|Reviewer: Jules Coleman
Source: Well Tempered Classic w. Roksan Shiraz; Well Tempered Reference [in for review]; Audio Logic 24 MXL tube DAC; Combak Reimyo CDP 777 [in for review]; Ensemble Dirondo [in for review]; Resolution Audio Opus 21 [in for review]
Preamp/Integrated: Shindo Monbrison [full-function]; Combak Reimyo tube line stage [in for review]
Amp: Shindo Sinhonia monos; Mark Pearson-built Mullard EL-34; Cr Development Artemis Gold; Combak Reimyo 300B [in for review]
Speakers: Audiopax REF100 [in for review]; Hørning Hybrid Agathon Ultimate [in for review]; Harmonix Bravo [in for review]
Cables: Stealth Indra interconnect; Stealth M-21, M-7, PGS interconnects; Audience Au24 interconnects; Shindo Laboratory interconnect; Stealth Hybrid MLT speaker cable, Audience Au24 speaker cable; Audio Note Kondo copper speaker cable; Harmonix Golden Performance interconnect and speaker cable; Stealth M-7 power cords; Harmonix Studio Master power cords; van den Hul Mainstream power cords
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature
Stand: HRS M-3 isolation bases; HRS MR1 rack [in for review]
Sundry accessories: Harmonix feet; Black Diamond Racing and Poly Crystal cones; Vibrapods
Room size: 30' x18' x 9'
Review component retail: $5,750/1m/pr
|Philosophy helps us negotiate the world by clarifying the concepts we employ for our roadmap. Doing so often requires introducing distinctions that parse our experience more finely, thereby enabling us to avoid distracting, misleading and sometimes dangerous confusions. Just as often, however, good philosophy demonstrates that some of the distinctions we draw or the ways in which we have drawn them are more harmful than helpful.
Audio discourse has its own share of poorly drawn distinctions. Take, for example, the one between components and tweaks. Amplifiers, preamplifiers, speakers and sources are components; equipment racks, isolation, resonance control and tuning devices, power cords, conditioners, room treatments and other paraphernalia tweaks. The conventional view holds that a playback system consists of components. Once set up, such a system can be modified by tweaking it with, well - tweaks. This elevates components to a more significant role in the playback hierarchy. But where does this leave cables and cords? After all, one cannot make music without cables and cords. Does this make them components then?
At the end of the day, the distinction between components and tweaks is a misleading guide about the relative importance of each to musical playback. A bad room can do more damage than a good amplifier can do to enhance it or overcome it. Yet, no one thinks of room treatments as components. Whether components or not, cords and cables can have a substantial impact on the quality of music reproduction. Indeed, in a high resolution playback system, cables, power cords, resonance control and isolation devices make the difference between having a system that is in sonic balance and one that is nearly unlistenable. Which calls to mind the misleading distinction between so-called high resolution and musical systems.
Too many music lovers have been frightened away from highly resolving systems. They mistakenly associate them with a cold analytic sound - perhaps one of the many unintended, deleterious consequences of the 'early digital age'. Instead, they prefer so-called "musical systems" which they think of as sweet, beautiful, easy on the ears and pleasant. However, many musical systems achieve such pleasantness by subtly homogenizing the sound. They take the edge off - but unfortunately not just the biting, hard edge but also the leading edge of notes per se. In my experience and over the long run, whatever their other virtues may be, these systems are ultimately boring for a simple reason: They don't reproduce music without editorializing.
If Tupac and Mahler both impact you in the same way as Norah Jones while listening to your rig, something is wrong. I am not suggesting that you put together a playback system such that it will have you literally on the edge of your seat (so that you can leave the room quickly in case things turn sour). Still, if you want your playback system to impact and engage and envelope you the way the real thing does, you are going to have to risk a bit of unpleasantness. That's the advantage of a highly resolving system. It plays music mostly for the better but occasionally for the worse.
What's truth without beauty?
|Most of us can construct a laundry list of highly resolving components without any guarantee that putting them together will insure musically satisfying playback. Bringing highly resolving components together in a musically satisfying way is an art. It's much harder to put together completely revealing and honest components in an emotionally moving, powerful and nuanced audio system than it is to put one together from components that wear their colorations openly on their sleeves. And putting together a reviewer's system that is honest, neutral, emotionally compelling and resolving enough to be a tool for assessing the performance of other products under review is harder still. I wish I could say I have mastered that art but that wouldn't be true. I'm trying just like everybody else though.
Building a Review System
Once you have highly resolving components suited for one another in the obvious ways -- e.g. enough amplifier power and current to drive the speakers, proper impedance matching between preamp and amplifier etc. -- the burden of turning the parts into a musically cohesive whole falls unto the choice of cables, cords, power conditioners, racks, resonance and isolation control devices and assorted other "tweaks". This is not just a matter of making investments to wring the last 5% of possible performance from a system. It's the key to integrating the separate parts into a musical whole.
With that in mind, have you ever wondered what those who decry cables and interconnects as "tone controls" have in mind? In thirty years of listening to audio, I don't think I have ever run across a cable that did not possess some sonic signature that was, with some careful listening, reasonably easy to detect. Put any cable in your system and the sound changes to some extent: More bass, smoother highs, darker backgrounds - whatever. Some are more flavorful than others of course, but every cable does something. You want to presumably match the cable with the attributes of the system. If that's what it means for a cable to be a tone control, I don't know how it could be otherwise.
