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Christmas Gift Ideas over $5,000

By Art Dudley. Reprinted from Listener Winter 1996.
Subscriptions phone (607) 433-0808.

I’d like to talk to just you ladies for a moment.

I don’t know how long you’ve been mixed up with that boyfriend or husband of yours. But if it’s been, say, ten years, then I bet you’ve suffered at least nine-and-three-quarters years of Revolving Hi-fi Syndrome. You know the story: Some fat-ass reviewer has a torried affair with a megabuch preamplifier that someone’s loaned him for a couple of years, and now Your Dagwood has to pay.

So into the hi-fi system goes the new preamp -- but things still don’t sound right. So, next, the interconnects get changed, and then the amp, and then the speaker cables. And then your mate concludes that all of that new stuff is in fact Revealing Shortcomings In His Sourse, necessitating even more purchases. Oh, that ruthless hi-fi. By then, of course, Lardo the Great has decided that new preamp wasn’t so hot after all.

You, on the other hand, noticed years ago that your local High End salon -- certainly by now it has changed its name to something along the lines of "Akbar and Jeff’s Home Theatre Hut" -- isn’t exactly giving the stuff away, and that each successive "upgrade" is cutting into your household finances so deeply that your offspring, if ever you are so blessed, will be condemned to a life of teeth that point in every direction except up or down. "Groceries? Yes, I remember groceries. . . "

And, of course, this is all being done for The Music.

Well, now, let’s give your guy the benefit of the doubt on that one -- especially if his record collection stretches beyond a couple hundred and he actually listens to more than a handful of them. Besides, what we’re about to suggest is bound to separate the real music lovers from the sound weenies, anyway.

The question, then becomes: What do you get for the audio enthusiast who has almost everything -- and has been through everything else at least once or twice?

A real music system, that’s what.

And so our recommended holiday gift at this price point is the Level One music system from Audio Note, a firm with design and manufacturing roots in both Japan and England, and which is now looking to start building hi-fi gear in the USA.

I’ll be taking a somewhat closer look at Audio Note the company in a product review we have slated for the Summer issue. For now, what’s important to know is that this all started with one Hiroyasu Kondo, who founded Audio Note in the 1970s as a maker of ultra-high-quality silver litz wire -- eventually working his way outward toward designing and manufacturing complete high fidelity systems.

Then there’s Audio Note UK, which has its roots in the manufacture and distribution of some earlier, well-regarded English hi-fi lines, and which a couple of years ago began to work as Audio Note Japan’s European distributors. As electronics designers themselves, the principals of Audio Note UK were influenced by Kondo’s extraordinary -- yet breathtakingly expensive -- tube amplifier designs. Some sharing of technology and even parts ensued, and the result is a line of less expensive hi-fi products that embody the Audio Note philosophies.

And what exactly are those philosophies?

Generally speaking, Audio Note stresses musicalitiy -- especially the need for playback equipment to communicate with the listener on an emotional level -- over sheer audiophile sonics. And, also generally, the company believes that a systems approach to hi-fi is superior to the more typical mix-and-match approach, all other things being equal.

On a more specific level, Audio Note describes their philosophies -- at least those having to do with their electronics -- in terms of the following design and manufacturing priorities:

The differences between various "levels" of products from Audio Note UK actually have to do with how many of these criteria are met. Their Level One amplifier, the Oto SE, complies with the first and fourth requirements, only: It is a single-ended design, meaning that the musical waveform is at no time disassembled or "split" about its axis, as in a push-pull design (see Scott Frankland’s "Tube Technology" in Vol. 1, Nol 4); and, as such, it operates in Class A. But it is not a single-ended triode amp: The Oto’s output tube of choice is the remarkably small and seldom-seen EL84, a beam power pentode tube. And to keep the distortion at acceptably low levels, a slight amount of feedback is designed into the Oto’s output stage.

And as to internal quality: Audio Note describes the parts used in the construction of the Oto as being very good -- "but not exceptional." (Exceptional to this company, by the way, can mean handmade silver foil/paper in oil capacitors that sell for hundreds of dollars. Apiece.)

Incidentally, Audio Note’s amplification systems are available in integrated amp form (that’s a preamp and power amp -- but no tuner -- together in the same box, for those of you who are new to this stuff) or as separates. Interestingly, though, Audio Note’s philosophy is the same as Listener’s: Not only can a properly designed integrated amp be every bit as good as comparably designed and spec’ed separates -- under the best of circumstances it can actually be superior.

