Thursday, December 29, 2022

Which Streamer is Right for me? 2022 version.


Back in April of 2019 I wrote a post titled "which streamer is right for me?". It summarized the features and functions of the 3 main brands of streamers I carried at the time. Those brands were Auralic, Innuos, and Lumin.

Flash forward to 2022 and we have another arrow to add to our quiver of streamers, Hifi Rose.

My goal in this post is to update you on the features of each, and perhaps give you a little more insight into their sonic flavorings. I will tell you up front that they are all more similar than different, but there are subtle differences.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

House Sound: Audience Cable Line Breakdown



Audience Cables have a well deserved reputation for possessing a full bodied, harmonically rich, natural flowing sound with a large soundstage. I am going to attempt to break down the Audience "House Sound" in order to help customers decide if Audience cables are for them, and if so, which line.

The Audience House Sound

The Ohno Through frontRow series of cables from Audience can be summed up in three terms: Warm, Natural, and large soundstage.  They all offer up a warm, rich sound with a full bodied vocal range, natural tones, and a large soundstage. Below is our description of each series' sonic characteristics.

Ohno: Warm, natural, and limited extension at the frequency extremes. Think of the Ohno as a budget AU24 SX with less high and low frequency extension, but the characteristic warmth and naturalness of AU24SX.

Studio Two: This is more closely related to frontRow. the Studio two has less of the midbass energy of the Ohno, but is more dynamic, and extended. This leans slightly more neutral than the Ohno or AU24SX

Studio One: Also in the frontRow family of sonics. This in our opinion is the best value if you like the frontRow dynamics, extension, and tonal characteristics which are slightly more neutral than the AU24SX.

AU24SX: A very rich, warm, 3 dimensional and natural sound when mixed with gear that has a leaner midrange or midbass. Think Solid state or Class D amplification. For equipment that may already possess some midbass or midrange bloom, we recommend the Studio One, or frontRow cables.

frontRow: Increased dynamics and transient attack, along with a slightly more neutral midbass and midrange are what give the frontRow it's top-tier status amonst the Audience line of cables. You also get higher resolution, and a wider, deeper soundstage than any other Audience line. 

Recommended Applications

In general, we recommend audience cables in any solid state audio system where vocals can be touch lean, or where the overall characteristic of the system is on the neutral to analytical side. Tube components like Modwright which tend more neutral, can also benefit. 

We hope you find this helpful in your cable quest.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Rethinking Everything Streaming with the QSA Network Switches


I've written before about optimizing your network hardware for the best possible performance for audio streaming. We discussed upgrading router and modem power supplies, powering and isolating them from your audio network using balanced power transformers, and using higher quality CAT8 shielded ethernet cables such as my budget favorites that you can find on Amazon for a very reasonable price. 


Breakthroughs in Streaming Audio Quality

Streaming Audio has had breakthroughs in sound quality with the introduction of Audiophile grade ethernet switches, USB reclockers, and various other devices. Digital audio too has gone through a fast paced transformation in sound quality. We are truly entering a golden age of streaming and digital audio. What a great time to be a music lover!

Speaking of breakthroughs, I've had a breakthrough in the world of tweaks with my introduction to the products from QSA. Initially starting my journey with their fuses. In my 20 years as the Tweek Geek, I have never experienced an audio tweak that produced such a significant improvement. An improvement that is comparative, dollar for dollar and beyond, with similar costing component upgrades. The fuses however have their vulnerabilities as a product. For one they can blow. They also may void your manufacturer's warranty if you have to open your component to install them. This has kept a number of audiophiles from experimenting with them. Fortunately QSA recognized that not everyone was comfortable installing aftermarket fuses in their audio components and they have implemented their technology into other power products, such as electrical outlets, and now simple adapters that you can attach to your power cords. These are indeed transformative products if you are willing to be open to the possibility. For the skeptics, and there are plenty, I offer in-home auditions, and a 30-day money back guarantee. 
It doesn't look like much, but this little device can transform your entire audio system.

Technology Transfer

The new QSA switches are the first products of theirs that I have tried that work on signal. Not analog signal obviously, but still, it's not AC. A lot of times a manufacturer or inventor will try to transfer their technology to another use, from AC to signal in this case. Most of the time there are tradeoffs that come with the benefits, like a loss of dynamics or highs. I had my ears on for this as we began.

We received a pair of the Silver network switches with our regular shipment of QSA products. The switch came in what looked like a tiny Pelican style case of not particularly high quality. No big deal, it was the sound we were more interested in, but other customers might feel better about their purchase if it came in a nicer package. QSA has a reputation for confounding it's product users with products that don't look like much, but sound utterly, head-spinningly amazing. One knows by looking that the material costs are not high. If you are looking for CNC machining, carbon fiber, or exotic wood, these aren't the products for you. BUT if your goal is creating an immersive, deeply engaging and entertaining sonic experience, keep reading....

To date we have been using the Innuos PhoenixNET in the system prior to the QSA, and have been very happy with the improvements in soundstage, detail and bass performance it had brought.  The Innuos Statement server/streamer we use also has built in reclocking of both incoming ethernet and outgoing USB, even with that in the path, the PhoenixNET still improved the signal noticeably.

