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Back to Artisan's Silver Dream. The four conductors (two for ground, one for + and – respectively) look as transparent as they sound. One sees right through the loosely fitted braided Teflon insulation onto the 99.99% high-purity slow-drawn solid silver. The conductors are thicker than Luscombe’s but at 0.4mm still thin. The braiding is purposely loose to optimize EMI/RFI noise rejection. Terminations are silver-soldered Neutrik plugs with silver contacts.

I had a 1m/pr XLR linking the Restek Radiant CD player and VL20 preamp, the other cable the preamp and power amp. After more than 100 hours, the Artisan demonstrated supremacy over all my other XLR cables in balancing timbral richness and textural details in strings, woodwind and brass; liveliness and bounciness in percussion; three-dimensional imaging, realism and immediacy with orchestral works large or chamber; and vocal realism in solo or choral works with natural acoustic ambience surrounding the voices. I ended up with an unpretentious suaveness of presentation without overworking or undermining a single sonic attribute. I believed this would synergize perfectly with the design philosophy of JE Audio.

When everything jells, it rings my bell! When I returned to the basement, it was early February, eight months after the gear's arrival. I was shocked. The Dynaudio Facette had transformed into something larger than the impression I always had of this slender two-way floorstander. It sounded like a full-size three-way with full-throttle power and highly descriptive information. When I checked with John to see if he had similar experiences with silver cables, he wanted to ship me a new VL20 with a minor output capacitor modification that he believed made a major improvement.

"The new VL20 sounds a little more transparent and resolved. The Artisan Silver Cables should be a very good match." So another VL20 arrived after a factory run-in of about 90 hours. That gave me another excuse to procrastinate and run the preamp for another month or two. I also noticed one minor cosmetic modification to the soft-start indicator LED on the front panel. By popular demand, it had been changed from amber/green to red/blue. Apart from that subtle incongruousness, the preamp and power amp were in perfect harmony. (Present shipments will be consistent and fitted with red/blue LEDs for both VL20 and VS70.)

Auditions were conducted with the following objectives and parameters:
(1) To gauge the sonic disparity between balanced push-pull and single-ended beam tetrode mode by comparing the JE Audio VL20 + VS70 combo with my Audio Zone Pre-T1 passive preamp + JohnBlue TL66 both driving the Dynaudio Facette. Analog source was a Denon DP-59L fitted with Denon DL-302 moving coil cartridge and Ensemble PhonoMaster phonostage preamp. Digital source was a Restek Radiant CD player featuring both XLR and RCA outputs.

(2) To access JE’s compatibility with solid-state amplification by alternating tube preamp/transistor power amp (VL20 + NuForce Reference 9SEV2) and transistor preamp/tube power amp (NuForce P9 + VL70) with balanced connections throughout except for the NuForce P9 accepting only RCA sources. Loudspeakers remained the Dynaudio Facette, my reference partner for the NuForce power amp.

(3) To compare the JE Audio duo with my reference transistor pre/power duo of Symphonic Line RG3 MkIII and RG4 MKIII by rotating both systems to drive my Apogee Centaur Minor and Mark & Daniel Diamond. Digital sources were the Restek Radiant with and without Assemblage D2D-1/DAC-3 SE. Balanced connections were consistent from source to preamp to power amp for JE Audio, unbalanced for Symphonic Line.

Whenever balanced connections were possible, one pair of 1m Artisan Silver Dream XLR linked up digital source and preamp, which was then hooked up to the power amp with the other pair. When a source permitted only RCA connection, a 1m Luscombe LBR-35 connected the digital, a 0.8m Clearaudio the analogue source. Unbalanced connections between other preamps and power amps included Dared 1.5m OFC copper interconnects (Audio Zone and JohnBlue) and 4m Monster Cable Interlink 400 MkII (Symphonic Line). OCOS was the official speaker cables throughout.

