written my first few articles for Enjoy the
Music.com I figured I would let our readers into the journey that is
my reference system. I do have a "reference" system, but as with most reviewers
and hobbyists when you get your ears on enough of the good stuff you will
eventually find something better, stronger, faster, and sometimes you can even
afford to give it a new home. I do my best to audition, audition, and audition
some more; I often peruse the local audio shops, attend the occasional get
together, and attend Industry shows (here's lookin' at you RMAF
2013). All of
this and there is still hearing a system in your own space which can often be
completely different than hearing something in your buddies quasi-anechoic
doomsday bunker. To keep myself focused I try to strive after a few simple goals
My System Philosophy
that all audio equipment at all price points will have some level of compromise
due to cost, size, aesthetics, engineering, or physics
for that matter; are the design goals of this product coherent to the point
where they can be integrated into a system that emphasizes its strengths and
allows you to compromise for its weaknesses (i.e. adding a subwoofer, more
power!, room treatments etc)? This is a simple concept but can sometimes be
missed by short sighted design goals.
Low Noise Floor: Are
all of the circuits and relevant component wired in such a way and engineered in
such a manner where distortion and self-noise do not in any way invade the
audible spectrum. Music is as much about the silence between the notes as it is
about the tonality of the notes themselves.
the components entire pass band, no frequencies are over emphasized or
deemphasized to a point of overly coloring the sound, (obviously all components
color the sound to some degree.)
is a difference between forward, detailed, and resolving speakers. A forward
speaker pushes the treble and makes the shimmer and shine louder, while a
detailed speaker can sometimes have a similar coloration in the treble and upper
midrange (overly emphasized string plucks and fret board vibrations sometime
point to overly "detailed" speakers.) In my opinion, coloration can often lead
to bad things (uneven frequency response, listener fatigue, weaknesses in
reproducing certain recordings or the sound of certain instruments etc.) If a
speaker is overly bright or forward this can be easily wrung out on recording
with alto trumpet or other alto brass instruments where you can hear a ringing
or feel the listener fatigue brought on by over emphasized treble.
Resolution, on the other hand, wrings all the of the
information and nuance out a recording, the decay elements and micro detail that
really places a recording in its venue and gives life to otherwise sterile
sound. Resolution has more to do with speed or the way a speaker or component
behaves in the time domain. This type of information is hard to find
scientifically measured, but impulse response is a good starting point.
Typically it can be differentiated when comparing speaker A/B. If a speaker can
start and stop on a dime this adds enhanced dynamics, lower distortion, lower
noise floor, and many other things that contribute positively to your listening
experience. For my reference system this was one of the key driving factors
around my purchase of the Vapor Audio Cirrus, one of the most resolving speakers
I have ever heard.
Is it a different flavor or
an improvement? When listening to any
component, there is a certain period of digestion that is necessary. This is one
of the important reasons for in home trials or at least extensive listening
sessions prior to purchase. Often in short listening sessions, "different" can
be construed as "better." I try to make it a point to get past that moment of
goose bumps and "oohs" and "ahhs" of new components and really digest what I am
if a component or speaker ticks all of the above boxes, let's face it we want to
listen to music, not components. If it can do everything, but music still doesn't
sound good, clearly something isn't right. Often tube based components and more
organic sounding DACs can contribute to the overall musicality of a system, but
musicality can come from any component and can be ruined by any component just
as easily. Musicality is sort of the je ne sais quoi of audio, often
called system synergy, or character and this is where a lot of very subjective
opinions come in.
My System: At This Point
The Only staples in my system that need to be dethroned are my
speakers, the rest of the component were chosen more for their value
propositions than their pure all out performance.
Speakers: Vapor Audio
Cirrus – Rev 2: $3995 – This was really the splurge of my system
so far. With my system I committed to myself that I would buy the best speaker I
could find for less than $10k and this speaker is truly as good as it gets in my
opinion. With infinite upgrade and finish options and the ability to pick
exactly the crossover configuration you want while using possible the best two-way
driver configuration on the market this speaker was customizable to my exacting
standard. The cabinet is also something to marvel at, a stacked Baltic birch ply
cabinet (ala Magico) with a 3" round over and many other exclusive cabinet
construction techniques to make the cabinet into a wooden bomb shelter with no
edge diffraction or detectable resonance or acoustic transmission. It is really
a wonder, so that is of course where I started.
Amplifier: Arte Forma
Elyssa – $3500 – You can read much more about this amp in my
recent full review but the cliff notes version would be a rock solid built amp
with a very common set of tubes that are very easy and fun to experiment with.
It is a very musical and quiet amp with a very low noise floor, it is a very
well made amp with something you won't usually find in this price range which is
an optical volume control to really increase the channel separation and
DAC: Eastern Electric Mini Max DAC – $1100 – This is a very good entry level DAC, very low noise floor and very musical. This device does not suffer at all from the typical "digititus" that often plagues lower end digital components. The MiniMax also tics all the boxes for versatility, it handles USB, Balanced BNC, AES/EBU inputs and outputs via unbalanced connections. This DAC also supports USB inputs of up to 192kHz/24-bit via USB which is perfect for my computer based digital system. This DAC is really better than it should be allowed to be at this price point but it is really outclassed by components outside of its price range such as the Wyred4Sound DSD SE DAC (See full review) and the Empirical Audio Overdrive DAC. I typically have the tube pre amp off as it seems to add a little bit of undue noise to sound without really enhancing musicality much if at all.
Enjoy What You Have –
Enjoy the Music!