The QSA Silver Network Switch is Actually a TP-Link TL/SH1005 switch that they have modified.

For the QSA trial, we placed one switch in the system, a Silver on the rack near the Innuos Statement streamer we use in our reference system. All was connected with our favorite Amazon Ethernet cable all the way through. So the signal path looked like this:

Incoming signal >>> ISP Modem >>> Wireless Router >>> Innuos PhoenixNET >>> QSA Silver  Switch >>> Innuos Statement >>> Merason DAC-1

Listening To The Silver

The addition of the QSA switch was quite a shock. More than the PhoenixNet in some ways. The effect was immediately significant and noticeable. One did not have to strain to hear minute differences, they were obvious and immediately had us questioning what was going on. I mean, we already had one of the best network switches on the market, but this was something else altogether. It elevated the system to a level that a $20,000 DAC might. There were huge leaps forward in resolution, clarity, delicacy, holography and naturalness. The improvements we heard were much like what we heard with the QSA Fuses, AC Receptacles and Jitter Power Conditioners already in the system. This was additive!

With the incredible result of the Silver switch, we wanted to remove the PhoenixNET switch to see if it would be missed. So with just the QSA silver in the system we still had the huge, three dimensional soundstage and resolution, but there was a loss of refinement in the highs, perhaps a little edginess that now tainted the performance. We preferred having the Innuos switch in the system with the QSA.

When adding a second QSA Silver Switch in place of the PhoenixNET, we gained a bit more midrange holography, but lost a little in high frequency extension. The best sounding, most balanced combination to our ears was the Innuos PhoenixNET with the QSA Silver switch downstream.

Listening To The Gold

We went through the same process listening to the QSA Gold switch as we did the Silver. First we replaced the Silver switch with the Gold, receiving the signal from the PhoenixNET. Well, I heard more detail for sure, more dimensionality, but along with all of that the sound was a little elevated in the upper midrange. In retrospect, I believe it was a reduction of bass output. I was a little concerned at this point, but chalked it up to break in. I would let it settle in over the next 24 hours before evaluating.

The next session had a little less of the thinness to it, but it still wasn't what I had with the Silver/PhoenixNET combination in the system. I decided to move on at this point, and remove the PhoenixNET from the system.

Now we're talkin'. The sound instantly became smoother and fuller. Bass reappeared and I could now appreciate the additional resolution and lower noise floor. My sound stage became a dense, sound bubble. I was immersed in the music, literally.  Here the Gold began to show it's potential. I kept it this way for a few days. I was really satisfied with what I was hearing. My streaming system had never, ever sounded this good. 

At this point I felt I could say with confidence that the Gold was a significant leap forward from the Silver. All of the positive sonic attributes increased. The soundstage increased in it's density, resolution was higher, distinct instruments and performers were more intelligible as distinct, air and space were even more convincing. 

Adding a second Gold switch in place of the Innuos was another leap forward. This time the bass improved dramatically. It had finesse, punch, depth and dynamics. There was a "liveness" and an energy to the sound that was captivating within my sound Bubble. Now, I could totally be happy with just one QSA Gold switch. It is by far better than any other switch I have heard. But if you are aspiring to build the ultimate streaming audio system, I would audition two of these.

Conclusion

The QSA switches have upended our philosophy on streaming music and system building. From our former position of looking at the audiophile network switch as a "finishing touch" product to be invested in after your DAC and Streamer, to now considering the Switch as a profound influencer of sound quality in a streaming audio system, worthy of budgeting serious money for. 

So far in our use of them, the QSA Silver and Gold network switches offer a staggering improvement to the streaming digital signal. Surpassing the performance of every other switch we have tried, and not by a small margin. Surpassing the differences one can hear when upgrading streamers, or even DACs, keeping the price differences within reason of course.

It was such an education on how much better the signal can be when streaming music on your network. I had no idea there was this much potential for great sound. Imagine being able to preserve the signal with this technology from a router, or modem. For now, we will just have to enjoy what a QSA Switch can help preserve. Honestly it's quite a lot. 

I am learning that it's not just investing a lot of money in a streamer or a DAC, and it makes sense. The streaming audio system begins with your internet signal, modem, router, and switch (or switches). We were told it was "just ones and zeroes" until we discovered that in the audio stream, timing was critical too. Then came more accurate clocks and the nay sayers went silent. With the QSA switches and their technology (which is a closely guarded secret), streaming audio is improving further. This may very well be the start of digital truly keeping pace with analog. Yeah it's good enough to bring out that tired old cliche.

If you have a $10,000 budget for a streamer, DAC, and associated cables, my recommendation is to set aside $3000 for the Silver Switch and get something like a Lumin T3 or a HiFi Rose RS150b.  

For the ultimate system. I would invest in one or two of the Gold switches, an Innuos Statement NextGen, and a Merason DAC-1. Add the Hapa Aero AG USB cable and you could have your own sound Bubble from which you might not ever want to leave. :)






So Where To Begin When Creating A Streaming System?

