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Reviewer: Mike Healey
Source: Audio Refinement CD player, Bel Canto Design DAC2, Technics turntable
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Refinement Complete integrated, BVaudio P1 preamplifier
Amp: BVaudio PA300 stereo amplifier
Speakers: Vienna Acoustics Haydn
Cables: Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cables, Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects, Analysis Plus Digital Oval, 2 x Audio Magic Xstream power cables, 2 x Shunyata Research DiamondBack power cables
Stands: Sumiko Foster & Lowell Standards, StudioTech Ultra 5-shelf audio rack
Powerline conditioning: Shunyata Guardian 4-HT
Sundry accessories: Cardas Signature RCA caps
Room size: 11' x 17' with 9' vaulted ceilings
Review component retail: $390 with 10-day in-home trial
Two guys walk into a local pizza place. They order two small pizzas and two pints of draft Guinness. They chat about guy things like work, home improvements and their families. After they finish the meal and another two pints of stout, they tip the cute waitress. Says one guy to the other, "Let's get going. We don't want to miss the puppet show."
Did you do a double take? So did I. Our wives had taken the kids to see the same puppet show a week before and were so impressed that they demanded the daddies go see it the following weekend. So Stephen and I found ourselves at the Mellow Mushroom, drinking draft Guinness and eating Pizza while contemplating our fate at the hands of local puppeteers. We drank our beer solemnly like Kamikaze pilots before heading out on a dangerous mission.
|Before any armchair critics start snickering at our predicament, I must say that it is no less masculine for a guy to see a puppet show than it is to spend a couple of hours dressing cables. As it turned out, this was the most incredible puppet show either of us had ever witnessed. The fusion of music, costumes, natural light, hand puppets, marionettes, shadow puppets and enormous papier mache puppets -- all mixed with a simple story about the elements and a clear environmental agenda -- was, well ... wow!
|Who was responsible for this? His name is Donovan; Donovan Zimmerman. If you want to learn more about his puppets and the people he works with, check out
|his website. If you want to learn more about his name, check out Don't Look Back, D.J. Pennebaker's documentary of Bob Dylan's first concerts in London. The effect of the puppet show on me was like being doused in cold water. I realized that puppets were cool and left my soggy preconceptions on the rocky seating of the outdoor amphitheater. It wasn't long after my acceptance shift at the puppet show that my natural predisposition towards skepticism was once again ready to be soaked by another bucket of cold water - this time courtesy of BVaudio.
Earth to reviewer ... hello!
I have already reviewed the BVaudio P-1 preamplifier and use it as my reference along with the PA300 amplifier. The company has since replaced these older models with the P10 preamplifier and the PA300iX dual-mono power amplifier. Together, the P-1 and PA300 offer detail, neutrality and transparency. However, in my review of the P-1 preamplifier, I described the sound as a little flat and cool. I wrote that "I wanted to hear the P-1 coax more presence from the midrange and add more weight to the instruments."
Enter the BVaudio SR-10 Sound Refiner, which designer Ladislav Bunta suggested I give a try. The Sound Refiner is an active device that can be inserted between a source component and preamplifier to correct "impedance, inductance and capacitance mismatches inherent in single-ended cable designs." According to the BVaudio website, these mismatches impede the signal's transmission through the cable. When used with a CD player or DAC, the Sound Refiner actively cleans the digital signal by assisting the analog output and reducing RF interference from the CD player. The Sound Refiner can also clean the signal from any other source component and has the potential to make a good interconnect perform more like an outstanding interconnect. When I asked Ivo Stepansky for a description for dummies, he compared it to a turbocharger except that the Sound Refiner adds more current.
"99% of all components fail to deliver enough current to surpass the capacitance of interconnect cables. These interconnects are thus the problem. The longer the interconnect, the bigger the capacitance and the more current is required to "push" through the wire to charge its capacitance. Cable capacitance depends on the quality of construction, the quality of insulation material, the distance separating the wires, insulation thickness etc. Each cable has some capacitance. If the component is unable to deliver a certain amount of current, the cable capacitance will shift the phase at higher frequencies and interfere with the original signal. Usually the top frequency transients are cut off and the original signal shape is changed.
A lot of manufacturers don't seem to realize that we will have to hook up their components with interconnects. When they conduct tests of their components, all specs usually look nice. Maybe the component has a low output impedance (around 50 ohm or less) but that's not sufficient unless the component can work into a constant 50-ohm load. The Sound Refiner can deliver current of 130mA per channel into a 50-ohm load, enough to handle any interconnect regardless of reasonable length. The SR-10 uses paralleled modern semiconductors with minimum IMD and THD performance. It's built like a small amplifier."
