AB Analyzes His System
It was hotthe kind of hot where the second you get out of the shower, you start sweating. My ceiling fan could’ve provided relief, but the repeated clink of its pull-chain added an offbeat to the music. My goal was to analyze my system’s current strengths and weaknesses and define my “reference sound”. The fan had to go. It was time to listen.
The Usher S-520 is Dr. Joseph D’Appolito designed, 50W, 8 ohm, two-way, front-ported compact loudspeaker. It does not use a D’Appolito configuration. Rather, the tweeter is in the corner, a port offset to the opposite side below it, and a midwoofer centered at the bottom. Mine are finished in glittery white paint and rest on 23", kitty litter filled Target speaker stands.
These S-520s are the same units Bob Reina reviewed in 2005. Since then, they’ve lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn and have suffered one dramatic, slow motion fall that chipped the bottom corner on one. At the time of BJR’s review they cost $375/pair. They are now $479/pair. They used to be in Stereophile’s Recommended Components.
Powering the sparkly white horses is the Cambridge Audio Azur 540a integrated amplifier. It has five-inputs, runs 60 watts into 8 ohms and has bass and treble controls that I keep centered. The Cambridge Azur 540a is now discontinued, but it cost $379 at the time of purchase.
The “CD” input on the 540a gets constant loving from a bruised but functional Oppo DV-980H CD Player ($169/discontinued). Sometimes, the DV-980H refuses to eject the disc tray.
The “Aux” input drinks the nectar that is analog playback from a Rega P1 ($350/discontinued) equipped with a glass platter and blue felt mat and a brand new Rega RB101 tonearm and Audio Technica AT95E moving-magnet phono cartridge ($71). All of this runs into a Bellari VP129 phono preamp ($199/ discontinued). The phono setup has a mild level of noise that I can’t remove. It sounds like a bug zapper inside my tweeters. SM says a little noise is natural in any entry-level analog system.
It doesn’t seem to be a grounding noise. Per the Rega manual, the P1 can’t be grounded: “The arm earth (or ground) is automatically connected through the arm cable screening. No other earthing should be necessary.” Also, there is no low frequency hum typical of ground noise. I tried attaching a ground to a few metal extensions from the turntable. This did nothing. Because of this loathsome buzz, most listening on this test was done via my Oppo DV-980H CD Player unless otherwise indicated.
Oh, I nearly forgot my GE 3-5027 Personal Portable Recorder and Cassette Player.
Cables come from various sources: one pair of 10-foot, white-jacketed speaker cable from Belden terminated with locking banana plugs (around $75/purchased from Blue Jean Cable), unmarked unbalanced interconnects also from BJC (about $50), a Dynex unbalanced interconnect for the CD player, and a brand-less unbalanced female to 3.5mm male interconnect plugged into the Audioquest DragonFly DAC/Headphone Amp ($249.99) into a MacBook Pro.
With the new speaker positioning, my speaker wire is too short to reach the floor and wrap around the furniture on which the gear rests. Thus the speaker wire dangles ungracefully in mid-air from the amp to the speakers.
I purchased all of this gear except for the Dragonfly, which is a review sample.
Accuracy, Frequency Response, and Other Stuff
I started with the warble tones from Stereophile’s Editor’s Choice. A terrible rattling shook the sound during the midrange set. Huh? I followed the sound across the room to my speaker’s binding posts! Before the Belden speaker cable, I tried out some Trisonic speaker cable ($8/50 feet from my local hardware store). When I inserted the banana plugs from the Belden, I forgot to screw the binding posts all the way back down.
By my ears, the test tones revealed a fast roll-off at 50Hz, touch of warmth to the upper bass (100160Hz), a mostly flat midrange, and a treble with a peak between 1.5khz3.15khz and another around 5khz and fast roll-off starting at 10khz.
On first was The Harlem Sessions by my old band Swampluck, recorded in a cavernous loft space in Harlem with a pair of cheap condenser mics. The chicken-scratch guitar picking, hovering keyboard tones, and rich ambient information make it an excellent reference.
I noticed grit and hardness on Jordan Levinson’s vocals around 2k during “Lost Soul”. I blamed it on the microphones.
When I change to the bridge pickup on my Fender American Stratocaster at the start of second guitar solo of “Not Alone”, the extreme high frequency attack was stunted. The guitar tone had bite but focused more on the attack of the highs rather than the extension. This made my guitar sound more aggressive rather than expressive.
I tried a fairly compressed recording: “Bridge and Tunnel” by emo-folk rocker The Honorary Title. It popped with energy and prompted screaming along, but then, I heard the same hardness in vocals around 2k that I heard on Swampluck. Maybe it wasn’t the microphones.
