Behold Gentle G192 Media Player & Ascendo C8 Renaissance Speaker System (TAS 203)

Equipment report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Behold Gentle G192
Behold Gentle G192 Media Player & Ascendo C8 Renaissance Speaker System (TAS 203)

It is hard to put this review in perspective. It covers two very different components—an extremely sophisticated digital unit, the Behold Gentle G192 media player, and a more conventional loudspeaker, the Ascendo C8. Both stand alone as excellent components. At the same time, they are combined in this review because the Behold Gentle G192 provides automatic correction for room-and-speaker response, a built-in electronic crossover, and two very different types of amplifiers, Class A analog and a novel type of digital amplifier.

The digital amplifier is called a “switched mode amplifier” rather than Class D. The designer states that “Class-D amplifiers are still analog amplifiers but with a digital final output stage often driven by a simple comparator fed by the analog input signal more or less directly. Often a feedback loop is used to lower the high distortion resulting from such a cheap methodology. The Gentle uses a totally different and more expensive approach. It does use a ‘switched’ output stage but one driven from a digital D/S-modulator that generates a pulse-width-modulated driving signal derived directly from the digital audio word and transferred to the amplifier. There is no D/A converter present as part of the amplifier; the whole amplifier is the D/A converter. The D/S-modulator operates at a 192kHz sampling rate at the full 24-bit audio word. This avoids a conventional D/A conversion and follow-up analog comparators, and an analog ‘intermediate stage.’ Besides other advantages, this technology allows operation with an open-loop output circuit that is totally insensitive to the feedback power of a low-frequency speaker driver.” [See my review of the NAD M2 Direct Digital Amplifier in Issue 198 for an explanation of the difference between a Class D and a digital amplifier. —RH]

The Ascendo not only provided an excellent test of the Behold G192’s capabilities, but reviewing the two components together illustrates the fact that a “digital evolution” is taking place that has very different goals than the high end’s search for analog perfection. Virtually every decent home-theater receiver now combines a digital front end with some form of automated digital setup and room compensation—largely by Audyssey. It’s just a guess, but more people have probably invested in a multichannel digital-room-correcting system than in a high-end analog audio setup, and there are certainly far more buying such systems.

This doesn’t make such systems the wave of the future in stereo or the high end. So far, the trends have moved more in the opposite direction: extremely expensive analog equipment stressing the simplest possible uncorrected signal path. A few digital front ends from firms like TacT have captured limited attention, and more and more digital amplifiers are coming on the market, but LP is probably still expanding more than the digital front end.

At the same time, no one can ignore just how quickly digital-streaming and music servers are beginning to catch on. There are indications that the CD and DVD may die long before the LP, as most digital music migrates to hard-drive storage and into units that can store thousands of digital albums and performances. We may well be looking at the last generation of CD and SACD players, and even the last generation of relatively low sampling frequencies and word lengths. If so, the Behold Gentle G192 may be a sign of the future and so may automated room correction and the use of electronic crossovers in simple compact packages.

 

The Behold Gentle G192

Let me begin with the Behold Gentle G192. It is almost easier to describe what this $15,500 unit isn’t than to describe what it is. Even the Web site only begins to hint at its features and technology (behold.eu/page.php?en321000), and the instruction manual, while well written, is a translation from German and focuses on using the unit rather than describing it. For what it’s worth, the Behold Gentle G192 has the longest list of technical specifications that I have ever read for a piece of high-end equipment—so long that I’ll leave it to the Web site to go into detail and just summarize it below.

A list of key features gives you at least an introduction to just how flexible this unit really is:

• It is a full analog and digital preamp with up to eight analog and six digital inputs available to run several stereo channels or one multichannel 5.1 system. All configurations are user-selectable. Four of the digital inputs are TosLink, capable of 192kHz/24-bit; the remaining two electrical inputs (Cinch) accept also up to 192kHz/24-bit.

• It uses 24-bit A/D and D/A converters, with a 192kHz sampling rate, for all analog inputs and outputs.

• It provides four channels of amplification (two analog and two switching). The analog amps provide 2x40 watts into 8 ohms and up to 2x80 into 4 ohms. The digital amps provide 2x80 watts into 8 ohms and up to 2x160 into 4 ohms. All the amplifiers work in balanced mode.

• It can be run in tri-amping mode. While the Behold only has four of the six necessary amplifiers, a standard analog high-power amplifier can be used to drive the low frequencies of a 3-way speaker system.

• Special speaker sets are available for compensation of passive crossover negative effects on special devices.

• It has a built-in electronic crossover using the SHARC ADSP21369 DSP and phase-linear bandpass filters, allowing users to tailor the crossover for most speakers with precisely the crossover characteristics they need.

