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Positive Feedback ISSUE 26
july/august 2006


After Audio Burnout
by Tom Davis


For three years I lived without a stereo, then a year ago a room became available to dedicate to music and movies. So after the new "media room" got its makeover, I bought a used Rotel front-end, a pair of Selah Audio Tanzanites and strung them together with Moon Audio Black Dragon interconnects and speaker cable––and started listening to music at home again. What led to that three year hiatus?

Perhaps audio burnout began for me when my wife Julia and I bought a mid-50s modernist house with a strikingly open floor plan and its entire north side in glass. All that glass and all that openness played such havoc with reflection and echo that even using Cain & Cain single-horn speakers and listening nearfield couldn't get all those oddly wandering air-pressure waves to cohere. But I suspect that was just a fancy sounding rationale for something closer to home. "Audiophile" literally means "sound lover". When does a sound lover become a fetishist? For me it began with such things as wanting to hear precisely how the floor was creaking as the first violinist shifted back and forth in her chair. Burnout then was only temporarily delayed by that other fetish: the need to buy the next (latest and thereby greatest) "silver bullet to perfect sound" boys' toy.

Audio burnout means being able to hear everything while nothing makes emotional sense anymore. What's telling here, at least for me, is your lower jaw: does it unconsciously clench when you're listening, or rather when you're analytically straining to hear ...well, what? The first violinist's creaking chair? The difference in the timbral signature between her violin and the second violinist's (which, of course, you can exactly locate in their fixed and unwavering positions in the soundfield)?

So I took a time out. Three years later, what changed? I got that dedicated listening room. I also got tired of listening in the car. Or perhaps I was just ready to connect again with music on its own terms.

tanzanite6.jpgLet's consider the room. It's small: a 9 foot by 12 foot rectangle with a sloping ceiling from 6 and a half feet in the rear to 8 feet 3 inches in the front. A single window in a decent location. A single couch, two custom built-in cabinets, and nothing else besides a Sound Anchor equipment stand between the cabinets along the front wall. Luckily the music that attracts me is as intimate in scale as that of this room. My last speakers were Cain & Cain prototypes, in part because I listen most to the way a human voice can inflect a song to surprise you with new meaning, and voices are genuinely intimate through single-driver speakers. But the location of the left cabinet in relation to the arc of the room's door eliminated floor-standing speakers. I needed a sealed box that could be placed within 7 inches of the front wall on top of each cabinet. After some research and an email exchange with Selah Audio's owner and designer Rick Craig, I ordered a pair of his "best version" Tanzanites. I've listened to them for over a year, and you'll be hearing more about them in a future report. Suffice it to say that in this room nothing would have worked if the speakers didn't work. They work.

OK, so I had my $1750 speakers (yes, paid regular price). And I needed to stay within a $5000 budget. What I needed next was a "relatively inexpensive" low noise-floor front-end. I asked myself: Who makes the cheapest solid-state front-end that will give me at least a chance to relax when listening? Rotel for one. I went to Audiogon and got a "like new" RCD-1072 CD player and an equally "like new" RA-1062 integrated amp for a total of $1000. They mate fine with the Tanzanites. I'm not going to "comment" on the Rotels as they've been commented on to death elsewhere. Suffice it to say that CD player was designed to "play with" the integrated amp. Together they represent a reliable, "relatively inexpensive" way to get the speakers to do the job they do remarkably well. And cables? I figured I should just ask the guy who designed the Tanzanites which cables he'd recommend; Rick suggested Moon Audio. More on the Black Dragons later when I compare them to Kimber's best stuff (on loan from our dear Editor).

So for the past year I've been listening to the above set-up and have been happy. Except. Well, except every now and then I notice the Rotel front-end as a front-end. Suddenly there's that slight edge in the mid-highs that whispers "spend money on tubes". And I then remind myself about my deep dark never to be repeated $10,000 tube amp past. But Chinese imports now mean you can get "relatively inexpensive" tube amps. Would one make a difference that's honestly worthwhile? I'll let you know soon enough.

The other temptation is upgrading the RCD-1072 with an outboard DAC. Here the question has become: Has the science of digital reproduction advanced to the point where there's not all that much room for art? I went to Selah Audio because I suspected Rick could design a crossover that could take three drivers in a relatively small sealed box and make them collectively disappear. Given that I know single-driver sound pretty well, I've been pleasantly surprised by just what an art Rick's science has proven to be. But what room is still left for art in designing "relatively inexpensive" DACs this far into the life of digital sound reproduction? I wanted to find out, so I'll be commenting on just what difference the AudioNemesis DC-1 DAC has made.

And that will be it. Oh, I know there's always more to play with, most particularly in customizing the room's sonic signature both physically and by going to a fully "intelligent" digital reproduction chain. But right now, after being mostly, if not completely, satisfied with an honest to God "less than $5000" system, will relatively inexpensive tubes and a relatively inexpensive DAC turn a relatively inexpensive system into a jaw-relaxing simply satisfying one?

Next installment: Is the AudioNemesis DC-1 DAC an honestly worthwhile upgrade?