System of Transcendence – The Audio Note experience

The idea of a one brand system is abhorred by audiophiles for good reasons – hifi designers have their personalities imbued in their products – mention someone like George Cardas and we associate him with cables, mention Jim Thiel and we know he is an authority in loudspeakers. Only a few brave souls are able to straddle the entire system to call their own. The reason is simple, no one personality or company does every thing equally well. More than often, we come to choose our own hifi gear on the basis of who does what best and if personalities add to the range of flavors, so be it!

Another way of looking at things – most, if not all hifi designers are literally working in isolation – an amplifier manufacturer for instance may have a few different speaker to test out their latest circuit designs. Just to be sure there are no major hiccups, but that does not mean each and every combination sounds its best. So the end result for the choice of components (ie matching) involves trying out as many different combinations to get the one that perform the best. Sounds like taking chances; you may call it a gamble, of getting it right, if that is possible, at all.

On the other hand, we have a company like Audio Note UK, with the charisma of its founder Peter Qvorturp who possibly is the man responsible for bringing Single Ended Triode or SET to mainstream audiophiles. Audio Note had built a system hierarchy within its ranks and offers complete systems from source (both analogue and digital) to electronics to speakers and even cables. This makes it easy for someone to know exactly how to match the performance of every component, as long as they are Audio Note products, to optimize the system’s performance and reduces the possibility of having a weak link, or two.

What is SET?

As mentioned, Audio Note is the purveyor of the Single Ended Triode phenomenon. What is SET? Back in the early days of audio amplifiers, there were only tube amplifiers as transistors were yet to be invented. Tube amplifiers then were all SETs and as such, were low powered devices – 10 watts is considered phenomenal! Of course in those days, speakers were ultra efficient – 2 – 5 watts would drive them comfortably to fill a room. The only problem with speakers in those days, they had to be big and ungainly to achieve that level of efficiency. To make speakers more adaptable to smaller homes, the resulting drop in efficiency of the speakers means amplifiers needed to deliver more power. This led to the development of push-pull amplifier designs, which is basically strapping two output devices together, one push and one pull, hence the descriptive term. The effect is doubling of the power output with some measured increase of distortion. Then came the transistor and soon the “old-fashioned” tube amplifiers gradually lost favour with music lovers who embraced transistor amplifiers for its low cost, high power and apparent superior technical specifications such as ultra low distortion. Speaker designers in turn started to take power for granted and speaker efficiency dropped even further.

But all that new fangled technology is not without its cost. Many audio enthusiasts eventually realized that something had gone wrong. Something fundamental in these systems is missing – music is reproduced with much of the musicality stripped off, leaving a clinical and emotionless rendition of what was before, a realism of the performance, gone. Some went back to using push-pull tube amplifiers to try and recapture the essence of music. They were half way there.

There is this small community of audio enthusiasts who stayed loyal to the ‘SET and high efficiency speaker’ concept – the Japanese audiophiles. For a long time, these dedicated collectors were scouring all over the world, quietly buying old SET amplifiers and high efficiency loudspeakers of that era in any condition – working or otherwise, which in turn creates a small community of craftsman in Japan who set to repair, rebuilt and refurbish them to working condition. These craftsman are now recognized for their work in preservation of the SET ‘culture’ – the use of terms like ‘New old stock’ tubes, special transformer designs, handmade ‘paper in oil’ capacitors, aged silver wiring and so on. Peter Qvortrup brought about this knowledge to Europe with his company Audio Note UK and re-introduced the term ‘SET’ to the English speaking specialist audiophile community.

All higher level Audio Note amplifiers are based on the SET design, with six levels of quality, each level of improvement brought about through the use of better components such as the earlier-mentioned ‘paper in oil’ capacitors, coupling transformers and silver wiring. Some levels can be easily upgraded – changing the capacitors, or replacing the standard copper wiring with aged silver wiring, which any Audio Note dealer will be able to do. Where the changes are more extensive – eg the use of coupling transformers, then the whole unit would have to be replaced.

Audio Note UK not only makes SET tube amplifiers, they offer a complete system – CD players and CD transports, D to A converters, phono stages and step up transformers for turntable users and loudspeakers. What would be better than putting together a complete Audio Note system to hear what the SET phenomenon is all about?

The components

The system assembled here is a mid level in the Audio Note hierarchy – the source comes in the form of the CDT Two Mk 2 transport with the DAC 2.1x Signature digital to analogue converter. The CDT Two is two levels up from the entry Zero transport. The CDT Two Mk 2 is not just a CD player minus the DAC. The CDT Two Mk 2 uses a premium Philips CD Pro2LF transport mechanism, triple transformers, Audio Note silver AN-V cable, silver wired digital output transformers, tantalum resistors and cerafine capacitors. It features both balanced (AES/EBU) and unbalanced (RCA) digital outputs.

