Malcolm J. Gomes

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The British have contributed mightily to the music universe. The world of music would just not be the same without the body of work of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Moody Blues. On the audio gear side, they have not been too shabby either, giving us some highly revered brands, one of which is Monitor Audio. I admire the chutzpah of this company for constantly trying to push the performance envelope by consistently daring to think outside the box. They have always had a penchant for trying out new materials and designs. All parts are designed and manufactured in-house and are proprietary to Monitor Audio. Even the screws and bolts are made specifically to the design parameters indicated by Monitor Audio. The venerable Platinum Series has been around for 8 years and has now been replaced by the Platinum II Series, which is chock full of exciting new technology.

There are eight speakers in the Platinum II range. The PL300 II, the subject of this review, is one down from the nearly 2-meter tall flagship PL500 II. It was with great anticipation that I got down to the business of putting this gorgeously finished speaker through its paces. Sheldon Ginn and his team delivered the speakers to my auditioning facility. Sheldon is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Kevro International, the North American Distributor for Monitor Audio. They were also kind enough to help me set them up, which was a real blessing given the 120 pounds that each speaker weighs. The review pair offered a stunning Ebony real wood veneer, hand-finished with 11 layers of clear gloss piano lacquer. These speakers are also available in Santos Rosewood or a piano black gloss lacquer finish.

The PL300 II has a 3-way configuration which features two 8” RDT II long-throw bass drivers, a 4”

RDT II mid-range driver and an MPD high frequency tweeter. The frequency response is 28 Hz to 100 kHz at minus six decibels. The sensitivity is 90 decibels and it can reach a maximum sound pressure level of 117.8 dBA, which is pretty close to live rock concert volume levels. The nominal impedance is 4 ohms and the power handling is rated at 300 watts RMS. Monitor Audio recommends pairing these speakers with amplifiers rated from 100 to 300 watts RMS.

The cabinet consists of a multi-layered, super-rigid construction, has curved sides and back to break up internal standing waves and is equipped with two HiVe II ports embedded in a sealed mid-range TLE enclosure. The network crosses over at 3.4 kHz and 500 Hz. The speaker terminals have been completely redesigned and are now milled from solid copper and plated with Rhodium. They accept spades, banana plugs or bare wires. The speakers stand at approximately 43 inches tall; have a width of 11.5 inches and a depth of 14.5 inches.

Monitor Audio used FEA modeling to optimize the operation of the electrical, mechanical, magnetic and acoustic systems in the Platinum II range. A new generation of RDT bass and midrange drivers have been employed, complemented with a micro pleated diaphragm (MPD) tweeter.

The all-new RDT II bass and mid-range drivers offer a superior diaphragm material and better suspension to generate significantly lower levels of distortion, compared to the previous RDT generation. The diaphragm is a composite sandwich structure made from ultra-thin, low-mass skins bonded to a honeycomb Nomex core material. The front skin is made from C-CAM and the rear skin is fabricated from woven carbon fiber. PL II series cones are 150 times more rigid than Monitor Audio’s own proprietary C-CAM cones and 1/20th the weight. The upgraded ports comprise a straight rifled design, which accelerates the airflow and reduces turbulence to generate faster, more powerful bass and better transient response.

The MPD tweeter optimizes the diaphragm and magnetic geometry for improved power handling, higher sensitivity, flatter impedance and better transient response. It uses an ultra thin, low mass pleated diaphragm formed by bonding 12 uM layers of high temperature polyimide and aluminium. The latter is etched away to leave a resistive track, which operates like a voice coil of an electro-dynamic driver. This new tweeter results in a cleaner sonic character and reduced harmonic artifacts.

The completely redesigned crossovers use air-core inductors, audiophile grade metallized 1% tolerance polypropylene capacitors, silver lead wire aluminium-clad resistors and ‘Pureflow’ silver plated oxygen free copper internal wiring. The front baffles are hand-upholstered using Strathspey leather supplied by Andrew Muirhead. This is the same grade of leather that is used in quintessential British brands of high-end furniture, luxury automobiles and exotic yachts.

When it comes to placement, these speakers are temperamental prima donnas. They will throw a tantrum if not placed and aligned properly in the listening room but if you give in to their whims and fancies by placing them just right, like most prima donnas, they will reward you with performance that will take your breath away. The unusually wide dispersion of the tweeter allowed me to place the speakers around nine feet apart to broaden the soundstage and widen the sweet spot, without paying the penalty of a hole in the middle. I toed them in around 10 degrees. The levelling mechanism made it easy to align the speakers to perfection and that brought the sonic image into sharp focus.

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1) What are the factors that made you a music lover?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what brought me into music. I can’t remember any time when I wasn’t a music lover and I think it is inherent in every human being from birth to be moved by music. I remember listening to music together with both my father and mother and that it strengthened the bonds between us. Both listening intently and dancing with joy.

2) What motivated you to become a musician and how important do you think it is for an audio cable designer to be a musician?
I started making music at about the age of 4. I called it “Adventure Music” and it was basically painting stories with sound on my piano. I took piano lessons for about 8 years but I was very stubborn about doing things “my way”. So instead of going to the classical music scene I continued making my Adventure Music as well as writing more standard jazz/rock/pop/folk tunes. I ended up assembling a wide range of bands to realize my various music concepts. I stayed active writing and performing in Norway and internationally until I settled down up in these mountain hills. I was exhausted from the musician’s life and wanted to explore what life could offer in other areas.

I wouldn’t say it’s important for an audio cable designer in general to be a musician. But in the process of creating Skogrand Cables it has been not only helpful but part of what elevates the performance of our products and sets them apart from the competition.

3) What got you into the cable manufacturing business?
As a child I was constantly curious to find out what made things work. My electric toys all ended up being opened and examined. I built my own radio at the age of 10. Before long I was unscrewing the lid of an amplifier much to the dismay of my parents whose amplifier it was.

As a musician and recording engineer I have had my fair share of cable use. The cables always had their signature sound that colored or degraded the music and very often needed repairs. I therefore started looking inside cables at their materials and geometry and reading up on the subject. Slowly but steadily I gained some experience on what made a cable work and how to make it sound the way I wanted it to. It also helped me eliminate things that did not work well. I sought and received good advice from manufacturers and DIY’ers and gained knowledge by studying components made by a vast array of manufacturers. The Skogrand Cables signature traits gradually become less of a dream and more of a reality. Finally in January 2011 the first Skogrand cable was released for purchase and started to sell rapidly. Obviously I had not been alone in my search for cables that did not add, remove or change anything to the sound signal that passes through them.

4) What modus operandi do you utilize to price your cables? What rationale can you give prospective customers to assure them that your cables offer good value at each price point?
We sell performance. Our customers are well aware of this fact by now and realize that our pricing reflects the performance that our cables deliver. We are the only manufacturer in the market that makes this level of performance obtainable at all. Our customers know the value of this and are as such, appreciative for what our products have to offer.

5) What is the recommended period for your cables to be broken in completely?
We recommend 120 hours for the cables to settle in after connecting them. To get the best performance from them they should not be disconnected or moved around during this period.

6) Given that you offer a satisfaction guarantee, to date, what percentage of customers have returned your cables after trying them out?
To date we have had two customers returning their audition samples. In both cases they were looking for cables that would ‘equalize’ their systems and rectify the lack in performance and the coloured sound that their systems delivered. I only wish they would have stated this earlier in our conversation, as the very philosophy behind our cables is to create a blank canvass for the components to paint the music. Our intention is to eliminate the restraints of the setup and give each component the freedom to optimize their true potential. The signature sound in each component is what makes the “collection” of components/the system perform as an ensemble. Great performers in an orchestra or band always know how to relate to the other performers in ways that makes the collaboration work seamlessly. They have discovered how to deliver their individual voices/instrument sound in a way that synergizes with the rest of the orchestra so as to result in the best possible overall performance. Like a great conductor liberating the full potential of an orchestra we strive to let our products be the perfect conductors, letting every component in your setup play to its full potential and also synergize with every other component to deliver the best possible overall performance. Our cables do not have a signature sound of their own. This allows neutral sounding components to perform at their optimum performance level.

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7) What are the advantages you perceive in manufacturing your cables in a remote location in the mountains?
We are located in a very tranquil spot, 2km up a dirt road, on a hillside overlooking the river in the valley below. The benefit is that these serene surroundings give us a perspective on the whole production process that strives for excellence without cutting corners and trying to get away with cheap shortcuts. Up here we take the time necessary for attaining perfection. Distractions are few so our focus is always clear. The environment for listening to music/audio is unimpeded by surrounding noise and we have ideal conditions electrically as we generate our own clean power using our own transformers. This is in sharp contrast to the polluted power that is so typical of what you get from a grid that also supplies a city.

8) You claim that your cables have an air dielectric of 1.00086, which deliver industry-leading VOP (Velocity of Propagation). What is the next best air dielectric that has been achieved by a major cable brand?
A leading cable company used to claim that their top-of-the-line cable model had a VOP of 88%. However, a couple of weeks after we published our research numbers they changed their numbers for the same product, claiming that its VOP is 98%. There are a lot of claims being made in the cable business which makes it hard to judge which claims can be trusted. We stand behind the stated specs and performance of our own cables.

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Sony SS-NA2ES Loudspeakers

There is no doubt that Sony has been one of the giants in the sphere of consumer electronics for the better part of the last century. However, to audio enthusiasts, this brand is better known as one of the co-developers of the compact disc system, which may be past its prime, but is still quite ubiquitous in today’s world of high-end audio.

In the decades following the debut of the compact disc system, Sony’s top-of-the-line compact disc players were a keenly sought after audio component and were very well known for their performance, aesthetics and build quality, but most of their other products were designed and built mostly for the mass market and for those seeking mid-fi products. Over the past few years, Sony has been making impressive inroads into another segment of the audiophile market, namely high-end loudspeakers.