And if having a sonic signature of its own is enough to render a cable a tone control, then all components are tone controls. If the point is merely that a system is a system and everything you put into it has some character to which you must be attentive? Well, that's just banal: True but hardly enlightening.
The point of the warning, I think, is to discourage one from asking of a cable to do too much additive work. It is a reminder more than anything else that if you choose a full, warm and slightly dark cable to offset a lean and bright amplifier, then as soon as you replace the amplifier with a more neutral and full-bodied one, the whole system may go too far to the fat and dark side. You'll have to start all over again. This naturally is the beginning of what is euphemistically referred to as Audio Hell - change one thing and it all falls apart. Do make another change and then another and so on, with no clear plan but plenty of clear misery. As they say, misery loves company. I you are a full-fledged audiophile, you can take solace in the fact that you have lots of company.
The sensible audiophile, then, will devote some energy to uncovering the basic sonic characteristics of a range of cables, all of which add as little as possible, the vast majority of which work with a wide range of different components. Then, depending on the components in the present system incarnation, one can fine-tune the overall balance by choosing the right cable. An audio reviewer really cannot just work with one single set of reference cables and interconnects. With every new product under review comes a change in the balance of the system. It's just not right to review the component without first trying to put the system back in (a different but appropriate) balance. More often than not, that can be done with cables, cords and various tuning and resonance control devices.
Enter the Indra
I could not possibly recount all the times over the last 30 years that my views over what in music playback is important have changed. It is enough to own up to the fact that they have changed significantly in the past six months, albeit not in any way that I was consciously aware of at the time. If compelled to retrace my steps, I would say that it began one fine unsuspecting afternoon. With Jonathan Halpern, the importer of Shindo Laboratory products, I visited the loft of Jeff Catalano, importer of Hørning loudspeakers and a dealer for Audio Note Japan (Kondo) products among others. I detected an immediacy and transparency in Jeff's reference system, a connection to the music that I had never experienced before. Music played as though it were barely even touched by the electronics which produced it. That was a transformative moment for me, so much so that I found myself bringing other people over to Jeff's place: First our own Ken Micallef, then our own Les Turoczi. I wrote to friends about the system I'd heard there, and eventually Serguei Timachev of Stealth Audio made a special trip to the city to listen to it. No other system I had ever listened to for any period of time offered this particular kind of involvement or impact.
Unconsciously, perhaps, this feature of music playback began to take root. Other systems, however wonderful in various ways, seemed inevitably to present an impediment to music. This was a matter of degrees of course. I found myself ever so slightly impatient with most systems many of which, whatever their other virtues may have been, seemed fundamentally roadblocks to the tunes.
The truly irritating part of this change of perspective? I was beginning to feel this way about my own home reference system even though the sound I had at the time was certainly the best I had ever experienced. No matter how much I enjoyed listening, I could not get the experience over at Jeff's out of my mind. Whatever special musical connection he had going in his place I wanted to replicate in mine - with my own tonal preferences of course.
I had many of the relevant pieces already in place, notably the Shindo Sinhonia monoblock amplifiers and the Reimyo CD player, both of which are extended, dense, musically unmatched and immediate. I had the Monbrison to sort out the musical from the hifi artifacts. I had already ordered the Hørning Alkibiades that I had fallen in love with at Jeff's High Water Sound. I was hoping that once they arrived on the scene, at least some of the sense that a loudspeaker is an obstacle to the music would disappear. But their arrival would be another three months or so out. Would things ever come together?
As it happened, I only had to wait until a pair of Indra cables showed up. In a fit of audiophilia neurotica, I had spent two years listening to cables and cords; more cables than cords, but a fair bit of both. Worn out and only marginally
|wiser for the experience, I had settled on Stealth interconnects and speaker cables as my reference connections. In time I added some other noteworthy contenders including samples by Audience, Shindo and Audio Note Kondo. In my cable search, I had spent as much time as I could talking to designers to get a feel for their philosophies and to see if I could grasp the underlying science of cable design. I found myself in reasonably frequent conversations with Serguei Timachev, the chief designer and CEO of Stealth Audio cables. When I was lecturing in DC last summer, Serguei and I arranged to meet and spend a day in the countryside outside the nation's Capitol. At one point in the conversation, Serguei mentioned that he had obtained a limited supply of an amorphous metal. He had begun to work with it for use in an interconnect but not speaker cable. The main advantage of the amorphous cable was its complete absence of any crystalline structure. He had some early prototypes of the cable and begun beta-testing it. The early results were extremely positive. He was so confident that he had given some thought not just to challenging the industry standard Valhalla, but to even taking Valhallas as trade-ins for his new cable. He struck me as pretty convinced that, upon hearing his cable, any sensible Valhalla owner would welcome the opportunity to trade one for the other.
I don't know whether Serguei was serious, merely imagining different prospective marketing campaigns or just looking for a way of expressing to me his confidence about his cable's performance capabilities. Our conversation turned to other things including high-performance automobiles about which I know next to nothing -- the conversation becoming something of a one-sided lecture at this point -- but not before I asked Serguei whether he had found a name for his amorphous cable. Indeed he had: Indra.
I had no idea what Indra referred to but it was a surprising choice for a fellow whose other cables had been christened Cross-Wrapped Silver, M-21, PGS-3D and Hybrid MLT. Only the splendid digital Varidig cable had previously indicated a willingness on Serguei's part to employ names that were not merely abbreviated descriptions.