On “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3” by Coheed and Cambria, the choppy and chugging riffs were delivered with natural precision and nice weight to the guitars. Claudio Sanchez’s call to war, “Man your battle stations!” combined with the backing choir charged me up. With this dynamically compressed recording, my system maintained the music’s balls.
With an old home recording from my high school band Pigeon, my system accentuated hash already on the recording and revealed poor edits.
Geddy Lee’s bass on Farewell to Kings (LP) packed power falling within that upper bass boost. On The Gap Band’s “Season’s No Reason to Change” (Gap Band IV, LP), Robert Wilson’s bass notes extended cleanly and stopped firmly with his fingers keeping good time. His bass was moderately defined in instrumental tone.
Kick drums concurred that my system has no deep bass whatsoever, but kicks were still punchy and natural. Rather than get the body of the bass drum, you get the impact of the pedal against the drumhead. The system did not even get close to recreating the deep bass response needed for Shlohmo’s “Hot Boxing the Cockpit” (Spotify, 320kbps Ogg Vorbis) where bass synths were, at times, inaudible.
In casa de Bitran, bass is lacking in inner detail and low-frequency extension, but it is well controlled.
For the midrange, I first tested for colorations in brass. I heard nothing honky about the trombone solo in Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”. The trombone could have been presented with more body. Its presence as an actual trombone was determined more by the player’s slides than the tone of the instrument. On the RX Bandits’ Progress, the horns seemed a touch lean. Edwin Starr’s “War” confirmed the slightly recessed midrange. Rather than be pushed by the body of the persistent horns, the music moved forward via a lively treble and peppy bass.
My test for midrange inner-detail is John Petrucci’s chord work on Dream Theater’s “Take the Time” where the multiple layers of distorted rock guitar should be represented by individual strings coming together, which it did not in my system. Instead, the chords came off in bursts of sound.
Don’t let the lack of inner detail to the midrange scare you. My system exhibited a startling liquidity within the midrange where notes could ease from one into the next. For example, on Brian Eno’s “In Dark Trees”, the clave attacks punctuated that darn lower treble but smooth guitar slides with generous sustain kept the flow of music natural.
Despite the peak in the lower treble, my system never came across as overly fast or etched. Attack was natural and friendly to pushing the pace of songs. The RX Bandits’ up-stroke ska rhythm guitars were quick. Slayer’s Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s solos on “Altar of Sacrifice” (Spotify, 320kbps Ogg Vorbis) raged with fire, and each note’s leading edge was heard but only grated slightly on the ears to the point of excitement rather than pain. I’m not sure what the guys in Slayer would have preferred.
As I’ve described in previous blog posts, the Usher S520s are finicky with positioning ie establishing a solid center image with even extension of the soundstage to both sides.
The soundstage was narrow and flat, but instruments could be easily defined laterally. Everything was stable.
Attack, Release, Dynamics, and Bringing the Musicians to You
The naturally toned organ on “All Rwanda’s Glory” by the RX Bandits dropped out quickly with fast releases on the individual keys.
On Dave Matthews Band Live from Red Rocks, the dark and dramatic “Rhyme and Reason” was ballsy. Carter Beuford’s snare had POP, his kick drum had thud, and his tom-toms were visceral in terms of impact. At one point, woodwind master Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley play a melodic line in sync, occasionally changing melodies from each other. While my system clearly defined the two instrumental lines within the mix, the lack of inner detail made it difficult to differentiate between the two players' instruments.
On David Grisman and Andy Statman’s Mandolin Abstractions as well as Sam Bush’s “Russian Rag”, I didn’t feel the short-stacked body of the mandolin behind each pluck, but I did get the sparkling tone and quick and exciting pacing. Similarly the “Acoustic Guitar Solo” on Stereophile Test CD 2 was short on body but had a nice bit of sunshine to the end of each strum and a percussive punch whenever the player slammed his wrist against the bridge.
When Bruno Walter conducted the Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (LP), dynamic range on the exciting Adagio was less than startling, but the system still spoke with power with each harmonic ascension. Yet, it seemed a bit strained. Strings were zizzy and brass was tacky. But then, the Largo started. I got chills. Solemnity and beauty. Within it, you see the sun rising and setting. Dynamics… who cares.
In the End
Rock recordings of all kinds generally sounded pretty damn exciting in my system. The rise in the treble and the upper bass gave the music energy while the liquid midrange kept the music flowing. Sometimes, my system would create a sparkling magic to the sounds. At other times, it came across a touch harsh. The sound is well-controlled and forceful, but at the same time the soundstage is narrow, the dynamics are limited, and instruments lacked body and deep bass. Lean but punchy and a little tipped up, the system runs a touch cool. This is the system of a Stereophile employee.