Audio magazines are mostly focused on testing of individual components, only rarely in pairs like CD + amplifier. Such behavior is optimal from organizational point of view. Against appearances, the reviewers in Poland have to work harder than their colleagues in US or UK and test many more devices – otherwise they would not make their living. I think that the ration may be 5:1 or even 6:1. There is also a lot tested in Germany, only Japan shows, that it is possible to listen even more – please have a look at “Stereo Sound” to see that. Not that I want to complain, I just state the facts. And I need it, to show why Polish magazines are usually not testing systems. Actually this reluctance is not only a Polish specialty, but at least I can see the reasons for that behavior here. To prepare such an event thoroughly it is not only necessary to arrange many components, they do not only have to arrive in time, but there is also need to perform some kind of selection first – a systems is a set of devices, cables and accessories that need to perform OPTIMALLY together. It is not about putting some parts randomly together, but creating a well performing composition. The number of possible combinations is so high, that testing a system created by pure chance would have no value.
All those mentioned reasons are also valid for “High Fidelity”, so we do not propose such test often. But this time I could not resist – the lead theme of this issue of HF: “Small formats” asked to summarize it in such a way. So I prepared (conceived, collected, matched, tested) an outstanding system, not only in the price/performance category, but in absolute terms. It is also special for another reason – it is composed of small elements, made for people, who do not want electronics to dominate their lives or living space. But I went a step further in planning. I’ve put myself in the place of a potential buyer, a potential happy owner of such a system, and it turned out, that if all this has to make some sense, additional factors must be considered. The first one is so much related to our hobby, that I wondered, why I did not think about that in the first place. I am talking about the possibility to upgrade this system. We do this by buying new products in exchange for older ones we sell, but this is probably the most expensive way of doing it. And yet I assumed, that the set needs to be well designed from the very beginning, and give its owner a maximum of satisfaction. This means that it will not be easy to get rid of any of its individual elements. When we sell something without pain in our hearts, then it means, that we were not emotionally connected to it, and obviously that product was not “ours”. I think, that the basic setup I want to present will be something unusual, and that is also why I would not wish you to get rid of any of its elements. This would be a waste of money and time, and also of some “security”. This is why I thought of a system not only performing brilliantly, not only looking splendidly, but is also easily upgradeable, if desired. Its “starting” price is ….. and the “ending” price is …….. Adding the Audience conditioner we up the price to……
- CD player: Cyrus CD8 SE + PSX-R power supply
Discs used for testing:
LOUDSPEAKERS: SPENDOR SP1
Loudspeakers were to play the key role in the described system. Those should be small, beautiful and survive three-four upgrades of the sound path in front of them. Because it is not easy to improve existing loudspeakers. So they needed to be good enough to easily show the changes in electronics and cabling. And they needed to be reasonably priced. If you read my test of the model SA6 from Spendor (in Polish), then you’ll know, that I admire their sound, and although not all elements are optimal for me, still the idea for the whole is brilliant. This is why I immediately chose the model SA1, which started some kind of “revolution” at Spendor – after those were designed, the models A5, A6 and flagships ST followed. SA1 are small, two-way bookshelf speakers, being straight-line descendants of the LS5/3a – BBC loudspeakers designed by Spencer Hughes, the founder of the company (we tested the KEF version HERE, in Polish). On treble we have a soft 22mm dome with a wide suspension, the mid-bass is handled by ep38, a 150mm Spendor loudspeaker, with a diaphragm made from polypropylene with a milky, half transparent structure. The single WBT wire terminals are made from a copper alloy, the cabinet is brilliantly veneered and has a glossy finish. You can buy them with company stands (I warmly recommend to do so), although I received them without those. So Sonus Faber stands were used instead..
AMPLIFIER: HEED AUDIO OBELISK Si + OBELISK X-2
I had no problem finding the right loudspeakers, but with amplifiers it was not so easy. It had to fulfill all the same requirements the speakers did, and at the same time it needed to be easily upgradable. There are a few such devices available on the market, but after some testing I unexpectedly chose the model Obelisk Si from the Hungarian company Heed Audio, unexpectedly, as I did not hear about that company before. Those are really nice, small form units, with nice, dynamic sound, and which handled the Spendors well – and that is not so easy, as those small loudspeakers need much current to show their full potential. The Obelisk Si has also other assets. First of all it can be easily upgraded by adding an external power supply, the Obelisk X-2. The achieved change in sound is quite substantial, and can allow to achieve next level of sound reproduction. The same solution can be applied to the Cyrus amplifiers, but I liked the sound of the “Hungarian” better. The unit allows also for expansion cards to be installed inside, with for example a phono preamplifier or a DAC. The latter can be of use when we want to attach a satellite receiver, DVD or Blu-ray to it, but not for the proposed player – this one is way better.
