A parallel test would be the Japan-based formation Orquesta De La Luz and their album Somos Differentes [BMG 7 4321-10674-2, 1992]. Unlike their equally sublime French counterpart Fatal Mambo, you'd never peg this group's origin. From the Spanish enunciation to the rhythmic complexity and sheer bravado of the Latin-style brass players, this is explosive, high-octane stuff embedded in sophisticated arrangements and compositions. Unfortunately, Cuban-style vein-poppin' trumpets -- over a machine-gun tattoo of timbales and multiple congas against chorus and piano -- would, on most systems, melt the very enamel off your teeth. I've been ousted out of more than one CES demo when the manufacturer realized his system wasn't up to parlaying such sharp leading edges without driving everyone but the rare braves out of the room.

Take "Mambo De La Luz". The trumpets rip as though Maynard Ferguson was busting blood vessels; wooden sticks keep syncopated time on hard-edged rims and bells; trombones bellow like testosterone-poisoned bucks; everyone blows at top air speed. It's electrifying white-knuckle stuff. The SE-9 didn't miss a beat. Neither did it tear my ears off as many 5-figured systems have on plenty of occasions. It kept the pace without congealing, congesting or rounding over the heavy-metal brightness of the brass section. I'll coin a neo-Zen paradoxical phrase to describe this civilized fidelity to intensity: Edgeless Edge.

Why so much emphasis on that? Simply because the ubiquitous Jazz ballad or string quartet is bound to -- and does, I checked -- sound marvelous on a properly engineered SEP amp that's not driven beyond capacity. You expect that. The question is: Can it rock, can it mambo, can it techno, can it drive a semi truck up a pothole-ridden incline? Does it fall apart when asked to keep PRAT? Does it overlay everything with a prettifying patina of rosy glow and dragging restraint?

In the present case, most assuredly not. This amp was obviously designed by folks who listen to regular music, not just audiophile chestnuts. To gauge its bass prowess, I picked Karsh Kale's Realise [six degrees, 657036-1051-2, 2002], a punk/funk/techno/house/dub mix from one of the leaders in Asia's Massive Movement. His instrumental credits include "acid lines and low end" - just what the doctor needed weighed.

Frankly, some of this is colder, harder hitting stuff than what I listen to for fun. Yet I appreciate the ingenuity and creativity of bridging classical Indian styles with cutting-edge modern concepts.

If my ears didn't wilt or bleed from purpose-engineered sibilance and the brutality of cyborg drum machines -- and conversely, if it didn't sound like Mozart in drag or some such strange unrecognizable disguise -- even devotees of such fare, or related fields such as Rap and various underground styles, could benefit from this particular system.

Expectations for Realise were shaped by reviewing this CD on my 4x10-inch, sealed and actively powered Avantgarde Duo subwoofer system. Not surprisingly, the headphone system couldn't recreate the visceral jackhammer pounding of the lowest bass notes as full-length pressure waves assaulting my bowels. The SE-9 and K-1000s clocked in but didn't pummel the bossman to a bloody pulp. Something like HeadRoom's BlockHead with a pair of enclosed Sennheiser HD600 would probably come as close to this punk "ideal" as a 1-inch transducer close-coupled to the ear could ever hope to. Still, I was perfectly content enjoying this impact-scaled version and would likely prefer it to being bludgeoned to death in such close-up quarters.

With this type of punishing fare, the rig lost some low-end displacement menace to the 120wpc eVo2i but made for easier listening by adding some tube-induced warmth. The moral of the story?

The SE-9/K-1000 pairing is my kind of system. It excels not only at Classical and Jazz -- the stuff Corey Greenberg's audiophile old goats listen to -- but the broad range of fare I review in the worldmusic section.

If your listening emphasizes power rock and contemporary dance hall styles, you might be better served with a sealed headphone system and high-power amplification that adds that last fiber of muscle behind each bass pulse. If you enjoy such music on occasion, rest assured that today's rig handles it with aplomb. It simply couches the idiom in fancier threads than true believers might find proper. More finesse and silk, less brawn and black leather.

