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Positive Feedback ISSUE4
a systems approach
the Canary Audio CA-301 MKII amplifier and CA-601 MKII preamplifier, Living Voice Avatar OBX-R loudspeakers, and Chord Company's Odyssey cables
as reviewed by Francisco Duran and Victor Chavira
I am an audio outcast. I rarely buy gear or visit audio salons, and I am constantly on the lookout for the cheapest path to musical sound. For me, expensive audio is an unattainable fantasy. In reality, most of my musical pleasure is derived from the five-inch coaxial driver in the right door of my 1985 Volvo 240 (the left one blew out years ago), so what right do I have to review a $13,000. system? For starters, music is my salvation. If only one percent of my busy day is devoted to serious listening, I want that one percent to be as satisfying as possible. Thats why I loved the Canary/Living Voice system.
The system consists of a Canary CA-601 MkII preamp, CA-301 MkII amp, and Living Voice OBX-R speakers. The 601 is a fairly straightforward design with two 6922 tubes. The 301 is a 300B-based push-pull design. Nearly every 300B amp is single-ended. Why would anyone want to build a 300B push-pull amp? I asked Canarys Tony Dong, who responded: Simply put, the 300B is the best audio power tube ever designed. It doesnt have a lot of power, but it is the best sounding amplification device ever made. What makes the 300B so special? It unlocks the texture and body inside your recordings. You will hear the things that separate the masters from the merely proficient. We built our CA-301 MkII power amplifier around four 300B triode tubes in a carefully tweaked push-pull circuit. To get the most out of the design, we used the best parts and components that we could ever find. The custom wound power and output transformers were specially designed to extend the bass and highs. Just as important, the military grade epoxy circuit boards are designed to minimize component interaction. We put them together under a thick steel chassis, hand-wired them with Teflon coated silver wires, took the time to lay them out in straight rows, kept the path as neatly as possible, all done in the best traditions of American craftsmanship. Anyone who listens to the CA-301 MkII never feels the need for more wattage. All they want to do is put on more music.
Living Voice speakers have merited very positive reviews from the European audio press. The OBX-Rs may look like conventional three-driver speakers, but features like outboard crossovers with designer parts and top-shelf Scanspeak Revelator soft dome tweeters set them apart. The OBX-Rs are very efficient at 94dB. They were connected with The Chord Companys Odyssey 4 cables. By the time the entire system was set up, it had taken over almost half of my living/listening room. The lone source was my Audio Electonics CD1 with tubed analog output.
If you are familiar with my reviews, you know that I value a smooth harmonious sound and the Canary/Living Voice system produced it in abundance. The system rendered the kind of life-like detail that appeals to me. For example, while listening to Poncho Sanchez Afro Cuban Fantasy, I was able to discern the angle and force at which the stick impacted a cowbell or the manner in which it was held in the percussionists hand. I could recognize what part of the mouth or throat was stressed when a vocalist sang. The amazing thing is that these mental images appeared to me without forethought or concentration. I simply inserted a disc into the CD player and the system took over from there, breathing musical life into the room like some kind of holographic emitter.
The system also exhibited excellent pace and timing. I connected with the flow of compositions rather than the gear used to produce the music. Whether it was a Shostakovich violin concerto or Santana guitar solo, the Canary/Living Voice system involved me in the music from start to finish. The system produced a vivid soundfield that favored the air and space around the musicians. Even though the CA-301 amp produced only 22 watts, the system was able to pump out thundering sound. Much of the credit for this goes to the speakers. Listening to Beethoven string quartets by the Orford Quartet on Delos was absolutely magnificent. I have never experienced the swell and dynamics of a string quartet as I did with the Canary/Living Voice system. When it came to subtle shadings and delicate musical textures, the OBX-Rs clearly outperformed the Maggies.
As far as Im concerned, the Canary/Living Voice system stands among the best in its price class, though there were a couple of non-musical details that concerned me about the speakers. First, the outboard crossover casings are fitted with dangerously sharp cones. Mishandling the boxes could be a painful experience. Living Voice should supply the crossover with temporary rubber feet for safety, with the option of installing the cones once optimum placement has been achieved. Secondly, the speakers center of gravity is in the top half. Once they are perched upon their stands, the OBX-Rs are too easy to tip over. Speakers in this price range should have a better method of securing the speakers to their bases. Despite this, the Canary/Living Voice system was a magical musical experience that I shall sorely miss. If you value life-like musicality, nuance, and dynamic contrasts, the Canary/Living Voice system deserves your serious consideration. Victor Chavira
Some reviewers may think audio reviewing is a whole lot of work, while others revel at all the new toys to play with. I fall squarely in the latter camp, so unpacking and setting up the Living Voice Avatar OBX-R speakers, the Chord Company Odyssey 4 speaker cables, the Canary CA-301 Mk-II stereo amp, and the Canary CA-601 Mk-II preamp was fun! Okay, it was also a lot of work, even though I didnt install everything at the same time. Substituting a whole new, un-broken-in system when mine is sounding dialed in is a little too much audio shock, so after breaking everything in, I put each component in my system one at a time, listening and taking notes until the whole system was installed.