Sony made its debut in this sphere a few years ago with the introduction of the SS-AR1, a no holds barred, high-performance loudspeaker that made the high-end audio industry sit up and take notice. At around $30,000, the SS-AR1 is hardly a cheap speaker and the competition at that level is intense to say the least. However the SS-AR1 held its own and went on to receive rave reviews with some calling it one of the best values in that price range. That was followed by the slightly more affordable SS-AR2, which also garnered high praise for its performance and value.

The confidence gained with the introduction of those two models prompted Sony to develop a loudspeaker that would play in the very crowded $10,000 price category which many audio enthusiasts regard as the point of diminishing returns and so it is the end point for many upgrade paths. This has made it a very lucrative price point for most of the world’s leading speaker manufacturers. Sony christened their new baby the SS-NA2ES and that is the subject of this review.

One of the unique characteristics of the flagship SS-AR1 is the speaker enclosure, which went against conventional wisdom. The Holy Grail for most speaker manufacturers is to make the speaker enclosure as ridged, inert and non-resonant as possible so that it does not ‘sing’ inharmoniously with the drive units, which results in distortions that the human ear can hear as unpleasant additions to the sonic performance of the speaker. Towards this end, some brands have even developed their own materials, some of which are so hard, heavy and dense, it takes special blades to even cut those materials to the sizes required by the speaker enclosure. While, in theory, controlling enclosure harmonics is an effective way to boost speaker performance, no one has yet found a material that is totally inert. Sony decided to take the opposite route. Rather than trying to beat enclosure resonance into submission, they decided to design an enclosure that would work with and enhance the speaker performance with its unique acoustical properties.

Like its big brothers, the SS-NA2ES utilizes Nordic Birch for the enclosure as well as for the internal bracing. This wood, which is grown in the very cold climate that exists close to the North Pole and harvested at a particular time of the year, displays both moderate loss and moderate strength unlike the birch that is grown in areas closer to the equator.

Sony also paid fanatical attention to the speaker baffle board because of the key role that it plays in the speaker performance. The ideal baffle board needs to absorb the powerful vibrations from the driver units without adding anything to the sound. To attain this, Sony used an extra thick 36 mm baffle board, and oriented the joint between the board and the back cavity in the direction of the driver oscillation, so as to form a ‘lossy’ joint. This structural design isolates the back cavity side from the powerful direct vibrations of the driver units.

Sony’s engineers found that the human ear can clearly perceive a difference in harmonics, even those that measuring instruments may not always be able to detect. They therefore subjected the SS-NA2ES enclosure to numerous listening tests during which they fine-tuned it by working with Japan’s finest woodworking craftsmen to modify the adhesives, joining methods and orientation to achieve the most desirable enclosure harmonics.

Meticulous attention was also paid to the way the interior of the enclosure was divided to optimize the performance of the driver units. The midrange and tweeter have been placed in an independent sub-enclosure with the midrange cavity occupying the top third of the cabinet. This is acoustically isolated from the part of the enclosure housing the woofers with an air cavity between two partitions so as to prevent the powerful vibrations of the woofers from interfering with the fundamental parts of the music produced by the mid-range and tweeters. The midrange driver unit has been given enough space to perform with minimum stress and allow it to deliver maximum dynamics and headroom. The same minute attention to detail was given to the driver units, all of which were developed from scratch especially for the SS-NA2ES.

Sony designed a brand new woofer with a stiff aluminum diaphragm, which is driven with an oversized magnetic circuit. Utilizing two woofers per speaker helps the SS-NA2ES move a lot more air and generate deeper, more tuneful bass. The woofers are complemented with a 130mm midrange, which was also developed especially for this speaker. It has a paper cone with spiral, radial grooves etched into the diaphragm to minimize resonance and produce a smoother mid-range.

For the tweeter, Sony pulled out all the stops to optimize performance. They developed what they call an I-Array  wide dispersion tweeter system that is composed of a 25 mm main tweeter and two 19 mm assist tweeters. At first, I was skeptical of this configuration because multiple high frequency sound sources tend to produce unwanted peaks and dips resulting in unpleasant sound coloration. However, when going through the product white paper I found that Sony engineers spent a whole year using computer simulations and listening tests to calculate the optimum distance between the three tweeters, the installation depth and the shape of the frame on which the tweeters are mounted, so as to make the three tweeter function as if it were a single wide dispersion source.
All three tweeters are soft dome with the main tweeter assisted by a vent in the magnetic circuit behind the diaphragm to minimize unwanted resonance and vibrations. This also helps smooth out the back air pressure for a less constrained and more extended high frequency response. The diaphragm’s edge integration and bobbin bonding method extends the tweeters response to 30 kHz, at minus three decibels.

The main objective of the I-Array tweeter system is to achieve maximum dispersion. Some speaker designs try to deliver more vividness by employing a super tweeter, Sony on the other hand, has chosen to do it with the three-tweeter system. They feel that their approach dispenses with the artificiality of the super tweeter and delivers a vividness that is more natural and closer to the live performance by ensuring that the tweeter achieves maximum directional width at all the frequencies that it reproduces.

For those of you who pay a lot of attention to technical specifications of the audio gear you plan to buy, here are the vital statistics for the SS-NA2ES.  It is a floor-standing 3-way design, utilizing a 6-driver bass reflex system with a frequency response of 45 Hz to 45 kHz (at minus 10 decibels).  It employs multi-slope crossover networks at 400 Hz and 4,000 Hz, offers a sensitivity of 90 decibels, a rated impedance of 4 ohms and power handling of 100 watts. The dimensions are 255mm wide, 900mm high and 415mm deep. It weighs in at 32 kilos and is manufactured in Japan.
This mountain of information makes it very evident that Sony has put in a lot of new technology into the SS-NA2ES. So does the output justify the plethora of technological input? That is what I set out to discover.

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Skogrand Cables SC Beethoven Speaker CablesIn the three and a half decades that I have been reviewing audio products, I have had the privilege of living through the 1980s when Noel Lee the founder of Monster Cables began his intrepid quest to get audio cables the respect they deserve. Initially, Noel’s products were regarded as snake oil to the ‘wire is wire’ crowd who believed that a lamp cord was good enough for speaker cabling and anyone paying more needs to get their head examined.

I watched with interest as ever more audiophiles gradually warmed up to the idea that cables mattered. This prompted a plethora of companies getting into this business, introducing cables with ever higher price points to a stage where it got patently ridiculous. At this point I found myself preferring to tune out rather than listen to the gobbledygook being spewed out by some companies to try and convince consumers that their cables were worth the price of a new automobile.

Then something happened that changed all that. I was contacted by Knut Skogrand, a true blue Norwegian Viking who very politely requested me to audition his uber expensive cables. What struck me was that he did not indulge in any sales talk or complicated technical rationale, which I found to be truly refreshing. His only request was that I gave his cables a listen. I did a bit of research and found a few things that peaked my interest. Apparently Knut handcrafted his cables in a remote mountain cabin turned workshop, right in the middle of nowhere in a magnificently desolated part of the land of the midnight sun, surrounded by rolling hills and lush verdant forests teeming with flora and fauna. “Now that is so different,” I thought to myself, “it must be worth investigating”.  And so I consented to giving the cables an audition. A package duly arrived a few weeks later in an impressive flight case that nestled the beautiful looking cables not unlike the way a jewel box cradles a fine diamond necklace.

I began the process of breaking in the speaker cables for a hundred hours before the audition and during that time I exchanged a few emails with Knut to better understand the man behind the cables. Knut turned out to be a musician. He started learning to play the piano from the age of seven and he played in various bands over a couple of decades, trying his hand not just on the ivories but also with a bass guitar and with drums. He has also written music, including a few movie scores. He credits his Lutheran pastor father for instilling in him a love of music. He remembers sitting on his father’s lap listening to classical music while being indoctrinated in the art of listening to the intent of the composer by paying particular attention to the phrasing, tempo and dynamics of the track. He also remembers his mother dancing around the living room with so much joie de vivre which revealed to him early on, the incredible impact that music could have on one’s very soul.

Knut’s tryst with cables occurred when he was 14. He recalls his frustration when during the process of mixing tracks, no cable he tried was able to portray exactly what he put into his musical compositions. He was particularly peeved at the way every cable he tried adversely impacted the dynamics and added very audible colouration and other forms of distortion to the music. He found that many other musicians that he met were experiencing the same frustrations and this prompted him to begin his journey to seek and hopefully find cable nirvana. His goal was to design cables that would totally get out of the way of the music and he recalls lying awake at night, juggling ideas and then trying them out to see if they worked. The process was not exactly cheap, so he sought and received funding from the Norwegian Government, which exponentially helped his ambitious quest.

One of the fundamental problems confronting cables is the gross impedance mismatch between the conductor (wire) and the dielectric (insulating jacket encasing the conductor). As current flows through a wire it creates a magnetic field around it that expands and contracts, permeating through the dielectric. The dielectric absorbs some of the magnetic energy and then re-releases it back into the conductor later. This effect is called time smearing and it distorts the signal by disorienting the sound stage, diminishing dynamics and sucking the life out of the music. The higher the dielectric constant of the insulating material, the more adversely it effects the flow of the music signal so obviously, the lower the dielectric constant, the better it is for cable performance.
The more common dielectrics used in audio cables have relatively high dielectric constants. For example polypropylene has a constant of around 2.2 to 2.6 while for Teflon it is in the region of 2.1 and PVC comes in at approximately 3.5. Knut’s solution was to use the clean and dry Norwegian mountain air as a dielectric. The solid core wires float in this air from one end of the cable to the other to achieve an effective dielectric constant of 1.00059. How he achieves this is his trade secret but what he does reveal is that, depending on the model, his handmade cables achieve more than a 99.28% air dielectric in comparison to what he claims, is the next best available (albeit machine made) cable that achieves an approximate 80% air dielectric.

With his flagship Beethoven Cables, Knut employs a PFA inner framework because it results in less stored static charge, a bit more flexibility and better impact strength that is 4.45 times stronger than the PTFE frameworks that he uses for his more affordable Vivaldi, Ravel and Tchaikovsky cables.

