It’s life Jim but not as we know it………

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So, following on from the initial Blog post…….

I returned home after work on a Friday afternoon to find a large box with Wharfedale and 80th Anniversary emblazoned on the side. The Denton’s had arrived.

I was naturally, eager to set them up and within no time at all had them had them connected to the new Yamaha A-S700 amplifier (where’s the Rega you may ask – that may be the subject of a separate post!).

But to back track I must mention the packaging. This is superb. The speakers were packed in their own cotton bag which was in turn packaged in heavy duty plastic bags. They were nestled firmly in Styrofoam inside a very well made cardboard box. There was also a plastic wallet in the box which contained a pair of cotton gloves, manual and a booklet detailing the history of Wharfedale. It may not sound like much but the way that a company cares for their products says a lot about their quality.

And in terms of build quality I was not disappointed. Every element from the veneer, to the binding posts and the way the 80th anniversary stickers are applied to the rear of the speakers oozed quality. They feel solid and have a reassuring heft to them. Very impressive.

And, so it was with hopes raised that I switched on the amplifier and started to put the speakers through their paces with some tracks that I am very familiar with. I didn’t have the Harbeth’s on hand for a direct comparison but their sound signature is so unmistakable to me differences in sound quality and presentation are straightforward to evaluate.

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The first song that I listened to was Broken Wings by Dougie Maclean from his Marching Mystery album. I must have listened to this song a hundred times or more over the years and never tire of it.

It is a simple track dominated by a bodrhan, acoustic guitar and Dougie Maclean’s voice. Even the most straightforward of tracks are easy to get wrong on some systems and this one is no exception.

Each of the instruments has their own part to play in moving the track forward. If the rhythmic, almost hypnotic drumming of the bodrhan becomes overblown or lost in the mix it loses it’s ability to act as the drive behind the song. The acoustic guitar needs to be clear and resonant, the chords should stand out from the mix with Dougie’s voice sounding plaintive with the burr of his beautiful Scottish accent coming through.

Needless to say the Harbeth’s get all of these elements to me perfectly balanced. The Denton’s offer a slightly different version of the truth so to speak. The first thing I noticed was that the bass response was deeper but this should be expected as the this is a ported design with a slightly bigger cabinet and bass driver.

The Bodrahn seemed bigger with more of a bass thud. It was also slightly “muddier” if that is a decent term to use and lost a little of it’s rhythm.

The acoustic guitar sounded warmer too with slightly less ring and resonance to the strings than I am used to. The Harbeths seem to hold onto the notes a little longer and the guitar comes across a little smaller but more akin to how a real acoustic guitar would sound. The Dentons offered a presentation where the guitar sounds slightly larger than life.

And so to the vocals. They came across with the Dentons as slightly more recessed. They didn’t get lost in the mix as I have heard them on some speakers but Dougie’s diction was slightly less clear. Not unpleasant. Just not as real as through the P3ESRs.

Denton rear

There’s a couple of things with the above – firstly I am comparing a speaker in the Denton’s that is a third of the price of the Harbeth’s. I am also comparing a “home” speaker with one that is essentially a “domesticated” studio monitor speaker which has to sound clear, precise and totally natural or it would be missing the designer’s brief by a wide margin.

Taken in isolation away from the “studio” presentation of the Harbeth and for the money the Dentons sound superb and are a wonderful loudspeaker.

I have tried them out on a wide range of material and at no time did they offend. They presentation of music is warm and graceful allowing the message of the music to come through.

Are they as good as the Harbeths? No – the Harbeth’s are significantly better and I cannot wait to be in a position to get my hands back on a pair of the P3ESRS. For other people though they could be just what they are looking for as you can listen to music for hours with no fatigue or irritation. If you listen to rock music then I would steer clear of them but then again I would say the same with the Harbeth’s.

To me the Harbeth’s present the truth albeit a smaller scale version. The Dentons are slightly bigger and warmer version of that truth that I can live with and not be constantly looking over my shoulder to a time when the Harbeth’s were in place which, to be honest, I never thought I would find at this price level. Throw in the fact that they are beautifully veneered and made and you have a speaker that you would struggle to significantly better for less than £1,000.

wharfedale 80th

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Life After Linn

Consonance Mini Droplet CDP3.1

A few months ago I started with an itch that I knew I would just have to eventually scratch. Excellent though the Linn system was I missed the presentation that previous valve based systems had given me.

Also, whilst the Linn DS was a fantastic source, when I compared it to a “valved” Lector CD player that I had, I felt that on a good percentage of CD’s the music was put over in a slightly more organic way. One other aspect that pushed me over the edge were the once or twice a week system crashes that occurred which would only be resolved by a reset of the system – ostensibly switching off and then back on again!