SOUND SOURCE: CYRUS CD 8 SE + PSX-R
This is the newest player from the British Cyrus, the model CD 8 SE. This is a fantastic source, built around a newly designed drive assembly, prepared by the company, called Servo Evolution (SE). I knew that one from a test for “Audio”, and the drive from the test of the CD transport CD Xt SE (HERE). Actually that transport was one of our prizes in the Cover of the Year 2008 contest. An important feature was, that also this unit can be upgraded by adding an external amplifier PSX-R. It turned out, that the small, handy remote controller from Heed, the size of a credit card, can also control the basic functions of the Cyrus player, as it works with the popular RC-5 codes. So we can keep the big Cyrus remote stored in the box, and use only one, nice remote for the system.
The subsequent element of every system is cabling. For the products I had, precise, clean cables were needed, which would not add much from themselves. After some very good experiences with cables made by the British Chord (test HERE) I chose the interconnect Chorus 2 and the loudspeaker cable Epic Twin. Those did not cost a fortune while guaranteeing at least good sound. However in this case upgrade means exchange. I do not know, if you noticed, that one of the aspects influencing the choice, was the “weight” of every component – if it was manufactured in the country, where the company is based, does the brand name guarantee a good re-sale price, if the brand is known. Heed stands off from the rest – it is not so known – but I think, that it is fair to give it a chance, knowing that a certain person stands behind it, and I like how the company handles things. Anyway, to improve cabling it will be necessary to sell the Chord (which should not be so difficult) and exchange it to the Furutech Evolution line. This is the newest addition to the catalog by this Japanese specialist. Those cables are fantastically crafted, do not cost a fortune – compared to the rest of the setup – and are close in character to the Chord.
And finally the power. I am writing about it last not because it’s the least – it is exactly the opposite, I will discuss it in a moment – but because individual products must be chosen after the system is completed. It should help the system, and not mask its flaws and shortcomings. It was a simple task to choose the power strip – I use the PF-2 Gigawatt in my system for a long time, so I chose its younger brother, the model PF-1. The strip comes with a nice power cable, the LC-1. And it was a no-brainer to order four of those cables, allowing the computer type cables, coming with the devices, to power for example… a computer. You could move slower, start playing with stock cables, and then proceed to upgrade the system with the LC-1. And while the latter are nothing exceptional, those can be upgraded later on as well. If we change the loudspeaker cables and interconnects to Furutech Evolution, then a natural choice would be to pick the Evolution Power for AC. To not overstretch the budget too much, we will use only two of them – powering directly the amplifier and player, leaving the Polish cables to power the external power supplies.
SOMETHING EXTRA: The conditioner Audience ADEPT RESPONSE aR12
And finally a true madness – the exchange of the strip to a conditioner. An expensive conditioner. The listening sessions conducted by me and the Krakow Sonic Society during the last few years, showed that in a well composed system, power is key. This is why I use very expensive components coming from the Japanese Acrolink. And this is why, finally, I wanted to see how the upgraded system will perform, when we add something like this to it. aR12 is the top conditioner of the American manufacturer Audience, which is named exactly in a way, I like to think about an audio system: High Resolution Power Conditioner. Each of its sockets is filtered separately, there is a second stage of filtering applied between them. The unit is also equipped with a splendid power cable.
The basic system went first: CD 8 SE + Obelisk Si + SP1 + Chord 2 + Epic Twin + Gigawatt PF-1 + LC-1. Its sound could be described as incredibly pleasing and noble. Well aligned. Condensed. I think, that I was able to find a balance between the emotional part of music and its intellectual part. The treble is slightly warmed, as is upper midrange, what does not allow the recordings to open fully – this can be heard best with the Anderszewski piano at Carnegie Hall – but this is fully acceptable, I think, especially given the cost of the system, and what is completely negligible compared to another aspect of that sound: the ability to play absolutely each and every disc, without grating your teeth with lesser recordings. Differences in class between the recordings are clear, the system does not slow anything down, but do not dominate the sound. I can tell from my experience, that such a compromise, and audio is art of compromise (as its marriage), is very well chosen. Breathtaking results are achievable, even when we know the flaws of such a combination, and that it can be done better. So again, the basic system sounds just like that. Old recordings from the label Bethlehem sounded exceptionally well – especially the vocals of Pat Mortan from the disc While At Birdland, but similarly immersive, big and palpable sounded Frank Sinatra from Nice’N’Easy. This is an incredibly pleasing feeling, to be able to listen to your recordings in such a comfortable way. And although the sound had not much in common – at least when we look at it the “Hi-Fi” way – with the one coming from my reference system, which is ten times more expensive, but at the same time it was better than in similarly priced systems I heard during shows and presentations.
The flaws of this system are easy to catch, but not because those would be so big, but because we know, it can be done better. And it is mostly about the rounding off of the treble, which is not as elaborated, as with for example Dynaudio loudspeakers at the same price level, and the not fully expanded bass. The latter shortcoming could have been expected, taking into account the size of the speakers, and the fact we deal with a closed cabinet setup here. But we should not worry, because in small rooms nothing will boom, or drone. And in fact it is not that bad – as the disc Depeche Mode Sounds of The Universe showed, where the saturated sounds of synthesizers from the 70-ties were shown in a really nice way. At the same time we could hear, that the system does not brighten the upper midrange, so the recording sounded as they should, without glassy vocals. Interestingly, this system is not a low resolving one. It shows quite a lot from the disc. It just does not interfere with listening. Recordings with brightened timbre, hardened contours, etc, will profit most, as those irritating elements were for most part removed. One of such discs, containing really good music, is 24 Hours Tom Jones. Its main flaw is the massacred sound. The system tested did not enhance this ill set timbre, but accented its destroyed dynamics. It will hurt after coming from jazz recordings, but it can be tolerated.
