March 2008

All Systems Go

Bird and Diz. Metheny and Mehldau. Bix and Tram. Miles and his million partners. What do these teams connote? Well, at least on the stand, they connote synergy: a magical musical melding that always produces more energy, more excitement than the sum of the individual parts. Like bleu cheese and bacon. Red beans and rice. Brunello and Pecorino di Pienza.

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Rega Apollo CD Player
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Sounds supreme: the Rega System

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In audio, the English were onto the wisdom of component synergy long ago: Leak components always worked better together than when matched with competing brands. Then the high priest of modern British high-end, Ivan Tiefenbrun, creator of the legendary Linn LP12 turntable, revitalized the concept in the 1970s promoting the Linn system approach to audio, beginning with his ’table and ending with Linn speakers. How could it get any better than that?

Well, many today agree with the concept and though few in high- performance audio consumption really practice it, the opportunity exists to assemble a system of related gear that, when compared to other, often-mismatched kits, sounds like the audible version of manna from heaven. Back in the ol’ motherland, Naim, Arcam, Creek, E.A.R., and Rega are some of the prime exponents of this philosophy, while on this continent, McIntosh Labs, Bel Canto Design, Ayre and Simaudio are some of the leaders in the component-matching arena. One of my systems—of course I have more than one!—is a three-watt Fi “X” amplifier and the matching Fi “Y” preamplifier designed by Don Garber to operate optimally as a pair, sort of like chromosomes, so that the electrical stuff in one is engineered to mate perfectly with the other, no guessing, no out-of-whack impedances or voltages. They sound fantastic together, and they look great, too: The chassis of each is configured in the shape of its namesake letter.

System mismatching is an unfortunate occurrence that is all too common, even in the world of four- and five-thousand-buck components that have often been purchased based on magazine reviews, with little consideration for how they will interact in the context of the buyer’s existing system. Many less-than-conscientious dealers just want to make a sale and don’t investigate the all-important environment into which a pair of $50,000 speakers is headed. Too bad.

With a little research and a competent dealer, it’s really quite easy to purchase a system that will, as only the combination of Bird and Diz can, really salt your peanuts. We’ll examine a couple of examples of single-brand synergy, but if you already own one or two proven components and need to add another, consult with your dealer about which brand or individual piece will work best with what you have.

However, if you’re starting from scratch, it’s a no-brainer to go with one of these examined below. All members of the team are designed to work together from the get-go. The reviews that follow refer to sound produced by the entire system, though we’ll examine the details of each component as well.

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Rega System: Mira Integrated Amp, Apollo CD Player, R5 Loudspeakers

We’ve praised Rega (rega.co.uk) products in this column many times over the past years and will surely continue to do so in the future. Company founder and spiritual leader Roy Gandy has had one goal in all his work with Rega: make music sound like music. His unanimously lauded line of turntables led to the creation of a full catalog of audio products from head to tail, i.e., from phono cartridge to speakers. And what many don’t seem to realize is that all Rega equipment is built in-house in the company’s cozy factory somewhere in the wilds of England. A few parts are outsourced, in Britain, but all of the design work and assembly takes place in the Rega workshop, under the careful supervision of people who share Gandy’s love of music and quality.

The Rega system at hand comprises the Apollo CD player ($1,195), the Mira 3 integrated amp ($1,195) and the R5 speakers ($1,395), all connected with Chord cabling, another U.K. import, provided and endorsed by Rega’s U.S. distributor. The Mira is a “full-feature” amp, 60 watts worth of high-octane juice, which offers a phono preamp, as well as five additional inputs including a full tape monitor section. It is a handsome package that mates well with the Apollo (or the big brother Saturn) CD player. The Apollo, reviewed here in 2006, is one of the most amazing CD player values on the planet, reproducing music in a nearly analog naturalness and featuring a totally new design of the CD processing software, an amazing feat considering most players are still using software written back at the birth of digital in the early ’80s. The R5 speaker sports Rega’s latest developments in speaker design and construction, utilizing a side-firing seven-inch woofer that mates seamlessly with the midrange without the aid of a troublesome, often distorting crossover. Good thinking, Roy and crew.

