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September, 2008

RMAF 2008 Denver’s High-end Audio Show

Sunday, September 28th, 2008 by Mike

Our extensive show coverage will be here:

RMAF 2008 Denver’s High-end Audio Show.

The large room at 930 will have:

Marten Coltrane Supreme loudspeakers
Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers
Lamm L2 Reference linestage
Lamm LP2 phono stage
EMM Labs TSD1 transport
Brinkmann Balance or Audio Note TT3 turntables
HRS MXR and SXR equipment racks
Nordost ODIN and Valhalla, Jorma Design PRIME and No.1, and Audio Note PALLAS cables, along with assorted ELROD and AcroLink powercords
Computer laptop as music server

The small room at 926 will have:

Audio Note AN/E SEC HE Signature loudspeakers
Audio Note Kegon Balanced amplifiers
Audio Note M9 or M1 phono preamplifiers
Audio Note DAC4.1x Balanced DAC
Audio Note CDT-Three transport
Audio Note SOOTTO, SOGON and PALLAS cables
AcroLink power cords
Acoustic Dreams equipment rack and amp stands
and possibly the Audio Note TT-2/Arm 3/S4/IO1 turntable setup [requires that something else besides amps go on the floor - because that 4 shelf rack only has… 4 shelves].

ML3 - Day Two

Sunday, September 28th, 2008 by Mike

The amps are continuing to improve as they fully warm up and settle in.

I have not seen such a smile on Neli’s face for years and years. She is spending all her time cleaning and playing records [while I slave away in my office around the corner ;-) ]. She was even talking about putting up a new post about them on this blog. I think this is the first time ever for my blog-shy wifey that she even TALKED about posting.

They seem to be perfectly balanced and really do excel equally in of the aspects of sound reproduction that audiophiles usually look for: Sophisticated, Natural, Real, Emotional, Impressive. They are very much like the Coltrane Supremes in this way: not showy - just perfect un-heard-of-before-this-what-were-we-all-thinking competence.

We are waiting to do any critical listening until the Lamm L2 linestage arrives - which should add another leap in improvement just based on the synergy between the two Lamm pieces if nothing else [and, face it, the L2 is just mo better than the linestage inside the DCC2 DAC].

The speakers also should be moved if we are to optimize the listening experience. It is funny how both the Audio Note Kegon Balanced and the Lamm ML3 Signature both had strong enough personalities to make us want to move the speakers to different locations - that they are both so different from the other amps we had here - and so different from each other. [Personally, I am trying to put off the speaker moving thing until the show in a week or so - at which time I will get our fill of moving things, let me tell you] .

I proposed that we move everything up front by the amps (9 boxes on their HRS M3 platforms: 4 amp + crossover + 2 L2 and TSD1 and DAC2) so that we can hear the system with just Nordost ODIN and Jorma PRIME cables - at least for the digital… but noooooooo, Neli doesn’t want me to be contributing any more to the electronic component sprawl [already at 5 boxes, what is a few more boxes? :-) And so what if we have to push back the front row of chairs a little to make room for all of the boxes? ;-) ] in the front of the room at the show. Sucks.

Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers - photos & first impressions

Saturday, September 27th, 2008 by Mike

Lamm Industries generously loaned us a pair of ML3 amps for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest - and we got them setup and they were warmed up enough for listening last night.

We did most of our listening on the Brinkmann Balance turntable, since the Emm Labs TSD1/DAC2 digital is still breaking in. Even so, we are running it through the Emm Labs DCC2 DAC’s linestege as we wait for our Audio Note M9 and Lamm L2 preamps to arrive.

I spent a lot of our listening time comparing these to the big Audio Note amps: The Kegon Balanced and Ongaku.

For now, my matchbook cover, over simplification of the difference is this:

Our friend Dave Cope once described the top flight Audio Note amps [and specifically the M10 linestage] as drill-sergeants - they are so intent on controlling each note with an iron [titanium] grip.

Well, in comparison with the Lamm, the AN primarily controls the MACRO dynamics with an iron grip, and leaving the micro-dynamics to be slightly less controlled [in comparison with the Lamm] and the Lamm controls the MICRO dynamics like nobody’s business [as Neli would put it], and the macro-dynamics is less controlled [in comparison with the AN]. Get it? They are PRIMARILY focused on different parts of the dynamic spectrum - not that they don’t control all parts of the dynamic spectrum better than any other amps out there, because they do. It is just that their APPROACH to the reproduction of the sound is different from each other.

