Use and Listening
This from a famous-brand headphone advertisement, which appeared on my Kindle recently: “Crushing bass and dynamic sound from 50mm drivers . . . powerful bass from Direct-Vibe sealed acoustic structure.”
So you see folks, just in case you were wondering, it’s indeed all about bass. Dangerous and life-threatening bass. Although something tells me this ad was not intended to reach the demographic of e-reader owners, it nonetheless found me just as I was listening, quite happily by the way, to “animal” from Pearl Jam’s vs. [Epic] in pentode mode (of course) and getting a fairly accurate taste of the message the boys were sending 20 years ago. Tight and dynamic, with many tracks having a one- take, live feel, this album begs to be turned up loud, and the Orion II obliged. From side to side and top to bottom I got a coherent, rock-solid image of the band doing what they probably did best at decibel levels they would certainly approve of. My gut was feeling the music as much as my ears were hearing it. Bass was powerful and tight as were drums. The distinct musical personalities of guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McReady were well delineated both spatially and musically. Eddie Vedder was almost in the room on some tracks. The best part is that all this was occurring with the volume control just cracked open at about 8 o’clock—achievable in a smaller listening room through suitably high-sensitivity-and-impedance speakers like my own Snells. And, of course, these ain’t just any watts—these are tube watts.
While the importance of measured harmonic distortion to the quality of an amplifier remains debatable, I almost agree with Ayon that the subject is, especially in comparison to other (especially qualitative) attributes, really not worth talking about. What is worth discussing (and certainly worth listening to) is an amplifier that is dynamic, fast, pushy, unapologetic, maybe even a bit rude sometimes—in other words, alive. This is what I believe Ayon has achieved with the Orion II: getting the macro-dynamics and the micro-dynamics spot-on. And I’m not talking about this being a secret truth known only to those who have the means of accessing it either through associated equipment, 180 gram virgin audiophile label LP, or 24/96 high-res digital.
A terrific example of the “aliveness” of which I speak can be found in the first few measures of Oliver Nelson’s great “Stolen Moments” from The Blues and the Abstract Truth [Impulse!]. Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and George Borrow start the piece with four successive chords each played as a crescendo followed immediately by a decrescendo. It’s fast and subtle but if it’s not there, well then the performance is missing too. This is the real “drop the book and take notice” stuff that good gear does for a living, and what the Orion II does expertly. Jazz recordings of this period (1961) were by nature “purist,” employing a minimum of takes, tracks, and microphones. Amplification was tube. This wasn’t because it was cool but because there was no alternative. Spitty, blatty, breathy, sometimes clangy, this is what brass instruments can sound like in an intimate setting—like the recording studio or my living room—and this much appreciated information came through unabridged.
Bass performance, which is rarely high among a tube amplifier’s bragging points, was certainly adequate in my experience, and I never felt the need for a subwoofer. If pressed I would say that the grand closing to the “Uranus” movement from The Planets [London] may have been a little soft but that low, low E of the organ nonetheless nicely locked with my room. On the other hand, it is generally held that space and midrange are a good tube amplifier’s calling cards, and the Orion II certainly met expectations here. When I played their Chanson D’Amour [RCA], the six gents of the King’s Singers were believably arranged in a semicircle before me with the location and distinct quality of each voice unerringly conveyed. Again, micro-dynamics were captured with alacrity as the Orion II was easily able to keep up with the speed at which the voices launched notes, changed pitches, and went from mezzopiano to mezzoforte and back again in a split second.
Instant comparisons between triode and pentode, possible given the Orion’s simple control layout, were not an option, both because of the need to shut down the unit before switching modes and because, not unexpectedly, gain levels were grossly different between the two. That said, after months of listening, I found myself favoring the pentode for most material. Dynamic, punchy, fast, and powerful were the adjectives I most often scribbled in my notes. In this mode the Orion II seemed at least twice as powerful as its rating. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the triode setting, because I did, but only on music that did not require strong and precise percussive or timing cues to sound believable and alive. The King’s Singers or Ravel’s Quartet in F [Naxos] were particularly well served. Triode also became my de facto late-night listening mode, adding just a little bit of body and richness to the sound at domestically approved levels.