Our recommendation is to budget for a high quality audiophile network switch, preferably one of these, and connecting your streamer to it. This provides a super high quality foundation for great sound while streaming. The best way to describe the impact of a quality network switch is a "quality multiplier". Adding one to an existing stream seems to improve the performance of the downstream equipment exponentially. The QSA Switches will allow whatever downstream DAC or streamer you have to sound it's very best. In fact, if you are considering upgrading your streamer or DAC, you really should try one of these first. You may find that your other components had untapped potential.

Next Blog: QSA LAN Adapters.

We will be reviewing another QSA product next blog. An Ethernet adapter made to go on both ends of your ethernet cable. They are directional, and sold in pairs. They use the same color coding scheme all of the other QSA products use.  Below is a photo.



 















Monday, October 31, 2022

Finding The Unicorn Tweak: QSA Power Jitter Adapters


 

If I, as the Tweek Geek, were to describe the perfect tweak it would have the following characteristics:

  1. Reasonably priced for the performance offered
  2. Obvious sonic improvement
  3. Easy implementation (no voiding of warranties, or endangering oneself or ones family)
  4. Invisible, or nearly so
  5. Would not wear out or fail
  6. Could be used over and over again on different products

Enter the oddly named QSA Power Jitter Conditioners. They certainly do not look like anything special. An orange, 3 prong heavy duty power cord adapter that looks to be custom made for QSA. It looks similar to a cheater plug, only much larger, and with the ground plug in place. The male contacts appear to be rhodium plated, and whatever material it is made of appears to be well damped. When I dropped or tapped on it, the mechanical energy appeared to be dissipated by the material.

Putting The Jitter Adapters Into The System

My system, starting with the wall receptacles, is already maxxed out with QSA. I have the Red Black Ultra outlet feeding my power conditioner, which also has QSA outlets installed. Additionally all of my components have Red/Black fuses installed inside. So the bar was set very high ahead of installation of the Jitter Adapters. To begin, I chose two Red/Black adapters to experiment with first. I placed one on my DAC, and one on my Integrated amplifier. It took less than 30 seconds to begin hearing the effects. Immediately the low level details began to emerge. Sonic information that depended heavily on proper phase of the signal began to expand and become more intelligible. Harmonics were more separate, clear, and yet more whole. The soundstage was more cohesive, wider and deeper. sonic effects were appearing behind my listening position with more clarity. All this, from a plug adapter. Yep.

I sat mesmerized, trying to take it all in, but gave in to just simply enjoying the moment as it was unfolding. 

In my nearly 20 years as the Tweek Geek, I simply cannot think of an audio tweak that is easier to use, and has an equal or greater impact on one's system. The Jitter Adapters are the unicorn tweak in my opinion. Starting at $119 each, they are reasonably priced and offer even the most budget oriented audiophile access to a great tweak. Implementing the tweak couldn't be easier. It just plugs in to the male end of the power cord, then the adapter plugs into the wall. Power flows through the Jitter Power Adapter, then through your power cord into your component. It is inexpensive, simple, discreet, will never wear out, and can be used on any two or three prong power cord. This is why I feel it is the best tweak offered today.

My experience and knowledge with these products continues to grow. Please check back often for current information.



Sunday, June 26, 2022

KEF LS60: First listens, First Tweaks.



With all of the hype surrounding the new KEF LS60 Wireless speakers, my anticipation and expectations were high for this loudspeaker. Like everything that comes in to my Studio, I planned on putting them through their paces with stock cords, etc. and becoming familiar with their sound. Once that was achieved, I would then start making some changes in an attempt to improve the performance. Some of the plans for the LS60's were as follows:

  • Upgrading power cables
  • Adding a KF62 subwoofer to the mix
  • Using IsoAcoustics Gaia footers
  • Using an outboard streamer and sending the digital signal directly to the LS60, bypassing the speaker's internal streamer.
  • Experimenting with additional tweaks that may help to get more from the KEFs.

Delivery and Setup

My LS60 shipment arrived via freight. The pair were in separate boxes, strapped together, and then to a pallet. One box marked PRIMARY, one marked SECONDARY. Unboxing was very straightforward with the directions clearly printed on both boxes. KEF has done a great job with packaging, and making unboxing simple. I had them unboxed and in place in about 10 minutes. I had to move my power conditioner to a closer location for both speakers so that the roughly 2 meter power cords supplied could reach, and doing this would also allow me to try other cords.

Initial Impressions

I unplugged the ethernet cable running from my Innuos Statement in my reference system, and plugged directly into the primary LS60 speaker. The streaming signal path was now as follows:

  • Netgear Nighthawk Router (plugged into a balanced power supply, and running a linear power supply)
  • Innuos PhoenixNET switch
  • KEF LS60

I used the KEF Connect app to then set up the speakers for my room. I set them down in the "magic zone" that I calculated using New Record Day's LOTS speaker placement system. (you can find it on YouTube). As far as fine tuning goes, the app allows for many settings. I didn't need to trim the treble, I left the bass extension mode at Standard.  It took some time for the speakers to open up, as they sounded a bit congested in the midrange at first. I left them to play for a couple of days while they went through some break in. 

