Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Spatial Audio X3 Open Baffle Loudspeaker Review


Evolutions Of A Restless Audiophile

As we gain experience, and perhaps get to know ourselves better, our senses and tastes evolve. This evolution in tastes is also what drives our upgrade-itus as audiophiles. Once you hear something better, or once you hear something on a familiar recording you've never heard before you can't "un-hear" it, and the urge to upgrade or tweak your existing system sets in.



My tastes as of late have changed significantly in the realm of loudspeakers and amplification. I suppose as a budding audiophile my tastes were driven in a big way by what I could afford, music I listened to, and also what was popular. Today, with my own dedicated listening space, my preferences are driven more by affordability, less by aesthetics (to a degree) and size (also to a degree). When I started out as a young audiophile, slim speakers were in, they were more affordable, and they fit in my apartment.

The First Aha

One of my "Aha" moments occured when I heard a friend's system. He had some speakers rated at about 98dB efficiency, 3 powered, sealed servo-driven subs, and a FirstWatt SIT3 amp. It was mind altering. The sheer, immersive enjoyment of that experience had me pursuing higher efficiency speakers, high quality sealed servo subs, and Class A, zero negative feedback amps.

The Second

My second "Aha" occured when I heard Open Baffle speakers for the first time. I enjoyed the open, boxless sound that made vocals so much more natural. At the same time, I also was able to listen to a servo controlled, open baffle subwoofer. This was the best bass I had ever heard. It loaded the room in a much more natural way than any box sub I had ever heard. The servos helped the 12" woofers start and stop so quickly. I was bitten by the OB (Open Baffle) bug hard.

The Stars Align

So now being firmly on the path of higher efficiency loudspeakers, paired with Class A operation, zero negative feedback amplifier designs I was on a quest. 

Fortunately, I didn't have to search far. Dan Wright was showing his latest product at the 2018 Capital Audiofest, a hybrid integrated amplifier, with a pair of open baffle speakers from Spatial Audio that were rated at 97dB efficient. I purchased the integrated and Spatial X3 speakers for my Studio. The Modwright KWH 225i integrated amplifier is rated at 25 watts Class A, 225 watts Class A/B operation with zero negative feedback. The integrated was essentially Dan's LS100 preamp and KWA100SE power amp in one chassis. The Modwright would be plenty of power, and headroom for the efficient Spatial X3's.

The Modwright KWH-225i Tube Hybrid Integrated Amplifier.


A Primer On Open Baffle Speakers

Before we get into the speaker review, I want to explain some of the unique features of OB (Open Baffle) speakers. An open baffle speaker design is essentially a dipole speaker that places the drivers in a front baffle, but there is no box or enclosure capturing the back wave of the drivers. They are "open" to radiate to the area behind them as well as to the front, obviously. Their advantage is a sound that is very open, and free of any box colorations since there is no box. 

Since there is not a large box, only a baffle, the appearance of the open baffle speaker, even if it has larger drivers, is that they have a slimmer profile. But... That more slender profile, while having great sounding bass due to no box colorations, usually doesn't have much of it. a 15" OB driver, properly implemented, has about as much bass output as a 10-12" woofer in a sealed box. But the quality of the OB bass is better in my opinion. I loads the room more naturally. However, If you are really into deep bass, like below 30hz, and you like plenty of it, you will most likely need subwoofers.

Noteworthy OB Lovers

Siegfried Linkwitz, legendary loudspeaker designer,  had some very nice things to say about open baffle speakers in general. You can read his comments on his Conclusions page at LinkwitzLab.com.

Nelson Pass of Pass Labs has also had an intense interest in open baffle speaker designs. I feel like I am in good company with my choices. Now on to the review...

System

Sources:

IntegratedModwright KWH 225i

Phono StageModwright PH 9.0

Power Conditioning:
Room Treatments

  • 6 x Stillpoints Aperture II's, placed behind the speakers
  • Vicoustic Multifuser DC2 (Ceiling)
  • Vicoustic Diffusor 32 and 64 (side walls)
  • Bybee V2 x 9 spread about the room

The Spatial X3

The Spatial X3 is a 3 way open baffle design. It stands fairly tall at 49". The Stillpoints Ultra 5 I used under them added another 2". They are 18" wide, and 5"deep if you don't include the depth of the stands.



X3, Full Frontal



It utilizes a Hypex Fusion NCore plate amp to power a 15" custom made driver for frequencies 90 Hz and below. For the midbass/midrange, a custom designed 12" driver going up to (I am guessing) about 1k, and for the highs, a horn loaded Air motion transformer. They are rated at 97dB efficiency with an easy to drive 8 ohm impedance. Offloading the more demanding low frequencies to a powered 15" bass driver really opens up one's choices for amplification. Low powered SET amps are definitely a possibility. I was running the X3's for awhile on a Jolida SJ-302A that had been modified for single ended triode output. It had about 15 watts, and could play fairly loud in my 15 x 25' listening space. If one craves more power and volume, the X3's pro audio drivers can certainly handle it.







Back to the speakers. The drivers are thoughtfully wired with Duelund's "tone wire". I like this wire. In fact my speaker cables are made of 3x 16awg Duelund wires per + and - pole, with Bybee Purifiers in line as well. The crossovers use high quality components like Clarity Caps, and they are finished off with WBT binding posts. The whole package is classy and contemporary. The exposed backs of the drivers even look good. Mr. Shaw has an eye for detail and design.



Peeking in-between the baffles, you can spot the crossover network. Note the Clarity Cap.



The "baffle" is actually 2 baffles, one placed behind the other. They serve to add mass, as well as quell the effects of vibrations. The bass and midrange drivers are attached to the front baffle made of a material called UltraLam which has the look of stacked baltic birch plywood on edge. There are spacers separating the front baffle from the second baffle, which appears to be made of MDF and painted a satin black. The HF driver is attached to the rear baffle, as well as the crossover components and the 15" woofer's amp.