The DAC 2.1x is available in two versions – the standard 2.1x and the 2.1x Signature. Both units comes with 24Bit/96 kHz DAC, no digital filter, 1 x oversampling with direct from disc™ technology with patented Audio Note™ I/V coupling transformer interface, Audio Note™ digital input transformer, 6DJ8 anode follower no feedback output stage. The ‘Signature’ version includes additional premium parts – Black Gate™ capacitors, Audio Note tantalum resistors and Audio Note™ copper foil signal caps & better power supply with separate mains transformers for digital and analogue section, choke filter and 6X5 tube rectifier. Like the matching CD transport, it has balanced and unbalanced digital inputs.

The perennial favourite Audio Note Oto SE integrated amplifier has been around for many years, and it remains relatively unchanged for all of that time (save for some improvement in cosmetics) – rated at 10 watts per channel using a pair of EL84 per channel in single ended parallel mode, it comes in two flavours – with and without a MM phono stage.

The AN-E/SPe HE (quite a mouthful!) speakers is again, a very established product in the Audio Note lineup. It has its origins in the old Snell Type E but that is as far as the similarities begin and end. It may look similar but everything else is different – there is a new 8-inch bass drive unit with a lightweight hemp reinforced over paper speaker membrane, a new design foam surround and according to users of Audio Note speakers, takes quite a while to run in – typically 200 hours. Audio Note closely matched the drive units so as to ensure consistent balance for the left and right speaker. The tweeter seems new, though it may just be a different doping on the fabric diaphragm.

The suffix after the E – SPe refers to the use of AN-SPe pure silver speaker cable for internal wiring. The HE in this version means ‘High Efficiency’ as this version boasts an impressive sensitivity of 98 dB/watt/m, compared with only 95 dB/watt/m for the non-HE versions. Every bit of efficiency gained increases the dynamic range, increases low level resolution and dynamic contrasts. One unique aspect of the AN-E design is despite being rear ported, it actually works very well when placed close to a wall, typically within one foot. This unique characteristic of the AN-E makes it very room friendly and blends in easily with the everyday realities in the home. The speaker cabinet is not damped, as it is supposed to resonate like the body of a musical instrument where the energy combines together with the drivers to produce final musical result. This aspect of the design, together with the use of high efficiency drive units is responsible for the speaker’s overall high efficiency.

Putting the system together is a pair of stands for the An-E/SPe HE and some Audio Note silver cables – AN-V silver interconnects and SPe speaker cables to match those used inside the AN-E itself.

How the system performed

We have been running the system for around a week, on and off, and in my opinion, what I am hearing is but a fraction of the system’s capabilities – the only components that are fully run-in are the cables. Everything else is straight from the packing boxes. I am sure each component have had some factory run-in to test for faults before they are shipped out but that hardly qualifies as running in!! It should get better as time goes by.

Obviously this feature is for the benefit of those who have not had the opportunity of listening to a complete Audio Note system and I have this to say, be prepared to forgo all preconceived notions about amplifier power, complex speaker crossover network with multiple drive units and of speakers that dominate your living room for no other reason than to induce a state of masochism. The Audio Note stuff is hardly ornamental, as these are not designed to be ‘audio jewelry’. But definitely functional!

Instead, think back to the days when you had a simple setup – and a sense of simplicity in the musical reproduction. Now expand the dynamic range capability of that system, increase the resolution (and sense of purity) and dynamic contrasts. Allow yourself to immerse in the sound, pick any instrument within a dense mix, hear how it stands independent as the music soared and ebbed. You don’t get shocking dynamics, which is nothing more than an exaggerated peak (on some ‘demo’ discs), you don’t get super low bass that rattles your listening chair. The bass goes low enough for most types of music short of a church organ, you would need a big transmission line loudspeaker for that, not a one-meter tall (with stands) box loudspeaker.

But is ten watts enough? It is all relative, when you have a speaker efficiency of 98 dB versus the average efficiency of 87 dB for most speakers, you have more than a three fold efficiency advantage – it is not a matter of how loud it can go, but how little power the high efficiency speakers needs to generate a subtle inflection.

What is most relevant is the sound – my first experience with Audio Note products was some twenty years ago when I was in the audio trade – with the Oto SE and the early version of the Type E. It was an ear opener for me, having played with all manner of gear up to some of the most expensive or most reputed brands raved by the hifi press, I was not prepared for what the relatively simple Audio Note system was able to do. It just played music in the most innocuous, natural and pure manner I could think of.

Listening to the system today, it was déjà vu! I am in love with listening to music again, not listening to equipment! The sound has that ‘organic’ feel of real musicians playing electronic or acoustic instruments before me. Nothing overblown, nothing exaggerated, just an honest, coherent presentation and most importantly, I could easily relate with the music being played. I can happily listen to the Audio Note system for hours with no signs of listening fatigue. For this is no ordinary hifi system, this is close to what I would describe as musical transcendence!

Article contributed by Terence Wong, editor of MOD AV magazine.


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