Marlboro NJ, January 21, 2021 – Audio Manufacturer KEF announces the launch of the NEW KC62 Subwoofer with three innovative technologies that successfully prioritize design and sound in equal measure.
Combining exceptional engineering and unrivaled vision, KEF’s engineers have developed a brand new approach to subwoofer performance. Using KC62’s force-canceling and Uni-Core technologies, KEF has revolutionized traditional expectations of what a subwoofer can achieve based on its size. Measuring at 9.68 x 10.07 x 9.76 inches, and weighing 31 lbs, the new 1000W KC62 subwoofer delivers unprecedented depth and breath-taking accuracy with its compact and sleek design. This is a result of the patent-pending, ground-breaking Uni-Coretechnology.
Uni-Core delivers unprecedented performance through the combination of a force cancelation configuration and a groundbreaking single motor system with concentrically arranged voice coils. This patent-pending design allows the cabinet size to be reduced by over a third while equaling or exceeding the driver excursion of a much larger subwoofer. Uni-Core unlocks more output and depth from less space.
The KC62’s accurate, deep bass, speed and power are also the result of two additional technologies.
One is the P-Flex Surround, also known as Origami Surround. The P-Flex Surround is a brand-new patent-pending driver surround that resists the acoustic pressure inside the cabinet without limiting sensitivity in which traditional surround designs do. Evocative of the Japanese art of paper folding – origami – KEF’s P-Flex Surround is uniquely and meticulously pleated to resist internal air pressure without adding excessive mass. This innovative design allows the drivers to move with greater excursion, resulting in deeper bass extension and more accurate bass reproduction with vastly reduced distortion.
The other innovative technology is the Smart Distortion Control Technology. This patent-pending, sensorless, motional feedback system helps correct even the slightest signal abnormalities and transients. By measuring the current in the voice coil, detecting, and then correcting any non-linear distortions, Smart Distortion Control delivers accurate bass with less colorization. This new approach reduces the interaction between signal, amplifier, and driver dramatically decreasing distortion.
The KC62‘s performance is further enhanced by custom in-house designed DSP (Digital Signal Processing) algorithms (KEF’s Music Integrity Engine). These algorithms include iBX (Intelligent Bass Extension) and SmartLimiter, which continually analyze the signal to prevent clipping, all while working together to ensure the perfect relationship between all components. The twin drivers are powered by 1000W RMS (2 x 500W) of specially designed Class D amplification, providing an exceptional level of control and the ability to easily deliver sudden bursts of power when required.
The KC62 Subwoofer is incredibly versatile, with a collection of connection options for almost any audio system. The line output High Pass Filter allows for exceptional fine-tuned integration, while KEF SmartConnect eliminates connection issues. The KC62 is also compatible with the KW1 adaptor kit for wireless compatibility with minimal fuss. For set up, the five pre-sets on the Room Placement Equalization feature allows the KC62 to sonically integrate into any environment or listening room, whether it’s in a free space, next to a wall, in a corner, within a cabinet, or in spaces where volume is a concern.
The KC62 is crafted from extruded aluminum, creating a curved cabinet which perfectly blends form and function, strength and beauty. Offered in Carbon Black and Mineral White finishes, the subwoofer features a timeless design aesthetic and superior acoustic performance. The KC62 Uni-Core Force-Cancelling Subwoofer will retail for $1,499.99. To discover more, please visit: https://us.kef.com/.
Did your interest in the high end come from the music side or the electronics side?
Definitely the music side. As a kid I went through my parents’ collection and I fell in love with bands such as Queen, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. My interest in audio really kicked off in my early teens when I listened to my next-door neighbor’s high-end system. Experiencing your favorite music on a system like that for the first time…just wow! I then knew I wanted this for myself.
What was your first high-end system?
After a couple of years of gradually upgrading my system, I realized that speakers make the biggest difference. When I started building my own, both the quality of my system and my understanding of audio skyrocketed. As a teenager and during university I really nerded out and developed lots of different types of speakers, experimenting with everything. All this experimentation at some point culminated in an active system in a dedicated, acoustically optimized room. It was enormous and hideous, but it definitely sounded high end!
What education did you receive?
Besides all the hours spent on building speakers and learning about audio, I studied physics, and I somehow managed to attain degrees in business administration and strategy.
When did audio develop from a hobby to a career?
While at university I had a part time job at a high-end hi-fi store. Besides the stuff I built myself, I got to try lots of different factory-made gear. Around that time I started my first audio company with two friends. We were inexperienced and underfunded, but we managed to develop an incredible, highly innovative prototype system. When we were ready to start production, the production company we’d partnered with took all our savings, right before going bankrupt.
In the middle of all that, my girlfriend and I moved in together and I had to give up my high-end system and dedicated room. In the new home I tried several good speakers and added some discrete acoustic treatments, but it seemed impossible to get great sound in my not so great room. But then it hit me: What if instead of fighting the room, you embraced it? This led me to develop a prototype of what was to become the 8c. And then a great opportunity presented itself. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of guys who wanted to start an audio company. They had funding and a wide range of expertise, and they were looking for somebody with fresh ideas and business acumen to complete their team. My first company had just failed, so obviously it was me they were looking for!
What differentiates high-end audio from other forms of audio?
For some people high-end is about gear that’s really well-made. For others it’s about expensive stuff for the elite. For me high-end audio is about pushing the boundaries to bring about the best musical experience possible. High-end audio will never be cheap, but I believe in making it attainable.
How would you describe the Dutch & Dutch company philosophy?
Dutch & Dutch is not like traditional hi-fi companies. We originated from the Delft University of Technology and almost half of the team are software developers. We value openness and a free exchange of ideas, and we like to stick with science. In the office there’s a laid-back, optimistic atmosphere, but when push comes to shove everybody’s ready to do his or her part. We want to disrupt the high-end industry by doing things differently and developing landmark products that our customers love. A dream this big means that along the way you’ll make mistakes. We’ve taken on challenges that took more time than we anticipated, experienced all sorts of growth pains, and come to accept that mistakes are par for the course. What you do is learn from them and keep trying to become better. I’m really proud of how much Dutch & Dutch has grown as a team and of what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve laid the groundwork, and we’re now ready for the big leagues.
Audiophiles have been reluctant to embrace active/DSP loudspeakers. Is that changing? And if so, why?
With the maturation of DSP technology and modern features such as streaming, active has become a no-brainer. In mainstream audio active/DSP is already the de facto standard, and in recent years it’s been replacing traditional high-end systems and attracting new customers.
What are the challenges confronting the high end in the next few years?
More music is consumed today than ever before. What is high-end doing to stay relevant? Dutch & Dutch is founded upon that change. The gap between high-end and mainstream audio has widened and we’re bridging that gap with relevant innovations.
Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?
Music plays a large part in my life, both listening and making. Besides that, I like to stay in shape, sharpen my wits, and spend time with friends and family.
Who among us has not on occasion pushed himself to the limit just to see how far, high, fast, strong he could be? Even I’ve done it once or twice, I think. But Sony, Sony has over the years periodically released products that were produced to show what could be done if all its creative forces were brought to bear. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of Sony’s Z Series components, perhaps so named because they had zero chance of selling in large quantities. It was not that they weren’t superb performers, buttheir feature sets were sufficiently idiosyncratic and their prices sufficiently high that broad audience appeal was never in the cards. The DMP-Z1 ($8995) was a prime example of this kind of effort. From its rigid, milled-aluminum, H-shaped chassis that isolated the digital and analog circuitry, to its five separate battery power supplies that isolated the digital and analog sections from AC power, to its customized, analog, rotary volume controller that could adjust the volume of four separate signal paths, it displayed a level of engineering reserved for state-of-the-art signature products. Alas, it was heavy, slow to boot up, and could only output to headphones or USB-C. I loved its sound, but its ergonomics were not something most audiophiles could live with on a day-to-day basis.
Sony’s latest Z Series offering, the SA-Z1 ($7999) is a nearfield loudspeaker system with built-in amplification and input selection, along with a bevy of special sonic adjustment options. It is a complete system that only requires users to supply a source or two. It is capable of producing state-of-the-art sound, but it must be set up precisely to achieve its full potential. How precisely? Keep reading and we will burrow down into the depths of the SA-Z1 speaker system’s obsessive search for sonic perfection.
The SA-Z1’s set of technical innovations include a cavalcade of unique advancements that display a level of forward thinking you won’t find in most audio components regardless of price. Let’s start with physical innovations and then move on to the electronics. The SA-Z1 is built on Sony’s FBW (Frame Beam Wall) chassis, which is a frame-and-beam construction with walls cut from a solid aluminum block. The enclosure itself comprises six pieces of aluminum plate. By using two different aluminum alloys combined with an assembly technique based on traditional Japanese construction methods, Sony’s engineers claim they have effectively suppressed “unnecessary audible resonance.”
The drivers in the SA-Z1 are mounted in a special way that attempts, through its physical and electronic design, to combine the best sonic elements of a single-driver design with the frequency response and power-handling characteristics of a multiway. While technically the SA-Z1 is a two-way speaker, it differs from conventional two-ways in several respects. First, let’s look at the physical side. The main tweeter is a 19mm (¾”) titanium-sputtered aluminum dome, which is vertically flanked by two 14mm (9/16″) “assist” tweeters. Sony calls this the “I-ARRAY” system: three tweeters mounted on a plate situated in front of the main forward-firing woofer—to simulate a coaxial driver arrangement. Sony calls its dome tweeter design a “balanced dome” because the voice coil works at a point where the weight of the diaphragm and the air load are balanced, pushing the dome’s break-up mode to a point above 100kHz (for the assist tweeters).
There is a second woofer inside the cabinet, which is placed so it is back-to-back with the forward-firing woofer. Sony refers to this as the “Tsuzumi” layout because it is similar in shape to the traditional Japanese drum. This rear-firing woofer is situated so that bass-expansion ducts allow low frequencies to expand to the sides as well as to the front. Large aperture slits located behind the rear driver’s diaphragm keep air turbulence from affecting the driver’s linear motion. The woofer’s specially designed, die-cast zinc basket also helps suppress piston-motion vibration.
Each driver subsystem has its own unique digital power amplifier. There is one for the main tweeter, a second for the assist tweeters, a third for the forward-firing woofer, and a fourth for the rear-firing woofer. Why so many amplifiers? Because by combining the amplifiers with FPGA-control Sony could accomplish some spectacularly accurate time and phase alignment. The SA-Z1 system allows for the precise adjustment of the wave front. According to Sony, “the SA-Z1’s multi-amplifier system and unique field programmable gate array (FPGA) perfectly synchronizes the wavefront between driver units. The precisely aligned wavefront and broad frequency response are capable of delivering both the power of an expansive orchestral sound stage or the focus of an intimate solo.”
The power amplifiers are also special. Sony’s original S-Master amplifier circuit was a non-feedback digital design. The ZA-Z1 expands that circuit by adding a second amplifier that acts as a feed-forward amp to correct digital switching errors. Users have the option of using either the digital amplifier by itself or with the analog feed-forward engaged. The power amplifiers employ a Gallium Nitride (GaN) MOSFET. The higher switching speed of the GaN reduces ringing. According to Sony, “this means that the amplification errors are significantly reduced, even before the signal is error-corrected by the feed-forward amplifier.”
Because Sony could not find any off-the-shelf digital signal processors (DSP) that could accomplish its design goals, the SA-Z1 design team opted to build, from the ground up, its own field programmable gate array (FPGA). Using an FPGA allowed the SA-Z1 designers to include a multiplicity of signal processing that, so far, is unique to the SA-Z1. Sony begins with a user-engageable remastering DSD engine that converts any and all PCM signals into DSD 11.2MHz. The SA-Z1 can also upscale PCM via DSEE HX processing, which according to Sony, “intelligently recognizes instruments, voices, and musical genres. By identifying these and the relative energy of audio, it can accurately rebuild audio lost during digital compression.”