The Living Voice loudspeaker company is located in Nottingham, England. Fans of horn-loaded speakers might be familiar with the Air Partners and the Air Scouts. These speakers are very large and expensive, so Living Voice established the Auditorium range to satisfy the real-world needs of their customers. The Auditorium series has three models, the Auditorium, the Auditorium Avatar, and the Auditorium Avatar OBX-R, which differ slightly in height, strength of enclosure, quality of drivers, and the sophistication of the crossover. The Avatar OBX-Rs are very slim, attractive floorstanding speakers that stand 40 inches tall atop their accompanying plinths. They are not much wider than the two 6-inch mid/bass drivers. The triple-braced cabinets are covered with matched premium veneers. The hollow plinths are painted basic black. While they do not weigh a ton and are not made of exotic materials, they are quite nicely constructed and finished. The crossovers boast Hovland capacitors, Clarostat non-inductive wire wound resistors, star earthing, and hand wound air core inductors.
Canary Audio is low key in advertising and press, but dont let the understated approach fool you. Their products are every bit as noteworthy as those from more visible outfits. The CA-301 MK-II amp and CA-601 MK-II preamp are very nice-looking units, and are built to very high standards. They have beautiful champagne gold faceplates and the chassis are a rugged powder-coat black. The CA-301 MK-II is a 300B triode power amp with a "carefully tweaked" push-pull circuit. The amps tube complement also includes two 6SN7s and a 12AX7. It also sports custom power and output transformers, along with military grade epoxy circuit boards. All wiring is with Teflon-coated silver wire. The preamps build quality and looks are equally impressive. There are inputs for four sources and two sets of outputs. The tube complement for the preamp is a pair of 6922s and one 6CG7. Canary uses a TDK stepped attenuator, an Elma rotary switch, and pure silver Teflon-coated coaxial cable and wires.
The Odyssey 4 is the top of the line speaker wire from the Chord Company (not Chord Electronics) in the U.K.. Its twisted-pair construction is made of heavily silver- plated copper. It is clad in a pure white silicone outer jacket, and is outfitted with very sturdy banana plugs. The Odyssey had some stiff competition from my new JPS Ultraconductor speaker wire. The Odyssey is good-sounding and affordable cable, but a few drawbacks were quickly noticeable. The treble was clean and extended, but slightly whiter sounding than the JPS, though sibilance in vocals was well controlled. It exhibited very good bloom Images seemed to pop out on the stage. Bass lines were full and taut, with very good pace. It was in the midrange that the obvious differences between the JPS and the Odyssey appeared. The upper mids were slightly thinner than the JPS, and the lower mids were not as full or clean. The JPS wire has a rightness of timber and dimension that belies its inexpensive pedigree. It also sounds more open. One can hear into the back of the stage better. The Odysseys midrange timbres sounded a mite hollow by comparison. While these shortcomings are not offensive, they are evident because they are in the midrange. For the purpose of the review, I used my JPS Ultraconductors from the amp to the Living Voice speakers and, since I had no extra wire of my own, the Odyssey went from speakers to crossovers only.
The first step in installing the system was replacing my Monarchy mono amps with the Canary CA-301 Mk-II. How did it sound? Those who go for euphonic coloration wont find it with this amp, but those who favor an accurate, musical presentation with a dash of that tube midrange magic will love it. Music was fast and dynamic, with a wide and deep soundstage that enveloped me. On track three of the Tutti CD on Reference Recordings, the bass drum was very powerful and room filling.
My speakers were pressurizing my room as much as a pair of 7-inch drivers in stand-mounted monitors could. These arent 22 small watts, folks. They are a downright muscular, tight-gripping, and extended 22 watts. Transients were quick and clean. Music started and stopped with agility. There was no overhang in the bass. Although the Canary is not as fast as my Monarchys, the way it reproduced the texture of instruments walked away from my amps. The lead trumpet on track four of my Gate Swings CD sounded more dimensional than Im used to. The sound of that trumpet, in fact the whole midrange, took on more body. I was also impressed when listening to Milton Naccimentos Nascimento CD and the soundtrack to All the Pretty Horses. There was nice texture, with just the right amount of bloom and transient speed. Not only was the beauty of the acoustic guitar brought out, it sounded lifelike in its dynamics. The high frequencies were reproduced with such smoothness that I barely paid attention to them.
