Wavelength Audio Cardinal XS monoblock amplifier Page 3
So just what is this voodoo that it do so well?
The "official" listening began almost by accident. Late one night I found myself sitting in the dark grooving to Portishead's Dummy on vinyl (Go Beat 828 522-1), a laid-back UK Trance/Rave/Ambient album that we enjoy. I found myself suddenly really involved. I was listening to the lyrics with more than usual attention, and seemed to actually understand them better—both cognitively and emotionally. I still perceived this recording's digitally mastered nature—a good sign, I thought to myself at the time. In spite of that, the highs sounded liquid, open, and extended, and very natural: scads of musical information, no etch.
I was struck by the breadth of performance to be heard. This as differentiated from the width, which I'll note here in passing to have been a little less wide than the Avalons manage, and slightly narrowed at the rear. In any case, the Royal Masters threw a fairly enormous acoustic, and disappeared in that special way only small monitors can. The image was set back a third of the way or so to the rear wall—not nearly as deep as with the Symphonic Line 400s. (The German amps were perfectly scary in that way.) The soundstage was a bit smaller in overall proportion than we're accustomed to with the Boulder Bombers, however. Interestingly, the lower the volume level, the more miniaturized the soundstage became. Pump the amps up into the middle of their power band, and they opened right up.
While there was a sense of air to be heard in this well-recorded Trancer, the air there was of a different nature than push-pull, and assumed a different order of importance in the reproduction of sound. And this through the Royal Masters, whose particular top-end qualities have been described as extremely transparent in an almost electrostatic kind of way. (Over time I came to appreciate this quality of openness, speed, and clarity in the treble.) So while the soundstage the Cardinal XS/Royal Masters threw was exquisitely detailed, it was quite unlike the huge, clear, bell-like transparency generated by the best of push-pull.
Part of the closeness to the performance you hear about with SETs is related to the way the whole presentation, the musical construct, is set forth before the listener. It pulls you in closer with its single-minded concentration on the initial transient and subsequent bloom of the acoustic, and its diffusion into the pad of air immediately surrounding the focal point.
Vocals have always been popularly understood to represent the very best of what SE can do. And believe me, it's true. I always felt compelled to revel in one vocal recording after another. A CD perfectly suited to this type of listening is Sara K.'s new Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming (Chesky JD133). By the time you read this, I'll have turned the corner on 48—I already did my Frye Boots and Joni Mitchell thing, headband, windowpane, and all. However, experiencing this recording single-ended proved a fairly...spiritual experience.
As I listened to the album, I thought "approachable" might be another way to name the elusive quality of nearness to the music and performance I felt. The experience (and I use this word deliberately) of hearing Sara K. was made more attractive by force of this connection. My notes: "Once again, I'm listening to the words more carefully and understanding them more easily than ever before. Somehow there's an enhanced fusion of meaning and emotion." So it might be said that single-ended systems are about communication both musical and emotional (if the two can be separated).
That's the ultimate goal of all really high-end rigs, wouldn't you agree? I suppose that's what many of us are looking for as we spend long hours "on the knees most stiff" (Poirot again!) tweaking our systems, looking for that last ounce of...musical truth? Don't we all crave those moments when, eyes closed, we fall into the music and exist as its counterpart and metaphor?
Let me tell you, that's what does it for us. Reviewers have been accused of worshiping with too great a fervor at the Fount of Equipment at the expense of the music. Personally, I'm grounded, okay? Music, it may be said, saved my life at one point during a "difficult period" in my late 20s and 30s. (In my experience, it's these rough patches that make us real.) Without music to focus on and center me, I might not be here describing, with such a sense of delight and privilege, such music played on such a system. Ennui is not an option.
Back to the sound. Another generality: although the sharp edge-definition we're accustomed to with push-pull was slightly less in evidence, Sara K.'s presence was nevertheless shockingly palpable—a well-formed avatar with which to relate to. The sonic representation of her voice was not obscured by this slightly softer imaging. I still became aware of small movements of her head as she swayed to the music she was making. In fact, tracking these slight movements proved a remarkable and participatory element that seemed to help in communicating the emotional content and meaning of the songs.
As some sort of barometer of emotional involvement, the Wavelength amps coupled with the Royal Masters were remarkable. How easy it seemed to reach into, to caress, to feel, to understand the music I heard. It wasn't just Sara K.'s voice that sounded so clear, musical, and pellucid; the guitar, acoustic bass, and drum work were also supreme. "You can get next to them," I wrote in my notes. "You can bond with the music."
After listening to many vocal recordings, another strong impression I had was that with a fine push-pull amp you become aware of details of the body of the performer—a singer's chestiness, for example, or the sense of a windpipe, or some other aural "physical" clues. But with this setup, the sound existed not so much as a part of some large, ambient acoustic with a more tightly focused "physical" representation of the soundsource, as a complete musical presence.
The phosphorus connection
As we listened to all manner of music, from the grand to the petite, another element of the Cardinal XS/Royal Master's presentation became evident. In describing push-pull amps, I've occasionally resorted to the metaphor of a light shining upon a performer on the stage to illustrate the sense of openness and illumination of the midrange and highs. Some push-pullers get this better than others, the more refined efforts sounding more subtle in their presentation of this effect. But that's what it most seemed like—a light shining on the midrange and treble regions. The effect was reflective in nature, so to say.