So with these ML3’s, you can hear WAY into the music, the details are very, very three dimensional, the micro-harmonics incredibly varied and complex, the micro-separation really excellent.

For example, on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Tin Pan Alley LP, the Lamm ML3 had an ability to convey how HARD each note was played on the guitar [which I grew up with and play on and mostly off - so I can hear rightness better than say, Neli :-) ] not primarily through the different levels of dynamic punch, but because you could HEAR that the string was stretched and hear the pick as it slid rapidly and with great force across the string as it was picked. So this resulted in a sound that just whacked the listener across the ears - sometimes it sounded like that guitar string would BREAK if Stevie kept doing that - which is just like it is supposed to sound on those particular notes.

So this was a case where something that might be considered macro-dynamic was clearly rendered perfectly by the ML3. That is why I talked about how, using this hypothetical model of the two amps, their PRIMARY focus seems to be on different areas of the dynamic spectrum - but that this is just their APPROACH to the sound, that they still dominate all areas and aspects of the reproduction in ways that will take quite some time to understand [probably longer than the two weeks or so we get to hear these particular amps] .

[P.S. Neli tells me to post that she thinks that I am not being enthusiastic enough about the amps… not the Lamm nor the Audio Note. I guess I am being very analytical but I do have to focus mightily on understanding the sound so I can try and describe it in these clumsy words we all communicate back and forth with - and maybe I am just tired of the very, very long reviews that I read - when I read any at all these days - that, for their extreme, time-wasting length, are nothing really but vacuous cheerleading at best and disingenuous brown-nosing more often than not.

Hopefully describing WHY these are great amps speaks louder than “OMG Best Amp/Speaker/Digital Ever!!!” (… even though in these particular cases they, in all likelihood, ARE the best… ;-) )

It is like, I imagine our very friendly, intelligent and passionate hypothetical readers to say “OK Mike, we have read and surfed our fingers to the bone and it seems like there is nothing out there that is not ‘The Best’. Now you say that these are the best. Now, describe WHY and HOW they are the best. And describe for us how they are different from all the other bests and second bests you have there. ….. And, only if you must, just briefly describe how these bests are better/different than the ’stuff’ that other reviewers, dealers and manufacturers swear up and down are the ‘best’… but JFYI you can skip the comparisons with Bose”)

If any of you very friendly, intelligent and passionate hypothetical readers want to add to that, please let us know].

OK… photos:

The system all setup

Warming up

At night. Those GM70 tubes are quite bright.

Earlier in the day, the ML3 front

The ML3 rear

Closeup of the rear

The ML3 power supply front

The ML3 power supply rear

The ML3 power supply rear closeup

The ML3 without tubes

Closeup of the socket for the GM70 tube and the controls for feedback etc.

Some photos of the amps while warming up

Closeup of the glow of the ML3’s GM70 vacuum tube

Emm Labs: The TSD1 and DAC2

Friday, September 26th, 2008 by Mike

Here are some photos of the new EMM Labs TSD1 transport and DAC2 DAC we are taking to RMAF 2008 in a few weeks.

Here is the blurb sent to us which will fill you in on some of the particulars:

“The chassis is completely machined thick aluminum in gorgeous brushed silver with matching metal remote when bought as a set completely redone and retooled from the CES units so they look and feel a lot better and seamless.

The DAC2 is our next generation converter with a host of digital inputs and can be used EASILY with ANY digital source. It has Ed’s MFAST technology that allows it to completely get rid of source jitter and phase distortion inherent in all 2 or multibox systems and acquire audio seamlessly in milliseconds even from the most difficult sources like Satellite Radio, DVB, Computer systems, portable media players etc. It also has all of Ed’s prior technologies, MDAT up-conversion technology where incoming audio is up-sampled to 2X SACD (5.6Mhz) and Ed’s discrete custom built DA converters all built on composite aerospace EMMbed PCB circuit boards. Along with the regular I/O like AES, SPDIF, TOSLINK etc. it also has USB Audio port for connection directly to computers and music servers.

The TSD1 is has the built in MDAT up-converter and 2008 German drive plus it sports the new transport software and LCD screen. It also has the new single fiber EMM Link for interconnection between it and the DAC2.”

