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The transformer hum reported to Jarek created concern that some connections at the transformer screw terminals weren't making full contact. To track proper operation, I was shown where to measure the voltages for the transport, DAC and valve supplies as well as the regulator. Besides being slightly higher than predicted (Jarek's line voltage during the winter is 219 - 222 V instead of 230V), the patient's pulses proclaimed him perfectly fit and healthy. The review unit was thus unquestionably a go. There was merely the matter of ongoing break-in regardless of the maker's assurances.

Outright puzzled by Jarek's firm assertion that these capacitors were golden from the go since I thought I remembered reports to quite the contrary elsewhere, I contacted V-man Chris VenHaus just to refresh myself on the subject. "The initial break-in period is 20-40 hours while the most significant break in period for the V-Caps is the first 60-100 hours. From that point on, they will continue to improve out to the 400 hour mark. This is based on a consensus of feedback I've received from my customers as well as my own experience. The Teflon dielectric is responsible for the lengthy burn-in time. This is a phenomenon also common to audio cables that use Teflon dielectrics."

Bill Baker of Response Audio who was on the beta-testing
panel for the V-Caps and uses these parts extensively in his modifications, had this to say: "The first 50 hours can be unbearable at times. During the initial 150 hours, these capacitors have a unique routine of one step forward, two steps back. After you get through the initial 150 hours, the capacitors will start to improve on a consistent basis without the back-stepping. I would say that you are at about 60% at this point. They really do not start to open up until you reach the 400-hour mark. At 400 hours, you are at about 90-95%. Teflon is known to continue changing even up to 1200 hours. Obviously these changes become much more subtle but this is the characteristic of Teflon-based capacitors. I used several hundreds of these throughout 2006 and can honestly say that if there is not at least 300-400 hours on the unit, the evaluation is premature and you are not experiencing its full potential."

Other V-Cap user comments sang the same song. Pass hasty judgment on anything outfitted with V-Caps and it'll be a mistrial. So I made sure to have 400 hours on the machine just in case that these particular parts were responsible for the initial lackluster performance and not something else.

While watching the display clock endless repetitions of the same CD, Jarek provided some tech. As his simplified schematic shows, a fully differential player requires "two of everything" over quasi-balanced circuits which might be limited to creating a balanced circuit pair in the final output stage. Any noise components which are created during D/A conversion and/or the subsequent low-pass filter and volume control, are cancelled in the differential balanced and symmetrical output stage. "The most important element of course is the differential amplifier. In our Lektor Prime and Grand players, this is made up by symmetrical electron tubes. This stage is my invention. It has low output impedance, extremely high linearity and suppresses common noise by 80dB (a factor of 10,000). It will suppress common noise signals by up to +/- 7V and bandwidth is up to the tens of MHz. It is very difficult to make this stage with semiconductors."

An audio transformer is a good solution as well (it was very widely used in professional audio gear) but only in the audio band. Transformers have issues in the ultrasonic band due to high internal capacitance between windings. That's a problem in CD players and DACs because they generate a lot of digital noise that would pass a transformer. Of course, fully balanced topology is costly because every stage ( DAC, filter, volume etc.) must be doubled up. Signal is inverted in the digital domain which is very easy and 100% accurate (it's a simple inversion between 0 and 1 in the data sign bit). But it is certainly worth of it. Even if you use the single-ended output, a fully balanced player plays better. Quasi-balanced types very common in hi-end ( Wadia, Audio Aero, Audio Note etc.) only add XLR sockets as a convenience feature. I agree that certain amplifiers prefer to be driven through their balanced inputs like Krell so this feature on a CD player can be useful. But quasi-balanced topology does not make any real improvements in pure signal processing. It amplifies all unwanted noise like simple single-ended solutions do."
Now let's get down to brass tacks, with my trusted Zanden leashed up to the same preamp just one input removed from the Polish looker. First up on the respective Philips CD-PRO2 transport spindles was Karim Baggili's Cuatro con cuatro, a stupendous small-scale acoustic affair that explores Latin-flavored fare with guitar, flute, bass, piano, percussion, oud and vocals. In other words, nothing bombastic or unnecessarily complex. Instead, something that's exceptionally well recorded and musically so potent that even extended repeat sessions for comparison purposes don't wear out their welcome.

Once I had matched levels, the performance between both machines became highly interchangeable; not identical but very similar. The Lektor had a more lit-up treble than the Zanden. Many commentators have remarked on the latter's top end as being laid back or not completely developed. There was thus an underlying context of cooler/warmer when I switched from one machine to the next. Because of it, the Zanden's tonal palette seemed more saturated, the Lektor Prime more detailed. In actual degrees on the thermometer if one could measure tone color temperatures, it'd have been an offset of a mere few degrees. Still, it was audible especially on percussive transients and harmonic decays with the treble and on vocals with the tone colors and sensation of warmth.

