So I have stopped reviewing hifi. But I’m afraid I still can’t keep silent, as something came my way, that I hardly believe is real. Herby follows the diary from a gladman!
Quite frankly, I was rather fed up with the increasing trend growing around Audio Science Review; lots of us seem to believe that the absolute and only truth comes out of the measurements made on the bench at ASR. Me? I find it truly intriguing, it raises more questions than it answers. So people tell me I just like 2nd harmonic distortion, and that’s that. Come on, I guess it’s more like that even a rather high measured 2nd harmonic does not destroy the music from a properly designed product. To put it another way, there are quite simply more important aspects to music reproduction, than 2nd harmonic distortion. I will start a new trend, and, inspired by an indisputable madman, I’ll call the movement MAMA, Make Audio Magic Again! 🙂
My ears are no longer what they used to, abused by Klipsch, misused for band rehearsals, and marked by age. Never again will silence ever grace my head, I’m afraid, a constant hiss and a few other artifacts will follow me to the end of the journey. So my time for stopping reviewing was overdue anyway, but luckily, I still find enormous pleasure in listening to music from a good audio setup. Therefore, for my post reviewer setup, I wanted to puzzle together something that could play all kinds of music convincingly; I wanted to use my 30 years of experience as a writer, to pick whatever gave me the most pleasure. I already had the speakers. It is noting but sad that people outside Norway can’t audition the Doxa 8.2 speakers, they are fantastic, lively performers, efficient, easy load for the amplifier. Doxa have always had the sound of Audio Note as inspiration for their own products, absolutely audibly detectable, too, either you listen to their amplifiers or the speakers. My version is the top of the line, Signature; which is slightly better than the more keenly priced standard 8.2, the latter being a hidden hi-fi bargain, especially suited for good valve gear, or other amplifiers with minimum feedback and a vivid presentation of music. Or typical British amplifiers, for that matter; the likes of Naim, Rega, Exposure, and don’t forget Heed, even that’s not British at all, just sounding so. That said, they’ll play good with a wide range of amplifiers, although I have noted that the most controlling powerhouses and class D amplification isn’t the most obvious choice.
I had the record player from Acoustic Solid, and a RIAA, that too from Doxa. The latter is a minimalist design utilizing J-FET and high quality components, designed to fit the Audio Technica ART9 for example, so therefore, I use just that, fitted on a Origin Live Illustrious arm, all in all a system going in a slightly detailed and controlled direction, still without being cold or overly analytic. Very good at imaging and insight, though. But I have been a sucker for Audio Note all my adult life, having owned a few components through the years, too, and, I have truly loved each and every one of them. The big question would be what solution I could use for DAC and pre; I already owned a P2 SE Signature power amplifier from Audio Note, so initially I opted for keeping it. Having listened to a lot of AN gear, I wanted a full system, but then again I am a lazy geezer, so I wanted a remote, and, I wanted more than one input in the DAC. Difficult one, this. The AN DAC’s sound so superior, that they are hard to beat, or equal, for that matter. I considered having a AN DAC for CD’s, and a simpler solution for the rest, and then I needed a decent pre, as well. Too many boxes!
Luckily, I have tried and tested lots of very high quality, involving audio gear through the years, so I thoroughly searched my memory and notes, to find a decent alternative to Audio Note. And, when AMR popped up in my memory, this important piece fell into place in the puzzle. They have the AMR DP 777SE, a valve equipped DAC / pre with many options. Rumor has it that it is now out of production, but I am one of the lucky ones to have it in my system, and, I steadily grow more fond of it. One of the most interesting features is the twin DAC solution; one modern upsampling, filtered DAC, and one old fashioned Philips non oversampling DAC, without filters. The latter dries the floor with the modern one, actually making it a fairly good competitor to the AN DAC’s. It is full of life and vividness, it’s detailed, with great timbral qualities and a delicate, high quality sound. Driving the Audio Note P2 SE Signature with gusto, the overall sound is open, quick and hard hitting, still with a timbral quality above anything I have heard from transistors, and most valve gear, too, by the way. Magic hifi? You bet it is! A few months passed by, I had several visitors really enjoying what they heard, I was truly happy with it all. But I am an addict, of course. Specifically, Audio Note have me on my knees, and every time I have heard the Meishu integrated through the years, it has planted its seeds firmly into my soul. Two things are significant here: 1. There’s a power amp version of the Meisu, called P3, and 2. The name “Tonmeister” has been added behind the model number…
So let’s not beat about the bush; the P2 SE Signature was sold to a well furnished home, which later has been filled with Audio Note gear, and the P2 is pleased by driving the Doxa 8.2 speakers, also in the new home. The lead time for the P3 Tonmeister was a few months, but come Christmas eve 2020, and the hugest present had dad’s name on it this year. And, let me absolutely clear on this, the P3 Tonmeister was nothing short of a revelation. One may think that approaching 60, accompanied with screaming ears, audio revelation is a thing of the past, to that I have only one thing to say: O ye, of little faith! As much as I loved the powerful sound from the Audio Note P2 SE Signature, it still has a few steps up to a full blood Single Ended Triode; a pair of 300B, direct heated, trafo coupled, and, I ordered an Audio Note step attenuator instead of the standard volume pot. This unit rocks! It soars, it flies, it excels, it plays music in this house like nothing ever did!