The bottom line was I realised that a valve based system would be the one to satisfy my musical and hifi requirements.

So how would I facilitate this sea-change? I had backed myself into an audiophile corner in a way and felt that an all or nothing approach would be required as a mix and match system with some of the Linn components wouldn’t be all that practical. Certainly a valve CD player with Linn solid state amps didn’t seem right and I doubted it would provide the answers I was looking for.

After 20 years of buying hi-fi I have to confess to a certain amount of cynicism when it comes to dealers. There are very few hi-fi dealers in my opinion that actually talk any sense or understand the equipment they sell or the needs of the customer. This is a sad fact of faceless high street chains.

There are probably 3 or 4 dealers that I have come across that I would trust and respect. On of them is Jim Burke of audiolincs.com in Grantham.

The Consonance Cyber 10 Integrated Signature

In all of my dealings with Jim he has been nothing but a gentlemen – open and honest. His knowledge of the equipment he sells is exemplary. Co-incidentally we have very similar tastes in music and so when I have described the presentation that I was hoping to achieve he was able to very quickly recommend three components that would give me what I was looking for – or should that be hearing for?

So a few conversations later, Jim and I had pieced together a system of and Opera Consonance Droplet 3.1 CD Player, a Cyber 10 Integrated Amplifier and Reference 3A Dulcet speakers. Luckily I still had in the garage a pair of Custom Design Reference 300 stands on which to put the speakers on. Coincidentally they were also the stands that Jim recommends to get the best out of the Dulcet’s.

Over the next few weeks the Linn gear disappeared to new owners and the huge heavy boxes began appearing at my front door. Not something that SWMBO relishes.

Finally, I had unboxed everything and had it in situ and ready to go. In Jim’s opinion the CD Player, amplifier and speakers would be able to compete with equipment several times their price and he was confident that, wonderful as the Linn system was, the new trio would be able to exceed the performance of the Linn gear.

Whilst I have not had an opportunity to test each piece in a different scenarios what I can say is that as a system the three components gel perfectly producing easily some of the best music I have had at home.

The Consonance Cyber 10 Integrated Signature

To cut a long story short the new system simply sounds right. The Dulcet’s don’t go as low or loud as the Linn 140’s, they don’t produce the same cavernous soundstage as the Totem Model One’s but what they do which is to stop me continually evaluating what I am listening to. For example with the Model One’s the soundstage was so eerily huge I ended up listening and thinking wow I can hear the acoustic guitar solo on the opposite side of the room well outside the cabinet boundaries. Isn’t that amazing. And then forgetting about the song as a whole and the message and emotion conveyed.

I found myself just listening to music. It is just there filling the room. Natural, flowing, unforced. If I was to ask myself after listening to a song how wide the soundstage was or deep the bass was I couldn’t tell you. All I could say would be that I was totally captivated by the performance.

When listening back and being much more analytical you realise that all the audiophile building blocks are there. Wide soundstage, realistic timbre, great rhythm etc. It is just that no one area sticks out as being more impressive than another.

All the elements come together to create an emotionally captivating performance.

The amplifier belies it’s 11 WPC power output by sounding like a much bigger beast but still with the delicacy that valves are renowned for and the Droplet 3.1 simply looks stunning. Better in the flesh and than in the photographs. I suspect the rock solid build quality and filterless dac all play their part.

So all in all this is one hell of a system. The incredible thing is that all this can be had for less than half the price of the Linn system. Now I am not going to start knocking that system. It too, is superb. But for my ears the valves edge it. And by some margin.

Before you upgrade or if you are starting afresh with a reasonable budget give Jim a call and get a demonstration. I am sure you will be astounded at what this little set up can do.

Reference 3A Dulcet

Totem Model 1 Signature Review – A Giant Amongst Small Speakers

The Totem Model 1 Signature

My desire to try out the Totem Model 1 Signature has not been with a view to changing from the wonderful Majik 140 but simply to see if there is an alternative brand that can offer a synergistic match to my Linn electronics at a price point between the Majik and Akurate ranges.

I am aware that the upgrade path with the Majik range would be to go “activ” before taking the jump to Akurate level but there is a substantial financial investment required to do this. Also, space for the extra amplification is required. Purchasing a set of speakers slightly more expensive than the Majik’s may yield a better interim sonic return on your money.

And so, after Phil at Totem UK kindly offered to loan me a pair of the Model 1’s, I had them set up next to the 140’s and was ready to see when these diminutive boxes could do.

The Model 1S is a two way standmount design with a heavily modified Dynaudio Bass Driver and Seas metal dome tweeter. Two pairs of fabulous WBT binding posts adorn the rear of each speaker which naturally allow either single wire (with links), bi-wire or bi-amp configuration. For the time I had the speakers I bi-wired them.

