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A Gaggle of Review Projects from the Good Doctor - Part Uno
Sometimes I get carried away …and right now I am faced with an embarrassment of riches …part two will come very shortly…
Dr. "I am having such a good time!" Sardonicus
It would seem, apparently, that I have strayed so far from the primrose path of mainstream audiophilia I am finally entering that riotous world of self-gratifying deviance. I fully expect that at any moment the Audio Stasi will come and confiscate my speaker-terminal wrench.
Accused of everything from being some manufacturers' shill …to being deaf (among the more kindly allegations) I guess it is time for me to re-state some things.
First, and foremost …the kind reader will please note that my writing appears in the Editorial Section of PFO, not in equipment reviews. Now, Virginia, why do you think this might be so?
Secondly, I take great pains to identify my tastes …even to stating and restating them hyperbolically. Unlike many of my peers who declare personal preferences as immutable principles, I try to make very clear that I am writing about my experiences and those of people close around me; and that this (by nature) is idiosyncratic.
So, if you are moved by what I write to go listen to something I may have recommended …¡Buena! But, if you simply go blindly into a purchase as though I have some secret insight into your personal experiences and preferences, I might suggest some professional help with impulse control—but then I would offer this self-same caution for anyone reading any audio journalist (not just the obvious deviants like me).
Remember, it may opined by the anointed, be couched in pseudo-technical jargon, pretentious pontification, or incased in subtle metaphor, but it is still opinion all the same.
I will also add …before I make strongly positive recommendations, or return pieces without review ('cause I didn't like them), I almost always consult with peers to make certain I am not the victim of my own idiosyncrasies. It ain't double-blind testing, but it is a safeguard. And, whenever possible, I also double-team with other PFOers in the Oregon area …and try to identify when there are substantial disagreements.
That being said, be aware …increasingly I am moving off the path where the herd of mainstream audiophiles deposits its spoor…
I will not play the "topology" game any more, or be engaged in the "tastes great, less filling" rancorous debates of digital formats. I won't wear the hair shirt of the "absolute sound" in any form, any longer. My own maturity is, hopefully, increasingly reflected in my evolving tastes and preferences …and more and more, I return to the physical and emotional act of being moved, or failing to be moved by the music.
It all funnels back to five decades of listening, performing, writing, recording, and, in general, being immersed in real music as the single most externally important and constant element in my life. I think that (and trying to tell the truth) is about as much as can reasonably be expected.
My "absolute sound" is built on that foundation, and my musical "objective" is that which draws me in, and keeps me glued in my chair, and what makes me smile; what touches my heart.
So, here is my disclaimer…
Should, by chance, something from my pen interest you …PLEASE, either be very sure our aesthetics are reasonably similar, get more than one second opinion, and go listen for yourself. If you buy unheard …caveat emptor.
You have been warned!
The HSU Research sub/mid-bass module system (VTF-3-Mark III true-sub, with Turbocharger – $799, MBM-12, Mid-Bass Modules, $499 each)
OK, immediately we jump right off the audiophile path and into the briar patch; the audiophile position, archly asserted, is that while subs are OK for home theater, they are NOT acceptable for music (sniff, sniff).
In my last installment, I talked about kludging a large, single sub and two smaller subs into an integrated system to improve the bass performance in my main room. Yes, yes …I understand how this is technically inadvisable and cannot be properly integrated, yadda yadda yadda.
The idea was that I could locate a single mono sub in the back of the room, roll it down so it was only asked to do the absolute bottom of the spectrum, and use the smaller subs along side of my main speakers, crossed over higher but very low volume (with the assumption they would be more adroit at the mid-bass level).
This actually worked very well in practice, largely because I had achieved greatly increased control over the bottom end of the spectrum
There were a couple of mild obvious downsides; the first was that although I set the cross-over fairly high and the volume fairly low for the small subs (located proximal to my main units), they were still continuing to try to reproduce everything below the crossover point, duplicating the large sub at the bottom (albeit less successfully). Secondly, the small subs were downward firing. Because musical information above 80Hz is probably going to be at least somewhat directional, what I really needed was front-firing; so I had to tip them on their sides, so to speak; still, in all, not a bad idea.
All that being said, the effect on my system went far beyond just the lower registers.