The final reckoning: Prenup's signed and the sparks are flying

Let's do the math. $529 for the AKGs. $179 for the Stefan AudioArt cable. A shockingly low, delivered-from-Thailand $399 for the factory-direct SE-9. Round it off to $1,100.

The last headphone system I reviewed clocked in at $1,637. That bought you a HeadRoom Maxed-Out Home, Sennheiser HD-600s and the matching AudioArt cable.

I have stepped on my thermionic pulpit for enough years now. Add that I just recently nominated the AKGs for this site's modest award honors. You'll just know which setup I favor. Now factor in a $500 savings and cooler looks. I'm confident. Unless you required higher sound pressure levels -- potentially dangerous to your long-term hearing fitness --; couldn't stomach looking at a small chromy tube amplifier that reflects its glow tastefully on the chassis; or didn't appreciate fine workmanship and refined high-resolution sonics: You could not do better on a dedicated headphone system for just upwards of 1K. I'm darn confident.

But what about the Antique Sound Lab MGSI 15DT?

In the interest of (relative) brevity, you'll have to wait for Part II to find out. At that time -- and certain suppliers willing -- we may even engage in some tube-rolling to see whether the sonics of either amp can be gently tweaked or coaxed in various directions. For now, a toast to the three manufacturers whose products perform so well together. They carry the same proud heritage of high performance, value pricing and pride-of-ownership fit'n'finish.

The pickings for music lovers are surely riper than ever. This system's a big fat juicy Bing cherry if I've ever tasted one.

Manufacturer's Reply

You are very right about the fact that the SE-9 is designed by people who listen to ordinary music. We are always happy when audiophiles or other trained ears like what we are doing. Our concept is a little different than your typical audiophile company.

I think that at nOrh, we focus more on the music than the hardware. Our goal is to introduce high-end audio to people who would otherwise be excluded from the high-end audio country club. For four years, we have consistently manufactured products that are very unique and different from mainstream products. Despite having carved loudspeakers from solid stone or created loudspeakers from ceramics, we have been completely ignored by the mainstream audio press. When we introduced Le Amp, a high-end $295.00 monoblock 100 wpc amplifier [review forthcoming on 6moons - publisher], it was never mentioned in a single print magazine.

Now we have introduced a high-end single-ended integrated tube amplifier. Our target market is the average person who has lost interest in audio and music altogether. The unit is simple to use, attractive and small. We think that this should be very attractive for women. We believe they will appreciate the style and will like the simplicity.

The SE-9 only draws 80 watts. This is quite sensible for people who don't play their music loud. The SE-9 is built as a reasonable upgrade from the typical boom boxes, mini component and all-in-one systems that are far more common than high-end equipment.

Nonetheless, we are very pleased to be considered having introduced a product that meets the demanding standards of audiophiles. Our hope is that audiophiles have girlfriends, wives, relatives and friends who have lost interest in audio and that they will think of nOrh when they make suggestions on what systems their friends should buy.

I think you just did that.

Michael Barnes, President, nOrh

Manufacturer's Reply II

I would like to thank Srajan for a very entertaining technical analysis of the subject components, and Michael Barnes for producing such a fine line of audio products.

I am particularly grateful Srajan noted the fact that with the Stefan AudioArt K1000 cable, solid state amplifiers can now be used with excellent results.

The goal here at Stefan AudioArt is to improve fine audio products by uncovering the weak link that the original designers somehow overlooked. We are currently focusing on cable technology but plan to expand into other areas in the future. Our cables are handcrafted to the highest standard and great care is taken to compliment and improve the aesthetic and sonic characteristics of the product they are associated with.

We are on a quest to educate the audiophile community in the area of cables and hope they will soon be accepted as a very important component (not accessory) in an audio system.

James S Serdechny, Owner/Designer, Stefan AudioArt

AKG website
Stefan AudioArt website
HeadRoom website