Think of it as a really tiny chip amp designed to send the signal screaming through your favorite interconnects. This can become important for home-theater or custom installations where longer runs of interconnects may be necessary to reach discretely hidden equipment. The Sound Refiner is small enough to be placed behind a component on the shelf. I let mine either dangle off the back of the shelf or rest directly on top of the Bel Canto DAC2. It has the appearance of an old camera with aluminum posts and textured side panels. The narrow front of the Sound Refiner has two hefty gold-plated connectors (recently replaced with more stylish connectors) and the narrow back end has two gold-plated RCA connectors. The jack for the wall wart is on one of the side panels.
As an active component, you'll need an extra wall outlet to accommodate the wall wart power supply for the Sound Refiner. Question for the weird: Why are so many wall warts black? Wouldn't white or taupe disappear more easily in the décor? A black wall wart hanging from a white outlet on a white or lightly colored wall looks like a giant tick. My dog won't go near the thing. When I first received the Sound Refiner, I casually walked upstairs, connected it to my CD player and dropped in a familiar disc. I wasn't expecting more than a subtle change. However, my expectations shifted as they did at the puppet show. My reaction was, well ... wow again!
I started with the Britten violin concerto performed by Daniel Hope [Warner Classics 60291, 2004]. The opening violin solo in the first movement was set appropriately forward in the soundstage without completely overshadowing the woodwinds or strings. Massed strings sounded articulate and devoid of the muddiness of older recordings and the machine-like rhythms of the orchestra moved the musical argument forward without sounding cluttered or confused. The recording also gave a good sense of dynamic scale, from quiet solo violin musings to short outbursts from snare drum and cymbals.
|With the Sound Refiner connected to the Bel Canto DAC2, the thinness I was used to hearing in the midrange had become fleshed out. The violin had more shape and swagger. It wasn't just the sound of vibrating strings but included the resonating chamber that gives weight and body to the sound. Woodwinds benefited most from the Sound Refiner, making it easier to distinguish which instruments were playing different parts in the complex harmonies. Even the snare drum and cymbals sounded more forceful when they appeared. The Sound Refiner did not compromise the higher frequencies either. I could still distinguish the same refined detail I have enjoyed with the BVaudio preamp and amplifier although I did notice somewhat less air around the instruments. Backgrounds were quieter and made it easier to point out where|
|instruments placed within the soundstage. The heart-wrenching emotion Daniel Hope extracts from the first movement was revealed in vibrant detail as was the playful whimsy in the solo parts of the second movement. With the Sound Refiner, I wanted to let the whole concerto play through. So I did.
|The presence of the Sound Refiner was especially welcome on vocal recordings like my daughter's copy of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Irving Berlin Songbook [Verve 543830, 2000] and my wife's copy of Joao [Verve 848507, 1991]. This presence included a little warmth in the midrange, a little smoothness during sibilants and greater weight in the lower frequencies. I felt closer to the person on the other end of the recording process. When Ella sang "Suppertime", I was ready to invite her over for dinner. When Ella's voice swooped from high to low, I did not hear any bloat or over-emphasis in any particular frequency. This was equally apparent on Joao's bossa nova version of "You Do Something to Me". Too much midrange would make his voice sound chesty and fuzzy like it does on my car stereo, which needs this emphasis in the|
|midrange to be heard over the engine and outside noises. Woodwinds, strings, and percussion were presented as well as they were with the Britten recording except that Joao's orchestra sounds thin and recessed compared to the BBC Symphony. I could also clearly hear how Joao pronounces words with his tongue. I know this sounds strange but it's on the recording and I appreciated that the Sound Refiner clarified it for me. With the Sound Refiner, the sonic images had more flesh on the bone and greater presence in my listening room. Fine details weren't lost, just re-shaped into a more lifelike representation of the music. What was real to me on my recordings became more real with the Sound Refiner in place. The Sound Refiner made me fall in love with the BVaudio equipment all over again. But that's me. What about someone who owns different electronics? Would the verdict still hold true? I had to experiment with other music systems to find out.
