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Audiophile Systems Review - #3 - October, 1995

Introduction By Geoff Armstrong


October 1995 System

The following system review was kindly submitted by Etienne Borgers, a Belgian fellow currently living in Singapore.

I'm an English fellow who used to live in Hong Kong, so we both have experience of the Far East in common.

Although Singapore and Hong Kong are often compared as the "shopping havens" of the world, when I was last in Singapore during the 80s, there was surprisingly little choice in High End Audio. Hong Kong on the other hand has always been an audiophile's delight as far as choice is concerned (hope it doesn't change). I'm sure many European and American productsbecome available there as soon as, or before, the countries they were manufactured in.

As far as playback equipment is concerned, that seems to be changing in Singapore, but there is a real limitation as to the choice of available live music (as well as movies), making the acquisition of a good audio system more important than ever for the music lover.

Etienne describes the complete evolution of his system from fairly modest origins to a serious High End system. I hope you enjoy his account as much as I have.


Etienne's Piece:

My name is Etienne Borgers. I am originally from Belgium, but have been living in Singapore since 1989. The audiophile market has been developing well here recently.

The system I started with in mid-1989 consisted of an integrated solid state amplifier of 2x100 Watts (Sansui -X 911-DG), one of the first bitstream CD players produced by Philips (the CD 840 model) and KEF floorstanding speakers (the C95). The results were satisfactory enough for less concentrated listening at low playback levels, but the "sparkle" seemed to be missing from most of my music. There was little in the way of soundstage re-creation; however, small ensemble, acoustic Jazz was pleasant to listen to. In fact there was a certain elegance to the sound, but at the same time a lack of "punch".

The Bass felt slow, robbing the music of its natural pace. At the other extreme, the highs could sometimes sound "dry". However, I never heard any serious distortions in the bass, which was definitely a plus for these speakers. They performed within their limits and didn't try to reproduce more in the lower frequencies than they were comfortable with. When listening to well recorded CDs, I was able to anticipate the intrinsic good qualities of the KEFs, which included a spacious stereo presentation coupled with a very natural mid-range.

As the highs were also of fairly good quality, taking into consideration the price range these speakers fell into, I decided that the best improvements would not be gained by changing the speakers first. In fact, in several dealer auditions and exhibition demos, I got the impression that only speakers costing four to five times more than the C95s could provide significantly better results. I sought, instead, to exploit the qualities of the C95s by improving the amplification.

It has been my impression that for solid state amplification, it is necessary to have plenty of power reserve, even for listening at low playback levels, in order to bring out the dynamic contrasts in the music. This, I feel is especially true for CDs with their low noise floor. The trick is to avoid amplifiers that go loud but sound aggressive, since these have a tendency to mask the subtle details in the music. With this approach I found the amplifiers I liked were megabucks out of my reach.

I tried B&K, but in my opinion these were a little too laid back and seemed to place too much emphasis on the mid-range.

Finally I came across the Denon monoblocks, model 4400 A, which deliver 160 watts rms each into an 8 ohm impedance, or 250 into 4 ohms, which suits the KEFs. The dealer had the same model of KEF (C95) as I owned, available for the demonstration, so the set-up was pretty close to mine. I clearly remember the incredible effect which my CD by the pianist Rubalcaba (The blessing - a very good recording on Blue Note) had on me.

That was it: the amps were in charge, controlling the speakers totally. The stage sounded open, subtle details could still be appreciated in music that is very dynamically lively, and the bass was now tighter. This sound was achieved by connecting the CD player directly to the Denons (each of these amps has a level adjustment). This configuration was far preferred over using the Denon preamp (model 2500) in line, which to my ears masked the music, making it lifeless and dull (and I had also heard this effect with the Denon preamp at other demos). The Denon monoblocks were adopted mid '92, and "life" was added to my system.

At the same time I replaced the Philips CD player with a Rotel 965 BX, which I took from my secondary system, as I felt that with the Denons, this provided a better soundstage with unamplified music, than the Philips.

In the new system, the Rotel player lost the harsh highs I had experienced with it previously, and instruments took on a greater sense of dimensionality than I had experienced before. Good acoustic Jazz music became a real delight. Some cymbal crashes seemed frighteningly alive, although lacking a little in tonal accuracy. However, after a few months, I started to notice a phenomenon of "wandering instruments" on some CDs whilst listening to the same "track"; the instruments appeared to move laterally. I wondered whether these were phase problems. This effect seemed to occur in the upper mid-range to ( lower) high frequencies. I listened to some reference CDs and discovered there was a lack of natural height to the soundstage. I also noted a serious drop in amplitude (suckout) at 120hz, which I assigned to problems with the listening room.

