December 2006

2006 Year-end Grab Bag

Where has the year gone? It’s already time to review the past 12 months and choose a few interesting audio products we’ve somehow managed to overlook that can make the at-home jazz experience just a little more satisfying. It’s certainly a mixed bag of holiday toys this year: One employs an old idea in an entirely new context, another struts cutting-edge technology, while a third takes a treasured format closer to its zenith.

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Onkyo D-TK10 Guitar Speakers
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Nottingham Space Deck Turntable
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Bel Canto Design e.One PRe3 Preamp and e.One S300 Amp
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Bel Canto Design e.One PRe3 Preamp and e.One S300 Amp

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The Onkyo (onkyousa.com) D-TK10 Guitar Speaker ($1995/pair; available only through Onkyo’s online store with a 30-day guarantee) was designed by Onkyo in conjunction with renowned guitar-maker Takamine, but don’t be misled: These are not intended to amplify a guitar. Rather, they are so named because the enclosure’s construction is more like an acoustic guitar than a typical speaker box. Instead of a thick, dense, acoustically dead cabinet, the Guitar Speakers sport thin mahogany walls, braced along the inside edges to provide strength—just as in guitar construction. According to Onkyo, the objective was to “reproduce the natural sound of an accomplished musical instrument.” The idea is that if an artisan-made guitar produces a desirable musicality and tone, then a speaker fashioned in a similar manner might produce music with similarly pleasing, organic musical qualities.

When I first unpacked these diminutive boxes, I was a bit incredulous. How could these barely six-pound, not-even-11-inch-tall speakers produce anything like real music? But within five minutes of connecting them to my trusty tube amp, I had to admit there was something special about this Takamine “Acoustic Voicing Technology.” Right out of the box they sounded open, full and surprisingly lifelike. After a break-in period, I did some more serious auditioning.

There was a consistent thread that connected all my time with these speakers: Disc after disc, I never wanted to get off this highly pleasurable merry-go-round. It was always hard to end a listening session, no matter how late, no matter who was on Letterman that night. The D-TK10s made listening fun and always compelling. They created a surprisingly large soundstage, far beyond what you would expect from such small boxes, and they were remarkably fast, almost as fast as Magnepans—speakers legendary for their speed and transparency.

The Onkyo/Takamines were, in fact, quite Maggie-like: open, airy and transparent, with rock-solid imaging. And the speakers themselves seemed to disappear, just leaving music hanging mysteriously in the air as though there were no speakers at all. In addition, there were no unwanted resonances, no bumps, no closed-in boxiness to the sound, and no tizziness or distortion on the high end. And though the extension on the low end could be a tad better, the speakers still presented a very believable portrait of an acoustic bass. There was plenty of lifelike snap in snare drum accents, and cymbals were properly lively and light. Female voices were scary-good.

Listening to Trio Beyond’s Saudades—Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings and John Scofield’s tribute to Tony Williams—all the raw, electric excitement of this astounding group filled the listening room with live atmosphere. I could feel the chunky chords of Goldings’ B3, not to mention his deft low-register pedal work. DeJohnette’s cyclonic turn at interpreting Williams’ unique drumming style and Sco’s punch-it-up guitar work were perfectly delineated, no mean feat considering the often woolly-thick textures of this stormy ensemble playing. Many speakers would choke trying to sort out all this stuff in a comprehensibly musical manner.

But I had my doubts as to whether these speakers could crank up the “heavy” stuff with any authority. So I put on an old Fleetwood Mac classic from their “lost” 1970 Boston live show. In the pre-Stevie Nicks days, this was indeed a heavy band and the Onkyos handled Peter Green’s pounding, pulsing “Oh Well” with ease. I actually had to turn the music down—such was the weight of the sound produced.

If you need curb-rattling bass, these might not be the speakers for you, but aside from that, they seem capable of delivering anything you put into them believably and with no signs of strain. Add a fast, tight sub, and you should be able to cover any style of music whatsoever, and probably do a righteous job of bothering the neighbors in the process.