Side view of the X3 showing the dual baffles, and cast iron legs.


The speakers are not heavy, as far as Audiophile speakers go. They weigh about 85 pounds each. Not having massive enclosures provides this benefit as well. The Ultralam baffles lend a very cool design aesthetic, and the cast iron stands complete the contemporary look. The X3's are available in 3 different finishes: Natural, Honey, and Nutmeg tints. The Spatial X3's come with a 5-year warranty and are made in Utah.



The front of the AMT driver







The back of the AMT driver



They were shipped via freight together on a pallet. The boxes and packaging they were in were top notch and well thought out. It was super easy unboxing, unpacking, and moving the speakers into the area where they would be placed.






Placement


Spatial recommends that the X3 be at least 3' away from the wall behind the speakers. Mine ended up about 60" on center from the wall behind them, and about 8' apart. I toe'd them in a bit to create a singularly connected Right/Center/Left soundstage. I also took the time to level them and adjust the rake angle. The adjustability of the Stillpoints made this very easy. At this location in the room, the bass was even, and the soundstage expanded to fill the room in all dimensions.

Placement is important for any speaker, it took me several attempts at using the Rational method of speaker placement (very similar to Master Set), but this location is the best so far.
Music Used

Dominique Fils-Aime - Nameless
Bill Calahan - Apocalypse
Kenny Burrell - Midnight Blue
Boz Scaggs - Dig
Cream - Royal Albert Hall, London, May 2-3-5-6 2005
Kenny Barron & Mino Cinelu - Swamp Sally
Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune
Efterklang - Altid Sammen
David Bowie - Blackstar

Sound

I let the speakers run 24/7 for about a week before I began listening with the intent of gauging their character. With the X3's in place, broken in, and with the Modwright amp driving them, the sound was... Where do I even start?

Let's start with this. After break in, these speakers running for a few months before writing the review. So during this time I had many different cables, tweaks, power conditioners, and of course a couple amps in there too. The X3's were an absolute window into whatever changes I made. They let me know exactly what was changing.

Dynamics stood out as they would in a live performance. Top to bottom, from the snap of fingers on an acoustic bass, to vocal, piano, and cymbals. Everything had a lively energy to it.

Bass was perhaps amongst the cleanest, fastest and most tonally colorful (when called for) as I have ever heard. It went down to about 30 Hz and was just beautiful. One could more clearly hear not only drum sticks hitting the toms, but the tone and impact of each drum also came through. For some recordings, it was the first time I heard these nuances in them. However, if you like deeper bass, or a more visceral impact you will need good subs. A sealed or open baffle sub would be my recommendation. There are no commercially available open baffle subs, but there are kits. SVS, Rythmik Audio, and Hsu research make some great sealed subs at the sub $1000 level. 2 or 3 of these should do in nearly any room.


Midrange was open, dynamic, textured and let you know of any colorations in the equipment or recording.


The highs were glorious. Capable of going very loud without compression or smearing. They are a very low distortion driver, capable of massive sonic output. They cruised and never appeared to strain or lose their dynamic snap.


Together, they formed a cohesive, immersive listening experience. The Modwright is such a good integrated, and I heard it's capability in a very exciting manner through the X3's. The imaging was some of the most pinpoint I have heard in my system, the soundstage was wrap-around when it was in the recording. I never grew fatigued of the sound. Quite the opposite, I found myself on many occasions stopping whatever activity I was doing (usually working on my laptop) and being magnetically drawn in to whatever music was playing. There may have been dancing and air guitar on frequent occasions....


On Eric Clapton's Stormy Monday, The X3's place you in the audience, in the middle of Royal Albert Hall with the reflected sounds of the amphitheater appearing to emanate from behind you as they should, and the musicians placed on stage with proper scale.






The snare drums are fast, the cymbals smooth, and Eric Clapton's voice with reverb circling the room. You can tell when his mouth moves away from the mic, for instance when he backs away to play his guitar. There is just such a sense of space in this recording. That's why I like it so much.

Dominique Fils-Aime's song "Birds" starts out with a string bass being plucked hard, ending with a dynamic clap of hands. You could literally "feel" the string bass being plucked with no boominess. It was super-natural sounding.








Dominique's vocal was centered, with her backup vocalists behind and outside of her position, nicely layered with no smearing. Ambient effects were floating all around the room, decays gave a sense of a much larger space. This is great music, recorded well, and the X3's kept my attention and were exciting to listen to.


Bill Calahan's title song, Apocalypse, is a simple arrangement highlighting a few instruments and his unique voice. The song starts out very minimalist and slow, with a single guitar in the center.





The reverb on Mr. Calahan's voice gives a sense of width and depth. The piano is way in the back, and Bill's unique voice (which is hard for a speaker to get right) is full, textured and natural sounding. When you finally hear the ringing of the undamped kick drum, you get to enjoy the tonality and ringing of the skin on the drum. The Cymbals that accompany this are a tiny bit harsh, but it's the recording, not the speakers.

Kenny Burrell's Chitlins con Carne is a familiar recording to most of my readers. It has instruments hard-panned left and right. What I listen for is the clues the drums give to the space in the venue. The muted cowbell(or is it the wooden "Beater") echoes in the space when struck.






The saxophone that comes in at about 3:00 also is panned hard right, but you can hear the ambient information stretching across to the left speakers. You can also hear the guitar follow the sax very closely.


Boz Scaggs "Desire" from the album Dig is a great test on several levels. It opens up with a keyboard hook that has nice low end. Then a solo guitar appears, and you can hear the swirling effects that circle about the room.






The main vocal is centered, very textured and well recorded. The backup vocalists are nicely layered, very detailed and textured. The full frequency capabilities of the X3 are nicely revealed in this tune.

Perhaps my favorite recording, the song "Moon Dance" by Kenny Barron & Mino Cinelu of their album Swamp Sally is a great test of dynamics and tone of bass.






