Audio Federation Rm 557 pt. 2

Marten, Audio Note, Emm Labs at RMAF

Marten Coltrane speakers, Audio Note Ongaku integrated amp, EMM Labs XDS1 CD  / SACD player, Jorma Prime speaker cables [and sometimes integrconnect) and Nordost Odin interconnect and power cords, Elrod power cord, HRS amp stands.


The sound was very high resolution, very clean, very harmonically rich and very pure.


Done with the ‘very’ies. But keep them in mind because they do describe and define the core of this system’s sound.

The sound was filling the room and we had good room pressurization going on. The bass was present and fairly well-dampened and we did not have significant problems with room nodes. The sound was quite musical, if not quite riveting [by Wednesday it would have been riveting :-)]. Frequency response and dynamics were even-handed top to bottom [a little less authority on the bottom, this is a relatively small speaker], a natural amount of micro-dynamics, a natural amount of separation [notes perfectly separated but still part of the whole]….

This system handled complex music just about as well as it handled simple notes – there was no sense of added confusion as the music transitioned from simple harmonies into complex harmonies [complex passages in better recordings do resolve better, however].

Similarly, the high resolution and harmonic detail – and our willingness to play opera attacted a number of people with their opera CDs. The voices, instead of sounding shrill as they often do when there is not enough resolution or harmonic color – were wonderfully involving and hypnotizing.

I talked about playing rock and roll in the last post, and I could now talk about how each component [and we always include cables and cords in these discussion as if they were components] handles its responsibilties in the musical chain – but because each component did its job so very well, I think it might be hard for everybody to believe that each component is really as important as every other component. So we will move on to the next post [Uh, I am writing this section last, sorry] where it will become obvious what happens when a piece or two does NOT do its job.


I promised to talk about the 3 1/2 days of breakin of the Marten ‘Coltrane’ speakers.

The LACK of being broken in had several clearly audible signatures:

1. Brightness and sibilance in the treble (the occurrence of this was reduced to about half, say, by the 3rd day)

2. A stiff, unrelaxed sound, all-too-quick decays, ‘cold’ kind of sound (this was much improved by the 3rd day – but this is an asymptotic kind of break in, taking months to get to 95% and always getting better and better the more it is played)

3. A rare ‘tizz’ in the low treble that sounds like a metal bee got caught in the speaker (this was gone by the 3rd day. Whew!)

4. Exaggerated percussive transients that makes things like symbols and drum whacks etc. more prominent than normal (here this is caused by #2, above [which happens for all speakers] but #4 is somewhat more prominent on ceramic driver speakers. Again, the longer the speaker is played, the more natural this becomes) [this aberration is very prominent on several horn speakers (not Acapella BTW) and never seems to go away (or maybe, of the dozens of different versions of these speakers – I have never heard a broken-in pair)]

What did we do? What we did (besides fret and worry) was to

1) play an ocean waves disc at night, and the louder we played it at night the more it seemed to have improved by morning.

2) play Whos Next quite loud. Later Aerosmith Toys in the Attic. These [I think both were the SACDS versions] have lots of detail – revelatory for me, like the 1st time hearing the SACD version of the Moody Blues albums. Lots of energy in the treble – helped the speakers get to the next plateau

3) Tried to keep the volume down to a reasonable level. This was almost impossible [we tried to do the Lamm room thing, keeping things mellow, but I guess our hearts just weren’t in it]. We invite everybody to play their own CDs, and most want to hear them at a specific volume: loud. We rarely went past 4 [which was quite loud], out of 10, on the Ongaku – this system CAN go LOUD.

Mike Latvis did convince innocent ole me 🙂 to turn the volume up to 5.5 on Bela Fleck (track 4 on the CD) and the bass on that track was pretty darn impressive [not sure how else to describe it] at that volume. Let’s just say that the Ongaku drove those [89dB] speakers to very high SPL, controlling each note perfectly from birth to death, without straining.

4) We pointed the speakers down at the seated listeners. It was determined early on that this helped reduce the negative effects of un-broken in tweeters. Usually this hardly matters and we point the speakers midway between a standing person’s ears and a seated person’s ears [more or less]

5) Worry and fret.


Like I said in the previous post, we were happy with the result. However, this happiness is somewhat the result of coming to a realization about how stupid and foolish we were to expect miracles from a more-or-less brand new speaker – and being relieved that we were able to navigate the treacherous waters of un-broken-in-hood lane and come out the other side alive.


After much advice and after many different positions we finally placed the speakers about 2.5 feet from the front walls and facing almost perfectly straight ahead.

The 2.5 feet was Neli’s idea. I thought that they should go closer to the front wall, Martens like that, but the draperies were absorbing way too much energy and generating a dull confused presentation. We pulled them out another 1/2 inch on Saturday morning – the breaking in was loosening up the speakers and causing it to interact negatively again with the drapes [maybe. But it did sound better after that 1/2 inch move].

