The Fifth Element #56 Page 2

As I stated in my coverage of the PSB Imagine B ($1000/pair) in the February issue, if your budget for an entire system comes to the $1995 you'd have to pay for the Carat I57 CD receiver alone, the $1999 combination of Arcam Solo Mini and PSB Imagine Bs is very admirable—I just don't have a huge amount of confidence that, down the road, you won't get the itch to spend a little more to get a little more.

However, on the subject of spending more—and this part has me scratching my head—while the Solo Mini's sound has a strong family resemblance to that of the twice-as-powerful, twice-as-expensive Solo Music, I actually preferred the Mini by a nose, at least within its power limitations. Its sound was just slightly more tactile and slightly more agreeable.

I held a monster (can I still use that word, or do I now have to go into rehab? Footnote 1) listening session to compare the Luxman DU-50 universal player with L-505u integrated amplifier, the Carat I57, and the Arcam Solo Music and Solo Mini. Loudspeakers were the monitor-quality Aerial 5Bs, which I profiled in June. In the interest of keeping things from spinning totally out of control, I limited my test tracks to two: Harry Connick, Jr.'s poignant "Drifting," from We Are in Love (CD, Columbia CK 46146); and the Canto funébre from 2L's magnificent recording of Terje Boye Hansen leading soloists, choir, and the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Sigurd Islandsmoen's Requiem (SACD, 2L 36SACD), which I picked for "Records To Die For."

Young Master Connick
Harry Connick, Jr.'s We Are in Love is either a near-great or half-great album—I can't make up my mind. The high points are stellar. However, song to song, the quality of the songs, the arrangements, and the interpretations is quite variable. Former US Plinius importer Vince Galbo has told me for years that he uses track 6, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," while setting up a system, so I eventually bought a copy on eBay. Immediately, I heard what he means. But there's a little too much artificial reverb for me to enjoy the track as pure music—it keeps reminding me of its origins in the padded cell of a studio.

However, I found "Drifting" to have a much less intrusive production, and that's the track I now use. Poignant definitely is the word for this performance. But half the tracks on this album I just plain avoid, because I think Connick can be of two minds, or perhaps two hearts, about some of the songs—perhaps he feels a need to distance himself from them with a knowing, ironic smirk. That said, the other half are golden—you really should hear this record.

Checking in on the Luxmen
I played both Connick tracks on all the electronics, but began with the Luxman L-505u integrated amplifier ($3700) and DU-50 near-universal player ($5000, no Blu-ray playback). I went about it that way because I borrowed and have held on to the Luxman gear as a benchmark for truly great audio equipment, so there would be a reference standard well outside the price range I'm exploring for a complete system costing $2500 to $3750. In my view, the Luxmen occupy the sweet spot just before the point of substantially diminishing returns. Yes, carefully spend more than the Luxman duo's $8700 and you'll probably get better sound, but not as a linear function; more likely you'll spend twice as much to get, at most, another 10% improvement in sound quality.

Perhaps the Luxman combo embodies the same thinking as the real-estate lore about buying the cheapest house in the best neighborhood—Luxman's other offerings ascend into the ionosphere, price-wise. Don't look to me for real-estate advice, but I can assure you that the Luxman duo is fantastic audio value for money. The L-505u integrated amp has become my new default recommendation.

So, please forgive that once again I have to delay the Luxmen's getting their own review space here. But their role has been very important. By beginning a listening session with them, I can assess what you might have to give up at each ratcheting-down of price for the less costly components surveyed.

On to the Comparo...
In all cases, the speakers were the Aerial 5Bs and the speaker cables Nordost Blue Heaven, as were the interconnects for the Luxman player.

Luxmen, Connick: Just great. On this track, I can't remember any aspect of the sound of the Luxmen driving the Harbeth Compact 7s that I preferred. Great center image, great resolution of low-level detail. No excess vocal sibilance or strident strings. Echo tails very clear. The Joel Dorn–esque triangle or chime was in good stereo perspective. Strings were full and warm, the overall sound superbly integrated.

