Listening #105 Page 2
With regard to playback software, the point has been made and made well: Every digital music player aimed at the perfectionist market is available for a free demo of one sort or another. Try them all and buy the one you like the best or stick with your free copy of iTunes and embrace the not-entirely-loony hope that Apple will someday refine it. For now, my preferred software remains Stephen Booth's Decibel ($33), though ChannelD's Pure Music ($129) is also superb and offers an excellent user interface for its very reasonable price.
My good fortune is even gooder than average, extending as it does to computer-audio hardwarea privilege for which I'm grateful, having now sampled the entry-level HRT Music Streamer II ($150), the Wavelength Audio Cosecant ($3500), and a dozen other USB DACs priced somewhere in between. As you may recall, I'm very impressed with the Ayre Acoustics QB-9 ($2750), especially since its recent revision, but my budget doesn't stretch that far. I've compromised by purchasing a Wavelength Proton ($900), an asynchronous converter (designer J. Gordon Rankin wrote the book on that characteristic) that goes up to 24-bit/96kHz and charges its own lithium-ion battery from the 5VDC that appears on the USB bus itself. Most important, it sounds great: surprisingly like the more expensive Wavelength DACs in its ability to suggest tonal complexity, and in its blessed freedom from ringing and zizzing.
My reference preamplifier remains the Shindo Masseto ($13,500) I bought a few years ago, and from which I've now removed the stock (Lundahl) step-up transformers, thus giving me two switch-selectable, moving-magnet phono inputs with which to use the aforementioned Auditorium 23 and Silvercore transformers, plus whatever else comes my way.
From the Masseto's transformer-coupled outputs, the signal travels to one of three amplifiers, depending on my mood and the loudspeakers in use. First is the Shindo Corton-Charlemagne ($13,995/pair), a 25W monoblock that uses two fixed-bias EL34 pentode tubes in Ultralinear mode, and that has evolved through a series of subtle changes during its long tenure as Shindo Laboratory's most affordable mono amp. (Mine are from the production run when 12AY7 dual triodeswhich themselves replaced EF183 pentodeswere used as phase inverters/drivers and 6AU4s were the rectifiers.)
Second is the 20Wpc Shindo Haut-Brion ($10,000), a stereo amp that uses one pair of push-pull 6L6GAY beam power tubes (no signal on the screen grids) per channel andunusually for Shindo, as far as I knowa bit of global feedback, driving a custom-made Lundahl transformer with a 16-ohm secondary. I'm in the process of buying the Haut-Brion (I intend to pay it off by the end of this year), which sounds tight and detailed with my Quad ESLs while delivering plenty of tubey texture and color.
Third is a new addition to my stable: the Fi 421A ($3275), which is, as far as I know, the only stereo amplifier in the world that has only one output tube. (The Western Electric 421A is a hefty dual triode that can develop 4W across an 8-ohm load.) The 421A replaces my Fi 2A3 Stereo, which I owned for 12 years, and sounds as wonderful with my Audio Note speakers as with the Voxativ Ampeggios I wrote about last month. (A full appreciation of the Fi will appear in a future "Listening" column.)
I continue to own and use two pairs of very goodand very differentloudspeakers, the designs of which are among the hobby's most mature. The older of the two is the Quad ESL, which was introduced in 1957. Mistakenly assumed by some to be a single-diaphragm device, the Quad is actually a three-way speaker, with two electrostatic bass panels and one electrostatic treble panel: An impedance-matching transformer with a crossover network on its primary side sends low frequencies to both bass panels, mid-frequencies to the whole of the treble panel, and high frequencies to only the treble panel's centermost area. With an impedance curve ranging from a high of about 33 ohms to a low of about 3 ohms, and a distinctly capacitive load, the Quad is notoriously difficult to drive, and can sound dull or relentlessly boomy with most amps; the Haut-Brion does the job well, notwithstanding Shindo-San's lack of enthusiasm for ESLs.
My other speaker of choice is the very sensitive and easy-to-drive Audio Note AN-E SPe HE ($7225/pair), itself derived from the original Type E, designed by Peter Snell and manufactured throughout the 1980s by Snell Acoustics. My original review pair of AN-E SPe HEs, which I used and enjoyed for an unconscionably long time before I bought them last year, was recently replaced by a new pair: same model, different finish (embraceable yew), and various detail improvements associated with Audio Note's new manufacturing facility in Austria: The fixing bolts for the drivers have been changed from Phillips-head to hex-head; woofer dustcaps are now made of the same hemp as the cones themselves; connector-panel chamfers are neater; the lip surrounding the front baffle has been discarded in favor of an uninterrupted expanse of wood; and the finish is even closer to perfection than beforesomething I honestly wouldn't have thought possible. The musical performance of my new pair is already the equal of their predecessors, and I can't shake the feeling they're still running in . . .
The cables I use every day all have one thing in common with each other and with the other components I've described in this outing: I've paid for them. While others come and go, and while I'm certain that various cable manufacturers will, quite reasonably, continue to encourage me and other reviewers to try their latest designs as they become available, I persist in using Nordost Flatline Gold speaker cables (copper) in one system and Auditorium 23 (also copper) in the other, alongside an interconnect mix of Shindo (silver) and Audio Note AN-Vx (also silver). (I own three pairs of the former and one of the latter.) I also own a JPS Labs Digital AC cord, which makes a noticeable difference for the better with a great many components, including the Ayre QB-9. The only cables I regularly use that I have yet to pay for are the Nordost Blue Heaven USB (1m) and interconnect pair (5m) that I wrote about in July, alongside similar lengths of AudioQuest's Coffee USB and PR Columbia interconnects. I promise not to keep theselet alone sell them, either singly, or chopped up and reterminated for enhanced profitabilitywithout paying for them.