Another barrier to cable performance is the nature of the material used as the conductor. The most common material is copper, but there are various grades of copper and purity is just one of the factors that impacts performance. The problem with conventional copper wire is that it is composed of multiple crystals and so when the signal moves from one crystal boundary interface to another it encounters an abrupt discontinuity in conductivity. Knut transcended this hurdle by using a mechanical, thermal and biologically treated ultra-pure Ohno Continuous Cast copper wires with virtually no crystal borders. In other words the wire consists of just one crystal from end to end. In order to ensure that every one of his cables meets this spec, he scans the inner framework of the wire using three different x-ray techniques. If this test reveals any impurities or grain borders in the copper wire, it does not make the cut. Wires that do pass this test are then matched for exact similarity of size and performance before they are paired for sale.

So much for the technical aspects of Skogrand Cables; now let’s get down to brass tacks and see if all that technology and handcrafted attention to detail makes any difference to the performance. The Achilles Heel of most cables is their noise floor which when not low enough, fills the silence between the notes with noise, thus detracting from the enjoyment of the music. All the great composers from Bach to Beethoven to Mozart, were all acutely aware of the role that silence between the notes plays in music.

I teach the art of meditation, which also makes me aware of the profound beauty of silence. I could write volumes on the importance of silence in music but would just not be able to express it as succinctly as Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner a.k.a. Sting from the band “The Police” did, in his commencement address at the University of Berkeley in May 1994, and I quote; “Paradoxically, I’m coming to believe in the importance of silence in music. The power of silence after a phrase of music for example; the dramatic silence after the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the space between the notes of a Miles Davis solo. There is something very specific about a rest in music. You take your foot off the pedal and pay attention. I’m wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I’m wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most perfect music of all? Silence if disturbing, it is disturbing because it is the wavelength of the soul. If we leave no space in our music—and I’m as guilty as anyone else in this regard—then we rob the sound we make of a defining context. Great music is as much about the space between the notes as it is about the notes themselves.” Now that is as deep a truism as anything I have heard from any musician dead or alive.

I started the audition of the SC Beethoven cables with the “Kind of Blue” album by Miles Davis. Miles is legendary for the way he uses silence to enhance the profound beauty of his music. Through the Skogrand SC Beethoven cables, the silence between the notes did prove to be truly “golden”. Just as you need a background of the blackest of blacks to achieve true colours on a television screen, you need a background of absolute silence to allow music to show its true sonic colours. The dead silent background allowed me to hear even the subtlest inner details of the music. I was able to detect the unraveling of even the most complex passages with ease. With many cables you have to choose between analytical details and smoothness but not with the SC Beethovens. It is able to render each and every microscopic detail while still achieving a level of musicality that was really something to behold. Miles Davis was in the room with me, blowing his horn as only he can, with all the emotion that made me feel tingly with pleasure.

I then switched to Enya’s Shepherd Moons album. Here, I had a “eureka” moment! With most other cables I had auditioned before, I had to sometimes strain to decipher some of the lyrics and I always thought that it was because of Enya’s accent. Now I know better. It wasn’t the accent at all but rather the smearing and distortion that was getting in the way. Through the SC Beethovens, the words are very easy to decipher and with the strain gone, I was able to enjoy this diva’s gossamer toned voice to the hilt.

It was then time for music with very wide dynamic range and very complex passages and what better album to deliver this, than Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s – Scheherazade. The SC Beethoven was able to render the massive dynamic changes and the micro dynamic shading of this album with aplomb. The air around each instrument was very evident. The tonality was first rate and the complex textures and delineation of all the instruments in this philharmonic orchestra performance were spot on. The speed and dynamics of the leading edges as well as the way it allowed the decays to gently ebb into the blackness of the background, was better than I had heard from any cable before, irrespective of price.

I then put on Patricia Barber’s “Nardis”. Through the SC Beethoven, this track exploded with a level of dynamism that I had not heard using any other cable. Patricia’s voice had an eerily real presence and was significantly more haunting. The percussion instruments took on a new dimension with the cymbals sizzling with life like never before. During past auditions I listened to just the first few minutes of this relatively long track, but with the SC Beethoven cables, the pleasure factor was ramped up so high, I sat rooted to the sweet spot for the whole track.

Next up was Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America”. This album has some fabulous piano passages and here is where I enter my comfort zone because I play the keyboards for a rock band. Before auditioning any piano track I spend about 20 minutes playing the acoustic piano near my auditioning room to refresh my memory of what a live piano sounds like which is rich, ripe and well rounded. The piano is one of the most challenging instruments to reproduce because it is essentially a percussion instrument but with such incredible tonal variety and shading, it sounds wonderfully lyrical. Some cables render the piano notes in a crisp way while others make it sound more liquid than it really is. I have even heard some cables that either render piano notes with too much of a bite or conversely dull the prominent transients that a piano delivers.  The SC Beethoven cables managed to get it just right in that they rendered the complicated harmonics in a way that was not dull, etched or bright.

Diana Krall’s “My Love Is” begins with finger snaps. This is one of my staples for auditions because I can snap my own fingers along with the music and compare how the reproduced finger snaps sound. With the SC Beethoven, the finger snaps were tactile and taut just like my own finger snaps in that I could just hear not just the sound of skin’s impact on skin, but also the impact of the bone underneath.

Few duos in the history of music can harmonize as well as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle and through the SC Beethoven cables it was so much easier to follow each of their voices separately while still totally marveling at how well they complement each other. Just as you hear in a live performance, the main voice does not mask the secondary voice in any way.
The extremely low noise floor of these cables also allowed me to listen to my favourite music at significantly lower volume levels without losing detail or resolution. At the other end of the spectrum, they also allowed me to hear certain genres of music like rock and heavy metal, at higher volume levels without letting compression, smearing and other forms of distortion spoil the aural experience.

So do these cables have any downsides? From the sonic perspective I could not find any, but from the physical angle, they are not exactly the most flexible cables you can buy. However, when compared to most other solid core cables, they are more flexible and therefore a lot easier to handle. The advantage here is that you will need to allocate a lot less space for the cables to wind around your audio components. The Beethoven interconnects are also a lot more flexible than their speaker cable siblings. They are also not exactly the best at visually blending into the background because of their gorgeous silk adornment. So if you want your cables to be visually discreet, you may have to request Knut to accommodate a special order with jackets that are not as ostentatious.

To sum up, the SC Beethoven Cables are champions at just getting out of the way and letting the music flow unimpeded. They did not add any grunge or noise that I could detect, making the music sound incredibly pure and pristine. This is a double-edged sword because their sheer neutrality makes it imperative that you use upstream components that are also equally neutral. If any of your upstream components are anything but neutral, the SC Skogrand Cables will reveal all of their faults. These cables will also reveal bad recordings exactly for what they are. No other cable that I have auditioned in the past allowed me to hear even subtle errors by the recording engineer as clearly as these cables did. These cables go beyond high-definition to extreme definition in the way they accurately render the various aspects that make up this human miracle we call reproduced music!

Do they offer the best value for your money? Of course not! However if you have champagne and caviar taste, own exceedingly good audio gear, are willing to go well past the point of diminishing returns and if you are in the enviable position of having a cost-no-object budget that allows you the privilege of choosing the very best, then Skogrand SC Beethoven speaker cables are just what the doctor ordered.

I will end with one caveat. If you cannot afford these splendid speaker cables, my sincere advice is, don’t audition them, because every time you listen to your favourite tunes through any other speaker cable, you will be sure to feel a tinge of regret that you had to settle for less than the best.

Skogrand Cables
www.skograndcables.com

Skogrand SC Beethoven 2 Meter Speaker Cables
Price: $30,045 CAD / $25,000 US

Thorens MM-008 Analog to Digital Converter (ADC)

For many of us who have gotten used to the relatively superior convenience of storing, accessing and playing digital music files, it is quite a chore to play our music collection on vinyl records. It is a pain to gingerly take vinyl records out of their sleeves, place them on the turntable, clean them and then carefully place the stylus on the disc. It is also a pain to repeat the whole process every 20 to 25 minutes when the stylus reaches the end of each side of a vinyl record. I also find it annoying trying to place the stylus on exactly the right spot when I want to hear a particular track on a vinyl record and it is not the first track on the disc.

In contrast, with digital music tracks, all you need is just one or two clicks of the mouse to instantly play any track in your collection and, unlike vinyl, you can make your favourite playlists for every one of your moods and jump from any track to any other track, again, with just a click or two without even leaving your sweet spot.

To transcend the drawbacks of listening to vinyl we have the option of converting all our vinyl based music into digital files and storing them on our computers or external hard drives so that we can enjoy them with the convenience that digital playback offers. However, hitherto, we had to opt for either the very affordable USB turntables that made the process very simple but resulted in digital files that are a poor facsimile of vinyl playback in terms of sound quality or alternatively, we had to spend big bucks to acquire a high quality analog to digital converter to turn our vinyl based music into digital files that had sound quality that is acceptably close to vinyl playback.

It was therefore with great delight that, at TAVES 2013, I happened upon an Analog to Digital converter that had most of what I was looking for. It is compact, well built and at $450, reasonably priced. It did not hurt that it is made by Thorens, a highly reputed vinyl component manufacturer from Switzerland. The bonus is that this little unit doubles up as a moving magnet/moving coil phono preamplifier as well. I immediately asked Robb Niemann, the CEO of Rutherford Audio, distributor for Thorens, when he could send me one for a review. He explained that this component was not officially launched yet, but I could expect to receive a unit when it did make its debut. The wait was long, but as they say, good things come to those that wait and in mid 2014, I finally received a review unit of the Thorens MM-008 ADC. According to Robb, the Thorens ADC was extremely well received and he is selling them as fast as he can get his hands on them.

The unit arrived in a compact and very well packed carton that should shield the MM-008 from the vagaries of most of the rough handling that it could be subjected to during shipping. The unit itself has a very elegant, minimalist design that consists of a silver or black brushed aluminium façade with no controls and just one blue light at the center. The unit I received was the silver version.

