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The Charis Awards
After shamelessly campaigning for my own annual award category (of course, only after long years of faithful, diligent and charmingly obsequious service)... I am faced with the curse of getting my wish.
And, of course, the first and most difficult thing is... what to call it?
I am so shamelessly and completely unrepentant in my subjectivity, I don't think a single piece I have written in the last few years has actually shown up in "Hardware Reviews," but rather my "output" has rested peacefully within the supportive editorial arms of "Audio Discourse." I am neither courted nor vilified by manufacturers... I can't remember the last time anyone suggested a project for me, or turned down printing something I've written. Ah yes, freedom... just another word.
There is a degree of freedom in relative anonymity. I get to focus upon that which has the greatest value for me personally... the search for joy. See, I figure when all is said and done, there are two primary reasons to be alive; to learn as much as we can while we are here, and to give and receive as much love as we can while we are here. OK, Kierkegaard it isn't, but it works for me.
Learning takes all sorts of forms, just as love does. But combine the two... and for me at least, there is joy. So, Charis... joy... I am so glad the Greeks have as many words for love and happiness as the Germans do for pain and despair.
So, the Charis Awards are about that which has provided me and my occasional companions and visitors over the past year, with the maximum amount of musical joy...
So, drum roll... who gets the first ever Charis Award? Marantz... that's who.
The Marantz Reference System
Between the remarkable SA-7 SACD player and the companion pieces at the top of the Marantz Reference Series (SC-7S2 stereo control amplifier and MA-9S2 monaural amplifiers) I have to declare 2008 as my overall best audio year of the new century. I am a very happy boy.
The potent combination of comparatively high value, stunning good looks, reliability, and overall sonic performance simply must be acknowledged. And while it is more PC to favor the small, esoteric boutique manufacturers and perhaps even unconsciously cater to those nervous Nellie's who are changing their equipment out constantly in the never ending chase for... uh, something... the bulk of mature audiophiles are looking to settle down into a long-term, monogamous relationship that won't leave them wistful they are no longer playing the field. It is to them I direct this award.
Date all you wish. Heck, even fool around a bit if you've a mind, but the Marantz Reference Series is the girl you take home to meet the parents, all the while knowing you aren't giving up any of the excitement of new conquests, because you already have the best. And every time you touch her is as exciting as the first time.
In a pieces and parts analysis, the Marantz will give ground occasionally... but for overall performance, value and musicality, it has few peers. At this level of performance it really is about personal preferences, and for me, the Marantz reference gear grabs me right where I live.
There is this "refinement without chill" that is almost, but not quite delicate (it will still rock like a hurricane). The overall level of detail is right at the apex, but without the clinical cast that mars many of the most revealing components. The Marantz is always sweet, without undue coloration or added warmth.
The presentation seduces both audiophile and ordinary person alike. I think this is for the most basic of reasons... they are hearing real music. And because I get to hear original masters with the people who record them, I have opportunity few audiophiles do to get as close to the original event as technology permits. All I can say about that is... that hearing a beautifully recorded, DSD master on the Marantz ref system is... transcendent.
This is extraordinary stuff.
Getting the Most from your System - Critical Mass Systems and Jena Labs
If it was just a matter of unpacking expensive boxes anyone could build a high-performing audio system; but it isn't that simple. It is a sad fact, but a lot of audiophiles end up trading out perfectly fine equipment, because of mismatches or not knowing how to get the most out of what they have ... hell, many are even reluctant to experiment with their own set-ups. They don't trust their own senses. Sad.
Optimization... shaving tenths off that ET
I refuse to engage in any more debates about this. Isolation-suspension, wire and electrical "treatment" matter.
I had this dramatically hammered home just recently in hearing the original master recording of two Beethoven symphonies made by the same people, with essentially the same equipment and set-up (including director and players), with the only substantive difference being the microphone cables.
The standard "professional" cabling produced a recording that was terrific, until you heard the second one. In comparison the first was revealed to be relatively veiled and dim. The second recording made with the high-end wire was luminous, alive... and no, I was not aware of the variables until after I had heard both originally and then again in direct comparison. Remember, I was listening to the master recording (native DSD) in both cases.
So if you don't think it matters... think again.
Both companies (Critical Mass and Jena Labs) provide a range of products and solutions; both are artisanal, owner-operated, by people who are more driven by the outcome, than the money. Rare these days.
Before you get the itchies and dump what you have... ask yourself if you have done due diligence to get the most from it before pulling the plug.
Do the foundation: electrical, suspension and isolation... then wire. You will probably find your equipment sounds very differently than you may currently think. And Critical Mass and Jena Labs are among the best places to find your way to what lies beneath.
Honorable Mentions – Great Values
I have three offerings here. A sweet little integrated from China, a real 'merikan speaker, and a reiteration from last year's Writer Awards.
The Ming Da EL-34 AB Integrated Amplifier
Yeah, yeah, I know... everything from China is ripped-off designs and crappy parts and construction, built by slave labor. Well, not here. I don't know a rougher critic of design and construction than Jennifer Crock, of Jena Labs. I had my very inexpensive Ming Da (don't ya just love EL-34 tubes?) over for her analysis and suggestions for corrections (for after the warranty expired). Her read? That it was designed and built the way tube pro gear used to be. Her suggestion? Leave it the hell alone and put some JJ's in it when the Jinvinas go. Jennifer never, ever says to leave stock stuff alone. I am impressed.