Balanced push-pull vs. single-ended beam tetrode
: On the whole my LP setup saw little synergy with JE Audio. The Speakers Corner state-of-the-art reissue of the legendary Mercury album of Stravinsky’s Fire Bird/Petrushka/Rite of Spring somehow lost dynamic colors and holographic realism by a quite noticeable margin. Piano solo and chamber music were not penalized and maintained well-articulated finesse although I would have wished for more body in the lower midrange and bass. The biggest disappointment was the Tacet all-tube analog recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony [Tacet L984] beautifully performed with a refreshingly upbeat tempo and interactive alertness of a chamber ensemble. There was exceptional soundstage depth but not the high-definition instrumental localization I expected. The woodwind fortissimos in the swiftly played third movement overshadowed the strings, a pity because the woodwinds had been exquisitely harmonized in the two preceding movements. The last movement had the best balance in terms of sections and natural ambience. Bass was still shy and the bottom range of the Facette sounded more like 55 than 40Hz. Definition continued to trouble me as we hit the "Storm" movement where the timpani were blurred. 

Bass improved significantly with the single-ended JohnBlue TL66 by yielding more full-bodied lower strings. Brass instruments were more polished but still able to project through the heavy "Storm". Timpani were solid and focused with good balance between punch and decay. Overall definition was better without betraying valve bloom. The soundstage was wider but not as deep as with JE Audio. That more or less deterred me from using LP for further auditions. It should be stressed that I was confined to my humble vinyl system. More high-end collaborations enhanced by a balanced phonostage might have turned the tables.

That happened when I switched to a digital source with balanced outputs. Well, almost - depending on what pleases you. The Restek Radiant CD player featuring the legendary single-crown Philips TDA1541A-S1 16-bit 4 x oversampling DAC with Restek's proprietary all-component noise-shaping and filtering circuitry could well be the impartial arbiter for this final showdown with its balanced out connected to JE Audio through Artisan Silver Dream and unbalanced out to Audio Zone Pre-T1 + JohnBlue TL66 through Luscombe LBR-35. Apparently the TL66’s 6.2wpc were pathetically underpowered compared to JE Audio’s 35wpc especially when they took turns driving the Dynaudio Facette. Not only large orchestral pieces mercilessly exposed the unjust handicap. Even piano solo started to show clipping at climaxes if pushed. I decided to remedy my unwarranted prearrangement by pairing up the TL66 with its proven musical soul mate, the Loth-X BS-1, two per channel stacked in a D’Appolito array.

When both systems put their best foot forward, I naturally fell for them both. The difference was clear but as a devout anti-audiophile with an eclectic taste for audio equipment, I could never declare a preference. They both presented symphonic and massive choral works with riveting performances in terms of musicality and immediacy. It was the bigger picture of musical presence that pulled me away from nitty-gritty sonic attributes. That invoked my anti-audiophile tendencies. I began to sense some absurdity fulfilling my reviewer's duty trying to split hairs finding dissimilarities. Those were so much smaller than the unifying similarity of musical involvement. All roads lead to Rome had never been so true.

Nevertheless, duty had to be fulfilled. Let me use two recordings. Appalachia Waltz [Sony Classical SK68460] is a soulful collaboration between Mark O’Connor (violin/mandolin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Edgar Meyer (bass/piano) that immerses you in the milieu of old-fashion American fiddle music. In contrast, Swedish pianist Roland Pöntinen’s virtuoso Russian piano music [BIS CD-276] is a youthful daring performance with staggering sonic dynamics recorded way back in 1984 but never outdated.  

The single-ended beam tetrode was devoted to praising strings and singing Gloria in Excelsis. Violin and cello jived in a golden late afternoon sun. Solo bass crooned like Tuvan throat singers in the entrancing "Mama" but plucked like a bouncing rubber ball in the good-humored "Pickles". Not just the strings had received a favorable treatment. I wasn’t sure whether the piano was a period instrument but it resonated with a nostalgic Texas feel in "First Impression". The mandolin in "Butterfly’s Day Out" radiated with crystalline flutterings and natural timbre to contrast the bottomless elasticity of the bass. Imaging was effortless and relaxed. It presented the group as a refined collaborative effort rather than drawing my attention to look for individuals.

The balanced push-pull by comparison presented a more meticulously rendered three-dimensional soundscape with expansive width and depth. (Depth was definitely much deeper than the JB TL66.) It almost had studio precision. The bass was tightly defined while retaining the deep throaty singing style. Pizzicatos were cleaner and tailed off with shorter resonance. Instrumentations were finely localized with minimal but natural overlap. Valve bloom was well contained within the realm of musical involvement. The rational circuit design did not undermine sensibility. Musical presentation was nonetheless emotional and touching without filtering out that golden afternoon sun or watering down the nostalgic Texas airs. When the music has something intrinsic of itself, no audio equipment can really take it away nor make it up if it ain't there in the first place.