This track has a lot of different types of percussion instruments, and opens up with the chiming of a bell, which is difficult for many DAC's to get right. Fortunately the Lumin X1 does a great job of handling the dynamics and overtone frequencies, so do the X3's. This track really shows of the X3's ability to render dynamics with realism, clarity and tonal shadings. The sense of space, with ambient cues and the right to left dynamic craziness of all the instruments incorporated are extremely impressive.

Bleeding Heart off Jimi Hendrix Vallies of Neptune is just fun. It's not a great recording, but not awful either. I just enjoy the song, and love turning it up.




Of course Jimi's guitar sounds incredible, but the driving beat of the song is great as well.

Efterklang was a discovery for me (thanks Roon Radio). The song I chose off of their album Altid Sammen starts off with a synth opening and moves in to a great bass line. This Danish post rock group recording is excellent and unique.





Sung in their native tongue, I have no idea what the lyrics are saying, but the singer's vocal range really shows off how well the X3's do vocals and convey emotion. The synth, bass and vocals are backed by cello. I sat back and let the music wash over and surround me, filling the room once again and creating an immersive experience.

Finally, David Bowie's Blackstar. I chose the song Lazarus. It opens up with a strong bass drum and snare accompanied by a simple guitar melody.





The dynamics of the snare and bass drum kept my attention focused, Bowie's vocals had a little reverb on them, and the dual saxophones added a sense of space. The emotion in Mr. Bowie's vocals were conveyed with richness and texture. It drew me in to the music.

Conclusion

There is no question I like the Spatial X3's. They tick many boxes on my list: High efficiency? check. Outstanding vocals? check. Tone, texture and space? Check, check and check. Dynamics, oh heck yes! Air and space, definitely check. If your gear is up to it, and you take the time to place these speakers properly (it's not difficult, it just takes patience), they will reward you with a dynamic disappearing act that will have you forgetting about everything, being immersed in the joy and emotional connection to the music that great sound can provide. I would have no qualms pairing the Spatial X3's with very expensive gear in the 5 and possibly 6 figure range. I just don't think they would ever be a bottleneck in the performance. They represent what Tweek Geek is all about: finding reasonably priced high performance gear that delivers engagement, immersion and an emotional connection to the music well beyond it's price point.

My only caveat is for those listeners that need strong, occasionally loud bass performance below say 35 Hz. You would need very good sealed or open baffle subs to keep up with the speed and output of the X3. Rythmik Audio, REL, JL Audio, Hsu Research, and SVS have commercially available subs worthy of consideration. My advice though would be to buy 2 of the GR Research open baffle servo sub kits and have someone build them for you, or if you have the skills, build them on your own. They beat all of the others in terms of tonal quality, and their open baffle design is the best match for the X3.

Tweek Geek has the Spatial X3's ready for you to listen to in our studio, along with all of the other gear used to review them. I invite you to make an appointment to listen to them and visit with me the next time you are in the Denver area.

Cheers!

Friday, September 20, 2019

2 Tweaks For Improving Streaming Audio Sound Quality

Just a quick post highlighting 2 things that really helped my streaming setup sound significantly better. 

1. DMT Wormhole Dots

DMT Wormhole Dots

Starting with the internet connection that comes into my home. I have found that the DMT Wormhole Dots placed on all relevant internet/ethernet connections made more of a performance improvement than a higher quality ethernet cable.  The sound is more natural, and appears to be quieter as I hear more detail. If you only start with one, start with the one at your router, and work your way to your streamer. Place one on every ethernet connection.


2. Balanced power on Data components

Starting with my router which is located in another building. I have connected it to a relatively inexpensive balanced power transformer I purchased on Ebay. Balanced power is commonly used in pro audio as a way of reducing AC line noise. The 120 volts normally carried on the "hot" wire runs through a specially wired transformer that splits the 120 volts into 60 volts on the "hot" and 60 volts on the "neutral" and making one electrically out of phase with the other. This out of phase wiring causes a cancellation of noise on the AC lines, and the bonus, the component still "sees" 120 volts. It not only cuts the noise in half, it also isolates the components plugged in to the transformer from the other components (in this case audio components),

I connected one transformer to my router, and the other transformer is in my listening room powering my Roon Rock server, Cisco switch, and an external hard disk with switching power supply.  I have listened to this in and out of my system, and it is definitely smoother and quieter in my system.

I have had hit and miss experiences with balanced power on my audio components, but for data components in the audio streaming chain, it is essential. Below you can see a photo of the unit I purchased (I actually purchased 2).

My Cisco switch sitting on top of the balanced power transformer. My Roon Rock server and an external drive are also plugged in to this unit. Highly recommended.

500 watt balanced power transformer with 2 duplex receptacles. Perfect for your routers, switches and data components



Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Acoustics: Not All Treatments Are Equal. My Experience With The Stillpoints Aperture II's

If you've been following my blog, you are aware of my new studio and the fact that I have been working on my studio's acoustics. I am on round 2 of this adventure after not being thrilled with the results of the first round. I will admit, my needs and room is not super easy. I have open baffle speakers (Spatial Audio X3's), they need room to do their dipole thing, and are a little more sensitive than average to the surfaces behind them.

Over the last few months I have been working on these issues from other troubleshooting angles: Power conditioning, speaker placement, cables, and tweaks. I have been making really good progress, and I have detailed some of it on previous posts.

The latest breakthrough was born out of my being bored, unsatisfied with the sound, and wanting to experiment. I had four Stillpoints Aperture II acoustic panels in storage for the occasional in-home audition and decided to place them in the area behind my speakers.

A photo of my studio with conventional acoustic treatments a-plenty. The speakers have changed, but the treatments remained.

On the left side behind one speaker is a window (visible in the photo above), which isn't a death sentence but is a challenge. I thought that the cloth-like cellular blinds would absorb some sound, and it's accordion shape would also keep sound from reflecting directly back to me in my listening chair. They didn't perform as well as I had thought, and the acoustic treatments I used behind there were good on a measurements level, still I was not satisfied.