But with the Cardinal XS (and single-ended in general) the sense of illumination of the midrange and treble region seemed to emanate from within rather than without. It was as if the molecules of sound before me twinkled beautifully with phosphors, gently illuminating and lifting the sound to its natural bloom in the surrounding pad of air. (The Jadis parallel 300B and the Audio Note Kasai—both of which I've listened to but which await further official scrutiny—to one extent or another manifest this same sense of inner luminescence.)
I came to understand that this warm and welcoming internal fireworks—single-ended's Unbearable Lightness of Being—breathed the very life into the sound. Now it's true that speakers that shelve back the bass (I'm coming to that) tend to highlight the midrange and highs. But having listened to push-pull through the Royal Masters, I'll say confidently that this interior luminescence is a part of single-ended's presentation, not an artifact of the speakers. And the Cardinal XS amps present this inner light just so beautifully and naturally.
Interestingly, this inner glow in the weave of the midrange and up is more subtly rendered with Gordon's pure single-ended amps than with the parallel Jadis 300Bs. The Jadises have a more dynamic, glamorous, and sexy presentation than Gordon's totally purist and simple-as-she-goes Cardinals. However, I didn't listen to the Jadises on the Royal Masters, but rather on the simply unbelievable Jadis Eurythmie (mostly) horn speakers which now grace our room, and which will be featured with the Jadis 300B amps in my next review. I did listen to the Kasai on the Royal Masters, however, and came to the same conclusion.
Bass & dynamics
Although certainly a little woolly and out of control at its edges, the Cardinal XS/Royal Masters still managed a surprising integrity in the bass, and in fact energized our large listening room to adequate levels. This was just so...unexpected. The bass was of a different quality than push-pull amps typically pump out, yet quite satisfying enough to forge the foundation of many a musical effort.
As I listened to my favorite CD woofer-workout, Art of Noise's In Visible Silence (China/Polydor 835 806-2) I jotted the following in my notebook: "Hey! There most certainly is bass! It fills the room! Okay, maybe it doesn't go so deep or clean as the opposite-universe Kraft 400s, but it's enjoyable and surprisingly pitch-differentiated nonetheless. Of course, I'm talking upper, middle, and lower midbass here, 'cause this combo just doesn't plumb the depths to any great degree. Strictly speaking, in audiophile reviewer terms, it's a little fuzzy around the edges and lacks power when lunging to the bottom. A bit shelved-back in overall level. But everything else about this recording, the huge soundscape and the astounding musical devices, are all intact and sound wonderful. In fact, it's like putting on a Virtual Reality helmet, my face deep in a wild sonic soundscape where my senses are those of the virtual world, no longer subject to more mundane everyday input. Perhaps with the twin 15" dynamic woofers of the Jadis Eurythmie speakers we'll hear something else. [We certainly did!] But meanwhile, I gaze down in some surprise as my chest gets...compressed by the bass on this CD!"
Well, that wasn't too shabby. How about a little Mahler? (If anything of Mahler's can be said to be "little.") I loaded Leonard Bernstein/NYPO's evocative and beautifully recorded performance of Symphony 3 (DG 427 328-2) into the Jadis J1 Drive. Listening to this majestic work was certainly a valid musical experience, but it didn't approach—in power and impact—what a decent push-pull amp can do with enough cubic inches. Nevertheless, when you wish to foray into Mahler or Ellington, with the limitations understood, these amps can and do play large-scale works with a real sense of scale and impact.
Which brings up another of the necessary adjustments one has to make with this pairing. Depending on the music, I found myself setting the volume not so much to some arbitrary level of loudness, but rather in the sweet spot of the amps' power range. Finding the best volume level became second nature in no time at all. I was always aware of the power ceiling, but quickly learned to work with it rather than be bound by any imagined limitations. I won't describe in detail what happens when you hit the rev limiter—they don't clip so much as congest, blare, and fall apart. But within their (perfectly adequate) range, they played satisfyingly loud. And dynamically too. The range of dynamic contrasts, micro- and macro-, were more than adequate to bring the listener both the nuance and power of music. However, we spent more time listening to vocals and small-scale works than Sonic Spectaculars. And if you wind up with this combo, I suspect that's what you'll listen to also. Heavy-metal grunge gofers will not find happiness with 8 or 9W and 92dB sensitivity.
It seems most audiophiles react very strongly to single-ended. They either love it or wind up actively ambivalent. Kathleen and I were neither shocked nor blown away by the single-ended experience. I believe this is because we've been utterly spoiled by the quality of the push-pull gear we've had the good fortune to use, not to mention the reference quality of the Avalon Ascents. This isn't hubris—if you're coming off a solid-state rock cruncher of whatever pedigree, then the change in presentation may indeed leave you slack-jawed and round-eyed, as Kathleen puts it. But a JP80MC or a CAT SL1 Signature and a pair of Jadis JA 200s creates another type of musical transcendence, one as musically valid and involving as that single-ended provides.
Nevertheless, the Cardinal XS amps in conjunction with the Reference 3A Royal Master Controls bring the surprise and joy of music to the listener in an intimate, effortless manner. Just think of the unmitigated selfishness of it all—music exists but to please you, if sometimes in shocking and mysterious ways. This amp/speaker combo are exquisitely capable of serving you in such a manner. We truly enjoyed our time with them. Most highly recommended for the music-lover in all of you.