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Klipsch clicks
Next came a pair of vintage speakers that appeared to be a mismatch in size but turned out to be heaven's mate in sound - the Klipsch La Scala. When I arrived at my friend Richard Mak's house, he had just finished a 300B shoot-out the day before, using a pair of pre-owned La Scalas as arbitrator. The look of the TA-10 sitting amidst these two gigantic boxes denoted absurdity in the truest sense of the word. Even the crossover was at least double the size of the TA-10. The La Scala is perhaps one of the most perplexing, unexplainable mysteries in the audiophile world. When I looked at its specs on paper, I almost didn't want to listen. Who is willing to waste time on a frequency response of 53Hz to 17,000Hz +/-4 dB these days? But when the music came through those horns, I was flabbergasted for the second time. These big boxes could image. Not only that, they made sound in such a warm, airy, expansive and relaxed manner that the listener became totally absorbed in the music. With the La Scala, you don't think in HiFi terms. My earlier concern about frequency response had melted away by the refined sound and the spontaneously natural timbre. The 104dB sensitivity provided ample headroom for the TA-10. We played a few CDs, among which was Ferdinand Hérold's La Fille mal Gardée [Decca 430 196-2]. According to Richard, none of the 300B amps could match the definition and localization of instruments of the TA-10 when playing back this romantic ballet fabulously orchestrated by John Lanchbery. This heaven-sent audio synthesis proved very organic, natural and very different from, say, the NuForce/Mark & Daniel combination, which is more physical and authoritative. The La Scalas have their own way of conjuring up the magic of music. They are so un-hifi that you won't bother to look for the pin-point imaging or high resolution layering - and yet nothing is missing from the total sonic tableau. You are listening with your heart rather than with your ears.


TA-10 owners-to-be should seriously consider the Klipsch La Scala if they can afford the necessary space. Price is not so much a concern since pre-owned La Scalas frequently show up online for $2,000 and the lowest price I've seen there recently was a mere $1,000, with moderately beat enclosures that needed reveneering. Those with a deeper pocket can always consider brand-new production La Scala II, which is a bit bigger, much heavier (175 lb. comparing to 123 lb.) and 1dB more sensitive (105dB). For days, I couldn't shake the Klipsch sound out of my head. I knew I had no room for a pair of La Scalas but I kept searching the web for Klipsch. Then destiny took its course. I hit upon another Klipsch. The Klipsch Synergy F2 floorstanders were offered at half price (C$520 shipping included) during Pre-Boxing Week sale at a local electronic chain store. I knew I shouldn't spend money on another pair of speakers but hey, it was Christmas.


Ho, ho, ho! A pair of slender-built cherry-veneered two-way speakers was delivered at my door on the morning of Christmas Eve by a cheerful friendly driver wearing a Santa-Claus cap. By the beginning of February, these speakers were fully ripened. Over the holidays, friends who came around and heard them were amazed by how closely the Synergy F2 sounded like the La Scala. Actually, three of them recently bought La Scalas and the general consensus was that the F2 had 80% of the La Scala signature but blended it with finer resolution and faster transient speed. Modern technology has definitely brought their specs up to date. With a sensitivity of 95.5dB, impedance of 8 ohms and frequency response of 39 - 23,000Hz +/- 3 dB and boasting a front-ported bass reflex, the Synergy F2 is one amplifier-friendly and easy-to-place speaker. Most importantly, it matched the TA-10 perfectly. Since the F2 is bi-wirable, I used two TA-10s, one per channel. I started with the Restek CD player as source hooking up the amps directly through a pair of Y-adapters. I turned the Alps volume control on the back of the Restek to maximum and maintained the TA-10s in integrated amp mode so that I could balance the left channel and right channel volume which I find very important for some classical recordings. I never had to dial up the volume beyond 10 o'clock to get life-like sound pressure and presence. That allowed the Tripath chips to work comfortably within their low distortion range. The bass was powerful and clean cut thanks to the dual 6.5" woofers on each speaker. And the mid and high frequencies are airy and liquid smooth thanks to the 1" aluminium dome tweeter coupled with Klipsch patented 5" Tractrix square horn.