Another feature enabled by the FPGA is Sony’s “D.A. Assist,” which allows the user to choose between two different amplification schemes. In the “standard” position, the analog amplifier acts only as an error corrector for the digital amplifier. In the “blended” position, the analog amplifier begins to drive the speaker units along with the digital amplifier, giving the overall sound a less digital, more analog sound. Further sonic control comes from the “Assist Woofer Motion” controls. These allow you to lock the rear woofer in place rather than use it as an assist to the front-firing woofer. “Active” drives the woofer via the amplifiers while “fixed” does not. You can also change the frequency range covered by the rear-firing woofer when in active mode. The “narrow” setting provides the tightest bass; “standard” offers a wider affected frequency range; and “wide” is the most expansive range.
On top of all the previously mentioned special FPGA-enabled features, the most interesting one added to the Sony SA-Z1 is undoubtably the “Assist TW Time Alignment.” This allows the user to intentionally change the time alignment between the main tweeters and the assist tweeters. The “sync” setting delivers perfectly time-aligned sound between the drivers. The “advance” setting moves the main tweeters alignment ahead of the assist tweeters, while the “delay” setting retards the main tweeters’ response in relation to the assists. When would you want to intentionally take the drivers out of time alignment? When you find that you want a more incisive “forward” sound or a “softer,” more euphonic presentation, which will, of course, be based on the source’s sonic characteristics and your own musical tastes.
Setup and Ergonomics
The first time I saw the Sony SA-Z1 speaker system was at a special demonstration at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. At that time, I wrote: “For the listening session I was plunked down into a comfy chair that placed my ears about four feet from the loudspeakers and vertically just below the main tweeter array. The loudspeakers themselves were placed about six inches back from the front edges of a butcher-block-topped, black-cloth-covered table. The rear of the speakers were about seven inches from the wall. The reason I’m spending space describing the setup is that positioning the new Sony speaker system is critical to its optimal performance.”
When the SA-Z1 system arrived, it had been over eight months since the last time I saw the system properly set up. It arrived with a single informational sheet with only four lines of physical set-up instructions: “For optimal performance the speakers need to be set up on a desk, not speaker stands. As a starting point, set the sheet speakers 730mm apart and 150mm from the back wall. Do not toe-in the speakers. Ideally, main center tweeters should be at the same height as the listener’s ears.” That was the sum total of set-up info.
So, like a good audiophile, I tried to follow the instructions as closely as possible. I converted my shipping/receiving/storage room adjacent to my main system and office for use with the Sony system. It already had a nice rock-hard butcher-block table for a surface that was positioned by a wall suitable for use as the main wall for the Sony system. I also had an old stuffed chair with a lower than average seating position that put my ears exactly parallel with the Sony’s main tweeters. The primary difference between my final setup and the Sony setup at RMAF was that I placed a small oriental rug on the table, because the front of the table surface extended further in front of the loudspeakers than the table surface at the Sony demo. I employed the rug to eliminate midrange and upper frequency “floor bounce” from the table surface.
After starting with Sony’s recommended set-up dimensions, moving speakers up, down, wider, narrower, closer and farther from the wall, I decided that, yes, the Sony recommendations produced the best overall performance, but a guy’s gotta try. The SA-Z1 comes with a remote, which turned out to be a very useful addition that saved a lot of standing, reaching, and lunging for the controls, which were located on the top of the left-hand loudspeaker in my setup, just out of reach from my listening seat.
During the early stages of setup, I was surprised to discover that the SA-Z1 speaker system does not support a subwoofer. I lugged a sub into position, under the table, snaked the RCA cable from the sub to the back of the left-hand SA-Z1 speaker enclosure, which has all the input and output connections (you can easily make it the right-hand via a switch in the back), and discovered there simply were no subwoofer or line-level outputs available. The reason for this omission is that the SA-Z1 designers decided that it would be too easy to screw up the sound with a subwoofer to allow end-users the power to do so. How you feel about this, and how it affects your opinion of the SA-Z1 system, depends on how much you value low bass. Midbass, the SA-Z1 does rather well, but low bass, no matter how you configure the SA-Z1 system, will remain minimal at best.
The SA-Z1 has a plethora of inputs, including balanced analog XLR, unbalanced analog RCA, unbalanced analog stereo mini, USB-B, TosLink, and, finally a special digital Walkman input. The only inputs you won’t find are RCA SPDIF or AES/EBU digital. I was able to connect a Sony NW-WM1Z via the digital Walkman connection with no issues. All the analog inputs also functioned properly. The only input glitch I came across was an Astell & Kern SP2000 player that would not produce sound via the USB digital connection but worked fine via its analog outputs. (A HiDiz AP-80 connected without issues via that same digital input.) Other sources used during the review included the Project Pre-Box S2’s analog outputs. The Pre-Box S2 was connected via SPDIF to a Raspberry PI 3 with Allo Hat with a Roon-compatible software package installed for streaming sources.
As for outputs, as I mentioned earlier, there are no line-level or subwoofer outputs. The SA-Z1 system also does not support headphones. It is its own self-contained thing—a complete musical universe unto itself…but what a universe it is!
Occasionally, I invite a friend over for a listening session once I get a new piece of gear installed and set up to my satisfaction. It always useful to get another take on what I’m hearing. In this age of Covid-19 that was a bit harder to engineer, but really no big thing. The first slightly muffled words out of my masked friend Josh’s mouth, after about ten seconds of listening, were “This is crazy!” Of course, I wondered what exactly he meant by that. It took him a while to fully explain what those three words encompass. I will try to paraphrase.
Listening to the system for the first time for him was like stepping into a room that contained a really great stereo system. And Josh (that’s his real first name) has more than 20 years of experience listening to really great systems in purpose-built rooms. The Sony system creates a three-dimensional soundfield that envelops the listener in the same way a finely tuned room-based system can, but it does it in a much more confined space, hence the crazy part of the exclamation. After a couple of minutes of listening Josh turned and said, “I have to close my eyes to listen because when I open them, what I hear is so different from what I’m seeing. I just can’t relate…”
What he was seeing was two modest-sized black boxes sitting on a table, but what he was hearing was a life-sized recreation of a musical event.
Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, was the first writer that I remember using the phrase “Time Traveling Machine” when referring to a stereo system. During my listening time with the Sony SA-Z1 system, I found that phrase bouncing around inside my brain on a regular basis. This phenomenon was especially striking when I played some of the live concert recordings of the Boulder Philharmonic that I’ve made over the years. I went back to one particular recording, made via DSD64 in 2013, of a modern piece by Richard Danielpour, “A Woman’s Life,” featuring soprano Angela Brown. Through the SA-Z1 Ms. Brown’s voice bloomed beautifully as she leaned on a note while her image dimensions remained rock-solid with clearly defined parameters that did not change as her dynamics went from pianissimo to forte. Also, the celeste and xylophone ostinato figure from the back of the orchestra had a clarity and definition to each note that many systems tend to blur slightly, but through the SA-Z1 each rapid-fire hit remained distinct.
The spatial precision of the SA-Z1’s soundstage presentation was state of the art. With small groups, such as my recordings from the Rockygrass Academy workshops, each instrument was precisely placed, with clearly defined dimensions and height and width cues. When I played a large orchestral recording or a big pop production, the soundstage width, height, and depth rendition followed the dictates of the recording with superb accuracy. If the recording was wide, so was the SA-Z1’s soundstage, but with mono recordings the image seemed no wider than a dime.
One of the more alluring characteristics of a tube-based system comes from its smooth, electronically grain-free textural presentation. The SA-Z1’s midrange has a purity and lack of electronic texture that is reminiscent of a great tube-based system, but without the negative aspects of noise or tube-aging artifacts. The only textures present with the SA-Z1 are those in the recording itself. Even on tracks with intentional textural distortion such as “Xanny” by Billie Eilish, the SA-Z1 retains the delicacy and purity of the vocals and background bits while preserving all the intentional edginess of the ragged bass burbles and rumbles underneath.
Given that the SA-Z1 has no subwoofer for low bass, and only four small 4″ woofers, even with all of Sony’s port and DSP wizardry, it can’t be expected to produce much in the way of low bass below 50Hz, and it doesn’t. But by way of compensation, the bass that the SA-Z1 does have is extremely good as far down as it goes. Take that cut “Xanny” for instance—the SA-Z1 captures all the subtle and not so subtle textures of the bass’s leading edge so well that the lack of follow-through at the extreme bottom of its range isn’t so noticeably missing. Also, the harmonic balance doesn’t sound lighter than neutral, as often happens when a system doesn’t extend to the bottom octave. Fortunately for those listeners who crave a neutral harmonic balance the SA-Z1 design team didn’t try to warm up the sound to compensate for the lack of low bass like many “classic” mini-monitors do. Straight, clean, and neutral sums up the SA-Z1 harmonic spectrum.
Sony’s published specifications claim that the SA-Z1 system’s high-frequency range extends up to 100kHz. I doubt that any human could, subjectively, confirm or deny the validity of this particular specification. My own hearing gets up to 13kHz, so I’m not a lot of help on that bat-ear stuff, but like many older audiophiles, my hearing below my upper threshold has become even more sensitive to those upper frequency anomalies that are still within my purview. Like its midrange, the SA-Z1’s upper frequencies had a purity and lack of electronic character that were exemplary. The string-section sound on my own recordings had an airy quality that captured all the delicacy and air of massed strings.
As you might surmise, the SA-Z1 is most definitely a one-person system. Stereo choo-choo (placing a listener behind the main sweet spot) doesn’t deliver the same immersive sound. Listening from across the room won’t impress you either—it sounds like a small system. No, you have to “assume the position,” and settle down into that lower-than-average comfy chair for the SA-Z1 to do its magic. And the sweet spot is small—just large enough that some head-bobbing to the music won’t kick you out of the right spot. But move more than three or four inches to one side or the other and you’ll be outside the ideal listening window. Moving your head forward a couple of inches also affects the soundstage—it got even bigger and wider to the point where it was almost like listening to big headphones, before I got too close and the imaging finally broke down. There is an ideal listening spot for the SA-Z1, and it’s obvious when you’re in it.
I’m sure that some percentage of readers turned the page to another review when they came to the technical description of the SA-Z1’s DSP processing because some audiophiles firmly believe that the less you do to an audio signal the better it will sound, and any amount of DSP is not a good thing. One-half hour listening time with the SA-Z1 could change their minds. I found that with most PCM material I preferred the DSD transcoding and upsampling to 11.2MHz. With upsampling engaged the music had a more natural, relaxed, and grain-free quality. I also found the DSEE HX to be sonically beneficial to the point where, after initial and several subsequent A/B listening sessions, I left it in the “on” position. Clarity and spatial precision marginally but universally improved with DSEE HX activated.
It only took a pair of A/B sessions comparing the active with the locked bass for me to conclude that the active bass was by far superior to the locked setting. The bass was fuller with the active setting but still well-defined with no bloat. The tightest bass was realized with the “narrow” setting, just as Sony indicated in its manual (which arrived via e-mail about a month into the review). Most of the time the “standard” setting was my preferred option.
The final bit of DSP, and most likely the one to cause the most raised eyebrows, was the “synch” control, which allows the user to move the tweeters in front of, in synch with, or behind the woofer’s time alignment. Ninety-five percent of the time I preferred the properly time-aligned setting, but occasionally I found a nasty pop recording that benefitted from the “delay” setting.
Daring to be different is something that Sony has perfected over its long history. While nothing will be as earth-shaking as the original Sony Walk-man and the portable music revolution that followed in its wake, Sony continues to innovate in form, function, and performance while most other companies are content to create “best value for the money” or “most expensive” audio components. The Sony SA-Z1 is a prime example of Sony’s innovative prowess. It sets a new standard for what small desktop speaker systems can do in soundstaging, harmonic purity, dynamic acuity, and low-frequency speed and definition. What the SA-Z1 lacks is commensurate low bass to match the rest of its frequency range, and provisions for an SPDIF or AES/EBU digital input. And no, you can’t just add a subwoofer.
