Listening #59

"Why can't I just buy . . . a bicycle?"

That's what I asked Steve Silberman, of Ayre Acoustics, the last time he came to visit. Steve, who approaches cycling with the zeal I reserve for clambakes and a good night's sleep, had flown east with his ride, and was giving me a tour of its various bits and pieces: Bianchi frame, Easton fork, Ritchey stem and seat post, Shimano components, Selle Italia saddle, Mavic wheels, Continental tires . . .

I haven't owned a bicycle since I was 14, but I'd like to buy one now so I can ride alongside my nine-year-old daughter from time to time. Her bike cost less than $200 just two years ago, leading me to think mine won't be too much more—especially as I'm willing to forgo the pink-and-white cargo basket and the unicorn-themed paint job. As it turns out, if I want something better than junk, I'll not only have to sell a pair of interconnect cables (footnote 1) to pay for it, I'll also have to spend at least a year just learning what to buy. I may even have to visit chatsites where smart, goodhearted enthusiasts are shouted down by insecure, materialistic wankers. (That reminds me of something, but I'm not sure what; perhaps it will come to me later . . .)

I have a materialistic streak of my own. And while I'm not vain enough to think I deserve the best of everything, I do own and enjoy a few nice paintings, one very good rug, and five musical instruments, three of which qualify as "vintage."

I also have a record collection and a good music system—almost two complete systems, in fact: a total investment that could have put a new Porsche in my garage, if only I had a garage. My audio gear represents more than just a means of getting closer to music, although that's certainly a part of it. The truth is, I'm an audio enthusiast: I love those things, just as Steve loves his bike and Wes and Joan love their books and Ken loves his watches.

What about people who can afford and appreciate a good music system, but who neither care about the hardware, nor have the time or inclination to learn what's what? For such folks there are one-brand systems, with badges that say Bose or Bang & Olufsen. One might add Aurum Acoustics to that list, although the $42,000 price tag on the Canadian company's full source-to-speaker system may limit their potential audience in comparison to the aforementioned marketeers . . .

Aurum's Derrick Moss did not, in fact, set out to start the next B&O. He just wanted to make a very good loudspeaker, drawing on his training as an engineer and his experiences as an audio enthusiast to do so—and this is how it came out. I don't even think Moss would mind seeing his speakers used with someone else's amplifier, except that that's virtually impossible: In the basic Aurum Integris Active 300B system ($30,000), the speakers have been designed around a dedicated amplifier-crossover unit that powers the treble and midrange drivers with directly heated, single-ended triode tubes, and the bass drivers with a comparatively powerful solid-state amplifier.

There are loads of technical justifications for doing it that way, but the biggest reason may be familiar to any hobbyist who's tried supplementing his bass-shy, high-efficiency speakers with one or more separately powered bass drivers: The time is too short, the list of variables too long, for a consumer to even think of selecting an appropriate subwoofer and amplifier from the hundreds of possibilities. Like Mahler and his mountains, Derrick Moss has composed them already—and done a remarkably thorough job of it. "We take the stress hit on behalf of the consumers," he says. That's a pretty good way of putting it.

Don't do it yourself
Bear in mind that the hard-core single-ended-triode movement wasn't conceived as just a new branch of high-end audio: It was intended as a whole new tree, by hobbyists who considered the old tree to be very, very sick. To the SET pioneers, audio had gone from being an interesting way of enjoying recorded music to a turgid and fetishistic exercise in irrelevance in which wealthy men with too much time on their hands try to outdo each other in identifying arcane sound effects in a handful of guru-approved recordings.

Also remember that the high-end audio establishment didn't take long to dismiss the SET guys as a bunch of self-conscious hipsters less concerned with fidelity than with coolness factor: gracelessly aging punk wannabes whose willingness to live with grossly colored, narrow-range sound reproduction is rivaled only by their disdain for any model of amplifier or speaker that might be owned by more than two other people.

The fact is, there's an archetypal high-end audio sound and an archetypal SET sound. At its best, high-end audio sound is impressively open and clear, with deep bass, shimmering highs, and a flair for thrilling spatial effects; at its worst, it's lifeless, boring, constricted, undramatic, uninvolving, and incapable of any suggestion of flow in the music.

At its best, SET sound has the kind of punch and drama that can startle you out of your pants—plus real musical drive, momentum, presence, and tone; at its worst, it has no bass, no treble, and a level of coloration and sheer fuzz that could drive you out of the house after just a few songs.

Has Aurum Acoustics given us the best of both worlds?

From an engineering point of view, one might think so. All of the tubes in the Aurum Integris 300B system are old-style triodes: five 6SN7 dual-triode input tubes and four 300B directly heated output tubes. The former are used for both line-level amplification and active crossover filtering, while the latter are used in a pair of low-power (5Wpc) stereo amplifiers: one to drive a pair of 6" B&C midrange drivers between 310 and 1800Hz, and the other to drive a pair of 1" SEAS Excel tweeters from 1800Hz up to their in-room limit of about 20kHz, on axis.

The same large chassis also contains the left- and right-channel signal boards of a Bryston 2B amplifier, a solid-state design that's been on the market in one form or another for nearly three decades. Each Bryston board is used to drive a 10" SEAS bass driver, loaded in a cabinet that raises its 28Hz resonant frequency to about 56Hz. To compensate for the low-frequency rolloff of sealed-box loading, the Aurum filter incorporates an EQ circuit designed to boost low frequencies while maintaining proper phase behavior. Derrick Moss suggests that the typical in-room performance of the Integris 300B system is 3dB down at 20Hz.

Apart from its lack of a crossover, the Aurum speaker looks rather conventional in the modern high-end-audio sense: Its thick-walled enclosure has an especially massive, sloping baffle, machined with a generous bevel. All but the top and bottom surfaces are nonparallel, and the bottom is threaded to accept the usual pointed feet—or a two-piece alloy base, itself generously spiked. Aurum's choice of a multilaminar Alpi veneer (footnote 2) of sustainable-yield wood confers some visual distinction, not to mention commendable greenness.

Not long after Primedia's Home Entertainment 2007 show, Derrick Moss and Aurum's US distributor, Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV, drove to my house in Cherry Valley, New York with the same Aurum Integris Active 300B system that I'd enjoyed hearing in Manhattan. In addition to the basic amp'n'speakers, they brought along the Aurum Integris CDP CD-player-and-preamplifier unit ($12,000) and a nice double-tier stand for the electronics ($3000), portions of which were also done up in an Alpi veneer. Moss and Swanbon also delivered some Cardas AC cords, a Crystal Cable interconnect, and some Golden Sound ceramic cones, and installed and adjusted the system in the larger (21' by 27') of my two listening rooms.

Footnote 1: The kind I've already bought and paid for, of course. So far, no one has loaned me any of those magic cables that can apparently chop themselves up, reterminate themselves, and sell themselves on the Internet "by mistake."

Footnote 2: See for details on how this stuff is made.