Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Audiophile Review!Rogue Audio PharaohHybrid Integrated Amplifier


Audiophile Integrated Amplifier


Brevis...
Price: $3,495
Likes: gorgeous sound, HP amp.
Dislikes: it lacks nothing, really
Wow Factor: the ultimate in tube/digital

by John Gatski
  Two years ago, Rogue Audio introduced one of the best sounding amplifiers I have ever auditioned, the forward-thinking, tube/digital hybrid Medusa. The 200-wpc 12au7/Hypex digital-output module based amp projects a stunningly accurate sonic portrait that is neither analog or digital, soft or hard. it just relays the music. The better the resolution, the better it makes my speakers sing. I eventually added one to my collection, and it gets perennial use in the review rig.
  With this successful design under his belt, Rogue Audio President and Chief Designer Mark O'Brien introduced several products using this hybrid blend, including the Sphinx amplifier and the new integrated Pharaoh reviewed here.

Features
  Priced at $3,495, the Pharaoh wears the familiar look of the Rogue line of products — in its classic black and silver motif. It also is available in black. The integrated Pharaoh outputs a solid 185 wpc at 8 ohms (and 340 wpc into 4 ohms), has unbalanced input and a number of unbalanced I/Os, onboard tube phono preamp and an all-tube headphone amp.
  The key to the amp’s sound is its hybrid digital internals. Similar to the Medusa, the Pharaoh utilizes a 12AU7 tube-input stage, three-stage analog power supply and a Class-D output stage, incorporating the Hypex digital modules with MOSFET output. The analog signal path also contains a number of high-end components, including Mundorf oil-filled coupling caps and Vishay resistors.
  Rogue Audio’s Mark O'Brien said there are some differences in the Pharaoh, compared to the Medusa design, to make the integrated’s amp section match the on-board preamplifier.

Kudos to Rogue for building more products based on the Medusa hybrid amp. As technologies evolve, there is more than one way to arrive at the “perfect” listening experience; the Pharaoh is mighty close. I only had to listen to it for about five minutes before I selected it for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

  “The Pharaoh is loosely based on our Medusa amplifier — with the addition of a fairly sophisticated preamplifier circuit and all of the features that go into a high-end integrated,” O’Brien explained. “With the Pharaoh, our goal was a one-box amplifier solution that would satisfy both the hard core audiophile, as well as fit into today’s lifestyle approach to high-end audio.
  O’Brien said the use of digital output modules encompasses the latest in modern design, yet he did not forget about his tube customers. “The preamplifier circuit is based around a pair of 12AU7 tubes in a mu follower configuration. We use variations of this in a variety of our products because I really like the sound of it, and it does a great job with power supply noise rejection. It also offers a low-output impedance to the amplifier for proper signal."
  O’Brien points out that, like the Medusa, the Pharaoh does not contain a digital power supply, but a high-quality analog linear supply. “Another important aspect of this design is its use of large linear supplies for both the power amp and preamp sections. I’m a firm believer that the switching supplies used by many manufacturers are responsible for the “edginess” detectable in some amp designs.


The King has plenty of connections

  Feature-wise, the Pharaoh has a flexible array of connections, including four sets of unbalanced line inputs (CD, Aux I, Aux 2, Unity), phono input and fully balanced L-R inputs. The output connections include separate fixed and variable unbalanced RCA and a line-level processor loop. A pass through-unity gain set of RCA connectors can be used as a home theater bypass. The speaker binding posts are located near the top on each side.
  The front panel has just enough controls to reflect its versatility and looks totally cool in its black/silver, classic Rogue Audio scheme that has been used since day one. The controls include power switch, rotary input selector, processor loop button, center-mounted volume control, unity gain switch, balance rotary pot and the headphone amp engage push button. You will also notice the remote control sensor and a mute light. The silver aluminum remote duplicates the front panel functions, while reinforcing the classy design approach to the Pharaoh; no plastic remote here.
  The headphone amp circuit is entirely tube, with the load driven by a hand-selected 12AU7. Through my AKG K702s and Shure SRH-1840 ‘phones, the sound was deep, wide and rich in sonic layers — with a silky smooth sheen that does not betray the music accuracy.
  Just because it contains digital parts, don't think the Pharaoh is a lightweight. With an 18.23-inch width and 17.5 inch depth, the heavy duty chassis build and chunky power supply parts push the Kings poundage to 40 plus.

The setup
  I had several months to audition the Rogue Pharaoh, and I put it to good use in my main system, driving speakers from Legacy, Pass Labs, MartinLogan and Westlake Audio. I also used it at last year’s Capital Audio Fest in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we did our “Stack of DACs” listening sessions.
  For the main review, I connected to a multitude of sources, including Oppo BDP-105 universal player and numerous DACS: Benchmark DAC2 D, Mytek Stereo 192/DSD, Parasound Z-DAC and a Lynx Hi-Lo. A ClearAudio turntable allowed me to check out the Rogue’s vinyl preamp playback.
  Comparison amps included the aforementioned Medusa, Bryston 14B-SSTII and a Pass Labs X350.5. Amp-to-speaker connections were made via Alpha-Core solid-silver cables. All line-level connections were WireWorld’s premium cables. To keep the AC clean and smooth, I used Essential Sound Products (ESP) Essence Reference II power cables and power strip.