I would advise any audiophile who listens primarily to a nearfield system for his reference to experience the Sony SA-Z1 system. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some listeners who walked in with no intention of acquiring the SA-Z1 system find that they can’t leave for home without it. Josh is 99% sure he’s buying one for his new office…it is simply that good.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Active desktop loudspeaker system Drivercomplement: One ¾” (19mm) soft-dome tweeter, two 9/16″ (13mm) soft-dome tweeters, two 4″ (100mm) midrange/bass drivers per side Frequencyresponse: 51Hz–100kHz (-10dB) Formatssupported: PCM up to 768/32, DSD22.4MHz Analoginputs: Balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA, unbalanced stereo mini jack Digitalinputs: USB-B, TosLink, Sony Walkman Poweroutput: 106W (total) Dimensions: 7 7/8″ (199mm) x 8¼” (207mm) x 12 7/8″ (326mm) Weight: 23 lbs., 2.4 oz. Price: $7999
The following is a press release issued by NAD Electronics.
Pickering, Ontario, canada January 18, 2021 – NAD Electronics, the highly regarded manufacturer of high-performance audio/video components, announced an all-new advanced amplifier targeted squarely at high performance distributed audio systems. The CI 16-60 DSP ($2,499 U.S. MSRP) delivers 16 x 60 watts per channel with unique features and will be available in mid-February.
The CI 16-60 DSP is a highly versatile, robust amplifier built for the demands of professional installations. Delivering a conservative 60 watts per channel at 8 ohms into all of its 16 channels, each pair of channels is with bridgeable to 140 watts per channel if more power is desired. The hybrid digital amplifier platform delivers stable and efficient power with high current capability all in a 2U rack space. The CI 16-60 DSP uses a customized version of the proven Hypex UcD output stage to deliver great load invariant power with extremely low distortion and noise in the audible range. Every detail of this design has been carefully executed to wring out the best possible performance. Designed to deal with the demands of the custom installation world, the CI 16-60 can effortlessly handle long cable runs and difficult speaker loads.
The CI 16-60 DSP is an IP-controlled amplifier which allows the installer to configure and calibrate via a web-based user interface. The user interface offers access to multi-channel digital signal processing (DSP) providing detailed equalisation control. A virtual patch bay permits any input to be routed to any, or multiple outputs without the need to create physical connections. In addition, the UI offers insight into temperature and power status, as well as basic troubleshooting functions like power cycling, factory resetting and updating. Rounding out the CI 16-60’s impressive feature set are loop through jacks on all the inputs making it easy to daisy chain sources to multiple amplifiers for larger installations.
“NAD’s CI 16-60 DSP amplifier joins the CI 8-120 DSP and CI 8-150 DSP distribution amplifiers highlighting one of the brand’s strongest features which of course is our amplifier platforms, commented Joe de Jesus, Lenbrook’s Product Manager for CI. The brand has a reputation for rock-solid amplification and a tonal balance that seems to shake hands with virtually any speaker it powers. Our clients can expect the same exacting standard. For example, this new CI 16-60 DSP adheres to the same stringent sonic tests as our best traditional amplifiers. Quite simply, that sonic signature and rock-solid reliability is what separates NAD from the rest.”
FEATURES & DETAILS
Platform accessed through IP control
Custom web app manages DSP calibration, IP control and more
16 Channels x 60 Watts @ 8 ohm
Bridgeable – any consecutive channel pair bridgeable to 2 x 140 Watts @ 8 ohm
Renowned NAD sonic signature
Effectively handles long cable runs and difficult speaker loads
Global Input/Output and Individual Channel Input and Output
Michael Rabin (1936–1972) was one of America’s greatest violinists—so great that his renowned teacher, Ivan Galamian, said he had “no weaknesses, never.” Even today Rabin leaves the listener agog at his tone, inventiveness, and technical prowess. The following overview sifts through Rabin’s much-reissued recorded oeuvre in order to recommend the finest performances and best-sounding releases, some overlooked even by enthusiastic fans. Rabin aficionados have had their work cut out for them if they wanted to go beyond the recordings issued in his lifetime and separate the wheat from the chaff. If you love his playing and want to dive in deeper, this article could save you a lot of time.
Michael’s first LPs for EMI were released on Angel in the US and Columbia in the UK. EMI acquired Capitol in 1957, and subsequent releases appeared under that imprint. EMI remastered all those studio albums for their six-CD 1936–1972 set from 1991. People have complained for years that it’s decent but airless. (Viewing the frequency spectrum reveals that everything above about 20.5kHz is cut off.) EMI’s 2011 reissue, Young Genius on the Violin, uses the same remasters. Testament did its own remastering for their 2011 Studio Recordings CD set, and in general it’s slightly warmer and less “digital.” But for the best sound at affordable prices, Testament’s 180-gram LPs cannot be topped; they have presence, authority, and wider bandwidth that no other modern versions have.
The Magic Bow is the crown jewel of Rabin’s studio work, an audiophile holy grail of light classical fare made with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under Felix Slatkin. Testament’s splendid LP is the most faithful to the original Capitol. EMI’s Strings by Starlight CD from 1990 sounds more natural than 1936–1972, but it’s out of print, expensive, and still missing the uppermost frequencies. Two reissues of the EMI reproduce its sonics: one by Arkiv Music, the other a 1994 Royal Classics release.
Testament’s Magic Bow in The Studio Recordings loses a little shimmer on Michael’s tone, and the low end is slightly shallower. Also, playback speed was apparently slowed so the orchestra would match A=440. I have five Capitol LPs that show the Hollywood Bowl actually tuned a few cents sharper. It’s no deal-breaker, but it does result in slightly slower tempos on the CD.
In 2016 Blue Moon Records produced an “SACD” of The Magic Bow and Mosaics. Avoid it. The packaging lacks any legalese about licensing, and the frequency spectrum is clearly cut off just above 22kHz, consistent with CD-quality mastering, not hi-res.
Rabin recorded two other albums of short works for Capitol: Mosaics, and a sequel that inexplicably got shelved. Testament released the sequel in its 2012 Unpublished Recordings CD set, and as Mosaics 2 on LP in 2017. Rabin’s technique is jaw-dropping, of course, but he put loads of emotion and care into these wonderful miniatures. EMI’s 1999 remastering of Mosaics is a touch clearer than 1936–1972, and I believe EMI added a hint of reverb to sweeten the sound (I have the authorized Arkiv reprint). It also included solo sonatas by Bach and Ysaÿe that were recorded in mono and only issued in the US for Angel. Testament has not put these astonishing beauties out on LP.
Close-miking makes the complete Paganini Caprices tiring eventually, and there’s barely a difference between mono and stereo. 1936–1972 added reverb to the mono masters. The 1993 stereo version from EMI is as dry as cracker juice; 2001’s offered mono, reverb, and a rumbling background. Simon Gibson at Abbey Road redid the stereo for EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series in 2003. Testament chose stereo, too; its CD has a touch of reverb, as does Gibson’s. It’s a tough call between them, but Gibson’s lies easiest on my ears.
Michael had already recorded 11 Caprices for his Columbia debut at age 14, and they sound fresher and even more playful. Sony’s 1999 CD, The Early Years, includes those along with Michael Rabin Plays, a 10-inch of short pieces with Artur Balsam on piano, and another 10-inch of Paganini, Sarasate, and Nováček with the Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra. The remastering is excellent.
The concerto recordings for EMI were mostly pre-stereo. The Mendelssohn is earthbound and the Tchaikovsky is rushed. A far superior Tchaikovsky from 1961 can be found in stereo in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Centennial Collection. The other EMI concertos are stunning. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is a heartbreaker, and Glazounov’s Concerto is noble and heartfelt. The First Concertos of Paganini and Wieniawski show how much depth Michael could bring to so-called show-off pieces.
A remade Paganini 1 in terrific stereo with Wieniawski 2 as its disc mate appeared in 1960. EMI’s 1990 remaster came out only in Europe and now sells for over $300; it is less compressed than 1936–1972 and has all the upper frequencies. A surprise contender is an outstanding 2006 Medici Arts remaster that also offers four tracks from The Magic Bow. Testament’s CD has less oomph than the rest, but its LP is every bit the equal of a Capitol original.
Rabin’s contract with EMI lapsed in the 1960s, and from then on his output is limited to broadcasts or test recordings with archival sound, to put it politely.Hiss, hum, and dropout are frequent, and some home tapings were made with a microphone in front of a speaker. Since Michael’s luminous tone was one of his greatest glories, it’s cruelty to have to hack through lousy sound to hear it. It’s unfortunate that, for an artist of his stature, so much of the later output would be so limited, obscure, and subpar sonically. But is there some fine music on some of these out-of-the-way recordings that, in many cases, weren’t originally intended for release? Absolutely.
Doremi has issued three volumes in its Michael Rabin Collection. Volume 1 has rare broadcasts from the early 60s in Berlin. Beethoven’s Sonata No 8 is perky but often slapdash. Fauré’s First is hardly his best work, and Rabin’s performance is prosaic. His vibrato is unusually wobbly, likely because of tape flutter.
In Volume 2 (three CDs), a 1967 Ravinia Festival performance of the Brahms Concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Rafael Kubelik is full of yearning, beautifully paced, and has decent stereo sound. Michael’s intonation was running on 87 octane rather than his usual premium, but his interpretation shows both ardor and musical maturity. Orchestra and conductor are with him all the way. Some of Rabin’s attacks are too slashing, and the dry acoustic lets some of the magic escape. Archipel included a 1957 Prokofieff with the Köln Radio Symphony on André Cluytens Rarities. Sonics are gritty, but it has more personality, polish, and purpose.
One of Rabin’s few forays into 20th-Century music was the concerto of German-American composer Richard Mohaupt; it’s ruddy-cheeked but angular, a bit like rustic Hindemith. Rabin makes the themes sing like a Heifetz tune, and if they weren’t so academic, the piece could have become fairly popular. Paul Creston’s Second Concerto (with Thomas Scherman and the Little Orchestra Society) has strong strains of both impressionism and neo-classicism; the rhythms are vigorous but more sophisticated than Mohaupt’s. Creston’s slow movement is steamy, and the finale is a flirtatious, carefree tarantella that reflects his Italian heritage. Rabin plays it to the hilt, but it was apparently recorded underwater.
There’s a handful of other Bell Telephone Hour appearances from 1951 and 1955; one, the first movement of Bach’s Double Concerto, is the only aural document we have of Rabin performing with Zino Francescatti. The orchestra is shaggy, but clearly the stars are having fun. Short pieces by Milhaud, Szymanowski, and Spalding come from Berlin broadcasts, as well as six solid Paganini Caprices. A 1950 Wieniawski Concerto No 1 is iffy.
Volume 3 includes the 1960 premiere of Creston’s Second Concerto with Georg Solti and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the hum, static, harshness, and missing bottom end render it unbearable. Mozart’s Fourth is exuberant, but the Denver Symphony in 1960 was unrefined and the sonics clotted. In a 1968 Glazounov Concerto, Rabin’s serenity and wisdom almost edge out his early EMI version.
A handful of Bell Telephone Hour appearances bring sentimental delights, but the miracle find is a Sydney Town Hall concert from Rabin’s 1952 Australian tour. He played showpieces, three Paganini Caprices, Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and an arresting reading of Ravel’s Tzigane. It is quite distorted, sad to say. Tahra’s 2-disc Michael Rabin Legacy has a few concertos in poor audio, but the big draw is about 20 appearances from the Bell Telephone Hour unavailable elsewhere. The sound is dated but fair.