Studio again with the Spatial X3's in place. They are further out into the room now...

I Got Issues

First, I had to turn the system up to a moderate level to hear all of the music. Low level details would disappear at lower levels. I had to turn up the volume to hear all of the music. This was not always ideal.

Second, I felt that the depth of my soundstage was lacking, partially because of the above issue, but also it just sounded a little flatter than I am used to. At this point I experimented more with speaker placement, which did help a bit.

Third, complex musical passages lacked life and seemed to just be mashed together sonically a bit. I tried power conditioning experiments, cables, and was making some progress, but still not where I wanted to be.


Spatial X3's have found their place, as have the Stillpoints Apertures. Now to build stands that I like...

My Reasons (And Perhaps Yours) For Not Trying The Apertures

The main reason I had not used the Stillpoints Aperture II panels in my studio is, at $800 each they are not inexpensive. I felt like most people probably do when they look at these. I thought "It doesn't appear that I am getting a lot for my money with these." I mean, they are extremely well crafted, they look like furniture, yes I get that. To my eyes they were small, and I felt like I was paying a lot for the aesthetic. Not that there is anything wrong with that either, it's just that there were other brands and options that seemed cheaper per square inch, looked and measured well too. This was my first mistake.


My second mistake was making the assumption that the Aperture II's were "normal" acoustic treatments. Yeah they did a little bit of everything according to the description. A little absorption, a little diffusion, a little resonance control. But so what, other products did that too. Although I might have to use 2 or 3 different products to achieve the same thing, right? No.


My third mistake was assuming I would need a bunch of these to treat my room properly. With them costing $800 each, I thought I would need as many as 20. This probably more than anything had me looking at other products.

Back side of the Spatial X3 and my work chair. Beside the chair is a Vicoustic diffuser (it's gorgeous and works well).

The Reality Of The Stillpoints Aperture II's

Placing just 3 panels behind my speakers, propped up about 24" off the ground allowed for coverage of the windows, and put the Aperture II's in the line of fire of the dipole midrange and high frequency drivers of the Spatial X3's.

This. Was. Eye. Opening. Hooo Leee Shit. What just happened to the sound?

I'll tell you what happened. Magic.

The other listening chairs, and the Vicoustic diffuser on the right side wall. Also gorgeous and works well.

Soundstage

First, the soundstage. There was more depth, plain and simple. My soundstage went further back, which was the main complaint about the current setup. Even so, I wasn't blocking the windows by that much. I did stack two Apertures on top of one another at the center point between the speakers. One was good, two were better.

But there were also surprises...

Aperture II in Cherry wood with a cream grill. A very cool, retro kind of coloring and look. Love it.

Articulation/Separation

What I wasn't expecting was the amount of de-smearing that the Aperture II's could perform. All of the sudden there was more clarity, more separation of the musical elements. I had no idea four 22" x 22" acoustic treatments could pull this off. This was sooo enjoyable.

Dynamics

Another surprise. Dynamics had more attack, more transient snap, and more low level impact as well. Listening to Steven Wilsons "To The Bone" there were the strikes of the toms that had more impact and realism. Quiet passages were quieter, and dynamic passages had more jump. I have never heard an acoustic treatment pull this off before.

Volume Independent

Here was an interesting contrast that directly addressed one of my complaints. With the other treatments, I had to turn up the volume to hear the lower level resolution in the recording. At lower volumes there seemed to be things in the music that were missing. With the Apertures I didn't need to turn up the volume to hear those details. They were there, and so were the dynamic contrasts.

Three T's: Tone, Timbre, Texture

THIS. This was the biggest surprise, and the most important aspect of performance that separates the Aperture II's from everything else. The tone, the timbres and textures were quite simply more natural and believable than with conventional acoustic treatments. There was flow, there was ease. My brain wasn't trying to analyze, it was allowing me to feel, forget analysis, and enjoy. I don't know if one can put a price tag on that...

Where the 4 Aperture II's are parked, awaiting stands which I will build out of wood.

Incoporating Aperture II's With Conventional Acoustic Treatments


The best analogy I can think of is with cabling. Treat the source first with the best cables you can buy, the downstream components, while important, don't necessarily need to have "the best" cabling. Especially if budget is a concern.

When treating your listening room, start with the wall behind and between the speakers first. Here the Apertures are indespensible. They will lock in the center image, create depth, allow your speakers to resolve music, and beautiful natural tone.  The side walls are nearly as important, but take second place to the wall behind the speakers. Here you can use diffusion to eliminate secondary reflections. Ultimately however, the Aperture II's can widen the soundstage and add to that wonderful sense of natural ease and flow of the music.

In my case, I had hardwood floors and an 8' ceiling. The Vicoustic heavy duty polystyrene diffusers worked great on the smooth ceilings, and a natural wool rug with a felt pad underneath worked extremely well on the floor. Apertures on the ceiling? Not for me. The polystyrene diffusers were effective, and light enough to not be lethal if for any reason one should detach itself from the ceiling. The Apertures weigh 23 pounds each, I did not consider that safe.

Back walls? That depends. If the walls are closer than 5 feet to your listening position, Aperture II's may provide an advantage, but one can certainly use conventional acoustic absorbers to eliminate any slap echo.

One could start with a single Aperture II, centered on the wall between the speakers, and over time build a very good sounding room with the addition of 4 or 5 more Apertures. This actually makes the apertures very competitively priced when shopping for room acoustics. You need fewer treatments, because they are more effective on a per square inch basis.

Conclusions


Not all acoustic treatments are equal. The Aperture II's while small are way better in getting one's system to sound fantastic in their room. Their "potency" allows one to save one money  on treating a room because fewer Aperture II's are needed than conventional diffusers and absorbers.  Additionally, since fewer Aperture II's are needed, one has more wall space to hang art. It's a win-win!