• It provides automated correction of frequency response for the speaker and speaker/room interactions using the SHARC ADSP21369 DSP, and runs with Ascendo Room Tools that can tailor the response to provide the most musically realistic result. This feature is defeatable through the remote control.

• It acts as a music server with a built-in hard drive, and can operate a remote hard drive to provide the storage capacity for a full music library.

• It can use CD, hard drive, or USB stick input to play any music in the WAV format (44.1kHz, 16-bit) or MP3.

• A small dedicated optical disc drive is available as an option. It does not need a separate CD or DVD player.

• A separate moving-coil phonostage unit is available as an outboard chassis to avoid noise contamination from the power amplifiers.

• It has a 7-inch full-color 800x480-pixel display, and all the functions, except volume, mute and on/off, are operated by touching the screen. There is also a full-featured remote control. There are two USB connectors for keyboard and mouse. There is a standard IR receiver for remote control.

• The mains power supply works from 100V to 240V in stepless increments, and from 50Hz or 60Hz. There is also a built-in power conditioner.

• It is equipped with an Ethernet-LAN and standard USB-input, and can be connected to all PC-based computers. The configuration and firmware-updates are possible using the Windows XP operating system.

All of this is provided in a relatively compact single unit that measures only 15.75" x 5" x 14.25" and weighs less than 20 pounds—even if you fit in every option. It runs only moderately warm, and has a level of physical convenience—as well as low power consumption.

As always, however, none of this matters unless the unit involved allows you to make practical use of all its features and produces outstanding sound quality. Well, the Behold Gentle G192 did produce outstanding sound quality with the Ascendo C8 speakers, but I had the feeling I only scratched the surface of both my ability to use its features and the limits of its performance during my review.

Part of this was a function of the way the Gentle G192 had to be used. It is not designed for casual-user setup. Both the designer Ralf Ballmann and its importer Samuel Laufer came down to install it, and while they did mention that some audiophiles acquired the necessary software and equipment to “do it themselves,” it was clear that the product is designed for dealer installation.

Moreover, the reason that I was asked to review the Behold unit with the Ascendo C8 speaker is that both companies work closely together, and the Behold was specially set up so its electronic crossover and performance features were tailored to work with the Ascendo. At the time I did the review, I thought this meant that I could not easily try the Behold Gentle G192 with other speakers, or separate the sound of the Behold from the Ascendo, although I could easily defeat the room correction within the Behold using its remote control. (I only learned afterwards from the manufacturer that the Ascendo crossover optimization within the Gentle could be shut off from the touchscreen menu system, enabling the Gentle to be used with any speaker without having to manipulate the crossover.)

I also did not try out two key features: the phono front end, and the external hard drive. Both options could be very important to you, but I would caution you to be very, very careful about the use of external hard drives to store large amounts of your music in any system.

First, hard drive reliability on very large drives and NAS (network attached storage) boxes has been a lot more mixed than I like. Second, it is all very well to demonstrate music storage systems with a small number of albums or downloads that have easily obtainable artwork and proper digital labeling for the storage-and-sort system involved. The Behold, however, seems to use the iTunes directory system, and I have found iTunes can be terrible in storing large numbers of classical, less-well-known jazz, and foreign CDs. I’d score iTunes at 0.815793 on a scale of 10 for utility to the serious collector and music lover, unless you do a tremendous amount of on-screen editing.

Yet, this is probably the best way to review the Behold. I suspect that most audiophiles who buy a $15,500 unit are going to expect the dealer to set it up, and are going to at least begin by using it in combination with a speaker and the room-correction feature. I also have reservations about a “do it yourself” approach to any system this complicated.

This is particularly true if you are new to using room correction, if you are not experienced with checking the results, and if you are not very cautious about the use of equalization or large amounts of correction. My TacT 2.2X has an automatic set-up feature, and so do the Onkyo AV receivers I use. It has taken me some time to get used to the TacT, in part because I’m a Mac person and it uses PC software, and in part because of its sheer flexibility. I greatly prefer manual setup of the TacT to the automatic option when I apply room correction, so I can see the full before and after data. I have also learned that it is far better to use the unit to find best speaker placement first and then correct, rather than to use extra correction with a speaker in a bad location. As for the TacT’s equalization features and its ability to store different equalizations or target curves, I have found that adjusting them takes lots of listening experience or almost invariably ends with too much correction.

I also don’t use automatic setup or any one room correction program. I always separately measure a TacT setup with pink noise and a quarter-octave spectrum analyzer to make sure that the room correction works well in a wide range of listening positions and some freak problem has not affected setup. I’m far more careful with the Audyssey correction features in my Onkyo AV receivers. No two runs of the Audyssey set-up routine ever seem to produce exactly the same results under the same conditions, and some corrections have been way off. I would always check out any automatic setup using the “blind” correction in a receiver.

