Listening #59 Page 2

In that room, with the speakers no less than 13' from one another, the full Aurum system sounded impressive. Superb bass extension and near-holographic imaging topped the list of its strengths, along with the kind of timbral neutrality and realism that are rare even among the most expensive high-end rigs. Voices on rock and folk recordings sounded wonderful: As with virtually every other single-ended 300B amp I've heard, the Aurum system imbued singers with an engaging presence that was beyond the more conventional aspects of stereo imaging. That quality extended to other soloists—such as Hilary Hahn, in her fine recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony (Sony Classical SK 60584).

On the downside, the Aurum system wasn't as emotionally involving as I'd expected. After satisfying my initial curiosity—mostly an exercise in wondering how this or that recording would sound through a system with a lot more bass than I'm used to hearing—I found myself listening to the Integris Active 300B only when I felt I had to. Sonically faultless though it seemed, and however close it brought the images of performers to my listening seat, it just didn't move me (qv Elvis) as effectively as either of my usual systems—which, for the time being, center around Quad ESLs driven by Quad II amps in the big room, and Audio Note AN-Es driven by a Shindo Cortese in the smaller room.

Speaking of which: When I moved the Aurum Integris Active 300 B system into the Shindo-Audio Note room (12' by 19'), I was rewarded by a somewhat more involving sound. Especially when I drove the Aurum's big crossover-amplifier unit with my Shindo Masseto preamp, a little more blood seemed to flow through its veins—singing voices that had already sounded pure and uncolored and there now caught more of my attention. Then again, in that setting, the Aurum Integris CDP distinguished itself as a surprisingly good digital source, with much more of a sense of musical flow than I usually hear from "Red Book" CD players—although LPs were still required to squeeze the most emotional juice from the big Aurum speakers (footnote 3).

Beyond the slightest doubt, the Aurum Integris system is quite an accomplishment: Derrick Moss brought a fresh perspective to the challenges of very-high-quality domestic audio, and not only did he get the technical details right—in a nod to those who disdain the cathode follower for its perceived lack of purity and naturalness, Moss configured his gain stages as CFs, though only for the lowest frequencies—he also has a keen understanding of ergonomics. The build quality is also very good: Everything seemed to have been thought out ahead of time, without a sloppy or missed note in the whole thing.

Again: Has Aurum Acoustics given us the best of both worlds?

Not quite. The Integris Active 300B is closer to being a high-end system with somewhat greater-than-average drama, presence, and tone, than it is to being a SET system that's been tidied up and made sonically respectable. While that may sound disappointing to some, it may be quite enough for others—and a pleasant surprise. "Our brand position is for the experienced audiophile who wants to get off the equipment merry-go-round and settle in and play music more than play with equipment," says Moss.

The usual blithe "recommended for audition" won't do. For now, you could do such a thing only in Newfoundland or New Hampshire: disparate places, if not quite the outposts of civilization. (Halifax remains one of my favorite cities—mentioned here for its being surprisingly temperate more than anything else.) If you missed hearing the Aurum system at HE2007, call Aurum or Fidelis and determine where and when the next opportunity may arise.

Alta fidelidad
I bought my first 45rpm single in 1965, my first LP a year later. I've been a serious audio enthusiast since 1973. I've written about domestic audio on and off since 1985. I've had the privilege of visiting the homes of some of the world's most renowned record collectors—some of them well-known musicians in their own right—and the pleasure of sharing my enthusiasms with hundreds of rank-and-file music enthusiasts over the years. I'm 53 years old as I write this, my hearing is better than the average for a person my age, and I'm fortunate to own one hell of a good playback system.

Thus it is with complete confidence that I tell you: Just a few weeks ago, I heard the best record ever to come my way—the most startlingly, jaw-droppingly realistic recording of music I've experienced. And the crazy thing is, I've owned it for years; I'd just never gotten around to opening it, let alone cleaning it, let alone playing it, until June 15, 2007. Let the date ring on forever.

That's not the only crazy thing. The really crazy thing is this: The best recording I've ever heard is a 10" Microgroove LP, Columbia CLP 11006, recorded in mono and manufactured in Spain. Spain, for God's sake.