Seriously though, I had spend a chunk of money on more traditional acoustic treatments, and they simply did not allow my system to reproduce the music as well in my room. That was an expensive lesson. I share this information with you so you don't make the same mistakes.

The Aperture II's are a superior product worthy of the asking price. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A New Reference For Power Conditioning.

The Never Ending Story

Being an audiophile is a continuous journey, an evolution. Our nature as humans is to explore, experiment, to take things further and discover what is possible within our own limits.

Our limits (or at least mine) are technological and financial. When one cannot afford the latest equipment, we get as close as we can within our means, and we also find other ways to advance performance that are also within our means. That is why DIY audio and tweaks exist. They allow us to fulfill our drive to achieve higher performance (sometimes) while staying within our limits (hopefully our impulses don't get the better of us). Case in point: My audio system's power conditioning.

My Reference 

I have used the Bybee Power Purifier in some iteration as the reference power conditioner for my system for over 10 years. Nothing has bested it despite many attempts. I continuously have improved it over the years, and continue to challenge it's capabilities with other conditioners, and tweaks. It has remained.

It uses a combination of series and parallel filtering elements, along with top shelf wiring and AC receptacles. The series elements were very low resistance, and on paper do not significantly impede current delivery to audio components connected to it. It's always been more natural sounding, while digging deep for low level detail, and presenting information more clearly (while remaining balanced) than anything I've tried.

My reference: The Dark Matter Stealth

Reunion

Last year while at the 2018 RMAF  I ran in to Bill Stierhout, the inventor and former owner of Quantum Resonance Technology. Quantum Resonance Technology (QRT for short) is a unique approach to power conditioning that uses a parallel "signal" or field to smooth out the AC waveform. Several years ago, Nordost had purchased this technology and contracted with Bill to oversee continued production and development of Nordost's QRT line of products. When we reconnected at RMAF, He was finishing up his contract with Nordost and had ideas for a more advanced version of his technology under his ownership (now called ADD-Powr). In January, he had a prototype device which I was able to audition. I found his new device to be quite beneficial to my existing power setup, and we became partners once again.

I began using his Sorcer X4 (pictured below) in conjunction with the Dark Matter Stealth power conditioner, which provides passive filtering with DMT materials, capacitive RF filtering , and some series filtering devices from Bybee and High Fidelity Cables. The addition of the X4 lifted yet another veil in the sonic presentation with greater clarity, microdynamics and textures.

The ADD-Powr Sorcer X4


The X4 I was using in my reference system was also my in-home auditioning unit, so it was in and out of the system often. This allowed A/B listening to the unit in and out of my system frequently. I heard it's benefits multiple times as it went out on loan and came back.

Returning from the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audiofest, I was finally able to retrieve my ADD-Powr Sourcer X4 since it was being used at the show. While it was there, Bill Stierhout installed the latest upgrade to the X4. A small board that he said would "take the mid and high frequency resolution further".

X4 Solo Duty

The following Monday morning after the show, I was eager to put the newly updated X4 in my system. As I mentioned in the past, I used it in combination with my Dark Matter Stealth V2 power conditioner, but today I wanted to hear only the X4. I removed the Stealth from the system, replaced it with a Wireworld power strip and one of my Duelund wire power cords, and then plugged the X4 straight into the wall.

Ear Opening

Every other time I had listened previously, it was with my Dark Matter Stealth. I had assumed the Stealth would allow my equipment to perform at it's absolute best with the multiple filters and tweaks, while the Sorcer X4 would do it's thing plugged into the wall receptacle. That assumption was wrong. Way wrong.

Plugging in the Sorcer X4, straight into the wall, with no other power conditioning was shockingly "ear" opening. It revealed to me what the Dark Matter Stealth was doing and what the Sorcer was doing. I liked the sound of the "solo" Sorcer better. It was more dynamic, clearer in the midrange and treble regions. Clearer in a way that made for a more cohesive sound emanating from the speakers. All the drivers spoke with one voice. There was more depth, and more density to the soundstage as well. Textures and microdynamics had more "pop" as well. There was more naturalness and life to the music being reproduced.

Almost

Upon listening over the next several days, I still felt the Sorcer was better, but was able to identify the signature of RF leaking into the audio chain and affecting the signal. A little bit of harshness in the midrange revealed itself. Still the dynamics, textures and soundstage were better than with the Dark Matter Stealth added to the system. I had to ask myself however "What if we just took the capacitive and ground filtering elements of the Dark Matter Stealth minus the series elements (Bybee Purifiers and High Fidelity Wave stabilizers)?"  I went to work and put together an 8 outlet distributor, star wired with Furutech wire, and with the parallel capacitive filtering of the Stealth in place. The ground filtering elements were the only elements in series at this point. There were no series devices on the current carrying hot and neutral legs of the AC at this point. I replaced the Wireworld power distributor with my newly wired, filtered power distributor and listened.

Star wired with parallel capacitive filtering, the Dark Energy power distributor was essential to reference performance.

The parallel filtering did as I had anticipated. It removed any trace of glare and harshness due to RF, while preserving dynamics, textures, soundstage and had the speakers singing with one voice. I  could now safely say that the combination of the Sorcer X4 with a parallel filtered power distributor could replace my Dark Matter Stealth as the reference for my system. The Dark Matter Stealth had been my reference for over 10 years. This was no small feat, and not a casual consideration.

Enter High Fidelity

I had the opportunity one day to test High Fidelity's latest parallel power conditioning device, the MC 0.5 Helix Plus. The original MC 0.5 was hit and miss. It didn't do much of anything when the Dark Matter Stealth was residing in my system, so I wasn't expecting much in this case, but this was a different system with no series filtering components. 

The MC 0.5 Helix plus was plugged in to a spare receptacle in the power distributor. It was immediate. It allowed the system to dig even deeper, finding more subtlety and musical information. The musical "flow" as well as tone were more natural, and it was as smooth as butter. That was with one!  As a result, I knew I had to incorporate at least one of these devices into the power system I was creating. This was, to date, the best sound I have ever had. Clarity, dynamics, natural tone and flow to the music. I was in full musical enjoyment mode and my analytical brain had retired for the next several hours. Wow.