The audition
  My initial listening sessions came through the immersive Martin-Logan Montis electrostatics. Having procured a Medusa for reference several months prior and doing a fair amount of listening through the Montis, I was not surprised, at all, with the Pharaoh’s transparent character delivered through the same speakers. The Montis' uses a self-powered subwoofer from 300 Hz and lower, thus, the Rogue bass performance was not as apparent, but the rest of the spectrum, as  powered by the Rogue, was mighty good.
  On the Gene Bertoncini — Body and Soul SACD (now out of print), the nylon-string guitar player delivers incredible interpretations of familiar jazz standards. As with the Medusa, the Pharaoh rendered this music with uncanny accuracy, width and depth. The string transients from the guitar are so real sounding (as a guitar player I know a thing or two about guitar sound) that you are looking around the room for the instrument
  The Pharaoh lays down the tone via the Montis every bit as good as the Medusa — with just a hair more warmth, which I attribute to the more active tube preamp stage. I normally use a solid state Coda or Pass Labs solid state XP-10 pre with the Medusa, which is slightly less round on the upper bass. (It is a very small difference that is often insignificant when listening to solo acoustic music. I hear it more with electric bass guitar).
  Next I switched up to the Tom Jung-engineered, Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD. This jazz album, recorded in the late 1990s and mixed in surround and stereo, has very live-sounding piano and drums, and the dynamics that put you right smack in the studio session. With top-tier audio gear, the album's sound is about as real (hence the title) as it gets through electronic sound reproduction. Mr. Jung, who happens to write for EAN, says it is his best sounding recording from the DMP days.


A clean, tidy layout inside the Pharaoh

  As with the Medusa, the Pharaoh relays the recording’s drum sound with excellent bass tightness that many traditional tube and solid state amp makers can only envy. The bass character was more apparent through my passive speakers because the Montis onboard powered sub handles most of the mid bass and low bass. With full range speakers, the digital hybrid Pharaoh delivers tightness and speed better than amps I have heard at five times the price. The Medusa/Coda tandem may be just a touch tighter in midbass delivery than the Pharaoh, but I could not always tell in A/B comparisons. The Pharaoh is that good!
  Although there is a misguided perception that anything digital in the amplification stage is musical heresy, I would point to the Pharaoh’s ability to relay the gorgeous Steinway sound in “So Real.” That upper-register tinkle is delivered with a subtle reverb room ambiance that is easily heard in high-res. As with my Medusa, I was heartened that the Pharaoh resolved the music in the same fashion. I played a lot of piano music during my time with the King and was never left longing or came away disappointed that the amp had an adverse effect on the instrument.
  For classical music, I played a 24/352.8 (DXD) cut: the first movement of Mozart Violin Concerto in D major KV 218, I Allegro. This 2L recording (I paid a whopping $41 for the master DXD download) is the definitive violin recording — in terms of delivering all the harmonics and rich complexity of the instrument.
  To play the 24/352.8, I selected the TEAC UD501 DAC that can play 24 bit — up to 384 kHz sample rate. As with the Medusa, I was impressed with the Pharaoh’s ability to resolve all the bow-to-string harmonics and the orchestra’s lush width; it may even have been a touch smoother, thanks to its tube preamplification. Janos Starker’s Bach Solo Cello Suites (Mercury Living Presence) came through just as impressive. The definitive performance of these Bach cello pieces was not let down by the Pharaoh one bit.


The balanced XLRs were much appreciated during the review

  For pop music, I auditioned the recent high-res release of Phil CollinsFace Value, an analog-to-24/192 transfer available on HD Tracks site. Again, the Pharaoh nailed it. In the song “This Must Be Love," the width of the percussion, bass and vocals were all beamed with analog precision. That slight bit of warmth we all love from analog tape, yet with only the detail the best systems can deliver. Try hearing that subtle drum reverb with a MP3 boom box and an iPod.
  All the music that I played through the Pharaoh and the ML Montis, I also replayed through the other speakers. The Legacy Studios were a good match for the Rogue. In fact, I used the Rogue and the Studio HDs in my demo room at the 2013 Capital Audio Fest. Many of the attenders said they were impressed by the sound. In fact, a majority of folks who listened, but who were not familiar with the Pharaoh model, said they did not know that it was a hybrid digital until I told them.
  The Rogue Pharaoh also was mated with the Pass Labs SR-1 three-way towers. Again, the Rogue had no problem driving them. That warm, balanced tone of the Pass’ were perfectly personified through the Pharaoh.
  The Pharaoh also matched well with my personal Westlake LC8.1 bookshelf speakers, as well as the new Westlake Tower 6, a new 3-way that I have a review pending. I don’t think there is a speaker the Pharaoh could not work with.

The headphone experience
  Being an avid headphone listener, I listened a lot through the onboard tube headphone amp. Through the AKG K702 headphones, the sound was a bit more warm than the Montis speaker output in the midbass, but, man, does it have excellent width and depth. It blows away many a standalone headphone amp — and those built into some of the high-end DACs. It had no problem driving my AKG-K702 or the Shure SRH-1840, both headphones with ultra accuracy, especially in the bass.
  The Rogue Audio Pharaoh is the perfect marriage of a modern state-of-the art digital amplifier with a traditional tube preamp. With the same foundation as the mighty Medusa, the Pharaoh just gets out of the way when the music starts to play.

