20 May, 2013

Reference System A (Yamaha NS-1000, Western Electric 124, EAR 912)

My Reference System A
Follow-Ups: Yamaha NS-1000, Western Electric 124B, EAR 912
Review: Marantz CD23DA
Review: TAD TSM-2201, Part III
Review: KEF LS50, Part II
Quick Shootout: Yamaha NS-1000 vs TAD TSM-2201 vs KEF LS50

posted from the UK

KEF LS50, Part

Part I: Reference System A
It is time to catch up with myself. I just realized that while I have posted about my current, and scaled down Reference System A (here), I have not described its sound. The system now comprises:

Pic is not up-to-date, but topology is unchanged. Yamaha and the WE amps to the left.

CD Player/Transport: Marantz CD23DA, Studer A-730, Revox C-221
DAC/Headphone amp: YBA WD-202 (connected with Kimber D-60 co-axial)
Preamp: EAR 912
Amp: Western Electric 124B (original)
Speakers: Yamaha NS-1000

At the time of the cited post, the system was not functioning due to outage of one of the midrange units of the Yamaha NS-1000s. Sometime after that I did manage to re-connect the corroded loose wire with some effort. The sound was absolutely splendid and everything that I expected. Here, I'd like to take a little time to detail how I chose the components:

Good Sound Needs Good Planning
With limited space, I had to choose my components carefully, and there were size constraints. Here are the reasons why each was chosen and how each contributes to the overall picture:

Yamaha NS-1000 because I believe you should always have the largest woofer/loudspeaker you can get away with. Two 8" woofers may equal a single 12" in surface area, but I will take the latter anytime!
  • Close-to-Wall Placement Previously I had these in-room in my old house, and I got a cavernous soundstage (here). In my new place, I do not have this luxury and the Yamaha's are placed close to the front wall (balcony doors actually). This did not faze the Yamaha's, which are monitor speakers after all, designed to have little boundary effects;
  • Soundstage and Imaging No longer in-room, the soundstage is necessarily not deep, but images are of good size, fleshy and superbly well focused;
  • Bass The 12" woofer delivers very clean bass that goes satisfyingly low even with pedal points; Although this setup cannot plumb the depths my Canterbury setup can, I am happy with what I have.
  • Realism Again, although not as uncanny in its delivery as the Tannoy system, the illusion of live event is reasonably well conveyed. Let me state that I believe good bass and imaging that is fleshy and of good scale are two vital factors in delivering the realism that we crave for; the sort of sharp and small images many modern speakers deliver (and audiophiles work towards) are more often than not artificial and work against the music.
  • Efficiency As stated below, the fact that they can be driven by low-powered WE amps attests that the Yamaha NS-1000s are not really difficult to drive - but you need high quality amplification. Too many people use gears of lower quality and simply cannot make the best of them. Of course, keep in mind that if the room is much larger, you're certain to need more power..
WE 124B amps These were chosen simply because their sonic uniqueness are irreplaceable (previous posts here);
  • High Resolution and Clean Sound These belie the common misconceptions that vintage gears are euphonic - the best are not if brought up to good electrical conditions. The resolution extends to the smallest details, including the all-important harmonics and hall ambiance clues. And by cleanliness I mean an airy feeling and treble of the highest purity, and very low background noise.
  • Power This may come as a surprise to you. The WE 124B employs a pair of WE350B/6L6 in push-pull configuration. With the 6L6Gs I am using, rated power output is about 12 watts. Now, 12 watts for the notoriously "hard-to-drive" Yamaha NS-1000? You bet! IF those 12 watts are of the highest quality! This gives credence, yet again, to the notion that the first watt(s) is/are the most important. WE users know that the WE amps deliver a lot more than their ratings say, and match well with many speakers. It is notable too that the bass control is superb, evidence of high quality output transformers.
  • The Western Electric Magic But all these considerable virtues do not  describe the WE magic. PRAT As described in more details previously, Western Electric's supremacy is in the way it delivers the music. Every little rhythmic accent, dynamic nuance is conveyed like nothing else I have heard. Even SETs have to make way.
EAR 912 I wrote about this briefly in my EAR Overview. Its balanced sound leaves little to write about, though I can imagine some tube aficionados may find it too starkly "modern". Suffice to say its neutrality (just slightly on the warm side) just lets the signal through intact and does not mask the qualities of other components in the chain. This is important as the true sound of WE is reflected. Another most welcome feature of the EAR 912 is its surprisingly compact size for the full functionalities on offer (I harbor a secret wish to re-install a turntable).