Introducing...


I am dubbing this discovery the Reference Power Conditioning System 1.0. Much like software, this will be a continually evolving combination. Right now this is where it's at:

High Fidelity MC 0.5 Helix Plus adds further detail, refinement and noise reduction.

I have yet to try High Fidelity's MC 1 Pro Helix parallel conditioner, or try a more expensive parallel power distributor. They most certainly will sound different, but may not justify the cost. Time will tell. For now I have an AC conditioning system that filters RF, filters ground noise, with no series filtering elements in series with the current carrying AC wiring. It sounds better than anything I have tried before, it can be purchased in increments, and costs less than the state of the art offerings from other manufacturers.

Things Learned

1. The Sorcer does not always play well with other tweaks. One has to carefully A/B the Sorcer with every tweak in the room. Especially power conditioners that incorporate unconventional filter methods, devices, etc. Like the Dark Matter Stealth. I found that the Dark Matter Stealth's Bybee SE AC Purifiers in series with the hot, neutral, and ground did not work well with the Sorcer, and I also learned the Sorcer was better. Tip: Take out all your tweaks and power conditioning before plugging the Sorcer straight into the wall. This will be your baseline.

2. Parallel power conditioning may finally surpass series conditioners. With the ADD-Powr Sorcer and High Fidelity Helix parallel power conditioning, the tradeoffs of parallel (not as effective) vs. series (dynamically limiting) power conditioning may be gone or so minimized as to make parallel conditioning the obvious choice. 

3. The Sorcer has incredible synergy with High Fidelity plug in parallel conditioners. The MC 0.5 Helix Plus is our favorite so far with the Sourcer X2 or X4. There is a depth, resolution and smoothness to the music with this combination that sounds far more expensive than it is. 

Conclusions

I like progress, and in this case progress is slow, but steady. It has taken over 10 years to hit a new level of performance for power conditioning in my system. I am especially pleased because, unlike most improvements in audio, this one actually costs less than it's predecessor. A Fully loaded Dark Matter Stealth is $8499, the Reference Power Conditioning System 1.0 is $5737.20. It can be purchased incrementally, and it can also be scaled to something larger. That is icing on the cake.



Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Roon Core and Innuos Streamers - To DSP/Upsample or Not?



I get a lot of questions regarding the capabilities of Innuos Music Streamers and Roon. I am going to attempt to address some of them now, and will probably continue to add to this blog as more questions come up.

How Does Roon Work With An Innuos Streamer?

Great question, and for this we need to first go to the Roon web page that gives a brief overview of how Roon Works.

The great thing about Innuos streamers is the fact that they can run Roon Core AND act as the Roon Streamer. You add the (USB Audio Class 2 capable) DAC of your choosing and away you go. Sort of...

What if I Want To Do Upsampling Or DSP? Can I still Use The Innuos As A Roon Core?

As my parents taught me, "all things in moderation". The same goes for DSP and upsampling.  Most Innuos models run the Intel Quad Core N4200 chip. 

Zen Mini MK3: 4 GB of DDR3 RAM
Zen MK3: 8GB of low voltage DDR RAM, with 4GB dedicated to RAM playback
Zenith MK3: 8GB of low voltage DDR RAM, with 4GB dedicated to RAM playback
Statement: 8GB of low voltage DDR RAM, with 4GB dedicated to RAM playback

From the Roon Optimized Core Kit Knowledge Base, they recommend 8GB of ram and a 128GB SSD for heavy DSP or large libraries.

From this we could infer that the Zen Mini is probably not a good candidate for anyone interested in DSP, upsampling, or large libraries. The others are probably okay for moderate DSP and upsampling.

We could also infer that the Zen, Zenith and Statement could handle moderate DSP and upsampling. I say moderate because of the Intel N4200 chip is only quad core and may start sounding worse when tasked too heavily. They may not play super hi rez formats like DSD with upsampling and DSP. So the rule here is PCM only for sure, but DSD? Maybe not.

Here is a link to a great comparison site for PC components. It will allow you to compare benchmarks of CPU's, SSD's, RAM and more.



My Soapbox on DSP: Bottom line. Less is more with DSP. Use broad, low Q filters, and minimize DSP on high frequencies to prevent comb filtering. Use mechanical acoustic treatments to tame resonances/reflections and take the time to properly position your loudspeakers before going to the digital toolbox.

Conclusion (so far)

With this information in mind, how should one best use their Innuos Streamer? In my opinion, minimize the use of DSP and upsampling, and use your Innuos as a Roon core and a streamer. This creates the shortest signal path for the data and ensures that that path is optimal as far as minimizing noise or interference.

As always, use your ears to guide you. If you use DSP or upsampling with ANY Roon core there may be tradeoffs. Why? Because you are taxing the processor with more tasks. Sometimes the negatives outweigh the benefits when you start demanding more from the CPU.

If you have more questions on Innuos music streamers or would like to purchase one, please contact us at 303-653-6341.  Thanks for reading this far!


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Placing Bybee iQSE V2's Part II: The Listening Environment

In case you missed it, here is a link to Part 1: Placing V2's On Speakers

There is no doubt that placing the Bybee V2 on the loudspeaker baffles enhances the resolution of your loudspeakers as pointed out in the June StereoTimes article.
Bybee V2 on the front baffle of one of my loudspeakers.


It took me weeks of listening however to figure out that this affected the soundstage in my system and room. The V2's it seemed were almost too powerful on the front baffles of my speakers. This led to great resolution, but placed too much emphasis (for my taste) on the location of the speakers themselves. The resolution was astounding, but the speakers tended to have less of a disappearing act as a result of having the V2's on the front baffle.

