Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Entreq Everest & K2: A perspective


The US distributor for Entreq recently sent me the new accessories for their fabulous line of grounding boxes. The Entreq grounding boxes and cables were eye opening to experience in my own system. More blackness between the notes, less noise, more texture to instruments and voices, and just a more musical presentation are but a few of the attributes of these products when set up on the right components. The Entreq Everest & K2  ($249 for the K2, $349 for the Everest) they sent were add-ons to the existing models of grounding boxes, and meant to improve performance. I was very interested in giving these items a try.

From the Entreq Web site:

"When we at Entreq found a massive new breakthrough for our metal/mineral mix, used within the Ground boxes... we accepted the challenge to find a solution where all the benefits from our new discoveries could be incorporated & applied to all existing Ground boxes and work, without limits, with our wide range of Eartha cables.
The demand was it should work from our entry level Minimus/Tellus all the way to the Olympus Tellus. Working as effectively with the entry level Eartha Copper cables as with Eartha Atlantis. It should also be easy to handle and easy to attach. This has truly been a challenge for us!"
As far as using the product they state: 
"You simply replace the wood caps on your existing ground box with either the K2 or Everest product."
Looks
The Everest and K2 had identically sized and shaped wooden housings, although it seemed my K2 has a little "extra" sanding along the tip of the edge where the post came out, so they appeared slightly more rounded. I chalk that up to variances in production.  The physical difference between the two lie in the length of the post that stuck out of them, with the post on the Everest sticking out about 1cm further than that of the K2. It was threaded internally so as to replace the wooden caps that secure the Entreq Eartha cables to the ground boxes. It appeared to be made out of aluminum or (my guess) magnesium. There didn't appear to be any powder or mixture of materials encased in the housing, but I could be wrong. It appeared to be the post and the wooden housing only.

The results according to Entreq:
MinimUs: Single Ground post only - The replacement of a K2 or Everest to a Minimus will then allow it to, at least, out perform a standard Silver Minimus! Tellus: Three Ground posts -  As above the replacement of the K2 or Everest on a Tellus will offer a performance level higher than a Silver Tellus.
Silver Tellus: Again the K2 or Everest applied to a Silver Tellus will start to approach the performance of the mighty OlympUs! 
My System
For evaluating the Everest and K2, I had the following gear in my system:

  • Tweek Geek BMF loudspeakers - 98dB efficient, 4 12" side firing powered subs, 12" front firing Faital pro midbass, Beyma TP-150H horn loaded AMT HF driver crossed at about 1100Hz. Very revealing, very dynamic, easy to drive and monstrous full range output if needed.
  • AcousticImagery Atsah 1200 monoblock amps - 1200 watts into 2 ohms, 140dB signal to noise, Hypex Ncore based amps. They idle along most of the time due to the sensitivity of the speakers.
  • AcousticImagery Jay-Sho fully balanced autoformer based passive preamp - adds NOTHING to the signal. A gorgeous pre.
  • Auralic Aries streamer with femto clock
  • Aqua Hifi La Scala MKII DAC - DFD (Direct From Digital) decoding without any digital filter. In addition it also utilizes a single-stage signal amplifier: VALVE / MOSFET direct-coupled and LED bias. It uses ECC81 tubes - a High-Frequency triode - for its low noise main feature. This is directly connected to a High-Voltage MOSFET output.
  • Dark Matter Power Conditioner - Successor to the Bybee Stealth (only the prototype exists right now)
  • Audience AU 24 SX Speaker cables & balanced interconnects.
  • Stillpoints Aperture Room Treatments
  • GIK Acoustics GridFusors diffusors
  • Sonex Whisper Wave absorbers

The Grounding Boxes
I had an Olympus Minimus and a Silver Minimus on which to try the new products. The cables I had on hand were RCA terminated Apollo and Silver Eartha cables. I used the same type of setup for each combination. The grounding boxes were connected to the preamp's signal ground for all tests. This was the most effective and revealing placement for the ground boxes in my system.

This is a very limited set of grounding boxes, cables and their applications, and by no means a comprehensive analysis. But it should supply some insights into the sonic effects of the Everest and K2 on the Olympus and Silver minimus with Apollo and Silver Eartha cables.