  On the Miles Davis —Someday My Prince Will Come SACD, the drum cymbals came through the Rogue and my Shure SRH1840 with that brushed metallic sheen that analog tape captures so elegantly. The trumpet was never harsh or exaggerated. The headphone amp never got hard sounding — even at high levels, and it was pretty darn quiet with no noticeable self-hiss.

Don’t forget vinyl
  The Pharaoh’s phono preamp is no slouch either. Through my ClearAudio TT and AT150-ML MM cartridge (about as accurate-sounding a cartridge you can get), I dropped the needle down onto Wes Montgomery’s “Full House,” the audiophile, half-speed mastered LP version of the classic club concert from 1963. The Rogue presented the LP playback in a wide, full image — without excessive bloom in the midbass, or softness in the top-end. Mr. Montgomery’s warm, thumb-picked tone via his Gibson L5/Fender Twin amp setup came through just fine. Like all of Rogue Audio’s tube products, the hand-selected tubes and choice component selection means a quiet phono preamp as well.
  I did not use the processor loop, but I did hook up the home theater bypass/unity gain input. The signal was clean and quiet with ample level for those who wish to integrate this integrated into a home cinema system.
  Speaking of level, I did play around with various outputs to see if I could upset the Rogue’s transparency and low distortion. Even when simultaneously driving all the unbalanced line outputs (fixed and variable) and the speakers, the music always sounded clean. This integrated has plenty of oomph.
  There was nothing to complain about during the course of my lengthy audition with Pharaoh. It was a brand new unit, with very little factory burn-in time, I just unboxed it and put it into active duty; no problems at all. At the Capital Audio Fest, it was on active duty ten hours each day — without any turn-off breaks.

The verdict
  The Rogue Audio Pharaoh is the perfect marriage of a modern, state-of-the-art digital amplifier with a traditional tube preamp. With the same foundation as the mighty Medusa, the Pharaoh just gets out of the way when the music starts to play. Impressive detail, not a hint of treble edge or objectionable over-bloom in the bass. You throw in the top-notch headphone amp, a quality phono preamp and plenty of I/O options, including balanced, it’s got everything you need.
  Kudos to Rogue for building more products based on the Medusa hybrid amp. As technologies evolve, there is more than one way to arrive at the “perfect” listening experience; the Pharaoh is mighty close. I only had to listen to it for five minutes before I selected it for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

©Articles on this site are the copyright of the Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.


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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Audiophile Power Cable Review!Essential Sound Products (ESP)Essence Reference-II Power Cord,Essence Reference-II Power Distributor


Brevis...
Price: $1,999 (cord),
$2,999 (distributor)
Likes: durable, RF shielding
Dislikes: difficult to bend

by John Gatski
  Three years ago, I reviewed the Essential Sound Products MusicCord Pro ES power cord. Although upmarket power cords engender strong opinions about whether they make a difference in the sound of hi-fi gear, I gave the cord and accompanying power strip a great review. I did not hear magic in my system, but I heard and measured incremental improvements in low-level noise as a result of its effective RF shielding, especially on unbalanced cables, with incremental sonic improvement in low bass. And, as importantly, these upscale cables netted a physical robustness to handle all my numerous plug/unplug cycles with the review gear.
  Despite controversy over claimed audible improvements with upscale power cords, I have used them for years. I find that a good, well-made accessory power cord is better than the cheap power cords that come with most products, and the “tighter clamping force” of the plugs make for a more efficient conductor path that does not arc and produce stray noises. I am convinced that a tight connection and quality wire in the proper gauge can also help maintain tight accurate bass with a consistent flow of energy to the amplifier’s power supply.
  Good accessory power cables also have better wire, accurate gauging, and stronger outer coating and strain relief connections that do not break easily. As a reviewer, I plug in and unplug components constantly and have had, in the last five years, four stock cables break at the thin strain-relief zone.

The Essence Reference-II
  With my positive ESP power cord experience with the MusicCord Pro in mind, I decided to take a listen to the company’s top-tier audiophile cord — the Essence Reference-II, reviewed here. These pricier, made-in-USA power cords are a very good upgrade AC conduits, with tough durable build and quality wire that assures consistent current and shielding against potential AC noise. They are not low cost like the factory supplied cords, or those you get at the hardware store, but they are not as expensive as I have seen. A two meter Essence Reference-II cord is $1,999; the Essence Reference-II Power Distributor is $2,999.
  The Essence Reference-II and its impressive, passive eight unit Essence Reference-II power strip, are the design pinnacle of Michael Griffin, the owner and designer of the Essential Sound Products. According to Griffin, the Essence Reference-II Power Cord is a testament to the old adage that sometimes “less is more.”
  “We chose premium quality Furutech plugs and connectors that feature high-purity “plain” (i.e. no plating) copper terminal contacts,” he explained. “These replace previous components that had plain, brass terminal contacts. Brass is only about 2/3 copper content.”
  Griffin said that the Essence Reference-II’s pure copper is also employed throughout the entire current-carrying path; no other materials or plating is used.

  My overall sonic impression — with the Essence Reference-II cords in place with the Pass Labs XA30.5 Class A MOSFET amp, MartinLogan Montis speakers and the Oppo BDP-105 feeding the Benchmark DAC2 D DAC — was that the sound was vividly tight in the bass with all the detail those wonderful ML Montis can reproduce through the electrostatics. Not a hint of extraneous noise.

