The Entry Level Project
How to put together an awesome $5000 sound system!
Featuring: Coincident Dynamo 34SE integrated amplifier, Tekton Designs Lore Reference speakers, Schiit Bifrost DAC, Uniko AVM, and Boston Audio Design TuneBlocks.
by Rick Becker | July 2014
In our world it is easy to become addicted to things, people, and ideologies we cannot afford. Advertising is the narcotic pushed by unbridled capitalism, a system that is permitted to produce ever more expensive products regardless of whether they poison our bodies, enslave our minds or destroy our environment. Profit is the common denominator, though motives are usually cloaked in more benevolent or beneficial terms. I would like to think the world of music and the realm of high-end audio were exempt from such excesses but the covers of our magazines and the products that get the most press seem to prove otherwise. The letters to the editors frequently shout out this excess, but we live in an era of skyrocketing wealth acquired by very few people on our planet. Manufacturers, by and large, address the people that can afford their products and generally come up with products that surpass their predecessors. Occasionally we see products that represent the highest form of industrial art, but in high-end audio the mantra is to replicate live music in our homes and the crusade leads to ever more expensive attempts.
I suppose it is no small twist of fate that I should be writing for a journal entitled "Enjoy The Music.com". If you shift the target from re-creation of live music, and place it upon enjoyment of recorded music, the high-end becomes a playable game accessible to a much wider realm of citizens. The pursuit of happiness, after all, is written into our Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of profit, not exactly.
A couple of years ago, in an effort to entice more people to attend their show and engage in the high-end, the Salon Son Image (Montreal show) challenged presenters to put together systems that would cost about $5000 and have them on display. A logo was created to identify these systems for people who were not already fluent in the brand names and models of high-end manufacturers. It was a great idea and the challenge was taken up by a handful or two of exhibitors.
I absolutely encourage them to continue the endeavor, but the concept is not without some shortcomings. Most promoters, whether they were retailers, importers or manufacturers, chose to audition their big rigs to maximize their impression on attendees. This is understandable, and appreciated by many who would otherwise never get to hear the top shelf gear. The $5k rigs were mostly on silent display. Secondly, aside from the $5k System signs, these rigs were not identified with lists of components and prices to help newcomers. Part of the reason for this was the rigs often hit the $5k range without such key elements as cables or speaker stands. They were not complete systems. Furthermore, the presenters were constricted by the range of products they sold, imported, or manufactured. The consequence of this is obvious.
Over the course of a year I kept thinking: I can do better than that. As a reviewer I would have the advantage of cherry picking from the entire industry. But what about the unwritten rule of reviewing that you should only change one component in a system at a time to effectively determine its performance and contribution to the whole? And aren't there close to a trillion combinations of speakers, amps, sources and cables? How would you choose among them? There are always lots of excuses for not doing something. But the thought of assembling a reasonably affordable rig of reasonably high quality could be a blueprint to encouraging more people to get involved. And that's a step in the right direction for this industry. After all, a $5000 high-end audio system isn't a lot more expensive than say a $5000 4x4 ATV, a $5000 fishing boat, a $5000 motorcycle, or an AK-47, a rifle with a night vision scope, and camouflage pajamas.
Where To Start?
I wanted to set the bar for audio quality high—something pretty close to my reference rig. But in so doing, it would be necessary to limit the number of sources. It didn't seem feasible to do both analog and digital front ends at a high level for $5k. I chose digital because I thought it would engage the largest audience and because I could address both CD and computer sourced music. While I love analog and cheer it on, it will have to wait for a follow-up article. So I began with an acoustic goal, the limitation of a digital source, and a total system target of $5000, not including tax and shipping. So with that in mind, who was I going to call upon?
Ghostbusters... Of Course!
First and foremost of whom was Israel Blume of Coincident Speaker Technology. "But doesn't he make expensive world class speakers?" you ask? Well, yes, but he also makes some pretty extraordinary tube amplifiers. I've reviewed a bunch of them and his Statement preamp and phono stage are cornerstones in my reference rig. Most recently I was both honored and disappointed to be asked to review his Turbo 845SE integrated amp. (I bought that one, too.) But disappointed because I really wanted to review the Dynamo 34SE integrated, then priced at $999. My gut told me this was going to be a killer amp and an extraordinary value. Furthermore, it comes with a headphone output which should appeal to the legions of headphone aficionados or at least young adults with children who go to bed early in the evening.
It didn't take me long when I was first getting into this hobby to recognize that tube gear sounded different than solid state... and that I much preferred the tube stuff. Both camps have improved greatly over the decades and we often read about a convergence toward neutrality, but tube amplification more consistently gives me goose bumps and draws me into the music with more emotional impact and three-dimensional imagery than solid state amps. I've heard a fair number of solid state rigs that I could happily live with, but usually they were extraordinarily expensive. For those who fear the task of installing or replacing tubes let me say that it is less difficult than plugging USB and HDMI cables into the side ports of my Dell laptop. A leather gardening glove should alleviate fear of shattering glass for all but the most neurotic among us. (I've never heard of this happening, btw.) Personally, I use a white cotton editing glove to keep the skin oil off the glass, but this is sometimes seen as obsessive.