Parallel Reality Check
First, I tried the Sound Refiner on a very revealing hi-end system. My friend John has a Pioneer transport, B&W 801 Matrix III loudspeakers and a DAC, preamp and monoblock amplifiers from Pass Labs. Cabling includes Transparent speaker cables, Analysis Plus Crystal Oval 8 balanced interconnects and MIT power cables and power conditioner. We connected the Sound Refiner between the unbalanced analog outputs of the Pioneer and the unbalanced inputs on the preamplifier, bypassing his balanced-only DAC. John's system probably didn't need a Sound Refiner and I really had difficulty determining how it affected the music. There was a little extra bloom in the bass yet the higher frequencies weren't as sharply defined. The change was very subtle and I remained unconvinced that it was entirely necessary. The experience was simply inconclusive.
Next, my friends Adam and David invited me to hear Adam's system (Adcom separates, NHT bookshelf loudspeakers, Monster interconnects and speaker cables) and hear some new DIY chip amplifiers that David recently built. Through Adam's system, the music sounded more laid back, with a clear focus on the midrange. Highs were detailed but a little rolled off. The midrange is tipped up slightly and the bass is surprisingly good for such a small system. Adam plays tympani in a classical orchestra and is very alert to changes in pitch. I was hopeful that the Sound Refiner would be an enhancement to his modest system but the experiment turned out to be as embarrassing as having my cheeks pinched by my great aunt. The midrange became thick and slow and we lost detail at the frequency extremes. My guess is that while the Sound Refiner retained the same characteristics I heard at home, when combined with gear that was already accomplished in the midrange, these characteristics became heavy-handed. The wonderful change I heard with my BVaudio equipment wasn't wonderful on Adam's system at all. David who is helpfully blunt suggested that there might be something wrong with my BVaudio equipment if one needed the Sound Refiner to make it sound right.
Finally, I dug out my trusty Audio Refinement integrated with its delicious midrange. After listening at Adam's house, I was skeptical about the SR10's ability to offer an improvement. For reference, I chose a song by Touchstone from the Celtic collection Her Infinite Variety [Green Linnet 107 1998]. This song has a warm electric bass that does not sound too heavy and features very articulate guitar strumming placed to the outer sides of the soundstage. The electronic keyboard clicks along like an older instrument with very tight triplets and Ulleian pipes can be heard bleating in the background. Triona Ni Dhomhnaill's voice sounds sharp and slightly nasal with a fast vibrato. All of this was apparent with my original stereo setup.
|After connecting the Sound Refiner between my CD player and the Oval interconnects, I noticed slightly less grain and lower background noise, which gave greater definition to the strumming guitar strings. The sonic picture was clearer and had better overall focus. The electric bass sounded bigger and more forward in the soundstage while the Uillean pipes receded farther into the distance. For some tastes, the enhanced midrange and bass could be too much of a good thing. There also was some extra sizzle inTriona's sibilants, which I found a little distracting.Finally, I decided to rock out with "Throwing Shapes" from Dirty Vegas' debut CD [Capitol 2002]. In spite of the fact that this album was supposedly rushed to completion, there are some decently recorded dance tracks with heavy rhythms and clear high-frequency|
|sounds. With the Sound Refiner, this track was revealed to be a punchy and crunchy dance tune. The quieter background and more forward presentation of the mids and highs made the music sound more exciting and dance-friendly. The limited bass my bookshelf speakers can muster was slightly increased with the Sound Refiner.
While a device may leapfrog the performance for one set of components, it won't be as effective with others. The Sound Refiner made a clear case that impedance matching and signal strength should be given serious consideration when building a system but the lowered background noise and midrange enhancements did not benefit every system. Truly, I don't have a decent reply to my friend's remark that the Sound Refiner may only be useful for owners of BVaudio equipment. While it was very beneficial in my systems, I was surprised by the poor performance at Adam's. I'm not sure whether this reveals flaws in my personal systems or means that the effects of the Sound Refiner are more a matter of taste. You can't simply add a component and expect it to fit in automatically. System synergy relies on trial-and-error experimentation.
|The Sound Refiner sounded best with my BVaudio reference equipment. I cannot comment on how it would perform with the latest iterations of Bvaudio's preamp and power amp but would like to think that the newer components offer the improved midrange without needing the Sound Refiner. However, ultimate performance of the BVaudio equipment also depends on the signal output from the source component and the type and length of interconnect used between source and preamplifier. Who should investigate the Sound Refiner? Anyone whose music system could use a boost in midrange fullness and dynamics (particularly in the lower frequencies) or a little extra smoothness. Owners of older BVaudio equipment should not hesitate to arrange for their 10-day in-home trial. With the BVaudio equipment in my home|
|driving my Vienna Acoustics bookshelf speakers, the Sound Refiner made a significant improvement. When I set out on this review, I wasn't expecting to be wowed by an active device for my interconnects. Of course, I never expected to enjoy a puppet show either.