  “Our termination and epoxy fill process has been optimized to these new components,” Griffin notes. “Epoxy fill serves several key performance objectives. First, the epoxy we use has similar dielectric properties to the PVC insulation on the current-carrying conductors. This continuity of dielectric environment improves performance, versus the conductors going in and out of different dielectric environments. Second, the epoxy fill hermetically seals the termination components to prevent performance degradation due to oxidation and corrosion.”
  Griffin explained that the hardened epoxy also provides superior strain relief to the conductor terminations. With most cable assemblies, the connector termination points are typically the weakest or most fragile part of a cable assembly. “With our power cords, the termination points are arguably the strongest,” he added.
  A fitting companion to the Essence Reference-II power cable, the Essence Reference-II Power Distributor matches the power cord in its robust, overbuilt construction and similar electrical circuit refinements. Griffin insists that the heavy duty build can ensure against degraded performance as a result of “structural and airborne vibrations”.

Multiple-outlet distribution
  The Essence Reference-II Power Distributor combines an aluminum chassis with excellent RF shielding characteristics and high mechanical rigidity — with numerous vibration isolation and damping techniques, including coating the internal walls and encapsulating the wiring harness assembly in a silicone damping material.

The Power Distributor is extra heavy duty

  The internal wiring is assembled from multi-conductor shielded cable that is new and unique to the Reference-II, according to Griffin The distributor is wired in a “star’ or “home run” pattern where each duplex outlet is connected directly to the power cable, providing isolation. The duplex outlets are custom manufactured by Leviton. They are “hospital grade” and “isolated ground” with “line” and “neutral” contacts made from electrical grade bronze, which is 98% copper versus brass that is about 2/3 copper. The bronze contacts are not plated as is the case with most other hospital grade receptacles. Additional isolation, new for the Reference-II, has been added between the outlets and chassis, and wiring assembly and chassis walls, further lowering the noise floor. Of course, the power strips power cord is upgraded to a hard-wired Reference-II.
  The Essence Reference-II products are available in USA termination, or for our friends across the ocean, in European spec plugs. Ditto for the Power Distributor.

The audition
  As with the MusicCord Pro ES, I conducted listening and measurement tests with unbalanced line cable placed near stock power cords to ascertain its noise rejection and suppression. With the stock cords on the Oppo BDP-105 and the Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp routed next to the RCA cables (Kimber Cable) , buzz and noise sidebands could be measured at -60 dB when playing CD test discs with silence tracks. With the headphone amp cranked up. I could hear the noise as well.
  When I inserted the Essence Reference-II cords into the chain, the low-level hash was gone, no noise on the meter and no audible noise. Now, of course, this noise would not be heard with a normal signal, but it is noise that robs resolution from your system, and it is a testament to the ESP Essence Reference-II’s effectiveness. If you paid $100,000 for a top-end audiophile system that runs unbalanced cables, you would be happy knowing that these AC cords curb the noise. Of course, you could run balanced lines, if your system allows it, to cut down on the noise, but some purists prefer the single-ended approach.
  My overall sonic impression — with the Essence Reference-II cords in place with the Pass Labs XA30.5 Class A MOSFET amp, MartinLogan Montis speakers and the Oppo BDP-105 feeding the Benchmark DAC2 D DAC — was that the sound was vividly tight in the bass with all the detail those wonderful ML Montis can reproduce through the electrostatics. Not a hint of extraneous noise.   

No noise is good noise
   Replacing the Essence Reference-II with the factory cords seemed to loosen the bass a bit. And from a durability standpoint, you can understand my preference for better cords. During the test, one of the stock cords had a loose ground lug that actually produced some arcing buzz — unless I held it in the amp’s receptacle very tightly.
  The Power Distributor did not add any additional noise-suppression properties, but I felt better having this big gun in the system; the heavy, passive strip’s eight premium outlets came in handy for my review duties, and its size allowed all these heavy cables to be plugged in without pulling the strip over. This the best power strip I have ever used when it comes to handling a gaggle of heavy duty power cords. And it does not hurt, to have the same cord construction and internal parts as the Essence Reference-II cords.

ESP cords are UL approved

  The premium materials endemic in the Essence-Reference II cords, made for extensive muscle strength needed to flex the cables around corners, rack posts, etc. In my audiophile rig, I have a four-glass shelf rack with three large column supports. The wall receptacle is behind the rear column. I really had to manhandle the ESP Essence Reference-II to get it to bend around the column. Like fighting an alligator!
  Speaking of price, $2,000 for a power cord and $3,000 for the power strip ain’t pocket change. Of course, I know audiophiles who spend way more on their accessories than $2,000. And into the stratosphere for the components. These are the guys who will buy this cable. The demographic and the prices charged strike an equilibrium in this crazy world of audiophiles. If a product was priced too high, ESP would not be in business.

The verdict
  Although the sonic benefits were subtle, my tests showed that the Essence Reference-II can improve sound quality by eliminating the potential resolution-robbing AC-line noise and maintaining optimum current for AC-intensive products, such as amplifiers.
  And just as important in my book, these cables are way better made than the made-in-Asia cheapies thrown into the box of many audio components. The Essence Reference-II makes a better receptacle/plug-connection and is so durable thay it will last forever. Just try to break one. At $2,000 a cord and $3,000 per Power Distributor, they ain’t cheap, but you are getting one of the best cords out there. I happen to use four of them in the reference system. 