Michael’s sister Bertine contributed family recordings to Testament’s Unpublished Recordings. His public debut recital at age ten includes most of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, four Paganini Caprices, and a few other beefy selections. His technique and tone are mind-boggling. Some 78s from 1949 include three movements of Bach’s Partita in D Minor. Besides the aforementioned Mosaics 2, there is John Alden Carpenter’s underrated, sensual sonata, recorded for Golden Crest in 1964 but never released (mono, some deterioration). Brahms’s Concerto and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy come from 1970 and 1971 stereo broadcasts. The Brahms at Ravinia is better, but this Scottish Fantasy is a keeper.
In 2009 Audite gave us Bruch’s First Concerto with Thomas Schippers and the Berlin Radio Symphony, which is sonically superior to one on Doremi 2 from the same week in June, 1969. The pacing, the fire, the grandeur, the swells, and the details from all the instruments are breathtaking. Rabin’s phrasing always reflected youthful yearning, but now it was informed by the disappointments life had brought him.
Profil’s budget-friendly Genius on the Violin has almost all the mono concertos in masterings that hold their own.Three selections from The Magic Bow and Mosaics, Bach’s Third Sonata, Mozart’s Fourth Concerto, and the only listenable version of the Creston premiere with Solti round out the four-disc set.
The Audio Research Corporation needs no introduction. Its foundational contribution to the audio world is well established. I have lusted after various ARC products over the last 35 years. Pretty much all ARC’s tube gear—from the 1987 SP9 preamp a neighbor owned when I was starting out to the more recent REF250 power amps, and many products in between—has fostered a kind of “inner life” within recorded music. The even more recent Reference 160M monoblocks vaulted my interest yet higher. When I heard them at industry shows and in audio shops, they sang with a clarity, finesse, and dynamic command that struck me as a new frontier for ARC. Now, we have the stereo version of the 160M—the $22k Reference 160S.
I didn’t have a pair of Ref160M ($34k) monos on hand for direct comparison, but with the stereo Ref160S in my system I did hear qualities very similar to those of the monos in other systems. This is no surprise, since the Ref160S has the same circuitry, tube complement (four KT150, two 6H30 per channel), and power rating (140Wpc) as the monos. The feature set is also the same—output-tube auto-bias, front-panel output-tube monitoring, ultralinear/triode-mode buttons, and “floating” power meters on a see-through faceplate. On the rear panel we have 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm taps, an output-tube hour-counter, a cooling fan control, an auto shut-off, and RCA/XLR input switches. The Ref160S is a bit larger in all dimensions (mostly depth) and weighs a lot more than a single Ref160M (100 pounds vs. 56 pounds), no doubt to accommodate two channels’ worth of stuff in a single chassis. (The only circuitry difference—as far as I can tell—is that the Ref160S shares one power transformer for both channels, whereas the 160M has, of course, one transformer per amplifier.) The stereo amp actually has a slight edge over the mono in aesthetics in my opinion: The 160S’s transformers are covered in their own nice-looking vented cage with the Audio Research logo on top, whereas the 160M has exposed transformers—if one removes its larger, “whole amp” cage cover to expose the tubes. The Ref160S also has two rear handles, which the Ref160M lacks, that make moving its 100-pound chassis easier. (For a more detailed explanation of the Ref160M/160S circuit and tube complement in the context of ARC’s development as a company, please see Executive Editor Jonathan Valin’s excellent Ref160M review in Issue 294. For more information about Audio Research Corporation as a company and its contribution to the audio arts, please refer to the ARC section in The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume Two: Electronics.)
Right from the start, the Ref160S had a wonderful, fluid, agile quality. Music skipped along with engaging litheness that did not immediately scream “classic tube amp,” in the sense of imparting a slight sluggishness on transients and some looseness in the bass. Actually, the Ref160S is the most powerful, nimble, and neutral-sounding tube amp I have had in my system. (For twenty years, until 2009, I used to run mostly new [not vintage] tube preamps and power amps exclusively.) The Ref160S combines just a touch of warm-side-of-neutral tonal balance with remarkably low—for a powerful tube amp—underlying noise, so it joins a group of tube gear from brands such as VTL, VAC, Lamm, Ypsilon, and Atma-Sphere that bucks classic tube amp sound in this regard.
In keeping with tubes’ typical strengths, the Ref160S had both midrange resolution and 3-D depth—both of the larger soundscape and of individual images—in spades. Though not quite as extended at the extremes as some good solid-state amps, it also expanded midrange resolution to the immediately adjacent parts of the frequency spectrum—to a degree that helped everything sound more realistic and less obviously “tube-processed.” Mind you, the Ref160S’s top end was a little softer than I am used to from the solid-state amps (Gamut, Constellation, Hegel) I have been recently using, but I did not get the sense that I was missing much sonic information when I considered the whole picture. In fact, the Ref160S reproduced the gestalt (as TAS founder Harry Pearson liked to say) of a full orchestra in a way that made me think, “Wow, that gets a lot of it right!”
It may seem like a conundrum, but the Ref160S had such a low noise floor and its image boundaries were so free of “electronic etch” or “fizz” that its upper frequencies might strike some listeners as missing the last bit of extension and information, compared to certain other amplifiers. But the Ref160S actually made music sound more lifelike, to my ear, than most other amplifiers in terms of its refined image outlines and lack of electronic grain. Maybe it was the sense of continuousness that tubes bring to bear, or the midrange lucidity, or the sense of physical presence, or the wonderful musicians-in-a-hall effect with their trailing tails of notes lingering in space a bit longer (all of which the Ref160S does so well) that contributed to an overall “reminiscent-of-live” impression. Because of this truly fine realistic quality, I was motivated to revisit some of my classical LP collection: the Poulenc Concerto for Strings, Tympani, and Organ [Erato], Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne [EMI], and Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C Major [Phillips] were reproduced with remarkably natural-sounding details and immediacy. I found new aspects of the performances’ phrasing and developmental arc—new “musical meaning,” if you will—with the Ref160 in play. (Choreographers Glen Tetley [Voluntaries], Leslie Jane Pessimier, [Les Chansons] and Jiří Kylián [Petite Mort] used the music listed above, respectively, to create wonderful neo-classical dance works, by the way.)
Pop and rock had forward momentum in a parallel to the lucid gestalt in classical music. There was plenty of transient snap and power to give well-recorded drum kit, for example, the sense of acceleration that well-recorded drums contribute to the mix. I didn’t hear the Ref160S’s musical appeal across different genres as overtly euphonic as such; rather, the Ref160S simply brought out elements in recordings that illuminated the artistic expression inherent in music more readily—provided the recordings had decent performances and were well recorded in the first place, of course. It was as if the musicians had a particularly good night at the concert hall, club, or recording studio. We have probably all attended a live performance on one evening and then heard the same group or orchestral program again on another night and regarded one evening’s performance as better than the other. The players were clicking more with each other or the singer was in particularly good voice or the sound engineer got the levels and microphones’ phase-matching right. The Ref160S seemed to have the effect of making home listening sessions come closer to a superior evening’s performance. When one of my long-time audiophile friends said upon hearing a few cuts through the Ref160S, “Wow, the music sounds really alive—I could easily live with that amp,” I got it.
The Ref160S had a very deep soundstage, the deepest I have heard in my system. Front-to-back layering was continuous and closer to real life than many amps can muster, especially amps of the solid-state variety. Images within the soundscape were fleshed out as more completely formed sound sources created by real people and instruments in space, rather than as flat cutouts or bas-relief tableaux. The front of the soundscape was moved more forward than I am used to, so this—combined with slightly narrower soundstage width—created an overall stage that was sometimes closer to a cube in shape than to a rectangle whose width is greater than its depth. I suspect some of the amp’s slightly narrower soundstaging could be the result of the Ref160S being a stereo amp rather than a monoblock. (All things being equal, a pair of monoblocks tend to cast a wider soundstage than the equivalent stereo version.) Also, I believe the Ref160S is meant to be paired with an ARC preamp, like a Ref10 or Ref6SE, which themselves recreate very wide, expansive soundscapes. (Unfortunately, an ARC preamp was not available during the review period to test this hypothesis.)
Bass was deep reaching and powerful. The Ref160S’ plumbed the depths with ease, not exactly a typical tube amp’s forte, especially when one considers the speaker I used was the YG Sonja 2.2, which generally fares better with a high-current solid-state amp. While not quite matching the speed and definition of some solid-state amps, the Ref160S had the best bass pitch definition and stability of any tube amp in my system. Dynamics were also very good, both macro and micro. The big, meaty sound the Ref160S produced stemmed, in large part, from its ability to track bass-laden dynamic peaks with sustained control. The Ref160S never clipped or showed signs of strain while in ultralinear mode. It did lose control and clip, however, on the big orchestral stuff while in triode mode (70Wpc).I think most folks who listen in triode mode would presume it is better suited to smaller, less demanding music (or to an easy-load speaker). Speaking of triode and ultralinear modes, I did nearly all of my listening in ultralinear. While the triode mode did offer some additional warmth and intimacy on smaller-scale music, I didn’t find the difference compelling enough to be worth switching back and forth between the two modes on appropriate music selections. On the whole, I found ultralinear to sound tonally closer to neutral and more dynamically responsive.
The Ref160 gives off a lot of heat, but that comes with powerful tube-amp territory. ARC uses cooling fans to keep operating temperatures within optimal range and extend tube life. Since I placed the Ref160S in front of my equipment rack to make connecting it to and from my system easier, I did hear the fan during very quiet music passages, even with the fan speed set to low. I believe most users would place the amp in a more room-friendly position, and that would, no doubt, be farther away from the listening position. Let me add, the Ref160M/S aesthetics are a welcome change for ARC whose typical look has tended to be more industrial and functional. I liked the see-through faceplate, but I turned off the lighted VU meters, as I found them to be a little distracting. A friend thought they looked really cool and wanted to see them with their light level all the way up. (There are three levels plus off.)
The winning combination of a low noise floor, which allows details to emerge in an unforced way, and very high levels of image solidity, which produces a closer-to-live listening experience, is central to the Ref160S’s appeal. Add in uncommonly good bass presence and dynamic control, and you have a tube amp that goes a long way to furthering the strengths of valves while mitigating their typical weaknesses.
To my mind, the Ref160S doesn’t try to sound like a solid-state amp as such; it is, rather, a high-quality amp in its own right, and can outperform most solid-state designs in depth layering and musical fluidity. If you feel like venturing into the glories of tubes or continuing your tube amp adventures on a different plane, consider the Ref160S. It is highly recommended.
Specs & Pricing
Tubecomplement: Two matched pairs KT150; two 6H30 per channel Power output: 140Wpc (20Hz–20kHz) THD: Typically 1% at 140 watts, below 0.04% at 1 watt, 1kHz Powerbandwidth: 5Hz to 70kHz (–3dB points) Frequencyresponse: (-3dB points at 1 watt) 0.5Hz to 110kHz Inputsensitivity: 2.4V RMS balanced for rated output Gain: 25.5dB into 8 ohms Inputimpedance: 300k ohms, balanced; 100k ohms, single-ended Outputtaps: 16 ohms, 8 ohms, 4 ohms Dampingfactor: Approximately 14 Overallnegativefeedback: 14dB Slewrate: 13 volts/microsecond Risetime: 2.0 microseconds Dimensions: 19.0″ x 10.25″ x 21.5″ (with handles and connectors: 24″) Weight: 100 lbs. (net) Price: $22,000
AUDIO RESEARCH CORPORATION 6655 Wedgwood Road North, Suite 115 Maple Grove, MN 55311 (763) 577-9700 audioresearch.com
Associated Equipment Analogsource: Basis Debut V turntable & Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S MR cartridge Phonostage: Simaudio Moon 610LP Digitalsources: Hegel Mohican CDP, HP Envy 15t running JRiver MC-20, Hegel HD30 DAC Linestages: Ayre K-1xe, Hegel P30, Constellation Audio Virgo III Integratedamplifier: Hegel H390 Poweramplifiers: Gamut M250i, Hegel H30 Speakers: YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2, Raidho TD1.2, Dynaudio Confidence C1 Signature Cables: Shunyata Sigma signal cables, Nordost Heimdall 2 USB, Shunyata Alpha S/PDIF and AES/EBU, Shunyata Sigma NR and Omega XC power cords A/C power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, Shunyata SR-Z1 receptacles, Shunyata Everest 8000 and Typhon power conditioners Accessories: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels and DIY panels, Stillpoints Ultra SS
Marlboro NJ, 14th January 2021 – Audio Manufacturer KEF is releasing a brand new groundbreaking technology called Uni-Core, which delivers a completely new take on speaker and subwoofer design. This latest innovative technology developed by KEF redefines size versus performance by enabling high-level performance while reducing the subwoofer or speaker cabinet volume significantly.
