The Entry Level #38 Page 2
Straight out of their ziplock packages, the cables sounded very goodclean, clear, and open. While I never thought they sounded edgy or particularly bright, my very first impression was that they were more forward than my reference AudioQuest Big Sur interconnects ($109/m) and Rocket 33 speaker cable ($299/10' pair)less relaxed, with impressive dynamics and more "jump factor." R. Kelly seemed to leap from the space between the speakers with greater-than-usual force and realism. (Ms. Little and Avon, our little girl cat, were pleased by this. Our dude cat, Stringer, and I were more like, "Eh, whatever.") I played music for a couple of weeks before doing any serious comparative listening, and while I didn't notice any dramatic changes in the Audio Art cables' sound, I do think they became a little smoother and less forward.
Once I felt confident that the Audio Arts were thoroughly burned in, I gave them a closer listen, concentrating first on the IC-3 interconnects and later on the SC-5 speaker cables. Listening to "Love & Light," from Sandro Perri's Impossible Spaces (CD, Constellation CST085-2), I noted an unusually wide, open soundstagepanning effects seemed to travel the width of our apartmentwith excellent image focus and specificity. This was partnered by very good resolution of low-level detail: For the first time, I noticed that, just prior to singing and strumming his acoustic guitar, Perri briefly clears his throat. I could almost see him taking a seat in the middle of the stage, preparing to sing while his accompanying musicians slowly construct the song.
On the downside, Blake Howard's intricate drum patterns sounded more sloppy and loose than I've grown accustomed to hearing, failing to properly lock in with the bass guitar. I think this had something to do with the fact that the IC-3 interconnects just slightly favored leading-edge attack over lower-midrange body and warmth, and "Love & Light" needs that body and warmth to sound just right. And while Perri's voice and guitar always sounded lovely and natural, I noticed that backing vocals emerged from the mix with greater force and presence than I'm used to, but also sounded a bit grainier and less pleasant than I'd like.
My AudioQuest Big Sur interconnect sounded mellower and less dynamic than the Audio Art, but with a firmer sense of the song's rhythmic movements and tension. Detail retrieval and overall resolution were goodI could still hear Perri clear his throat, for instance, but it wasn't as obvious as it had been with the Audio Art IC-3 interconnectand, happily, I didn't hear the same obtrusive grittiness in the backing vocals. Stage width was about the same as it had been through the IC-3, but the AQ interconnect offered more stage depth. Perri's voice and guitar sounded just as beautiful as they had earlier, with no meaningful differences to speak of. Most important, through the AQ interconnect, I was better able to hear and enjoy the subtle variations in Blake Howard's drum techniquethe way a bass kick would alternate with a snare hit to achieve a sense of forward movement, for instanceand, at the song's conclusion, when the music morphs into a cacophony of muted notes and synth chords, the melody remained clear and true.
Despite how I've made it seem above, the differences between the Audio Art IC-3 and AudioQuest Big Sur interconnects were subtle and difficult to hear. It was a bit easier for me to hear differences between the Audio Art SC-5 and AudioQuest's Rocket 33 speaker cables.
Kanye West's Yeezus (CD, Def Jam B0018653-02), one of my very favorite records released in 2013 (see sidebar), makes for some seriously fun and informative listening. Many of the reviews I've read of the album praise its minimalist production and use of 1990s industrial rock tones, but to me, Yeezus sounds wonderfully complex and daring, with an exciting combination of classic R&B, hard-edged dancehall, and the sort of electronic noise textures recently explored by such artists as Pete Swanson, Rene Hell, and Container. More than any other record released in 2013, Yeezus surprises and confuses meand I like that.
Through the Audio Art SC-5 speaker cables, it was easy to hear that Yeezus is a complex and ambitious album, expertly produced and arranged. All of West's words, grunts, and yelps were explicitly drawn, so that I could very easily appreciate his ability to slur, garble, or otherwise abuse a word to achieve a clever rhyme or complete a perfect meter. "Blood on the Leaves" sounded especially good, the SC-5s exhibiting powerful dynamics, staggering silences, and an awesome ability to chart the rises, falls, twists, and turns of West's Auto-Tuned vocalsall with no evidence whatsoever of temporal or tonal distortions. Through my AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables, silences were less stunning, climaxes less dramatic, and images less precisely drawn, but I noted more beauty in the song's opening piano chords, greater distance between the various voices and instruments, and more sadness and desperation in West's voice. Where the SC-5s were more about speed and impact, the Rocket 33s offered more body, weight, and warmth.