©Articles on this site are the copyright of the Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.


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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

EAN Quick-REVIEW!Two New PCM/DSD RecordersTested:TASCAM DA-3000 Master Recorder,Sony PCM-D100 Handheld Recorder


Standalone Hi-Res Perfection - $1,249
The Portable That Does It All - $999


by John Gatski
  With all the clamor for hands-on info on the new TASCAM DA-3000 24-192/double speed DSD master stereo recorder and Sony’s new PCM-D100 PCM/DSD handheld recorder, several days of review notes have netted me enough info to pass on to you recording fanatics in condensed form. Long-form review and measurements are coming in a couple of weeks.
**Both these recorders are versatile high-res units that can be used by seasoned pros, musicians, home-studio operators, and quality conscious audiophiles who want the best quality audio for original and dubbed recordings, such as LP digital archiving. TASCAM DA-3000: 24/192 and 2X DSD, too.

TASCAM DA-3000: A Masterful Master Recorder
  As the replacement for the highly regarded, $2,600 DVRA1000-HD stereo master PCM/DSD recorder-player, that was originally launched as the 2RU DVRA-1000 with DVD drive in 2005, I was unsure how much quality TASCAM could squeeze into a $1,000 one-RU DA-3000 ($1,249 retail). After using it for a bit, I am happy to report that this versatile, pro/pro-sumer/audiophile-friendly unit gives you everything you got in the DVRA-1000, plus double speed DSD, better analog output and more intuitive control; you also get all the same connections, but improved Burr Brown converters.
  In the short amount of time I possessed the DA-3000 demo unit, I made numerous dubs, mix-downs and original recordings. In short order, I was impressed by its A/D and D/A performance — in PCM (192 kHz) and the double-speed DSD 5.6 MHz sample rate.


The double-speed DSD’s subjective sonic impression is one of a slightly, but audible, tighter bass and image focus than at 2.8 MHz, and the 24/192 PCM recordings are ultra smooth — with generous layers of detail

  It is a first rate player/recorder with its tracks recorded and played from Compact Flash, the king of the small format flash media. Recorded detail, depth and width at 192K and at the 5.6 MHz DSD rate is spectacular! The double-speed DSD’s subjective sonic impression is one of a slightly, but audible, tighter bass and image focus than at 2.8 MHz, and the 24/192 PCM recordings are ultra smooth — with generous layers of detail and ultra-quick transient response on guitar string attack, brass instruments and drum cymbals.


Metering is excellent on this 1RU DA-3000

  It has plenty of connections for external clocking, and A/D-D/A connection (including DSD converters), and a full array of balanced and unbalanced analog connections. The meter legend and lighting are superior to the DVRA-1000HD, the hard drive version of the original DVD-drive based deck, and the headphone amp is much smoother sounding — with a wider soundstage.
  I was initially apprehensive about how good TASCAM could make the DA-3000 considering its much smaller footprint and $1,600 price reduction, compared to the DVRA-1000HD. Now, after using it, I believe it is superior in every way. Anyone want to buy two well-used DVRA-1000s? Stay tuned for our full review and bench test. More info at TASCAM DA-3000.

Sony Adds New Flagship Portable PCM-D100:
Now With 24/192, DSD and FLAC Player
  With all the renewed interest in DSD via Internet download and more activity on the recording front, Sony has released a replacement for the long-running PCM-D50 and the PCM-D1 handheld player/recorders. The D1 flagship was released about 10 years ago. Having owned a D1, the second-tier D50 and the 2010 introduced, entry level PCM-D10, I can honestly say that after a few days of use, the D100 performs so much better than the older generation models.
  The new handheld recorder includes two Sony cardioid microphones, 32-GB internal hard drive, SD Card slot and the ability to record up to 24/192 PCM and DSD at 2.8MHz sample rate. It also can playback high-res FLAC files. The unit runs on four-AA batteries, rechargeable or throw-aways, and has the typical switches and menu-based functions found on today’s musician grade/pro handhelds.


Where the PCM-D100 excels over its older brethren is the sound quality; the PCM 24/192 and DSD quality are superb. In dubbing a bunch of very hi-res recordings and with original guitar tracks recorded through the mics, the sound was significantly more detailed and smoother

  Where the PCM-D100 excels over its older brethren is the sound quality; the PCM 24/192 and DSD quality are superb. In dubbing a bunch of very hi-res recordings and with original guitar tracks recorded through the mics, the sound was significantly more detailed and smoother than the $2,000 D1, with its mid 2001 converter technology. The DSD mode is excellent as well, though the 24-bit format recording path yields many more ways to process and edit. In DSD format, the analog-warmness always shines through.
  The onboard analog parts are first rate as well, especially for a portable. Headphone output offers plenty of oomph for hard-to-drive headphones, and the circuit lacks the edgy sonic signature of the old D1. The headphone amp drove my AKG K702 Anniversary headphones to ear splitting levels at level 4 out of the 10 available on the rotary volume knob.
  The PCM-D1 had high-grade Sony microphones, but I always thought they were a bit bright sounding. The mics on the D100 are smoother. The D50’s recorded sound was less harsh than the D1, but the D100 blows it away, as well, with its ultimate fidelity and higher-res capabilities. As an example, the D1 or D50 would not handle 88.2K sample rate music, only 96K. The D100 handles all PCM sample rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz.