With the Klipsch, the TA-10 opened up even more and the soundstage became deeper. Piano trios became more three-dimensional and instrumentations in complex orchestral tuttis more articulated. Then I noticed one thing when I played a particular reading of Rossini's Sonatas for Strings [Accardo, Gazeau, Meunie, Petracchi - Philips 446 806-2]. I was doing a comparative review on this title and was listening through six different recordings. Three of the recordings are in the original quartet ensemble, i.e. two violins, cello and double-bass, and I was paying special attention to the various placements of instruments and their sonic effects. For instance, the Philips recording has from left to right the first violin, cello, double-bass and then the second violin, evenly spread out in an arc. The Italian label recorded by Ensemble de I Virtuosi Italianni [Tactus TC 971802] placed first violin and second violin to the left, cello in the middle and double-bass to the right. My usual practice is to listen and compare on more than two systems, at the same time familiarizing myself with the recordings. When the Philips recording was played on the TA-10 + Klipsch F2 system, the image of the instruments seemed to be somehow drifting and shifting. This is not readily audible if you are not listening with a specific purpose in mind. I didn't know what prompted me but I took out my polarity tester, reloaded the Restek with the polarity testing CD that came with the handheld tester and checked the pulsing signals coming through the Klipsch drivers. Then I realized that the output signals from the TA-10 were indeed inverted. I checked the Tripath website for T-2024 specs and confirmed that the IC indeed operates inverted. Just for experiment's sake, I reversed the speaker cable polarity and the Philips recording sounded perfect. My curiosity lured me on to check through all my other systems and I found that the NEC CDR-401G CD-ROM drive was also outputting inverted phase signals through its digital out as well as headphone out. Mating that to the TA-10 made everything normal again.



Is inverted phase/polarity a big issue? (They are actually two different things but a phase invert button on a DAC or preamp offers a quick fix for both.) Because of all the variables and uncontrollable factors (recordings could be mixing tracks of normal and inverted phase for example), this is almost a non or so-what issue. There's a 50/50 chance that a CD is recorded in inverted phase. And the likelihood that you can tell one from the other is close to zero unless you have the right tools. Through this exercise, I realized that the NuForce amps too are inverted. Their designer Jason Lim confirmed it and stated that their amps sound better that way. I've owned his Reference 9 and Reference 9 SE for almost a year. The 9 has been connected to a Deltec DAC with a phase inversion switch which has been unknowingly switched to inverted and therefore should sound normal. The 9 SE has been connected to normal phase gear and should theoretically produce inverted-phase music all the time. You know what? I didn't know a thing until now and even now that I know, the musical enjoyment I've been getting from my NuForce amps has not diminished one wit. For my own peace of mind though, I reconnected all my TA-10s and NuForce amps in absolute polarity by either reversing the speaker cables or by means of the DAC's phase inverter, just so that whenever I play that one Accardo/Philips label of Rossini's Sonatas for Strings, the image won't shift. (A word of warning to those who are particularly bothered by inverted phase: Never try to open your TA-10 or NuForce amps and reverse the internal speaker connecting wires. You might reverse the whole circuitry and ground wiring and damage the amplification chip.)


AC/DC or battery powered?
After quick-fixing the TA-10 back into absolute phase by reversing the speaker polarity, there was still one additional tweak to further enhance soundstage and imaging: battery power. While experimenting with batteries, I had good and bad luck. Good luck was finding a pair of Xantrex Powerpack 300 EP booster batteries for a half price deal (C$60). Bad luck was picking up the wrong cigarette lighter plug to coaxial DC connector cable by Sony which was labelled 'negative grounded' but was in fact positive grounded. In a split second after I turned on the TA-10, I smelled burning and smoke started to mushroom out as soon as I opened the tightly clamped aluminium shell. The Tripath chip was burnt to death. So my advice on battery power: Observe DC polarity and don't trust Sony cables. (Sonic Impact's Super-T Amp seems to be equipped with polarity reversal protection and ships with battery-power cables.) Make good use of a multi-meter to check polarity as well as voltage. The Tripath T-2024 chip has an absolute working parameter of 8.5 to 16 volts DC - either too much or not enough is bad for the chip. (Ricky of Trends Audio actually recommended 10.5 to 14.0 volts to keep the TA-10 in top fighting form.) A fully charged 12-volt booster battery usually exceeds 12 volts. My Xantrex measured 13.8 volts when fully charged. It has an auto-shut-off feature that sets off a low-battery alarm at 11 volts and shuts down when the voltage drops to 10.5 volts, which makes it perfect for my TA-10. After running off the grid playing more than 10 CDs, I still got a reading of 12.8 volts. The TA-10 should get five energy stars for that.