The result of Rega’s devotion to music is nothing short of spectacular sound via a system with a very reasonable price tag. This entire group costs less than some spend on wire alone, and will knock the socks off many of those systems using such wire with its innate sense of easy, natural musicality. Tonal balance is absolutely correctly proportioned from the sparkling, crisp highs down to the pleasing, tuneful bass. An old Candid recording of Eric Dolphy with Mingus sounded as fresh as last week’s Botti with sharp, defined hi-hat snaps and plunging bottom from Mingus’ big fiddle, while Dolphy’s bass clarinet was similarly well rounded. From Miles Davis’ box on Prestige, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions, we hear a fully fleshed-out Coltrane tenor, convincingly locomoted by Philly Joe’s splashing cymbals and creamy, resonant calfskin-headed snare—yes, with this system you can really tell that it’s calfskin and not plastic. The Rega manages to grab the listener firmly but gently and place him or her in the middle of the performance.

I’ve heard lots of systems at lots of audio dog-and-pony shows and very few come close to producing the comfort level and the ease of listening that the Rega system generates. From the first moment I plugged it all in, I knew there was something special going on. And yeah, I knew some of that was due to the synergy of all the parts working together. But when a particularly mournful Billie Holiday was resurrected in my study, an absolutely real tear came to my eye. When a system touches one’s soul in this way, one must pay attention to it. Music is about emotion, after all, and Rega reaches that rarest of rare spots, playing music that speaks to the heart. Can it get any better than that?

A special nod here to the Chord cabling. As mentioned above, the cost of wire in high-performance audio can rise to astronomical heights, but this stuff, the Chameleon Silver Plus ($225/meter pair) and the Rumour 4 speaker cable ($14/foot), cranks out fantastic sound reproduction for a relatively low price, and Chord wire can be had for even less via its entry-level wires, the Crimson interconnect ($85/meter pair) and Carnival Silver Screen ($3.50/foot) which, in my opinion, get pretty darn close to the slightly higher-priced spread. Though not a Rega product, they mate amazingly well without breaking the bank.

I’d known the Apollo CD player to be a great addition to just about any system, but hadn’t known how successful Rega was in assembling a full lineup of equipment to complement its source gear. And since its designers are truly music lovers, the sonics of this assemblage are far beyond expectations, and far beyond their total cost. I’ve been enjoying hour upon hour of jazz, rock and classical music through this system. While some systems do some things better, few get it all as right as Rega does across the board. And I have nothing short of total respect for the people at Rega’s insistence on doing just about everything themselves. They might not smelt the metal, but they probably would if they thought it would improve the sound.

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Shindo Laboratory System: Aurieges Preamplifier, Montille Amplifier, Shindo and Auditorium 23 Cables, Auditorium 23 Phono Step-up Transformer

I first paid serious attention to the somewhat esoteric gear from Shindo Labs (toneimports.com) a few years ago at the same time that I became a total covert to the sound of the DeVore Fidelity speakers (devorefidelity.com), reviewed here last month. I’d heard the DeVore Silverbacks teamed up with some powerful solid-state amps at a New York City audio confab, and was impressed with their overall musicality, but not overwhelmed. The next day, I visited a Greenwich Village audio salon where the same speakers were paired with some unassuming green-painted tube electronics from Japan. Shindo. Hmmm, I’d seen and heard them before, but, the way they transformed the DeVore speakers from pretty good to astonishing was, well, astonishing. Jaw-droppingly so. I later realized I had to pay them more respect and attention in the form of a proper review. So here we are. The bad thing for my checkbook is that, as when I finally got the DeVore speakers in-house, now that I’ve heard Shindo in my home, I can’t see how I can let this gear go back to the American importer. It’s just that good, that addictive.

Some background: Ken Shindo gave up his job designing televisions for Matsushita (Panasonic) in Japan back in the 1970s in order to concentrate his energy and time on the creation of better and more tonally accurate audio components that would allow listeners a more transparent and accurate window onto any given music event. His belief is that the classic parts engineered in the 1950s and ’60s are much more capable of achieving that end, so he’s been stockpiling these tubes, resistors, capacitors and so on in order to build his equipment with the good stuff, now long out of production. The upside is audio gear that has few peers at any price point. The downside? Once a given part is gone, he’s got to redesign an amp or preamp utilizing some substitute or another, likewise vintage, such that, by definition, or by sheer reality, all Shindo equipment is limited edition. In addition, each piece is hand-built by Ken and his family upon order, so any Shindo unit you purchase will be built specifically for you and can be, within limits, customized for your particular needs.