The straight ahead idea was mine, sort of. Somebody pointed out that the soundstage was still kind of narrow, and I remembered how we used to set these speakers up straight ahead sometimes. The final test was to sit in the chairs left and right of center, in the front row, which were almost directly in front of one of the speakers, and see if there was a soundstage – see if whether the speaker right in front of us would disappear or not. It did.

We put the paper posters on both sides of the room at the 1st reflection point (for most seats) and that added about 5% more clarity to the separation etc.

The 13x19feet room is much easier to setup than the big 19×30? [I think the audiofest website is wrong] rooms. Optimally I would like a 16 x 25 room, I think, for shows. Easy to setup and fill with music but with a lot of seating.

Audio Federation Rm 557

This year we were in a smaller room than the previous 6 years – having unexpectedly lost our large 9030 room.

We will NOT get this room next year and we do NOT recommend room 557 to anybody else. The soda machine and ice machine outside in the hall generated a 60dB noise floor in our room with the door closed at their quietest and 65 to 70dB at their noisiest. Considering that one of the special things about the system we had setup is its incredibly low noise floor and ability to generate very, very subtle details [as most listeners can still attest] this sucked.

We would like to thank Kevin for helping staff and tear down the room [thanks Kevin!] and Mike Latvis [of HRS] who I hear also staffed the room for a bit [:-)]. Steve, who often helps staff our room, instead helped setup and tear down HRS racks in several rooms this year. Also thanks go to the PTE (PRECISION TRANSDUCER ENGINEERING) guys for helping us get the speakers to the show and up to our room (and back again. Thanks guys!).

We always pay for the entire room for our mixed system room – owing no allegiance to any manufacturer so that we can freely design whatever system we want to take to the show. This year was somewhat unique in that we asked many of our [very charitable] manufacturers for the loan of equipment for the show in order to build this particular system – which we had prototyped a year or so ago but no longer had all the components to build.

Our many and grateful thanks go to Peter Qvortrup (Audio Note), Dan Meinwald (Marten), Shahin and the entire Mietner clan (Emm Labs), Mike Latvis (HRS), and Michael and the entire Nordost clan.

People we sorely missed: LCBIII [GWS!], M Mallory, R Halterman, P Strain, Danny K., Jody, J. Hilton, J. Miller, and J. Rebman. PQ, Vince, Vladimir and Elina – you guys are soooo lame for never making it to this show [;-) yeah, yeah, you all have your very good reasons. Still lame :-)].

Neli and Fred Crowder on one of the several quiet moments on Sunday


This system is designed to be a medium-scale EXTREMELY high resolution, EXTREMELY accurate, yet EXTREMELY musical system. Starting at the source:

* The Emm Labs XDS1 player playback is at a very, very low noise floor and high resolution but, uniquely for having such a high resolution, does not sound artificially ‘detailed’ but like how music is supposed to sound

* The 2 Nordost Odin power cords delivered instantaneous power in response to a components needs that is experientally quite important for components in order to retrieve subtle details that were, amazingly, on our source material all along. Similarly with the Odin interconnect – it delivers more of the signal from source to destination than anything else we have heard.

* The famous Audio Note Ongaku integrated… is at heart a very clean and honest amplifier that knows just how to woo speakers into doing what they are supposed to be doing [bested in this aspect only by the AN Kegon Balanced and Gaku Ons. Seriously, 99% of your amps out there are real wimps and let the lazy ass speaker do whatever it wants most of the time during each note attack and decay] .

* The Marten Coltrane speakers are one of the most honest and even handling and revealing speakers in the world – and at only a 104lbs and bottom ported, are one of the most room friendly speakers.

* The components were sitting on HRS M3x platforms and amp stands, which prevents vibrations from stealing our hard-earned resolution from us – everything from subtle details to slam.

* Finally, Jorma Design ‘Prime’, very high resolution, harmonically transparent speaker cables finishes our equipment list.

As with most of our systems at these shows, each component is either best in class, or best in all the world in the pursuit of reproducing Music.

[I can hear [not really, my ears aren’t THAT good :-)] a couple of you saying to yourself “Oh, there he goes again – talking about how great their system was. Guess he has to do that for the business”. For one, I always talk about the pluses and MINUSES of the sound in our room. Second, people that actually heard the sound in our rooms can read what I say, and they can use this to calibrate what they heard against the way I describe things and extrapolate that to the other rooms I describe. Third, just look at the caliber of ALL the components in our room and compare it to any other room. Fourth, its not like we designed or built this stuff – we only lug it in and set it up – we are just giving credit where credit is due.

We put these supremely excellent components in a system of other components of similar excellent quality – allowing them to actually be heard and not shadowed by inferior components [cables too, of course]. Why this is, by and large, so very, very uncommon is a complete mystery to us. The room we setup SHOULD be the best of show with respect to the type of system we are going for – it would only be news if it was not.