The Difficulty in Evaluating Entreq
Evaluating the Entreq Everest and K2 required a different procedure than normal. they needed time to "settle in" after installation. This means putting them on the grouding box, waiting a few hours to have serious listening time, listening, then removing the devices and to hear the effect their absence has on the system. It takes a lot of time and patience. This made the entire reviewing process take se

The Playlist

  • Ray Brown Trio - The Real Blues (Soular Energy)
    This is a live recording in a small venue with acoustic bass, and lots going on in the background. It's great for listening to bass and low level detail.
  • Chris Jones - No Sanctuary Here (Roadhouses & Automobiles)
    This has a powerful bass track, acoustic guitar, Chris's voice is close mic'd, and the background vocals are recorded in a somewhat reverberant space that when played back right one really gets a sense of that space. Chris's voice is a great test of upper bass and can sound boxy if something is off.
  • TrentMoller - Evil Dub (The Last Resort)
    Recorded in Q Sound, this track has great electronic bass, quick pulsating cymbals where you can hear each strike and the emphasis on certain strikes, and a real holographic sound. You can hear things behind you, spinning around you, and the sound goes from narrow to filling the entire space. Clarity in the cymbals, bass, and holographic imaging are what I am listening for here.
  • Phil Collins - I Don't Care Any More (No Jacket Required)
    It's all about the dynamics of the drums on this recording. Something my system does particularly well. At the right volume level it is goosebump inducing when things are "right" with the system.
  • Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong - Isn't This A Lovely Day (Ella and Louis)
    Great male and female vocals. Ella's voice can sound a little boxy if things aren't quite right.


Observations


Olympus + Everest:  I  put the Everest on the Olympus and let it settle in over night. The next day, I was able to hear the difference, and it was significant. The whole frequency spectrum seemed to gain more energy and push forward. The soundstage was wider and deeper, but when it moved forward into my listening space it seemed to add a sense of tension, not the relaxation that I prefer.

 I didn't care for the Everest-Apollo-Olympus Minimus combo with my system. Replacing the Everest with the wooden knob on my Olympus Minimus immediately restored a more relaxed musical presentation that was more pleasing to my ears.

I could see the Everest-Apollo-Olympus Minimus combo working well with  a tube based system or one that had a more subdued mid-high frequency response. It was too much of a good thing for my system however.

Olympus Minimus + K2 - The K2 sounded about half as powerful as the Everest, and way more agreeable in my system. I preferred this combination to the Everest, but still preferred the stock knob after prolonged listening. Here's why: I listen to a lot of different styles of music, and like my system to be able to accomodate all of them. It's a compromise I make for every day listening. The K2 allowed really good recordings to sound incredible, but poorer recordings were unbearable. The combination was not at all kind to compressed, and thin rock recordings. Streaming music suffered as well, as all of the compression artifacts were laid bare.

I could see myself using the K2 + Apollo cable + Olympus Minimus during equipment and recording evaluations, or if I really want to hear all of a great recording. The entire audible range had a clarity that was natural, rich, full of texture, detail and musically natural. If you have a library of superb recordings, and want to hear everything in them, this combination is definitely worth auditioning.

Silver minimus + Everest: This took that speed and clarity of the Silver Minimus and Silver Eartha down into the lower frequencies. It was as if the rise and decay of the music was less encumbered by noise. Rises and transients were more dynamic, sharper and not smeared. Decays just went on and on. The Everest would be a very nice and inexpensive upgrade for Silver Minimus owners.

Silver Minimus + K2: I was super impressed with this combination. It approached the Olympus in terms of tone, detail, texture and dynamics. If I hadn't heard the Olympus Minimus in my system, I would be totally happy with the Silver Minimus and K2 combination. It widened the soundstage and gave the midrange a very nice character. Bass definition was clearer as well. Again the transients and decays were more dynamic and sharper, but perhaps not quite what the Everest offered. In terms of bang for the buck I think this combination was the best.

