27 May, 2010

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (6): Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (2)

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (6): Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (2) (finished in HK)

Marantz 9
Next I fired up an old pair of M9. I decided just for fun to drive them from my Marantz 7. These are all old versions. The M7+9 gave a superbly clean sound, but where's that legendary bass oomph? Feeling something missing, I replaced the M7 with my usual BAT VK-3i. I was shocked by the difference. Even using the non-balanced ouput the BAT delievered a lot more: there is iron-grip control, and dynamics completely trounced the vintage machine. Importantly, the bass now was phenomenal, as it should be.

I have always preferred the better modern preamps to the usual vintage (Marantz, McIntosh, Fisher etc). If you just play simple music, you may find a certain vintage preamp flavorful, but for all-around performance, there's no comparison. This little exercise was just a reminder, as if I need reminding. The other side of the coin is that vintage tube amps in good condition can be formidable.

(click on pics to enlarge): (L) Fisher 80AZ; (R) The wondrous Art-Deco Altec 323, fronted by WE285L, Langevin 402A and 402B step-up transformers.

The Wonderful Flavor of 6L6 amps
A good friend brought over a large variety of 6L6 amps for me to check. At about 20 wpc, these lacked real muscle to drive the Maggie, but for smaller-scaled music, most vocals and acoustic jazz, they performed miraculously. There's a sweetness to the 6L6 that tonally most becomes the more analytical Maggie, more so than the more powerful EL34. The Fisher 80AZ, using 6L6GC in place of the original EL37, delivered clean sound and remarkably quiet background, but it terms of finesse it yields to the wonderful, and under-rated Heath W3M, using Tungsol 5881. In terms of power and control, as well as tonal allure, they all had to yield to the WE 274-equipped WE124 (pictured in last post); its ability to drive belies its nominal 12 wpc rating. Indeed, if you only listen to smaller things this is a great speaker for the WE. Another amp from the WE era, the rare-as-hen's-teeth Altec 323 (pictured pair from the 40's) delivered the same transparency, trailing behind the WE124 just a little in terms of rhythmic savvy.

(click on pics to enlarge) (L) Biasing ARC VT130; (R) Theta+SFD2

Fully Balanced Power!

By chance I ran into some balanced gears and made a new friend. My visit to the seller, who uses Martin Logan SL3, would be the subject of another post. Suffice to say the gears I bought from him enabled me to create a fully balanced system (except for phono inputs) for the first time. A revision of reference system is in order:

Digital: Theta Data Basic II into Sonic Frontier SFD2
Analogue 1: Linn LP12/Ittok/Koetsu Black into BAT P-5 (high gain)
Analogue 2: Thorens 125/SME 3009 S2 Imp/Denon 304 (into WE285L) into PS Audio GCPH (low gain)
Preamp: BAT VK-3i
Amp: Audio Reserach VT130
XLR cables used: Gotham GAC-3

Now, the system, both analogue and digital, are balanced. Of note is that the noise floor of the BAT VK-3i preamp, which is much lower via its balanced outputs than RCA outs. This proved quite beneficial as the 8x matched Amperex Holland Globe 6DJ8 I use are inherently noisier than the the stock Sovtek 6922, but tonally much more alluring. Compared to using RCA connectors, the balanced preamp/amp configuration IMHO offered superior dynamic swings and control. I should re-iterate here that the inexpensive BAT VK-3i is really quite a bargain, a fully balanced TUBE linestage that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

The ARC VT130 (together with its sibling VT150) is an odd product in the ARC series. Despite the designation, its 4x 6550 per channel yields only 110 wpc, 10 more than the contemporaneous VT-100. Its design is for sure related to some of the D series amps (like the D115) , without extra 6550 as regulation; and to the balanced V-series amps, but not in triode mode. IMHO, it is unnecessarily big, laid out more extravagantly than the D- and V-series amps, with a bulky cover that covers everything. I suspect the bulk is why it has never been popular here in HK. Sonically, it's another matter. Though it still contains solid state components in the signal path, its sound is definitely more tubey than the D-115 MkII, which I have in HK. The D115 betrays its hybrid nature when it is switched on, a little white in tonality, and that does not completely go away even after a full warm-up. Not so the VT130: it sounds quite warm even at power on, and reaches full bloom in about an hour. As for power, I'd say they are about equal, but the balanced connection gives it an more effortless quality.

In all, this is now my reference for the Maggie 1.7. At 110 wpc of balanced tube power, the system is powerful enough to handle everything, from fusion to big symphonic work. It doesn't have the brute power of some ss amps, but it trounces them in almost everything else. Neither does it quite have the tonal allure of a WE system, but its even attributes rewards everyday listening.

In the next and final part of this Magnepan 1.7 Listening Log, there are some loose ends to tie up, and I shall do some summation on what I have learned. Stay tuned.

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