Right off the bat however, the imaging was spectacular. I mean, SPECTACULAR. This was probably due to the Uni-Q Meta driver being coaxial and phase corrected, and the extremely narrow front baffle.

After a couple of days of continuous play, I sat down to make some more adjustments and have a listen. The imaging was still spectacular, and off axis listening was fantastic, but the midrange and highs seemed a bit veiled in comparison to my reference. The bass performance was not super deep, going down to a useable 35-40  hz range, but it was extremely accurate and detailed. I was hearing low frequency details that I had not picked up in my reference speakers with the servo subs. The sound was surprisingly large for such a slender speaker, producing a wrap around soundstage that was quite holographic. Vocals were impressive as well, no boominess or overly chesty voices unless it was in the recording. Still, I was missing some low level resolution. I was detecting just a little less decay, as was the sense of depth, air and space when compared to my reference system (valued at about $70,000). So for one tenth of the price, this system was very impressive. 

I listened to bass heavy rock and electronica, and the LS60's took it in stride, and played pretty darn loud. Bass was impressive, as was the speakers ability to scale. They sounded big.

Chilling out a bit to some more audiophile appropriate selections, namely the "WowII" playlist on Qobuz (created by none other than David Solomon)

  • Elvis Presley's "Fever" presented a fantastic string bass, and a huge soundstage. 

Changing Power Cables



I decided to change out the power cords powering the LS60's. The cords are critical in this situation, as they power the amps, DAC, and internal streamer of the LS60. I didn't want to get crazy, plus I needed some longer cords. I started with the Audience Forte F5 PowerChords that had been treated with their proprietary "M" treatment. This produced a significant and powerful result. Bass depth improved, the midrange and high frequencies improved with far more resolution and clarity. They were getting very close to my reference Aurai Z215's with their open baffle servo subs. I would say the Aurai had the advantage with low frequency extension and sheer output dB, but in terms of dynamics, tone, soundstage, clarity, and listenability it was very close. The KEFs had a wider sweet spot than the Aurai, and better low end resolution, even though it wasn't as deep. 

Adding a KF62 Sub



Adding the KEF KF62 sub was straightforward. I didn't have the KEF wireless module just yet so I used a long pair of interconnects, one from each speaker, to the inputs of the KF62 which I ended up placing about two feet behind my listening chair. The KEF Connect App has settings that allow you to tell the speakers you have a subwoofer, whether it is one, or two, the high pass frequency for the main speakers, the low pass frequency for the sub, gain, and polarity. Quite a bit of control from the listening position. I ended up lowering the output and the crossover point of the subwoofer due to the close proximity. A higher output and/or crossover point made the localization of the subwoofer too obvious. Being able to use the app and in real time make adjustments made the job of fine tuning the sound so much easier allowed me to get the desired visceral impact from a subwoofer in close proximity without being able to locate it sonically.

The KF62 lowered the floor of the system bandwidth nicely into the low 30's/High 20's, and it matched the bass drivers on the LS60's perfectly. Bass was super accurate, articulate and brought a greater sense of depth to the music. 

IsoAcoustics Gaia II Feet

These were a surprisingly significant upgrade as well. The footers cleaned up the lowest frequencies through the midrange. Cabinet resonances can smear music in the time domain. The IsoAcoustics use proven technology to reduce these cabinet borne vibrations that usually are reflected back into the enclosure. There was significantly more clarity in the midrange, and bass definition. 

Impressions (So Far)

After only a few days with the LS 60's, I can proclaim with confidence that this is the model that many other manufacturers will be scrambling to imitate over the coming years. It is an instant classic. KEF has hit is out of the park in terms of sound and user friendliness. They have the jump on competitors with their prodigious research, development, manufacturing and engineering. There will be many imitators, but make no mistake, this is the speaker to beat in the Active Wireless Streaming (AWS) category.

They simply sound fantastic, are engaging, super easy to use, and for 95% of the audiophile population (and 100% of non audiophiles with $7000  to spend) this is an end game speaker in terms of the listening experience they can creat. They are easy to set up, easy to fine tune, there are tons of upgrade paths for those inclined to get more out of the speaker. It's not super fussy about placement, and the app is quite good.

What Next?

In my next blog, I will be connecting an external streamer to the LS60, and feeding the digital output from that to the digital input on the LS60. Will that improve the sound further? Will it be worth the price of admission? Let's find out.


Saturday, April 9, 2022

Aurai Audio Z215 Review: My Journey


I started writing this review in November 2021. Initially I thought it would be fairly simple and quick. It turned out to be neither. Listening to my room and my system through these speakers has turned out to be quite an education. It started at what I would consider to be a college sophomore stage, and through the months of changes to the system, I am now feeling more like a graduate student of Aurai University.