The Dynaudio Bass Driver

The loaned pair of speakers were finished in a fantastic Cherry veneer. The cabinets are made in a traditional woodworking method utilising lock mitred joints and this is reflected in the way the cabinet feels: solid as a rock.

The insides of the cabinet walls are also veneered and then lined with a material called borosilicate. According to Totem this is vastly superior to the traditional use of foam which can not only degrade over time but can also store electromagnetic energy influencing the performance of the drivers. I am no scientist but this to my mind does make sense and something I had not considered before.

I used the only pair of speaker stands I own which were collecting dust in the garage namely the Custom design RS300. I used them filled and would recommend the heavier more inert the support for these speakers the better.

As recommended by Totem I set the speakers up firing straight ahead. I never felt it necessary to experiment with toe in.

The Model 1’s have a soundstage that has to be heard to be believed

The system with which I exclusively used the Model 1’s is as follows:

Linn DS

Lector CD7

Linn Majik Kontrol Pre-amplifier

Akurate 2200 Power Amplifier

Cabling was all Linn

To start I played one of my favourite James Taylor tracks: Gaia from the Hourglass album. The first thing that struck me was the sheer enormity and solidity of the soundstage. James Taylor’s voice was locked dead centre in cavernous acoustic space with backing singers spread to the sides and beyond the speakers. Each instrument was clearly delineated and easy to follow. Not in a surgical, clinical fashion – the presentation was organic and rich with a slight hint of forwardness that made gave life to the recording.

Linn use the 2K driver configuration in the 140’s to aid dispersion of the higher frequencies but the simple set up the Model 1’s created a presentation that was wider, cleaner and more focussed than I have ever heard through the Linn’s.

With regards to high frequency rendition and again competing with Linn’s tweeter/super tweeter approach the 1’s seemed to be more extended although not quite as smooth. Certainly not aggressive though. There was a lot more detail at this level which made the high frequencies more obvious.

There was a leanness to the bass as you would expect but after a while I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the message of the music as the bass produced seemed deep enough with acoustic bass certainly easier to follow than with the Linn. The rest of the presentation was so involving and natural that after a while I didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until plugged the Linn’s back in that I appreciated what was missing.

The Seas Treble Unit

I have now spent many a happy hour playing track after track discovering what these incredible little speakers can do. Each track would throw up a new level of detail or nuance that would put a smile on my face. Listening to the likes of Eva Cassidy can be unnerving with her voice and acoustic guitar palpable between the speakers.

If your music collection is predominantly made up of any of the following or similar then I can confidently say that, subject to your electronics being up to the job, these speakers are for you:

Diana Krall, Norah Jones, James Taylor, Dougie McLean, Lucy Kaplansky, Keb Mo, Eva Cassidy, Alison Krauss, Gretchen Peters, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach.

If you live on a musical diet of Metallica, AC/DC, Mahler or Wagner the Model 1’s will simply not give you the bottom end authority to do justice to the types of music synonymous with these artists/composers.

To conclude these are truly world class speakers that seem to defy the laws of physics. The bass they can produce has to be heard to be believed. But, to me, it is in terms of sound staging, reproduction of acoustic instruments and vocals (especially female) where they score most highly. They are also thoroughly engaging connecting you to the message and emotion of the music being reproduced. Many times I would find myself listening through track after track happily discovering new details.

Traditional driver configuration

So where is the downside? Well, the speakers retail at around £2,200 which is around 30% higher than the Linn Majik 140’s. Not an insignificant outlay for a compact pair of speakers.

The market for compact standmount speakers is also jam packed with alternatives from the likes of Proac, Harbeth, Dynaudio, Kudos, Sonus Faber and Monitor Audio to name but a few.

I have owned or extensively listened to speakers from all of the above brands and whilst the Totems are top of the pile when it comes to cost I believe their sonic performance justifies the outlay. Something that cannot be said for many other brands. When you add in the quality of the construction and the material’s used (which gives peace of mid from a long term performance perspective) then I think that they are worth the asking price.

I would urge you to try and get to listen to a pair. If not to buy at least to get to hear what is possible to achieve with a properly engineered mini monitor. You may want to leave your credit card at home because one listen could be enough to make you want to buy a pair right there and then. To me they are that good.

Link to Totem website: http://totemacoustic.com/en/hi-fi/compact/model-1-signature/

Audiophile Insanity – Trust Your Own Ears

Do you ever get the feeling that you are going slightly insane?

Have you been hearing voices in your head? Voices of hi-fi reviewers that you have never met, heard or even seen a picture of invade your senses and seemingly overwhelm you usual calm, considered and mostly sensible demeanour. The upgrade demons are in your head and no amount of rational argument by your other half is going to convince you otherwise.

Eventually you give in and admit it. An upgrade is required.