The rear of the unit is also very well laid out and consists of an MM/MC selector switch and RCA sockets for MC loading, stereo MC and MM inputs from the turntable, a power switch, a power socket, a pair of RCA stereo analog outputs, a USB socket that outputs to a computer and a binding post for a tone-arm earth wire.Thorens MM-008 Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) rear

The box also contains three (stereo) pairs of RCA terminated loading resistors. These have values of 10 Ohms, 100 Ohms and 1,000 Ohms and will allow you to fine tune the load on the MM-008 to more closely match the specifications of your phono cartridge, if you use the moving coil variety. To determine which load is the most appropriate, you need to check the manufacturer’s specification of the MC cartridge that you use. When using a moving magnet cartridge, the MM-008 offers a fixed resistance load of 47 kOhms.

The MM-008 comes with an outboard power supply which allows you to keep the power supply unit well away from the ADC itself where it cannot adversely pollute the circuits with the noise that it emits. When you connect this power supply to a power conditioner, you should ideally plug it into a socket that is isolated from the other sockets so it does not adversely affect the components that are plugged into the same power conditioner. The MM-008 consumes just 3.5 W/ 15 mA and is designed to be left on all the time.

The MM-008 has a gain of 40 dB for MM and 60dB for MC cartridges. The output resistivity is around 250 Ohms. Signal to noise ratio is greater than 84 dB for MM and 71 dB for MC cartridges. The total harmonic distortion is rated at 0.02%, the frequency response at -3dB is 10Hz to 50kHz, while the total harmonic distortion is better than 0.013% for MM and better than 0.055% for MC cartridges. Crosstalk is around 40dB while the physical dimensions of the unit are 115mm (wide) by 55mm (high) by 130 mm (deep).

The analog to digital converter chip used inside the MM-008 is a Tenor TE7022L, which is a 24-bit Delta Sigma chip. This ADC converter gives you a choice of sampling rates of 16 or 24 bits at 8, 16, 32, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz. The USB output is version 2.0 but is fully compatible with USB 1.1. The unit is designed to work with Windows 8, Windows 7, Vista, XP, Mac OS.

The MM-008 is essentially a plug and play unit and connecting it to my turntable and pre amplifier was simple and straightforward. I tried out several interconnects and finally settled on the Skogrand SCI Beethoven which proved to be the best match for this unit. The unit was connected to my iMac and operated with the latest version of Audacity, which can be downloaded from the web for free.

I subjected the MM-008 to a break-in period of 100 hours and then, before auditioning its analog to digital conversion capabilities, I decided to check out how it performed as a preamplifier. For such a compact and reasonably priced unit, it punches well above its price class. I compared it to preamps at double and even triple the price and the MM-008 held it own with aplomb. I tried various genres of music and in every case, the MM-008 was incredibly transparent, adding very little of its own sound to the signal. Of all the preamps at this price point that I have auditioned, this unit comes the closest to the preamp ideal of being a straight wire with gain. The only area where it conceded points to its more expensive counterparts is in terms of connectivity. What this means is that if you don’t need a multitude of connections, the MM-008 is one of the best preamps you can buy for this price. And if you have a huge vinyl collection that you will, at some point, want to digitize, this component is an absolute no brainer.

The History and Future of Music Delivery (Custom)

If you happened to live just a few hundred years ago, the only way you could enjoy music was to either sing or play an instrument by yourself or with others, attend a live performance or if you were wealthy enough, you could have enjoyed the privilege of musicians perform at your home or venue of choice. In fact, for the longest time, the only way to pass on music from one generation to the next was to teach it on a first hand basis. The practice of writing down music on sheets with notations that were created and universally agreed upon was a huge breakthrough that allowed music to be preserved for posterity. We have come a long way since then. The past century has seen not only dramatic changes in the way music is stored and preserved but also the way it is delivered to consumers. It has also seen the fortunes of recording artists rise exponentially only to ebb quite significantly over the past few decades.

Music can trace its genesis to the time when humans beat rhythmically on logs and other easily available objects and in time this was complemented with strings pulled tightly so that they could produce tones when strum on. I am guessing that the first vocals were crude and rough with vocal chords stretched to their limits when singing for large audiences, because of the total lack of any form of physical or electronic amplification, save for the cupping of hands around the singer’s mouth to help the voice travel further.

One of the earliest known sound recording devices was the PhonoAutograph that was developed in 1857 by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville who was a French printer residing in Paris. It constituted of a mechanical facsimile of the human ear that collected sound through a horn that was attached to a membrane which vibrated a stylus which in turn then etched an image on a soot coated cylinder that was cranked by hand. The problem with this device is that it managed to only record a visual representation of sound and there was no way to play back what was recorded.
Two decades later, in 1877 Thomas Alva Edison unveiled his phonograph that consisted of a recording substrate of tinfoil (later wax), which was capable of not just recording but also of playback. This device was regarded as state-of-the-art in the world of sound recording and reproduction util a decade later in 1888, Emil Berliner developed the shellac based disc and the Gramophone dedicated player. This allowed the mass-production of recordings and playback machines. The discs were popularly known as 78s, which referred to revolutions per minute that the disc spun at during playback.

The 1920s saw the emergence of radio, electronic audio recording and motion pictures. The great American depression that followed put a damper on development due to lack of funds and during this time, the cash starved populace derived their information and entertainment through free radio transmissions.

As America clawed its way out of the depression, progress in music delivery resumed and resulted in the introduction of the jukebox in the late 1930s which caught on like wildfire especially amongst the teenagers who bought millions of records of big band swing from artists like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. In the 1940s, this gradually gave way to popular vocalists including Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. Then came World War II, which caused shellac to be in short supply because of its war-related uses and so the patriotic trend was to stop using this material so as to help the war effort.

The subsequent development of the single song per side ‘45s’ by RCA, started a marketing war between it and the ‘78s’ that was offered by CBS, because you needed different players to play each format. This was resolved when both RCA and CBS reconciled to manufacturing multi-speed players that would handle both formats. This provided the impetus for the mass production of records in both formats. In the 1940s, Columbia Records introduced the 33.1/3 RPM long play (LP) record which was considered a huge breakthrough as it offered around 20 minutes of play time on each side.

At the same time as the debut of the LP, we also saw the introduction of the magnetic tape recording system. The genesis of this system was experimentation done in Germany in the 1920s, which laid the groundwork for the 1930s unveiling of the magnetophone, which recorded and played back on magnetic tape. Initially these were very low fidelity and used mainly to record voices and so were regarded as primarily dictation devices. This changed after BASF of Germany developed magnetic tape technology that was capable of recording and reproducing sound that approached the frequency range of records. The first American company to get into production of high quality magnetic tape was Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) and this was complemented by the designing and manufacturing of professional tape recorders by Ampex.

Records continued to dominate the sound recording sphere until in 1948, Bing Crosby declared that he was dissatisfied with conventional recording technics and so he began recording on the 3M/Ampex magnetic tape system. This gave it a real shot in the arm as it prompted consumers to seriously consider magnetic tape as a viable alternative to the vinyl record system. Professional studios started adopting the reel-to-reel magnetic tape system for their multi-track audio recording requirements.

The vinyl record sector fought back by introducing better quality records and that is what sparked the ‘high-fidelity’ era, which in turn saw the emergence of audiophiles at the consumer level. Audiophiles began looking for ways to optimize the greater fidelity of the better vinyl records and so they started demanding better reproduction equipment which in turn motivated manufacturers to offer better stand alone amplifiers, loudspeakers that had their own independent enclosures and more sensitive stylus/cartridge combos.

LPs gradually took over from ‘45s’ and became the dominant medium at the consumer level until Philips introduced their compact cassette system in 1963. This system was created in response to calls from industry executives for a magnetic tape system that would eliminate the dreary task of manually threading the tape through the playback machine. At first, the compact cassette system was regarded as a low fidelity medium, which posed no threat to the vinyl record system. However better magnetic tape formulations like chrome and metal were introduced which caught the attention of many audiophiles who either switched to tape or added it to their existing vinyl playback system.

Just a few years after the debut of the compact cassette, the eight-track system was introduced. As compact cassettes continued to improve, it was regarded as the better alternative and so it compelled the eight-track system to begin its ignominious journey to the scrap heap of obsolesce. This resulted in a sales boom for blank and pre-recorded compact audio cassettes and when Ray Dolby introduced his noise reduction system in 1969 which significantly reduced the irritating hiss of magnetic tape, it got another shot in the arm which helped it propel past the dominant vinyl record system.

The compact cassette system got another huge boost in popularity when in 1979, Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony created a veritable tsunami with the introduction of the Walkman. This allowed consumers to enjoy their music on the go, which opened a whole new market for the medium and helped it put even more daylight between it and the vinyl record system. The cassette enjoyed unfettered dominance in the consumer audio sphere until Sony and Philips shook up the industry once again with the introduction of the compact disc, which made its debut with great fanfare and with the promise of ‘perfect sound forever’.

Although the first compact disc players delivered sound that was harsh and strident, the only ones who were very vocal about it seemed to be the die hard vinyl record holdouts who had loyally stuck by vinyl through thick and think while maintain that it is the only consumer level audio system that delivered true high fidelity. They insisted that the CD system was too sterile and analytical to be classified as hi-fi. Although this was a cogent argument, it was totally crushed by the CD juggernaut, which grew in popularity by leaps and bounds to totally dominate the market.

Encore ENC-5 Bookshelf Speakers web

Over the past few decades, we have seen some truly splendid consumer electronics products come out of Japan.  Sadly, except for a few exceptions, this did not include great high-end loudspeakers.  This is why most audiophiles who were partial to front end electronics that are made in Japan, usually turn to North America or Europe for their loudspeaker requirements.

One of the reasons for this could be that most Japanese products are mass-produced on assembly lines, which is very antithesis of the way superior loudspeakers are made.  It is a fact that most true high-end loudspeakers are carefully and meticulously handcrafted one pair at a time by skilled hands and like fine musical instruments, they are individually tuned and voiced to optimize their performance.