About Aurai Audio

Alain Pratali made his name in audio when he designed several products for Oracle Audio. The 1000 and 2000 CD players and amplifiers were his designs, and have been highly regarded products. He has designed several award winning loudspeakers under his brand Aurai Audio. The M1, M3, Lieutenant Capitain have all been featured in Sixmoons and given rave reviews by non other than Srajan himself.

The Z215 is one of his new Z Series loudspeakers. All are 2 way designs featuring a proprietary high frequency driver, time aligned and mounted atop a uniquely tuned enclosure featuring a Supravox full range driver. The Z 215 incorporates the 215mm Supravox, the 245 incorporates the 245mm driver, and the 285 uses the (you guessed it) 285mm Supravox.

The Z series explores higher efficiency designs, as all possess sensitivity beyond 95dB.

They are offered as a stand mount design, or can be configured to sit atop a matching powered bass module.

Aurai Speaker Philosophy Design

Along with the usual goals of a flat frequency response and uniform dispersion, Alain focuses on impulse response times and in-phase transient response. In other words, drivers that are fast, don't ring, and a speaker with time and phase coherence. Those aren't necessarily unique, but do lend themselves to a speaker that can reproduce very fine harmonic complexity, image like crazy and paint a huge, 3-dimensional soundstage.

Part of Aurai's "Special Sauce" lies within their proprietary polymer high frequency driver. A tweeter whose mass is only .12g. It uses a "floating" system, whereby no screws or extra glue are used to hold it in place. The net result is it works without tension and far fewer unwanted mechanical resonances. The polymer tweeter is then loaded into a horn which reduces frequency related lobing (ex. sound changes when you stand vs. sitting) issues common to every high frequency driver, and it keeps the energy (output) constant over it's pass band. When matching the tweeter to a woofer, Alain has incorporated an ingenious method of using a magnet to give up to 6dB of tuning capability WITHOUT the use of resistors in the high frequency driver's signal path. In the case of the Z215 however, the tweeter does not need any attenuation, as the woofer is several dB more efficient.

To attenuate the output of the Supravox woofer, the Z215 he incorporates an autoformer with several taps that allows one to tailor it's output relative to the tweeter. I received the Z215 with the autoformer set to attenuate the woofer by  -5dB. I ultimately settled on the -4dB down setting for my system and taste. Instead of turning the tweeter level downward, in this case I turned the woofer up. This created a warmer, richer balance with highs that were silky smooth but not lacking in speed or resolution.

The 215mm Supravox driver.

The Z215

Making a departure from the M Series, Z series are higher efficiency two way designs centered around the Supravox full range drivers, and the proprietary horn loaded high frequency drivers. The Supravox were chosen because of their sound and specifications within the envelope of performance Alain was looking for. 

The Z 215 utilizes a 215mm (8.46 inch) Supravox Midbass driver in what is called a Tapered Quarter Wave Tube. This creates a physically deep cabinet with a large opening on the back. I mean, large.  This clever design does several things:

  1. It extends the bass response of the driver without reducing the speed of the bass. You get a useable response into the 60Hz region.
  2. It creates a quasi-dipole speaker. The large opening in the back, coupled with the dipole tweeter, radiates sound in a dipole fashion. 
  3. It keeps the enclosure from building up internal pressures and resonating. All that air escapes out through the TQWT opening with no buildup of pressure. 
  4. It eliminates back waves (from reflecting off of the back of an enclosure) from radiating back through the driver

The rear of the Z215, showing the large TQWT opening.



TQWT with the grille removed.


Bass modules are available, but I chose to have a stand mounted monitor and pair with optimally placed subwoofers delivered. More on why I made that choice later...

The enclosures are high grade 1" Baltic birch plywood veneered in cherry with a high gloss finish. No MDF here. Since the speakers are made to order, the choice of veneers is nearly limitless if your budget allows.

Specs

  • 60Hz-20kHz
  • 96dB
  • Supravox Paper Full range driver crossed at 3000hz
  • Proprietary super light polymer horn loaded tweeter with a floating suspension
  • Dimensions (with stands):
    • HxWxD: 41" x 12.25" x 21 3/4"
The Z215 Frequency response at 1 meter


Z215 Frequency response at 2.5 meters

Build Process & Delivery

A very well packed pair of speakers


I was surprised that is only took about 4 weeks for Aurai to build my loudspeakers. Alain himself was in constant communication with me. Since he does not speak English and I do not speak French, we made heavy use of Google Translate, and communication was excellent. The speakers were packed in a single heavy duty crate, with metal reinforced edges and a thick foam internal cocoon. The crate was too large for a single person to carry, but I simply disassembled the crate with my trusty cordless drill and the speakers were easy enough to carry into the studio individually. The disassembled crate was easy for me to store since it now could be laid flat and put on a large shelf. I bagged the foam padding just so it wouldn't accumulate dust or insects while in storage.

Well foamed speakers and stands

The stands were unassembled but were easier to put together than an Ikea chair. All that was needed was a rubber mallet to gently coax the precisely fitting cut joints together. No gluing necessary.


The Z215 on stand, ready to play.