The benefit of running the TA-10s on batteries was tremendous. The localization of musical instruments and vocals was improved drastically and instantly. When running on AC/DC adapters, the first violin and cello on the Rossini/Philips CD were grouped together on the left and the double-bass and second violin were grouped together on the right. Although the violins were more forward and the lower strings were more backward, there were still some overlapping and there was a wider gap between both groups. When running on batteries, the four pieces of instruments became evenly distributed and dispersed with minimal overlapping. In playing back concerto recordings, the improvement became equally pronounced as the soloists became more sharply focused and the orchestral counterparts articulated with remarkable details.


Preamp preferences
Next I reconfigured two TA-10s as power amps by resetting the jumpers to bypass the volume controls. (I put an 'X' sticker on the volume knob to distinguish.) The first preamp I tried was the Symphonic Line RG3 Mk III with 300VA separate Turbo power supply. I knew I was acting mischievously. But soon I got the last laugh on my own misbehavin' when I realized the loaded goods this 1-ohm output impedance Class A preamp could bring to the party. Although outrageously mismatched in price, it became apparent that the TA-10 had unfathomable potential. When driven by batteries and mated with the RG3, the dynamics, definition and layering were absolutely infallible. To my surprise, I even got deeper bass as well as crystalline transience as witnessed in the two piano version of Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite [Pletnev/Argerich) [DGG 474868-2] where the first-to-bottom-octave attacks on both pianos crossfired with decisive blows and clarity. Swinging into big band sound, the symphonic rendition of Piazzolla Classics [Milan 35640-2] was just hypnotizing. The timbre and lustre of the strings were eloquently presented. The air and the space between the instruments were just right. The attack of the bows and the suaveness of the bandoneon were vividly contrasted. If you think you have the world's best preamp, by all means use it on the TA-10. It will be ridiculously good.


Still bordering on being excessive, the Audio Zone Pre-T1 was at least a more sensible choice. I've always prized the Pre-T1 for its transparent and neutral quality when mated with tube amps and my NuForce analog switching units so I had high expectations. While it did bring out the inner details of the TA-10 and resolution did become more crystalline, the musical interpretation skewed towards the rational side and began to lose some magic. In a way it mellowed out the Klipsch signature sound and inched its way towards the other side of the balance. The Klipsch began to sound like ordinary speakers. But what really got hurt were the dynamics and the body. Even when I toggled the gain switches of the Pre-T1 to +6dB, I still had to dial the volume all the way pass 4 o'clock position to get sufficient output. But then orchestral tuttis became grainy, sforzandos cranky. You definitely need more gain than a passive preamp will pass on from the source.


The Dared SL-2000A is perhaps the best tube preamp in the $500 category - with wooden remote control no less. In my Dared VP-20 review I pointed out that the gain of this preamp is too high to match the partnering VP-20 and produces audible hum unless the volume on the VP-20 is dialed down to mid position. Ever since then I sought advice from a technician and reset the gain of the SL-2000A to an universally acceptable level while the S/N ratio was further improved by replacing the factory 12AT7s with low noise 12AX7s. (Good 12AT7 are expensive but inexpensive 12AX7 are good!) Not only could the Dared SL-2000A now match my VP-20 to perfection, it became my favourite tube preamp. When added to the TA-10 bi-amp with battery power and coupled with the Klipsch Synergy F2, music was warm, passionate and involving. Soundstage and presence were 100% reminiscence of the La Scala.


Another preamp contender was the Elekit TU-875 from Japan. Although offering even better value for money -- with MC/MM phono and volume/balance control it goes for around C$400 including shipping -- this cute-looking preamp was warm but less well defined in resolution and slightly compressed in the soundstage. Nevertheless it's worth mentioning because for such a small setback, you could reward yourself with the rich sound of the Philips JAN 5963 tubes and the low noise J-FET/tube hybrid RIAA circuitry. Considering the gain in headroom for wider dynamic range, this was still a fair trade and a good match for the TA-10.


4-amp 8-speaker multi-channel
The affordability and expandability factors of the TA-10 had turned on my Lego-istic instincts. Stacking up four TA-10 amps and eight Loth-X BS-1 was already lots of fun. Initially I had all TA-10s in integrated mode and fed the five channels directly from my Marantz SA-8260 SACD player's analog outputs. All front channels, center included, were driven by bi-amped stacked speaker. The rear surround channels were delivered through one TA-10 connected to a pair of Loth-X BS-1. From my experience, setting the volume on each individual amp is critical in achieving a natural concert hall ambience. And you might have to readjust that for every multi-channel SACD because they are all different. When this is done correctly, it will give you a life-like being there sensation like no other. But be careful with some surround SACDs which are a remix of two-channels recordings with GAIN2 (Greater Ambient Information Network) or other Dolby Pro-logicked digital processing tricks. Very few of them will match the quality of discreet 5-channel recordings and most likely will sound as unnatural as an AV receivers' SFC. Fortunately most newly recorded multi-channel classical SACDs were originally recorded to discreet five channels and will play back authentic surround sound to recreate a credible natural ambience. The legendary Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo originally recorded in 3-channel and now re-issued as 3-channel SACDs are also my top picks.