Of late, I have found a few loudspeakers coming out of Japan, which have been created the way the better transducers in North America and Europe have been for the past half-century.  One of the more prominent efforts has been from Sony, who introduced the ES SS-M9ED and then followed it up with the well reviewed SS-AR1.

The Encore ENC-5, which is the subject of this review, belongs to the same ilk as the SS-AR1, in that it is meticulously designed, hand assembled and individually tuned like a fine acoustic instrument.  The Encore is made by Combak Corporation of Japan and it is their second foray into the world of high-end loudspeakers.  Their first attempt was the ‘Bravo’, which, like the Encore is also a bookshelf speakers with ambitions of rivaling not just other high-end bookshelf speakers but also some floor standing models.

Wynn Wong of Wynn Audio dropped by with the review pair of the Encore and very graciously helped me unpack the speakers and set them up.  My first impressions of the Encore, out of the box, were not exactly overwhelming.  The Encore is a petite, well finished boxy cabinet that measures 217mm x 300mm x 217mm and weighs in at 12.32 kilos (around 16 kilos with the packaging).  I could not fault the packaging, which is very well thought out and should survive even the most brutal handling during shipment.

The Encore looks to be a single driver unit design until you go through the literature which reveals that it is actually a coaxial design consisting of a 176mm fiberglass midrange at the center of which is mounted a coaxial aluminum dome 24mm tweeter.  The design goal was to create a one-point source drive that has a dispersion pattern that is controlled to achieve the smoothest possible radiation pattern.  The fact that it is a completely sealed box would help in attaining this control.

What sets the Encore apart from many other speakers is the fact that each pair of speakers is individually fine-tuned by an expert, to squeeze out the best possible performance.  In this regard it is more akin to a high-end acoustic instrumental rather than a loudspeaker.  Combak Corporation calls this process ‘Harmonix Resonance Tuning’ and they claim that it guarantees that the Encore is capable of reproducing the natural tones of acoustic instruments like pianos, guitars and violins.  I suspect that the relatively high price of this speaker has as much to do with this fine-tuning process as it does for the quality of the parts and material used in the speaker itself.

The enclosure of the Encore has cones protruding from the sides of the cabinet making it look like the speakers have ears.  According to Combak, these cones serve to unify the vibration pattern of the enclosure, thus avoiding any possibility of unbalanced sound due to undesirable cabinet resonances.

The frequency response is 70Hz to 25 KHz (+/-2dB) and the sensitivity is 86dB.  The crossover network feeds the midrange with frequencies below 2,800Hz with everything above that diverted to the tweeter.  The impedance is rated at 8 ohms and is designed not to wander much below 7 ohms, which should make these speakers a very easy load for most amplifiers.  The manufacturer recommended amplifier power is from 20 to 150 watts.  The grill is non removable and comprises of a metal mesh that Combak Corporation claims is free from any negative effects like muffling, diffraction or early reflections.

Aesthetically, the Encore would not stand out all that much if displayed alongside the myriad of mass-produced bookshelf speakers that sell for a few hundred dollars at one of the big box stores.  Given its price of $9,000, at first blush, it would be hard to comprehend how it could justify that price purely based on its appearance.  I remember thinking to myself; this pair of speakers would need to deliver truly extraordinary sonic performance even to get on to the short list of deep-pocketed audiophiles considering bookshelf speakers.

According to Combak Corporation, like the Bravo, the Encore was designed and developed in collaboration with Gradient of Finland as well as Seas of Norway.  Also like its predecessor, it incorporates the Harmonix Resonance Technology developed by Combak, which they claim, is state-of-the-art in terms of controlling resonance inside the speaker enclosure to optimize the performance of the driver units.

Out of the box, the Encore sounded a bit raw and rough indicating the need for a thorough break in period.  Therefore, I put 180 hours on it before the audition after which it sounded like a different animal altogether.  I also found that the Encore is very sensitive to the cables used with it.  I tried a variety of cables and found that they sounded their best with Skogrand Beethoven cables.

The first aspect of the Encore sonic reproduction is the smooth transition from the midrange to the tweeter, which is as seamless as I have heard with any bookshelf speaker at this price point.  What also jumped out was the solidity and three-dimensionality of the soundstage.  These little fellas throw a holographic sound image of a size that belies their petite dimensions.

The other remarkable aspect of the Encore’s performance is the way it renders the human voice.  Be it male or female, the emotions in the voice were quite evident and the presence of the singer was above par.  These was also a fair amount of intimacy when listening to gentle love ballads especially by divas.  The innocent, child-like quality of Dolly Parton’s voice was rendered with the little girl quality that is unmistakably Dolly.  The nasal quality that I find even in some very high priced speakers I have heard was thankfully mostly absent in the Encore.  String instruments were delivered with good body and fullness while percussions were fast and taut, just the way I like them.

The problem with many bookshelf speakers is that it is difficult to design them in a way that lets them excel in all the major area of sound reproduction.  This means that with many bookshelf speakers you have areas of evident strengths accompanied by other areas of obvious weaknesses.  The Encore seems to have broken that mold in that it adroitly balance things like dynamic contrast with superb tonality and reproduction of the tiny nuances and subtleties of music, with the smoothness and ease that minimizes listening fatigue.

The Encore has a bass roll-off of 12 dB per octave, which allows it to reproduce whatever bass it is capable of, in a more tuneful manner.  However, like most bookshelf speakers, the bottom octave is totally missing which makes the Encore a good candidate to match up with one or two good subwoofers that are fast enough to keep up with it.  I got them to partner with a pair of JL Audio f112 and that worked out well.  The f112’s provided the foundation that completed the sonic story that the Encore is capable of telling.  The high frequencies had just the right amount of sweetness to avoid sounding euphonic.  The midrange, while having good saturation, was a shade below par when compared to similarly priced speakers.

I began the review with Celine Dion’s “Nature Boy”.  Having attended a couple of Celine’s live concerts in Las Vegas, I have a pretty good reference of what she sounds like in person.  The track through the Encore had a very well-defined presence and body.  Celine’s voice has a fine structure and is always incredibly well controlled which on a true high end audio system sounds quite majestic.

I followed that up by listening to Die Tänzerin by Ulla Meinecke.  This husky voiced diva puts a lot of emotion into every song she sings.  Through the Encore, all the emotion came through with a good deal of ease.  This is also a great track to evaluate the rhythm, pace and timing of a speaker and the Encore was up to the task as was evident by the reflex action of my foot merrily tapping to the beat.

Next on the list was the Supertramp “Breakfast in America” album.  This classic recording has some incredible piano segments.  Through the Encore, every piano note was rendered with the right weight and correct rounded tonality that makes this instrument such a joy to listen to.  What is unusual is that this fullness is achieved without sacrificing any of the warmth that you hear when you listen to a piano being played live.

My next track was the reviewer’s staple – Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition by Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuyle.  This is one track that most bookshelf speakers struggle with because it is so good at revealing a speaker’s inability to deliver the organ sound with a proper top to bottom continuality.  The Encore handled this well.  With help from the two JL Audio subwoofers, even the low organ notes came through effortlessly and at full strength.

I then switched to male vocals and Cat Stevens’ (now Yusuf Islam) “Morning Has Broken”.  Though the Encore, this track allowed you to actually feel the freshness and crispness of the birth of a brand new day, which, I am sure is exactly the feeling that Cat Stevens intended his audience to experience when he belted out this song.

Another challenge for most bookshelf speakers is the accurate reproduction of the tutti section of a philharmonic orchestra.  Her I challenged the Encore with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden – Dance Of The Tumblers” performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue.

Here again the Encore surprised me by sounding a lot bigger than its actual dimensions.

At the conclusion of the audition, I found the Encore to be a very special breed of bookshelf speaker.  They deliver most of the advantages that bookshelf speakers have over floor standers, including the ability to sonically disappear while recreating a very stable soundstage.  At $9,000, they are not what most audiophiles would consider as cheap.  At this price point the competition is very fierce and there are many speakers that will give the Encore a run for its money.

Yes, there are quite a few bookshelf speakers and floor standers that will, in certain aspects, outperform the Encore, but you will be hard pressed to find a more complete bookshelf speaker with so little to dislike, even at this lofty price point.  Once you get past the petite size and modest aesthetics of the Encore and immerse yourself into the sonic performance that it delivers, you will begin to see the value it offers even at $9,000.

One thing I can say for certain; I have encountered few bookshelf speakers with the ultra compact dimensions of the Encore that will deliver this level of performance.  What this means is that if you have a listening room that does not have enough space to accommodate floor standing speakers or even larger models of bookshelf speakers, I recommend that you audition and perhaps place the mighty little Encore on your shortlist.

Combak Corporation
www.combak.net

Distributed in Canada by Wynn Audio
www.wynnaudio.com
647-833-6888

Encore ENC-5 Bookshelf Speakers
Price: $9,000 CAD

Roksan-Oxygene-silver-amp-1-inc-remote-Custom

And now for something completely different: The Roksan Oxygene integrated amplifier. It does not look anything like any integrated amplifier I have ever seen. In fact I am sure that most people who eyeball this component for the first time with no prior information on it could well have a hard time identifying what the dickens it really is.

It is obvious that Roksan started the process of designing its Oxygene range of products with a blank sheet and with the determination not to be bound by any of the preconceived notions of what an integrated amplifier should look like and how it should be operated. The design is the brainchild of Danish designer Bo Christensen who founded Primare and later BOW Technologies. This is a gutsy and pretty ambitious move on Roksan’s part and I might add, a bit risky as well. This goes well beyond an attempt to be different. Rather it seems to be a daring attempt to redefine a category and drag the integrated amplifier into the 21st century.

It is obvious that one of the design goals was to make the Oxygene range extremely simple, perhaps even over the top simple. As Albert Einstein famously said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I am sure that many consumers taking a first gander at the Oxygene integrated amplifier ($6,000) for the first time will conclude that its design would qualify as being ‘simpler’ as defined by Einstein in this notable quote.