DAC2 MSRP is $9,500 US
TSD1 MSRP is $11,000 US

We can testify that when you look at them [and especially when you pick them up :-) ] you can see that they are made with a thick aluminum chassis that feels very solid and robust.

First impressions, after about 3 whole hours(!) of playing [with :-) ] them is that they are very lively like the CDSA but more so [through-out the entire note], that the notes are very well controlled throughout the entire note - something that neither analog nor digital has really contributed to in my experience [instead, we rely on uber amplifiers to do the best that can be done with the signal they are given], and a very black background [the honorable competition, and even the Emm Lab’s own CDSD/DCC2 pair to some lesser extent, seems to try and fill in the background with a lot of extra information - amplifying the quiet sounds so they do not get lost, or to please the listener with a sense of higher resolution - similar to the tipped up midrange on showroom speakers and tipped up contrast on showroom TVs? I don’t know but the digital revolution is still advancing at a rapid pace and this sounds like this will be de’rigeur in a few years. The feeling is that there is a lot more separation between the subtle notes].

But it has only been THREE HOURS. Right now we have to listen around the Cold New Player Effect - things will likely get even better if past experience [with new players] is any predictor of the future experience [improvements associated with broken-in players]. Already I think both Neli and I prefer this pair over the previous Emm Labs digital [and we preferred THAT over other digital we have heard - with the POSSIBLE exception of the Esoteric P-01/D-01/G-0s, which is much more expensive [at $60K+] and we would have to hear much more closely to get a feeling which is ‘better’, or just ‘different’. But this *is* the league EMM Labs is playing in - the best in the world.].

More in a few hundred hours or so. Or come to the show and hear for yourself :-)

The TSD1 transport

The TSD1 transport turned on

The TSD1 rear panel

The DAC2

The DAC2 rear panel

The new remote

The new remote next to the remote that comes with the CDSD/DCC2. Not as wide, same thickness, and without volume controls… Both feel great in the hand

[unlike Sony XBR remotes - boy, my mute button is already squished in after 2 weeks of use. What a POS remote - and these are their top-of-the-line LCDs too].

Meitner versus Meitner: the CDSA and the DCC2/CDSD pair

Thursday, September 25th, 2008 by Mike

We had a chance to compare these two players recently as we were swapping in the DCC2 DAC’s linestage for the Lamm L2 reference linestage [which was getting refreshed for RMAF].

We ran the warm CDSA SE [with broken-in new transport] and then the cold CDSD SE [with the older transport] + DCC2 SE DAC, both through the L2.

We are most familiar with the CDSA on this system, as we have used it quite a bit up here on the Coltrane Supremes loudspeakers these last few months.

Even though the CDSA at $11.5K costs about exactly half as much as the CDSD/DCC2 pair [with its added linestage = inputs for the turntable, for example] it has received such affection from everybody, everywhere, that even we were wondering about the real differences between the two digital front ends.

Well, even completely cold the CDSD/DCC2 pair had greater presence, PRaT, detail, image solidity and soundstage realism, dynamic solidity… you name it. There wasn’t any area in which the pair was not better than the CDSA [if one figures that the linestage in the DCC2 is about a $5K preamp - and it is at least of that quality compared to stand-alone preamps out there, then the pair is only about 50% more expensive than the CDSA - and it’s quality is indeed about 50% better, given the expected diminishing returns at this level of high-fidelity]…

… except…

The CDSD transport

When thinking about WHY the CDSA is so charming - I think [besides the killer price] that it is a little more enthusiastic at the leading edge of each note - or has just a little bit less detail there, which makes it seem a little more dynamic right there at the leading edge. This makes the CDSA seem to sound a little more youthful, and at the same time a little more like other devices in the galaxy of solid-state equipment - a little less analog, but a little more familiar to people used to solid-state or who prefer a little more youthful presentation.

The CDSD transport close-up

The DCC2

The DCC2 close-up


The CDSA close-up

The CDSA is now downstairs on the $90K Audio Note Ongaku integrated amp and $60K Marten Coltrane and it sounds killer. We love this 3-piece system and in fact would like to take this exact system to the RMAF 2009 for one of our small rooms. Sounds great, looks great, … and is a lot easier to move than some of our other systems here… :-)

The CDSD/DCC2 pair is on $300K Marten Coltrane Supreme system and connected to the $90K Audio Note Kegon Balanced monoblocks, no wait, it is now - this morning, connected to the Lamm ML2.1 amps, … no… wait… ;-)

Quick Tour II

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Mike

Ooops - Tour three got posted before two.