With the ambition to create an aesthetically pleasing piece of audio equipment to complement your living room, it was also imperative that KEF not only maintain but excel in their delivery of accurate and deep bass. Between desirable aesthetics and uncompromising performance the first challenge was fitting two drivers into a compact cube enclosure.
“To deliver deep and loud bass from a compact product is a big engineering challenge,” says Dr. Jack Oclee-Brown, Head of Research & Development at KEF. “The Uni-core is a breakthrough technology for KEF because it allows us to pack two drivers into a tighter space without compromising their performance.”
Uni-Core uses two dual force-cancelling drivers with concentrically arranged, overlapping voice coils, that are driven by a single motor to provide stunning bass performance from a small enclosure. The voice-coils are different sizes and occupy the same physical space within the Uni-Core driver assembly. This allows for an extremely compact physical cabinet with significantly reduced volume when compared to subwoofers that rely on conventional driver technology.
The saved space provides the drivers far more excursion than an equivalent-sized, force-cancelling design, unlocking more output and depth from much less space. This patent-pending technology smoothly delivers powerful and deep bass response while removing the space concerns that are often obstacles to premium subwoofer performance.
The new Uni-Core technology will be applied in an upcoming KEF product that will be announced this month. To discover more on KEF, please visit: https://us.kef.com/.
After a decade in limbo, Dallas-bred alt-rock cult favorites Secret Machines return with an emotionally charged and sonically forceful fourth album. Building on the kinetic flavor of their haunting 2004 debut Now Here Is Nowhere, Awake in the Brain Chamber is a volume-challenging mesh of fiery guitar, evocative keyboards, and propulsive drumming. It’s a fitting homage to their onetime bandmate guitarist Benjamin Curtis, who left the fold in 2007 and sadly passed away from lymphoma in 2013. Working on and off for 10 years, surviving bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Brandon Curtis (Benjamin’s older brother) and drummer Josh Garza honed eight songs that blend unavoidable melancholy with a fierce drive to plow forward. Aptly named opener “Let’s Stay Alive” crackles with the full force of Garza’s muscular drumming, while Curtis’ dreamy vocals serve as a 21st-century bridge between the Machines’ inherent shoegazing tendencies and unabashed space-rock heroics. “Everything Starts” sews in sinewy guitar accents from the late Benjamin Curtis, and the guttural “Talos’ Corpse” teems with defiant resolve. Brain Chamber is a welcome reawakening from a long-lost band not yet ready to sign off on their final chapter.
Jonathan Valin wrote the following essay in response to the Point/Counterpoint in the last issue, in which Robert Greene and I presented diametrically opposed views of the roles of listening and measurement in evaluating audio equipment. —Robert Harley
To start, let me just say that I am very very glad that Dr. Robert E. Greene has recovered from his illness. If you’re comparing big differences to littler ones, what could be bigger than surviving a near-death experience, where being here and not being here are the stakes? I am extremely happy that Dr. Greene is still with us. The petty disagreements about hi-fi that he and I have had over the years matter not—hi-fi itself matters not—in this biggest of all pictures.
Having said that (and said it from my heart), I have to add that denying the existence of sonic differences because they are “too small” to verify by measurement is the exact opposite of Harry Pearson’s “observational” approach to hi-fi. This is not to say that questioning or expanding upon Harry’s ideas (which is what Dr. Greene is doing and what I myself have done and am about to do) is verboten; it’s just that quoting Harry incredibly selectively to support your position on, oh, wide-dispersion loudspeakers and soundstaging, while simultaneously going squarely against his core idea (which is that listening trumps measurement, always and invariably) is more than a bit misleading.
But rather than chastising Dr. Greene for heresy, let me confess one (very big) heresy of my own: I don’t believe in the absolute sound—at least, I don’t believe in it exclusively. Instead, I see three closely related but nonetheless distinctive and equally valid ways of listening to stereo systems and judging their excellence.
My first group of listeners, staked out by Harry and this magazine, is what I call the “absolute sound” bunch. For them, the thing that matters most is how closely and convincingly reproduced sound approaches the sound of the real thing. It doesn’t really matter how a speaker or amplifier or turntable or server manages to create the illusion of actual acoustic instruments in a real space; all that matters is that it does—whether that be by design, accident, coincidence, or adherence to or deliberate departure from the measurable (or un-) “truth.”
While profoundly important and influential, the idea of the absolute sound is not unproblematic. The trouble is that the absolute sound, as I often said to HP, isn’t absolute. What you hear in a concert hall is fundamentally dependent on all kinds of variables (e.g., the hall’s acoustics, where you’re seated in the hall, how the players themselves are spaced on the stage floor, what kind of instruments they are playing, how “warmed up” or not those instruments are, etc.). The result of all this relativity is that what sounds “absolute” to you in your orchestra section seat close by the double basses (which is where Harry customarily sat in Carnegie Hall) may be—in fact, will be, in ways large and small—different than what sounds “absolute” to another listener who sits in the center of the orchestra section or nearer to the strings, or in a loge or a balcony seat.
My second group of listeners is also looking for the absolute sound, but with an essential proviso: These folks want to hear voices and instruments sound fully realistic when—and only when—the recording has been made in a way that permits them to sound fully realistic. This is what I call the “accuracy” school of listeners, who aren’t really listening first and foremost to music, but rather to the quality of recordings. Fidelity to what is on an LP or a bitstream becomes the central goal of the stereo system and reproducing what was actually miked, mixed, and mastered, warts and all, overrules other considerations.
The trouble here is that determining what was “actually” recorded is fraught with its own set of problems, not the least of which is the inescapable fact that a recording is made and monitored through a set of speakers (or headphones) and electronics that are fundamentally different than those through which that recording is being played back in your listening room.
Of course, you could (if you had the access) turn to someone who was actually at the recording session for an informed opinion on how “faithful” your playback is, but then you start bumping up against some of the same issues that vex absolute sound listeners (e.g., where was that audience member seated vis-à-vis the microphones used at the recording session—and how did what he or she heard differ from what the microphones heard at their locations, how reliable is his or her “sonic memory” of the event, how much of what he or she heard is actually reflected in the finished product where edits, compression, and overdubs may have been used, etc.).
Which kind of brings us back to the ineluctable relativity of the listening experience, in the concert hall, in the recording studio, and in the home—a conundrum that is solved (or at least overstepped) by my third group: the “as you like it” or “musicality first” listeners.
By far the largest of my three sets, musicality listeners are simply looking for a good time. They could care less if the system sounds like the absolute (save to the degree that voices and instruments sounding real increases their enjoyment of and involvement with what they’re hearing), and they aren’t concerned if a system is faithful to sources (save to the extent that better-sounding records make listening more exciting and fun). Truth is, this group is not interested in sound per se. Its adherents are interested in what sound does to them, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They’re looking for a facsimile of the rapture they feel in a rock club or a concert hall; they’re looking for delight.
Obviously, the problem with putting musicality ahead of everything else is that one man’s musical is another’s mush. In worst case scenarios, musicality amounts to subjectivity taken to an entirely personal extreme. There can be no general standard of what constitutes excellent playback because no standard (except one’s own) is needed or applies. Put simply, you like what you like.
As I noted earlier, these three groups are interrelated: They share a love of “better” sound. What constitutes “better” is where they differ.
This brings me to a fourth set of listeners—one that Dr. Greene, at least in part, seems to sympathize with—the bunch that listens primarily to numbers.
Based on long experience, I don’t fully relate to this group. Oh, I understand the role that measurements play in designing, say, a loudspeaker, just as I understand the role that measurements play in following a recipe for a mille-feuille pastry or a plate of lièvre à la royale. What I don’t understand is how measurements taken with a microphone from one or even from several spots in an RFZ or an anechoic chamber or a quasi-anechoic setup can tell you, save in broad outlines, what that speaker is going to sound like in a real-world listening room, hooked up to real-world sources, amplifiers, and cables. For me, determining that requires actual listening, just as that pastry or plate of lièvre requires actual tasting.
I used to pester Harry with some of these thoughts—to get his goat. But whenever I started to go on about, say, the relativity of the absolute sound, he’d stop me short with a single prescient observation that could’ve been his byword: “We all know real when we hear it.” In other words, real is real, whether you’re sitting in the first row or the cheap seats, whether you’re listening to an RCA or a Mercury, whether you’re a fan of acoustic music or rock ’n’ roll.
“We all know real when we hear it.” Figuring out why that should be the case in the face of the obvious contradiction (to wit, a stereo system is manifestly not a real symphony orchestra or a string quartet or a rock group) has been the challenge of a hi-fi lifetime. And I haven’t figured it out yet, save to speculate (as I’ve done recently) that when a stereo sounds “real” it isn’t just a matter of superior parts (such as more powerful intensity, flatter-measuring timbre, longer duration, or more perfect pitch) but also of the way those parts are grouped together—of their gestalt—and that this magical gestalt regrouping of parts depends in some unmistakable way on the neutrality and completeness of the presentation. It is that neutrality and completeness that allows a stereo system to disappear like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only the music—the cat’s grin.
Well, that’s it, folks. At least, from this corner of The Absolute Sound world. It may not be satisfying and it certainly isn’t specific, but…it’s the best I can do when it comes to summarizing how we listen.
As a long-time user of various Shunyata Research AC power conditioners and power cords, I’ve been fascinated to discover how the company’s products have evolved with each new generation. In performance there’s been unmistakable forward progress, with lower noise and an attendant increase in clarity, resolution, and soundstaging. But Shunyata’s new flagship Everest 8000 power conditioner breaks this trend; rather than offering an incremental improvement, the Everest 8000 represents a significant leap in sound quality—one that redefines what’s possible in AC power conditioning. I think it’s no coincidence that the Everest benefits from some of the technologies Shunyata founder and designer Calin Gabriel developed for his AC power conditioners used in medical laboratories. A few years ago, a cardiologist who spent much of his time battling residual noise while looking at extremely low-level electrical signals in heart patients made a surprising discovery. The cardiologist, an audiophile who happened to use a Shunyata power conditioner in his home-audio system, speculated that if the Shunyata conditioner lowered the noise floor in his music system, it might confer similar benefits in his medical lab.
After plugging his lab equipment into the Shunyata conditioner, he was surprised and delighted to discover that the AC conditioner allowed him to more clearly see the heart’s low-level electrical signals. He contacted Shunyata to share his experience, which eventually led Shunyata to start a whole new company, Clear Image Scientific, to design and manufacture AC power-conditioning devices for cardiac labs. The new company has grown exponentially, leading Gabriel to research and develop advanced new techniques to isolate, to an unprecedented degree, sensitive medical equipment from AC line noise. Some of those techniques have now been deployed in Shunyata’s AC conditioners for audio. How Clear Image Scientific sells its products says much about their efficacy; the company demonstrates the gear in a hospital for cardiologists, who can see for themselves the effect of reducing noise on the AC powerline.