The fit and finish were first rate, as they should be for a speaker of this price. Alain's cabinet maker did a top-notch job with routing driver cutouts, assembling, and finishing the speaker.  The packaging and finishing of this caliber just makes the experience of buying a speaker so enjoyable. Yes even from a dealer perspective, the experience matters. Alain and Antoine are reliable, exceedingly competent and pleasant to work with. That is hugely important to me.

Placement

For placing the Z 215's, I relied on the New Record Day LOTS Placement method to work well in my room. I've also taken measurements at the listening position. I have one room peak I cannot get rid of that is at about 150 Hz. This speaker placement system, and my subwoofer positions, do not exacerbate the existing resonance, so I feel I have things pretty well dialed in.

Even though this is a monitor design, it can play like a big speaker that loves space and can scale.
I had solid, useable bass response down to 60Hz. One could use these as a full range system, and the sound would be warm and satisfying, albeit fairly lightweight. For real sonic heft, a subwoofer is required.

Tweaking out

This part was really interesting, and at times frustrating. At times I heard things that were negative, and blamed the speakers. But clearly as the frequency response curves indicated, they were not the cause, but they were the "amplifier" of what errant tweaks or cabling were doing. Yes, the Tweek Geek says that you can over tweak things. I was compensating for other speakers when I put the tweaks in, and the Aurai's revealed that I had gone too far. I removed many little tweaks here and there. The biggest gain was made from swapping out my wall outlet from the Furutech GTX D NCF to a QSA Violet. The QSA was a whole league above the Furutech in terms of naturalness, holographic imaging, and huge soundstaging. I also removed two of the three power conditioners I had running. Leaving only my prototype Bybee Stealth (soon to be V4, as soon as I can get a custom chassis for it). These speakers will tell you if something is amiss immediately. Its funny though. Usually speakers that do this will also shred your ears with less than stellar recordings. These did not once everything was in balance.

Cabling up

Cables were rotated in and out, with the performance being very dependent on them. Specifically speaker cables and interconnects. I started with my own speaker cable, which despite it's 9awg build was a little lean and dry in the midband and upper ranges. From there I tried Audience Studio One which allowed the speakers to provide more detail and more dimensionality, but I found the speakers revealed a little boost in the warmth. The FrontRow from audience was next up, offering even more detail, and better dynamics than the Studio One, but still a teeny boost in the lower bass/upper midrange area. At least on this speaker. It was still very, very good. I listened with the FrontRow for over a month before trying the Silversmith Fidelium. The Fideliums were designed to minimize phase shift. With the time aligned design and resolution of the Z215 this created some incredible holography. It also revealed the slightest harmonics, reverb effects, and brought more clarity to the high frequencies. The overall tone with the Fidelium cables on this speaker was darker, less sparkly, and less lit up at the highest frequencies. But the information that was coming through was astonishing. So, a little less sparkle, but I can't say the speakers sounded closed in or that the soundstage collapsed. I still had an enveloping soundstage with so much texture and subtlety.   

Last cable swap was with the latest cables from Stein Music. Their 3X, 4X and 8X power cords, along with the Silver Matrix interconnect. Here is where my journey ended, for now. The sound was  more refined, slightly laid back, creating for me what was an immersive, wonder inducing listening experience.

A Word On Bass Augmentation

If you wish to go lower than 60Hz, there is an optional matching powered subwoofer that can act as a stand for the Z215. As for me, I preferred to use the minimalist stand, keeping the front baffle area small, and utilizing multiple subs placed optimally within the room. In my opinion, one rarely finds a placement for a full range speaker that produces a reasonably level bass response and optimal imaging. Compromises must be made between optimizing bass performance and imaging. By having the ability to separate the low frequency reproducers from the mid and high allows one to more optimally place the main speakers for best imaging, and optimally place the bass drivers for best in room performance of the lower frequencies.

The open baffle servo sub tower next to the Z215.

For sub-woofage I chose a dipole (open baffle), servo controlled subwoofer. This design came out of a partnership between GR Research and Rythmik Audio. GR had a special 12" bass driver made of lighter, stiffer paper (better for music) and Rythmik Audio supplied the servo controlled power amp for the GR drivers. I purchased the "enclosure"  as a flat pack and assembled it myself. I have 2 of these subs, each with 4 12" drivers, powered by 2, 2 channel subwoofer amps. That's 8 12" subwoofers powered by 4 channels of amplification. But in all honesty, 8 open baffle subs is equal to about 4 12" sealed box subs in terms of room pressurization. But the quality of bass from the 8 OB subs is better. The servos correct for driver overshoot, allowing the drivers to stop instantly, even in free air. The response of the subs goes down to 19Hz, but more importantly, they are fast, accurate and very tuneful. The drawback is that the OB subs need space to the front and rear. They need to sit out in the room a ways. They can sit closer to side walls because their output to the side of the woofers is next to nothing. It's a null. But front and back, give them some breathing room.  I highly recommend the OB subs if you have the space for them. If you don't have that option, the next best thing is a sealed version of the servo sub that Rythmik Audio manufactures. After that a high quality sealed subwoofer is the next best thing. No ported subs please. You need speed to keep up with the Z's.

