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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 CD player modified with IEC jack instead of captive AC cord (used as a transport), Audio Zone DAC [in for review], Shanling CD T-100C CD player [in for review], Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/AT95E cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Zone AMP-STi [in for review], Manley Labs Stingray, Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Omega Super 3R [in for review]
Cables: JPS Labs Ultraconductor interconnects and loudspeaker cables, DH Labs D-75 digital interconnect, CryoClear Silver-1 and Silver-2 power cables [in for review]
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow
Sundry accessories: Pro-Ject Speed Box, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers (under Kestrels), Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Audience Auric Illuminator, GutWire Notepads, SoundPads, AudioPrism Isobearings (under turntable), dedicated AC line with Hubbell outlets, homebrew acoustic treatments
Room size: 13' x17' x 8'
Review Component Retail: Audio Zone AMP-STi: $1395, Audio Zone DAC: $795 | Omega Super 3R Loudspeakers: $749/pair | CryoClear Silver-1 and Silver-2 power cables: $225/6ft and $330/6ft.
One commonly heard request from readers? Complete system reviews. Some weeks ago, 6moons started a feature entitled Royal Flush to do just that: recommend a complete system of components known by the reviewer to perform well together.
The most difficult task in this hobby is system matching i.e. assembling a system where the components' sonic and operational characteristics match and balance each other to offer performance beyond the sum of their parts. For example, you would not match a pair of 85dB Magneplanar 3.6s with the 4-watt Song Audio SA-34 SB SET amp. However, pairing the Song with one of today's review subjects, the 93dB Omega Super 3R, should be an excellent match. The trick is to take a holistic approach rather than simply buying "Class A" gear from various "Recommended Components" lists or current reviewer favorites. That surely is a path to disappointment. From skimming through the thousands of Audiogon ads, many audiophiles must be guilty of this.
As a reviewer, I try to choose components based on how they would perform in my system and room. Alternatively, I will pick several pieces with the goal of creating a completely different system but one that will still match my surroundings. In other words, there is no sense in driving a pair of B&W Nautilus 800s in my relatively small room with the Manley Labs Stingray or Audio Zone AMP-1. The smaller Nautilus 805, however, might be a perfect match. The message is, do not blindly buy components based solely on this or any other reviewer's opinion without first considering the big picture. The following is, I hope, a decent example of what I am getting at.
|Audio Zone's George Tordai suggested today's system review. George has a good idea of the budget I try to target and the size limitations imposed by my room. The price goal here was $3500 sans signal cabling and CD transport. A secondary goal was to achieve a distinct sonic alternative to that of equivalent but more conventional systems. After a 3-week burn-in, I listened to each component separately to get the gist of its sonic characteristics. Then I assembled the whole kit-and-caboodle in our living room for a full evaluation.
With affordability being a key theme, I chose JPS Labs Ultraconductor cables as the cheapest decent-sounding wires I had on hand. Digital transmission was via DH Labs excellent D-75 cable. Power cables were the CryoClear Silver-1 and Silver-2 recently reviewed. DH Labs PowerPlus also worked well in this context.
|This time last year, I was so aflutter over Audio Zone's AMP-2 monos and transformer attenuated PRE-T1 passive preamp that I awarded this awesome combo a Blue Moon. So hopelessly smitten was I that I stated my intention to purchase the review samples. Unfortunately, my ears were bigger than my wallet.|
|Instead, I settled on the less expensive but still terrific AMP-1 integrated. Sonically, both sounded more alike than not. The larger system exhibited a dash more tonal color, warmth and bass extension. I suspect this was mostly due to the separate power supplies allied to the smooth musicality of the extraordinarily transparent PRE-T1, which utilizes transformer rather than resistor-based attenuation. With the three-piece setup retailing for just under $4000 and the AMP-1 at half that ($1,995), George felt the need to expand his line of opamp-based amplifiers into a more affordable price range, hence today's $1395 AMP-STi. Instead of an outboard power supply, the STi uses a smaller 300VA onboard tranny. Less expensive Panasonic caps replace the now discontinued Black Gates. While the AMP-1 and AMP-2 employ meticulous point-to-point wiring, the STi utilizes a small board. Other than that, the circuit is identical to the more expensive siblings.