But let me take one step back. Right out of the box the P3 Tonmeister plays immaculate. In my described set-up it delivers a kind of embracing sound; it is captivating, smooth and a touch soft. If pushed, I’d say there are possible shortcomings; the bass is more soft than hard hitting, the precision is slightly on the smooth side. But the musical message is so intense, so communicative and credible, that it is impossible to discuss. I lived with the standard tubes for a couple months, then opting for the top notch Psvane, the Acme. Expensive as it is, one would be entitled to expecting a considerable leap forwards in all aspects of the sound, but the fact is that the result was better described as “a touch better on all aspects”. I mean, we’re talking like 1000 GBP, yes Pound Sterling for a pair, people, and just a touch better. So my initial thought was that the great thing here, was the quality of the original 300B, labeled Audio Note, but actually being the standard Psvane Hi-Fi series, at one fifth of the Acme price. The good thing here, is that I have a life as hifi reviewer, so I’m not very stressed by these things, anyway. After a couple of weeks, I wanted to go one step further, my experience with the expensive Psvane tubes, made me rather pragmatic, but I was able to buy some New Old Stock small tubes to change places with the originals. First out was the Psvane 12AU7/ECC82, in went a fair priced E80CC from way back when. And…. WTF??? The well builtx Psvane original was obviously the plug in the system; what happened can hardly being described without being told I’m purely driven by fantasies. But still, the dynamics and attack emerged out of nowhere, the background went from blackish to pitch black, the speed, the accuracy, everything fell into place, and presented a level of performance I actually never have had in this house. So I’ll mention just as a subordinate clause that I also changed the last small tube for a vintage E182CC, and gained another touch of clarity. The rectifier is kept original, but who knows what the future will bring?
I do not know exactly how many times I have been in discussions related to what is real and what is fake within our hobby. The prevailing opinion is, as mentioned, that you can measure it all, and, that interpretation of the measurements tells us that the only thing a good valve amplifier does, is add 2nd harmonic distortion and increase the midrange enough to make the listener believe it sounds more natural. Honestly, I’ll not go further with this discussion here, and, I am not going to take it in the comment field below, either. Let’s just say that I am one of the listeners getting fooled by the natural performance of my set up. Why? Because I really don’t care what’s causing it. All I care about in this situation is that the life is too short for boring hifi, and I want to hear my own music the way I like it! And damn, if this doesn’t sound of pur magic, nothing does!
When listening to music, why not go directly to the core from start; the Swedish company Opus3 have made a bunch of incredibly lively and dynamic recordings, although it should be mentioned that my wife will maintain that a few of the recordings sound a bit too hefty, or too “hot” for her. That’s the way it ends up, putting a microphone down the throat of a trumpet, I’m afraid. And, my set-up does not hide this fact, be that good or bad, but I surely find the dynamics and realism in these recording mesmerizing, I regularly listen to live horns, and Opus3 surely conveys much of the same experience. I have both classical and jazz recordings from Opus3, studio and live performances, and they always sound very agile, very lifelike and dynamic. And, the thing is, never have they sounded more lifelike than just now, after the P3 was given the permanent amplifier place in the team…
Change of music; over to the blues, the real one, Buddy Guy, “Live, The Real Deal”. His epic song, “Sweet black angel” is recorded live, as the album title more than indicates, and Buddy is absolutely at his most fantastic recorded this way. I have seen the man a few times performing this song, a mind-boggling experience, and, the P3 actually captivates a lot of the reality here. The intensity in Buddy’s vocal, and the extreme feeling of the guitar playing is kept in the recording, and, most importantly, my set up is able to convey this into a realistic show. Mostly because of the P3, but not only that, of course. Also, when playing the unbelievably strong album from Roffe Wikström, “Live 2005”, it is emphasized even clearer; the feeling of being in the audience is even clearer, and, even if I’m not fully able to hear exactly what the audience talk about, I can still hear they’re talking Swedish! The intensity and feeling of being there is priceless on “Som vattnet flyter i floden”, Roffe’s signature song, the social-realistic story of a family loosing the father. The song starts with the line: … My dad died from cancer… I was only six years old, but still I remember how torturing it was… The clarity, the feelings, the heat of the moment, it flows through all the way to my soul. I just love it, I love the sheer melancholy of this song, that’s the blues, people. And the ability to move the blues from a CD into your living room, is just not something any hifi gear is capable of…
Maybe the most important point of this exercise is the fact that I get the feeling that I can hear my entire record collection with new ears, not bad, given the noise my ears make up all of their own. If I use Jethro Tull’s “Heavy horses” as example, the level of details ha never been more convincing, the timbral colors the same. I hear nuances in all aspects of the music, that I have not heard before, note that I have owned this album (and played it frequently) more than 40 years! Suddenly I notice the cymbals, I hear details never before revealed, and, I enjoy the new dynamic sound of this album. Again, the “magic” arrived with the P3 Tonmeister; before it was stunning, now it is unbelievable! Tighter, faster, more precise, and top the whole thing with a new world of timbres, and we have a “new album”, goddammit!
