How Does It Sound?
It was almost too easy to set up the U-300. It weighs slightly less than 40 pounds, so I had no problem moving it around. In my system, the Aavik replaced a lot of gear: Aesthetix Io Eclipse phonostage with two power supplies, Callisto Eclipse linestage with two power supplies, Meitner DAC, and a variety of heavy amplifiers currently on hand (including Aesthetix Atlas monos and a pair of VTL 750s). (I also have Audio Research REF 250 SE amplifiers and a REF phono and linestage waiting in the wings, but they were not in use when I auditioned the U-300.)
To get on with the show, at first I simply connected my Kuzma Stabi M turntable (with 4Point arm and Lyra Etna cartridge) and two-box Meitner CD transport and DAC directly to the U-300. I did not have to change speaker cables as they were long enough to reach the centrally-located Aavik. It was a breeze to set cartridge loading at the recommended 500 ohms. I prefer vinyl, but first I put on some CDs just to see if the U-300 could actually drive the 20.7s to satisfying levels without a meltdown. Taking it slowly at first, I put on one of my favorite discs, Beethoven cello sonatas with du Pre and Barenboim [EMI]—the Allegro Vivace from Sonata No. 1, and the Adagio and Allegro from Sonata No. 2. As I turned the volume slowly upward, it wasn’t long before I was simply blown away. Cello tone was ravishing and Barenboim had never sounded this dynamic. I know it’s hackneyed, but the performers were in the room. More accurately, I was in their room as I heard sounds from the live audience I had barely noticed before. I love this version of the sonatas (du Pre is sensational), and it never sounded better. I easily achieved lifelike levels without any sense of strain or compression from the Aavik or the speakers.
Very pleasantly surprised. I decided to throw subtlety out the window and try more hard-hitting CDs. These included the Raidho show sampler given to me by Lars Kristensen (not true that I pried it out of his hands), the soundtrack from Lost Highway [Nothing/Interscope], and some of the fabulous CDs that Philip O’Hanlon (owner of On a Higher Note) makes and occasionally hands out to a lucky few. From the Raidho sampler I went right to the Depeche Mode cut I had heard at CES. Fresh in mind was the huge sense of space and driving bass of the demo. I played it really loud, and was stunned. I knew the 20.7s could do tight, deep bass, but again I had never heard it like this. Amazing definition, control, and extension in the lower frequencies. Dave Gahan’s voice was crystal clear and the soundstage was huge. I just couldn’t get over the ease with which the U-300 was driving the big Maggies. The amp was in total control and played cleanly at any level I could tolerate. The U-300 is rated at 600Wpc into 4 ohms, but in use it felt like 1000 watts or more, with pretty much unlimited headroom. No wonder Børresen had smiled when he told me, “Don’t worry about it.” I was not only amazed at the amp, but had new appreciation for the capabilities of the 20.7s, the limits of which obviously I had not previously reached (and may still not have reached). Equally important, there was no sense of transistory hardness or thinness, all of which are eagerly exposed by the Maggie ribbon tweeter. The music just sounded alive. Very transparent, emotional, and dynamic. The stage was panoramic.
Still anxious to get more of a take on the raw drive capabilities of the U-300, I put on the Lost Highway soundtrack. At a CES a few years ago, Jon Valin introduced me to this CD. In one of the show rooms, after hours, he put on “The Perfect Drug” and told them to play it very loud. Clearly his goal was to drive everyone from the room, leaving it for himself. I braved it and became a real fan of the entire album. I’m not embarrassed to say I especially get a kick out of the Marilyn Manson and Rammstein selections, not to mention the David Bowie opening and closing numbers. Manson’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You” is killer. In Rammstein’s disturbing but powerful “Hierate Mich,” the lead singer makes Leonard Cohen almost sound like a soprano. At the highest sound level I could tolerate, which is high, the Aavik fed the 20.7s enough juice to bring the hounds of hell into my room. The bass line was throbbing; the full band was aggressive but never sounded unnaturally harsh or bright, and vocals were moving through the room. Scary, actually. It confirmed my earlier impression that the U-300 has wide-open dynamic range, as if the designers had managed to capture and restrain some small nuclear reactor inside that Vader box.