To set the volume for each channel, you can use one of those test CDs with pink noise and feed that through each channel to perform the 75dB calibration with the aid of a Radio Shack sound level meter. But I prefer the primitive way of using my ears. I usually start with the center channel, dial that to about 70 - 80% of my normal listening level (otherwise by the time the other front channels are added, it'll be too loud). Using that as the reference, I turn up the rear channel volume to about 20 to 30% of the center volume. (I have to sit in my listening position with one ear facing center and one ear facing rear to determine that.) Then I mark the rear volume positions and turn them all the way down to set the front left and front right. I move in between left speaker and center speaker, turn up the left channel volume so that left and center is in balance. Repeat the same with the right channel. Then reset the rear volume to the position previously determined. In reality it is not as tedious as described and will become intuitive with practice. The unscientific aspect of it happens to be an advantage that most of us tend to overlook. Would you trust your own ears or the sound level meter? Would you like to be in control or let the equipment control you?


In the following weeks, I played through nearly all my classical SACDs (around 30 titles). I could confidently conclude that the ease of setup is unimaginable and the remarkable performance unmatchable for that price. It seems unfair or even condescending to keep making reference to the price of the TA-10. In all fairness, the reward is so handsomely generous and out of proportion that it is making the price utterly irrelevant. The humble price indeed becomes something the owner should feel proud of and the performance certainly leaves nothing to apologize for. I've been advocating multi-channel SACD (and DVD-Audio) for years and have experimented with many different economical setups. The TA-10s are by far the most effective jump start for any skeptics to cross the floor. To get a taste of it, just set up 3 channels with two or three TA-10s and try the Mercury and RCA 3-channel SACDs. You won't be disappointed. (Shouldn't RCA relabel Living Stereo to Living 3-channel?) When
matched with the right speakers -- high efficiency preferable - these tiny amps give you goose-bump arousing realism. With the sound mode button on the Marantz remote control to toggle between 2-channel and 5-channel SACD, it takes no time for anyone to realize the superiority of multi-channel. The precision of instrument placement, the dimension and proportionality of the soundstage, the abundance of orchestral fire power - everything is laid out in the most natural way.


Take Akiko Suwanai's Sibelius Violin Concerto [Philips 470 622-2] for example. In the first movement, at around 5:00 when tension starts to build up anticipating the dramatic climax, there's a short but intriguing dialogue between solo violin and solo viola. Played back in 2-channel, the two instruments are somewhat squashed into the same plane. In 5-channel, the solo violin takes the appropriately more forward location closer to the left of the conductor's podium and the solo viola takes center stage slightly behind. In fact throughout the entire piece, orchestral layout is more accurately rendered in 5-channel, with ample breath and depth for the eruptive Nordic picture painting that was intended. I also compared this with six other Sibelius 2-channel CDs and none of them could reach the same level of layering and separation between the rumbling strings (mid back) and the growling brass (far back). I really
couldn't understand why some people would bother with 2-channel SACD players. I am not snubbing 2-channel because that's what I listen to most of the time and I'm absolutely happy with that. The thing though is that when 2-channel imaging and soundstaging become a challenge to find the optimum speaker placement due to room acoustics or whatever reasons, 3-channel imaging and soundstaging can be a breeze to obtain.


Just to indulge myself with some valve-bloom coloration, I added three tube preamps to the formula. I should have used three Dared SL-2000A but I did not have that luxury. So I had to settle for two Elekit TU-875 as stand-ins. Even so, the changes in terms of warmth and aura were immediately evident. The temperature in the room had definitely gone up quite a bit, not because of the heat from the tubes but from the music.


