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Reviewer: David Kan
Digital source: Restek Radiant, Micromega Microdrive/Variodac, Deltec PDM-Two, Philips DVP-9000S
Preamp: Audio Zone Pre-T1
Power amp: Audio Zone Amp-ST, Qinpu A-1.0X [on loan], Nu Force Reference 9, Nu Force Reference 9 SE
Speakers: JMlab Micron, Dynaudio Facette, Mark & Daniel Maximus-Monitor
Cables: Audio Note silver interconnect, Deltec Black Slink interconnects, Luscombe LBR-35 interconnects, OCOS speaker cables by Dynaudio, Ultralink Excelsior speaker cables
Power cords: Ensemble power cables for source, factory cables for amps
Power line conditioning: Monster Power HTS-1000 MkII
Room Size: 12' x 24' x 9' opens to 12' x 17' x 9' L-shape, short wall setup; 13' w x 28' 8" d x 9' h in short wall setup, with openings on one side to hallway and staircase
Review component retail: $1,600/pr, matching stand $700/pr

Truth well told
This review took me a long time to finish. I rewrote it three times. Each time I felt ready to submit it, I held it back. Actually, I clicked it out the Windows. Deleted, with a splash on the street below. There was either something I hadn't yet fully expressed or I'd missed to touch the core of the matter. Why should that have been so difficult? What makes the Maximus-Ruby so special? The first three drafts evolved around the usual routine of cross-firing amps, spinning CDs and streaming thoughts. No, it had to be more than the usual business of sorting through impressions. But was it?

I tried to backtrack. While I was doing that, Srajan's preceding Ruby review published. That helped me stand back and crystallize my thoughts. When I reviewed the Mark & Daniel Maximus-Monitor, it was a knock-out experience. I never expected that a 2-way speaker system could be this good. Groundbreakingly good. I used a lot of superlatives in that review. I almost ran out of words to describe my ravishment. It's natural that when Daniel Lee, one of the partners of Mark & Daniel, asked if I'd like to review their new Maximus-Ruby, I didn't have to think twice. In hindsight, I should have said no. On first hearing, the same superlatives sprang to mind. "Immediate presence and vibrant energy... virtually no cabinet resonance and smearing... you'd swear you're at the center of music making..." But then Ruby costs $1,000 less. I couldn't possibly be using the same words. Could I? Who was going to believe me? I kept on rewriting, choosing my words carefully, describing my feelings succinctly, hoping to distinguish the two.

While other 2-way speakers beat around the bush by employing exotic driver materials, Mark & Daniel have found the permanent cure to the Achilles' heel of 2-way design and then gave it the ultimate steroid shot. By lowering the crossover point from the usual 2,000-3000 to 800Hz coupled to M&D's patented underhung Super Xmax bass driver (SX for short) that is now dedicated to the low frequency range and free from Frequency Modulation Distortion, bass reproduction from a monitor-size 2-way has never been so clean and meaty. And it doesn't end there. The reincarnated AMT tweeter is in fact a high and upper mid-frequency driver. Once again M&D pushed the envelope in Dr. Oskar Heil's air-motion transformer. Their Dreams DM-1 as featured in the Muse, Maximus and Aragorn is claimed to be the world's first wide bandwidth curved AMT to comfortably cater to 5-octave operation (800Hz to 22,000Hz). This tweeter also exemplifies even sonic dispersion, lowered FMD and higher SLP potential. Better and bigger in a nut shell. And the sum total is
larger than its parts. With their innovative 2-way formula, M&D has substantiated huge improvements that aren't simply qualitative but also quantitative.

The most salient characteristic is their density of sound. You don't need any instruments to measure that density. You feel it right away. Boasting the smaller DM-4 Dreams and a matching 5.2" SX woofer, the Ruby is imbued with energy that carries itself to the far corners of the listening room with utmost clarity. This phenomenon happens in humans too. I'm sure you must have met people like that. They don't have to speak loud but their voices carry weight. They project their voice effortlessly. That's density. It has nothing to do with pitch. In fact, they are mostly male and usually have a mid to deep voice. And the most soothing time is when they talk mellow. I met a lot of these specially gifted people during my advertising days. Yes, they were the recording artists or what we called voice talents. Mind you, most of these people weren't heavily built.

And this is exactly who Ruby reminds me of. Slender, jaunty, born with a golden voice. The Ruby's ability to project is evident. And not only that. The sound won't lose focus when traveling through the air. The sound molecules never seem to have the slightest tendency to slow down, deteriorate or disperse. Ruby sustains its velocity, energy and density over the full distance traversed. Wherever I stand or sit, even in the far corner more than 20 feet away, I can still feel that energy. Only live music gives you that kind of sensation. Even when I'm outside
the room, the music still sounds so immediate, so real. Do you recall the time when you stepped out of the hotel lounge or ballroom for fresh air? When you stood outside, you could still feel the live music inside. Canned music never has that kind of density and vivacity, not from the adjacent room. That's what I'm talking about. I don't know if anyone would evaluate the performance of a pair of speakers from listening outside the room. But the Ruby (and of course the Maximus-Monitor) could easily let you lie about having a live band playing behind that closed doors.

