05 October, 2013

Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part II

Letter from NYC (26) 2013 (2): Magnepan, Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part III
Review: Carver Sunfire Amplifier, Part II
Review: Manley Neo-Classic 300B Preamplifier, Part II
Review: Ensemble Dirondo and Dichrono HiDac, Part II

Article finished in HK

You can scroll down to Part I of Carver, Manley and Ensemble (link here). However, to save you time, and to make it more coherent, I have duplicated relevant Part I text in italics below.

After having finished with the Maggies MG1.7 (and it will perhaps be years before I get to them again) it is time to give some comments on the ancillary equipment that contributed to the wonderful whole.

pic borrowed from the net; click for source

Ensemble Dirondo Drive + Dichrono HiDac 
This is my one of my reference digital sources and it is a shame I haven't given it detailed treatment before! The DAC may have been discontinued as the Official Website only lists the Drive and the integrated CDP, but everything else is the same.

For a good description, read this Positive Feeback favorable review. Note that the reviewer uses gears that are more in keeping with my preferences, like Audio Note CD players and EAR amplification, and my feelings parallel his. To be complete, you should also know there is a considerably less enthusiastic review in 6moons, but I do think the reviewer was seriously remiss there, as happens so often in that site, which though frequently informative, seems more keen on tasting plats du jour than maintaining any long term philosophy, and I have never been impressed by the system integration of their reviewers.

From previous introduction I have always admired Ensemble products for their refined sound. In HK, quite a few people I know are still using their older (non-Sondoro) gears. You shall find diverse opinion on this combo on the internet. For me, it takes in-depth listening to reveal the beauty of this set. Delivering exceptional details that never call attention to themselves, they really don't stand out immediately. Partnered with the wrong gears they could even sound just a little less full in body than some, but when done right show a fleshy presence which together with great rhythmic sophistication and dynamic exactitude deliver the illusion of a live event. Talking about dynamic accuracy, let us examine the last track, Stimela (the coal train) of this much abused Hugh Masekela album, Hope. In the opening, the drummer's insistent bangs mimick the sound of a train. Most digital playbacks would homogenize the multiple hits and give you only a sense of a small crescendo. Not so the Ensemble combo, which uncannily deliver a sense of gradual, and powerful, increase in sound. Not only that, about a third of the way, one of the hits is actually less forceful than what had gone before; this is not well rendered usually, but clear as day with the Ensemble combo.

Is the Ensemble combo the best I have? Perhaps in some tonal area my Theta/SFD-2 combo can give them a run for the money, but there is little question that the Ensemble set belong with the best (and better most for musicality). I use their own Gigaflux BNC cable (which I happen to have) and the DAC uses an Ensemble power cord (I don't have another one for the transport).

The Ensemble has some upsampling options which I shall perhaps cover later, but right now I am using the 48kHz setting, so the CDs are upsampled a little.


Part II Suffice to say the Ensemble duo is a greatly nuanced player in my system. Yes, if you are not careful the sound can turn a little bright, as obviously happened to some reviewers. But if you do it right, you are rewarded with a truly crystalline, scintillating sound that has nonpareil rhythm and pace. All the subtle inflections of music pour forth. I did not really do any extensive comparison, but the combo quickly put down my Rega Apollo and Meridian 506-24. Also, I compared the transport section of the Rega (very good) and the Dirondo Drive was obviously more savvy in its handling of microdynamics and rhythm. Most of the time I did not bother to upsample, using the redbook 44.1. I used the BNC input and Ensemble's own Gigaflux digital cable was better than everything else I had. As a tube man I did not try its preamp function. 

Manley Neo-Classic 300B Preamp (left pic can be enlarged by clicking on it)

From previous introduction While the 300B SE/PP amp (which is excellent, I have used it before) of Manley's wonderful and statement-level Neo-Classics series has received many reviews and much accolade, its companion 300B Preamp has had quite a low profile. There are no reviews from the major English audio press. You can find reviews from hometheaterhifi, Audio Video Revolution , Inner Ear Report, and Image HiFi (available from Manley site only in German). I suspect this is because of its ungainly nature, built like a tank and resembling more a serious amplifier. I ran into an irresistible bargain and acquired it brand new.

Part II The various reviews combined give a fair view of the preamplifier. I'd like to share briefly some of my experience: (1) since there are output transformers, the preamp is really a power amp in disguise, and as such needs a lengthier run-in than usual (transformers especially); (2) In my system, the difference between direct and transformer output is not as big as some reviewers claimed; this attests to the excellence of the output transformers; (3) I prefer the transformer output by a little; with long interconnect to the power amp, this output mode is more composed on big dynamic swings; (4) my results are based on use of the 5U4 rectifiers, which I generally prefer to the specified indirectly-heated 5AR4. The B+ of the 5U4 is a notch lower than 5AR4; I wonder if the sound would be a little softer; (5) that said, the sound is clean, focused and full-bodied; (6) as one reviewer rightly noted, the preamp is very sensitive to vibration/microphonics, and it is not just the 300B tubes; the 6SL7 tubes too! Good isolation is essential; (7) the thing runs hotter than may amps - make sure you have ventilation; (8) it gives a very different presentation from my other reference Shindo preamp, a little less colored, more straightforward; sometimes I prefer one for its neutrality, sometimes the other for nuance! Both are wonderful!

Sunfire Carver Sunfire Amplifier

From Part I Although Carver's Sunfire amplifiers were famous for its time (cited in TAS' Ten Most Significant Amplifiers of All Time), there is not much info on the internet.

There appeared to have been several versions. Mine was certainly an earlier one, not a Signature version (see Audiophilia 2004 review and avrev 1998 review; see also review of the related Lightstar). The simpler front and back matches well the version described by one of my favorite writers, Robert E Greene, archived in his own website: regonaudio TAS 1996. I should also mention that I acquired the amp after I heard my friend Vash's Sunfire Architect's Choice driving Maggie.

Part II There is very little to say except that the amp is quite a smooth performer. It is quite transparent, but details never sound etched or grey (like most transistors can and do), especially when pushed. I compared it to my McIntosh MC-2200 and generally found it superior in detail retrieval and openness. This is quite a bargain!

The one thing I don't quite like about this original version is the lack of a power off switch. If you don't use a switched outlet, make sure you take care when turning on and off the preamp, especially if it is a tubed unit. I used it with my Manley 300B; what I do is switch the preamp to earphones when I power on or off. Also, when I plug my unit in, I get a (capacitor) spark, which is apparently a common problem.

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