There was also a persistent problem of harshness with some classical strings, when the CD was not of the best technical quality. Large symphonic orchestras playing complex music sounded mostly muddled, and there was a lack of "orchestral presence". Generally speaking, pop/rock music sounded "hard" and "confused", especially when too much electronic processing was "patched-on" to "enhance" effects. Vocals, however, did have a good sense of presence and timbral accuracy, when decently recorded. This system definitely sounded its best with small scale music (small orchestras and chamber music as well as acoustic Jazz).

In May '93 I finally installed a pre-amp, mainly in order to avoid having to continuously re-set the level controls on the monoblocks, due to the wide disparity of recording levels between discs. I bought a used PS Audiomodel 5.6, in pristine condition. This has the advantage of an internal by-pass, allowing it to be used as a purely passive preamp as an alternative to the usual active mode. In its active mode this pre-amp added a greater sense of rhythm to some music, with a more natural sense of speed to the bass. The soundstage appeared more stable, and the "wandering instrument" problem was almost cured. On the other hand, the passive mode gave better results with some of my Classical music, imparting a smoother sound to the strings.

Next, I tried bi-wiring the speakers. There was a slight improvement in general clarity and a greater openness. The PS audio was quite neutral, and did not seem to impose any colorations onto the tonal quality of the music.

A dealer lent me Transparent Music link interconnects (from the lower end of their price range) for use from the CD player to the preamp, as he observed good results in many systems. I'm not a believer in the "black magic" of interconnects, and the claims made for them, which I feel go way out of proportion to reality, In my opinion, many manufacturers are simply creating passive filters in disguise. Still, I must admit that the Transparent cables, when connected between the CD player and preamp, do create a further sense of openness to the soundstage and a distinct increase in separation of the instruments immediately in front of the listener. I was already achieving a good sense of separation before installing these interconnects, but now there was an even greater sense of space between the instruments.

Additionally, the "wandering phenomenon" disappeared entirely, and the instruments now seemed to be rooted in space. The highest frequencies, did however, become a little more dry. I continued to use Hitachi cables (JX 102) between the pre and power amplifiers. Clarity and openness were the strongest qualities of my system at this stage. I was able to get very involved in acoustic music and with vocals.

I really enjoyed that period with my system, and my CD collection bloomed. As time went by, more sophisticated CD players as well as more affordable DACs started to appear on the market. Now I felt the main limitation was the Rotel CD player. I began looking for a drive/DAC combination that would provide better results and still be affordable. Through intensive auditioning of equipment, I knew already that to better my set-up in reproducing acoustic music I had to go for systems costing at least five times my investment. (I also felt that a lot of systems did not even come close to mine!).

One had to be very cautious in pairing a CD player with an external DAC, and I came across many failures. I heard some good set-ups, but again, megabucks out of my reach, and nothing really of great worth at the more reasonable price level.

At the end of '94 I listened to an integrated CD player, the Micromega Stage 3, that delivered most of what I was looking for. In January '95, I installed one in my system. The result was amazing: deep bass, pushing my speakers to their limits and tons of low level details. The lower range sounded faster and better controlled, limited only by the roll-off of the speakers. Symphonic music was reproduced with a general improvement to the recreation of the images of instruments and their stability. Transient attacks in the mid-range were faster and more authoritative. There was an improvement too for electronically mixed pop/rock music, but still some confusion. In all unamplified music, the fine details were very well retrieved and softer sounds were gently reproduced, in proper proportion to the rest of the music. Certain female vocals sounded a little sibilant. I think this is partly due to the amount of low level details now being retrieved from the CDs. Timbral accuracy of strings improved, and there were no longer any doubts in being able to distinguish between low violin tones played at the same time as higher cello tones in classical chamber music. The improvements in the bass added richness to the music and a greater sense of depth to the soundstage.

On the negative side, with some Jazz CDs which are rich in low frequencies, the inadequacies of the speakers in the lower range could be too disturbing: no real distortion, but a feeling that the bass was now being artificially boosted. As I still listen to a lot of modern Jazz, the next upgrade was obvious...

I was considering the Thiel CS 3.6, B&W 801 with stands, Tannoy D7000 and KEF Reference 105/3. To my regret, I had to eliminate the Thiels because they have a reputation of being choosy regarding the amps that drive them. Each time these speakers were demonstrated to me, amplification was from companies such as Goldmund, Levinson, etc. In some of these set-ups I detected a tendency towards hardness. I had to drop B&W, not by lack of merit; but because of a lack of dealer support here. Eventually I decided on the KEF Reference, as I must admit I like the kind of quality in the upper mid-range that all the top of the line KEFs deliver, as well as their ability to recreate a realistic soundstage. In July '95, the 105/3 replaced my old C95s.