Luxmen, Islandsmoen: Similarly impressive overall. The double-bass pizzicati were very nice, as was the harp. An engaging presentation.

Arcam Solo Music, Connick: With the larger Arcam, there was an immediate sense that the strings had moved in the direction of stridency. There was less soundstage depth, and less dimensionality in general. Timbres overall began to sound slightly electronic. All that said, the Arcam Solo Music was certainly "listenable," with good ambience retrieval and basically true timbres. However, Connick's voice wasn't as tactile a presence, and the triangle or chime was not as coherent. Still, at this stage of the proceedings, had the Luxman duo not been here for comparison, the Solo Music would have seemed just fine, especially for the price.

Arcam Solo Music, Islandsmoen: Less definition in the bass accentuated a more midrangey sound, with the chorus verging on shoutiness.

Arcam Solo Mini, Connick: Switching to the less-expensive Arcam, the sound took a big step back from the brink of stridency. There was a better sense of soundstage, and the voice was better defined in both space and timbre. Even the bass was slightly better defined. Why this should have been so baffles me; perhaps the Mini has fewer output transistors, leading to fewer timing errors? If your budget were $3500, the Aerial 5Bs, Solo Mini, and stands and cables would be a very valid solution. The combination lacked the immediacy and definition of the Luxman-Aerial combo, but, surprisingly, the Solo Mini seemed to have more of the Luxmen's virtues than did the Solo Music.

Arcam Solo Mini, Islandsmoen: The initial attack and tonality were more coherent and balanced. To my surprise, the Mini's 25Wpc coped nicely with the Aerial 5B's claimed sensitivity of a lowish 86dB, nominal 4 ohm impedance, and sealed-box bass loading. By no means authoritative, but not shabby either.

Carat I57, Connick: Moving up to the Carat I57, the treble was slightly softer but the sound more punchy overall. (In the interests of a level playing field and my own sanity, I didn't use the tone controls of any of these components.) The music seemed to flow better than with either of the Arcam Solos. This was especially true when Connick opened up a bit dynamically to shape a phrase. The harp occupied its own position in space—as it should for $2000. Of the three CD receivers, the Carat rendered the strings on "Drifting" closest to the presentation of the Luxman duo. If your budget can stretch to $4500, the combination of Aerial 5Bs and Carat I57 is wonderful.

Carat I57, Islandsmoen: Hmm. Surprisingly, the Carat didn't do double basses and organ pedals as well as the Arcam Solo Mini—but the I57's definition of the violin tremolos was better.

As between the Arcam Solos, I find the results interesting because they're counterintuitive: I preferred the sound of the cheaper, smaller Solo Mini. As for either Arcam compared with the Carat, the I57 had in general a richer, fuller, more tuneful approach to instrumental and vocal timbres, threw a deeper soundstage, provided more definition of inner musical voices, and was dynamically punchier. And I do like the fact that the Carat decodes HDCD. But if someone finds the Carat a touch too mellow or euphonic, I won't challenge that someone to a duel—the associated speakers and room acoustics will greatly influence the outcome.

All that said, the Carat I57 costs twice as much as the Arcam Solo Mini—and the Solo Mini sounds pretty darn good, is a tremendous job of packaging, and works pretty much intuitively. I give it $$$ for exceptional value.

Next time: ATC's SCM 11 loudspeaker, and Denon's RCD-CX1 SACD/CD receiver and SC-CX303 loudspeaker. Barring the unforeseen, I expect that that will wrap up my quest for affordable excellence—and then, at last, detailed coverage of the Luxman DU-50 and L-505u.


Footnote 1: Speaking of monsters: I needed a pair of mike cables in a hurry, so I ran down to Guitar World. I didn't want to pay what they were asking for Mogami, knowing I could get that much cheaper from Markertek, so I just bought a pair of Monster Cable Prolink mike cables. Later, as I was getting ready to file away the proof of purchase and the guarantee, I read through the guarantee. Then I threw it away. You see, Monster Cable's Prolink mike cables' guarantee excludes professional use. Ah. I must have been confused. Thanks for straightening me out.