Gramophone Dreams #41: Auris Nirvana headphone amplifier & Focal Stellia Casque de Musique headphones

"Future generations will be able to condense into the brief space of twenty minutes the tone pictures of a lifetime—five minutes of childish prattle, five moments embalming the last feeble utterances from the death-bed. Will this not seem like holding veritable communion with immortality?"—Berliner Gramophone Company ca 1877

Patented by German-American inventor Emile Berliner in 1887, the Gramophone, which later became, generically, the small-g gramophone, is a device for making permanent, direct-to-flat-disc recordings (footnote 1)—of the human voice, musical instruments, or other sounds, and for playing back those stylus-inscribed discs, enjoyably, with sounds that resemble those of the original event.

Today, more than 120 years after that invention, people around the world still listen to voices and musical instruments reproduced via radially inscribed flat discs. The vividness of their effect still feels like a communion with immortals.

Most months, I begin my review explorations not by reading published specifications or absorbing manufacturer-website hyperbole but by using the component I'm auditioning to appreciate whatever music I am obsessing about at the time. This month, I was obsessed by the piano recordings of Vladimir de Pachmann, a pianist whose early–20th century performances of Chopin feel like a communion with impassioned Romantic-era pianism.

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Inspired by a friend's Facebook post showing the red label of a Victrola 78rpm disc, from August 11, 1908, that featured de Pachmann playing Chopin Impromptu No.1 (Op.29) and Prélude No.23 (Op.28), I started listening to every de Pachmann recording I could track down. I got stuck on and began repeat-playing an audiophile-quality 1967 Everest LP that I found, long ago, in the back room at Academy Records here in New York City: Vladimir de Pachmann Plays Chopin (Everest LP X-921). This modern de Pachmann disc contains a September 9, 1923, performance of the Chopin Op.29 Impromptu and another of the Op.28 Preludes.

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1848, de Pachmann died in 1933, so the majority of his performances were recorded acoustically to Berliner discs or on paper-roll transcriptions made on Welte-Mignon or Aeolian Duo-Art recording pianos. An Aeolian piano was used to record the performances featured on the Everest disc.

The Aeolian Company's Duo-Art piano recording system was introduced in 1913 to compete with the Welte-Mignon recording system, which had been introduced in 1905, and the American Piano Company's Stoddard-Ampico system, which was launched around 1911. Aeolian arrived late to the roll-recording scene, but immediately its Duo-Art System was regarded as the most advanced of the three systems, because it more accurately recorded and reproduced the speed, dynamics, pedal effects, methods of attack, shadings, and nuance of the original performance. During the 1920s, Steinway incorporated the Duo-Art System as an option on some of its pianos.

Everest Records used a restored 1929 Steinway/Duo-Art piano to recreate de Pachmann's ethereal pianissimo while capturing its sound with three calibrated AKG omnidirectional microphones feeding a Gauss Electrophysics "focused gap" recorder, allowing de Pachmann aficionados to experience the paper-roll master in audiophile-quality stereo. If this is not communing with immortals, what is?

The Auris Nirvana Headphone Amplifier
Because most headphones employ sensitive, full-range drivers with high, flat impedances, a dozen volts, less than half an amp, and only a few watts will power any of them to 100dB sound pressure levels, at low distortion. We can drive them with low-power, single-ended tube amps without fear of clipping or excessive second-harmonic sauce. An amplifier like the single-ended Auris Nirvana headphone amplifier/preamplifier (footnote 2), which is specified (with optional 12AX7 driver) to produce a maximum of 6Wpc into 32 ohms, might accidentally fall asleep while driving the 32 ohm, 106dB/mW, Focal Stellia closed-back headphones. The Stellia have replaced Focal's Clear as my new daily-driver reference headphones. For weeks, I've been using them to dream with Vladimir de Pachmann, Bob Marley, and Ennio Morricone.

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I wish you could all experience how naturally toned, corporeal, and exquisitely animated this 1967 Everest recording of that 1923 de Pachmann performance sounds. With the Auris Nirvana amp and Focal Stellia headphones, Chopin's Op.28 Prelude seemed near-perfect, soundwise: clear, solid, three-dimensional, and engaging. The piano sounds I experienced with this combination felt like urgently coded messages, direct from Chopin and de Pachmann, speaking from another place and time.

What I am describing here is a haunting, solitary musical experience, one that would be easy to replicate in anybody's home at way less than CEO prices. The Focal Stellia headphones (described below) cost $2990, and the Auris Nirvana amplifier costs $5799. I know, I know, my Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable with Jelco TK-850L arm and Grado Aeon3 cartridge is not free—it's about $17,000 including the Parasound JC 3+ phono stage—but the glories of its sound make it seem to me like a bargain to me.

With the Dr. Feickert record player spinning the Everest-Pachmann LP, the Auris tube amplifier drove the Focal Stellia closed-backs in a manner I would describe as straightforwardly neutral and well-controlled but also glowing and magical.

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With the Abyss: Upping the ante—seeking an even higher high—I played that Chopin Prelude again, this time with the Auris amplifier powering my reference JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC headphones ($4995). All I achieved, compared to the Focal Stellia, was a more conspicuously open sound with a bit more solidity and a more scintillating transparency. With the 47 ohm, 88dB/mW Abyss Phi TC, the Nirvana amplifier displayed a dark, silent transparency and a restrained sense of force and density. I was in awe of how microscopically detailed the Aeon (Dr. Feickert)-Nirvana-Abyss partnering was.