In the case of the Behold, it was striking to watch a real expert like Ralf Ballman set up the Behold and Ascendos. He spotted a heater noise that affected the Behold’s measurements in ways it had never affected the TacT, and which only someone with extensive experience would have caught and diagnosed. He focused first on speaker placement, and then on correction, and went for a minimum of correction. In fact, he preferred the best speaker location without correction to the use of correction. In minutes he produced excellent results that probably would have taken me several days of experimenting, provided I got all of the instructions right.

This is why I would strongly recommend that you only buy Behold from a dealer with an excellent reputation for service, and count on that dealer for professional setup and help in any upgrades. I’d also suggest a two-stage set-up process. The equipment I used was broken in, but still took time to settle in—particularly because David Salz of Wireworld had been kind enough to rush me a set of his superb new Gold Eclipse speaker cables. You can’t really hear the full results of the initial setup with new equipment on the day it is delivered.

You also may not want the response curve the program selects when the system is broken in. Very often, you want a falling response in the extreme highs, and you may want to tweak other aspects of response just a little. A really experienced dealer or set-up technician can do this with an hour or so of listening. If your goal is musical realism, rather than a Cyclon level of technical accuracy, it will be well worth paying for a dealer follow-up.

Given this background, there is only so much I can say about the sound quality of the Behold. What I can say, however, is that it does not have any degree of digital hardness in the midrange or the upper octaves. I was able to try out the analog amps with Quad 2905s and Vandersteen 5A as well as the Ascendo C8s. The sound was very quick, tight, and detailed. Musical transients at all levels were unusually well defined, with perhaps a slight apparent emphasis of the leading edge. This mix of sound characteristics, however, is equally apparent with a number of top solid-state analog amplifiers, and I did not hear the kind of digital coloration I have heard all too often in units with less competent analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion.

I would listen carefully to the midrange with your favorite recordings, and with special attention to the realism of the upper midrange with piano, woodwinds, strings, cymbal, and brush. This, however, is common sense in auditioning any high-end equipment, and particularly any equipment that is costly and has any digital features. I would personally prefer a slightly softer and warmer sound, but one of my sons had just the opposite reaction. We both felt that the Behold was very musically realistic.

Ascendo C8 Renaissance Speaker

This brings me to the Ascendo Renaissance C8 speaker, which I was able to review both with and without the Behold. This is an $8500 combination of a three- or four-way speaker with a dedicated stand. It comes in four finishes, with custom finishes at extra cost, and it is not small. It weighs a solid 110 pounds and measures 11" wide by 43" tall by 15¾" deep.

It scarcely is as complicated a design as the Behold Gentle, but it involves a lot of very serious engineering. The treble and midrange come from a coaxial front driver that is designed to provide time-coherent impulse response, step response, and phase response. The fact that the high-frequency driver reacts more quickly to an impulse than the heavier middle-frequency and low-frequency drivers is compensated for through the use of specific filters and chassis geometry. The tweeter is on the same axis and precisely offset behind the midrange driver, and the use of a dedicated stand helps ensure good time behavior of the C8 Renaissance, regardless of listening height and distance. You can go from front hemisphere to dipole response by switching on a rear ribbon driver whose decay times are carefully adjusted to work with the front drivers. This converts the C8 into a four-way system.

There are two bass drivers—a 7" woofer mounted outside and an 8½" driver working inside the speaker enclosure. The outside driver has its own closed chamber. The inner driver has both a reflex chamber and a closed volume—the pressure chamber. This design provides what Ascendo calls SASB (semisymmetrical bandpass with current damped woofer). In practice, it means that the inside driver has a bandpass characteristic with different transition-steepness on both sides. Moreover, the resonance frequency and the impedance minima of both bass drivers are tuned so they complement each other in ways that improve the internal damping of the system.

Ascendo says that “the result is an optimum impulse response as well as an extremely deep reproduction with steady group delay.” It specifies a frequency response of 29Hz–32kHz at -3dB, and I got something near to this bass response in my listening room even without room correction (-4dB with a 32Hz warble tone.)

The crossover is a modified first-order design that Ascendo says has a “Constant Voltage Core,” which allows it to achieve the efficiency of high-order filters and, at the same time, the homogeneous group delay of first-order designs. This design is responsible for the very good group delay and for the high dynamic reserves of the system.

The speaker can be bi-wired, single-wired with dual connectors, or used—as was the case here—in ways that do not bypass the internal passive crossover, but allow the Gentle to optimize that crossover by sending a more limited range of bandwidths to each driver, limiting the passive crossover’s workload.