This system consists of the Shindo Aurieges preamp ($3,895), the Montille amplifier ($3,995), and Shindo silver interconnects ($975), filled out by the Auditorium 23 step-up transformer ($975) and A23 speaker cable ($950). And though technically the A23 gear is not branded Shindo, it has been designed specifically to accompany Shindo electronics. The Aurieges includes a phono stage, but that’s only compatible with high-output moving magnet cartridges, so A23 created the step-up transformer to allow low-output moving-coil phono cartridges to sing along with Shindo. The amplifier is a modest 15-watt job featuring EL84 output tubes manufactured by British Mullard in the 1950s. Need new tubes? Shindo has earmarked a healthy supply of his private stock as replacements, so not to worry, new tubes, of the proper vintage, of course, are just an express shipment away.

One note: Since, by design or otherwise, the Shindo gear is totally synergistic with DeVore’s speakers, they regularly exhibit together at audio shows, and since I own a pair, the DeVore Nines ($6,500) are the speakers utilized within the context of these comments. As well, the source component was primarily my trusty Nottingham Ace Space turntable and Shelter 501MkII cartridge combo played through the A23 phono step-up transformer—talk about synergy!

To put it bluntly, played through the Shindo, music is presented as I’ve never heard it before, at least in my own listening environment: spot on, solid, dimensional, palpable, just friggin’ real, with no artifacts added and nothing taken away. Music has naturalness unlike anything my personal references can recall, other than live in a club or theater. I can almost reach out and put my hand around the neck of Kenny Burrell’s guitar as he vamps with Coltrane, or grab that famous tenor. Each note that pours from Trane’s horn is almost like an aural soap bubble, rounded and clear. I can hear it and feel it, the holographic-ness of the image is that pronounced. It’s liquid without being squishy. It’s punchy without being harsh. It’s relaxed without being lazy. It sort of oozes from the speakers, but in a good way, without being syrupy or sappy. Details emerge where they should without calling attention to themselves, but act only to reinforce the illusion of reality.

To paraphrase the question posed by an old ad slogan, I’d ask, “Is it live, or Shindo?” To my ears, it seems alive, but will not blow one out of one’s chair, or mess up one’s coif; real music doesn’t do that. Instead, the Shindo draws you into the performance, say, a Larry Young tune from his Young Blues LP. The organ flows, the drums propel, the bass kicks ass and lays the foundation solidly, with unquestionable authority. The result is like a musical cocoon surrounding you, or maybe it’s like getting into a time machine drifting back to that very session in September 1960. The only thing the Shindo can’t do is re-create the stench of the musicians’ cigarette smoke.

Many reviewers, myself included, are not totally capable of explaining or defining all the qualities the Shindo gear possesses. Speaker designer DeVore put it this way in an e-mail: “The Shindo is a revelation. I’m fucked until I can sell my old amp. I’ve been inviting everyone over to hear my system. It’s the best it’s ever been, but I have trouble describing why. It just does everything. There is no return from Shindo, if your setup is amenable to it. I still don’t know why. Some days I think it’s just a bit better than everything else, some days I think it’s in its own galaxy, light years better than anything else could ever hope to be. What I’m hearing now is the lowest noise floor, plus the most finely nuanced low-level detail I’ve ever heard in the system. That with better dynamic punch and more three-dimensionality than ever. More perceived extension on top and bottom, too. There’s no area [in which] it’s not better.”

Well, he did manage to convey additional impressions after all and maybe explain some of the magic. But magic is magic, and so is Shindo. If your pocketbook allows, audition some Shindo, next time around. You can spend relatively little, or enough to equal a small house in the Cedar Rapids suburbs.

Rega or Shindo—each can weave the spell, and each can do music the way it should be done. We have to give great thanks to Roy Gandy and Ken Shindo for their unlimited dedication to bringing forth this level of synergy, and for allowing such a musical reality to enter into the privacy of our own homes. But one important caveat as you are listening: Please don’t sip your Brunello along with salted peanuts. That would be an awful combination for sure, totally lacking in synergy.

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