Part of what happens as a result of multiple, distributed sound sources for low frequencies is that the presented "picture" grows significantly in size and scope. Also, by increasing the energy output at these lower frequencies, there is a smoothing effect reaching far up into the mid-band. I don't know exactly how this works, but I know that it does.
The result of this "smoothing" is particularly significant on digital reproduction
And lastly, this additional arrangement provides the functional equivalent of tone controls (especially in combination with my externally crossed-over VMPS's with both mid and tweeter level controls).
I am sick to death of these hair-shirt audiophile systems with no real bass, and this etched detail that highlights some of coldness already associated with digital reproduction; especially because what many people are identifying as detail, is noise …he tizz of high frequencies, which have become disconnected from their apparent sources, and are now simply noise. Oh yes, it is sparkly …but it ain't detail.
When I am forced to listen to these systems, I am always reminded of an autopsy, where the subject is long dead and now we are dissecting him or her to discover why! Ghoulishly we pour over the parts and pieces, declaring in clinical terms,
"The midrange is unremarkable and the violins show signs of necrosis."
Could it be that we have inadvertently developed a subgroup in audiophilia, akin to pathologists in medicine? I find the idea to be absolutely ghastly. I also find this brand of audiophile generally to be humorless, without apparent passion for anything other than argument, and hugely intolerant of other positions. Wait! That does describe pathologists!
Anyway, back to my story…
Sometime later, as I wandered around the net, I found that someone had already had this idea (dang) and actually had the expertise to properly execute it.
Hsu Research has made a firmly positive reputation for designing and building very high quality, modestly priced subs (and now full home theater audio systems). As I was peeping their site, low and behold, I came across a startling discovery. A new product that isn't a sub at all! A mid-bass woofer!
This powered module features a very light, paper 12" driver (which even sounds nice when you thump it) specifically designed to work from 50Hz to 150Hz, that absolutely critical mid-bass range. While it is downward firing, it is ported to the front; exactly what the Doctor ordered.
What is so cool is that you can use one or two of these units, put them next to your primaries, or as Dr. Hsu suggests, to the side or behind your listening area, and then you can dial in precisely the amount of mid-bass reinforcement needed for your room or program material.
And because the units are optimized for this purpose, you get this lightning quick, very tuneful rendition of frequencies that no sub or single primary unit can provide, while still effectively giving you true low bass (unless they go to huge towers with mid-bass couplers). And you can run these units off your amplifier or preamp outputs, whichever works best for you.
So, visualize this.
Forget about bass response in your current primaries for a bit. Put them where they work the best for mid-band and highs, imaging, depth of field, and such. THEN, slowly bring up the Hsu mid-bass module(s) reinforcement volume until you find the sound growing fleshy and substantial, and you can clearly hear bass lines (which now are actually resolved into musical events, instead of an indistinct "tock-tock").
Because the units are light paper, they are very fast and you get virtually no hang or "tubby" sound; Crisp, clean, articulate and tonally correct.
On one of my most-favorite songs, "Sultans of Swing," by Dire Straits, suddenly the bass line was as clear and intricate as Mark's guitar licks. Wowzers!
In other words, you get what you wanted from "audiophile mid-bass," but you also get music with substance.
Now …add one of Dr Hsu's superb true subs (two if you are a real party animal), perhaps the stellar HSU VTF-3 Mark III powered twelve-inch with the "turbocharger" (featured in this review). The turbocharger is a passive add-on unit that takes output from the ports and acoustically amplifies it.
Dr. Hsu assures me that, properly set up in a room that will support it, the Mark III will do 14Hz organ notes at significant SPLs!
Set the crossover on the sub at 50Hz, and roll the volume up just until you feel everything become solid and grounded.
But How Does it Sound?
Besides their obvious high value-to-cost ratio, what I find particularly appealing about the Hsu subs is they are just the tiniest bit to the dry side. This enables them to work as well for music as they do for movies. In a system doing both, it's just a matter of adjusting levels to go from modest reinforcement for music, to a stygian rumble for movies. Both units give you ample adjustment range for crossover, and you can position the true sub to either port to the side (the way I have it set up), or to the front.