Digital Source The setup has changed quite a bit, and constantly evolves, partly because CDPs need to be run, at least occasionally, to be kept in condition. The EAR 912 has balanced inputs and outputs, so I am in the process of installing my trusted Studer A730 and the Revox C-221. But first:

Marantz CD23Da (info at thevintageknob) This one-of-a-kind player certainly looks different from any other. In Chinese circles it is referred to as the "Rice Cooker" 電飯煲 due to its round glass top (newer rice cookers have done away with the glass). There were several iterations of this classic of the 1-bit era, which utilizes the TDA1547 chip. Mine is the last Da version, which can be used as a DAC with the RCA coaxial input, and employs the plastic CDM-9 instead of the metal CDM-9 Pro. Its performance impresses:
  • Analogue Output The full bodied sound is a joy to hear. The best of the TDA1547 machines have beautifully sweet treble that their multi-bit and delta-sigma counterparts struggle to equal, and the CD23 is no exception (this is one reason I like the YBA as its treble is sophisticated, albeit in a different way). Compared to the YBA WD-202 (with the Marantz as transport) the midrange is more forward but its fleshy texture paints a more vivid picture. Overall, the boldness of the Marantz is just as enticing as the more subtle YBA. This is one of the best Marantz 1-bit players, certainly superior to the more common CD-72, CD-16 etc. Only a few makers, like Micromega, made 1-bit machines that are as enticing. Transients are typically a little soft, and some may find the music a tad "slow" and so perhaps not for uptempo music.
  • Digital Output Used as a transport with the YBA WD-202, the sound is surprisingly similar, with the differences as noted above. Although the Sony BDP-S190 (and predecessor DVP-SR50P) is a pretty good transport, direct comparison shows the older Marantz to be much more flesh-and-blood. All this strengthens further my conviction that the transport is of paramount importance in digital playback, and the excellence of the Marantz CD23 is as much due to the superior CDM-9 mechanism as the well-implemented DAC section. For those interested in the superiority of older CDPs used as transports, I recommend the thorough Hi-Fi Advice Overview of Philips and Marantz CDPs.
  • Uncover it! As with all the covered top loading transports I have come across, the CD23 benefits from having the cover removed/opened when spinning. This means you have to find some way of weighing down the spring-loaded button on the rim - I use a small screwdriver handle. The sound becomes clearer and livelier. I have a pic but it is not with me as of this writing and I shall load it later. 
Part II: Yamaha NS-1000 vs TAD TSM-2201 vs KEF LS50
  • Important Qualifier: the comparison only shows the results for close-to-wall placement. The TAD or the KEF were placed on top of the Yamaha, and I adjusted my chair/listening height accordingly.
  • TAD TSM-2201 Against the wall, and driven by the WE124 amps, the TAD's delivered a completely different sort of performance compared to their normal deployment in my Reference System B. The sound had more than a little semblance to the Yamaha NS-1000's, accurate but big, bold and fleshy. If anything, they were fuller and even more impressive in the midbass. The gain in drama and presence was offset by the lost of soundstaging and hall ambiance, which it does in spades in System B. It is a different set of virtues and different people are likely to respond in different ways. The important thing is, true to its monitor nature, the TAD TSM-2201 works just as well against the wall as in-room.
  • KEF LS50 The same did not hold true for the KEF's.The height greatly diminished the bass, even if the ports were close to the wall. The great imaging ability of the KEF was lost and its performance was not even as engaging as in my "go-to" system. or my desktop (superb results, see the following article). Without the monitor TAD's immunity to boundary effects, the KEF's need more careful placement and support to bring out their best.
  • Yamaha NS-1000 As good a performance as the TAD's delivered, they were outclassed by the Yamaha's. The Yamaha simply brought out significantly more of the nuances delivered by the WE amps. The older and much bigger 3-way's simply have more details and resolve harmonics and small spatial and timing clues better. And of course they reach quite a bit lower than the TAD's. One thing this shows again that size is important!

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