisticated crossover individually tuned for each unit, another Harbeth hallmark.
Despite these newfangled features, the Compact Sevens pedigree is strongly rooted in the venerated BBC studio monitor ideal of "sounding right." From my work in recording studios, it has often struck me how vibrant, lifelike, and elementally "correct" good studio monitors sound, compared to hi-fi speakers. Drawing on Harbeths wealth of expertise in this rigorous discipline, the Compact 7es Mk IIs successful transplant studio monitor standards of spectral accuracy and phase coherence to domestic listening situations. Nowadays, upstart speaker design gurus disdain rigorous technical measurement in favor of more euphonic criteria determined by subjective listening. In contrast, this Harbeth demonstrates that impeccable specifications, meticulously engineered, empower a speaker to act as a flat sonic mirror, reflecting the musical image in its exact proportions, and allowing instrument timbres to sound convincingly true to themselves. It makes your garden variety, voiced-by-golden-ear speaker sound like a warped funhouse mirror that parodies and disfigures the shape of the music.
The Compact Sevens continue the British tradition of secret weaponry, exemplified by the Q ships of WWII (harmless looking freighters concealing formidable firepower to surprise enemy U boats), or those innocuous-looking briefcases and umbrellas that fire deadly missiles, devised in Qs workshop for James Bond. Beneath their nondescript exterior, Harbeths insidious warships pack potent, progressive audio technology to blast infidel competitors out of the water. Finally, a Goliath to slay cocky little Davids! In the USA, their $2469 price pits them against some flamboyant competition. While the Compact Sevens account of themselves may seem self-effacing in such glamorous company, it modestly steps aside to let through a truthful and complete account of the music.
Ray Ban Amplifiers, Anyone?
Listening to the Compact Sevens for one month confirmed that they are indeed ideal speakers for SACD. They succeed admirably in bringing to fruition the realism latent in the SACD format. But was my amplification equally "SACD-ready?" (My "preamplification" could hardly interfere with the signal less, since I dont use any. A single-input Audio Synthesis Passion balanced attenuator, fully decked with Vishay resistors, provides passive volume control.) A Plinius SA-100 Mk. III has endured as my power amplifier for the last three years. It replaced an 11-watt Cary 300SEI, which sounded like heaven during quiet, intimate passages, and hell during massive musical climaxes. My Plinius has withstood numerous speaker, source, and cable upgrades, simply because I had found no worthy successor to surpass its sensible balance of transparency, musicality, authority, and price. It took Stu McCrearys comments about the Bel Canto EVO 200.2 (in a previous issue of this periodical) to really throw me off balance. Who would believe that a digital amplifier sporting Class T technology could provide the flowing nuance of single-ended triodes allied with solid-state dynamics, while inaugurating a new class of transparency and neutrality? To add outrage to absurdity, imagine this dream also runs as cool and efficient as a CD player and costs only $2395!
When sizing up an amplifier, the first thing we do is to scan for its unique signature. Is it warm sounding? Does it add sparkling highs, a glowing presence, or perhaps a large soundstage? You will be stumped if you scan the EVO 200.2 in this fashion, because you wont have a single blip on your radar. You might even feel it sounds bland, the way it eludes any attempt to characterize its influence. While I initially missed the assuring warmth of the Plinius, I soon realized that the SA-100 was actually "plumping" the music, as muscular solid-state amps tend to do. With the Plinius, everything, even delicate string quartet passages, sounded full and heavy.
It is important to understand why the EVOs Class-T technology confronts audiophiles with a foreign paradigm in evaluating amplifiers. We have come to accept that all amplifiers cast their individual tints on the music. Choosing an amplifier usually involves finding a pleasant coloration that blends well with the music, a flavor one can live with. In fact, such additive effects as "a creamy midrange" or "a beguilingly limpid presentation" are often touted as the selling points of a particular product. One might even be led to suspect that some audiophiles are more enamored of the sound of their amplifiers than of the music! All sonic tints, however, no matter how pleasing, degrade realism by blurring the distinctions between diverse tonal colors in music, making all instruments and voices sound more homogenous, more like The Amplifier Itself. Circuits also influence the rhythmic dimension of music by transforming the transient behavior of the signal. The musical pace can be perked up in some cases and subdued in others. These influences will mask variations in performance styles, making it seem that one dictatorial performer, The Amplifier, is interpreting the music in one fashion.