Well, not much is happening on this floor. Two nice systems. The EDGE is still on the AN speakers - where we are performing some macro-dynamic shock treatments and seriously braking them in, using solid-state so we do not have to waste any tube life on the somewhat contrived process.

Some shots of the Audio Note and Walker turntables. No phono-preamplifier down here yet - so these sit here, appreciated only for their good looks.

The Marten Coltrane loudspeakers [on consignment] on the Lamm ML2.1 and Audio Aero Prestige

Quick Tour III

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Mike

This system - the Audio Note Ongaku 211-based integrated amplifier into $7K AN/E HE speakers, driven by a little $3.5K Audio Note CD2.1x Mark II Player [Valhalla speaker cable and AN interconnects] - is obviously somewhat unbalanced - the amplifier costing a wee bit more than the rest of the system put together.

But it sounds VERY engaging. The amp is just tossing note around like they were wisps of air [:-)], it so completely dominates the sound.

Is this approx. $100K system better than a more balanced one with, say, $30K AN speakers and a $30K Conquest-like amp and $20K digital transport and DAC and $20K preamp?

Probably not.

But it is really fun to listen to - especially if you are familiar enough with listening around, and to, individual components in the system. You can HEAR all the flaws, and unsuspected strengths, in the weaker components.

For example, the upper-mids and highs of the little 1-box CD player are really quite good - but the lower mids are a little laid back, and complex passages do not have quite the separation, in comparison to $10 and $20K digital. Pretty good trade-offs, I think.

And, often, perhaps it is the lack of sophistication, the lack of complexity, to the overall sound that makes it really surprisingly straight-forwardly exuberant sometimes - when it all just comes together.

You know, they say happiness is the removal of pain. Like the scratching of an itch. So, perhaps for ultimate musical enjoyment, there has to be some pain, something not quite EXCELLENT, mixed in with the excellent sound, for us to feel that ultimate Audiophile High? [if so, boy do we all need therapy or what? ;-) ]

Quick Tour

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Mike

The inside of one of the Audio Note Kegon Balance 300B amplifiers. The Kegon Balance is essentially a 300B Gaku-on. The Gaku-on is Audio Note’s best amplifier which is based on the 211 tube.

The sound?

Very dynamic and controlled. The signature reticence of the speaker’s ceramic drivers is no longer audible. It is hard to over-state this aspect of these amps. A lot of the time is just spent thinking ‘I didn’t know amps could DO that’.

In comparison, solid-state amps just smack the notes out with a sledge-hammer - they [currently seem to] have no ability to control the shape of the notes as it they are supposed to be - if they are to sound like music [or even just musical] that is.

And in comparison, most tube amps just sound anemic, where they, overall, can generated notes shaped more naturally, more real, than solid-state, but lack that SMACK that most musicians often apply to their piano or guitar or drum.

Just the right amount of harmonics. Which is to say more than the Lamm ML2.1 6C33C tube-based amplifier, and less than your other 300B-based amplifiers [that we have heard]. Presumably all of our readers know how bad too little harmonics affects the enjoyability of music. And for too much harmonics, too much harmonics and the primary tone washes out the lesser tones - and it is the lessor tones that make a person hear deep into the richness and playfulness and… I don’t know - that thing that happens when you go into a toy store and bang on some chimes - or into a Tibetan store [we have a dozen here in Boulder] and bang on the gongs or use the Bhuddist bowls - or to a piano store and bang on the keys of their best piano — JUST to listen to the sound and the undertones [and the lovely decades-long decay].

Anyway - more on this system after RMAF.

First glimce of new Marten penultimate loudspeakers

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Mike

Photos of the late prototype of the speaker that goes between the Coltrane and Coltrane Supreme on the Swedish Euphonia Forum

[Thanks Alex!]

Other listening rooms have stairs as well….

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Mike

Maybe not 45, like poor old us :-) , but at least ours are wider [but then again, ours are outside,… slippery steps are our lot most of the Winter *sigh*].

Getting the big MBL speakers up to Jonathan Valin’s listening room.

[Thanks for the links, Steven!]

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