Right out of the box and into my system, the Niagara 1000 handily and noticeably lowered the noise floor, creating a sense of clarity that seemed to increase resolution across a broad spectrum of recordings. But wait; there’s more. The musical elements all seemed in better balance, with everything in its place, tidied up. More distinct textures and tone colors shined through more clearly. The soundstage deepened some (depending on source recording), and a more palpable sense of presence came from the speakers, along with more body, bloom, and dimensionality. In my general experience, better-recorded material showed more pronounced results. Note that the differences with the Niagara I noticed and will describe were less smack-in-your-face obvious, yet still distinct and discernible.
With the Niagara 1000 in place, subtle nuances of individual musicians’ and singers’ styles could be detected as more fine microdynamic and harmonic details were revealed. I thought of the old trope, “It’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it.” Playback revealed at least as much about what they were playing (or singing) as how they were playing or performing as artists.
On “In the Cold, Cold Night” from The White Stripes’ Elephant, Meg White sounded more like an actual flesh-and-blood woman, singing in her plaintive way. Quiet backgrounds allowed more of the studio echo to register. The low end also showed more clarity and control as the deep organ notes rumbled and hung in the air longer, drawing me into the song’s haunting atmosphere.
The National’s Matt Berninger may not be a formally trained singer but his earnest and natural baritone style often delivers an appealing and compelling honesty. Here, on the moody first cut of the band’s Sleep Well Beast LP “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the system with the Niagara 1000 in front rendered his vocal performance with greater presence and body, but also made his singing seem more intimately personal, human, and almost vulnerable in expression. Bryce Dessner’s lonesome, somber piano chords sounded more convincingly like the real thing, darkish harmonics and all.
Perhaps most striking with the Niagara 1000 in place were the differences in imaging specificity, outlines, and three-dimensionality, especially on better recordings. Obviously these also up the realism ante. Individual instruments and vocalists were more clearly delineated and distinct from one another. On complex layered material, such as Buena Vista Social Club’s LP/soundtrack of the same name, this greater specificity and dimensionality made the unbridled energy and sheer liveliness of each of the Cuban virtuosos clearer and more intoxicating. The myriad and distinctive stringed instruments on “Chan Chan,” such as the laúd, were presented with a resonating sense of urgency, of tension and release, that drew me in; the trumpet swells were exhilarating, the horn’s bell so clear, dimensional, and lifelike I could almost see its brass.
Not only did my ears pick up accents and flourishes within the layers that had only barely registered before, if I’d heard them at all—such as the background tambourine during Aaron Dessner’s guitar solo on “This System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the first single from the Sleep Well Beast LP—it was also easier (and more fun) to follow any given instrument’s part within the mix. For example, during the title track from EL VY’s Return to the Moon, I noticed how often the crisp, continuous cymbal taps return, and the jovial pep of the bass line kept catching my attention.