The first unwritten rule of audio that Roksan broke is the one that requires integrated amplifiers to have buttons and a volume knob. There are absolutely no buttons and no volume knob; you read that right, zero, zilch, zip, nada! This has obviously given the component a very sleek and elegant look but it can be quite disconcerting for a traditional audio enthusiast to operate, at least for the first few days of use.

The cover of the Oxygene is CNC machined out of a 2.5 inch high grade aluminium block with a dot matrix display and piezoelectricity touch sensitive controls. You have a choice of getting this component in white, black or silver. The top of the box has the words “Less is More” emblazoned on it. This script doubles up as the volume and function controls in that the word ‘More’ can be touched lightly to increase the volume, the word ‘Less’ to decrease the volume and the word ‘is’ allows you to cycle through the various inputs on the integrated amplifier.  The touch controls are very sensitive and require just a light tap.

The front of the component has an elegant perforated grill behind which are positioned bright white LEDs that spell out the relevant status that the gear is in. This design means that the Oxygene integrated amp cannot have other components stacked on top of it.  It can however be stacked on top of the matching Roksan CD player and other components from this line coming later this fall.  I am guessing that this too was done on purpose, with the designer intending to let the top of this component be admired by your eyes as much as it is enjoyed by your ears.  The feet of the integrated amp are milled through allowing you to mount it to a desk, a wall, a deck on a boat, or… a ceiling in a  frat house.

Those looking to make a statement with their music system will definitely want to take a look at the Roksan custom art finishes, which command a $1,500 premium, but look absolutely stunning.  The custom art finishes cover the entire top of the amplifier with a beautiful piece of art.  Google “Roksan Oxygene custom” to see some of the available finishes or contact the Roksan distributor Rutherford Audio as listed at the end of this review for exact details and availability.

In keeping with its maverick design approach, the Oxygene adopts the Class D amplifier design. It can deliver 75 watts of power into each of its two channels at 8 Ohms impedance. This doubles to 150 watts per channel when driving a 4 Ohm load.  This level of power should be more than adequate for most applications provided the speakers it is driving have reasonably good sensitivity and provided the user does not listen to music at window rattling level all the time.

The remote continues with the ultra simple theme with controls for only the very basic functions of the component.  They include the volume control, input selection and dimming/brightening of the intensity of the LED display on the front panel, which is a useful feature especially if you like listening to music in a darkened room.

The back of this integrated amplifier has connections that include stereo inputs for three analog RCA sources, left and right speaker outputs and two line level outputs to feed active subwoofers. The Oxygene offers a total harmonic distortion of less than 0.1%, a signal to noise ratio of 95 dB and input impedance of 10 kOhms. This seven-kilogram beauty has vital statistics of 31 X 31 X 6 centimeters.

One of the aspects of the Oxygene that should appeal to the younger generation of music lovers is its Bluetooth capability, which is quite extraordinary and which supports 16 reception channels that allow wireless connections to multiple devices.  The typical modern home has quite a few Bluetooth music playback devices and with its multiple channels the Oxygene will probably never run out of channels to not only accommodate multiple Bluetooth devices but also memorize each one’s unique connection to this integrated amplifier.

If until now, all the Bluetooth audio devices you have tried have fallen short of your sound quality expectations, it would behoove you to give the Oxygene a serious listen as it just might just surprise you on the upside. Is it on par with the best conventionally wired devices of the same ilk? Not really, but it took me by surprise as to how close it comes in terms of sound quality.  This can be attributed to the fact that the Oxygene uses a Bluetooth chip with the advanced aptX codec that streams the signal from the compatible device with minimal loss of sound quality. Having said that, you can also use Bluetooth devices that are not aptX and still enjoy relatively good sound quality.  This means that if you place high value on the convenience of wireless streaming, but have not gone this route because of the tradeoff in sound quality, the Oxygene narrows the gap enough to get you to reconsider. The Oxygene also has the option of a Bluetooth dongle, which allows it to be wirelessly connected to any source component, which does not have Bluetooth capability, thus expanding its versatility even more.oxygenecd-silver_1 (Custom)

Connecting a Bluetooth audio device to the Oxygene is so easy, don’t be surprised if a freckled faced kid bearing a Bluetooth device who happens to be visiting you, takes you completely by surprise by hijacking your system and blares his or her own music. This is quite plausible because the name “Roksan” will appear on their Bluetooth device and if they are sharp enough to guess that the code is ‘0000’, they will have successfully hacked into your Oxygene integrated amp.oxygene-amp-black (Custom)

The Oxygene is Roksan’s first foray into the world of Class D amplification. This being the case, it is a very commendable debut. For those of you who have dipped their toes into the Class D waters, you’ll know that some models of this breed of amplifiers have been known not to dance well with speakers that have widely varying and low impedance loads. Class D amplifiers have also been known for muddy bass and screechy treble reproduction. Although the Oxygene does not transcend these hurdles completely, it does behave a lot better under difficult loads thanks to the fact that it employs the Hypex UCD 400 Class D modules, which are generally considered to be at the top of the food chain when it comes to Class D amplifiers. It complements the Hypex modules with a linear power supply and a pair of oversized toroidal transformers. This combination allows the Oxygene to be able to better cope with hard to drive speakers and deliver true high-fidelity bass and treble performance than most Class D amplifiers.

When I compared the Bluetooth performance of the Oxygene to other conventional integrated amplifiers in the same price range that were hard wired to the source components, the sound quality was surprisingly good. This would indicate that despite the wireless mode and the Class D/switching transistors configuration of the Oxygene, it is able to keep up and in certain areas, even outperform its more conventional counterparts.

What was very apparent right from the get go was the Oxygene’s ability to create a very accurate, well-defined and impressive soundstage.  In fact in this regard, it performed better than many of the similarly priced conventional design integrated amplifiers that I have heard. This makes it ideal for reproducing big band, philharmonic orchestral and choral performances. Hearing George Frideric Handel’s Messiah performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra was pure unadulterated joy.

Another album that was thrilling to hear via the Oxygene is Pepe Remero’s Flamenco.  The rich harmonics of this Spanish guitar maestro’s strumming abilities came through with all its majesty intact. The sparkling transients of the castanets on this album were rendered so crisply and cleanly, the sound took my breath away. Male and female vocals were par for the course for integrated amplifiers in this price range.  Percussion instruments on the other hand did benefit significantly from the Oxygene’s superior ability to handle leading edges and decay accuracy with aplomb.  The honey-toned voice of Jacintha was rendered with a good deal of verve and emotion while the deep baritone of Hans Theessink was reproduced with enough depth to give you goose bumps.

Percussion instruments did benefit significantly from the Oxygene’s superior ability to handle leading edges and decay accuracy with aplomb. Each thwack of the drumsticks on the kettledrum came through with the tightness and control that was very satisfying. The depth and sonority of the bass was amongst the best I have heard from any Class D amplifier in terms of tunefulness and control, no turgid and muddy bass here.

The dynamic contrast was quite commendable although not in the same league as some of the best comparably priced, conventionally designed integrated amplifiers that I have heard. Having said that, if your listening staples consist of music that does not have the widest dynamic range, you are probably going to be quite satisfied with the performance of the Oxygene.

If you are looking for minute details and relish hearing every nuance and subtle note of the music, the Oxygene is not exactly an electron microscope in this regard. However its overall tonal balance is quite special and more than makes up for it. The midrange has the saturation that should please all but the most finicky audiophile while the highs are airy and on the sweet side of neutral which is rare for Class D amplification.

There is no doubt that some hardcore audiophiles will look askance at the Oxygene and some will pass on it because of its ultra simple design and Class D amplification. However, I suspect that Roksan has not designed this component for that audience. Rather, I think Roksan is going all out to capture the younger music lovers who place modern technological conveniences like Bluetooth and ultra elegant avant-garde styling over the ‘sonic performance above all’ philosophy of older school audiophiles. It is therefore squarely aimed at the new younger generation of audiophiles. As I mentioned before, this is a risky strategy, but one that will pay rich dividends if it strikes the right chord with the hip, young and ‘in’ crowd.

It is very evident that a lot of research and development and fresh thinking have gone into the design of the Oxygene. Roksan obviously has a lot of faith in its radical new style direction that is accentuated by the fact that it has also introduced a CD player of the same daring design ilk. There are also other components in the company’s pipeline to extend this family of products including an external power supply, and a Bluetooth DAC that will offer a full complement of inputs.

There is definitely a section of the audio enthusiast market that cares as much for the product aesthetics and the convenience of wireless, as it does for the sound quality and that is the segment that should gravitate to the Oxygene family of products. Only time will tell if this gutsy new direction adopted by Roksan will be a trend setter for the audio industry to follow or if it will capture and retain just a small segment of this market. Music lovers do indeed live in interesting times and thanks to the debut of its Oxygene family of products, Roksan has just made it a whole lot more interesting!

Roksan
www.roksan.co.uk

Distributed in Canada by
Rutherford Audio Inc.
www.rutherfordaudio.com
604.418.7622

Roksan Oxygene
Integrated Amplifier
Price: $6,000 – $7,500 CAD

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Tips For Improving the Sound of Your HiFi and Home Theatre System

One of the thrills of being an audiophile is the adventurous journey of squeezing better sound quality from your audio system. The conventional route is to upgrade components or add tweaks, but if you do not have deep pockets, this is not always a viable option. Just because your pocket book slams the door on the option of upgrading components or adding tweaks, you do not have to deny yourself the thrill of experiencing improved sonic performance. There are a whole host of tips and tricks you could use to make your audio system sound better and the kicker is that many of them will cost you little to nothing to implement.

Perhaps the easiest and quickest way to boost the sound quality of your audio system is to reposition your loudspeakers. If your listening room is rectangular, then a great starting point is to use the Cardas method developed by the legendary George Cardas. All you have to do is to place the speakers so that the distance from the center of the woofer face to the side walls is 0.276 times (multiplied by) the room width. Once you have done this then without changing the distance to the side wall you will need to move the speaker forward and backward as required so that the center of the woofer face to the back wall is the room width times (multiplied by) 0.447.

