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Audio Note Digital System

Reprinted from AQ: Audio Quarterly

Audio Note may not be a name that is familiar to the high street hi-fi buying public, so perhaps a brief background is called for.

Founded in 1989, Audio Note UK is a sister company to Audio Note Japan which makes obscenely good amplifiers costing obscene amounts of money. Audio Note Japan manufactures the renowned Ongaku amplifier (among others) which is regarded by many to be the epitome of good amplification design.

Eschewing the use of solid state devices wherever possible, Audio Note relies on that ancient thermionic technology; valves to the layman. As a result, circuits are simple, and power outputs are relatively low (by modern standards). The Ongaku, for instance, has an output of some 25watts, and it’s considered large in this game. Many think that you need loads of watts to make a loud noise. In fact, few watts through an efficient speaker will produce just as much sound, and normally of a much better quality to boot.

Audio Note’s philosophy also has a hierarchy, which includes something called single-ended working, valve rectification, all-triode tube complements, low feedback, and high quality (usually silver) components. Whilst the Audio Note Japan amplifiers tend to use all these as standard, inevitable these can cost huge amounts of money. This is especially so when you consider the use of silver wire, and the miles that are needed to wind the output transformer, and the fact that this wire is particularly carefully made, being hand drawn through special dyes and aged before use for optimum sound quality. And it’s Italian silver! Say no more.

Audio Note UK favors the same principles and philosophies, but has a more worldly view of things, using less expensive optimize sound quality bearing in mind price constraints and so on. And despite all these (it has to be said, commercial) restrictions, this little 10 watter will walk quite convincingly over much of the opposition.

The speakers, too are quite unusual. They feature a high quality 8 inch bass-mid driver, a truly sealed box cabinet, and a 3/4 inch soft-dome tweeter. The box itself is a high quality item, and unlike many of its similarly-priced competitors, is wider than it is deep, presenting quite a large frontal area. Many speaker designers would tell you this leads to poor imaging and other undesirable vagaries. Not so. The shape and dimensions of the box have been very carefully determined, and the box is deliberately designed to add to the speaker’s performance.

The choice of materials and their thickness and dimensions are crucial to how the speaker sounds, and in this particular instance it’s hard to find another speaker of a similar overall volume which will perform half as well, let alone come close!

The CD player is one in the eye for the conventionalists too. Based on a Far-Eastern-source basic player, there any conventional aspects cease to have any relevance. There’s an additional power supply and the output stages are replaced, using the most sophisticated (but cunningly simple) valve stages to wring the very best out of the bandwidth-compromised CD format.

Again, as with the OTO’s interior, the signal paths and circuit topologies are as strait-line as possible, making the least impact on the delicate audio signal as it passes through the various stages en route from laser pick-up to output sockets.

Perhaps that’s why it sounds so good. In fact, it’s one of the most listenable sub-1000 players that I’ve come across in a long time. OK, so it only just squeezes in under a grand, but then It’s still there!

So what does this system really sound like?

Well, we put on two systems side by side. We also placed the speakers in the same plane. However, the similarities of the two systems end there.

For instance, in the OTO SE, there is low feedback, and Single Ended (SE) working is used. The other system was a very up-market midi system costing well over 1000, and regarded by many as state-of-the-art set-up by those who know these things. And it has to be said, to be fair that the Audio Note system is pushing three times as much. But there lies the very last comparison that can be made with any degree of feeling that they’re both on the same planet.

The midi system’s output was quoted as 100watts per channel. The Audio Note one is 10watts per channel. The midi system has 6 inputs, the OTO SE four. The midi system has a tape deck, a tuner and CD player all built in. The OTO SE is just an amplifier, and here we’re dealing with a single source system, the CD player.

Musically they couldn’t have been further apart either. The midi-system sounded flat and lifeless, with little detail, little real bass, and no dynamic contrasts at all.

Although it imaged well you couldn’t ever get the feeling that you might have been listening to real performers playing real instruments and real music. And although the sound sounded, well, sort of accurate there was no life in it. It didn’t breathe or have any true three- dimensionality. There wasn’t the feeling that you could go up to the performers and listen to them, but as the speakers from the midi-system were somewhat smaller than the Audio Note, they went on top.

Otherwise placement was identical, thus removing as many anomalies as possible from the listening experience.

The Audio Note system, in complete contrast, had you really believe that there were people playing music in the same room as you. And if you left the room the feeling was even stronger. If you went out to make a cup of coffee you kept getting distracted and drawn back to listen to that next bit . . . and then the next bit . . . and then . . . and then . . .. In fact, the music wouldn’t let you go. This feeling wasn’t confined to any particular music type either. Whether you played rock, pop, funk, jazz, classical or whatever, every time your aural senses were engaged and it was difficult to sit and not listen. Those feckless few who tried to hold a conversation over the music lost every time. The music won, and they all eventually ended up listening to something new. I even found myself listening to Country and Western until I came to my senses!

That was the other side of the system which was such a surprise; it didn’t seem to matter what sort of music you thought you liked, the Audio Note system would have you exploring repertoire that you’d never have thought you’d be interested in.

The point is that this stuff makes music. The concert alluded to above was actually on this system, the Audio Note one. For all those present it was their first exposure to a valve system. It was the first time they’d all been asked to just sit and listen to some music, and it was the first time that most had met the others. By the end of the evening those that had the means were resolved to get themselves a valve system, and those that didn’t were trying to get me to lend them the review system (which I wouldn’t because I want to enjoy it a bit longer). One thing’s for sure; they won’t readily go back to their midi system again.

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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