The Entry Level #13
One gray and rainy day, just weeks before I sat down to write last month's column, DeVore Fidelity's John DeVore zipped across Brooklyn, through the Holland Tunnel, and into downtown Jersey City, where I sat waiting for him at a gas station on the side of the highway. He slowed down just enough that I could jump into the car through the passenger-side window. We traveled west along Route 78, through dairy farms and deep woods, to the home of Michael Lavorgna, editor of AudioStream, Source Interlink Media's exciting new website devoted to computer audio. Our mission: to help Michael set up a new listening room.
It was not as easy as we'd hoped it might be. Unfamiliar listening rooms manage to confound. After many hours of messing around with speaker positions, swapping amplifiers, and mounting acoustic panels, we were finally satisfied with the setup, and it was time to go to the Princeton Record Exchange. But before we set out, Michael handed me a box. In it was an original Sony PlayStation 1, serial no. SCPH-1001the good one, the one with the RCA output jacks! (See Art Dudley's great review.)
"Hope you like it," ML said.
The PlayStation has been Michael's reference CD player for the last six or so yearshe'd bought a bunch of them back when they were still selling for just $15 on eBayso I was anxious to hear my new old PS1 ($299 when new) in my own system. After a few weeks of casual listening, I matched the modest Sony against the immodest Emotiva ERC-2 CD player ($449, footnote 1) that I wrote about last month. I was surprised by what I heard. Most obvious was the Emotiva's advantage in the low end: The Sony couldn't equal the ERC-2's weighty, musical bass. Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto's version of "By This River," from their outstanding Summvs (CD, Raster-Noton R-N132), felt looser and more diffuse through the Sony, but, surprisingly, was no less rhythmically assured. And while the Emotiva also produced cleaner, more extended highs, the Sony's midrange had great presence and was remarkably rich and detailed. The PS1's midrange clarity especially benefited voicesMark Hollis was in the room with mebut it also gave greater tactility and life to the hypnotic, pulsing electronics in "By This River."
The Emotiva favored frequency extension and overall clarity, while the playful PlayStation sacrificed the extreme highs and lows for a fleshier midrange. But there was also a smoothness and ease to the Sony's overall sound that the Emotiva, despite its quiet backgrounds and impressive dynamic range, simply couldn't offer. With certain discs, such as the mps, the debut album by my old band, the Multi-Purpose Solution (CD, Mint 400 M4R00 18), the Sony was considerably more listenable. I was able to just sit back, relax, and be transported by the music. Such were the Sony's charms that it was always easy to ignore what wasn't there. The Emotiva, on the other hand, was impressive in its own way, illuminating artifacts of the recording that, for better or worse, I'd long forgotten. With the Emotiva, it was difficult to ignore what was there.
If you're like me, you'll be easily seduced by the Sony's smooth, expressive midrange, but will end up addicted to the Emotiva's bass weight and overall clarity. What to do? Fortunately, at these prices, you could have it both ways. If you've got $449 to spend on a CD player, the Emotiva should be on your shopping list. For a guaranteed good time, however, search your local Salvation Army or Goodwill for a functioning PlayStation 1, or visit eBay and place a bid. Try to spend no more than about $75. If you find one, be sure to plug it in and keep it turned on for a whilethe sound will only get better and better. Michael Lavorgna never turns his off.
Last month, I mentioned that the Emotiva ERC-2 has a rear-panel AC receptacle for use with the included AC cord. It's another of the Emotiva's little perksmany components in this price range don't allow the user to experiment with aftermarket power cords. But would you even want to experiment with aftermarket cords? I didn't. It was out of obligation more than anything resembling curiosity or enthusiasm that I swapped the Emotiva's standard power cord for AudioQuest's affordable NRG-X3 three-pole cord ($99/6', footnote 2). I did wonder though, in Sam Tellig's sly and haughty tone: Could I wrest any more performance from the Emotiva?
Power cords can be ridiculous. Too often they're thick, heavy, obnoxious things, lewd enough to make small children cry and old ladies blush. So ridiculous are the brittle, unwieldy girths of some aftermarket cords that they've been known to launch power amplifiers right up from their supports and into listening-room walls. Who wants that?
I'm glad to report that the AudioQuest NRG-X3 is not ridiculous. It is, in fact, entirely reasonable. For the NRG-X3's semisolid, concentric-packed conductors, AudioQuest uses strands of long-grain copper. AQ's Shane Buettner explained: "With typical bundled conductors, distortion is caused when the signal jumps from strand to strand as the strands weave in and out of position down the length of the cable. Our long-grain copper's greater purity and smoother grain structure, compared with conventional copper conductors, further reduce distortion."
For the evaluations, I thought it would be productive to use a track with huge dynamic range, tons of texture, and lots of quick percussive elements. And it would have to be seriously fun, because listening to an AC cord was obviously going to be boring. I settled on "Dropped from the Sky," from Amon Tobin's wonderful and whimsical ISAM (CD, Ninja Tune ZEN CD 168). I performed these tests by listening to the track twice through the Emotiva's stock AC cord, then once through the AudioQuest NRG-X3, then again through the stock cord. I plugged each cord first into a Furutech e-TP60 power conditioner, then directly into a Furutech GTX wall receptacle. The results were similar, but the differences between the cords were perhaps a bit more noticeable when they were plugged into the wall. I used an NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier and my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers.
I was expecting to hear even deeper, heavier, more impactful bass response from the Emotiva player hooked up with the AudioQuest AC cord, so I was surprised (again) when I heard little to no change at all in the low frequencies. What I did hear was a cleaner, brighter top end with faster, sharper attacks. Decays, too, were longera product of a refreshingly lower noise floor. The track's sections of lulling, crackly distortionimagine listening to a smoldering firewere even more delightfully disturbing because they were made more tangible and realistic, thrown farther from the speakers, seeming almost to crawl into my room and inch toward my listening position. This was getting cool.
"Dropped from the Sky" became more of an event. Almost all aspects of the music were presented with greater impact, vitality, and finality. Musical images took on a rounder, shinier, more three-dimensional quality. Bells and whistles (seriously) jumped out from the dense mix with greater certainty and clarity. Low-level detail, such as the steady electronic pulse that underlies all of the swirling, buzzing activity of the track's first 90 seconds, was more apparent and therefore easier to follow and enjoy. The high-pitched ringing that bridges the track's opening and closing passages had more color, texture, and nuance: It was doing things that I hadn't noticed beforechanging shape and thickness, swooping up and down. It was purposeful.
Turning to "Poison," a sludgy, slow, intoxicating track from what was possibly 2011's sexiest album, HTRK's Work (Work, Work) (CD, Ghostly International GI-144), I again enjoyed a general cleaning-up and brightening of the top end, with faster, more assertive attacks and longer, lovelier decays. The synthesizer chords became more metallic and menacing, while Jonnine Standish's sighing, pleading singing was even more captivating. She sounds like Sade coming down from a bad high, jilted, hungry for more, inconsolable, but ready to try anything. She wants to know: "Do you love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love? / Poison, poison, poison / Where we gonna go?"
Footnote 1: Emotiva Audio Corporation, 135 SE Parkway Court, Franklin, TN 37064. Tel: (615) 790-6754. Web: www.emotiva.com.
Footnote 2: AudioQuest, 2621 White Road, Irvine, CA 92614. Tel: (949) 585-0111. Fax: (949) 585-0333. Web: www.audioquest.com.