In many cases, with a little bit of luck, this will turn out to be the location that will allow your speakers to perform at their best, however it does not hurt to tweak a bit more, like moving the speakers one centimeter at a time forward/back or left/right until the image locks into place at the sweet spot. This will require you to have someone move the speakers while you listen carefully seated in the sweet spot.

If your listening room is not rectangular, no worries, there are other ways to optimize your speaker placement.  Start by having just one of your speakers in the listening room and place it in the sweet spot where you do your serious listening. Now play some familiar mono music track with tight clean bass and your favourite female vocalist and stand at the spot where you had hoped to place the speaker. Listen carefully as you move forward and back and side-to-side and try to find the location where the bass sounds tight, clean and tuneful and where the vocals sound as real as possible. When you have found that location mark the spot using some masking tape. Repeat the same procedure with your other speaker. Now place your speakers on the two spots marked with your masking tape and toe-in the speakers (angle them toward the listening position) as instructed in the owners manual.

You can then sit in your sweet spot and have someone tweak the speaker placement one centimeter at a time forward & back and side to side until you get the most focused sonic image from your sweet spot.  Some speakers are very sensitive to alignment as well. For these speakers, place a spirit level on top of the speaker cabinet and adjust the feet of the speakers or the speaker stand until the speakers are in perfect alignment. You will be surprised as how well this helps lock the sonic image into place.

If you have bookshelf speakers, take a close look at the stands that they are sitting on. Ideally the stands should be tall enough to have the tweeter at your ear level when you are sitting in your sweet spot. The stands should also be as rigid and inert as possible. You definitely do not want your stands “singing along” with your speakers. If the stands are of the kind that you can fill with sand or lead shot, take advantage of this and fill them so as to reduce their resonance (mechanical vibrations). The best stands have height adjustable spikes.

If you cannot afford top-notch speaker stands, try and get your hands on four cinder blocks and place two of the blocks length-wise below each speaker. To improve the aesthetics, you could consider covering the cinder blocks with a tablecloth or bed sheet. If you visit a construction site, with a little luck you will be able to convince the site manager to let you have cosmetically imperfect cinder blocks free of charge.  I have recommended this solution to many audiophile friends and the response I usually get is that they make the speakers sound and image a lot better than even some pretty pricey, high-end stands.

The rationale behind using cinder blocks is the same as the one used by speaker manufacturers when they make the speaker cabinet as non-resonant as possible. Like the speaker cabinet, if your speaker stand resonates, it takes away some of the drive cone motion thereby blurring music details. Eliminating parasitic motion in speaker stands will allow your speakers to perform near their optimum level.

Another no-cost way to squeeze better performance from your audio system is to rearrange your components so that the ones that vibrate are not placed in a location where their vibrations can reach other components and compromise their performance. The most common way that vibrations from one component can reach another is through the structure that they are placed on. If you have one long shelf where all your components are placed, that is not a good recipe for vibration control.

For example if your turntable or CD player is placed on the same surface as your bookshelf speakers, the vibrations from your speakers will probably adversely affect the performance of your CD player or turntable. Bookshelf speakers are best placed on their own stands, which should ideally be as resonance-free as possible. The stands that are solidly built, heavy and designed so that they can be filled with sand or lead shot will help your bookshelf speakers deliver better performance.

Motion 40 Lifestyle MartinLogan (Custom)

If you can afford vibration control cones like the ones made by Nordost, BDR or Vibrapods, that is a good investment to make. If you do not have the coin for those, try placing cork coasters under the feet of your components. While not the ideal solution, they will control some of the vibration to and from the components. Another DIY solution is to build a simple wooden box of an appropriate size, fill it with sand, place a wooden serving tray upside down on the sand in the box and place your audio component on top.

Another effective gear placement strategy is to keep your power amplifier(s) at least two feet away from your preamplifier and source components. All your audio components generate an electric field that could potentially prevent other components from delivering optimum performance. This is particularly true of power amplifiers, which have larger transformers that create a relatively strong electrical fields around them. It is therefore advisable to place your power amplifier well away from other components. A popular location is placing power amplifiers closer to your speakers. The additional advantage of this strategy is that you will require shorter speaker cables, which will not only cost less but might also perform better.

One factor that influences what you ultimately hear from your audio system, is your listening room acoustics.  Most of the sound waves that reach your ears, bounce off one or more surfaces of your listening room and the furniture, fixtures, carpet and curtains within the space. When this happens, the sound waves are subjected to varying degrees of reflection, absorption or diffusion.
If most of the surfaces are reflective, the music sounds overly bright. Conversely, if most of the surfaces are absorptive, your tunes sound overly damped and lifeless.  If you do not have a budget for formal room acoustic correction devices, you can still improve your room acoustics by using what you already have in your home. A few rugs strategically placed on the walls and on the floor in front of your speakers to catch early reflections and curtains behind your speakers can make a significant improvement in the sound quality you hear from your audio system. If you have a lot of windows in your listening room, drawing the blinds or curtains on them could also improve your room acoustics.

Another area which you can address to improve your system’s sound quality without incurring any additional cost is to rearrange your power and speaker cables as well as your interconnects. The signals that travel through these cables can interfere with each other and deteriorate sound quality. In extreme conditions, leaving your cables in a messy heap may also result in very audible hum and buzz.

Take a good look at the path of each of your cables and try to keep them as far as possible from each other.  In situations where your cables need to cross one another, the best configuration is to make sure they cross at a right angle to each other. Another very effective strategy is to keep the power cables as far away as possible from the signal cables and to plot different paths for the cables carrying digital signals and their counterparts carrying analog signals.

You can use nylon zip ties to keep cables away from each other.  If possible, place all the power cable runs on one side of your equipment rack and the signal carrying cables on the other side. These tactics will reduce and perhaps even eliminate altogether, any hum in your system thus lowering the noise floor and enhancing the dynamic range to an astounding degree.  In some situations, just rearranging your cables and interconnects could result in an improvement in sound quality that can, in some cases, be equal to a major component upgrade.

If your audio system is more than a few years old and you have not made any changes to the wiring or cabling for quite some time, there is a good chance that all the junctions where the signal is being transferred from a cable to a component or vice versa, the contact points are tarnished. If these contacts are gold plated, this is less of a problem, as gold does not tarnish like most other metals.  Even a little bit of tarnishing on the contacts can impede the flow of the signal resulting in deteriorated sound quality.

You can use a contact cleaning liquid in tandem with a non-abrasive cleaning cloth, the kind that is usually used to clean jewelry, to polish all the contact points between your cables/interconnects and your components. If the contacts are gold plated, chances are that it has just a few microns of gold cladding on the contact points so be extra careful when doing those, as very abrasive contact cleaning liquid or overly aggressive polishing with the cleaning cloth could remove the very thin gold plating, especially since gold is a relatively soft, malleable metal.

The procedure to follow for best results is to disconnect all your cables and interconnects including the power cords from your wall outlets. Use the contact cleaner and cloth to clean every RCA, AES/EBU and BNC plug and jack, speaker binding post and if you can, the contact points inside the wall receptacles as well.  Make sure all the contact points are completely dry before you reconnect them. This simple procedure should take just an hour or two but the difference in sound quality that you will hear will totally astound you.

If possible, try to have a dedicated wall receptacle for your audio system. If you plug in home appliances, especially the ones that contain motors or compressors, into the same receptacle as your audio system, that is a recipe for disaster in terms of audible noise in the sound that you hear from your system. The best-case scenario calls for a totally dedicated power line from your home’s electrical panel to your audio system via hospital grade receptacles. If this is beyond your reach because of the high cost, you could go down the route of a dedicated receptacle. This will give you some of the benefits of a dedicated line and I can assure you that the difference will not be subtle.

If you do implement a dedicated power line for your audio system make sure that you utilize a 20 amp circuit with one run for your power amplifier and one for the rest of your gear. Definitely use hospital grade receptacles and use 10 gauge wires to link the receptacles to your home’s electrical panel. If you are not an experienced DIYer, the wiring for this project is best handled by a professional electrician.

If your two-channel system is part of a home theatre system, it would behoove you to feed the video components with power from a different receptacle. This is because video devices like Blu-ray players, surround processors, television sets and cable boxes can sometimes add a very audible buzz to your audio system output. If this happens, you have to check the earth of each video component and if they all seem to be in order, then you may need to install an isolation transformer to physically separate the power supply to your video components. Installing a balun filter to your antenna wire could also help control the buzz.

Finally, if you hear any mechanical noise from your system, the culprit is probably one or more of the components that contain transformers. You need to switch on all your components that contain transformers and place your ear very close to the chassis and listen carefully. If you hear a hum or buzz emanating from inside the component it is probably a lamination rattle that occurs in some of the sub-par transformers.

It is quite possible that the intensity of this mechanical noise will vary at different times of the day. This is because the noise level depends on the noise content and quality of the power supply and voltage variation in your area. This is determined by your energy provider. A good power conditioner can rectify this problem but if you cannot afford one, try to do your dedicated two-channel listening during the non peak hours of the day when the load on the grid is a lot lower and the quality of the power you receive from your provider is a lot better.

Most audiophiles are always striving to squeeze better performance from their audio systems. However, not everyone can afford to continually invest in upgrades and expensive tweaks to boost the system’s sound quality. If you belong to this cohort, you can take solace in the fact that all it takes is some of your time and a little elbow grease to achieve significant sound quality improvements without spending a dime.

Aëdle VK-1 Valkyrie Headphones 01

It is easy to assign personalities to headphones. Some are sleek, slim and stunningly statuesque like a supermodel, but usually with not much substance between the ears. You get the brawny, muscular models that will take a lot of punishment without flinching but lack the elegance to be easy on the eyes.  You get the loud mouths, which deliver the music not just to your ears but also to all those around you as well, whether they like it or not. You get the tiny in-ear headphones that are like wallflowers in the way they visually blend into the background so discreetly that others cannot even tell that you are wearing them. You also get the gaudy type with colours and hues that are louder than the sound they produce. You get headphones that are nerdy, in that, they can perform at very high levels but have the socially awkward personality of a wet rag. In terms of materials used, with a few exceptions, the world of headphones is dominated by cheap, plasticky models that are as flimsy as they look.