Handy, Dandy and DSD

  Power efficiency also is up on the PCM-D100. The old PCM-D1 burned through batteries. It used to run out of gas with alkaline throwaways in 40 minutes of recording and playback. With the new recorder, I get more than eight hours of continual playback.
  Feature-wise, the D100 has optical digital in and out ports, like the D50, and is about the same size. Overall, I would compare the D100‘s general sonic quality with the much cheaper, but high-performing TASCAM DR-100 Mk-II PCM handheld, but the Sony two ups the TASCAM with its ability to go to 192K on PCM, and discrete DSD.
  The D100 also makes for a dandy carry-along high-res music player for all but the highest PCM sample rates (352.8 and 384), and FLAC and DSD music downloads. In a word, the Sony D100 is fast becoming my new favorite handheld player/recorder. I just wish it was a couple of hundred bucks less.
  Stay tuned for more in-depth testing on the new PCM-D100. More info at:
Sony PCM-D100.



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Friday, December 20, 2013

Exclusive First Review!Pass Labs SR-2 Three-Way LoudspeakerDelivers Audiophile Class, Sound Quality




Brevis...
Price: $18,000
Likes: Peaceful, easy signature
Dislikes: no piano black gloss
More info: Pass SR-2

by John Gatski

  Best known for its superb-sounding amplifiers and preamplifiers, Pass Labs has rarely produced loudspeakers. The grande-sized Rushmore. manufactured from 2003-2008, was a fantastic speaker, though up there in price — and it weighed a ton (not really, but seemed like it). I listened to it at CES a few time and liked its rock solid, deep bass and ability to beam its energy into a big room.
  Pass Labs’ current line of speakers includes two-models in the SR-Series, They are said to continue the rich, music reproduction of the Rushmore, but in smaller packages and at more typical audiophile prices. The models are the top-of-the-line. dual-stacked cabinet SR-1 4-way and the uni-cabinet SR-2 3-way.
  I put in my request for a review pair of the entry model SR-2 three-way, a tower speaker that looks like it costs a lot more than its $18,000 per pair list price. This speaker offers a no-hype, high-caliber transmission of sonics that is old school smooth and gimmick free. It relays high-resolution music with a keen accuracy and much welcome, tight, deep bass from its port-assisted cabinet. As I discovered during the review process, it matched well with Pass’ amps, as well as various other amp designs.

Features
  The made-in-USA SR-2 is a very handsome tower speaker, finished in a cherry finish back and sides and black angled front baffle. The three-way, bass-reflex design is equipped with three, custom-made SEAS Nextel drivers, consisting of a 10-inch bass driver, 6-inch midrange and a 1-inch HEXADYM tweeter. The premium Nextel Series SEAS drivers are not the latest in metal dome technology, but are hybrid paper/textile composites that make for a transparent, clean, smooth, tonal characteristic that is not hyped anywhere in the spectrum.
  The 12 dB-per-octave second order crossover frequencies are centered at 126 Hz and 3.2 kHz. The crossover circuit contains premium parts including polypropylene capacitors from Kimber and Solen, Mills resistors, and high-current Erse inductors, all mounted on thick, heavily plated circuit boards. The wire is the same used in the output stages in Pass amplifiers

With the original Rushmore as its inspiration, and Pass’ dedication to high-end quality hi-fi, the SR-2 is as fine loudspeakers as you could buy out to about $40,000. Its accurate tonal spectra, classy build and good looks net it a Stellar Sound Award.

  The other key to the speaker’s performance is its cabinet, a heavily-braced, solidly built MDF enclosure — with cherry veneer and the solid black baffle. This speaker cabinet was designed to have minimal effect on the outbound sound from the drivers and rear port, which measures five inches across. Each enclosure weighs 165 pounds, including the drivers. I would call the Pass SR-2 a medium sized tower, at 42 inches tall, and fairly compact in width, about 16-inches. Front to-back dimensions are 24-inches.
  The speaker connections are bi-wireable, or you can use them with the supplied jumpers. I tested them with the jumpers engaged and with Westlake bi-wire cables.
  The SR-2 contains two tone-tailoring adjustments: rotary-detent, attenuation controls for the tweeter and a woofer, located on the back panel. The tweeter control has three positions: -, flat, and +. The bass has the same adjustments.
  The Pass literature on this speaker does not reveal level changes, in dB, when using these controls, but it appears to be 3-dB steps. In my room, I left the controls in their “flat” position. In a heavily carpeted room with soft furniture you might turn the tweeter switch up to +. Similarly, a reflective room may benefit from the minus position. Bass attenuation via the control could compensate for boomy rooms or less than ideal placement. It’s best to play around with the controls to see what you prefer.

SRT-2: a perfect mate for most any Pass amp


  The SR-2 comes with removable grill that give it a look of refinement, but sonically, I prefer listening with the grill detached. It is slightly more present and real sounding to my ears. Again, it’s my preference, in my listening room.
  The overall system frequency response is rated at 35 Hz - to 20 kHz, minus -3 dB on the bottom end. Using an AudioControl RTA, I measured better than rated spec at about 32 Hz in my listening room, the -3dB point. The nominal system impedance is 6 ohms, Sensitivity is not overly high, but a respectable, 86 dB, 1W/1meter. That is why you have all those watts, right? In reality, a 30-watt amp can drive this speaker to ear-shattering volume in typical listening rooms.
  The SR-2 and its big brother, the SR-1 4-way, which uses a two-enclosure, stacked arrangement, were designed, according to Pass, to carry on the Rushmore tradition of fine, accurate sound in an elegant enclosure. The speaker line also address the desires of Pass amp owners who wanted a new speaker to call their own. I would say that Nelson Pass and company achieved their goal, but the speaker has a much wider potential audience. As I discovered, the SR-2 can work with most any amplifier.