Turning back to audio, the Everest is a vertical tower with a sloping front panel that narrows toward the top in a kind of truncated-pyramid shape (as seen from the front). This vertical form factor means the Everest sits on the floor next to your equipment rack rather than taking up shelf space. A blue LED, which is mercifully faint, indicates when the Everest is powered on. The rear panel holds eight AC outlets, each supported by Shunyata’s excellent cable-cradle system, which secures the AC cord to the power conditioner. An IEC C19 AC jack (20 ampere) accepts the AC cord that connects the Everest to your wall socket. The Everest isn’t supplied with this C19 cord; you need to provide your own. Because this cord essentially supplies your entire audio system, you’ll want to use a good one. Shunyata sent me its new Omega XC for this application, which costs nearly as much as the Everest ($8000 vs. $7000). An electromagnetic breaker switch turns the Everest on and off, but this switch is not a master power switch for your system. Rather, it is an over-current protection device.
The Everest features Shunyata’s Ground-Plane Noise-Reduction (GP-NR) system, which consists of four grounding posts on the rear of the unit. The idea is that you run a wire from each of your components to the Everest’s grounding posts so that all your equipment is grounded to the same electrical potential. Although most components (preamps, DACs, servers, etc.) lack a grounding post, you can connect the ground wire to a chassis screw and achieve the same effect. Shunyata offers grounding cables made from flexible stranded wire that’s easy to work with. Ground posts are common on professional and telecommunications gear for good reason: If some of your components’ grounds are at a different electrical potential (voltage) than other components, and those components are connected through interconnects, a small amount of electrical current will flow along the ground path provided by the interconnect. We hear this current flow as noise and hum. Preventing these noise-inducing “ground loops” is why I specified that each run of 10AWG to the five dedicated AC lines to my listening room be of the same length. With identical-length runs, the ground potential will be the same in each line. It’s common in professional gear for every component in a metal rack to be grounded with a braided wire to the rack.
The Everest’s technology is based on that of the Hydra Triton and Typhon conditioners, but with some new twists in technologies, construction, and materials. Before describing the Everest’s design, we should review the goal of a power conditioner. In addition to distributing power to multiple components, an AC conditioner should block noise on the AC line from getting into your audio components. Most people think that this is a conditioner’s primary function. But a conditioner’s most important job is preventing noise from traveling from one component to another. Think of a digital component, filled with chips that switch high-speed digital signals on and off. This switching creates noise that gets on the component’s ground plane. The AC cords in your system are the conduits for that noise, conducting it from one component to all your other components, degrading performance. A good conditioner blocks and dissipates this noise, isolating the components from each other.
Each of the Everest’s eight outlets features Shunyata’s CCI (Component-to-Component Interface) filters—a series of multi-stage filters that removes noise. Noise is further reduced by Shunyata’s patented NIC (Noise Isolation Chamber), a device that contains a ferroelectric material that absorbs high-frequency noise. The NIC was originally developed for the Hydra Triton. A different type of noise filter, called “CMode,” reportedly reduces common-mode noise.
Another technology from the Triton/Typhon products is QR/BB, a circuit that delivers additional instantaneous current for brief transients, reducing dynamic compression. Unlike many conditioners that diminish the ability to deliver high-current pulses, QR/BB is claimed to increase impulse-current delivery via a circuit that lowers the inductive reactance. The Everest’s QR/BB device is three times the size of that in the Denali, Shunyata’s previous flagship conditioner. This feature is useful when power amplifiers or integrated amplifiers get their power through the Everest. Unlike a preamp or a DAC that draws a small amount of current continuously, a power amplifier pulls current from the wall in very short bursts (at the tops and bottoms of the 60Hz AC sinewave). If the conditioner restricts these instantaneous current surges, the amplifier will be starved for power, compromising musical dynamics. In designing the Everest, Shunyata relied on its proprietary test instrument, called the Dynamic Transient Current Delivery (DTCD) analyzer, to measure instantaneous current flow through low-impedance conductors and contacts.
The outlets are Shunyata’s CopperCONN, with contacts and conductors made from thick pieces of solid high-purity oxygen-free copper. They also provide better grip on the blades of an AC cord plugged into them than conventional AC outlets. I installed these outlets in each of the five dedicated AC lines that run to my listening room when I built the room. The Everest’s internal wiring is Shunyata’s ArNi conductors, made from certified OFE C10100 copper, and fashioned into hollow tubes to reduce skin effect. The conductors are treated with Shunyata’s KPIP (Kinetic Phase-Inversion Process), which reportedly eliminates the need for break-in, and improves the sound. Many of the components are cryogenically treated in Shunyata’s own cryo lab. Finally, the chassis and internal structures are treated with vibration-damping panels, and the outlets are physically de-coupled from the chassis for further vibration isolation.
I know that’s a mouthful of alphabet soup, but illustrates that the Everest is packed with technologies that Shunyata has developed over the past 25 years, many of them patented.
The Omega XC power cord features Shunyata’s VTX-Ag conductors that are made from an outer tube of purified copper surrounding a silver conductor. The cord has CopperCONN connectors encased in a carbon-fiber housing at both ends. Once assembled, the Omega XC is treated with the KIPP processing described earlier. Note that the step-up power cord, the Omega QR, incorporates noise-reduction technologies within the cable. Nonetheless, Shunyata recommends the Omega XC with the Everest. Both Omega Series cords are available in a range of carbon-fiber colors.
I replaced the Hydra Triton and Typhon combination that I’d been using for a few years with the Everest to power my front-end equipment. My equipment racks are at the back of the room behind the listening seat, and the power amplifiers are at the other end between the speakers. The power amps were plugged straight into the wall sockets.
When I’ve upgraded Shunyata’s conditioners in the past, I’ve usually heard an incremental improvement in dynamics, soundstaging, and the rendering of instrumental timbres. But the Everest/Omega XC combination realized, by far, the most significant improvement in my system. The change in sound quality was more of a step function than an incremental advance. It’s worth noting that my current system is extremely revealing of every change, good or bad.
Swapping in the Everest and Omega XC brought out the best in my system, heightening those qualities I value. The most immediate improvement was in the way the soundstage expanded in all dimensions, particularly in depth. Interestingly, the entire stage became slightly less forward and immediate, like moving from Row C to Row M. But at the same time, the spatial presentation became more three-dimensional, with instruments toward the back of the stage sounding much farther away. The apparent distance between instruments in the front and back of the orchestra expanded. A few minutes into The Rite of Spring (Eiji Oue, Minnesota, Reference Recordings, MQA at 176.4kHz) a contrabassoon plays a short, virtually unaccompanied passage. The Everest presented the instrument as way back in the orchestra, with very fine resolution of the reflections and reverberation that supply the brain with distance cues. Despite the slightly less immediate spatial perspective, the sense of vividness and tangibility increased.
But that’s not what make the Everest/Omega XC so compelling. Rather, it was the way this new conditioner resolved the air and space between instruments, giving the sound a greater dimensionality that was closer to what one hears from live music. I could hear a more tangible sense of the cushion of air around each instrument, particularly on dynamic passages. The feeling of sound expanding from the instrument was more realistic. This impression was heightened by the tighter focus of the image itself, along with the greater delineation between the image and the air around it. This may sound like an esoteric analysis of a not-that-important perception, but this more realistic portrayal of instrumental images, the immediate space around them, and the greater space of the hall went a long way toward making me forget I was listening to a recreation of music. It was just more organic and lifelike. In addition, the finer spatial resolution and more vivid presentation of individual instruments made it easier to follow each instrument’s musical line within the whole. The track “The Cowboys Overture” from John Williams at The Movies (176.4/24 downloaded from Reference Recordings) took on much more sonic and musical clarity, with each instrument, section, and musical line more clearly resolved.
I’ve noticed that my colleague Andrew Quint mentions in his reviews a track that I also happen to like, and also use in evaluating equipment. “Back Row Politics” from Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Act Your Age features three virtuoso trumpet players trading off extended, high-energy solos. After adding the Everest to my system, the trumpets had less glare, along with more richness, warmth, and body.
Finally, I heard an increase in dynamic impact, particularly in the bass. This is one of my system’s strong suits, but the Everest took transient fidelity and visceral impact to another level of realism.
The Everest 8000 AC conditioner and Omega XC power cord are, in my view, the best components to come out of Shunyata Research, a company with a long history of developing great products. The Everest allowed the outstanding components in my system to perform at their highest level by providing them with an ultra-quiet and clean power source. The Everest 8000 and Omega XC have become essential parts of my reference system.
Specs & Pricing
Everest 8000 Type: Eight-outlet AC conditioner Maximum continuous current: 30A (US version) Maximum continuous current per outlet: 15A (US version) Isolation zones: Six Noisesuppression: Input to output (100kHz–30MHz): >50dB reduction; zone-to-zone (100kHz–30MHz): >60dB reduction Over-current protection: Hydraulic electromagnetic breaker Wiring: 8 -gauge ArNi® VTX™ Buss system; 10 gauge ArNi® VTX™ wiring Dimensions: 8″ x 20.75″ x 14.75″ Weight: 34 lbs. Price: $8000
Omega XC Power Cord Technology: VTX-Ag conductors Price:$7000
SHUNYATA RESEARCH 26273 Twelve Trees Lane, Ste D Poulsbo, WA 98370 (360) 598-9935 shunyata.com
Associated Equipment Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX, Wilson Subsonic subwoofers (x2), Wilson ActivXO crossover Analogsource: Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable with SuperArm 12.5 tonearm; Air Tight Opus cartridge; Moon 810LP phonostage; DS Audio ST-50 stylus cleaner Digitalsource: Aurender W20SE and Wadax Atlantis servers, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 and Wadax Reference DACs; Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-AES/EBU converter; Shunyata Sigma USB cable; AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU cable Amplification: Constellation Altair 2 preamplifier; Constellation Hercules 2 monoblock power amplifiers, Constellation Centaur 2 stereo (driving subwoofers) ACPower: Five dedicated 20A lines terminated with Shunyata AC outlets Support: Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment racks and Olympus amplifier stands; CenterStage2 isolation Cables: Shunyata Sigma interconnects; AudioQuest WEL Signature interconnects; AudioQuest Dragon Zero and Dragon Bass loudspeaker cables Acoustics: Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 12 Room: Purpose-built; Acoustic Sciences Corporation Iso-Wall System LP cleaning: Klaudio KD-CLN-LP200, Levin Design record brush
The following is a press release issued by McIntosh.
BINGHAMTON, NY (January 7, 2021) – The new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee, now with three rows of seating, will debut with the auto industry’s only sound system made by the legends in luxury home audio, McIntosh Laboratory. Available first in the 2021 JeepGrand Cherokee L, the MX950 McIntosh Entertainment System is available in Overland and Summit models and comes standard when equipped with the Summit Reserve Package.
The collaboration between McIntosh and the Jeep brand has been a match made in America. The Jeep brand understands McIntosh’s goal is to carry its exceedingly high standards for sound into vehicles in an authentic way. That said, this partnership didn’t happen overnight.
Seeds for MX950 McIntosh Entertainment System for the Jeep Grand Cherokee were planted four years ago when engineers from both organizations collaborated on the Grand Wagoneer concept vehicle revealed this past September. And now with the Jeep Grand Cherokee L, customers will soon be able to experience what it is like having a McIntosh Entertainment System with them on-the-go. It is sure to be “Legendary Performance in Motion.”
For over seven decades, McIntosh has been on the leading edge of high-end home audio and popular culture with sound systems handcrafted in their factory in Binghamton, NY. The company’s amplifiers were used to power the original Woodstock and the Grateful Dead’s groundbreaking “Wall of Sound” which cemented McIntosh’s reputation as a true American icon.
But McIntosh is no stranger to car audio, having delved into both OEM and aftermarket fitments in the 1990s. In the new millennium, McIntosh developed custom solutions for Harley Davidson special editions, and the 100th anniversary edition of the Ford GT. The MX950 McIntosh Entertainment System for the JeepGrand Cherokee will take sound quality to the next level, much the same way Jeep Grand Cherokee has repeatedly reset the bar in sport utility vehicles.