Conclusions

This exercise really shows how important it is to hear something in your own system before buying. We as audiophiles often jump to the conclusion that the most expensive product will sound better. In this situation I assumed that the Olympus Minimus with the Apollo Cable and Everest knob would be the ultimate combination. Not so. The most satisfying combination turned out to be the stock Olympus Minimus with the Apollo cable. The next best turned out to be the Silver Minimus with the Everest and Silver Eartha cable. The best value turned out to be the Silver Minimus with the K2 and Silver Eartha cable. The Silver Eartha was substantially upgraded by the addition of either the K2 or the Everest. My advice if you are a Silver Minimus owner: Try them both. If you are looking to dip your toes into the grounding box waters, start with a Silver Minimus and Eartha Cable, then add a K2 or Everest knob at a later date.

The great news is, you can try any of these combinations on your own system and know what works before you spend your money.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sometimes You Know Immediately... Review of High Fidelity's CT-1 Ultimate XLR Interconnects.

I had a customer order a pair of the new High Fidelity CT-1 Ultimate XLR interconnects recently, and before I delivered them, I had the opportunity to audition them in my own system.

Rick Schultz, owner of HFC and idea man behind their patented magnetic conduction technology, took more than a year to perfect the balanced version of his interconnects. The trick was getting the magnetic wave stabilizers to be powerful enough and small enough to fit inside a custom made balanced connector.  He finally perfected the design earlier this year and recently moved the balanced cables into production. Rick told me "The performance is beyond my expectations".

The 20lb. (!) package from High Fidelity Cables arrived the other day with 2 sets of one meter interconnects, each in it's own foam lined Pelican style hard case. The cables themselves were substantial, mostly because of the two magnetic wave stabilizers that were situated in the middle of each cable.
Pictured above: The Magnetic Wave Stabilizer that resides in the center of the CT-1 Ultimate balanced interconnect.

The connectors themselves were slightly larger than standard balanced connectors, but not heavy like the wave stabilizers. They should not interfere with standard spaced balanced input or output connectors.
The custom made connectors for the CT-1 Ultimate interconnects took over a year to develop.

A Word To The Wise

When ordering a set of these, be sure to account for the center placed wave stabilizers. There is a 99% chance that they will need to rest on something, or you risk damaging the connectors, or pulling your gear off of it's position. Be that on a shelf, on cones, whatever, the wave stabilizers are heavy enough to warrant their own space on a shelf. It would probably be best to order a long enough run to allow you some flexibility. A more budget conscious approach may be to simply move your components closer together...

Fortunately my components sit on one long bench-like table that sits very low to the ground. I have my components fairly close together, and the shelf is low enough to the ground that the wave stabilizers sat close to the floor, propped up by some Agora Acoustics MagicHexas.

Agora Acoustics MagicHexas. 
I've been on a bit of a minimalist kick with my audio system lately. I had only three components in the signal chain at the time of this review. A Lumin S1 music streamer which served as the source, DAC and preamp, connected to a pair of Acoustic Imagery Atsah 1200 monoblock amplifiers. There is a purity in simplicity that is more difficult (and expensive) to achieve with a more elaborate setup. The tradeoffs in this case being the removal of a component (preamp), and additional cables vs. the volume control on the Lumin being "lossy". Listening to both led me to choose the less component, lossy volume control combo. Fewer components & connections equalled less signal loss in this instance. This combination has allowed me to evaluate subtle changes I make to my system very, very well.

For additional tweaks not in the signal path, I had the Lumin connected to an Entreq Olympus ground box, and also had an Entreq Silver Minimus connected to the dedicated circuit's ground.  I also have the Stein Harmonizer system (2) with Blue Suns, and last the Bybee Quantum Plugs.

Other cables in the system were the Audience AU24 SX speaker cables ( perhaps the best value in audio cables today) and the power cables were a new Tweek Geek product that has yet to be named or released, but definitely up to the task of letting the music through.