The STi expands over the AMP-1 by offering three inputs via the selector knob on the front. The STi also uses a single volume control rather than the AMP-1's dual attenuators. However, there's no power on/off switch! The source selector knob has a fourth position labeled 'off'. Nevertheless, this does not shut down the amp. It just blocks input signals from the output section to mute the amplifier. Designer Peter Daniel believes switches compromise sonics. I am not one to argue the point but would still prefer a switch. Many prospective customers seem to agree too and a proper power mains will be standard in future productions. Also, the metal nameplate will get replaced with a more suave silkscreen.
As the photos prove, build quality is awesome and in no way takes a back seat to Audio Zone's more expensive components. Peter has sweated all details including resonance control. The thickness of the chassis panels, the materials used and the cone feet are all there for no reason other than sonic contributions. I have met and conversed with Peter on several occasions. He practices obsessive attention to the tiniest of details, including the sonic effect of each minute resistor and capacitor and their precise location and orientation.
Sonically, I could easily spot the family resemblance with Audio Zone's other amps: lightening-fast transient response, bodacious -- almost tube-like -- image density and a smooth, grain-free effortless ease that I find all too rare in solid-state amps at or even above this price point. Peter's amps have a very unique sonic character. It sits somewhere between tubes and solid state. His amps rarely sound pinched, strained or harsh. It is simply not in their vocabulary.
Compared to the AMP-1, the less expensive STi was tonally slightly warmer and apparently not quite as transparent. Neither were soundstage width and depth as clearly delineated. Bass extension was slightly curtailed by comparison. However, all the best of the Zone's sonics were still present: gushing ease, a great sense of flow and momentum, mondo image heft and agile dynamic swings.
The DAC received was an advanced prototype. The final design should be available by the time you read this. The Audio Zone DAC follows a similar minimalist design methodology as the partnering amps: incredibly short signal pathways measuring mere millimeters and scrupulous attention to detail. This DAC, the Scott Nixon TubeDac+ reviewed last year and the 47labs Shigaraki all eschew oversampling, upsampling or any kind of digital or analog filtering. George and Peter believe -- as do many others -- that all this additional circuitry and number crunching get in the way to cause phase shifts and timing errors responsible for the negative aspects of digital sound. This is a controversial assertion that I shall leave for those more technically astute to discuss, trash or confirm.
The considerable onboard power supply occupies nearly three-quarters of the internal real estate. An IEC inlet resides on one end of the unit. The opposite end contains one BNC digital in and a pair of RCA analog outs. Number crunching is via the near ancient Philips TDA 1543 16-bit DAC, with the CS8412 pulling input duties. There are no opamps in the output stage. I/V conversion is completely passive.
As in the Scott Nixon TubeDac+, the Audio Zone DAC displayed a wonderful tonal purity and correctness that just made music playback far more natural and relaxed. There was little if any trace of digital edge or glare. Instruments and voices sounded realistic. Music was on the breath and flow. My only quibbles were a slight lack of focus and ambient information retrieval and a slightly truncated soundstage. While this did not bother me too much, I can see many listeners troubled by this apparent lack of detail and ambient extraction. Perhaps the airy, open and precise exactitude of conventional digital gear is simply nothing but an unnatural artifact created by overly complex interpolation filters? Even with these caveats, it was simply easier to follow a tune or melody via the Audio Zone DAC.
In fact, I preferred this little DAC to the one inside the more than twice as costly Shanling CD-T100C with its SOTA quad of Burr-Brown PCM 1704s and Pacific Microsonics' PMD-200 filter. The odd thing was, the Shanling clearly exhibited better focus, clarity, treble extension and a superior rendering of space and low-level detail. However, it decidedly took a back seat to the Audio Zone in emotional involvement, which seemed to play the music better. Maybe it deviates from neutrality (whatever that is) and is not as technically exact as the CD-T100C. Still, I enjoyed listening to music more when the Audio Zone converter was in the signal path to put me into the zone.