24 May, 2014

Letter from NYC (29) 2014 (1): Ensemble, Belkin

Letter from NYC (30) 2014 (2): Ensemble, Belkin
Brief Review: Belkin PureAV Coaxial Digital Cable, Part I
Review: Ensemble Dirondo and Dichrono HiDac, Part III

Beauty and the Beast
This article reflects well the admittedly somewhat split personality of Cheaptubeaudio. On the one hand, we have the luxurious Ensemble separates, on the other the cheap Belkin. As to which is the Beauty and which is the Beast I shall leave it to you. Let me tell you though, I am always thrilled whenever I come across something cheap that works way beyond expectation! In this article, limelight is on the Belkin!

I don't think Belkin got any mention in the hifi press until the advent of computer audio. I first noticed it when TAS gave favorable comments to its Gold USB cable. Indeed in one of their USB cable surveys it left many "hifi" brands in the dust. And that is the one I use for CAS.

Belkin PureAV Coaxial Cable I knew nothing about it, but last year ordered one for $3 (clearance item) when I was shopping at Parts Express. I didn't try it out until recently, since my Ensemble Gigaflux BNC cable was giving me trouble (I had to connect it in reverse for it to lock, can someone tell me why?). I tried a few others, but they all did not sound quite right. A month ago I connected the Belkin and, as they say, the rest is history.The Belkin is somewhat stiff like the usual 75-ohm RG coaxial cables, and its connectors are molded types. In other words, not visually impressive, but...

First, a recap in italics of the Ensemble, copied from Part II of its review:

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 (Part I) 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.

Ensemble Part III With the Belkin the following were observed in my reference system:
  • With the exception of the Ensemble Gigaflux, the Belkin is that rare cable that does not impart the Ensemble too white a character.
  •  Like the Gigaflux, the Belkin does not hype details, but is smooth throughout the frequency range and rich in midrange. I actually think it resolves a little more than the Gigaflux.
  • the Belkin's leading edge is superior to most hifi cables. It has good speed yet sounds deliciously elastic.
  • although Belkin's treble lacks just the ultimate in extension and air, it more than makes up for it with good speed and transient performance. Also, the refinement and richness of the treble is simply marvelous! Strings are silky, but not lacking in harmonics and never over-sweet. As a corollary, the rhythm and pace is admirable.
  • I am not entirely sure on this, but I think the Belkin's mid-bass is possibly just a tad too full on certain material, but most of the time the perceived bass is exciting! With classical material, everything is right; with pop and jazz, one is never sure whether it is the recording or the playback.
  • the midrange is possibly slightly recessed.
  • the hall sound is well captured.
  • Back to the Ensemble: with the Belkin in place, I ave re-assessed the various over-sampling options. Much to my surprise, now I prefer upsampling to 96 kHz (the Ensemble is not 192 ready): the sound is a little more spacious and more composed. This has pluses and minuses; instruments gain a little more air and space around them, but vocals become slightly recessed.
  • Musical examples that substantiate some of the above. On both Van Morrison's Moondance and Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de mi Padre, the instruments move just that little bit to the fore, and the singer steps back a little. I find myself bathed in all sorts of instrumental details and rhythmic felicities that I haven't noticed before, but pure vocal aficionados may object a little.
The exercise renewed my enthusiasm for the Ensemble system. It is even better than I thought. Great job! BUT, bravo Belkin!

In a coming article the Belkin shall face off Belden and Canare! 

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