The EVO 200.2 is refreshingly free of spectral or transient discoloration, more so than even the mighty Plinius or any MOSFET or bipolar amplifier I have heard. This suggests that Class-T topology is an ideal mode of amplification for SACD. More expensive amplifiers may impress with a stronger character, but the Bel Canto simply vanishes, affording finely-resolved perspectives into the subtleties of performance: the shape and size of instruments, the materials they are made of, and the space each claims for itself. Stu is spot-on regarding the SET/Class-T connection. The EVO restored that seamless expressive fluidity, that wholesome coherence, and that eerie sense of peering into the performance that I used to enjoy with the Cary 300 SEI. Gladly, it did not soften dynamics or illuminate timbres like the Western Electric 300Bs used to do, lovely as that was. An aura of surrealism surrounds the Bel Canto EVO 200.2. You enjoy the hearty tangibility of solid-state Class-A designs, but dont suffer the sweltering heat, the extravagant power consumption, and the transistor wear. You experience the direct aural presence of SE triodes, but encounter neither the glow of tubes nor the need for their replacement. With this miraculous paradox in view, the paltry price of the EVO 200.2 seems simply unreal. But, like enjoying direct intimacy without any intermediary protection, the Class-T experience itself is real, raw, and utterly ravishing when the music is so.
The strengths of the EVO 200.2 augment those of SACD and the Harbeth Compact Sevens with devastating synergy. Fed with an SACD source, the Bel Canto and Harbeths conspire to intimately reveal the unique expressive individualism of each performer in a recording. Playing the Miles Smiles SACD through the SA-100/Signum system, this legendary quintet merely sounded coordinated. The EVO 200.2/Compact Seven combo penetrates far deeper into the essence of this great performance, showing bassist, pianist, drummer, saxophonist, and trumpeter reveling independently in his own style, asserting his musical will, artfully taunting and tugging at the other musicians in an intriguing interplay of musical antagonism.
At moderate playback levels, fine systems today have no problems in conveying satisfying tonal and spatial separation of instruments within the soundstage. However, during demanding, powerful orchestral climaxes, deeply-layered soundstages all too often become bulldozed forward into a hard, two-dimensional shield of sound lining the front of the speaker plane. Strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion coalesce into a single, infernally guttural and undifferentiated sonic wall. I have heard this happen even with reputable large speakers driven by mega-watt amplifiers. It is this common shortcoming that the Harbeth/Bel Canto combo triumphantly addresses. Listening to the Telarc SACD of Mahlers 5th Symphony, performed magnificently by Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra, I felt profoundly refreshed by the way each instrument breathed in its own space and maintained its natural tonal character, even during the most searing and ear-splitting passages. Not only did violas sound distinct from cellos, and oboes from clarinets, I could aurally delineate the parts played by individual trumpet and trombone players. This is remarkable, as the instruments in brass choirs usually fuse into a dismaying metallic hash. The experience was so real during particularly explosive passages, I half expected the Harbeths SuperTunedStructure enclosures to split open, and musicians to spill out, still playing their instruments.
With my prejudices about large speakers and digital amplifiers demolished, I fancied that the Bel Canto/Harbeth combo might banish another recently-acquired belief of mine, which is that CD playback is no longer viable in the context of current high-end developments. If this combo makes SACD sound this realistic, might it perhaps render CD sound good enough? As I played through the six CDs still present in my home, the verdict was clear. The truthfulness of this combo starkly exposes the full extent of how toy-like, lethargic, pulverized, and frozen 16/44 PCM sound really is.
My Hi-Fi, My Prison Cell
Some audiophiles depend on amplifiers and speakers to artificially "musicalize" the sound of CD, like dousing tasteless food in more palatable gravy. Who can blame audiophiles for wanting hi-fi that sounds pleasant? In some circles, audio design has become a wily alchemy, concocting that magic brew of tubes and circuits that makes any input signal sound irresistible. It seems ironic that purist audiophiles, who obsess over solder quality and tighten their binding posts till they crack, would also embrace designs that transform the signal in such radical ways.
To be sure, there is a certain comfort offered by systems exhibiting strong euphonic characteristics. No matter what recordings you play, you can be assured they will sound warm and lush. All musical styles will sound like variations on one theme: The Sound of The System. One can slip safely into this comfortable Sound like a favorite pair of slippers or an old sofa, and expect no surprises. For listeners who need such consistency, a neutral and truthful system will pose a bewildering, fluctuating nightmare. Each recording will transform their listening rooms into a bizarre new acoustic venue. Strange instruments will shock them with alien timbres. Hordes of unpredictable musicians will intrude into their sweet spots, each with startling ideas to express. For these reasons, some audiophiles will still cleave to expensive, colored audio components, even in an age where greater musical truthfulness is available at much, much less.
There are prison inmates who, even upon being released, do not feel inclined to leave their cells. After decades of incarceration, prison has become the only world they can imagine themselves inhabiting. In the same way, audiophiles who have lived so long with components that glorify coloration may choose to remain domineered by these musical tyrants, and remain blissfully caged within colorless listening paradigms demarcated by rose-tinted hi-fi systems.
Harbeths North American distributor