Modifications anyone?
Trend Audio is perhaps the one hifi manufacturer who encourages customers to modify their products. I don't think they do that on purpose to void your warranty. After exchanging a few e-mails with Ricky Leung the designer, I knew that he's genuinely passionate about getting the best from the Tripath T-2024 chip. There are quite a few modification ideas floating around the Internet. But here are some tips from the horse's mouth:

► The most sensitive parts to affect sonic quality should be the input capacitors (Ci). Changes in these caps can make the sound very different (mainly in resolution and soundstaging). Try your favorite kind of caps between 1uF to 3uF as long as they can fit.
► Another part is the electrolytic power filtering caps Csw+ (mainly for dynamic and power).
► Battery-power is the quickest, simplest way to improve sonic quality. Be careful to observe polarity and voltage.


The first two tips, which I got before Christmas, could be history now. Staring January 1, 2007, all TA-10s have been shipped with upgraded capacitors while the price has gone up from $99 to $119. Technically speaking, the model designation became TA-10.1. Fortunately, all my TA-10s are TA-10.1s. David Ho of Trends Audio was kind enough to make sure the second loaner (for replacing the first one I fried) and my pre-Christmas shipment were upgraded. The upgrade was a quite a big progress considering (1) the input coupling caps were upgraded from 2.2 uF ERO MKT to 2.2 uF BENNIC XPP metalized polypropylene film capacitors, and (2) the power filtering caps were upgraded from 220 uF ELNA electrolytic to 1,500 uF SANYO WG high frequency, low ESR electrolytic. All these, according to Trends Audio, were for "higher resolution, better sound stage and more dynamic, more punching solid bass." Check the retail prices of these caps and you'll know you couldn't possibly perform the upgrade yourself with $20. No wonder even Michael Mardis, the Hawaiian TA-10 master modifier, in his response to my e-mails advised that "you may not need to swap those." (The TA-10 featured on his website is the earlier model.) My feeling is that unless you're crazy about Auricap, Kimberkap or Jensen paper-in-oil, aluminium foil, copper foil or any other exotic caps for their special characteristics, leave them alone. However, for the solder-itchy, Mr. Mardis has surfed through the PCB to come up with sound suggestions like rerouting the input copper trace path with hard wires, replacing the volume pot with a Panasonic 50K pot (part number EVJ-Y10F03D54) and adding copper shields to the air-core inductors for better RFI rejection.


Conclusion
I might have gotten carried away too much and begun talking more like a hifi freak than a music lover. I should come back to where I first started: Listening poor and loving it. Well, that wasn't my line. I actually stole it and reworded it from a MSN money article "Living poor and loving it" by Donna Freeman, which caught my attention after I signed off from my hotmail account. There are so many words of wisdom in that article that audiophiles could use it to renew their mind and body. The one line I like best is "Separating what you need from what you want." Hifi should not be an expensive hobby. Do you really need all those expensive components or do you just want to feel good about your high-end status symbols? Having indulged ourselves with hifi vanity for so long, those are really tough calls. It's like asking a Mercedes owner or Ferrari diver to use public transportation. However, the TA-10 is no public transport, not the kind every big city has come to know as being overpriced and underserved. The TA-10 is quite the opposite: underpriced and overserved. It is your ticket to start a wonderful musical journey. Beginning with one simple TA-10, a pair of high-efficient speakers and a basic CD player, it takes you to the heart of music in no time. Add a battery and you're on the express ride to audiophile-grade performance. Navigate into 3-channel or 5-channel or even upgrade with a preamp as you see fit. No other components allow such ease of expandability at such a low price.


On the other side of the price spectrum, another Class-T integrated amp, the $3,200 Bel Canto eVo 2i, was summed up by Srajan as "crystalline transparency; a tube-like midrange purity, naturalness of timbre and monster soundstaging without the bloom of valves; wonderful bass; and very extended yet silky treble that's never grating or dull but just right." I found myself being titillated by the same sensation with this humbly priced TA-10. While the NuForce Class-D is my best answer to power hungry speakers in terms of efficiency and sound quality, the Trends Audio Class-T is the same for high-efficiency speakers.


Trends Audio TA-10 has honed the performance of Class-T technology to a true audiophile level and then cracked the $120 price barrier. Prior to this, the company was a complete stranger to the audiophile world. Being a subsidiary of ITOK Media Ltd. which was established in 1996 as a VCD and DVD encoding service provider to the film and music industries, hifi equipment is their newest endeavour. If you are looking for Trends Audio's credentials in the audiophile business, this is it, the TA-10. And it's a very impressive one. Actually, it's so impressive that I'm compelled to give it a Blue Moon Award for demystifying the high-end halo and bringing music back to earth.
Manufacturer's website