No matter whether I spun my latest discovery of Hüsnü Senlendirici's album Bergama Gadyas with Laco Tafya [Doublemoon 0008], a surprise gift from SilverFi's Sezai Saktanber who knows of my love for Turkish clarinet and has kindly taken it upon himself to mentor my ongoing education on the subject (think Mustafa Kandirali for seconds); or Anna Maria Jopek's collaboration with Pat Metheny on Upojenie [Warner Poland 50466-2281-2] where tracks like "Are you going with me?" build to an absolute massive wall of sound - the relative treble balance was the biggest differentiator and how, in the Zanden, it made the midrange just a bit more prominent by comparison. But this difference wasn't big at all.

It was with endlessly scaling material of the Metheny-esque persuasion where climaxes get skillfully postponed over and over again -- or there's a series of orgasms depending on your stamina -- that I thought I caught hold of another small differentiator between both machines. It was how loud things got from the same starting place.

The Zanden got louder. Or so it seemed, admittedly a difficult thing to track when you must sit through an 8.5-minute track multiple times without wearing out. However, it appeared to be the case also on shorter tracks of the dynamically padded variety (definitely not something that any hasty A/B switching would show up). Essentially though, these two machines were running a dead heat. This was an excellent showing for the far more affordable Polish contender. It was also rather convenient. Instead of penning a long-winded commentary, I could refer interested readers to the many glowing reports on the Zanden, some even on this site. I'd focus on sorting out how much of the Lektor Prime's performance would collapse or change -- perhaps even upwards -- when run direct into an amplifier.
For those not familiar with the Zanden reputation and reviews, the gist is that even high-profile vinyl specialists both in the UK and US have sung its praises as, while not identical, then equally valid to top-notch analog (and not lesser as all vinyl mavens are usually wont to call any and all digital, period). Though Harry Pearson did have an issue with digital trying to sound like analog -- he believes they're different formats which must succeed on their own merits -- he had no issue at all with calling the Zanden the most analog front-end of a cadre of digital state-of-the-art machines he had under evaluation. Michael Fremer at Stereophile and Roy Gregory at HiFi+ equally admired the Zanden in their reviews via references to their favored vinyl medium. And so on. Compared to the Esoteric X-03 one-box and P-03/D-03/G-0s three-box stack which I reviewed, the Zanden was softer in the frequency extremes and less dynamic but countered with an organic fluidity that set it apart. Clearly, the Ancient Audio granite top loader thus far belonged into the Zanden school. It was in fact a bit closer to Yamada-San's vision than Motoaki Ohmachi's of Esoteric. Unlike the latter sound which is clearly more endowed in the bottom two octaves and dynamically rather more potent, the Lektor Prime set up shop closer to Yamada-San's vision. Its high frequencies were shinier and sparklier just like the Esoteric but unlike the Esoteric, it did not eclipse the Zanden in the bass or with dynamics. Because of the noted small shift in tonal balance due to its silvery treble, the Lektor Prime proved a touch cooler than the Model 2000/5000 combo. Otherwise, these machines behaved like brothers from the same mother, including not being the last word in bass slam or weight.

Key descriptors for the Lektor Prime sound thus far were organic, fluid, utterly non-mechanical, highly resolved in the spatial domain, smooth, full of color and supremely pleasant (rather than irritating in any way). I didn't track the moment of truth during break-in. After 3 weeks of 24/7 play had crossed the 400-hour mark, something major had occurred just like the V-Cap modification men had promised. Had I listened throughout that period, there probably wouldn't have been anything drastic from any given day to the next. But 'giving up' on the machine after the first few days to revisit it three weeks later definitely justified the tag major to describe the magnitude of interim transformation. Moral of the story - give your new toy some time to stretch its legs.

On a side note, only an open top loader allows due appreciation for just how eccentric most CDs really are. If you thought that the hole in the center of a disc meant center, you'd be shocked to realize just how many CDs are off instead doing the derelict shimmy and shuffle atop the spindle. It's amazing that the laser even locks to that groove jiggle.

The $8,000 question now became, how much would removing the mighty Supratek Cabernet Dual from the chain cost me sonically? In general, I've come to view the presence of a premium active preamp as mandatory to push a system from merely good to great. But there's always exceptions to upset our human proclivities for rules and predictability. The Lektor Prime turned out to be an upsetter of rules. That recognition was instant on anything with vocals. While all the ways to describe the effect have been abused ad infinitum, this clearly was a case of more here here. Performers weren't over there, they were here - arrived, more overtly in the room. True, in exchange for higher presence lock, overall image density had loosened up as well. Yet it came with greater depth and even width as though the outer soundstage perimeters had been reset outwards a bit.