“We understand that customers don’t just want great sound,” said Charlie Randall, President of McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. “They want to get a full sensory experience. And that’s why it was so important that we left no stone unturned to deliver a true McIntosh Entertainment System for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L. We’re thrilled to bring our brand to a whole new group of people who may never have experienced McIntosh before.”
To ensure McIntosh luxury home audio experience was replicated in the vehicle, engineers from both companies worked hand-in-hand to fuse form and function into the system architecture. Engineers constantly went back and forth between the test vehicle and the McIntosh Reference Room itself to ensure a truly authentic McIntosh experience, even in a car. The resulting system is so revolutionary, it doesn’t just bring the performance to you, it brings you to the performance.
The MX950 McIntosh Entertainment System boasts 19 speakers in 12 optimal locations to deliver precision sound through every inch of the vehicle and a 17-channel amplifier delivers up to 950Watts of power. The system has LD/HP® speaker design to lower distortion and McIntosh Power Guard for unrivaled clarity even at very high-volume levels. The most advanced materials technologies were used to make components lighter, yet stronger, so speakers respond faster in delivering timely sonic reproduction. The occupants are enveloped in a massive sweet spot to hear music with zero coloration, just as the artist intended.
The shared vision between Jeep and McIntosh was to integrate the same level of authenticity and design language from the McIntosh home audio products into the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The system incorporates McIntosh’s iconic styling cues such as the metal ridged control knobs, in the look and feel that have made McIntosh instantly recognizable to fans around the world. Backlit logos on the door speaker grilles accent the vehicle’s interior lighting with McIntosh’s signature blue. The Jeep Grand Cherokee L’s subwoofer grille is emblazoned with the McIntosh “Mc” logo as it appears in McIntosh Monogrammed Heatsinks™. It is truly a treat for the eyes as well as the ears!
The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is equipped with the MX950 McIntosh Entertainment System and will arrive in Jeep dealerships in the second quarter of 2021.
With the increasingly widespread streaming of digital music content to our audio systems, either from discs or streaming services (e.g., Tidal or Qobuz), many audiophiles are finding the need for an audio-grade Ethernet switch to connect their home computer network modems, routers, computers, drive arrays, etc. to an increasingly wide array of devices to mediate the transfer of digital content to digital-to-analog converters. As my digital streaming “front-end” has been in development for the last year and half or so, I’m finding there are now better audiophile-grade solutions that provide network access to my nearly 4TB of disc-based digital content, and to new content via streaming services.
UpTone Audio is a small audio-products firm based in Northern California. Company principal and founder, Alex Crespi, has been in the audio business for over 30 years, and was one of the co-founders of the well-regarded audio products company, Hovland, which was started in 1999 and closed in 2009. UpTone was founded in 2010, and all of its products are developed in close partnership with professional electronics engineer, John Swenson, who has had a long career designing the power-distribution networks deep inside large custom computer chips (the sort of devices that run high-speed network data centers). As UpTone Audio, Crespi and Swenson have developed a successful range of products for digital playback including the REGEN line of digital audio products and the UltraCap line of linear power supplies for digital components and music servers. John is also well-known as the hardware engineer for the popular Sonore Rendu series of products.
I purchased my $640 UpTone Audio EtherREGEN in October, 2019, and I can unequivocally say it has been instrumental in getting the audio performance of my digital streaming front end to a level where it is now as fully engaging, immersive, and enjoyable a musical experience as my turntable-based analog system.
Description and Features The UpTone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch utilizes the same oval-shaped aluminum case used for many UpTone Audio products, and measures 112mm x 110mm x 30mm. Of note, UpTone has specifically designed EtherREGEN so that it does not require an external linear power supply to provide nominal performance. Rather, it comes with an UpTone Audio switch-mode power supply specially designed to prevent the passage of high source-impedance leakage current to the EtherREGEN (more on this later).
The EtherREGEN is unique among Ethernet switches in that it uses a circuit topology called the Active Differential Isolation Moat or ADIM that completely isolates the side of the switch used for connecting network devices (typically the “A” side) from the side connected to the renderer, network bridge, or streamer (typically the “B” side). The ADIM provides electrical, galvanic, and noise isolation between the two sides. I’ll discuss the rationale and function of the “moat” in more detail in its own section in this review.
On the “A” side of EtherREGEN is a SFP (small form-factor, pluggable) cage for making fiber optic connections using an optical transceiver (Figure 1) and an RJ45 module composed of four specially manufactured copper Ethernet ports with status lights. There are 12 transformer cores in each port and the center-taps of these cores are grounded using capacitors to block port-to-port leakage current.
The “B” side of EtherREGEN (Figure 2) has a DC-power barrel jack, ground post, a single 100-Megabit RJ45 port with status lights, a switch for selecting the internal or an external clock, and a BNC connector for connecting an external clock, if hot-rodding your EtherREGEN is desired. The standard impedance for the clock connector is 75-ohm, but a 50-ohm clock connection can be ordered from UpTone Audio at no additional charge. While EtherREGEN works identically in both directions, the “B” side is typically connected to the computer, streamer, network bridge, endpoint renderer, etc., with a copper Ethernet cable. DACs that have an Ethernet input can be directly connected to the “B” port.
Technical Considerations and Design Features The Active Differential Isolation Moat (ADIM) design is unique to the EtherREGEN, as it provides data-transfer functionality and audio performance that significantly differentiates it from all other Ethernet switches, including those modified for audio applications. EtherREGEN has two data/power/clock domains which are isolated from each other by the ADIM. These two domains are referred to the as “A” side and “B” side, respectively. Each isolated domain is re-clocked, and the clocking system runs from an advanced, programmable, jitter-attenuating clock synthesizer with four differential outputs. It is referenced to an ultra-low-jitter/phase-noise Crystek CCHD-575 oscillator, and the clock distribution system is run differentially throughout. UpTone Audio colloquially refers to the separation provided by the ADIM between the sides of its circuit board as “the moat.”
The rationale for the moat is important because every signal “edge” coming out of any digital device carries the jitter and phase-noise of the clock used to “clock out” that edge. When dealing with Ethernet-based signals, specifically for audio applications, where timing is critical, there are two types or classes of sound-degrading noises that EtherREGEN was designed to mitigate: 1) low and high source-impedance leakage current, and 2) clock phase noise. Clock phase noise travels on the Ethernet signal and on power and ground planes. This phase noise affects the threshold jitter of chips’ clock inputs.
The differential circuitry was specifically designed to eliminate the signal-borne phase noise goingfrom one side of the moat to the other. EtherREGEN is mostly symmetrical—technically, there is no “dirty side” or “clean side.” While ER works identically in both directions, it is best to have the streaming endpoint device (renderer/streamer/network bridge) that connects to the DAC be the only device that is connected to that particular side (typically the “B” side). While the circuitry between the individual RJ45 ports or SFP cage on the “A” side decreases phase-noise effects to some degree, it does not decrease it to the same degree obtained by crossing the moat. This is because crossing the moat makes use of differential isolators in conjunction with differential flip-flops. (Refer to the engineering white paper by John Swenson, Understanding how perturbations on digital signals can affect sound quality without changing bits, and how these issues are addressed by the UpTone EtherREGEN, https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0660/6121/files/UpTone-J.Swenson_EtherREGEN_white_paper.pdf?v=1583429386.) And this is the big advantage: The differential isolators prevent the data-borne clock signature from getting onto the ground plane of the circuit board, while the differential flip-flops prevent the clock phase-noise signature from getting into the flip-flop’s own internal ground network, as well as the ground plane of the rest of the board. It is the use of these two differential isolation methodologies together that provides the performance advantage of EtherREGEN compared to other Ethernet switches.
Physically, EtherREGEN circuitry is mounted on a single, premium, six-layer circuit board, but electronically it is actually two boards (Figure 3). Looking at the EtherREGEN circuit board, we see it is galvanically divided into two parts, the “A” side (lower half of Figure 3) that typically handles network connections, and the “B” side (upper portion of Figure 3) across the moat, which provides the fully isolated signal to the renderer/endpoint.
Transfer of data from one side to the other is mediated using high-speed Analog Devices differential isolators. When the network signal has passed to the other side of the moat via the differential isolators, it is sent to the “B” side electronics that re-clock the data with an ultra-low phase noise Crystek CCHD-575 Crystal oscillator and Silicon Labs jitter-attenuating clock synthesizer (unless the clock switch is set to external, in which case, the external clock signal is used).
This is a key point: Because all the clocking in EtherREGEN is run with differential lines, and the isolators and flip-flops are fully differential, there is no noise overlaid on EtherREGEN’s ground plane by any of the el-cheapo clocks from network devices (e.g. routers, music servers, NAS’s, generic switches, etc.) upstream. Furthermore, no leakage current from switch-mode power supplies from these upstream devices can pass across the moat, either. No other Ethernet switch design does this, and these features are key aspects of EtherREGEN’s unique design because they prevent the data-borne clock signature and leakage currents from getting onto the ground plane of the circuit board and into the DAC, where they will increase jitter in the circuitry. Reduction of phase noise, leakage current, and concomitantly, jitter, are the significant audible benefits that EtherREGEN offers when used in a digital music streaming setup.
Set-up and Configuration The setup and configuration of EtherREGEN is simple and straightforward. Connect a single copper Ethernet cable from their main network router or switch to any of the RJ45 ports on the“A” side (Figure 4) of EtherREGEN. The remaining three RJ45 ports can be used for other connections, e.g. a music server, NAS, or other network device. If an optical-fiber connection is used, it can be connected to an optical transceiver in the SFP cage on the “A” side.
Depending on the user’s network or requirements, different connection configurations are possible. For example, one could leave the network router music server, NAS, etc. connected to another switch, and make a single Ethernet connection to EtherREGEN as shown in Figure 4. How the connections are configured are primarily a matter of convenience and/or the requirements of the specific network, and UpTone says the effects of different configurations on sonic performance are likely to be small, if any.
Networking Setup for Evaluation I made my evaluations of the EtherREGEN compared to a consumer-grade TP-Link Ethernet switch, as I did not have access to any other “audiophile-grade” Ethernet switches. Since I am using a run of fiber from the bedroom study, where the music server, router, and switches are located, to the main audio rack, I also used a consumer-grade TP-link fiber-media converter (FMC) in conjunction with the TP-link Ethernet switch. It’s important to understand that the base configuration was composed of two networking devices used together to stream the data: the consumer Ethernet switch and a fiber-media converter. The run of fiber connected at the downstream end in the main audio rack to a Sonore Optical Module that was connected by a Shunyata Sigma copper Ethernet cable to my SOtM SMS-200 UltraNeo network bridge, which serves as my endpoint/renderer, as shown in the base networking configuration in Figure 5.
For my configuration with EtherREGEN, I replaced the generic TP-link FMC with the Sonore OpticalModule at the upstream end; the Mac Mini music server and OpticalModule were connected to the RJ45 ports on my network router with Shunyata Sigma Ethernet cables. The OpticalModule was connected with a forty-foot run of optical fiber downstream to EtherREGEN’s “A” side via it’s SFP cage in my main audio rack. A Shunyata Sigma Ethernet cable from the “B” side of EtherREGEN was connected to my SOtM SMS-200 UltraNeo renderer/endpoint, which was connected to my Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC with a Shunyata Alpha USB cable. The configuration using EtherREGEN is shown in Figure 6.