Playback Equipment

  • Innuos Phoenix Switch - receives streaming data from the router, reclocks it, then sends it on to the streamer.
  • Modwright KWA225i (Class AB, Zero Negative Feedback 225 watts) and Qualiton X200 (KT150, EC88, E88C tubes, 100 watts, ) Integrated amplifiers. The Qualiton was preferred after a very long audition of both. But honestly the jury is still out on that one. The Modwright had more sparkle, the Qualiton more romance, inner glow...

(Partial) Playlist

  • Anouar Brahem - Al Birwa from The Astounding Eyes of Rita, ECM Records. 
  • Radiohead - Weird Fishes, from In Rainbows
  • Ry X - Shortline
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Higg's Boson Blues from the album Push The Sky Away
  • Prince - It's Gonna Be Lonely from the self titled album
  • Pale Green Things by The Mountain Goats
  • Sarah Bareilles - Gravity from the album Brave Enough
  • Oliver Nelson - Stolen Moments from Blues and the Abstract Truth
  • Kenny Burrel - Chitlins Con Carne from Midnight Blue
  • Cecile McLorin Salvant - I Didn't Know What Time It Was from Woman Child
  • Theme from Jurassic Park by Hans Zimmer

Lows

Since the speaker has limited low frequency operation, I will focus on speed, impact, definition, tonality and tunefulness. The Z215 revealed to me mid-low frequency detail, punch, tone and harmonics in many familiar recordings that I hadn't heard before. With string bass there were plucks, strums, and slaps that had impact. You could hear the body of the instrument, and feel the room it was in. Drums were tonal, clear, and sharp. There was the strike, the note, and the decay of the skins. if the drums were heavily damped, you could hear that too. They started and stopped with incredible immediacy.

Mids/Vocals

Vocals are scary present, textured, intimate when called for. I will paraphrase Srajan of Sixmoons with his review of the Aurai Lieutenant in that the depth of high harmonics in the upper midrange went well beyond what one normally gets from paper cone drivers. The Z215 dug down deeper into a tone's harmonic layers without becoming slow or syrupy. It made sense out of complex passages where most drivers compress and sounds start overrunning each other to become one homogenous mess of noise. If you are familiar with Radiohead's "Weird Fishes" from their album In Rainbows, you know that there are so many layers, with such divergent sounds, that it can turn to mush. Especially around the 4 minute mark. The Z215's kept the layers layered, the sounds individual enough, and everything together created this fascinating whole that was simply a treat for my ears.

Highs

This is where the Z 215 really shines, and will also reveal any shortcomings in your system. The ultra lightweight membrane  and horn loading gives the driver incredible speed, delicacy and energy. The polymer material of the high frequency driver does not have the zip or ringing of a metallic ribbon as it is better damped. Transients and recovery from transients are incredibly lifelike. The speed helped to decode with clarity rapid cymbal or snare strikes unlike anything I have heard. Ever. This is one Bugatti class driver.

Resolution

This is where things can be challenging with the Z215. It is not as forgiving as some speakers of poor system or cable matching, and will quickly let you know that there is a mismatch. If only it could tell you where. For me it was the cabling, and  tweaks. I ended up with a QSA outlet at the wall, Stein Harmonizers, Stein Schumann generator, Stein interconnects and power cables. The speaker cables ended up being the Silversmith Fideliums. This combination worked for me. When I say "worked" I mean I stopped looking for things to improve.

Coherance

Another area where if things are not right in your system you will know it. When things were optimized, the sound eminated from spaces in the room in front of you. Not a flat plane, but the entire room. You could not hear one driver, let alone one speaker. Everything worked as a seamless whole.

Imaging/Soundstaging/Phase

Flat out superb. The phase coherent, time aligned speakers behaved as expected. Disappearing sonically, leaving a very expansive soundstage, and pinpoint imaging. They pressurized the room in a way that felt bigger than the room itself on certain recordings. Sound was everywhere, and you were in the middle of it. Now to be clear, the performers were still in front of you, but reverb, hall echos, etc. filled the entire room and surrounded you as they would in a live setting.

Dynamics

At 96dB, the Z215 is lively, dynamic and presents dynamic information extraordinarily well. Transient information is conveyed effortlessly with absolutely no overshoot or overhang. Vocal Transients on Muddy Waters album Folk Singer, track 1 "My Home is in the Delta" were shocking, uncompressed and had me startled in my seat. 

Complexities/Harmonics

If you listen to  complex music, be it orchestral, vocal, or well recorded rock and electronic music, the Z 215 can present musical complexity in a delicate, coherent, and natural manner without mashing sounds together. As you turn the volume up, they hold their composure, although your room may not. It makes a great argument for acoustically treating one's room.

Scale

Again, the advantage of a time aligned, phase coherent speaker is that phase information that gives the sense of the size of a venue (small club vs. concert hall) exactly as it was recorded. It can be jarring at times when going through a playlist that has a mix of such recordings. One goes from being in a concert hall, to a tiny club in the blink of an eye. This is felt almost as much as it is heard, that's how I explain it. 