The featured artist is Pacita Tomás, a flamenco dancer of some renown, and the recording was made with orchestral accompaniment and solo appearances by a vocalist, Rafael Romero, and a guitarist, Justo de Badajoz. I haven't learned much else about this amazing disc, and can only guess that it was recorded and pressed between 1948 and 1959, after which the 10" LP seems to have been used mostly for children's recordings and various "specialty" releases before fading from the scene. (Props to Michael Hobson and Bernie Grundman of Classic Records for reviving the format for their reissue of Miles Davis's Young Man with a Horn—a seriously wonderful record—and Toshiba/EMI in Japan for doing the same thing with various other Blue Note titles.)

The sound quality and freshness of the performance are astonishing, as is the sheer quietness of the groove. I cleaned the disc on a Keith Monks RCM before listening to it for the first time, and after I'd lowered the stylus into the groove, I worried that there was something wrong with my system—until the music leaped loudly from an impressively silent background. The first number, "Escenas Andaluzas," begins with a few arpeggiated harp chords, followed by plucked strings and a remarkably real-sounding bass clarinet—which is nothing compared with the presence of the castanets that announce Señora Tomás's entrance and drive the music into double-time.

And then she starts dancing.

By that point I probably looked like a large, balding version of a 10-year-old boy who'd just seen his first Corvette. I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open, and I might have been trying to speak—I don't remember. I do remember being dimly concerned that whatever bumps and ruts in the plastic were responsible for those deep, loud, startlingly realistic sounds would probably blow my stylus out of the groove at any second. But that didn't happen. The sound stayed loud, the sound stayed clean, and I remained utterly transfixed by musicians who are probably all dead now, until the number ended and the groove went silent again.

You can probably guess my next two words, but in case you can't, one of them was holy and the other one was shit.

I didn't sufficiently trust my sanity or the weak fabric of reality to listen to on the next selection—at least not yet. I lifted the stylus from the record, moved the arm back to where it had started, and played "Escenas Andaluzas" again. It was just as good as the first time. Then I played the rest of the album, which was no less enchanting.

I returned to it the next morning, and the record and my hi-fi played the same parlor trick on my brain. So, as only a middle-aged man can do, I tried to analyze the experience. I didn't come up with much, but here it is:

The next time someone tells me that they know that the realistic reproduction of music in the home requires 1) 24-bit/192kHz (or whatever), 2) perfectly flat frequency response, 3) bass down to 20Hz, 4) 5.1 channels—or even 2.0 channels, 5) high power (I was listening with a 15W Shindo amp), or 6) or any other single thing, I will do my best to smile, to be humble, patient, and kind as I remind them that, like most of us, they know nothing at all.

Product updates
Speaking of my system: I've made a few changes recently, all of which have some or another bearing on the equipment critiques I write for Stereophile.

Having recently sold the Lamm ML2.1 monoblocks that served me well for three years, I've bought the review sample of the Shindo Masseto preamplifier that I've had in my home for a few months, and I've ordered a Shindo Cortese amplifier of my own. (I'd already returned the review sample.) I also bought a 1.5m Shindo silver interconnect, and a 20' pair of the Shindo-recommended Auditorium 23 speaker cable, which is copper and sounds wonderful.

Some day I'll put the Cortese on the back seat of my car and drive it to Brooklyn. I'll buy a six-pack of Bass Ale on the way, and I'll knock on John Atkinson's door and say, "C'mon, let's measure this thing!" I'd love to know why it sounds so good.

I've retired my Lowthers for the time being, and am thinking of selling the cabinets. I still have my pair of PM2A drivers with 15-ohm silver "speech coils" (minus the Hi-Ferric coating) and ticonal magnets, but I'm no longer convinced that my Medallion horn enclosures are the way to go. Perhaps I'll try some other kind of loading during the winter months to come. I've been saying that every fall for the past three years.

In other equipment news, I've returned to their suppliers a number of review samples that had been here for a very long time, most of which I continued to refer to in subsequent reviews. Those include the Linn Ekos tonearm (original style), Well Tempered Record Player, Rega P9 turntable, Tubaphon TU2 phono cartridge, Supex 900 Super phono cartridge (vintage), Nordost Heimdall speaker cables and Valhalla speaker cables and interconnects, Ayre and Cardas AC cords, and the Audio Note AN-E Lexus Signature loudspeakers—although the last have been replaced by the Audio Note AN-E/Spe HE speakers, which will be the subject of a forthcoming "Follow-Up."

Footnote 3: In the works for the CDP is a plug-in phono-preamp board, complete with step-up transformers for low-output MC cartridges.