Then along comes Aëdle, ushering in something quite unique in the world of headphones with a model that answers to the name of VK-1 Valkyrie. It would not be far fetched to say that it is a work of audio art with a dual personality, in a good way that is. I have never encountered any pair of headphones that combines beauty and brawn like the VK-1 does. It is like encountering a person with the elegance and beauty of Cindy Crawford but with the brute strength, power and toughness of Hulk Hogan.

The VK-1 arrived at my doorstep for the review, draped in a way that I would expect fine jewelry to be packaged. The matte black box opens to reveal the headphones nestled in a form fitting enclosure with a stainless steel card engraved with the brand name and logo on the front, as well as the model name and identification number on the rear. Behind the card is another black box with an airline adaptor, a gold plated 3.5mm to 6.3mm stereo adapter and a detachable aramid fiber coated cable for the headphones. Embedded in the main box lid is an impeccably tailored black padded travel pouch with a magnetic closing mechanism that allows you to carry around the headphones in style.  While unboxing these headphones I distinctly felt its French heritage and it vindicated the reasons why France is considered one of the fashion capitals of the world. The incredible attention to detail only heightens your anticipation of what the sonic performance of the headphones would be.

Aëdle VK-1 Valkyrie Headphones 02

I had seen photos of the VK-1 prior to receiving it and was aware that it is an elegant piece of gear, but holding it in my hands for the first time I realized that the photos did not do it justice. This is truly a visually stunning pair of headphones. These headphones are available in two colours, the classic edition is silver and tan (leather) and a limited edition is carbon black. I was sent the latter.

This work of art is a real treat not just for your eyes but also for your sense of touch. The main structural parts include the 5-axis supra-aural ear cups, which are stylishly sculpted using a CNC machine, from T6066 aircraft grade virgin aluminium ingots. The headband core is made out of sturdy yet flexible manganese steel alloy that has been coated with liquid silicone. This is then cloaked in genuine full grain, smooth as silk lambskin that is hand sewn into place with the finesse that only a master leather craftsman that takes great pride in his or her work, is capable of.

This high-grade buttery soft genuine leather theme continues with the ear pads that are tailored from lambskin leather and filled with protein foam that is so pliable, it gently caresses your ears while firmly molding to their contours. I can tell you that it feels luxurious, but you have to experience it for yourself to truly understand how this pair of headphones pampers your other senses even before you give them a listen.

The unveiling of the VK-1 Valkyrie reflects the tale of how Aëdle, the company behind them, was founded in 2011 in Brittany, France. When Raphael Lebas de Lacour and Baptiste Sancho carefully handpicked the team of talented French professionals from audio engineering, industrial design, manufacturing and arts, they did it through the lens of the goal that they had set – no compromise. They are determined to employ construction material and manufacturing methods that would result in products that would represent the best in their class not just in terms of sound performance but also in sheer design elegance. It took the founders and their team two long years of intense research and development before they were satisfied with their very first product – the VK-1 Valkyrie headphones.

Since I received a brand new unit for the review, I had to make sure it was thoroughly broken-in before the review so I plugged in the aramid fiber cable into the headphones and connected it to one of my receivers playing a jazz radio station.  I allowed a break in period of 180 hours before I began auditioning these headphones.

During the break-in period I did some reading on the technology behind these headphones. I learnt that their 40mm transducers consist of titanium diaphragms and neodymium magnets to convert the signal into sound. The driver performance is further boosted by the passive bass enhancement system that is built into the ear cups. This is a closed construction configuration, which is more efficient at keeping ambient noise at bay while minimizing the leakage of sound waves that could reach those around you. This is a big advantage in public spaces, because I am no stranger to being told by perfect strangers to dial down the volume because they were bothered by my music.

On the technical side the VK-1 Valkyrie weighs 216 grams and has an impedance of 32 ohms, a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, total harmonic distortion of less than 0.5%, a maximum input power level of 40 mW and a maximum sound pressure level of 129 dB. The manufacturer’s warranty is against any material defect or workmanship and is valid for one year from the date of purchase.  The recommended retail price in Canada is $549 while in the United States it is $499.

Aëdle got off to a great start with their very first product. Even before they started shipping the VK-1, just a few days from the time they started accepting pre-orders they were so swamped, that their first production run sold out. I have to assume that the orders were from customers that were totally enamored by the design, style and build quality of the VK-1, because they sure as heck were not able to make a judgment call based on the sonic performance as, hitherto, no full scale reviews have been published. I am guessing that customers felt that if the sound performance was even half a good as the styling and build quality, they were getting their money’s worth.

I therefore began the auditioning process with high expectations and I must say, I was not disappointed. First of all, these are one of the most comfortable over the ear headphones I have encountered. That smooth as a baby’s bottom lambskin truly pampered my ears.  They are so light and comfortable, just a few minutes after putting them on, you are quite likely to forget that you are wearing them.

I began the audition with the “Long road back from Eden” track from the Eagles album of the same name. This track is over 10 minutes long and, during an audition, I usually listen to just a few minutes of it. Not so with the VK-1. I found myself enjoying the music so much, I felt motivated to listen to the whole track. The harmonious voices and famed musical acumen of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh was delivered with such incredible musicality, defining it with the usual audio terms like timbre accuracy, tonal colours, width of soundstage and dynamic range extension would not do it justice. Rather the music flowed with such liquidity and realism, that it was hard not to allow the sound to just wash over you while hugging you in its emotional embrace.

The extraordinarily low noise floor of the VK-1 allows me to fully appreciate the highs, which are delicate without being too sweet. The midrange is textured and bountiful while allowing an incredible amount of air between the instruments. No headphone can replicate the thrilling physical impact of the bottom octave being transmitted through the air by loudspeakers. This is because we perceive these ultra deep bass sound waves not just through our ears but also with our whole body. In fact with the very best full-range loudspeakers we can actually feel this bass in our bones. Having said that, the bass delivered by the VK-1 has got to be one of the best I have heard from headphones in this price range. It is tight, full, deep and very tuneful.
Next, I auditioned Anjani Thomas’ “The Golden Gate”. Anjani has a truly golden voice with an incredible amount of texture and range. Most of the headphones that I have auditioned are just not capable of delivering all the layers of texture in this diva’s honey-toned voice. The VK-1 is different. Its superb midrange delivers this with ease.

I then listened to Greg Brown’s “Where is Maria”. Greg’s rustic, gravely voice is an acquired taste and needs to be reproduced really well to be fully appreciated. Through the VK-1, I thoroughly enjoyed Greg’s voice as well as his guitar prowess. The guitar strums are rendered with such eerie realism, it is a ‘you are there’ kind of feeling.

For a change of pace I listened to Serge Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dance No.1 performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by the inimitable Eiji Oue. The dynamic range on this track is incredibly wide and the tutti has an exploding crescendo that drives most headphones into very audible distortion. The VK-1 took all this in stride, sounding big as a house and as majestic as any philharmonic orchestra can sound on a pair of headphones.

I ended the audition with Arne Domnerus’ “Antiphone Blues” which was recorded in the cavernous Spanga Church in Sweden. The amount of emotion that Arne can express when playing his saxophone is second to none and it is a delight to hear all that emotion through the VK-1. All the subtleties and nuances of Arne’s genius on the sax come through in spades.

One thing that most headphones are not so good at recreating accurately is the soundstage. With most headphones you get the sensation that the sound is inside your head rather than in front of you, like you experience at a live performance. Of the few headphones that do render the soundstage accurately, most of them carry a four-figure price tag. There are a precious few headphones below $1,000 that have the ability to vividly paint the width, depth and height of a soundstage for a truly holographic sonic image and the VK-1 is one of them.

Aëdle has very thoughtfully included in its owners manual, a table that guides you on how long you can safely listen to their headphones at various sound pressure levels. According to them, at a 90 dB SPL, you can safely listen to the VK-1 for 8 hours every day. At 95 dB, that goes down to 4 hours. At 100 dB the recommended listening time is cut to 2 hours and at 105 dB, anything over one hour per day is not recommended.  The table goes on to list recommended listening duration for 110 and 115 dB, but I, for one, would not recommend listening at these levels even for very short durations of time as there is a good chance of experiencing temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

To give you an idea as to how loud those levels are, Deep Purple, one of the loudest live rock bands ever, were measured at 117 dB at one of their concerts and that was loud enough to render a few people in the crowd unconscious. The fact that the VK-1 can deliver SPLs at these levels would mean that it is unwise to let children use these headphones as they are likely to crank up the SPL to dangerous levels and permanently damage their hearing in the process.

This is not unlike allowing teenagers to drive extremely fast cars. Just as it takes a lot of maturity and control to handle the power of muscle cars safely, so too it takes maturity to use headphones like the VK-1 which deliver such high SPLs. With most ultra low distortion headphones like the VK-1, the distortions that usually cue you to the fact that the music is too loud, are mostly absent. This gives ultra low distortion headphone users, especially children, a false sense of security, as they turn up the volume ever louder to dangerous levels that could even cause tinnitus.

At $549 CAD, the VK-1 is not exactly cheap, but in this price range, you will be hard pressed to find another pair of headphones with the extraordinary build quality, sonic performance and incredibly elegant design of these headphones. Heck, I have auditioned predominantly plastic headphones that will probably last just a couple of years before giving up the ghost, being sold for prices that approach the price of the VK-1. Compare that to the bullet proof build quality, timeless design and enviable sonic performance of the VK-1 which, with proper care, should last a lifetime, and you are looking at a pair of headphones that offers what is probably the best value in its price range.

Aëdle
www.aedle.net

Distributed in Canada by Rutherford Audio Inc.
www.rutherfordaudio.com
604-542-0904

Aëdle VK-1 Valkyrie Headphones
Price: $549 CAD