The Dynamo 34SE uses a single EL34B tube for each channel, wired in SET configuration (single ended triode) to give 8 Watts per channel, about the same power as a 300B tube. But whereas a 300B tube might cost anywhere from $220/pr up to $450/pr for a Psvane Grey Bottle TII from China, the Electron Tube EL34B (also from China) used in the Dynamo cost about $40/pr. This obviously freed up a lot of money to put toward quality transformers and other parts. The compact size also contributes to the compact price. The speaker binding posts are smaller versions of the plastic covered Euro-style ones used on the larger Turbo 845SE integrated. The footprint of the Dynamo is about 1/3 the size of the Turbo (8" x 12" versus 12" x 23", roughly). And where the Dynamo comes in at a solid 22 pounds, the Turbo, weighing 100 pounds, requires a strong person who is knowledgeable about lifting. There were small differences in the Dynamo that pointed to cost savings, but when you consider the Turbo costs $5999—more than the entire rig I am putting together here—those differences become trivial. More importantly, the specified S/N ratio of the Dynamo is an excellent (for a tube amp) 88dB, only 2dB less than the much more expensive Turbo.
The compact size of the Dynamo needs to be addressed because it affects the user interaction in a couple of ways. First, attaching the speaker cables is a little more challenging not only because the binding posts are small, but because there are posts for both 4 and 8 Ohm outputs. Yet small as the binding post were, in a Zen frame of mind I was able to attach two sets of speaker cables when trying out my subwoofers with the main speakers. The IEC power input with built-in fuse circuit was immediately off to one side of the binding posts and the single pair of RCA inputs was off to the other. It's cozy out back. And the weight of the cables had a significant effect on the layout, mostly because of the Synergistic Research MIG domes I used as footers. Normally I would have put two domes at the rear directly under the transformers and one up front between the two 6SL7 input/driver tubes, but the stock feet of the amp would not let me put the two footers under the back corners for optimal balance and stability. Consequently, I placed two up front and one at the back, directly below the 5U4 GB rectifier tube. While this made the endless task of cable swapping more delicate, in normal use, with one consistent source this should not be a problem.
Another consequence of the compact size was the seemingly high heat of the unit which becomes apparent both when adjusting the volume control located between the two input/driver tubes and when turning off the amp with the power switch on the left side of the chassis toward the rear. Concentrating five tubes among three transformer boxes in 2/3 of a square foot creates a noticeable updraft of hot air and a need for caution when adjusting the volume. On the other hand, the compact architecture of polished stainless steel and the thick aluminum faceplate is simply stunning in an eye catching, but not overpowering or ostentatious way—especially when listening in the dark. The EL34 tube gives off a relatively bright orange light and there is a small blue LED on the faceplate to indicate power on. Together these are enough to navigate the room, if necessary, without turning on a lamp. It's a class act in daylight or the dark, and perfectly sized for use in a den or home office.
With only one RCA input and 8 wpc you are probably sensing the restrictions this amp places on the rig, but it is not as narrow as it may seem. Keep in mind the faceplate features a 0.25" headphone jack in addition to the small blue "on" light. There is a separate headphone board inside and your favorite headphone impedance can be requested if 300 Ohms doesn't work for you. (It probably will.) The ability to listen while children sleep or your spouse watches TV in an adjacent room can be liberating.
The 8 watts per channel is another matter when it comes to speakers. It requires careful attention to your selection. I was able to drive my Kharma speakers (89dB efficiency, 8 Ohm load) at modest levels with peaks in the 88 to 90 dB range at the listening position nine feet away in a large (6000 cu. ft.) room, but some music I longed to hear at louder levels. In a modest size room this would have been less of a problem. With the Zu Union (98dB/W/m sensitivity @ 8 Ohm) the Dynamo was real muscle amp, playing louder than I care to listen at over 100dB at the listening chair. And since virtually all Zu speakers are very high efficiency, this amp would be an excellent choice unless your room was exceptionally large. I was able to enjoy the "you are there" transparency and dynamics of the Unions for hours at a time but the Zu coaxial towers would put the project over budget, so I called upon another Ghostbuster.
Tekton Design Speakers
Eric Alexander's open baffle OB4.5 monitor grabbed my attention at the Montreal show back in 2009. A review followed, as did a Blue Note Award for Best of 2009. But most of his speakers are high efficiency models with dynamic drivers and ported enclosures. The bread and butter of his line are mid- and full size floorstanders costing $1000 or less. These two-way speakers come in standard satin black and feature a mid-woofer mounted above the tweeter and usually a vertically aligned pair of ports on the baffle further down the column. They all look pretty basic, but as the Tekton tag line proclaims "It's not just about the sound. It's all about the sound." And they've received some very good press in recent years. So I called up Eric and asked if anything new might be on the drawing board. Three months later another black two-way speaker with twin vertically aligned ports on the baffle arrived. It wasn't pretty and it didn't sound very good, so I installed it in the video rig where my wife put it through speaker obedience training with Survivor, The Voice, The Amazing Race, and a diet of movies that have too much violence and terror for me to watch. (She hits the "pause" button every time I walk through the room.) The satin black finish produced hardly any reflections from the screen which was a big plus in the video setting and allowed the speakers to visually disappear when listening in the dark in the music room.