Power Connections for Network Devices Because of the insidious and audible problems of leakage current, caused by the use of switch-mode power supplies in virtually almost all network devices, I paid special attention to the quality of power for the devices in the digital streaming chain. In my base configuration, when the TP-link Ethernet switch and FMC were used, they were powered by Jameco Reliapro linear power supplies; my Pace router used its standard switch-mode power supply with a home-made connector that shunts high source-impedance leakage current to ground. For the purposes of this review, the Mac Mini music server was powered with a Shunyata Venom V14D digital power cord, and the Sonore OpticalModule was powered with an UpTone Audio LPS-1 power supply. Both the UpTone LPS-1 and the Mac Mini were plugged into a Cryoparts power strip powered by a Shunyata V12 NR power cord. The Shunyata V12 NR power cord provides approximately 12dB of noise reduction for the power strip, and the Venom V14D digital power cord, specifically designed for devices that utilize switch-mode power supplies (e.g. the Mac Mini), provides another 12dB of noise reduction. In the main audio rack, the EtherREGEN was evaluated using the supplied UpTone Audio power supply, and the SOtM SMS-200 UltraNeo endpoint renderer was powered by a Keces P3 linear power supply. Both of these power supplies were powered by Shunyata Venom V14D digital power cords plugged into a Shunyata Everest power distributor. All listening evaluations were conducted using my two-channel loudspeaker system described in the addendum.
Listening Impressions My journey with my digital streaming front end has been one of discovery, experimentation, and reflection. This journey has taught me new ways to listen to digital content that are much more convenient, flexible, and enlightening, specifically when I use the Radio mode of Roon and Qobuz to discover new music. While I was reasonably satisfied with my first digital front end, when I made the decision to run a direct optical fiber cable connection from the music server to the DAC (see my article on streaming via optical fiber in the May issue of TAS), I needed an Ethernet switch. I bought a generic, consumer-grade TP-link switch to connect the router, music server, and my fiber media converter to the network. After installing it, there were aspects of the presentation that I just didn’t like. Upon first listen, the TP-link switch brought improved detail, but upon extended listening it also brought other attributes were very decidedly un-musical.
What I found was, despite the increased detail, there were “components” to the music and presentation that became increasingly irritating, fatiguing, and over longer listening sessions, quite unpleasant to listen to. I found that I couldn’t listen to the system for more than an hour without wanting to leave the room. It turns out that my Pace network router had four RJ45 ports on it, and I found that by not using the TP-link Ethernet switch (and just using the RJ-45 ports in my router) the presentation was actually pretty good. I would have thought that installing a dedicated Ethernet switch should have sounded better than the ports in a generic Internet router, but every time I put the TP-link switch back into the network (regardless of recording) the system sounded…ghastly. Harsh, strident, bright, irritating, with shrinking of the soundstage and spatiality, a crushing down of dynamic range, and a loss of nuance and gesture in the artists’ singing or playing. By contrast, I found when just using the router’s RJ-45 ports to make connections the sound was acceptably good; I’ll circle back to this observation in the conclusion.
Installing the EtherREGEN Ethernet switch into the system (Fig. 6) brought a significant improvement to the system overall—so much so that it doesn’t even sound like the same system compared to the base configurations. I heard these improvements immediately upon installation, but also noted that, as with almost every other component I’ve owned, audio performance was a bit uneven for the first 200 hours. After that burn-in period, EtherREGEN really smoothed out tonally and opened up spatially with a very low noise floor, providing an exceptionally clean space for the music to emerge into. Most importantly, there was virtually no digital glare, hash, or other nasties that induce listener fatigue. Rather, the presentation was organic, relaxed, and natural to the degree that my digital streaming front end fully rivaled my analog setup.
With EtherREGEN in the system, the Spanish guitar solo fantasia “Malagueña,” composed by legendary guitarist Celedonio Romero, and performed by his son Pepe Romero, had incredibly energetic pacing, a fulsome woody timbre, and finely delineated harmonic structures, as Romero ripped his way through this classic with stunning virtuosity and impeccable technique. There was so much resolution and definition and sheer virtuosity on display that, the first time I heard it, I thought two guitarists, Celedonio and Pepe Romero, were playing…but no, it was just Pepe. As he is the only musician, the stereo image is precisely focused on Romero, but the trailing edges of notes can clearly be heard decaying into the space of the room. Romero moves from a forceful, fast, and dynamic passage to a very beautiful slow, refined, and delicate passage with exquisite phrasing, nuance, and control, and you can hear deeply into the recording, the subtle shadings of timbres and notes flying with perfect articulation off the sound box of his guitar. It was dazzling and incredibly beautiful.
“Falling out of Love” by Mary Gauthier (Mercy Now), is skillfully recorded and mastered with a rich tapestry of sounds, from Gauthier’s gruff voice to her clear, sonorous, and pitch-perfect acoustic guitar in counterpoint to a background harmonica, all fully grounded by a bass drum with a steel guitar layering a plaintive whine on top. Everything comes together as a darkly beautiful song, full of pathos and loss. One of the things that I heard for the first time with EtherREGEN was the gourd instrument, the shakere, driving the rhythm forward, fully resolved but played with just enough restraint not to overpower Gauthier’s voice.
The timeless standard “Cry Me a River” with bassist Ray Brown (Soular Energy) featuring Gene Harris on piano, was beautifully presented with a deep black background against which Brown’s finely articulated string bass provided counterpoint to Harris’ exquisite piano playing. This is one of the most natural and organic-sounding jazz recordings I’ve ever heard, and the clean and quiet background provided by EtherREGEN let the simple beauty of the mastering shine through with subtlety, texture, and naturally rendered tone colors from the piano and bass.
I’ll have to admit I haven’t followed Adele’s studio recordings all that closely—a bit too much commercial overexposure for my sensibilities—but the first time I heard her live recording of “Lovesong” (Adele: Live at the Royal Albert Hall) on my Harbeths, I was smitten. With an exquisitely beautiful vocal performance by Adele, “Lovesong” is exceptionally well-recorded and mastered for a live recording in a large venue. Its starts with the two guitarists, Ben Thomas and Tim Van Der Kull, left and right, and Miles Robertson’s organ laying out the melody and rhythm as her voice comes in over the top, followed by the crispness of Derek Wrights’ drumming and the swell from the string section. The song builds and develops slowly and beautifully as Adele’s incredible voice, finally set free, soars above the string section. It is an absolute knockout. The feel, ambience, and atmosphere of an outstanding live performance in front of a enraptured audience is captured on the recording, and listening to it with EtherREGEN in the system I felt as if I could dive into the experience along with the audience.
After 40 years as an audiophile, I’ve never tired of listening to J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, strings, and continuo in D Minor, particularly when Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux is playing, as he is on the Decca recording with Les Solistes Romands. Here Grumiaux used his Guanerius violin, Rose, made by Giuseppi Guaneri in 1744. All the classic Guarnerius violin attributes—richness, sonority, timbral weight, and exquisite tone—are in full evidence, and in Grumiaux’s hands the virtuosity is fully resplendent, bright, and energetic, never harsh or strident. Each musician in the chamber orchestra is precisely positioned in the soundstage, and with the inner detail and spatial accuracy that EtherREGEN brought, you could focus in on each instrument in the orchestra and hear it fully resolved against the background of the orchestra as a whole. For example, during the Allegro on Concerto No. 2 for Violin, strings, and continuo in E Major on the same recording, as Grumiaux winds down a solo, I could clearly hear the first cello come in on the right, providing counterpoint to Grumiaux’s violin.
A recent find from Roon’s Radio mode and Qobuz is Yeol Eum Son and The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, playing Mozart piano concertos. In particular, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (“Elvira Madigan”) is a standout. Son’s sweet, light touch and virtuosic technique remind me of Julian Katchen, and give full credit to Mozart’s genius as well as his musical “sense of humor” in this, his most popular piano concerto. The vibe that comes across is that the musicians are having an absolute blast playing this delightful concerto. This is most evident in Movement III: Allegro Vivace Assai; where both Son and the Academy engage in the classical music version of “call and response,” both pianist and orchestra playing with incredible speed, delicacy, and touch in this challenging movement, the woodwinds cleanly interlaced with the piano. The piano’s full dynamic range, power, weight, and timbre were evident, yet resolved and defined, as were the contributions of every musician and instrument in the orchestra. A fabulous recording by Onyx Records, Son and the Academy’s world-famous super-clean, super-light, and super-tight playing is sensational. Just a fantastic recording and performance.
Conclusions As I mentioned in Listening Impressions, my journey with developing my digital streaming front end and the UpTone Audio EtherREGEN has been an interesting and informative one. I’ve learned that digital streaming, either via a music server or a streaming service (especially Roon), has clear advantages with respect to accessing and listening to digital content. But, as we add more networking devices to take advantage of the convenience, functions, and features, there is a price to paid. Every consumer-grade digital device with el-cheapo clocks (powered by those dastardly switch-mode power supplies) that we add to our streaming network is adding more clock phase noise, leakage current, and noise on the ground planes of our endpoints and DACs, thereby increasing threshold jitter and, concomitantly, timing errors. The reason for this is explained in John Swenson’s White Paper for EtherREGEN referenced above:
“What this clock phase-noise overlay looks like depends upon the clocks and circuits involved. Most ‘residential’ network devices have very cheap oscillators with very high phase noise, so effects from this in the combined clock can be very strong. Therefore, if your endpoint has a very good local clock, the overlay from upstream can be significantly greater than the local clock.”
When I understood this, it became clear why I couldn’t bear to listen to the system after I added the TP-Link Ethernet switch into the configuration: The digital nasties from it were overlaid onto those already present from the other upstream networking devices (router, FMC, and music server). This additional overlay pushed things over the top for me, creating too much of a bad thing. And this is where EtherREGEN rushed in like the cavalry and saved the day, changing the audio experience from one that previously drove me from the room to one that became completely engaging, compelling, and beguiling.
In summary, I consider the UpTone Audio EtherREGEN to be both a breakthrough and a landmark audio product. If you have, or are looking to put together, a music-server-based digital streaming front end, and you need an Ethernet switch in your network, the EtherREGEN deserves serious consideration. Mine has provided me with the convenience, access, and functionality of Roon with curation of content of Qobuz. And, in doing so, it provides a musical experience that’s every bit as engaging and compelling to listen to as my analog system. At only $640, it’s got to be of the biggest value propositions in all of high-end audio, and has my highest possible recommendation.
Specs & Pricing
Circuitry: Fully differential clock circuitry, isolators, and flip-flops Clocksystem: Ultra-low jitter/phase noise Crystek CCHD-575 oscillator Powerregulation: Linear Technology LT3045 and LT3042 voltage regulators OperatingTemperature: 48-52° C (118-126° F Dimensions: 112mm x 110mm x 30mm Weight: 298 grams (10.5 oz) Price: $640
Associated Equipment Digital sources: Schiit Gungnir Gen 5 USB Multibit DAC, SOtM SMS-200 UltraNeo network bridge, Mac Mini Roon Core Server, Sonore OpticalModule fiber media convertor, UpTone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch, UpTone Audio LPS-1.2 and Keces P3 linear power supplies. Analog source: Michell Gyro SE turntable, SME V tonearm, Koetsu Urushi Vermilion cartridge, Bob’s Devices Cinemag step-up transformer, Uni-Pro protractor Phonostage: E.A.R. 324 Preamplifier: First Sound Presence Deluxe 4.0Si Mk-III dual mono preamplifier with dual mono external power supplies. Power Amplifier: Conrad-Johnson LP70S Loudspeakers: Harbeth 40th Anniversary 30.2, Dynaudio Contour S3.4 with Esotar 2 tweeters, REL R-305 sub Cables: Shunyata Research Sigma XC (Everest), Sigma NR V2 (power amp), Alpha NR V2 (preamp), Venom NR-V10 (DAC), Venom V14D Digital (digital components), Black Mamba CX (phonostage) power cables, Shunyata Research Delta and Venom interconnects, Shunyata Research Sigma Ethernet & Alpha USB digital cables and Shunyata Research Delta V2 VTX-Ag speaker cables A/C Power: Shunyata Research Everest power distributor and SR-Z1 wall outlet