Once again, none of this would matter if the sound did not match the technology and the price tag. The Ascendo C8 was, however, an excellent performer with both the Behold Gentle and with my reference Pass electronics. Like the Behold, it had a sound that was very quick, tight, and detailed. Once again musical transients at all levels were unusually well defined, with perhaps a slight apparent emphasis of the leading edge. The upper octaves were very extended, well dispersed, and clean, without any resonances or peaks and valleys I could hear.

There again was slightly more upper-midrange energy than I prefer, but only slightly and this is definitely a matter of taste. It was an advantage with top-quality recordings, providing more detail, life, and transparency, but just a bit much with most CDs, regardless of whether I used the Behold player and DAC, a Meitner XDS1 CD/SACD Reference Player/Converter, or the PS Audio Perfect Wave transport and DAC. At the same time, there was never any apparent hardness or break up.

The sound was remarkably clean and well integrated, and had a good point-source character in imaging and soundstaging when I did not use the dipole feature, which was useful if I moved the Ascendo C8s some distance from the rear and side walls. Image size was very natural with natural recordings, and soundstage width was excellent. Depth was very good, but may have been limited by setup. I find apparent depth to be considerably more problematic, and room-and-setup specific, than width and also less well defined on most recordings.

Bass was very deep for a speaker this size, and extraordinarily tight and “fast.” It may actually have been a bit tighter and faster than is realistic, although this is rare in a speaker and something you should check out on your own. When I say that bass definition was very good to excellent, this is not casual praise. Very few speakers at any price are this good.

In short, I recommend the Ascendo C8s with or without the Behold electronics, although I did get better results with the special setup of the Behold Gentle G192 for the C8. I also should note that the room-correction feature of the Behold had only limited impact on the sound of the Ascendo C8s. They sound just about as good with and without it.

I do, however, have a caution. Ascendo rates the C8s at 88dB sensitivity with 1 watt at one meter, and its nominal impedance at 6 ohms. The technical data that Ascendo provided does show a relatively easy load, but I found the C8 to be relatively power hungry. Really loud listening levels also required setting the volume on the Behold Gentle at levels significantly above 0dB as indicated on the front-panel display. This is scarcely a problem with today’s solid-state amps, but I’d go for an amp with high power levels, high current, and excellent dynamics.

Summing Up

Every really good piece of equipment I review differs enough in nuance to make personal listening the only way to validate what I say. The Behold Gentle G192 and Ascendo C8 are both really good pieces of equipment, and they do work together with unusual synergy. Moreover, the room-correction capability and other features of the Behold Gentle mean their performance will be far less room-sensitive than usual.

This is, however, a combination where I’d really talk seriously to the dealer about setup, follow-up, and support. I suspect this review would be even more favorable if I had imposed on the importer for multiple visits. I also am really impressed with the Behold Gentle’s potential to act as a music server, and the fact it is designed for future upgrades in software and possibly even board changes. A really good dealer can both help you get exactly the setup you want and ensure that the Gentle remains an investment with far more growth potential than the vast majority of high-end equipment.

SPECS & PRICING

Behold Gentle 192
Amplfiers: 2 x 40W, 2 x 80w
Analog inputs: Eight unbalanced on RCA jacks
Digital inputs: Four TosLink (192kHz); two cinch/S/PDIF
Digital outputs: One TosLink
Disc drive capacity: More than two terabytes
Dimensions: 15.7" x 4.92" x 14.25"
Weight: 19.2 lbs.
Price: $15,500 as reviewed

Ascendo C8
Type: Three-way or four-way floorstander with SASB bass unit
Frequency response: 29Hz–32kHz -3dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Sensitivity: 88dB 1W/m
Drivers: 1" fabric tweeter, 7" woofer with XP cone, 8.5" woofer with Kevlar cone, ribbon-tweeter
Dimensions: 11" x 43" x 15.5" (without base)
Weight: 77 lbs.
Price: $8500

Laufer Teknik
18 Titus Road
Washington Depot, CT 06794
(860) 868-2277

Reviewer Reference Stereo Systems
Dynavector 20X, Sumiko Celebration, and Koetsu Onyx cartridges
VPI TNT HRX rim drive turntable and JMW 12.7 tonearm
TacT 2.2X digital preamp-room correction-equalizer-D/A converter
EMM Labs SACD/CD player
PS Audio Perfectwave transport and DAC
Pass XP-15 phono preamp
Pass XP20 stereo preamp
Quad 99 stereo preamp
Pass XA160.5 power amplifiers
Quad 909 power amplifier
Vandersteen 5A speakers
Quad 2905 speakers
Modified McIntosh G5 and Ipod remote control acting as music server for TacT
Audioquest Niagara and K2 cables, Kimber Select, Transparent Audio Reference XL, and Wireworld Super Eclipse and Eclipse interconnects and digital cables.