Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier

Neli had the opportunity recently to help unpack and setup Audio Note’s new Level Six linestage preamplifier, the M10 Line Signature, at Fred’s place in Houston. Fred will be reviewing it over the coming months. He’s started a thread over on Myles Astor’s site, AudioNirvana.org, with M10 Line Signature discussion and comments.

She took some pictures and told some stories :-) some of which I can tell you here…

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Acapella Triolon loudspeakers, Audio Note Kegon Balanced amplifiers, EMM Labs’ DA2 DAC and TX2 transport, Finite Elemente racks, and, of course, the 3 box (control plus a power supply for each channel) Audio Note M10 Line Signature. Fred’s analog rig is an updated Rockport Sirius 2 with Ortofon A90, and an Ypsilon stepup transformer and phonostage.

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I’m from the “How hard can it be” tribe, but , hey, there is a manual, just in case 😉

 

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The front of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier

OK. Just like every other time we have had the pleasure… But brand new, cold, just hooked up for the first time – Audio Note rocks. Yeah, it sounds better warmed up of course, but really, it is always such a shocker to hear it sound truly excellent right out of the box, unlike just about everything else we have ever heard.

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The rear of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier. Support for bi-amping is apparent. The green military-grade connectors on the left there are for the connections to the two power supplies.

 

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The front of one of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier’s ‘Galahad Signature’ power supplies.

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The rear of one of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier’s ‘Galahad Signature’ power supplies. The separate right and left channel power supplies connect to the main linestage control unit with Audio Note’s provided silver umbilical cables.

 

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Convenient double high rack for the power supplies.

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The front of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier powered up. This is the main control unit, with separate right and left volume controls, and the selector switch.

 

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The front of the Audio Note M10 Line Signature preamplifier powered up. This piece provides two transformer-coupled balanced inputs and four single ended inputs.

 

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The original system with the EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers [with gold faceplate] which Neli reports went very well with the Audio Note M10 Line Signature as well.

Break-through amplifiers. Part II

So, lets compare the Audio Note U.K. Gaku-on and Lamm ML3 amps.

The Gaku-On is a $265,000 monoblock 211-based amp [I think of it sometimes as 2 very souped-up Ongaku amps without a volume control]

The Lamm ML3 Signature is a $139,490 monoblock GM-70-based amp [4 boxes: 2 amps plus 2 power supplies]

Technology

Though I understand just a very little about how these amps break new ground in technology and simplicity of design, I am not qualified to compare them to other designs out there and describe why these are significantly better. So, although these are pretty obviously breakthrough amps in terms of technology [just look at the circuits – it is simplicity itself], it is really the breakthroughs in terms of the listening experience that is, and what some say [including us, and many others of this blog :-)] should be, the real criteria for breakthrough-level excellence.

The technology of the Gaku-On is found in several other amps from AN including the Kegon Balanced. Some of the technology of the ML3 is found in their matching L1 preamplifier.

Audiophile Characteristics

I feel that the ML3 has more resolution than the Gaku-On, but both have more than any other amp we have heard. The Gaku-On has purer harmonics than the ML3, much purer than any other amp we have heard [especially when paired with the better AN amps and digital sources]. The ML3 has greater harmonic resolution and harmonic and dynamic linearity, again breaking new ground. The Gaku-On is more dynamic and dynamically nimble, breaking new ground here itself [live with these for awhile and you will understand in a visceral and indelible manner why most big amps and solid-state amps have real problems with the kind of dynamics found in real music]. The ML3 has a quieter, startlingly dark background although the Gaku-On is itself among the most quiet tube amps in the world.

But enough with the audiophile chatter… :-)

Character of the Amps

These can be thought of, I think, in terms of Heart versus Mind [though it is a Yin Mind and a Yang Heart we are talking about here].

When one things of Yin amplifiers versus Yang amplifiers one might think of, say, Jadis amps versus old Krell amps. And certainly the idea that Yin represents winning us to its side through delicacy and Yang through overwhelming power… kind…of… represents the case here…

The idea is that the Lamm ML3 presents music in a very sophisticated, delicate, intricate and accurate manner – and the Audio Note UK Gaku-On in a dynamic, colorful, and enthusiastic manner.

Effect of the Amps

The effects are more similar than what one might expect, especially when you realize that the heart can be won by convincing the mind [some say we always consciously (mentally) CHOOSE who we fall in love with], and the mind can be won by convincing the heart [e.g. love is blind, all you need is love, etc.].