My listening preference is for the location of the speakers to be undetectable sonically. leaving in it's place a soundscape that extends beyond the boundaries of the room. With a setup like this, and a good recording, I am transferred to the space where the recording is made.

This post came out of my experimentation with placement of the V2's in my listening room. The goal of this weeks long experiment was to have the resolution the V2's brought to the system and the soundscape I desired. It may not be your cup of tea, but for those who have tried the V2's on the front baffle of their speakers and had similar findings to mine, this might be the ticket for you.

So as I mentioned above, I felt the V2's might actually be a bit too powerful for speaker baffles, I wanted something slightly less powerful. Dark Matter Technologies products fit the bill in this regard. They have a similar, but less powerful effect than the V2's, and work very well together with them. I found the Qubes to work well in conjunction with Wormhole Dots, to get the effect I wanted without drawing too much attention to the speaker locations. More on that later however.


We found through much experimentation that careful placement of the Bybee iQSE V2 in the listening room, along with the help of the new Dark Matter Dots and Qubes can yield an immersive, natural soundfied with the sonic characteristics that the Bybee iQSE V2's are known for.

For those of you not familiar with the Bybee V2, below is a photo.

The Bybee IQSE V2

The new DMT Wormhole Dots are thinner, more attractive and way, way more powerful than the original Dots. We found them to work best on AC, on loudspeaker baffles, and as a room treatment.  They are pictured below.
The DMT Wormhole Dot. $99 each.



The Canvas

My listening studio is about 15' wide and 25' deep. Towards the back of the room at about the 15 foot mark, the room opens up another 5 feet wider to accommodate a kitchenette, and further behind that is a set of stairs leading down to the ground level.

The listening studio
The ceilings are 8' high and the room has extensive treatment with Vicoustic absorbers and diffusers. It is well optimized to get the most out of a well placed pair of speakers.


Below are our results after much placing, removing, and evaluating the V2's over several weeks.

Placement. One Step At A Time

Keeping in mind that the V2's aren't cheap, we have broken down our ideal setup into steps, so that you can add V2's as funds permit. It only takes 8 to get the sound we have alluded to. You can add more, and it will only solidify and intensify the effect. I had up to 12 in my room at one point, but one can get 90% there with only 8.

Step 1: Centered on the wall behind the speakers
If you only purchase a single V2, this is THE place to try it first. This will add depth, strengthen the center image, and also have the sonic attributes described above.  Adjusting the height of placement affects image height. I like this V2 at about 65" off of the floor.

Step 2: The corners are THE key
Since the V2's work on the nitrogen component of our atmosphere, and sound tends to really bunch up in the corners of a room, it makes sense that they would be really effective here. The next 2 V2's (2 and 3 respectively) in the placement went into the corners where the ceiling meets the side walls and wall behind the speakers.
V2 placed in the corner behind one of the speakers. Each corner behind the speakers were treated.
V2's 4 and 5 were placed on the base boards just off the floor in the same corners behind the speakers. This really added to the sense of soundstage depth, height and width.
V2 placed in the lower corner of the listening room, behind the speakers. Surprisingly, this placement created a very significant improvement in soundstage height, width and depth.


The pattern the placement of V2's created made an X on the wall behind the speakers. With one V2 at each end of the lines making the X, and one approximately at the intersection of the lines. I say approximately because by adjusting the height of the center V2, you can adjust image height. I ended up with the Center V2 about 65" off of the floor.

With the X pattern, the depth of image was greatly enhanced, vocals and lower frequencies sounded more open and natural.
The X pattern created by the V2 placements. 


Step 3: Behind your listening chair

The 6th and 7th V2's were placed behind my listening chair. I have a corner off to my right, and one naturally went there. The fourth V2 was on the ceiling behind the listening position and off to the left. Essentially equidistant to the V2 that was in the corner to behind and to the right of my listening chair. I had no symmetrical corner to the left of me, so this set up the boundaries of the soundstage and kept it balanced. Adding the V2's behind my listening position further depressurized the room, making it feel larger than it is, but it also brought the soundstage around the side walls and behind me. Reverb or hall ambience now filled every corner of the room, and produced a natural, engaging and immersive sound.

Step 4: Completing the X pattern on the ceiling

A V2 centered on the ceiling  can improve image height and the sense of immersion. Again, it is all about balancing the front and rear V2's. My ceilings are 8' high and the distance between my speakers and listening position is a little over 10'.  I find ceiling placement more beneficial in larger rooms with greater distances between listener and speakers. With a V2 Centered on the Ceiling, the soundstage was more immersive, but narrower. It drew the focus back to the center. Taking my cue from the placement of V2's on the wall behind the speakers, I placed 2 more  V2's as near the corner of the listening space as I could. These however were near the ceiling, with the V2 placed behind me at the center was mid way between the ceiling and floor.
If you look closely, you can see the V2 on the ceiling, just in front of the white diffuser. You can also see the V2 centered between the speakers on the window frame.

What The V2/Dot combination Brings To Your System & Room

In every application of the V2, there is a common thread of sonic benefit. Clarity with low level resolution and speed, all with an even tonality. The sound is never forced or mechanical, unless of course that is how it is meant to sound. For acoustic instruments and the human voice, there is an ease and flow to the music that is quite simply more lifelike. Piano music is simply stunning. The complexity of music is there before you, around you, with openness harmonic complexity, dynamic richness. It makes you shut the analytical part of your brain off after the initial shock passes. You sit, for hours, in musical ecstasy.  The effect improves when given more time, taking 24 hours to reach 90% of it's effect and 3-5 days to attain the remaining 10%. For those of you with less patience, the first effects are heard within 30 minutes.

Unlike other brands of room tweaks/treatments, the V2 is fuller, warmer, richer and to my ears, way more natural. 

Placing the V2 in the room can quite literally make the room boundaries sound as if they have vanished, placing you in the recording venue when the recording is well done.

