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Source: Zanden 2000 premium transport; Zanden 5000 Signature DAC
Preamp: Vitus SL-100 true balanced linestage
Power amp: Vitus SM-100 monos
Speakers: Kharma Midi Exquisite Reference
Cables: Argento Serenity Master Reference (digital, power, interconnects); Serenity Master Reference Extreme Edition speaker cables (bi-wire)
Rack: Finite Elemente Pagode Master Reference
Powerline conditioning: see above review components
Room size: 11' W x 15' D x 10' H
Review Components Retails: ORB HT-4G $850, Gryphon PowerZone $2,000, Chikuma 75M-1400 $2,500
Complexity within Simplicity
I have always loved the music of Mozart for its simplicity though it is very deceptive to think of his music as simple. As performers know full well, it demands great artistry to fully bring his notes to life. His keyboard virtuosity is often characterized by fewer musical notes than many of the other classical composers'. The complexity thus stems from the pianistic challenge to fill in the sparser textures with shadows, colors and contrast.
I was extensively listening to the "Allegro" of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major as performed by Vladimir Horowitz [DGG Magic of Horowitz CD 2 Track 1-3] before I penned this review of several plain AC power stips. I found all of them possessed of virtues akin to Mozart's musical style: Complexity within simplicity. These are simple devices, functionally no different from any cheap off-the-shelf AC power bars. They are also complex because musically, they can easily elevate a system's communicativeness with more spontaneity and directness despite (or perhaps because of?) the absence of any so-called advanced AC filtering/conditioning technologies. The meritocracy of "less is more" becomes profoundly true here but this is at times also immensely difficult to understand.
Before I officially guide my fellow music lovers through my field-test tour of three ultra high-end AC bars, I want to share a brief history of my previous AC configurations. I had used the Burmester 948 power conditioner for 2 years before switching to Ensemble's Duo isolation transformer alongside Goldmund's Job Sweeter. I subsequently settled on Jenalab's Washing Machine 6.1 for another 2 years. I also used the most recent Burmester 038 power conditioner for 2 months. The transition from the hi-tech camp to the minimalist approach was primarily due to this reviewer's increasing urgency for tonal purity, harmonic integrity, contrast of tonal shades, minute spatial cues and micro-dynamic movement as being more important than pinpoint imaging, soundstaging and deep bass impact.
The AC bars under review carry actual street prices that range from USD850 to $2,500. Let me repeat - these are plain power bars without any filtration whatsoever. I evaluated the HT-4G by ORB of Japan, the PowerZone by Gryphon Audio of Denmark and the 75M-1400 by Chikuma of Japan. In order to make this review more informative, I invited my high-end audio comrade in arms Marvel who is an expert in high-end cables (he's also the one who helped me purchase the Chikuma 75M-1400), to participate in this review and share his views on the Chikuma.
Dear reader, please forgive my illiteracy when it comes to deciphering Japanese-only text. I only know that this AC bar won the 2004 Golden Award from Audio Accessory in Japan. From the pictures on the website, we can clearly see the absence of internal hookup wiring, with all connections between the three pairs of AC sockets made instead via solid copper bus bars. The chassis is constructed from highly polished stainless steel and weighs in at 3.2kg. The accompanying instruction pamphlet with its graph recommends the placement of components from the far end in an ascending order of AC consumption (i.e. CD transport, followed by DAC, preamplifier and power amplifier), with the amp closest to the power inlet.
I used Argento's Serenity Master Reference (SMR) power cord as the main power cord feeding the HT-4G from the wall. I have always believed that digital and analog components should not share the same power cord so my official test began with the Zanden 2000p and 5000s plugged into the bar while the preamp and power amps drew power directly from the wall socket via SMR AC power cords.
In one of Mozart's letter to his father, he wrote, "... the secret of playing tempo rubato lies in the left hand of the pianist, which must always be strictly on time; while the right hand should explore as much as rhythmic freedom as possible... ". With the HT-4G, I could actually hear the timing of Horowitz's left hand more accurately (Horowitz had a habit of reading Mozart's letters) because of the overall improvements in clarity across the entire frequency spectrum. His control of tempi in the left hand is indeed strictly disciplined while his right hand is constantly testing the limits of the piano's tonal palette in rendering various colors. It seems as though the two hands represent two different maestros. No wonder that Chopin too commented how the left hand of a pianist was the true conductor! My previous experience with the same music did not allow me to piece together the division of labor between the two hands so clearly. The constant dancing of fingers on the bass keys now sprung up and down with more energy. A newfound purity with bass notes let them clearly ring out with the physical reverberations of the piano's body even during convoluted fortissimo passages [DGG: Magic of Horowitz. CD 1 Track 1 "Valse-Caprice No.6" by Franz Listz]. In my setup, the HT-4G came across as very transparent and fast, inducing no special emphasis in any specific frequency band.
