This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
Let's take stock of the basic system. It starts with the Exemplar-modified Denon 3910 universal player. Its tube-fitted analog output stage is bypassed for RedBook playback since one connects to the following DEQX via the digital output. From the DEQX and still in the digital domain, the signal continues on to the Overkill/Benchmark 4-channel DAC and Overkill/Belles 4-channel amp. All cabling is Crystal Cable since that's what Overkill uses for all its internal wiring (in the speakers as well as components) and thus recommends also for all external system connections.

In this configuration, the Exemplar/Denon as transport was a mite warmer and not quite as transient-defined as my customary Accustic Arts Drive-1. It's a small difference that wasn't clearly better or worse but merely different. I preferred the Drive-1 flavor, Derek the Exemplar/Denon take. Once I had determined this particular contribution of the 3910, I left it in the system for the remainder of the review. It's how the Overkill Encore system is marketed. How did its overall sound compare to my customary reference?

It was cooler and leaner, faster and more precise, with superior spatial resolution and separation. Percussive events on both micro and macro scale had more definition without crossing the line into unnatural sharpness. While I really appreciated all these qualities as being more life-like, I did miss some of my customary warmth and body. Curiously enough, this was less the case when the system's playback levels matched whatever the particular instrument's output (close-miked or captured from a distance) would approximate at my listening distance. At realistic levels, with a vocalist set to how loud he or she'd be if singing at me from 12' away, the Encore system sounded - well, uncannily realistic. At subdued levels, however, things became less involving. What telegraphed then was crystalline clarity but also a lack of harmonic envelope. When you think about it, that's realistic, too. Move away from a stage with unamplified performers. The farther you retreat, the more harmonic density fades.

Now we're knee-deep in two realities. One concerns itself with over how things sound live. The other relates to how most audiophiles compensate during playback to produce pleasing results at levels they consider optimum (or use most of the time due to considerations for neighbors and those they live with). Bluntly put, most audiophile systems sound better than the real thing at low volumes - if that's what their owners have optimized them for. We create artificial body with tubes, with transformer-coupled conditioners, with cables. To caricature this trend for impact, we do pretty. Then there's Meg Ryan of the publicly faked orgasm who, in the parallel-life flick Kate & Leopold, is admired by her scheming boss precisely because she won't do pretty but deals with things the way they are. Should one complain that the Encore system is too realistic by lacking artificial warmth?

Switching to the Overkill-modified DEQX with its stout external power supply might have you reply in the affirmative. Why? Because it adds significant body and harmonic fullness already at lower-than-realistic levels (or what would equate to a far-field listening seat). Is this now more or less realistic? Excuse me while I pass on that impertinent needling. Let's just say that it's distinctly more pleasing and emotionally compelling. It draws you closer into the intimate sphere of the musicians without foreshortening the apparent listener perspective. The musicians as soundstage images don't move closer to you, their sound does by fleshing out to become denser.

In this setup, the digital & solid-state Encore system made the best sound I've yet heard in Taos. While my customary system is still a bit warmer, I'd now be comfortable stating that I've perhaps overcompensated its voicing. By comparison, it flattens out the particular 'life spark' the Overkill Audio system injected into any material I threw at it. Being a hard-boiled audiophile, I was of course secretly wondering if things could possibly get better yet. After all, I had two Audio Aero DACs staring me daringly in the face. The answer to that impertinent needling I won't avoid. It's an unqualified yes. It also clocks in at a spare $10,000 for the pair. Without diminishing the non-aggressive directness and spatial precision of the Benchmark Media-based Overkill DAC, the tube-buffered upscale analog output stage of the French machines created that heightened extra-dimensional focus in the soundstage which, I remain convinced, requires valves somewhere in a system (hey, I'm hanging on for my dear dinosaur life here).

As the dedicated Audio Aero DAC review will show, we're talking distinct Zanden-level sound. While not identical, it's a very close call on either sides of the fence. In this system, replacing the Overkill DAC didn't at all undermine resolving power but simply intensified the communicativeness by deepening tonal colors and making the inter-performance space more audible. Taken to this rarefied level of performance, the Encore system now was plain spooky. Take the Motion Trio's Pictures from the Street [Asphalt Tango 0504], a radical accordion trio with instruments custom-built by Pigini, the Rolls-Royce of accordion makers. These 18,000-Euro instruments produce bass far lower than standard accordions and use special hand-made reeds to boot. The scraping and shaking of the bellows, the percussive taps of nails on keys, the physical pumping motions with their tell-tale shifts in space -- all those little noise indicators filled out the sketch of the primary (so-called musically relevant) sounds. It conspired to cast the highly intoxicating spell of the real.

Reflecting on my personal odyssey of audiophile playback in the home, I'd have to say that every component upgrade always occurred in the service of the earlier-described experience. In and of itself, it's not the same as the live one. Certain aspects of it are actually better. They tend to make up for reality losses elsewhere. It should follow (and it does) that the Encore's greater overlap/lock with the live experience means that it sounds different from what I own. Because more coincides with reality, there's less need for 'sideways' compensation. On Kostas Metaxas' purist recordings remastered on DVD, the reality factor truly kicked into high gear. Arguably, certain listeners could find themselves too attached to their personal compensations. They could point accusingly at the Overkill approach for not needing them. Fair enough. At the price of the Encore rig, it's clearly not for everyone. Moreover, it might not be for most church-going audiophiles. Let's face it, our kind often has more of an emotional investment into personalized renditions of aural truth than the real thing. Also, to work as intended, the Overkill system offers far less hardware variables than many audiophiles will be comfortable with (essentially only the amplifiers are up for grabs). Clearly and unapologetically, designer Derek Wilson and his fiancée Petra Lewis [above] sell a system, not just a pair of speakers. Won't the average 'phile insist that he or she knows better what hardware to mate to the speakers than their makers?