I feel that the Gaku-On pulls harder on the heart strings, that the dynamic swells and casual ease and rich, insidiously TRUTHFUL color overwhelms our inhibitions and forces us to fall heels over head into the music.

I feel that the ML3 pulls harder on the higher mental functions, that the dynamic and harmonic resolution and convincingness is so entrancing that the mind is unable to resist falling head over heels into the music.

Strength of the Effect

It depends

You might think that after a day of doing math homework, say, you might want… something different – something that appeals to the heartstrings to distract your tired mind from a day’s hard work? Or would you want something that is intellectual but incredibly beautiful that sneaks into the head which is already open to intellectual stimulation.

Similarly, after a day of arguing with nincompoops, you might want something refined and delicate, the best of humanity in high resolution. But, maybe you want to just blast away all remembrances and de-nincompoop the day with some beautiful, heart-rending stimulation.

Both these amps are fun. Both help distract me from the days’ travails. Both are convincing and exciting and delicious. And even if I sometimes THINK I would prefer one or the other, I am wrong as often as I am right.

But that is me. I enjoy equally well both appeals to the heart and to the mind…. just sometimes more one than the other.

Mental Pattern Matching

Now that we have described some of the basic characteristics of these amps, we can try and talk about the listening experiences in more detail.

Our Believability Helper Processor
Our Whiteout Processor

These amps, largely based on the quality of their reproduction, require previously unheard of low levels of use of our fixer-upper mental processors. They are far more believable and have far fewer annoying characteristics than other amps currently available and/or that we have heard.

Our Rainbow Processor

Our desire and ability to mentally enhance our music in a fun and exaggerated manner never flags, and with these amps there is no exception, although the need or desire to do so is lessened quite a bit.

Our Pattern Detection Processor
Our Pattern Matching Processor

Here is where we can start comparing the amps and how they differ in what they offer the listener.

[Please note I am somewhat exaggerating the differences in order to better explain what is happening to a listener. In reality there is quite a bit of overlap as both amps are able to render the all kinds of music quite well and convincingly]

The extreme resolution of the ML3 lends itself the ability to render very complex patterns. These patterns stimulate the higher cortex of the brain. [I think. Therefore I am]

The extreme purity and dynamics of the Gaku-On lends itself to render very deep, primal patterns. Patterns that stimulate our human and animal natures. [Woof!]

[I feel like I should write more here in this section. But… well… see previous posts about how the patterns in music cause matching resonances in our brains, resonances that aid us in thinking and understanding and feeling things.]

Our Emotional Contexualizer

Both amps draw out the emotional subtleties of the music. In somewhat different ways, as described above, but both are very emotional amps.

Our Beauty / Wonder / Spiritual Processor

Similar to the emotions, both can frequently provide glimmers, nay stark proof, of the beauty of the universe.

An example: these amps on the Marten Coltrane Supreme Speakers

Putting the ML3 on the Supremes is pairing like with like. They are both high resolution and capable of rendering exquisitely subtle detail. People who are looking just for music that stimulates their heart, and not their mind, will not be so pleased. Those who like both will enjoy the experience quite a bit. And those who are primarily looking for music that stimulates the mind first and foremost, these people will be flabbergasted.

We played this exact system at RMAF … 2008? … and if you read the reviews, you are able to see immediately the preferences of the reviewer. The next year we brought the Gaku-On amps in a mostly Audio Note system. This mostly ‘appealing to the heart’ system flabbergasted those who really did not like nor understand the above system, these people preferring their music to be heart-centric rather than mind-centric.

Putting the Gaku-On on the Supremes is pairing male with female, chocolate and peanut butter. The combination sounds like the perfect horn speaker: a dynamic, high-resolution, harmonically rich point source. This was a more balanced, both heart-and-mind centric sound. Systems like this are a good compromise if you, like me, like both heart-centric and mind-centric sound.

Comparison to other sounds

Mind-centric does not mean cold and unemotional. Cold and unemotional systems have insufficient resolution to render the subtleties required to communicate emotion in voices and instruments [often because the speakers are too hard to drive and small sounds just get lost as the amps struggle with the major sounds] .

Heart-centric does not mean fake or sugary sound. The often used epithet used by people who fear heart-centric sound is artificially sweet is undeserved for real heart-centric systems. If there is to be more than just one emotion communicated by a system [like cheap wine, missing is all the wonderful variety of flavors possible], it needs to be high-resolution and highly realistic.