Sometimes It Takes Only A Second

As soon as I inserted the High Fidelity Ultimates, I knew they were worth the asking price. The room felt as if it had just doubled in size, and the speakers disappeared, leaving a very wide, tall, deep and convincing soundstage. Balance was exquisite, and the bandwidth was extremely wide. There was deep, tuneful and thunderous bass emanating from the 4-12 inch powered subwoofers like I hadn't heard before, and the midrage had such detail and texture, again a first for my ears. The highs did not disappoint either. They had extension, clarity and ease. In fact the whole musical presentation had relaxed and decompressed from the room. The music was now in it's own space/time continuum. Spooky in a very good way.

Yes, all of that was extremely good, the best I have heard. But I have had other cables in my system come close enough to this type of performance to challenge the asking price of the High Fidelity's. What convinced me beyond a doubt that the CT-1 Ultimate cables were the best was the imaging magic that they performed. Many cables can throw a wide soundstage, but what usually is compromised is image placement and specificity. They trade focus for a wide, enveloping soundstage. The High Fidelity Ultimates did not. They maintained the image focus, and extremely good placement while creating one of the widest, most enveloping soundstages I have ever heard.

This tells me two things. The High Fidelity Ultimate XLR cables have a very low noise floor, and very good phase coherancy. 

Cables That Cost More Than The Components?

At this point I decided to try something a little unorthodox. I swapped the moderately expensive source and amps I had been using for much less expensive ones. I inserted the Lumin D1 Streamer/DAC/Pre ($2450 with Sbooster power supply) in place of the S1, and replaced the AcousticImagery Atsah 1200 amps ($9995 MSRP/Pair) for the Atsah 500's that retail for $2000 per pair. So less than $5000 in source and amplification cost, connected via a $7800 interconnect. 

Sonically, with this combination I lost a bit of texture and resolution, but I could live with that. I still had the ease, the soundstage, the imaging, along with more resolution than I had ever heard coming out of these budget components ever before. All for about the MSRP of the Lumin S1. 

This experiment turns the standard protocol for buying a system on it's head and begs the question, are we really getting the most out of our electronics when a relatively inexpensive audio system using uber expensive cable can produce sound equivalent in listener satisfaction than a system with expensive components using moderately priced cables?

What it proved to me and my ears is that there are more ways to audio nirvana than one typically thinks.

Conclusion

To my ears, and in my system, the High Fidelity XLR interconnects, specifically the CT-1 Ultimates, are the cables to beat for those looking for the absolute best listening experience regardless of price. There were absolutely no shortcomings. They did everything right, and did it like no other cable I have ever heard before. I could just sit, listen, relax and lose myself in the music. That is worth quite a lot to me, because I know all too well that when my audio system doesn't sound right, my whole world is affected. Music is my therapy, my catharsis, my escape. It makes me a bit of a freak, I know, but that is my reality. I need music, and I need really good sound in order to relax fully and get the "therapy" I need. What is that worth to me?  It is worth having these cables. These are a component, no doubt. They had that much of a positive impact on my listening experience. Can one come close to the performance of the CT-1 Ultimate for less? Probably, I can think of a few cables that come close, do cost less and could give one 80% of the satisfaction that the High Fidelity Cables deliver. But for those looking for the best listening experience, the CT-1 Ultimates will not disappoint, and definitely cost less than component upgrades, tweaks and a therapist. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Three Foundational Pillars of ANY Audio System


I am the Tweek Geek. Yes, I sell those controversial items that enhance the performance of your audio system.  Tweaks are  misunderstood, misused, and the definition of what a audio tweak is can be different for every audiophile you ask.

Here is where I stand on the matter.

  • Audio cables are not tweaks - Their careful selection is as important as the components you select. Try not to use their tonal characteristics as compensation for weaknesses in other components, as that will lead you down a very expensive rabbit hole in the long run. Where to start? Interconnects from your source component to your preamp, integrated etc. will have the greatest effect, then speaker cables, then power cords. 
  • Power conditioning is not a tweak - Clean power is essential for an audio component to perform at it's best.  That being said, sometimes a component sounds best when plugged directly into the wall receptacle. Usually the circuit the component is plugged into is a dedicated line, and I have also found that some manufacturers really pay attention to their power supplies. Often times these components benefit less from power conditioning. Usually this comes with a hefty price tag, and even then a high price is not a guarantee of a well filtered, clean power generating power supply. 
  • Experimentation is key - Never stop experimenting, trying, and learning new things. When you think you know it all, you're in trouble.
  • Tweaks are finishing touches, not bandaids - Boom. Bet ya didn't see that one coming. A guy that sells tweaks telling you he can't solve all of your problems with his wares?