For once, removal of my favored preamp suggested the removal of a restraining muzzle. Even dynamically the Lektor had made forward strides. Its very high gain structure plus the ultra gain of the Supratek leashed together had somehow conspired against each other. True, I hadn't yet tried to knock down Lektor gain well below 1V to drive up Supratek gain instead. Yet the colossal showing of the Ancient Audio machine solo, liberated to fully strut its stuff, made all attempts at justifying an expensive preamp mute. This was clearly a case of less is more. This flew in the face of expectation and experience. Yet the evidence was self-authenticating. Loudly. Using the ultra fine Supratek in the chain had strapped two preamps in series. This became sonically counterproductive. The 2 x 6H30 differential valve amplifier inside the Lektor Prime is a bona fide preamp that performs the necessary signal conditioning. Unlike other variable outputs, this one is 'fully loaded' to make no excuses. It just happens to be internal to a CD player. One box to do it all.

The biggest advance of going amp-direct in this case was potentized energy transmission. Call it musical communication factor, call it jump. Whatever the words, they point at the same sensation. Music becomes more exciting, sounds reach across empty space and talk to you in your listening seat. The music feels a bit faster, not hyped or pressured but less leisurely. The density of the musical fabric opens up. There was perhaps a bit less corporeality. Yet that was more than made up for by being able to listen deeper into the music and enjoying the silvery charge of energy conveyance. Sensing all this took no time. It felt like going to your favorite restaurant one last time. You'd not gone back since the original chef left because his replacement turned out to be inferior. For whatever reason, you're back now. You order your customary dish. You know from the very first taste. The old master has returned - or the youngster has finally caught on and mastered your dish.

I sometimes think of this as the caffeine effect. Properly laced playback puts your senses on alert. Presto, there's a meeting between you and the music. It's a living, not sleep-walking encounter that's somehow taken for granted. It's not a triple espresso push either. It's just the right dose to be present and wide awake. That's what direct connection provided for with the Lektor. Going back to the external preamp from Oz -- no matter how deluxe usually -- simply wasn't an option. That really caught me by surprise. My ears brooked no argument with preconceptions though. So there, a $9,800 peak-of-the-heap digital machine with analog inputs which, run into a premium valve amp, is everything anyone with prior exposure to Zanden and Esoteric could ever want or need. Also, it looks way cool. Plus, lacking a hatch or lid, it requires little clearance to even work in a low shelf where many top loaders would be inconvenient at best. What's more, it leaves a lot of money on the table. Not that close to $10K isn't a very serious wad. But considering the rare leagues we're playing in -- what this machine competes with -- it's actually on the low end of things. The only direct competitor I know of is Audio Aero. Their top machine likewise allows for superior direct connection to double as tube preamp with analog inputs.

Going back to my customary setup for a reality check, the Lektor solo route remained 100% viable. On the level, a meeting of equals. The Zanden with the Supratek preamp sounded tonally a bit richer. Temperamentally it was more relaxed and seemingly slower, its transients not quite as incisive, its presentation denser and fleshier. The Lektor released more energy and spunk to appear somewhat faster and more angular on rhythmic fare, with more treble reach, more light and now also more potent bass. Yet into the Yamamoto it most assuredly was not lean, bleached, whitish or thin as the absence of a formal preamp might suggest to certain onlookers. Running the Lektor into the Melody Valve HiFi I2A3 integrated was tonally just a touch less full, something to mention mainly for distinctly lesser recordings which became more overtly inferior than over the Yamamoto. Put plainly though, if I wasn't fortunate to already own my six boxes; if I had to decide between them and the single slab of the Lektor Prime - it'd be the proverbial no-brainer. And, there'd be forty Gs on the table to pay rent for a few years or bankroll a number of rather trick holidays in exotic locations, friends flown in from around the globe just for fun.

Clearly designer Jarek Waszczyszyn is on to something big with this Lektor platform. Now in its fifth generation, he's had sufficient time to tweak and refine the core recipe. It's a mature, completely 'dialed' product. It's also a very successful example of integration. In many ways, this integration is an important counter trend to the audiophile excesses of more and more boxes to do the same old job. After a while, even the most tolerant audiophile with the stoutest of wallet tires of such excess. What to do once your tastes have gotten that elevated? That's often the question with no easy answer. You want convenience, compaction and upscale cosmetics. Money is a secondary concern at this point as long as the performance doesn't take a hit. Enter Ancient Audio's Lektor Prime. Whether running it direct into a transistor amp will be quite as convincing as my exploits into two valve amps -- Yamamoto A-0S, Melody Valve HiFi I2A3 -- I can't predict. I'm a tube man. I've got personal notions on the subject. But if you're already of the valve amp persuasion and don't need expansive input switching beyond one analog source, this Ancient Audio player from Poland is my top recommendation for now, no separate preamp required. It's a looker, it's a sonic stunner and it's very smartly packed with functionality. It's a poster child for deluxe integration.
Manufacturer's website