Conclusion

For a long time I preferred the Gaku-On and neli preferred the ML3. The I’d hear the ML3 and she would hear our Kegons or something and we’d swap. We’d go back and forth, usually wanting the opposite of what the other wanted [yes, some of it due to husbandly cantankerousness, but also some of it because I really do know best and she just kept getting it wrong :-)].

I lot of the appreciation of life, for me, comes when one knows what one appreciates. Not so much from getting what one appreciates, but understanding just where one stands with respect to where quality can be found. I know which two amps I want, and this does make the world make a little more sense than back in the day when I was a fish biting on everything that came along – including all those rocks, leaves and whatnot.

Audio Note CDT-5 transport and Fifth Element DAC observations

This $185K (2011 pricing), 3-box (CDT-Five Transport, Fifth Element DAC and its Fifth Force power supply) digital front end is somewhat difficult to describe and put into context except to say that it is so clearly better in so many. many ways than what has been previously available – it is hard to imagine even those audiophiles with preferences out there on the very fringe not easily, EASILY preferring this player over other players and most turntables.

But, OK. Some details…

It is expensive. OK. Got that out of the way. :-)

It is also unquestionably significantly better than other playback, and by so a large a margin, that it is easy for one to fall into this “Why would I ever want to play anything else?” attitude and just stop thinking about what it is doing. You stop thinking in terms of “Oh, I wish we had an LP version of this CD” and start focusing on the music [and finding out where it has hidden itself in your collection if your collection is as unorganized as ours is :-)]

This playback is better in all the areas, if we are going to slice and dice it, that audiophiles might feel are important: if you are a detail head, this playback has so much more resolution that it restores your faith in science [more on this later]. If you are a harmonics-head, … oh boy. If you are a sound-stage head, or imaging-head, or dynamics head [later, later]… everybody who focuses on their must-have attributes – they will be ecstatic because they are all there to the max, glorious in all their splendiferousness.

[later] This may be hard to explain to people who are not familiar with what LPs do so well compared to CDs… but let’s try. CDs are supposed to have a larger dynamic range than LPs, but this seemed true only when one compared the softest possible note that these media can manage with their loudest possible note. But with ordinary notes, CDs have always sounded compressed. Dull. Not as lively as an LP. I have always thought ‘more dynamic range’ was essentially marketing BS. But… with the CDT-5/Fifth Element, the difference in dynamics between CD and good LP playback is so small, I do not know now which has more dynamics [it is close enough, I am not sure I care all that much to see which ‘wins by a nose’ here].


(the Fifth Element DAC. The metal appears slightly red because the nearby sunlight is reflecting off our bright red leather couch)

Let’s compare this stack to the Emm Labs XDS1. No we are not eating our young here, we love love love the XDS1, but I think it might help to compare the Audio Note to this very different sounding player that we have so much respect for here at Audio Federation. Although the XDS1 is only $25K (i.e. one EIGHTH the price) it is significantly better than all other solid-state players no matter their price and no matter your sonic preferences [Of course, the same can be said for their little $11,500 CDSA player as well, but let’s not go there…].

It might be instructive to revisit the ways in which the XDS1 excels as a CD/SACD player. First, it has an amazing ability to render the various threads in a musical score without jumbling them all up – not just great separation of notes, but of separation of sequences of notes, various harmonics and of the instruments themselves.

Second it has an extremely black black background. When a note decays you can hear it… hear it… still hearing it… until it ends or the recording engineer turns the volume down to zero. This also allow us to hear very very fine subtle notes and note characteristics. This might be considered another side to ‘high resolution’ – allowing us to actually hear the resolution that is there as opposed to artificially shining a light on the note attacks in various regions of the midrange as is so common amongst the competition.

Finally [skipping to the end here…] the XDS1 just sounds less digital and more like music. I always find this amazing, when comparing this player in shootouts. The other players do not ‘sound digital’ until one hears the XDS1… and then it is “OMG, how did I not hear this problem before?”

OK.

Back to Audio Note’s Fifth Element DAC and CDT-5 Transport.

This is a tube-based solution and therefore you might think it has its natural advantages and disadvantages.

BZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzt! Wrong.

Well. You are right but…

…just not as right as you think you are 😉

The Audio Note digital source really excels in the areas where solid-state usually reigns supreme [love that word], it has higher resolution, better separation and Alllllmost as black a background in our shootouts [and, uh, maybe even a blacker background than the XDS1 – note-to-self we really have to move around some power cords to make this a little more fair].