Products in the Audio Note line-up include the aforementioned amps; interconnects and speaker cables (unsurprising, given the firm’s origins); digital-to-analog converters (also tubed); moving-coil phono cartridges; step-up transformers for those cartridges; and loudspeakers. A turntable/tonearm combination and a silver-wired moving-magnet cartridge are due out in 1996.

Before we proceed, a word about Audio Note UK’s loudspeakers is in order. The sharp-eyed reader will detect a certain resemblance between the speakers pictured here and Snell’s Type K loudspeakers (see Vol. 1, No. 3). That is no coincidence: The head of Audio Note UK, Peter Qvortrup, was for some time the British distributor for Snell, and he started Audio Note’s loudspeaker operation by buying certain of Snell’s bookshelf designs outright and modifying them -- replacing, in fact, everything apart from the box itself. When, some months later, Snell changed the designs of the cabinets in question, Audio Note decided to build their own cabinets in which to mount their drive units and other parts -- and now Audio Note’s own cabinets, perhaps unsurprisingly, appear awfully similar to those older Snells.

Onto the Level One system, then -- which comprises the Oto SE integrated amplifier at $2395 (a version with a phono stage is available for $2995); the Audio Note DAC1 d/a converter at $1295; a pair of Audio Note 1/L loudspeakers, also priced at $1295; an An-A interconnect for $50; and a short pair of their entry-level (copper) cables for roughly $60. The total system price is actually cheap by perfectionist standards at $5095; you add a CD transport (any decent player with a digital out will do for at least the time being) and electricity.

Oh, and CDs -- of which, it turns out, this system fairly demands a steady diet. Going somewhere -- like out of town? Home’s safer, and the music sounds superb. Leaves to rake? Surely those discs you haven’t listened to in a while are more important. Thinking of hitting the hay after just one disc of Siegfried? Naw, you’ll be slugging it out with Fafner before you even remember where you were going.

Ah, yes, Wagner -- that’s what I wanted to mention. If you’re like me, you sometimes have trouble making it all the way through any one of the ring cycle operas (Die Walkure in particular) in one sitting, especially at the end of the day and/or ir you’re at all tired. One of the highest compliments I can pay the Audio Note system -- and, yes, I enjoyed every minute I spent with it -- is that it made these discs sound so alive and emotionally sweepting that I could listen for much, much longer than usual. Bring on the Solti box! Hell, bring on Disc One of The Concert for Bangladesh!

It was good music-making and good sound, too: a bit rich toward the bottom, but clear and explicit throughout, nonetheless. Bass response that falls squarely -- and surprisingly, for the speaker’s size -- in the Rolls-Royce horsepower category (i.e. Sufficient). A decidedly big soundfield with plenty of imaging information. And dynamics? Few high fidelity systems of my experience let this much musical drama work its way to the listening seat.

And through it all is that uncannily pure presence and timbral realism that I and more than a few others are starting to associate with single-ended amplification. Voices guitars, cellos, saxophones -- but mostly voices, carved out of thin air with often startling realism. And no nasties, as long as you have the speakers set up properly -- amost not at all. It’s also worth mentioning that the Audio Note system functioned smoothly and without glitches of any sort: no undue noise or hum, no switch-on bangs or switch-off thumps. At all. When was the last time you heard a perfectionist system -- especially one with tubes -- about which this could be said?

Beyond that, what does this system sound like? It sounds like music, like the nameless transcendencies that distinguish each individual disc in your collection. And you’ll get no more dissection from me, not just because I’m disinclined (true -- it strikes me as irrelevant to the point of silliness in this case), but because this is the sort of gear where you simply don’t think about things like bass or imaging or such. Sure, I tried, as a reviewer, to focus on such ephemera every time I sat down to listen; but at the end of each session it was always a case of "Bass? Satisfying, I suppose -- but what a great song!" Or, "Imaging? Well, yeah, it was good -- but let’s talk about Hendrix, instead . . ."

Of course hobbyists, like leopards, can’t be expected to change their spots overnight, if at all. And this setup’s success notwithstanding, the time may come when the audiophile just has to start fiddling around with it, trying to get even more from his records. No problem: Beyond upgrading the cables or perhaps adding Audio Note’s specially designed speaker stands ($500 a pair, sand filling included!), the company makes most of their parts available to the adventurous. So if one is clever with a soldering iron and wants to spend just a little bit of money at a time, those 1/L speakers could be the functional equivalent of the very-much-more-expensive 2/SPX models by this time next year. Ditto the amp: Silver foil capacitors are like new batteries for its pacemaker, I’m told.