The setup 
  I placed the speakers in my audiophile listening room about 8 ft. apart and 7 ft. from the back wall. They were angled in, per the Pass manual. I used various amps from my collection, including two Pass amps: the X350.5 Class A/B MOSFET and the ever-versatile XA30.5, all Class A super symmetry MOSFET. I also mated the SR-2s with the highly regarded Rogue Audio Medusa Class D/tube hybrid amp, a Bryston 14B SSTII, and a vintage 1960s Macintosh MC275. For kicks, I also plugged the speakers into an AudioControl AVR-4 Class H receiver — one of the better multichannel all-arounders out there, but also a pretty good stereo playback component. (click here to see the review on EAN).
  The audition preamps included the Coda High Current, the Rogue Audio Model 99 tube pre, and a Pass Labs XP-10 preamp. I used WireWorld interconnects for balanced and unbalanced termination, and Alpha-Core Goertz solid-silver, flat two-conductor speaker cables for uni-wire and the Westlake Audio bi-wire cables.

The first thing I noticed with the SR-2s was how clean the bass was, even with the five-inch wide rear port; the bass has a tight, almost acoustic suspension character. The bass drums and the organ’s chugging low-end girth were clear and defined.

  Source gear included the Oppo BDP-105 universal player and Macbook Pro with Audirvana playback software for high-res download playback. The Mac was connected to either a Benchmark DAC2-D or Mytek Stereo192 DSD D/A. Record duties were handled by my Clear Audio turntable and an AT-150ML cartridge.
  As typical in my test setups, all components were linked to the AC through Essential Sounds Products Essence II power cords and power strip that are clean as a whistle, in terms of noise rejection and current delivery
  Though the speakers don’’t look that big, the SR-2 are stout. The MDF cabinet, plus heavy duty drivers and electronics, contribute to a 160 pound+ package that is quite heavy to move around by yourself. After doing the tippy-toe dance in their shipping cartons, I got them down two flights of stairs to my basement audiophile room. I carefully unpacked them from their foam packing material, slid them into position, and adjusted the feet to get the tweeter close to ear level.
  Pass Labs President Desmond Harrington said the tester SR-2s had been given a mild break-in before leaving the factory, but I plugged in an old CD player and played, on repeat, a test tone CD for three days to further burn in the drivers.

The audition
  Firing up the Pass Labs X350.5 amp, my listening tests began with a lengthy listening session with one of my favorite jazz recordings, the Anthony Wilson TrioOur Gang SACD (Groovenote GRV1008-3), now out of print. Using the Oppo BDP-105, this is a well-recorded, minimalist, direct-to DSD recording of Mr. Wilson’s fine Gibson jazz guitar playing, Joe Bagg on Hammond B3 and Mark Ferber on drums. The 2001 recording has a warm bass character, yet energetic top-end with ever-present drum cymbals, intricate guitar picking and that thick sound of a Hammond tube organ with Leslie.
  The first thing I noticed with the SR-2s was how clean the bass was, even with the five-inch wide rear port; the bass has a tight, almost acoustic suspension character. The bass drums and the organ’s chugging low-end girth were clear and defined. I think the ultra-rigid cabinet construction also contributes to this clean-bass character.
  The midrange tones were quite accurate, not overly forward or recessed, while the top-end beams a smooth, analog-like presentation. No metallic-tweeter artifacts or the narrowness of some ribbons that I have auditioned.
  Some audiophiles may perceive the treble as a touch laid back, but the more I listened, the more it sounded balanced and accurate. If you want to punch up the treble presentation in a “dark” sounding room, you can turn the SR-2‘s tweeter attenuation switch to +, which adds a tinge of shimmer. But if your room is not heavy in fabric and you have normal upper-frequency reflections, the switch’s flat position is just fine.

This speaker offers a no-hype, high-caliber transmission of sonics that is old school smooth and gimmick free. It relays high-resolution music with a keen accuracy and much welcome, tight, deep bass from its port-assisted cabinet. As I discovered during the review process, it matches well with Pass’ own amps, as well as various other amp designs.