The effects due to this change were striking. Lower frequencies were louder and deeper; but at the same time, in control. The response was overall faster in the lower mid-range and bass, which provided an even sharper transient attack for instruments such as drums and double-bass. Vibrato was naturally maintained through the duration of each note. The left hand of pianists is reproduced powerfully with greater tonal accuracy resulting from the forceful delivery of correct harmonics. Cymbals as well are now correct in timbre and scale. Strings sound even smoother; but still accurate, and the ability to differentiate between instruments playing simultaneously within the same piece is increased. Vivaldi's Sonatas and Concertos for cello by Christopher Coin (L'Oiseau Lyre) have never sounded so ample and detailed.

With all types of music these speakers provide an awesome gain in the excitement of the listening experience, allowing all the low level details retrieved by the Micromega to be clearly integral to the piece being played. The soundstage also improved in all three dimensions. Complex symphonic music is fully reproduced, with control and clarity. At the same time the improved bass reproduction allows the orchestral foundation to be correctly reproduced, and this is essential for the appreciation of this music.

It is present in the Beethoven violin concerto with Gidon Kremer and Niklaus Harnoncourt on Teldec, as well as Beethoven's 6th Symphony, also interpreted by Harnoncourt on Teldec. In Schubert's Octet by the Gaudier Ensemble (ASV) the work of the bassist is reproduced with all of its delicacy and precision, providing all the details painted in by the musician: details I never could comprehend completely with the previous set-up. The rest of the instruments are clearly defined as well, and the musical beauty of the octet shine through.

Pop/rock is also improved a great deal and is under control: Wet Wet Wet's hit (Love is All Around) is reproduced with detail and precision. Old Simply Red tunes are mercilessly analyzed. allowing all the electronic enhancements to be laid bare (Picture Book - Elektra); but it still manages to remain clear and musical.

Jazz gained in momentum and rhythm, with more detailed articulation of solos. Charlie Haden's Montreal Tapes (2 CD Volumes on Verve), improved in slam and live atmosphere. I can now even hear where the pager * is located when it rings in the volume featuring the pianist Paul Bley.

To conclude, I can say that the KEF 105/3 added authority, richness and strong controlled bass to my system. These speakers are fairly neutral and they allow listening at high playback levels without distortion. Above all, the emotion of the music is conveyed, and there is no fatigue during long listening sessions. I'm really enjoying the re-discovery of a lot of my CD collection, now that there is more life flowing from the new set-up. This gives me the rewarding feeling that the improvement is real, a feeling we audiophiles strive for; but don't always achieve. Alas, in this hi-fi world nothing is ever perfect!

So, if I have to point out the limitations I face, here goes:

My listening room is a little too reverberant (and difficult to correct by simple means).

My amps seem "too busy" sometimes. This is purely subjective and difficult to put into words. I may try to correct this in the future by bi-amping the speakers. I will do this on a trial basis, as it's difficult to get right; but I've experienced miracles with that approach in other systems. How about changing the monoblocks? Forget miracles by that means. Something truly better is way out of reach due to budget constraints. I don't have the time to take the DIY approach and build my own, and there is difficulty obtaining parts here in Singapore.

A problem we all face is the poor technical quality of a lot of CD productions, not to speak of the lack of care during recording or re-mastering. It reminds me of the lack of concern we faced during the LP era. Fortunately some technicians and producers are an honor to their profession and provide us with some hope. Nevertheless, for the time being, my audio system keeps me listening to the music I like.

Well... I have to leave you now: I have appointments with Toots in The Netherlands, Branford in Bloomington, with Mr. Haden in L.A. I won't miss them! They're all right HERE...

{*} PAGER: The phone message beeper type you attach to your belt.

My Present HI-FI Set-Up (SEPT 95)

CD Player: Micromega Stage 3
Preamp: PS Audio PS 5.6 (with Straightwire position for passive amp function)
Power Amps: Denon POA 4400A - Monoblock Pair 160 W - 8 Ohm to 250 W - 4 Ohm per channel S/N 123 dB
(A weighted)
Loudspeakers: KEF - Reference Series - Model 105/3

Sensitivity: 93 dB
Impedance: 4 Ohm
Input: 300 W max Floorstanding type

Cables: a. Interconnects:

The original set-up was with:

-Rotel CD965 BX, CD player
-KEF C 95, loudspeakers
-Audio Technica Audio cable (from CD player)

Etienne Borgers

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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