I was also surprised by the preservation of midrange lucidity since my own subjective experiences constantly reminded me to expect a warming up of the mid-and-above range due to the unit's use of copper. This was not the case since any coloration would have compromised the famously revelatory abilities of the ceramic drivers used in the Kharma Midi Exquisite. Mischa Elman's legendary tone was preserved, neither becoming more whitish nor cozy [Vanguard Classics Kreisler Favorites] and without roll-off in the upper octave through the extended diamond tweeters. Previously buried pianissimos were more apparent than before. Progressions from barely audible pianissimos to thunderous fortissimos were very coherent and presented as filled with constant anticipatory tension rather than getting dissected into discrete steps between the two extremes. The overall treble however was slightly mellower than the original AC bar I'd been using for 6 months called MTB-6 by Oyaide of Japan.
I suspect the latter's silver wiring had somewhat highlighted the treble and understated the bass. I very much share Jonathan Valin's Absolute Sound comments in his Kharma Midi Exquisite review, about how the diamond tweeter draws attention to itself while the bass is a bit too timid. (I have not purchased the Ceramique subwoofer yet.) The HT-4G in this respect seemed to precisely fill in the weak spots of the Midi Exquisite. The distribution of energy between treble, midbass and bass became more even. Readers should be cautioned that these very circumstances could cause me to subjectively prefer the HT-4G by ORB to the other two devices under review. I'm of course not suggesting that a simple AC Bar could replace a high-end subwoofer but its effectiveness given the simplicity of form and function involved did go well beyond my expectations.
PowerZone by Gryphon Audio
I also do not know too much about the specifications behind the PowerZone - it's still absent from Gryphon's website at the time of this writing. The design goal, according to Flemming E. Rasmussen of Gryphon Audio, was to reduce mechanical vibration to the utmost minimum without relying on any filtering devices. The chassis, just like the HT-4G by ORB, is rock-solid and represents some of the nicest craftsmanship ever bequeathed on the domain of audio accessories.
The PowerZone feeding the Zanden 2000p and 5000s DAC teamed up with the SMR power cord for the AC mains in this session as well. My very first impression was of an expressive and passionate fusing of calmness and serenity that didn't compromise the elongation of harmonic decays and the contrasts of tonal shadings. I attributed this new-found quietness to excellent control of mechanical vibration, which is very different from the kind of silence achieved by filtering devices.
In my system, the overall tonal balance exhibited a slight emphasis in the mid-range and mid bass however, simultaneously moving more air and energy in the bass region to help offset some of my Kharmas' bass shyness. This proved especially fortuitous on cello recordings [Mercury Living Presence Bach Suites for Solo Cello by Janos Starker; and Denon's Gaspar Cassado Plays Encores] and any symphonies of the explosive type. Mid-bass attack was quick and energetic. The rendition of deep bass was more thunderous relative to all other AC bars I had used before.
The midrange was slightly warmer than the HT-4G but not to the extent of smoothening out textures. Imaging was larger than the ORB. Again, I suspect the timid nature of the Kharma bass somewhat cancels out the liberation of energy in the transition between lower midbass to bass, thereby making the midrange slightly protrude from time to time depending on recording choices. On male vocal recordings like BMG Victor's Belafonte at Carnegie Hall] however, the voice sounded very masculine and expressive, with the performer's vigorous island accent vividly revealed. In another recording [Vanguard Records Paul Robeson Live at Carnegie Hall], the rigorous resonance of Paul Robeson's voice was presented with exceptional vitality as well. I was especially touched by his use of very well articulated Chinese to perform a Chinese folk song on track 6 of this hard-to-find recording. On both recordings, the ORB by comparison sounded less virile and macho than the Gryphon.
The presentation of the upper octave was quite different from the HT-4G. The Danish depiction of the treble was sweeter and more subtly contrasted. The Japanese counterpart tended to throw up more air and ambience on top end, albeit at the expense of fine contrasts. On piano recordings, the overall tonality of the Dane seemed to warm up a little bit, giving a more woodsy feeling in exchange for a minor smearing of bass line definition. Micro transients were delivered with improved coherence but it wasn't as easy as before to visualize the discrete change of keyboard fingering now. However, the overall integrity of the musical performance remained preserved with good sonic presence and depth perspective.
On percussive instruments, the ORB proved more resolute than the Gryphon while the Gryphon tended to sound better with bowed string instruments, its relative sense of coherence stronger than the Japanese. It all boils down to subjective choices and system matching in the end.
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