23 October, 2011

Review: Verity Audio Rienzi meets Softone ICL

Click pic to enlarge.

Review: Verity Audio Rienzi III

1, 2, 3, Go! Softone ICL

OK, I admit it, part of the reason for the revisit was for the fantastic and wholesome breakfast: eggs, sausage, fresh carrots and cabbage, and home-made bread! Thanks and thanks again! How am I going to do without today! :-(

Before and during breakfast, we had round 1, which used the resident ASR Emitter I Exclusive. Since the sound was not much different from before, I shall not dwell on this part and refer you to my previous reports (here).

Mostly Softone ICL (official website)
This came about because our host Sang just acquired the ICL Model 3 CD player. Yes, contrary to what you read in the commercial press, many people still buy CD players! He wanted to play with my ICL Model 2 DAC and I wanted breakfast, so the visit was arranged. Since I have read that the Verity Audio Rienzi is friendly to flea-powered SET amps (based on a review in Ultra Audio), I decided to take along some extra stuff, and the challenger system was as follows:

Transport/CD Player: Softone Model 2
DAC: Softone Model 3
Preamp: Bryston 0.4B
Amp: Softone Model 1 (300B amp; discontinued; on the floor in the pic)
Speaker: Verity Audio Rienzi
Cable-Analogue: Canare (cheap 75 ohm) and Belden teflon silver-plated (looks like Cello String, but white)
Cable-Digital: Belden (yellow)
Cable-Speaker: Belden 9497
Cable-Power; generic

ONE OF THE MOST JOYFUL MOMENTS IN MY HIFI JOURNEY. Yes, in terms of fun and delight, not absolute performance. And vindication for Verity Audio also. Previously, I had not been too enamoured of Verity, indeed for all speakers of this kind, with one small speaker on top of a "subwoofer" module.

But, on this historic day, with the full system as described, the system cast a huge soundstage, with instruments reaching into the far corners (whereas the ASR only had the center, not even particularly full at that). Instruments gained presence and size, with beautiful and correct timber. Amazingly, the sound had excellent live presence. The voice of Buena Vista Social Club's Omara was smoky and the band swinging. In the duet of Ray Charles and Nora Jones, not only were the voices beautifully differentiated, they tightly inter-weaved to covey a feeling of duo partnership. Grappelli's violin was sinewy, and the system coveyed effortlessly the rhythmic finesse, as it also did with Take Five.

Even with the classical and bigger stuff, the system did well. Yang Tianwa's violin on this most delightful Naxos series was bewitching; with a good system, you should be feeling the bow's return as well as the finger's action, and I did. The orchestra accompaniment had good weight. Musica Antiqua Koln was swinging in this wonderful account of the Brandenburg's. Even more impressively, the second movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony showcased the gutsy playing of the lower strings and very good dynamics. The only track that exposed the limited power on hand was a closely miked piano track.

Now a few words on particular components in the system. I shall not be exhaustive as I am sure I will write a Softone/ICL overview one day:

Softone Model 3 This is a wonderful CD player as well as a transport. Using the same Philips CDM Pro2 laser mechanism, I wonder why people buy over-priced transports like Orpheus and Weiss. As a CD player, the sound is refined and very clean.

Softone Model 2 This is a best-buy DAC that handles up to 24/96. Being tube buffered, the sound is warmer and weightier than the Model 3, and hence likely more suited to the high resolution Rienzi.

Bryston 0.4B This is a surprisingly musical preamp of older (and better imho) vintage. It has absolutely nothing "transistory" about it. To this dedicated tube preamp user, this is the highest praise.

Softone/ICL Model 1 This is a surprisingly sophisticated design (as most ICL products) 300B amp (there is also a 2A3 version) of fixed bias design, with 330V at the plate and the 300B run at 65 mA. Surprisingly, using only small output transformers, it can be driven very hard and outperforms many a costlier SET amp. Since I had not used it in a long time, I randomly took a pair of Chinese 300B and tested it in the morning. I measured it to make sure it was not over-biased. Boy, it was only running at 33 mA, lower than you'd run a 2A3. You know what? I did not re-bias since it sounded just fine with my Tannoy. So, this amp now is running at much less than full power; I'd estimate only outputting 3 watts or so.

Verity Audio Rienzi This experience completely changed my view of VA. Previously I had heard several pairs at shows and in homes. At best I'd say they were hifi-ish, not particularly attractive (I'd say the same about the over-rated Wilson Watt/Puppy). I had even heard a higher model driven by a full Monty DIY EL34 amp and the sound was sleep-inducing. So imagine my surprise this time. The Rienzi is lightning fast and superbly transparent. It may be a trifle too bright for my taste but I think that can be easily rectified. More importantly, unlike most Wilson Watt/Puppy, the two boxes appear to be coherently integrated (although not so when the ASR was used). Most surprisingly, it has excellent rhythm and pace as well as a live presence, very rare qualities in loudspeakers.

The Rienzi is obviously a tube and SET friendly loudspeaker. Given the already mightily impressive performance with the lowly Softone/ICl amp, I would say it is a marriage made in heaven. My great happiness is not only for the host, but also because I am happy there is another good loudspeaker for SET amp users. There is no way I personally would use this speaker with anything else but tubes, and preferably SET amp at that.

Of course, the Rienzi is still not a large, nor fullrange, speaker, but given its modest footprint it is a worthwhile effort.



  1. Performance from those not expensive gears scared me a lot.

    It's mostly the strange experience I've had.

    I've learnt from Sang how to make a tasty cup Espresso.

    唐吉訶德 Tony

  2. AnonymousJune 26, 2012

    I am buying a CD transport, Sotone model 3 or Accoust art drive I. I am so lucky to find out that you have the experence of audition about these two. If you do not mind and at your convience please tell me how you campare these two CD transports.

    Thanks in advance

    speaker: Penaudio
    amp: W&L audio
    source: cambridge (will be replaced by either Softone model 3 or Accustic Art Drive I MK2)

  3. I hate to say this, but Acuustic Arts is simply over-priced and under-performing (not even as good as the iTransport). I am not sure why you're still asking this question, as I have laid it out before. In case you missed it, just read everything under the Acuustic Arts Label (found on the right hand side), or use the search function. Suffice to say my friend long abandoned his AA for other things, including ICL.