You might say, "Hey, I get that live band sensation from my floorstanding speakers too." You said it. Floorstanding speakers. That's exactly my point. The Ruby is just a tiny 11.4" x 6.7" x 8.4" two-way bookshelf. Be honest, even some of the more imposing floorstanders, once you move out of their firing range, lose a bit of everything.

Density is one prime factor. Faithful recreation of the full frequency range is the other. What's so special about the Ruby is the superb separation of instruments. Even in the most complicated orchestrations, Ruby has the ability to separate the score and keep each individual musical instrument or group distinct, musically true to its own characteristics, weight, body and timbre, yet electronically free from each other's interference. If I must quote some reference CDs to get myself off the hook, try any of these Piazzollas. On the lighter side, Gidon Kremer's Hommage à Piazzolla [Nonesuch 7559-79407-2], El Tango [Nonesuch 7559-79462-2] and Tracing Astor [Nonesuch 7559-79601-2]. For full symphonic fireworks, Piazzolla Classics from the Buenos Aires Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Pedro Ignacio Calderón [Milan 73138-35640-2], Concerto pour Bandonéon with Pablo Mainetti as soloist and Josep Pons conducting the Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901595] and the witty fusion of Vivaldi and Piazzolla in Gidon Kremer's Eight Seasons [Nonesuch 7559-79568-2]. You can't find orchestral layering more articulated than that.

I used to believe that musicality and resolution were like markings on two ends of a sliding scale. When you moved closer toward one, you pulled away from the other. Two companies re-educated me, proved out my misconceptions and changed this belief forever. They almost struck me at the same time and they were NuForce and Mark & Daniel. For the first time, I could gain on both ends simultaneously without sacrificing the other. It's like having two separate sliding controls that allow me to push both to the limit. Joining forces with the highly revealing Philips DVP-9000S set to DSD upsampling, this truly was audio ecstasy. And I didn't have to worry about playing music at full volume. Well, not quite. I have to backtrack yet again.

As Srajan pointed out in his Ruby review, "premium fuel becomes a prerequisite". The Ruby specifies a minimum input power of 80 watts (8 ohms) per channel. Just to find out how valid that was, I connected the Rubies to Audio Zone's Amp-ST integrated amp, which is 30 watts shy. On listening to some chamber works, the Rubies sang in their signature voice with more articulation than I normal get from the AMP-ST. The bass, while retaining its clean-cut characteristics, was not as forceful. When I put on the richly scored Delibes ballet Sylvia [Decca 425475-2], the first three tracks were reasonably good but not great. I thought I could get away. Then the powerful tutti in "Les Chasseresses" (CD 1, Track 4) came and clipped on the timpani forte. The Rubies were complaining. I had to turn the volume down.

Next I brought on the Qinpu A-1.0X review loaner, a real bargain performer on my list of items to be reviewed. This 100 wpc (8 ohm) black horse integrated, retailing at $799, could be the entry ticket to join the M&D club. With the Qinpu behind the wheel, the Rubies were impeccably mannered even on the sharpest bends. It was when I hooked up the NuForce that the Rubies really met their match. I had three sources and preamps to rotate: the Micromega Microdrive + Variodac; the Micromega Microdrive + Deltec PDM-Two DAC + Micromega Variodac (using the analog preamp only)' and the Philips DVP-9000S + Audio Zone Pre-T1 passive amp. I also let the NuForce Reference 9 and Reference 9 SE take turns to fire up the Rubies. For the kind of music I listen to -- 99% classical -- the Philips + Audio Zone + NuForce worked out to be the smoothest synchromesh with the Rubies. From Marais to Shostakovich, Chopin to Varèse, their combination delivered sonic supremacy at the energy level and with the double slider effect of musicality and resolution mentioned earlier on.

With the Deltec combination, music became warmer and richer. I might have a slight preference for this combination when listening to intensely intimate chamber works like Ardency's Piano Trio No.1 or Janáček's Kreutzer Sonata. For those who aren't familiar with the now out-of-business British DPA (Deltec Precision Audio), the PDM-Two is a bitstream two-box DAC that goes back to the 90s. Based on the high-performance DAC7 (7350) made by Philips, this one-of-a-kind converter has six Toslink fiber optic cables (two for L-channel data, one for master clock, two for R-channel data and one for de-emphasis) connecting the digital and analog chassis. The non-buffering, non-upsampling, smooth-flowing audio signals (and only 16 times digital filtering) of the PDM-Two made the NuForce sound like 150-watt tube amps. Its higher gain output also proved a better match with the Micromega transport.

What about the NuForce Reference 9 and 9 SE? With my other speakers, I honestly could not tell much difference. With the Rubies (and of course the Maximus-Monitor), the difference is evident. The 9 is slightly more forward and has more bite. The 9 SE is warmer, particularly in the midrange. The 9 handles complicated passages in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. The 9SE shows more finesse in dealing with the same situation. But it doesn't mean one lacks what the other excels in. They both have dynamics and warmth. It's just that the microscopic analysis from the Rubies in a side-by-side comparison makes everything effortlessly revealing.