One of the manufacturers mentioned in our Oct. 2006 column on “digital” switching amplifiers was Minneapolis-based Bel Canto Design (belcantodesign.com), one of the recognized leaders in the implementation of this more-or-less new yet maturing technology. Bel Canto is now well into its second generation of Class D amps, the e.One series, capable of generating tremendous amounts of juice—from 150 to 500 watts per channel—cleanly and efficiently.

The e.One S300 ($1,395), weighing a mere nine pounds and about the size of a cereal box, may be the entry-level amp in the series, yet is still rated at a hefty 150 watts per channel into an eight-ohm speaker, 300 watts driving a four-ohm load. The S300 grows to enormous proportions when mated with a good source component and a worthy pair of speakers, in this case the matching Bel Canto DAC3 ($2,495) and my personal DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8 loudspeakers.

The DAC3 is Bel Canto’s latest in their line of critically acclaimed digital-to-analog converters, but the current model offers features unheard of even a couple of years ago. It handles all the functions of your CD player’s DAC, but at performance levels geometrically beyond any player priced under five-grand, or perhaps well beyond. It features Bel Canto’s Ultra Clock technology that, practically speaking, eliminates the effects of clock jitter, one of the reasons typical CD players suffer from the digital nasties.

It also offers digital volume adjustment so, if using only digital sources, you don’t need a preamp between the DAC and your amp. That’s one less component between the recording and the speakers, and that’s a good thing.

To feed this unit, you can use a dedicated CD transport, a DVD or CD player, certain pro components, or your computer via the DAC3’s USB input. Since more and more people are using some sort of computer-based music server, the DAC3 is the perfect answer to link your PC or Mac to your amplifier for achieving true high-end sound.

Although most of my auditioning involved using a CD player as a transport, I achieved similar results playing uncompressed, error-corrected music files from my iBook through the DAC3’s USB input. Additionally, by simply employing the CD drive in a laptop as a transport, I’m convinced that computer-based audio can play in the big leagues when using a high performance USB-capable DAC like the Bel Canto.

The DAC3 comes in the same small chassis as the S300, so the pair will fit nicely side-by-side on a single shelf, smaller even than many CD players alone. It’s quite a potent, handsome combo.

And the sound? As a devoted tube-amp guy, I’m rarely impressed with the sonics of non-tube amps, but Bel Canto’s designs (even in earlier incarnations) are an exception. There is a decidedly liquid character to the sound, a musicality rarely encountered in “solid-state” amplifiers. Highs are clean without brightness, the bass can be window-rattling but still tight, controlled and tuneful, and most importantly, the midrange is clear, present, smooth and natural-sounding, while the balance between all these elements is spot on; no one portion of the spectrum screams out for undue attention. Nothing is added, which might create a sense of falseness in the music, and nothing is missing, so that even those discrete, often hard-to-hear details come forth as they should, enforcing the sense that there are honest-to-gawd real musical instruments being played on the disc.

Perhaps most importantly, the emotional content of the performance comes through loud and clear, which is not the case with so much of today’s inferior gear. It seems that more and more people are admitting to the emptiness of digital playback, complaining about its tendency to be fatiguing and disengaging, factors which ultimately lead to less and less listening time. If your equipment doesn’t allow your music to hook you, enthrall you and hold you, then what’s the point?

No danger of missing those elements with this Bel Canto system: crank it up, pour the wine and spend the night with some inviting, captivating music—it will not be tiring, harsh or grating in any way, and you’re likely to discover some delightful nuances you’ve never noticed in your favorite recordings.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Marketplace is chockfull of extremely thick, complex low-register horn charts weaving in and around his thoughtful piano explorations. Played through the Bel Canto gear, each individual voice and instrument were easy to follow, even clustered as they were into tightly harmonized lines. So mesmerizing was the Bel Canto’s ability to open up secrets of this classic disc I’ve heard probably 50 times before that I had to listen to the disc twice in one sitting—I just couldn’t get enough. The old mono recording of Otis Redding’s Otis Blue took on a dimensionality and depth that I’d not previously experienced.

The DAC3 is designed with the future in mind, and the S300 can drive about any speaker you’d likely have on hand with bravado and aplomb; they clearly make beautiful music together. These fraternal Minnesota twins have hit one out of the park for sure.