Obviously, the Level One system from Audio Note impressed the Buck Lure out of me, and in a way that was actually -- and I’m certain that other audio writers and reviewers will identify with this -- kind of depressing. It worked so well in my room and made recorded music so inviting that I wanted to leave it in place and forget about other gear for a while, maybe a long while. (That I can’t do that sort of thing is this job’s chief occupational hazard.) The way this system handles my CDs appeals to me as a music lover; its value appeals to me as a skinflint; and, actually, its unique upgrade prospects --the possibility of staying with these basic components but refining them from within -- appeals to the audiophile/hobbyist/dweeb in me.

Thinking of getting out of hi-fi altogether and spending the money on violin lessons? This might be the next best thing.

Audio Note M2 -&- Creek OBH-12

By Art Dudley. Excerpt reprinted from Listener Winter 1998.
Subscriptions phone (607) 433-0808.

. . . The Audio Note M2 -- which is in fact an active preamplifier, one in which the active devices are all vacuum tubes, even throughout the power supply. The M2 is available as either a line-stage only preamp or in full line-plus-phono configuration, the latter being the state of our review sample.

Anyone who’s seen the other Audio Note (UK) products will not be surprised by the appearance of the M2, though its logo and fascia script have been updated somewhat compared with earlier AN products. This is one of their standard half-size components -- much deeper that it is wide, and sporting a shiny black acrylic panel with four big, gold-colored knobs.

A look inside reveals a total of just three signal tubes: the line stage comprises a 6SN7GTA dual triode, while the phono section gets by with a pair of Sovtek 6922 dual triodes. Parts level ranges between very good and excellent in the Audio Note scheme of things, with such niceties as an Alps volume pot, paper-in-oils signal capacitors, and a length of silver Litz interconnect for the input-to-front-end duties.

As to creature comforts, the M2 has a (limited-range) balance control as well as provisions for up to four source components -- but no mute, and not much else, for that matter. This preamp does, however, have a pair of toggle switches that let you choose between feedback and feedback-free operation: the former gives you about 6dB of global feedback (around the line stage only) while the latter gives you no feedback at all. But it’s not as simple as just choosing between vogue and out-of-vogue: That feedback is what keeps the M2’s output impedance down to a lovable 500 Ohms, wheras without feedback that figure climbs to a still-okay but certainly different-sounding 2000 Ohms. Life is not simple.

Now before you can talk about how the M2 plays music, you really have to spare a thought for the Audio Note M1 -- a true bargain preamp ($1250 with phono stage) that has a reputation all its own. The M1 is a Russian peasant of a preamplifier: coarse but honest, and with a taste for unrefined pleasures. It knows a good melody when it hears one, and it latches onto anything with a beat. It has lots of body -- maybe a little too much, especially below the waist -- and it’s generally a great deal of fun to be around, although the M1 can tire you out on occasion. It drinks too much. It laughs too loud. It’s lovable.

The M2 is just as musically accomplished, but it’s also more refined. It’s good at making melodies make sense, and an M2 could nip a Naim’s heel when it comes to pushing across a beat.

And it’s more sonically inviting that the cheapest Audio Note preamp: less overblown in the bass, yet with no lack of believable sonic color throughout the specturm.

And with no lack of musical excitement. On recordings like the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 with Curzon and Kappertsbusch, the M2 pulls off the neat trick of making the listener relax with the sound -- that is, the sound is natural, non-fiddly, and above all non-mechanical -- while rendering the musical lines electric.

When Curzon charges his way through the first movement, the M2 exhibits great poise: neither the sound nor the musical lines of the orchestral underpinning fall apart under fire. And as electrifying as things are in the first movement, the M2 is equally capable of putting across the very subtle retards and surprisingly delicate trills of the second. Nice.

Though the M2 isn’t noticeably bass-heavy like the M1, it still tends toward the rich overall, in tonal balance. Alfred Boskovsky’s clarinet in the Brahms Quintet on Decca (Speakers Corner LP) has a surprisingly big, deep foundationn here -- but not too much, I don’t think, nor does the instrument lack for sheer lilt.

On the same recording and others like it: Instrumental images are big and nebulous --though the overall soundfield isn’t huge. It’s not an imaging freak’s preamp, although it does okay with studio pop -- recordings wherein image delineation is exaggerated, thanks no doubt to multimiking and studio isolation tricks. On the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies, for example, the M2-based system does well: a nice enough "guitar-up-here, harmony-vocals-back-there" kind of thing. Which is plenty for me, anyway.

So the M2 gives nothing away to its cheaper brother (of course at $1400 more, it should not), and when it comes to sheer musical satisfaction -- just the ability to capture my attention with a single, simple musical line -- the Audio Note has been exceeded in my system only by the Fi, itself another $1000 more expensive. . . .

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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