Truly, the system's approach is one that sits poorly with many in this hobby. We revel in our constitutionally sanctified right to follow our own creed and make our own choices no matter how detrimental many of those choices might be. That's why I think that Overkill Audio's primary audience -- outside the selective process imposed by the financial key hole -- will not be the quintessential audiophile at all. The target audience is folks whose commitment is first and foremost to live music experienced close to the stage. This customer want a turnkey solution that works perfectly as is, just like a fine motorcar which you don't acquire to modify but to drive (after the seat and controls' reach have been painstakingly adapted to your size at the factory). While the DEQX component of this system is the ultimate in real-world adjustability, the system on a whole is very non-tweaky. It's been designed as a whole and substitutions are neither necessary nor encouraged.

Adding up prospective cost of ownership for the Encore system, it's in line with my own reference system. It doesn't sound the same but if live music were the standard, it's clearly closer and hence superior. It's also an impossible reviewer's tool. It shuts the door on most individual component substitutions which make up the protocol of reviewing. As a reviewer, I'm stuck with the Old Way of doing things. But if I changed careers tomorrow and could settle down with one system and then call it quits, I might well settle on this one. I'd embrace the future like a long-lost lover and kiss valves, analog crossovers and the whole bloody lot good-bye (though I would sneak valves into the DAC for that slightly enhanced state of affairs a smidge beyond reality).

Compared to what this Overkill System does, anything else I've had through here including my own stuff still sounds like personalized renditions - some of them very close, most of them pleasing, the rare ones truly compelling and admirable but still separated from the real thing. If your dream and ambition are for less rather than more separation, you must hear what Derek Wilson, Petra Lewis and their collaborators have wrought. It could be a terminal meeting. If it impresses you like it did me and you're not a reviewer, you may not be able to go back. Practically speaking, I can't extricate myself from the mixed-component approach. But I now certainly have a different idea about its limitations and what certain component choices and subsequent acquisitions of mine were in response to. As Newton tells us, every action engenders an opposite reaction. Any voicing decision mandates an opposing one since none occurs on the center line. All are attempts to get us on this center line which, presumably, overlays reality but more often than not is merely an idealized notion.

With the Overkill-modified DEQX, I found myself walking on that line - or at least in closer proximity to it than before. Substituting the Audio Aero DACs probably took me slightly off it again, into a subtly idealized, better-than-real parallel dimension but not by much. Replacing the very good Belles-based amplifier with something like the newest Pass Labs X350.5, a Vitus amp from Denmark or a 1000w ICEpower-module based unit, one would expect certain changes as well. However, since opportunities for harmonic distortion behavior in a digital/transistor system are rather limited, such changes could be far smaller than a more conventional cone & dome-based setup would predict. It'll be something for the next reviewer to investigate if he or she has a suitable pair of identical stereo amps to experiment with.

In conclusion, my turn down an alley never entered before was highly enlightening. It could well be that much of the SET phenomenon is in response to certain speaker-based limitations. Is it because those are lacking or significantly reduced in the Encore to not require this compensation that they sound stellar with conventional transistors even to a SET aficionado? I can't know for sure but I think this might be true. It's become nearly de rigeur to equate resolution, accuracy and precision with a certain sterility. As noted earlier, I initially reacted along those lines a bit. But settling into this new presentation, allowing my perceptional bio mechanism to adjust and then replacing the standard DEQX with the modified version truly turned things
My uncle playing his guitar on the porch
around. In generalized parlance, it's like getting certain aspects of the quintessential ultra-precise Wilson Audio sound but having those presented in a fashion that's less overtly spectacular and thus more appealing to someone with my particular biases. Close-miked violin is dynamic and metallic and pungently direct but lacks all electronic glare or unnatural bite. Bass is unbelievably pitch-accurate yet massively powerful when called for. Vocals parlay all the seemingly insignificant micro details to feel real. In the end, it's about very high resolution, natural and distinctly non-exaggerated dynamics and a bold directness that must be a function of superior speed. It's brilliant stuff I shall be sorry to see move on to its next review. Listening to Damian Draghici's Oneness [Bashalde 0117] made me think on its title. There's oneness between listener and music to describe a co-created experience in one's home. Then there's
overlayed oneness (simultaneity, transferred synchronicity) of playback and live event. These two aspects of oneness are not the same - and Overkill Audio clearly is dedicated to very high standards of the second kind. The future of room-adaptable digital crossovers as part of a true system's approach is finally here. It points the way for what is bound to come.

Post Scriptum: Derek Wilson just informed me that he has contracted with John Tucker of Exemplar Audio to include John's well-regarded tube output stage and shunt-regulated power supply in the 4-channel Benchmark Media DAC. With a bit of luck, I'll be able to draft a brief follow-up report before the already scheduled pick-up of the Overkill Audio rig occurs. Should Tucker's mod rival or exceed my results with the two Audio Aero converters, the resultant system performance would kowtow to the highest expectations of valve devotees while combining those with true cutting-edge DSP facilities for a very novel marriage of the old and very latest. Perhaps then Derek & Petra need to adopt Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With Their Song" as the anthem for the Encores?
Manufacturer's website