The Entry Level #38 Page 2

Once an order has been placed, the IC-3 and SC-5 cables typically require 24 hours to ship from Audio Art's San Diego headquarters. However, for an extra $12.50 and an additional 72 hours of shipping time, customers can opt for Audio Art's Premium Burn-In Service. I chose to burn in the cables myself; Rob Fritz recommended that I give them "about 170 hours" before making any critical assessments. Why would it take me almost 100 hours longer to burn in the cables myself? I would be using a steady diet of music, but Fritz uses a Hagerman Technology FryKleaner Professional burn-in generator. Audio Art cables come with a 30-day, money-back guarantee; a one-year warranty on parts and labor covers any manufacturing defects.

Straight out of their ziplock packages, the cables sounded very good—clean, 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 soundstage—panning effects seemed to travel the width of our apartment—with 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 good—I 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 interconnect—and, 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 technique—the way a bass kick would alternate with a snare hit to achieve a sense of forward movement, for instance—and, 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 me—and 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 vocals—all 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 performers—attractive 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 3020—not 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 codec—similar 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 $129.87—35% 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 excellent—especially 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 bad—gritty, 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.

jgossman's picture

I'm looking at the pic there.. and they look like Radio Shack connectors, because they probably ARE Radio Shack connectors.  And that's not a bad thing, Radio Shack's gold plated banana plugs are in fact GOOD.  

Get over it!

junker's picture

"LHL's second product would be the Geek Pulse, a "pure class-A" desktop integrated amplifier–DAC capable of handling 32-bit/384kHz PCM files, as well as decoding native DSD64 and DSD128 files."

The Pulse is not actually an integrated amplifier other than that it has a digital volume control and the user can select from 4 digital inputs much like any other DAC. I'd consider it more of a digital pre-amp if anything since while it can drive headphones it cannot directly drive speakers.

"In a little over two months, the company has raised well over $600,000 to support its design and manufacture of what will be relatively affordable hi-fi components."

Across both campaigns they have actually raised about $1.6m.

ms142's picture

Stephen, I'm quite curious about your comment about dealers in the LH Lab story. I had thought that the LH way of directly reaching the customer is the way things should be, and it's really not clear to me what functions a more traditional dealer network could provide. Could you elaborate somewhat?

I haven't heard of dealers providing repairs to DACs, and in this case it should be quite feasible for direct or indirect buyers to send their defective units back to factory. Technical support can be provided by reseller as well as the manufacturer's forum, so the main function of a reseller is to demo the product (and do bulk shipping etc). As for price, if the reseller pays the lowest of the campaign prices, after the campaign when all the prices go up there should be room for the reseller to make a normal profit. (By the way, the lower price is why people pay their cash on a promise - they get discounts in exchange for accepting more risk. It's like buying corporate bonds...) At least this is my understanding.

jbucko's picture

Another great column Stephen, that's awesome that the Lepai sounded good with the KEFs, it's too bad the Bluetooth wasn't worth it. I just ordered the Lepai TA2020+ amp (a whopping $21 on Amazon) to pair up with my Dayton B652s and make a dirt cheap second system; I'm really curious to find out if it sounds any good. One of my housemates expressed an interest in getting a turntable, but unfortunately, putting together what we would consider an "entry level" system is still a significant investment for most of my 20-something peers.  If the Dayton/Lepai combo sounds half-way decent it could be a great way to get my buddy started with minimal initial investement!

john-erik erikson smith's picture

With all due respect Stephen, I'd direct my focus away from speaker wire if I was writing an "entry level" blog. Speaker wire as a bottleneck is a bit absurd in the context of a $5,000 system, let alone an entry level system.

drblank's picture

The reason why some companies are going with Kickstarter programs is that they simply want to test the market to see what kind of market there really is. Obviously, some companies can be successful at it with a new lower end product is because they established themselves.

Light Harmonic established themselves as a top DAC mfg with their top of the line product and since they got rave reviews of their top end DAC, they figured, let's bring that same technology down to a lower price point and see what kind of response they would get. MIT Cables is doing it with their headphone cables since that's a new product for them. If they don't get enough support, then they don't have to make the product and no one gets charged the money, but if they are successful, then the mfg knows that there is a big enough market to warrant finishing the development and release of the product because they know they'll at least break even on the product design.

For small audio companies, they simply have to manage their resources to only projects that are profitable and these Kickstarter programs allows them to test the waters so to speak.

What I find annoying is the companies that talk about a new product, but it never gets released and it's probably due to the company not having the financial resources or they run into some type of problem that's either technical or mfg related or they simply can't make a profit due to rising production costs.

I don't normally prescribe to getting involved with Kickstarter type programs, but apparently there are people that do. I think it's a way to test the market before a product release and if they hit the goal, that means they can sell enough units to at least break even.

for the market LH is doing those Kickstarter programs, it's a VERY tough market. There are more and more portable DACs, or lower priced DACs on the market and it's a tough call to release something if there simply isn't enough people willing to buy the product.