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The Auris Nirvana's home-decorator–attractive wood and metal chassis weighs 30lb (13.5kg) and measures 11.8" (300mm) × 15.4" (390mm) × 8.3" (210mm). The standard tube complement is one 12AU7/ECC82 dual-triode driver and two 6CA7/EL34 output tubes, one per channel. At top front are three knobs: The left-most selects headphone impedance (32 ohms, 80 ohms, 150 ohms, 300 ohms, and 600 ohms) via five separate taps on the secondary of the Nirvana's output transformer. The center knob is the volume control. The knob on the right selects among three back-panel line-level inputs, two single-ended (RCA) and one XLR. Also on the back panel is a cinch connector for attaching the main amp-circuitry chassis to a separate aluminum-cased 7.8lb (3kg) power supply via a 24" umbilical cord connecting. The power supply measures 5.7" (144mm) × 8" (204mm) × 3" (74mm). A remote control is optional.

The stock 12AU7 tube is a medium-mu (20) tube, but a high-mu (60) ECC81/12AT7 or an even higher-mu (100) ECC83/12AX7 tube may be substituted, allowing for increased gain, power, and voltage sensitivity. The Nirvana's input is rated at 1.4V for full output.

Via email, I asked Auris sales manager Miroslav Milovanovic how much power the Nirvana could deliver to each of its selectable headphone impedances. He replied, "With the stock ECC82 driver tube, at 1.4V in, it would generate 10V/3W into 32 ohms, 23V/3.5W into 150 ohms, and 42V/3.5W into 600 ohms."


Footnote 1: Edison's recording medium, which was dominant until that time, was a cylinder. Recording to a flat disc had been proposed a decade earlier, but Berliner was the first to make it happen.

Footnote 2: Auris Audio, Mike Stojanovica 11, 37000 Krusevac, Serbia, Europe. Email: info@aurisaudio.rs. International sales: Miroslav Milovanovic. Web: aurisaudio.rs.

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COMMENTS
pbarach's picture

However nice that Everest LP sounds, it's likely a poor representation of de Pachmann's playing. For example, Impromptu #1 from the piano roll is a rhythmic mess: https://archive.org/details/ChopinWorksForPiano/ImpromptuInAFlatOp.29No.1.mp3#

Compare it to de Pachmann's 1915 acoustic version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGfvqchcYys

I had an Everest LP of Josef Hoffman's piano roll versions of the Chopin Scherzos. They were rhythmically a mess, and they sounded nothing like his studio or live performances.

Ortofan's picture

... the Chopin Impromptu No. 1 by Jorge Bolet.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFKWqU1bXDU

SET Man's picture

Hey!

Now you've got me curious, I'll have to keep an eye open for that 78 disc to play it on my 1902 Victor Type E Talking Machine.

pbarach's picture

You'll need a $25,000 external power supply to run that Talking Machine, and $5000 in isolation devices to get the best sound quality. So I'm going with youtube and archive.org

NeilS's picture

4-CD set with excellent sound thanks to Ward Marston

https://www.marstonrecords.com/products/depachmann

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for mentioning Marston Records. I'm on their "Preferred Customer" list for vocal releases, and occasionally buy others. Ward Marston is one of the best re-masterers around of both acoustic and electrical recordings. Other sources for historic remasters include Immortal Performances in Canada and Pristine Records in the UK. These invariably top efforts from major labels, which tend to filter out overtones in an effort to filter out hiss, pops and all the rest. Plus, many of the early digital remasters of historic recordings came out early in the digital game, when midrange went south, bass suffered, and highs were accentuated. Hence the later remasterings of those remasterings, the latest remasterings of the Solti Ring and Callas commercial and live performances being prime examples.

NeilS's picture

For your kind note - I couldn't agree more about the wonderful work Marston and others have done on historic recordings. Ward Marston has been called an "audio resurrectionist". I think that's a very good description.

newernow's picture

Hi Herb, so did I read you correctly that all in all you still prefer the ZMF VC over the Stellia? If so, why exactly? Does the VC scale better with your tube amps? More open sounding? What are the virtues of the Stellia when talking about sound quality alone? Thanks!

Jack L's picture

Hi

All roads lead to Rome: digital restoration of the "immortals".

Last month by chance I picked up from my neighborhood thrift store a RCA Caruso mono LP for a buck & half !! My policy of vinyl collection: No mono but only stereo recordings. Being an operatic tenor songs lover, I always fancy about master singers like Enrico Caruso, so I got it anyway.

Am I lucky or what? When I flipped over the LP sleeve, I found it was a digitally restoration of historic recordings Enrico Caruso, the "greatest operatic tenor for all times": he received more complimentary mails from his admirers than all others added together, live & dead!!!!

This immortal restoration of this infamous master singer's recording was done by Soundstream in 1976. So this is a digital mastered LP !!!!

What this LP impressed me is: Caruso sounded so live like singing in front of me with dead silent background. I think only Soundstream could do it so real! I am so gratifying to enjoy Caruso's gorgeous operatic voice so real dated back to 1920s FINALLY !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

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