Ultimately, I preferred the AQs, but the Audio Arts were also excellent performersattractive and very nicely built, with a sound that was clean, clear, dynamic, and revealing. Furthermore, my interactions with Audio Art's Rob Fritz were always very pleasant; he struck me as being forthright and intelligent, and I expect his customers will be thoughtfully and honestly served. If you're in the market for reasonably priced, high-performance cables that aren't mass produced, Audio Art Cables' IC-3 interconnects and SC-5 speaker cables should be on your list of contenders.
Lepai LP7498E integrated amplifier (with Bluetooth!)
In my November 2013 column I reviewed NAD's D 3020 integrated amplifier and found that its unique appearance, excellent sound, and awesome versatility made it a very special product. I was practically stunned that Ms. Little, who rarely takes much interest in hi-fi, enjoyed the D 3020 as much as I did. She was particularly happy about its Bluetooth feature, which uses CSR's audio-optimized aptX technology for wireless streaming. Even crappy MP3s streamed from our iPhones sounded surprisingly clean, clear, and detailed through the D 3020not as good as CDs through the D 3020's analog input or CD-quality files streamed via its asynchronous USB input, but entirely listenable, and easily good enough for singing, dancing, and laughing. For the first time ever, Ms. Little was sad to see an audio component leave our home. So when Jill Chupka, marketing coordinator for Parts Express, offered to send me a sample of Lepai's LP7498E integrated amplifier with Bluetooth capability, I gladly accepted.
I knew almost nothing about Lepai and its relationship with Parts Express. "Lepai was an established Chinese brand that gained popularity with their TA2020 Tripath class-T amplifier," Chupka told me. "Being their strongest marketing arm and partner, Parts Express gained registration of the trademark and became the brand's owner a few years ago."
Designed to deliver 100Wpc via its class-D output stage, the Lepai is a small (4.5" W by 1.25" H by 7" D) integrated amplifier with one pair of RCA inputs, two pairs of speaker binding posts, and a dedicated 36V DC power supply. The heart of the LP7498E is STMicroelectronics' TDA7498 class-D module. (A spec sheet can be downloaded here.) Instead of the CSR aptX Bluetooth codec, the Lepai uses the standard A2DP codecsimilar to that used by Chord in their Chordette Gem D/A processor.
The LP7498E's smooth black case stands on four small rubber feet. On the attractive aluminum faceplate are a volume knob and two small toggle switches: one for turning the amp on and off, the other for selecting between the RCA input and Bluetooth streaming. When the LP7498E is on, a small LED glows red; with Bluetooth selected, a second LED glows green. That's it. There's no remote control, no headphone stage, no auxiliary inputs of any kind. Overall build quality was very good. Parts Express currently sells the LP7498E for $129.8735% off the list price of $199.99.
I used the little Lepai to drive KEF's LS50 loudspeakers ($1499/pair). On paper that might seem a bit silly, but in my listening room it sounded freaking excellentespecially with CDs. Kanye West's "Blood on the Leaves" lacked some stage height but nevertheless sounded big, bold, and emotionally compelling, with a natural midrange, sweet highs, good bass weight, and well-focused images. And while the Lepai mostly sounded comfortable at higher volumes, if I pushed it over 90dB, I noted some edginess in more complex passages of music. Around three minutes into West's "New Slaves," for instance, when the song morphs into a noisy soundscape with Frank Ocean singing over a sample of Hungarian rock band Omega's 1969 song "Gyöngyhajú lány," the Lepai couldn't extract as much beauty from the music as my NAD C 316BEE.
The Lepai's Bluetooth performance was an altogether different story. It sounded badgritty, compressed, and murky. Ms. Little was again disappointed. I will now approach any A2DP-equipped component with special caution. But the Lepai's small size, fine build quality, and outstanding performance from its RCA inputs make it an interesting option for a desktop or second system. Its lack of digital inputs, headphone stage, and remote volume control, however, will limit its appeal.
Parts Express makes taking such chances fun and simple. You qualify for free shipping when you spend over $98 with them, and any orders placed before 4pm EST ship that same day via UPS Ground. If you're unhappy with your purchase, you have up to 45 days to return the product; as long as it's returned in "pristine" condition, Parts Express will issue your choice of credit or refund. Finally and perhaps most significant, Parts Express offers lifetime technical support for all of its products. Now, that's something to get excited about.