The problem is, from experience, you nearly always regret the change you’ve made.

The process towards usually goes something like this:

A week before everything was fine and dandy. Your system was playing beautifully. Highs are high and smooth lows are low and rhythmic and the midrange was oh so natural and welcoming. You listen to your favourite CD’s/LP’s with not a care in the world. Simply put you are enjoying music – not the system – just the music. At that moment in time that is all that matters.

Then the inevitable happens. You pick up a copy of the latest hi-fi rag to hit the shelves that day. On the front it states that there is a review of a component in your system. Let’s say that it is your source component. For the purposes of this article it’s your current, beloved CD Player. The one you negotiated long and hard with your wife to buy (read whinged and moaned for weeks on end until she cracked just to shut you the hell up). This should be interesting. You know, however, in your heart of hearts that at that moment you should drop the magazine as though it were coating in nuclear waste and run out of the shop as fast as your legs will carry you without looking back.

But you don’t. You buy the magazine and, invariably, your hi-fi world starts to crumble before your ears. First thing to strike you is that the reviewer, who you may or may not have heard of (it doesn’t matter anyway – for some reason where hi-fi is concerned if it is on the printed page, no matter who put it there, it must be the truth) has awarded your beloved CD Player 3 measly “thumbs up” out of 5. Pardon? Three out of five. What’s going on?

You flick to the front of the magazine to see what this rating actually means. Good. Just plain old good. Not excellent (4 thumbs up) or outstanding (naturally, five thumbs) but three. That’s only one above average. Oh dear.

The first time that you read the review you are away from your system and so cannot quickly prove the criticism(s) levelled at your CD Player wrong. In any case our first read is done in a defiant mood. How can any one have the temerity to write a negative article about your pride and joy? Grating, detached treble? Pah! No way. It’s as smooth as silk, integrating beautifully with the midrange. Slightly loose bass? Oh, come on!  Foot-tapping is the order of the day on anything with even the barest of rhythms. Even theose wonderful pink noise test tracks have your head nodding to some extrasensory rhythm. Very system dependent. Oh dear, this is one you cannot argue against. You’ve only heard the player in your system at home so you are unaware of is performance in other systems. Does this mean a total system overhaul if you happen to change say, your amplifier? Not even worth thinking about. You are happy with your system aren’t you

Well?

An answer would be nice.

Of course I am, you reply. You don’t notice the strange stares from fellow train passengers. Not everyone talks to themselves in public like that now do they?

Okay, so it’s off home with the magazine rolled up in your hands ready to beat the cat with it. Well if not the cat you will be beating your head with it before long. You don’t tell your wife, partner or significant other about the review. If you did, they would have filled the empty suitcase from under the bed and be on the motorway heading for their Mother’s house before you get through the first sentence of the review.

No, sensibly you keep your mouth shut. Subtle hints, you think, work better. Things like leaving the magazine lying around on the sofa where she/he will have to move it to sit down. All you get from this is a “can you put this away somewhere, you are always leaving these things lying around it makes the house look so untidy you know that my mother’s coming round next week and…..” etc.

The cat knows that you have lost the plot!

Even sitting reading the review making tutting noises, sharp intakes of breath and the occasional exclamation “Hah! What does this guy know!” will not elicit the response you are looking for. Like it or not they have seen the whole thing before and the believe me they know that the last thing you need is encouragement. Your mind is currently fuelling the fires of doubt as we speak. Oh and this is just the beginning.

A little later on you decide you are going to listen to some music. Prove that reviewer wrong.

You select a few discs. Grating treble? Lets try a CD with some powerful high female vocals. Loose bass? Lets try a Jazz CD.

So you listen. And listen some more. This sounds okay. No grating treble. Bass is fine. Then the reviewers words start tapping away in your head. And you listen and listen until eventually you find yourself analysing the hell out of your CD collection. You are no longer listening to the music. You are dissecting it piece by piece. Drums – snare has snap, cymbals resonant enough; Guitar – good leading edge definition, solo easy to follow, maybe a bit lost in the mix; Bass – good strong rhythm interacting well with drums etc etc.

Maybe you will convince yourself that you can hear the same thing as the reviewer – they are, after all, paid money to have their opinions in print. Surely that counts for something. Maybe I don’t listen properly.

You never stop to think that maybe the reviewer is wrong. The reviewer will not have spent years building up a system that matches yours. He will never have heard the CD Player in question in your system, in your room, with your music, with your ears. It is never going to happen.

In years gone by  I would invariably believe the audio gospel preached by these hi-fi experts and start the merry go round of auditioning new CD players, new speakers, new amplifiers etc over and over again driving myself crazy.

Sometimes times you have to trust yourself.

Go on give it a try.

Have confidence.

They are your ears after all.