One caveat... where you buy it matters. I hate to inadvertently shill for a distributor, especially this one because they are complete hosers when it comes to reviewers; but part of the problem is reliably being able to get current, A stock Chinese units; not off-stock, or ones that had their power supplies jerked and replaced with some off the shelf piece of crap... and about the only way you know for sure for Ming Da, at least, is to go through Pacific Valve... and just in case you mistake this for a personal endorsement... hey PV guys, bite me on the reviewer policy thing, OK?... word to your momma.
This baby rocks, and croons, and gives you both triode and pentode operating modes, and more damn iron than you can imagine for the price. I think EL-34 family tubes are the cat's meow, personally ... I love how they sound. The substantial Ming Da has this absolutely engaging meaty, snappy delivery in pentode, and is seductively sweet and well-mannered in triode. I have successfully driven a range of speakers with it, and not one second of misbehavior of any sort, in over a year of moving, re-installing, messing about and general mayhem. It's a T-59 and hugely fun in the bargain (which it is).
If I had to, I could easily live with this piece as my only amplification; it really is that good. Priced where it is... its simply killer.
When I have to go to the assisted living center, it is coming with me.
The SLS HT-805-S, stand-mount quasi-planar ribbon loudspeaker
Made in America, by Americans (as Laurie Anderson would say)... Americans who started out doing professional sound reinforcement, and then moved to commercial theater applications, and quite logically to HT. Now, I know all too well how we snooty audiophiles perceive the HT market, especially speakers. Convention is that a speaker that works well for HT will not work well for audio and vice versa. What complete guano. But hey, this is audiophilia.
Bottom line here is a very affordable, extremely well made, and great sounding medium large stand-mounter that you can throw at any application. 90db efficient, I drove them easily with an SE tube amp... and a seventy watt Marantz integrated was overkill.
Over the years I have found myself repeatedly seduced by ribbons, electrostatic and planar speakers of various vintages, types and configurations. I came very close to buying a pair of Apogee Duettas back in the day, but rumor was they were hell for reliability, and as a dedicated, unrepentant rocker... I had to have something I could rely upon. I did buy a pair of Infinity QLS's although I could never find the terawatt of amplification they really required, so I got to see the clipping lights on my pair of Ampzillas ... a lot.
These guys use this esoteric technology in pro sound, where reliability is all. But they are, of course, sensible, so the low frequencies are handled with conventional drivers. Integration is, of course, not perfect, but it is about as close as one can reasonably expect.
I can't comment on the rest of their line; I haven't seen any of it; I think they are not quite sure what to think of audio reviewers. But in this case what we have is a tough-as-hell, good looking, wide-range stand-mount speaker, which offers many of the virtues of the more esoteric "music only" high-end two-ways, but with way better than typical efficiency, build quality and reliability. I have had them in hard service for a year with no misbehavior.
How do they sound? Bigger than they look, and yes... they have that ineffable, quick, extended ribbon sound... its there in spades, but backed up with a more solid low-end than is often the case. And, you can use whatever amplification that suits you. I got good results from a 1,000 watt ice-amp, a 70 watt SS integrated, a 12 watt SE, and now my 70 watt Ming Da EL-34 AB tube integrated.
For the price... the SLS's are real hard to beat. So drop your unfounded prejudice and try listening to more than the "cool kid" approved lines... you may find the cool kids aren't really so cool after all.
Hsu Mid-Bass - True Sub System: A Reprise
Yeah, I remember I gave this a writer's award last year; I am old, not senile. But I want to make a point ... bass... the nemesis of the high-end.
I don't know how it happened, probably in much the same way we lost tone controls, but real bass has fallen by the wayside in favor of this cardboardy, overly damped, hypo-extended paucity, unthinkingly accepted by audiophiles because they are told to accept it.
Screw that. I know what bass sounds like... and audiophiles I am telling you... you ain't hearing the real deal in most of your systems; not by a long shot. What I mostly hear in "audiophile" systems is dry, over-damped or just plain thin. Geez, sounds like my second wife.
And we are not just talking about those last few frequencies that, supposedly, aren't all that often present on recordings and not that important when they are (yeah, right). We are talking the effect that proper bass response and weight has all the way up and down the frequency spectrum. We are talking about how it energizes your room to enormously add to the illusion of reality. We are talking about bass as a source of palpability and dimension.
Remember, sound does not exist in these neat little bands we have defined, and one thing you can count on, various frequencies interact with each other in ways that are significant to the gestalt of the experience of listening to recorded music.
There are a handful of speakers with true, usable 20-20,000 Hz response. They tend to be really big, and really expensive. Alternatively there are subs, and in the case of Hsu Research these absolutely amazing, fast-as-lightening, mid-bass couplers. For a couple of grand, more or less, you can add a mid-bass/sub system to your audio or HT lash-up, and with a bit of patience and labor (and trusting your own senses), open your system up in a way you might never have expected.
They are cheap, good-looking, enormously functional, and guaranteed. If you are afraid your audiophile buddies will dump on you... hide 'em under plants or something; then let the games begin.