In other areas it has [very very close!] the midi-dynamics of a good LP playback, it has a tonal truth that I have not heard ANYWHERE else [enough to make you cry when you realize just how poor our usual playback harmonics have been in this regard for the last 100 years]…. You can just add lots of etc.s here – but these are just some of the characteristics, the punching-me-in-the-face differences, of this digital solution compared with all others.

So…

It is 8 times as expensive as the XDS1… and 99% of all other players [many of which really, really suck – why do people buy this stuff? ]…

Is it 8 times as good?

It is this question, me trying to figure out what “8 times as good” means, that has taken me all these many weeks to understand [I could have written the above review in the first 10 minutes or so of hearing the Fifth Element/CDT-5].

One could approach this in this manner: The Fifth Element/CDT-5 is to the XDS1 as the XDS1 is to the…. well, I am not all that familiar with $3125 CD players. One could look at a used Audio Aero Capitole [$4K? a steal] or used Emm Labs CDSA [$5500K how do other solid-state CD player manufacturers stay in business…] or …

So, yeah. 8 times better.

One could also approach this as in “Where is the best place for me to spend $200K in my system?”

:-)

Well, it depends on your system and budget… and really, if you play CDs and want your CDs to sound their best and you just want to KNOW they sound their best and you don’t want to waste your life not listening to the best [which pretty much DOES describe myself, when I have the funds… (oh, and Neli? *sheesh*, she is more gung ho than me half the time)]


(the CD is IsoMike’s release of the Fry Street Quartet playing Haydn)

For the first time since Audio Federation started I started bringing out old OLD CDs. Old Cocteau Twins. Old Patrick O’Hearn, Old Pink Floyd live concert bootlegs [you never seen 3 people more hypnotized by the music – ever have a hard time blinking? – as we listened to an old version of Echos. Magic? Drug-like? How about Warp Drive-like]. Old Jefferson Airplane…

Let’s use Surrealistic Pillow as an example. A gold CD from 1985 or so. Sounds horrible. Seriously, seriously mucked up, man. Especially the complicated electric guitar sections – bright, confused, over-saturated, noisy, you name it. On the CDT-5/Fifth Element you could hear exactly how bad it is – but it wasn’t painful and there wasn’t any problem with listening to the whole CD. This digital playback is really good at stitching together the stuff it finds on CDs and making notes and stringing them together into music. This makes it sound nothing like a ‘digital sound’ with good CDs and makes bad CDs also not sound like digital, but instead like just good, but very badly recorded, music.

Typically, bad CDs are very painful to listen to because their badness, often very aggressive digital-sounding notes, is too hard for most players to handle – and those that can handle it, it is because they just dull and smooth the notes down to round blobs… which of course they also do to all kinds of music played, good or bad. But the CDT-5/Fifth Element does not sacrifice resolution or detail – instead one might say it is the over abundance of resolution, and perhaps especially harmonic resolution, that allows us to have our cake and eat it too i..e very well recorded music has all the detail you will ever be able to hear and bad music is actually listenable and to some extent enjoyable [limited in this case by our knowledge that we should be able to find a better recording of this if we could just get our lazy butts off of the couch :-)]

OK. Kind of a longish review. I won’t bore people with the “equipment has to go back, hate to see it leave, wish we could afford it” end-of-review cliche.

Instead, I will mention a way we use to make us psychologically come to terms with this eventually having to go back to the continent [it is AN’s show digital]. We could just not play music for a couple of weeks – and let the memory dim. We could throw a tantrum and stomp our feet [Oh, I so much want to do THIS!]. We could close Audio Federation, sell a lot of demo stuff off the floor, and just order them up.

But, another perspective is… we now know what the best digital is. No question. And there is nobody else really trying to make the best digital [though they are good at making the most EXPENSIVE this or that out there, and, with the press, the most hyped]. So we put it on The List, we look at the budget, and when we can afford it we will get it back. The hardest part – the analysis and getting to the actual buying decision, is done. And meanwhile we can enjoy other digital, hearing some issues they may have but that is OK. The CDT-5 transport, Fifth Element DAC and Fifth Force power supply are on our (capital ‘L’) List, don’t you know?…

i.e. …They’ll Be Back.

[thanks Jim, I think I stole this perspective from you(?)]