Conclusion

The Bybee V2 is essential to creating an immersive, engaging musical experience in a room. Right up there with Speaker placement, power conditioning, and conventional room acoustic treatment. Dare I say it's a 4th pillar in the foundation of a high quality music system? Yes, I am going to go that far. They are essential, and a must try for any music lover who craves a listening experience that makes them get up and dance, sing, air-guitar, whatever floats your boat. 

Tweek Geek makes trying the V2 in your listening room easy with a 30-Day money back guarantee. If you are curious, start with 8 at the package price of $2600, if they don't work for you send them back for a full refund of the purchase price.



Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Dark Matter Wormhole Dots & The Power of Power Conditioning


Strange Pattern In System Performance

So here I was, writing a lengthy post on the placement of Bybee V2's & the new DMT Wormhole Dots in the listening room. I was noticing a pattern in my system, and this pattern had been running since I had a system set up in the new Studio. I would get whatever I was working on, be it speakers, tweaks, cabling, I would get it set up and sounding great. It would sound great for a period which would vary. Sometimes a few days, sometimes over night. I would listen again and something wasn't right. Naturally I would blame it on my last change finally settling in. I would make adjustments, or just quit for the day in frustration. Eventually the great sound would return. Sometimes on it's own, or with my efforts. I would enjoy it for awhile, then ultimately something would be off again.
DMT Wormhole Dots

Adressing The Wrong Issue

I suspect this is the case with many of us who try tweaks. You make a change, it sounds great for awhile, then you have a bad listening session and you remove the change or you make a new change. It's an endless cycle, which tells me in many situations we aren't really addressing the right problem.

Back to the story. I was finishing up a post on the placement of the above tweaks in the listening room as room treatments.  That day seemed to be one of the days where the system was sounding off. I sat there, frustrated and uninspired to finish. It dawned on me that we were literally in the heat of summer, and there was probably a large demand for power, and a lot of noise, on the AC grid due to many air conditioners operating.

I had an idea.

It started with placing  a single Dot MK2 on the ethernet cable connected to the wall jack. I had very low expectations as I have tried what seems like hundreds of tweaks and cables on ethernet cables, routers and switches with little to no effect.  Bybee V2's, Stillpoints ERS, various ethernet cable filters, you name it, I've probably tried it.

DMT Wormhole Dot on the ethernet connection coming in to the listening room.

Interestingly enough, In about 20 minutes, the sound took on a more natural character, with a greater sense of low level detail and 3D-ness. With that in mind I went to work on the whole path. I started with the router, placing a Dot on the ethernet cable connection there, as well as a Dot on the power cord connector attaching to the router. Again, more improvement. Last, for the ethernet connection I treated my Cisco router by placing a Dot on the incoming connection as well as all outgoing ethernet connections and the incoming power connection. After about an hour the sound was considerably more natural and 3D. I was hearing some very fine detail in the high frequencies that were at one time sort of a homogenous blend of highs. This was a surprise because as I mentioned above, nothing else had any sort of effect on this type of signal before.
Wormhole Dots on incoming and outgoing ethernet connections. Not pictured is the Dot on the power cord for the switch.


Well it being summer and us having a parade of family and friends visiting Colorado, I was pulled away from the system for a few days to spend time catching up and socializing. When I returned to the system, it was sounding incredible. Imaging was holographic, the resolution in the highs was still there, and there was a natural character to the sound. 

Moving on to the AC

 I decided to perform the same treatment to parts of the AC path that I hadn't treated with the Dots yet. My studio has it's own sub panel connected to the main houses breaker panel. Taking my experience with treating AC  with products like Stillpoints ERS, I decided to start at the main breaker box. 
Placing a Wormhole Dot on the Breaker feeding the sub panel where my audio circuit was. This had a profound effect.

I learned early on that placing Stillpoints ERS can be counterintuitive. It works better treating AC sources as far upstream as you can. Which in most homeowners cases is the main breaker box where the AC makes it's entry to the house. With this logic in mind,  I placed a Dot directly on the breaker feeding the Studio sub panel. The great thing about the Dots is they are small, light and thin. You can place them directly on the breaker, and still close the door on the breaker panel. 

This had an immediate and very profound effect. More, much more of everything. The 3D soundstage, resolution, naturalness. It was another surprise, perhaps even greater than the ethernet circuit placement. At the very least equal to it.

I then moved to the sub panel, placing another Dot on the 30 amp breaker feeding the circuit for my audio system. Again an improvement, but not as large. 

 All of my power cords already have the "Wormhole" material applied internally, and so did my Dark Matter Stealth power conditioner, so I was done with treating the AC. 
Dark Energy Power Cables have Wormhole Technology Built in.

It's been a week now, and the system has continued to engage me, daily. No moments of feeling that something wasn't sounding right. It's rock solid, grin inducing, goosebump creating sound every time I listen.

What have I learned?

This was an interesting problem. My first encounter I've had where the AC quality fluctuated so much from day to day, even intra-day. I have heard of the power changing from city to city for those manufacturers and dealers that do many audio shows. A few actually bring different power conditioners, and exhibit with the one that sounds best at that particular venue. So yes noise and distortion on power lines is real, it can change from location to location, and can even change throughout a period of time at the same location. No power conditioner is great in every situation it seems. 

So far, the Dots are taking care of what was causing my system to fluctuate in performance at this location. I find it interesting that these tiny tweaks do so much to noise on such high voltage/amperages. But there was no doubt that placing one on the 100 amp breaker feeding my sub panel was a very large gain in resolution, naturalness and the 3D nature of my system.

If I were to start out with some Wormhole Dots today. I would go in this order:
  • Breaker box on the breaker feeding the audio circuit, continuing to each power cord on each component
  • The ethernet "circuit" feeding your streamer
  • The Room in conjunction with Bybee V2's
If you are curious about the Dots, they are backed by our 30-day money back guarantee. You can try them and return them for a full refund if they don't meet your expectations.

They start at $99 each. With discounts for volume purchases.