  Moving onto the Warren Bernhardt - So Real SACD, recorded by Tom Jung in 1999, the SR-2 sounds terrific on the piano interludes, showcasing that fine Steinway grand used in the recording; the upper register notes were natural  — without any of that ringing I sometimes hear with cheap metal-dome tweeter speakers — and I could hear the room reverb decay quite clearly.
  On classical music, the Pass SR-2 midrange quality was obvious — with a thoroughly enjoyable listening session with Janos Starker - Bach Cello Suites SACD. The sweet cello tones were spot on through the Pass speakers, projecting a rich, velvety texture and plenty of string harmonics. Again, these SEAS drivers were fatigue-free, yet detailed in their relay of the cello. The SR-2 pair were equally at home with violin recordings, never descending into that edgy, ragged tone that you hear with over-hyped speakers.
  To check out the bombast of a spirited orchestral work, I played the Telarc SACD transfer of Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture, recorded in  1978 with Eric Kinzel and the Cincinnati Pop Orcestra. Though a 16-bit PCM recording using the Soundstream recorder (popular in the early days of digital), the dynamic range is vast — ranging from low-level instrument solos to the full-tilt power of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the overdubbed cannon shots that all build to a crescendo. At 90 dB plus levels, the Pass SR-2s never showed any strain through the X350.5, or any of the other amps. Although not reaching the depths of a subwoofer, The SR-2 relayed the cannon shots quite well — with substantial sub 40-Hz impact.
  Compared to my Legacy Focus 20/20s and the MartinLogan Montis electrostatics, the SR-2s imaging held its own. The MartinLogan electrostatic dipole is the king of soundstage width and depth, creating amazing space between instruments. As a traditional three-way, the Pass SR-2 is not quite in that league, but is surprisingly wide in its stereo projection for a narrow tower speaker, offering good depth front to back. I think the tight bass also contributes to its ample musical space impression.

I did a lot of repeat listening of the music on my other amps, and the SR-2’s essential character was maintained. The Rogue Audio tube/Class D MOSFET was slightly leaner, the Bryston 14B SST II split the two, and the Pass all-Class A XA30.5 tilled toward slight warm.

  For those who love vinyl, the SR-2s will not disappoint you. Via my Clear Audio turntable, the attached AT150ML cartridge, and preamplification through the Rogue Audio Model 99 tube pre with Magnum phono stage, my half-speed mastered Wes Montgomery - Full House reissue was delightful. Montgomery’s amazing, thumb-picked Gibson L5, and the open, live analog recording from the early 60s, projects an immediacy that only vinyl and analog tape can convey. I really dug that sound when listening to the Pass SR-2s. The combination of the AT’s accurate-as-you-can-get-from-a-phono-cartridge sound, and the tight, present demeanor of the Pass SR-2s, made for a blissful record-listening experience.
  On pop music, the SR-2s immersed me with their smooth, focused bass and open, top-end. The Neil DiamondHot August Night reissue double CD, one of the best live recordings from the 70s, sounded aces. The speakers highlighted  the analog recording’s broad presentation of Mr. Diamond’s many talents: from faux country (Your So Sweet, Kentucky Woman), hard rocking, (Crunchy Granola Suite) and big tent pop/gospel (Brother Love’s Salvation Show/Soloman). This album kicked butt through the SR-2s.
  For the grittier, bluesy side of the spectrum, I popped in my Stevie Ray Vaughn/Albert King - In Session SACD. The overdriven guitar tone and gritty vocals cane through with all of their colors intact. The digital recording never got hard or edgy with the SR-2s. On dense, dance-pop/hip-hop music, the SR-2’s bottom-end control makes the music more listenable versus some bigger towers that I have tested. One of 2013‘s biggest singles was Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Its vintage Chic vibe with plump bass line and Nile Rogers guitar rift, is infectious and gets full play from the Pass SR-2s. Heck, I even put on my vintage copy of Chic - Risqué, the vinyl record version, (yeah baby, 1979). The SR-2 pumped out the dance floor vibe with that signature rhythm guitar, bass and female vocal lead just fine.

Pass SR-2 tweeter attenuation switch


  Speaking of vocals, compared to the many forward-voiced speakers that proliferate the audio landscape, today, the Pass SR-2 does not have an aggressive mid character, This can make voices, depending on the recording, sound slightly more subdued in comparison, but I think it is mostly is the reference point of other speakers that exaggerate the mids. The SR-2's vocal clarity and its tonal balance is more like the real thing. By the way, The SEAS tweeter does a magnificent job of dampening down sibilance and upper-spectrum resonances, especially with female voices.
  I did a lot of repeat listening of the same music on my other amps, and the SR-2’s essential character was maintained. The Rogue Audio tube/Class D MOSFET was slightly leaner, the Bryston 14B SST II split the two, and the Pass all Class A XA30.5 tilled toward slight warm. The old Macintosh MC275 tube amp, coupled with the Rogue Model 99 tube pre, conveyed an ultra-vintage, soft bass, laid-back tone that was nice on instrumental jazz and classical, but plumped up the bass with pop music. Time to turn down the woofer switch.
  Just to show that all roads are not paved in separates, a bit of time with the AudioControl AVR4 Class H receiver convinced me that it was an unusual, but nevertheless, a good mate to the Pass SR-2s. The audiophile-grade receiver (it costs about $6,000) relayed the 2L Blu-ray classical violin concerto, Ole Bull — full of string harmonics and a spacious stereo image — without a hint of edginess. Several friends commented that they thought the music was coming through separates, not a receiver. It is quite a testament to the AVR and the SR-2s.

The verdict
  Having reviewed quite a few Pass products since the late 1990s, I was not surprised that the Pass SR-2's performed so well. With the original Rushmore as its inspiration, and Pass’ dedication to high-end quality hi-fi, the SR-2 is as fine loudspeakers as you could buy out to about $40,000. Its accurate, yet musical, tonal spectra, classy build and good looks net it a Stellar Sound Award. The SR-2 is not the cheapest speaker, but also is not the most expensive either. If you have $18,000 to spend, a pair of Pass Labs SR-2's is worthy of consideration. In the high-end priced world, they may be a bargain.

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