In the second round I attached the external power supply PSX-R. It could be expected, that we should begin with the amplifier, but for me the distortion coming from a source, especially a digital one, are most annoying. The first recording listened in this configuration was the Partita No.2 in C minor J.S Bach from the Anderszewski disc. What a change! Even if you do not plan to buy Cyrus, you should listen to it with and without the external PSU, just for the sake of it. It will be OK without it, it is a fine player. But with the upgrade everything becomes clearer, the resolution and sound scale improves. Yes, this last thing was most surprising, because in a moment the interior of the Carnegie Hall became large, and at the same time the piano gained momentum and was shown closer, in a much more precise way. It did not help Jones in any way, but the sound on other discs opened, the instruments gained in three-dimensionality, while the stage got also bigger.
Adding the external PSU to the Obelisk was a further important step towards the ideal sound. But a step in another direction, than the PSX-R addition to the player. Sound becomes much more resolving and the stage gets wider. Equally important is the fact, that the amplifier starts to handle the loudspeaker much better, the attack, the first hit are much better defined and precise. “Definition” is the best word to describe the changes. Even 24 Hours sounded better, as because there could nothing be squeezed out from dynamics and timbre, still the depth of the stage improved, making Jones’ music more sense. Breath, resolution – all of this while keeping and absolutely smooth midrange and treble.
The Furutech added something to the sound, what could have been expected from cables: all previous corrections were shown with a turbo-boost. Those are splendid cables, a proposition, that cannot be ignored. Incredibly resolving, but also pearly – in the best Japanese style, where we have a lot of details, but served as a whole, as music – and not as bits and pieces. I was most impressed, how the recordings “grew” with the Furutech. Those cables show big, almost natural sizes of instruments. And the voices! Sinatra sounded in an incredibly saturated way. And yet the resolution improved and we did not warm anything. The same thing happened with Depeche Mode recordings, where the voices of Gahan and Gore were shown beautifully, with all reverbs. Because Furutech extracts all the best from the components it is connected to. As I say – all changes to date were important, desired, worth their money, but only with cables like the Evolution give a taste of the hi-end. I disconnected the external PSUs, leaving the cables connected and the magic was gone. Those are splendid cables, we will hear everything I described even with inexpensive components, but it will be just a faint reflection of what they can do in appropriate environment. But this is not the end. Adding the power cables to the interconnect and loudspeaker cables (I was talking about those) was just like a punch in the stomach – a knock out. I could not believe, how those small loudspeakers sounded! The Spendor confirmed their exceptionality again. As did the electronics. The sound was big, with a deep and wide stage, without a trace of nervousness or brightening. Only the slight dampening of the upper treble remained, something immanent to those loudspeakers, but this can be tolerated easily.Final approach
Until now every change brought immediate improvement and when I listened to the complete system, equipped also with the power Furutech cables to the Julie London disc Round Midnight I almost cried. The same thing happened with Sinatra. This sound surpassed my furthest expectations. It was complete and finished. Slightly warm, but in a positive way, incredibly dynamic and thorough, with a strong bass (yes!). Changing the Gigawatt power strip (I recommend it wholeheartedly, it is an inexpensive and marvelous piece of equipment) to the Audience Adept aR12 was a step, or rather a leap forward. But this was a blind leap. The sound cleaned up immediately and the resolution of the system placed it over twice as expensive ones. But at the same time the incredible harmony of the sound disappeared somewhere. Not because the aR12 cut something, but because it cleaned everything from distortion, including – to some extent – the warmth, which was a function of the Heed and Cyrus sound. This was a leap into the unknown, but within the hi-end. And although we had a complete system, absolutely worked-out, Audience opened it to completely new grounds. And this is a completely new story…
This is a phenomenal system, one I could live with easily. Small loudspeakers will never sound with a scale of sound, bass or dynamics like bigger ones, but the Spendor worked miracles. Every dime spent on this system counts five times. The handling was nice, although a few things must be considered. For example the inputs cannot be switched and mute cannot be engaged from the remote. We’ll find the buttons there, but those are inactive. The handling of the discs using the slot loading system from Cyrus needs home practicing. From time to time it happened, that I pushed the disc in the wrong moment, and the player ejected it displaying an error. In time I learned the quirks, but still, it needs some time. And that’s it. The system is beautiful, and only the certain roughness of the Heed stands out from the rest. If I’d add something, then the next step would be a nice subwoofer from REL (or two) and a turntable – I recommend the TD 309 Thorensa or Clearaudio Concept – those will fit stylistically and sound wise. And it will be a system for a lifetime – one envied by mature and experienced audiophiles, who are changing their systems all the time, buying something again and again, and being always not satisfied. And we will enjoy forthcoming musical pearls, what I sincerely wish us all.
CDs FROM JAPAN
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