When one is discussing power handling and output as a factor of scale, the Z215 definitely plays bigger than it's dimensions would lead you to believe. I drove them with 225 watts and they didn't break a sweat.


Conclusions

After living with the Aurai's for more than 6 months, I can now safely say that  the Z215 is one of the best loudspeakers I have had in my system to date. Not since the Vivid Audio Giya have I had such imaging, soundstaging, sheer output and musical enjoyment. The 215's do exceed the Giyas in that they are more natural sounding with my system and to my ears. That is very high praise indeed. When the recording and system setup are up to it, these speakers will disappear and throw a huge, wrap-around soundstage with pinpoint imaging, naturalness and "relaxed resolution" that will leave you reveling in the moment. There is an element of wonder that this speaker brings. A bit of what got me hooked on audio and music in the first place.  I suspect because of the way the speaker just seems "right" in so many aspects of it's portrayal of the musical event.  It is lively, textured, engaging, and energizes the listening space with emotion and  music.

With my final system setup, even the not so good recordings brought joy, and had elements within them that made them engaging and enjoyable. With many hyper-revealing speakers this is not the case. The Aurai's have pulled off a magic trick of epic proportions here. Enjoyable, engaging, and super-resolving.

When I want to listen, and melt into the moment, the Z 215's deliver. When I need to put my "analytical ears" on, for example when evaluating a component or tweak, the Z215 also allows me to precisely determine a product's effect in my system very quickly. It can be used as a microscope for hearing changes, but one has to be mindful of the task at hand or otherwise be caught up in to the music and out of analysis mode. Consider this your warning. :)


Monday, March 21, 2022

The QSA Journey continues. Yellow, Violet, Red & Red Black AC Receptacles.

 Squeamish or Skeptical About QSA Fuses? Try the Outlet.

For those of you who have tried the QSA fuses, you know already what they are capable of. For those of you who are reluctant to open up your components, or are just not comfortable with the risk of being out several hundred dollars if your QSA fuse blows (they do have a replacement policy, BTW) the AC receptacle is your entry into the super natural (sounding) world of QSA.

Step 1: Replace The Wall Receptacle

There is no need to over complicate this. Simply replace your wall receptacle with a QSA. I don't care if you have a premium outlet already, or a power conditioner downstream from the wall outlet. The QSA AC receptacle will improve your entire system, and you will hear it within 5 seconds. You may also hear a little unpleasantness for awhile as the outlet breaks in, but that is soon gone, and the sound will continue to improve over the next 2 weeks. Yes, even if you have a power conditioner downstream...

Yellow

The QSA Yellow Receptacle will best any other audiophile outlet on the market at present. The margin may be closer to competitors than with the Violet, but the price reflects that. The soundstage will enlarge in all directions, and the energy of the music relaxes and becomes more natural.

Violet

The Violet AC outlet takes you further down the road. In comparison to the Yellow, it's as if another veil has been lifted off of your system. Add to this greater extension, bass control, and high frequency clarity.

Red

The QSA Red wall outlet is another leap into the sonic depths, and widths. More refined, more resolving, more textured and nuanced. Here will be the stopping point for most. This outlet does more to open up the music than nearly any power conditioner I have listened to. To be completely fair, power conditioners filter out RF and EMI, and some offer transient protection. This outlet, to my knowledge, does none of that. That being said, the sonic portrait this outlet helps your components to paint is better in many ways than a power conditioner. My theory (and Yick Man from QSA agrees) is that a power conditioner's benefits may be offset by the extra connections made from adding another box to the power chain, as well as time smearing of the filtering components.

Red/Black Ultra

The leap from Red to Red/Black Ultra should probably be reserved for those with extremely resolving and cost appropriate systems, or for those who do not use power conditioning of any sort. Break in on this receptacle was not pleasant, in my case it started out as bright. After a day or two the brightness went away and the Red/Black Ultra started uncovering more beauty and energy within the music. This was quite a significant leap in resolution from the other outlets. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better with the Red, the Red Black had activated my music ADD. Meaning I stopped whatever work, or analysis I was doing and simply sat there, smiling, shaking my head, and listening to more and more music.

Adding more QSA Receptacles Downstream

Adding more receptacles downstream from the wall, for instance a power distributor with QSA outlets or upgrading outlets on a power conditioner, will yield further improvement. The improvement however will not be as dramatic as replacing the wall outlet. It's very similar to what I've experienced with the fuses. If your component has several fuses, replacing the one at the mains input is the most beneficial, and replacing more fuses inside the same component yields less substantial improvements.

Paring with QSA Fuses 

This is definitely additive. As my system was fully set with QSA fuses in every component. Adding the receptacle at the wall brought more improvement and was immediately noticeable.

Conclusion

As with the QSA fuses, the QSA AC receptacles will dramitically and significantly improve the audio performance of any system. Simply investing in one receptacle will yield gains in soundstage width, depth height, musical naturalness, and resolution.