Now, I don’t consider Jethro Tull being a heavy band from the period we’re talking about here, I listen a lot to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Nazareth and others from the same era, and, they normally sound heavier and less detailed than the mentioned album. So I continue with one of my Black Sabbath favorites, “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath”, using the 1996 CD from Castle, nothing special about it at all. I listen to “National Acrobat”, and what strikes me is the absolutely stunning control and silky smooth, still heavy way it is played. Lyrics are clear, the two guitars are easily separated, it is so simple to listen to any aspect of this rather mediocre 70’ies recording. Audio Note (and the rest of the set up), shows with all possible clarity how it changes character with different recordings, an ability I just don’t find in modern, perfect measuring class D gear, for example. These 8 Watts can be so mean, so heavy, so damn wild, and I truly enjoy every second of it. This is how it shall sound! And, while I’m at it, Ozzy’s “Diary of a madman” was released in 1982, and is worth telling a bit about. Not only because it is the last recording from the extremely gifted Randy Rhoads’ hand before he tragically was killed in a plane crash, but also because this album was surrounded by several disputable situations. The musicians actually playing on the album was never credited, and never got paid, while the credited musicians actually never participated. So Lee Kerslake (Uriah Heep) and Bob Daisly (Rainbow and others) who actually played drums and bass, were never credited. The story had many twists and turns, and, eventually a new version of the album was released in 2002, but now with re-recorded bass and drums! Anyway, the original from 1982 sounds rather terrible, but still this set-up gives a new insight to it. The title song comes across with new nuances, even if the total sounds rather harsh, due to the recording made at the time, that is what it is, but I find it absolutely enjoyable and captivating. And here lies the “magic” of a good audio set-up. The ability to play literally anything convincingly, I do not know any brand doing this more convincing than Audio Note, to be honest. So I enjoy even this album, with all the flaws and the history around it.
I want to conclude the musical journey by telling about classical music; here all the good aspects of this set-up comes together in perfect harmony, presenting a size and power you never thought a 8 Watt amplifier driving a moderately big speaker could muster. Huge orchestral works, as for example the monumental Prokofiev piece “Montagues and Capulets” from Romeo and Juliet, recorded in Cincinnati Music hall with the local symphony orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi, in 2002. The sheer size of this is frightening, the incredible P3 Tonmeister still holding the Doxa speakers in a tight rope, presenting a controlled explosion before my ears, while keeping a splendid overview of everything going on, timbres, details, room, not loosing out on anything. Ok, so I have heard this piece with a tad more overwhelming size, but not in any way in combination with all the fantastic details and musical expression this system is capable of. The total expression of this brutal piece, shows better than anything that Audio actually can be magic.
So I have spent my around 30 years as a hifi and music reviewer refining my search for my final set-up. I am in the lucky position that I have heard more equipment than most, I have met with several constructors, musicians and recording engineers, I have discussed with all kind of people what is important with a good hifi set-up, and through the years I have learnt a lot. Today, many very knowledgeable, technically skilled people seem to have found the eternal truth about hifi. I have heard quite a few results of just that, and, I will never say it sounds bad, because it doesn’t, but I do not in any way believe in what I hear in a “perfect” measuring component. I understand and respect that some have a different view on that, but for my own sake, the system described in this article, sound just so much more vivid and lifelike, that I could not give a flying f… about how it measures. I will always believe in music, and, I will never again listen to boring hifi in my listening room. Valves still rule, simple speakers with high quality components is the right choice when “magic” shall be conveyed.
Thanks for stopping by. I will now submerge myself in all kinds of music, because the magic is back in the house!