It was time to really get serious with vinyl. I now knew the U-300 had the power to drive the 20.7s with ease, but could the phonostage compete with high-quality separates? First up on the orchestral side was my favorite Mahler Third, with Zubin Mehta at Royce Hall [King]. The first think I noticed with the Aavik was that the sense of air and space was huge and gave up nothing to tube gear. The Royce Hall acoustic enveloped most of my room, making it easier to get lost in this massive symphony. The bass drums thunder at the opening of the first movement (almost a symphony in itself) soon subsides into some relatively delicate strokes of the drum, far back, stage left. The Aavik firmly differentiated the varying intensities of the drum and left no question about the significant space between the bass drum and the front of the stage.
Throughout the first movement, the brass section (trumpets, trombones, and tuba) was sensational, burnished, and piercing as in life, but never harsh as in hi-fi. The orchestra was illuminated from within, not with spotlights but with the warm glow of the orchestral stage during a performance. Timpani rolled through the room while massed violins and doublebasses sounded as they do in the concert hall. Solo violin was lovely and the woodwinds floated throughout this massive orchestral undertaking (Mahler’s largest symphony and, IMHO, also one of his most uplifting).
Orchestral piano was also beautifully rendered by the Aavik and 20.7s. I’m a fan of Julius Katchen, and his playing of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Pierre Monteux [Decca] highlights his skills. After the lengthy introduction by full orchestra, the piano’s entry is precisely located well behind the speakers, rich in timbre and fully percussive when the playing becomes more intense.
The next record to settle on the Kuzma was Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux [Warner]. A wonderful performance and atmospheric recording, the Porgy and Bess medley is fabulous. Great definition of all instruments with Miles’ trumpet riding above and through it all with authority and explosiveness. Speaking of explosive, the song “Pan Piper” (from Sketches of Spain) on side two was breathtaking.
On the terrific early stereo (1958) recording What Is There to Say? by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet [Columbia], Mulligan’s sax and Art Farmer’s trumpet were full-bodied and right in front of you in the room, leaving nothing to the imagination. My aunt was friends with Peggy Lee and some years ago she gave me her Peggy Lee records. They generally suffer from early “left-right” recording techniques, but the sound is pretty good and Peggy Lee’s voice and interpretations are still fresh and relevant. The old standards “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” both on Mink Jazz [Capitol], exhibited new life through the Aavik. It didn’t turn the recordings into the state of the art, but it allowed all of Peggy Lee’s expressiveness to shine through as if she were recorded yesterday.
I’ve played The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio 45-rpm reissue [Groove Note] dozens of times in the past few years. It never gets old. With the Aavik in the system, Ray Brown’s bass had an unexpected level of definition and expression. Likewise, Gene Harris’ piano playing beautifully ran the range between subtle and driving. It was never more clear that the performers were having fun, and so was I. The Aavik just seems to deliver intact all of the energy of the original performance. Put another way, it didn’t seem to restrict or compress the dynamic range of the musicians. Could this be a function, at least in part, of all electrical components being closely together in one enclosure, with minimal wiring and almost no interconnects? Why not?
Time to try the U-300 with other genres. My daughter Serena has her own weekly blues radio show at Indiana University. She’s teaching me a lot about blues music and history and I’m enjoying the blues (the music, that is) more than ever. She sent me on a record-buying mission at last year’s Newport Show (great show with a pretty spectacular selection of vinyl for sale). One of those purchases, Otis Rush’s Cold Day in Hell [Delmark], is seeing more than its fair share of turntable time. How bad can any album be when Mighty Joe Young is playing guitar? Rush’s songs are addictive and, yet again, the Aavik lets this raw-boned music through in all its gritty glory. The more I listened to the U-300, the more I realized one of its greatest strengths is what it doesn’t do—it just doesn’t get in the way of the music.
How about the U-300 with rock ’n’ roll? Jack White headlined Coachella last Spring and put on a helluva show, not to be forgotten. Since that performance, my White Stripes and Jack White (solo) vinyl collection has substantially expanded. The LPs are all really good, but if you’re new to the White Stripes on vinyl, the two-record set Elephant [Third Man Records] is a great place to start. (All songs were recorded to eight-track reel-to-reel and, so state the album notes, “no computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record.”) I just read that Rolling Stone called it the fifth-best album of the decade. It’s all good, with “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit” (“Let’s have a ball and a biscuit, sugar, and take our sweet time about it”) still receiving a lot of airplay on the indie channels. Jack White is undoubtedly one of the greatest guitarists of our era and this album finds him pulverizing just about every cut. Through the Aavik, his guitar shreds and the bass buckles the walls. But through it all, his voice remains crystal clear and the lyrics are intelligible, a rarity today. This record has always sounded awesome on my tube gear, but the Aavik just cranks up the energy to another level without any loss of clarity.