    Tweaks are fine tuning devices, meant to reduce the last bit of noise, or get that final bit of resolution and "realness" from your system. Tweaks for the most part work on very small, incremental, compounding improvements. Things that the average person could care less about, but things that we as audiophiles care very deeply about. An effective series of tweaks deepens our connection to the music.

    HOWEVER, before experimenting with tweaks, I highly recommend getting the following 3 "pillars" established in your system and listening room in order to properly and effectively evaluate changes or tweaks you make to your system.

If you do not have these 3 "pillars" in place, you are not ready to put finishing touches on your system. Tweaks will only be bandaids until you address the following :

1. Clean Power 

A single, dedicated AC circuit helps deliver more current, and less noisy power to your audio components. It won't eliminate all noise, not even close. But it does put a little "distance" between your audio system and the other devices in your home. A dedicated line is still vulnerable to electrical noise pollution that leaks onto the grid from the outside world, radio frequency Interference from wifi, cell phones, etc. and from the noise generated by the audio components themselves. Placing all of your audio components on a single circuit also lowers the chances of a noisy ground loop plaguing your system.

For some components, this may be enough, but for the majority of components further noise reduction by way of power conditioning will help. But before we go there, Why not try reducing the electrical noise coming in to  your house from the outside grid, and also from within the house to your breaker box?  So, in order here is what I recommend for creating clean power to your audio system.
  • A dedicated line feeding your audio system
  • Noise filtration on the power coming in to your home
  • Noise filtration on the circuits in your home going back to the main breaker box
  • Noise filtration/conditioning of the power feeding your audio components directly

2. An Acoustically Friendly Room

You need a room that is friendly to listening to music. One that is not too absorptive, and one that is not too reflective. Too much absorption and the sound is lifeless and dead. Oddly enough, loudspeakers are tested in an anechoic chamber. No reflected sound occurs in an anechoic chamber, and therefore only the sound the loudspeaker makes is measured. That's great for taking measurements, but some people take this logic to their listening room and try to make it as absorptive as possible. Not a good idea. You need a combination of absorption and diffusion. Diffusion is the controlled scattering of soundwaves. You do not want sound waves bouncing off a wall directly to your ears. It's better for the sound to be scattered in random directions. This allows for the sound radiating from your loudspeakers to reach your ears before any direct reflected sound can reach your ears. Reflected sound when it reaches a high enough amplitude can smear the timing of the original signal, leading to a blurred stereo image and a smearing of fine detail.

Acoustic Geometry has made a great series of videos on acoustics that I highly recommend you watch.

3. Speaker Placement


Not all of us have the luxury of a dedicated listening room, but here are some minimum guidelines for getting your speakers to sound as good as possible in your space.
  • Avoid placing your speakers close to walls behind or to the sides of them. Get your speakers out in to the room. This will help to create a sense of depth in the stereo image, and will help to mitigate boomy bass.
  • If your room is rectangular, try placing them along the shorter wall first. Again, this helps with bass frequencies.
  • If your room is square, try placing your speakers off-center or at an angle to the wall behind them. This will help mitigate standing waves.
  • A good ratio for speaker width to listening position is 1 (width between the centers of speaker front baffles) to 1.3 (distance from speaker baffles to your ears). So if you have your speakers 8' apart, try placing your listening position at 10' 3".
  • Speakers that are of equal distance to the listening position have proper phase and timing with one another. 
Resources for finer placement of your speakers

After You Have Your Pillars In Place

Once you have your foundational pillars in place....Relax. Get to know your system. Enjoy it for awhile. Become so familiar with it that when you do bring in a new component, accessory or tweak that you will be able to discern how it is interacting with you, your room and your system. This will help you make better decisions on what new products might get you closer to your idea of "audio nirvana".