Headphonia. For a first pulse of life when two speaker systems were busy with other reviews, I plugged in HifiMan's very inefficient Susvara. With 100wpc behind AIO's voltage divider, 50 of 99 on the green dial meant full-bore saturation with headroom galore. Corruption. Absolut.
That's no addictive new vodka from Pernod Ricard. It's when absolute power meets these hard-to-get-going planars. They now sounded like very dense very dynamic truly full-range loudspeakers. If that distinction makes no sense to you, let's restate the obvious. Compared to actual speakers, headphones invariably sound not just smaller in general but also smaller and more lightweight on tone and color.
Until they don't.
When this shift into the 'big' occurs, it validates itself by instant recognition. Like being in love or owing the tax man, you just know. And a true shift it is away from the micro obsessiveness whereby good headfi will always out-detail even very ambitious speakerfi because room, phase and multi-driver integration issues and/or losses are deleted from the equation. This machine was all about the macro. In this instance of nano-thin ultra-light membranes meeting enormous power, it packed the proverbial meat atop a sub structure of greased reflexes, crisp separation and deep insight. It just begged me to pull out the big guns of thunder and mayhem, be it Roby Lakatos Live at the Sydney Opera House which whips a big gipsy band of virtuosos into breakneck overdrive; be it the Spleen of Smadj with its rather rusty ambiance and gnarly synth beat attacks; Jamshied Sharifi's One whose quasi Gladiator-meets-Salif-Keita soundtrack is filled with tribal drums, hypnotic vocals and dense multi-tracking; or Macedonian brasses blaring out arguments in full assault mode. Our instinctive reach for a particular repertoire always betrays the key attractions of new gear under consideration. And I was indulging big, complex and live recordings with palpable audience energy.
Final Sonorous X and D8000 in standby. Soundaware D100Pro SD card reader dispatching analog square waves representing digital 1s and 0s.
When I heard these telltale 'macro' signs of big tone and big dynamic swings, I flashed on Simon's statement in our intro: "We lost the genuine soft power of music. I want to get it back." What makes that sentence deceiving is our likely focus on the word soft to give power much shorter shrift. The emphasis really belongs on genuine power whence soft simply qualifies its MO. This power expresses itself not through brutalist hardness, assaultive edginess or unnatural incisiveness. It wraps itself in warmth and darkness but its intrinsic potency is such that those attributes don't become opaque or distanced.
Chassis design by Digital Physics of Korea led by industrial designer Suh Bum-Ki.
As a result, you might play things louder than usual. The innate friendliness of such civilized power extracts no punishment in trade. Rather than being about "slicing and dicing" as that audiophile habit of dissecting music into its constituent parts, it's about riding the waves and feeling the exhilaration of encountering the elements. It's about getting wet.
I've deliberately used colourful language. It's because this approach bypasses the analytical mind to go for the jugular if you will. As such it's different from modern sound with its ridiculous pursuit of ever-higher resolution which relies on maximal separation and dissection.
Unlike Jeff Rowland's 'subcutaneous' ripples, SAG's face plate really is sculpted into waves as you can tell by the triangular edging beneath the display.
With the AIO's bottom-up tuning, it's back to instinctive not trained listening. It's how each and every audiophile began life as a music listener. All the listening-for education came later. What it instead started out as was simple listening without the agenda, without the hardware ego, without the chat-room handle. Writing this reads like big words yet the experience is simplicity itself. Anyone can do it. Better put, anyone can have it. That's how Simon Lee voiced this deck. Not being complicated as we've read him say wasn't just about handling and interacting. Fundamentally it was about the natural mode of listening which many audiophiles have forgotten. For them, unlearning bad but deeply engrained habits—playing constant shrink or judge and jury on the music—is nearly a prerequisite to fully appreciate Simon's bass-first approach which builds up the sound on a solid foundation and highly dynamic power region. If your aim is top down, treble first, max speed and resolution for president, the AIO won't speak your language. That was my takeaway from the first session. I didn't really expect that it'd shift or necessitate many subsequent qualifiers.
Even the corners and panel transitions are tightly executed to warrant a close-up and be shown off.
The obvious next thing I wanted to know while still phoning it in was, would such high and perfectly noise-free power work just as silently on our most efficient headphones, Final's Sonorous X?
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