When I first put the 601 Mk-II preamp into my system, I felt that something was wrong. It was just too noisy. There were low level crackling noises coming out of the left channel and the noise floor sounded louder than it should. Sure enough, when I changed the two 6922 tubes that came with the unit for some 1970s-vintage Sovtek 6922s via Upscale Audio, the noise problems pretty much vanished. The next impression I got from this preamp was that of a quick, agile, and dimensional unit that clearly showed the color and texture of music. The bass was controlled and taut, qualities that paid off when I listened to the Pat Metheney/Charlie Haden CD, Missouri Sky. As Metheney plucked his guitar, the notes seemed to pop in front of me. Haden filled the rest of the space around center stage with full, round, wooden bass. On many jazz and rock CDs, bass weight was very good and percussion sounded quick and tactile. The music moved along fine. Guitars had excellent timbre. Well-recorded vocals had no harshness, and sibilance sounded natural, not exaggerated. One thing that is very noticeable whenever I put an active preamp in my system is an expansion of the soundstage. With an active preamp, especially a tube one like the Canary, the stage stretches out in all directions. The ends of notes trail off in that seductive tube way, but not in an overly romantic, slow manner.
The Canary 601-Mk-II preamp has a smooth, pleasing, musical balance. The music doesnt wash over you with coloration, or hammer you with dynamics or hyper detail. Musical timbres are natural, and there is texture and body. The bass is very articulate and taut. In my system, this preamp sounded neither dark or bright. High-end details were extended and clean without sounding bright, sharp, or rounded off. With the Canary combo, the music comes across as just a little warmer and more atmospheric than with my solid state stuff. Musical timbres were very realistic, and I noticed no obvious coloration. Other tube amps and preamps might come across as more musical on first hearing, but I think this is due to their having more colorations.
For the finale, I hooked up the Living Voice Avatars. These speakers are comfortable playing all kinds of music, from Mozart to the Moody Blues. I just had to spin another new purchase, The Hotel Child by The Flying Neutrinos, retro swing band music played with a vengeance. This CD is great fun, and an excellent recording to boot. The Canary/Living Voice system recreated a soundscape that I could dance into, but it was the texture of the horn instruments that really captured my attention. I have never been a big fan of the trombone, but this CD, played through this system, changed that forever. Trumpet, saxophones and horns of all types had texture and body. Tonal colors were more evident than with my regular system. These speakers are also quite revealing, yet music never sounds etched or exaggerated.
Having a pair of speakers in my room that will reach down to 35Hz is a treat. While most of the music I listen to is rock, jazz, and blues, every once in a while I like to play "air conductor," and will whip on Tchaikovskys 1812 Overture or the Gladiator soundtrack and go to town! The Avatar OBX-RŐs handled the lows on these discs better than my stand mounters. Bass was taut, agile, and dynamic. The tune was carried along quite well, but it was the texture and body of the lower notes that grabbed my attention. With these speakers, it feels like you can hear the pressure in the room change. The Avatars recreate spatial dimension and soundstage in a very convincing manner. Not only is the sound layered, but the music appears to occur in pockets of air. In the owners manual it is suggested that they be placed as far apart as possible. Unfortunately, in my room I could only place them seven feet apart and two feet from the back wall. The soundstage was quite large, but Im sure that it would be cavernous in a larger room. While the Avatars imaging is solid, outlines are not as sharp as from some monitors Ive heard, including my own speakers.
Do we have a perfect system here? Sorry, there is no such animal. On the whole, though, this system has quite a few musical pluses. The Living Voice Avatar OBX-Rs are very open, detailed and dynamic. They conveyed the texture and color of the music quite well and are very coherent. They sorted out musical passages with ease. While I felt that at times that they were a little laid back, they could boogie. There were times when it seemed like the bass was overloading my room and needed a little tightening up, but I suspect that these speakers need a bigger room than mine to sound their best. The 22-watt Canary CA-301 MK-II drove them quite easily. Later, when I put my own speakers back in, I missed the openness and fullness of the Avatars.
The Canary units performed to a high standard. Music sounded dynamic and clean, with smoothness and texture taking a front seat. With the massive transformers in the 301 and the silver wiring in both units, you dont get shortchanged at the frequency extremes. Do you need more power? I didnt with the Living Voice speakers, though I heard that Victor Cs Maggies were not suited to the Canary. Some might feel that the music could sound a tad sharper from the upper midrange on up, but this was not an issue with me. Of course, your tastes may vary. I feel that the Canary units performed as well or better than other components in their price bracket. I really liked their sound. They were smooth but never dull, and they always kept me involved in the music.
I havent forgotten the Chord wire. Just because it didnt work as well for me doesnt mean you shouldnt try it. I have been questioning the sanity of one of my partners for years for using silver-plated copper throughout his system, but he loves it. The wire is straightforward and well made.
There was a lot more effort involved in reviewing a whole system instead of one piece of gear, but the musical rewards were well worth it. Next time you are shopping for stereo gear, dont pass up the Canary electronics or the Living Voice loudspeakers because they havent had a lot of press. The loss might be yours. Francisco Duran
CA- 301 MKII amplifier