Though there must be nearly a hundred different turntables on the market today, finding the one you want at your local dealer may be next to impossible if you don’t live in a major city. And while you can buy just about anything you want on the Internet, having a new table set up properly by a trained tech is usually a good idea if you lack experience doing this sort of thing. The dealer can ensure that the most critical adjustments—those relating to the arm and cartridge—are done properly.

So what do you do if you find a table you really want, but have no local source to take care of those pivotal details? Well, the smart folks at England’s Nottingham Analogue and their US importer, Audiophile Systems (www.aslgroup.com), have come up with a solution for their much-lauded turntables. The Space Ship ($3750) combines their highly successful Space Deck table equipped with the Ace-Space tonearm and a new proprietary Nottingham cartridge, all shipped to the consumer with the cartridge mounted on the arm, and with the arm already balanced such that, with only a handful of easy assembly steps, the thing is ready to play music. This eliminates the guesswork of calibration and makes owning a truly fine turntable, even in the wilds of Montana or Florida, as easy as one, two, three, tunes!

Now, all that ease of set-up is a wonderful solution for the logistics of the table, but the real magic is the way this Space Ship plays vinyl. Tom Fletcher, Nottingham’s owner and principal designer, is a jazz musician himself, and understands that the primary purpose of better audio gear is to savor every last bit of music buried in those timeless grooves. He’s been building turntables for over 40 years and his basic design idea, revolutionary for its time, has now been adopted by many other manufacturers: liberate the platter, arm and motor from the resonance-laden, box-like base which housed our old Dual, Linn and Garrard tables. His dedication to the elimination of resonance and the control of unwanted vibrations and motor interactions (the Nottingham motor rests independently to the side of the platter), has produced some of the world’s great LP playback systems—the Nottingham line rockets from about $1,600 into the $38K+ range.

Within seconds of dropping the needle onto Holly Cole’s Temptation LP, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. The first thing I noticed was the absolute lack of noise behind the music; in other words, the music was coming out of an absolutely jet-black background, a very silky black, and yes, a shade that’s very sexy, even startlingly so. I’ve listened to this LP many times on other systems, but it never grabbed me the way it did on the Nottingham. I felt like Holly was singing just to me, that her musicians were playing right in front of me. Plus, it conveyed the impression of naturally flowing music and allowed the communication of the musicians to the listener to become overwhelming and direct.

And what better disc to show off the qualities of the Nottingham ensemble than Miles Davis’ own monument to understatement, In a Silent Way, from the Mosaic box of the complete Silent Way sessions? The spare atmosphere of Miles and his newly formed electric band hung on the projected soundstage like a Rembrandt masterpiece: the lights and darks, ins and outs of the music clearly discernible against that silky black canvas. Plus, the Space Deck maintained an impressive solidity of pitch and rhythm which are laid bare on this recording—a fault in the playback system can create a disconcerting wavering in those long-held notes by Miles and gang. The Nottingham nailed this disc perfectly, in a silent way indeed!

I then played the Mobile Fidelity 45-rpm LP of Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool—to say I was knocked out would be an understatement. It possessed that same quietness, the same ability to connect me with the music and to sculpt Barber and band in 3D right in my living room. And the bass! The bass was unbelievable; weightier and lower than I’ve ever heard on my system, yet never bloated or artificial. Instead, it was controlled, musical and addictive. Not even my SACD version of this disc comes close to this level of performance.

Regarding the CD-versus-LP debate, I played the Temptation LP on the Nottingham, then the CD version on my very decent CD rig for a music-loving friend who possesses pretty good ears. She agreed hands-down that the LP surpassed the CD in terms of listenability and musicality. This was certainly a nice kudo for the LP and the turntable since she was an average Jill with no audiophile trappings, who, nonetheless, was able to detect the differences between the two versions with ease.

I own a very respectable turntable—a legend, really, in its genre. But if I had the jack, I’d chuck that sucker for the Nottingham in a heartbeat. Then I’d never be tempted to play CDs again, that is, unless Tom Fletcher finds a way to coax music from those silver discs while spinning them on the Space Deck. It’s the stuff dreams are made of…

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