Now, if you really want to have a ball …pull out CDs and SACDs (and vinyl) of old rock stuff; you know what I am talking about, The Zombies, The Searchers, Beau Brummels, Joplin, Hendrix, The Beatles, et al. …dial up the mid bass by a skootch… and start your grinnin' while you drop your linen!
See, I was there at the time …I know what these bands sounded like live ...to my enduring frustration I have found that (especially) their CDs are washed out, thin and hard sounding (but a lot of the LPs sucked equally).
Not any more ladies and gentlemen …it is as though they have been tossed in Mr. Peabody's "Way-Back Machine," and expertly re-equalized; and now you are hearing them in cinema level scope and size.
I put David Crosby's, "If I Could Only Remember My Name" CD on, and punched up "Laughing" one evening when Jennifer Crock was over …her eyes went shut and she neither moved nor spoke as she went with me to Bunnyland …after it was over, she gave me a heavy-lidded smile and said something to the effect of,
"THAT is what this music really sounded like!"
And it gets better.
I just got in a luscious little Italian integrated SE amplifier (described in part deux) with mouthwatering NOS tubes (General Electric, Valvo, etc.). Even though it is 211-based, and a lot more powerful than typical SE's, it's still not really enough to drive a large, conventional full-range speaker to the levels I desire.
Well, kiddies, since that SE now does not have to cope with low frequencies and impedances, it turns out to be quite adequate to drive my VMPS 30-Cs at pretty much any sane level, AND I get stygian bass and incredible slam from the HSU powered units to fill in the blanks often left by such amplification, unless paired to extremely high efficiency speakers.
And this part is going to rock your world …all of this, and the three HSU pieces combined don't crack $2000 retail.
And it gets even better … I ordered in their starter unit, a modest, powered 8-incher (the STF-1, $254) to add to my small system/speaker review, 'cause I am having a terrible time with small subs and I will not force myself to listen to either music or movies without bass.
Its performance is way out of proportion to its cost. Heck, for most people, one of these babies tucked discretely into a corner would be all the additional reinforcement they need for their main system! It is shocking how much this modest sub adds to the performance of a modest music or HT system.
Last night I put the quirky Abel Edwards on my second home theater system, currently supporting a relatively inexpensive pair of two-ways as primaries. This movie has some seriously sustained and loud low frequencies, and although at times I could tell we were nearing this little sub's end point, it gamely soldiered on …something I have not been able to get other small subs (some priced as much as 4x the Hsu) to do.
I know you are out there in the darkness, a relatively silent group of audiophiles who have found frustration in the fascist-booted strictures of mainstream audiophilia …you are the music lovers, those yearning to breathe free and to escape the audio autopsy theater …but you are afraid …unsure …worried to attract the approbation of the politically correct.
Here is my advice; take off that hair shirt and put down the trocar …leave the autopsy theatre and take a walk in the sunshine with living creatures … take back the music! The HSU mid-bass/sub combo can transform your system into something real for a modest cost.
Then hold your head up proudly and tell those bloodless ghouls to kiss your butt!
And the really cool part is, the HSU system means you can pick whatever amp/speaker combination that does it for you on the mid and highs, and not worry about the bottom. AND you control the horizontal, you control the vertical …you can tailor your system to your room and your tastes.
The only question is, do you want to be happy, or do you want to conform?
Value Leaders: The Oppo 980 and the Tonewin X hybrid integrated amplifier
I don't remember a time when there was a larger number of more interesting audio toys available for minor ducats. $500 in 2007 dollars is like, what, eighty-five cents in 1960 dollars?
At any rate, there are remarkably good sounding pieces out there for budding, or "economy-minded" audiophiles. No, not all of them are made in "politically correct" countries. If that is your bag, you might want to skip this next bit … but for most of us, we recognize that a world economy is a simple fact of life, and from the food on our plate to the cars we drive, increasingly we will be in a smaller world.
Better to trade with people than exchange incendiary devices, I always say.
The Oppo DV-980-H ($169)
The 980 is the "entry" level Oppo player …even at that it comes with a full-sized remote, excellent packaging (a nice sack in the box, no less) and documentation, and a reasonably substantial frame …
AND the danged thing will play just about any digital format you can possibly name, including serving as a hi-rez DVD and SACD player.
I took two of them in, one to use for video, and the other for a utility CD/SACD player. The unit price… $169. That's right, folks, under two hundred dollars for high-resolution audio AND video player… and it works, and it performs shockingly well in both applications.