This is the system that *I* want for my office. And I’ve wanted it for over a year now – and that is a long time for someone like me who has access to a lot of toys here. Not so overpowering that I get blasted out the windows [or somebody calls the police 🙂 But seriously, I do not want to just make a lot of loud noises, i.e.a Muscle system, certainly not in my office – nor do a want a Technical Marvel system – my job makes high end marvels look extremely quaint. I want a Practical system, a small Audio Note system would be great, or This One], but with the ability to plumb the deepest depths of musical angst and heights of musical joy, a vehicle which can take me away and provide me with a very, very rich universe to explore of musical atoms and melodious molecules and entire worlds of harmony and galaxies of compositions. Then, to bring me back refreshed so I can get back to work and stop telling the computer (Windows, Comcast, etc,) it is a POS (and worse! ;-)) quite so often.]

As we whined about so much on Thursday and Friday (the 1st day) the Coltrane speakers had only been used once, 10 months ago at CES, driven by the flagship, yet still quite laid back, Cary amps. And even though the Marten factory uses special hardware to break-in their speakers – the speakers were for the most part very stiff after sitting in crates for all that time and for all intents and purposes were still unbroken in.

So this system did not *quite* live up to our expectations [we prototyped this system about a year or so ago, so we had a good idea what to expect +/- 10% say] but by Sunday, it was 80% there [i.e. perhaps 80% of the people who heard it could probably understand what we were trying to do]. On Friday it may have been, justifiably, only about 20-30%, using the same metric.

Overall, we were very happy – for most of this year we were so upset about losing our big room, 9030, that we were not going to show at all. But we pulled this together at the last minute, and we got to hear one of our very favorite systems for a few days and we got to see a lot of our friends.

It was a blast.

Part 2 forthcoming…

Magico / Spectral and Just what is this soullessness stuff anyway?

[See the Magico / Spectral room review in the last post]

What does it mean when a system is said to be soulless?

We will try here to describe ‘soul’ in some way better than the ‘know it when you hear it’ kind of way.

Can we design a system so that it will likely have soul? Or do we have to rely on that ‘miracle occurs’ luck that plays so large a part in high end audio these days?

The pat answer has been that tubes have soul and transistors do not. The technical specification junkies say, in a somewhat derogatory manner, it is the 2nd-order harmonic distortion of tubes that people call ‘soul’.

Certainly dropping a tube pre or amp into a system can often add soul – and a very few components like the Joule Electra amps and Audio Aero CD players *always* add a World of soul to any system [just hooked up the Audio Aero LaSource directly to the Edge Reference solid-state amps. Very soulful and very different than the Audio Note, or even Lamm, approach to tube-powered sound]

Some small part of soulful music may indeed have something to do with 2nd-order harmonics – but I believe that there are many technical aspects of tube sound that are more Real than what solid-state can typically reproduce. It is these technical feats that should give the solid-state folks some hope that someday that can match, and even surpass, what can be done with tube-based architectures.

What do we mean when we say a system has ‘soul’?

Essentially [love that word ;-0] it means that the emotional aspect of the music is readily accessible by the listener. In practice this usually means the emotional state that the musician is trying to convey through the music .. love, angst, suspense, release, anger, passion, etc. – often combinations of these and many emotions may be found throughout more complex [emotionally] pieces of music. When you realize that the number of possible emotions is a very large [uncountable finite if we are going to be picky] number – and that we have the capacity to vicariously experience and enjoy these emotions [even the bad ones. Horror movies anyone?] you can begin to understand why people LOVE to listen to music [and read and watch movies].

Soulless music reproduction systems, like that in the Magico / Spectral room at RMAF 2010, however, have little or no emotionally accessible component.

What technical aspects of musical reproduction are required to convey emotion?

After thinking about this for a long time – it appears that much of the emotional content [as opposed to the aesthetic content, an area where tubes also best solid-state] is found in the attack and decay of each note.

Suspense, for example, is the slight delay of the note relative to the beat of the music [which solid-state can do fine] combined with the swelling of the note in a somewhat more rapid manner so that the note at maximum SPL itself appears exactly on the beat.

It is [for sake of argument] the emotional importance assigned to the note attack / decay by the listener – the parts of the note that solid-state gets completely wrong [very slight exaggeration :-)] -that tubes [can] do well, that makes tubes able to convey emotional content so much more competently than solid-state.

In Conclusion

So, yeah, seems like systems have to rely on tubes have no soul.. But there is no immediately obvious reason why SS cannot someday surpass tubes. It is quite a challenge – but maybe, if these SS guys can get it into their heads that music has soul [emotion] and audio reproduction equipment should be able convey this to the listener [and that harmonic distortion is almost completely meaningless in the context of music (as opposed to ‘sound’)] then maybe they will get to fracking work and make SS amplification a Real contender in this hobby.