David Robinson will address the high-resolution video performance on the top of the line model (he reminds me there is less than $50 separating the three models in the Oppo line). I will focus on the regular video performance, and how the entry-level unit works as a "toss-in" audio player. Jennifer Crock has thrown her hat in the ring to dissect one of them from a technical standpoint.
I will just say that both for movie sound and picture, this crazy Oppo thing is significantly better than my Sony DVP-NS975V (which sold for much, much more). It goes blacker and deeper and higher and smoother and more saturated …and in months of grueling service has not hiccupped in either audio or video applications.
Watching the admittedly romanticized flick, Copying Beethoven, I was delighted at how well this economy player rendered the stock DVD …colors were clear and saturated, no funky artifacts, black was black (instead of gray), and the sound on the heavily music-oriented soundtrack was hugely enjoyable.
I would suggest that for most movie watchers, even those with high def TV units, this piece would be absolutely satisfactory.
The ONLY reservation I have is a function akin to auto-formatting in Microsoft Word™. When you jack a disc out of the player it "remembers" where you were …now this is not a problem, in and of itself, but the danged thing "remembers" discs you have never played on it, which can be annoying …but this is a minor quibble.
Let's start with its SACD performance. Does it equal my Marantz SA-7? Of course not. Is it a serviceable and musical SACD player for someone who would rather invest in SACDs than high priced players, or someone just testing the SACD water? Absolutely.
Its errors are of those of omission. No harshness or other off-putting problems; just doesn't go as low or as high or resolve as well. The same holds true for CD performance.
I suspect doing just a touch of "mass loading" will be a good thing.
The Oppo sound is smooth and pleasing, just ultimately a bit "confined" in comparison with top of the line units.
Verdict? Buy two: they are cheap, and you never know when you are going to need an extra digital player …and you won't have to worry about compatibility. These things will play just about any digital format out there. AND you can toss one under your arm when you are going to the cabin or a friend's place.
What more can you ask for the price of a good lunch for two in a pretentious restaurant?
This is truly a remarkable accomplishment.
Stay tuned, you will be hearing much more about the Oppo here at PFO.
The Tonewin VK2100M Hybrid Integrated amplifier from Morrow Audio ($499 - currently on sale, $599 regularly)
I want to address some nonsense up front. This impressive integrated amplifier is made in a small town in China. No slave or convict labor, no sweatshop …a community effort. Now we will put that issue aside.
This is an attractive, heavy-cased, well-designed, and well thought out premium 85-watt hybrid (6N1 tubes) integrated amplifier, which currently sells for $500. You heard me, $500. No plastic crap. No cheap terminals or funky controls. No remote.
It is heavy, it is reliable, and it sounds terrific on a wide range of reasonably priced speakers (and on some not so reasonably priced ones).
I have had it in my torture system for some time now, and frankly, I have done everything but drop it on the ground and stomp up and down on it, and not once has it misbehaved in the slightest way. I even deliberately drove it until the thermal protect kicked in …which it did for just a second, to tell me I was misbehaving.
It may be inexpensive; it sure as heck ain't cheap!
The sound is snappy, crisp and very adequately resolving …and it has sufficient power to drive pretty much any likely speaker it might find. Bass control is very good and the tube pre stage simply adds a bit more air without any cloying sweetness.
Lash the Oppo 980 player to this amplifier; hook it to a nice pair of two-ways, and you can build a very satisfying system for under a thousand dollars. Want to splurge a little on better speakers? You will hear your investment.
I simply cannot suggest anything more one could reasonably expect from an amplifier anywhere near this price range that is not adroitly and substantially provided by the Tonewin VK2100M.
This piece has become my "economy" reference, and I plan to use it as the centerpiece for a number of small speaker reviews upcoming.
Like Pacific Valve, Morrow Audio has some very interesting offerings you should really take a peek at.
The SLS (Superior Listening Systems) HT 805-S (MSRP $1,399.00)
I have long been a fan of planar/ribbon-based speakers, going back to my Infinity QLS's in the 70s. The VMPS RM-30-C's are serving as my current primaries, until I take receipt of Jennifer Crock's incredible new limited edition speakers. Both the VMPS and Jennifer's speakers use ribbons in the tweeter locations.
I am, by nature, a bit of an audio "wanderer," and the Internet has made this hegira so much easier. Sometimes in my aimless meanderings I find something of great interest on this "path less traveled." Such is the case for the SLS-HT-805-S.
SLS is an unfamiliar name in high-end audio. Historically they have been doing portable and fixed pro-sound reinforcement and large cinema applications for many years, but they are new to the audiophile scene and their initial efforts appear to be primarily directed to the lucrative home theater market (I assume because they know the commercial cinema market already).
SLS produces a wide range of professional and consumer level products, including the impressive 805-S, a two-way, stand mounted speaker. With a frequency response of 38Hz - 40,000kHz, and a rated efficiency of 90dB (nominal impedance is 8 ohms), I thought to match these with some of the lower-powered amps I am scheduled to receive.
When they arrived, I was so impressed with their substantial construction (these things are beautifully made) that, just for giggles, I stuck them on the 1,000 watt Audio Crafter's Guild Ice-based monoblocks, driven with an earlier design pre-amp from Jennifer Crock, to support my main home theater system.
Boy, was I surprised.
These reasonably priced two-ways are anything but economy class. They feature excellent cabinetry and impressive fit and finish; and a "planar-ribbon" mid-high unit that SLS has designed and manufacture in their factory in Ozark, MO (American Made, for those of you for whom this is an issue). These meaty stand-mounters showed off their pro-sound heritage by shrugging off the 1000-watts like it was no big deal and absolutely delivering the goods on demanding sound tracks and music alike.
The somewhat romanticized film, Copying Beethoven offers up as arguably as its most enjoyable moment, the faltering genius directing the first public performance of the Ninth with his winsome transcriptionist actually doing the conducting from the orchestra pit (to hide his deafness). We all remarked on what a particularly good job these speakers did in making the demanding soundtrack a joy to hear.
Tucking them into my main room system with this yummy little Italian 211-based SE integrated (review coming soon), I found the high efficiency a good match with this modestly powered unit.
How do they Sound?
They sound "big," with just the slightest tilt towards the warm side in tonal balance. They will play very loudly without distortion, and with very little power. The mids and highs are what you would anticipate from a well-designed planar unit—and all this for circa $1400.
For some time now, the superb ACI Sapphires have done duty as my reference two-way stand-mount speaker. The SLSs have little in common with the sound or construction of the ACIs, but I like both speakers very much.
This is a perfect example of where two speakers, virtually identically priced, but with completely different designs can be totally dissimilar in presentation, and qualitatively similar in performance.
The SLS is a larger speaker and has an advantage in that it is easier to power, while the ACI has the advantage in smaller size and a bit more of a "jump" factor. The SLSs will work better in a system with both music and home theater functions.
I think the SLS really are designed with sub reinforcement in mind, while the Sapphires are not (although I personally prefer the Sapphires when they are in combination with the excellent ACI subs). The Sapphires are a bit richer than the SLSs in the midbass, while the SLS are slightly more transparent.
Pressed to answer which of the two I would prefer, I'd have to say that it would totally be a function of the system into which the speaker was going. Both are fine performers, and their respective pedigrees suggest they will be dependable and reliable transducers for many years to come.
Equally at home in audio and HT applications, The SLS HT-805-S is a remarkable speaker for the money.
Those of you with more modestly powered equipment, or who are considering a single driver speaker your SE amp can actually drive effectively, will absolutely want to consider these extremely well-made, but as yet relatively unknown American-made speakers from SLS. You may find you can have your SE and relatively full range speakers too, without having to resort to the usual suspects (horns and single-driver designs).
I will be going into more depth on them in the near future.
Part Two Will Be Soon – Wherein Doc S. looks at …
A refined, tubed CD player from Raysonic, affordable Ice-module based integrated and monoblock amplifiers from Audio Crafter's Guild, Sweet 2-ways from DCM; a bunch of cool little 2-ways from TBI, NSM, and Usher …a toothsome 211-based integrated amplifier from Tektron (built by a man named, Atillio Caccamo, from Corsini in Italy), and imported by Robyatt Audio…
Also, follow-ups on the Marantz SA-7 SACD player, Ming Da El-34-AB integrated amplifier and the Critical Mass isolation stands!