Connection With Audio Sensibility
Steven Huang struck a chord with me early on as the name of his company might suggest. Good science combines with quality materials and proven technologies to produce reasonably priced hand-made cables in his boutique company without the high overhead or advertising budget of the more prominent brands. This means, of course, factory direct sales from either his website storefront or across-the-table sales at audio shows where you get to talk directly with Steven and shake his hand. I typically catch up with him at Montreal and Toronto where I usually have to double back multiple times to get a word with him between customers. His wares cover a spectrum of affordability starting with the entry level Impact series, recently upgraded to SE status, on up to the point where you have to be a True Believer in the importance of cabling. My previous experience with his products includes his Statement Silver S/PDIF digital cable which serves as my reference—not that I haven't heard better, but that I could not afford it. In a comparison review of several digital cables the Statement Silver cable struck the high point where value starts to fall away like a booster rocket and the competition heads for the stratosphere. In the photo are the Impact SE interconnects and the Oriton Black Bullet from the United Kingdom inserted between the Statement Silver digital cable and the Calyx DAC. The Black Bullet absorbs micro-vibrations and makes the sound even more like analog at a cost of about $170/pair. (I'm working on a less expensive alternative.) I've also used a specialty Impact SE cable with mini 3.5 stereo pin on one end and RCA pugs on the other. This cable connects the headphone jack on our HDTV to the vintage Tandberg integrated amp in our TV rig where it performs admirably. I was hoping to obtain one of the Geek Out headphone DACs for this project which would have required the mini 3.5 pin to RCA cable, but the review sample did not materialize. So it was on to Plan B, which proved to be a blessing in disguise.
History is repeating itself again. Remember when CDs just about put a dagger in the heart of LPs? All of a sudden turntables and cartridges started to get a lot better—first at the very high-end and then at the more affordable end of the spectrum. And now, as CDs are giving way to digital downloads there is a resurgence of DAC development at the very high-end, followed by an even greater resurgence at the affordable end. It's as if the high-end doesn't know when to give up! Sooner or later somebody always seems to come up with a better mousetrap, frequently coupled with a better business plan. So I entered the candy shop looking for a new DAC for the project not as an expert on digital gear, but reasonably well informed about the basics from reading Paul McGowan's articles on DAC design in his Paul's Posts blog earlier this year. (Now, 3500 readers strong!)
Considering that the DAC would also need cables and looking at the target price for the system, I figured the DAC would need to be about $500 or less. After surveying the field and agonizing over both the quality and functionality of various possibilities, I contacted Schiit Audio. I liked their story—two industry veterans (Jason Stoddard of Sumo and Mike Moffat of Theta) teaming up to produce high value products right here in the United States and marketing them directly to the customer to keep the price accessible to entry level enthusiasts. They even came up with a brilliant high-tech corporate name to grab people's attention and have since become a respected portal to the entire industry. Fortunately, they didn't take time to vet my credentials or they would have discovered I don't have an electrical engineering degree and I've almost never done anything with computer audio. In fact, I was so naïve that I had to have Tom come over to help me set up the computer as source. But we'll get to that in a minute.
The Schiit Bifrost starts out at $349, but since I was going to hook it up to my computer I had to add the USB Gen 2 input for $100. It's important to have a good USB interface, I'm told and from what I learned from Paul McGowan, I added the Uber Analog upgrade for $70. This is their discrete analog output stage from their more expensive Gungnir DAC that lowers distortion even further and drops the Signal/Noise ratio from >106dB to >110dB. Adding the Uber Analog brings the total to $519. The Bifrost has inputs for S/PDIF through RCA and TosLink, as well as USB, along with a button and three small lights on the face to select among them. All the inputs are good up to 24-bit/192kHz. The outputs are RCA and there is a small toggle power switch which I never used since the unit only draws 12 watts and I leave it on all the time. The IEC power input allows for your choice of quality power cables. I liked the idea that it uses the AKM4399 32 bit D/A since it was different from my Calyx 24/192 DAC with the commonly found ESS Sabre 9018 chip. It would be interesting to hear if they differ significantly. But most importantly, the Bifrost utilizes a Bitperfect clock management system that maximizes the signal in its original form rather than upsampling everything to 24-bit/192kHz. I like the purist approach. Is it better to have a perfect 44.1 kHz Redbook signal than a potentially fuzzy up-sampled one at 192 kHz? I wanted to find out.
To this point I've collected the Coincident Dynamo 34SE integrated amplifier ($1299), the Tekton Designs speakers ($1000), the Schiit Bifrost DAC ($519) for a total of about $2800 which would seem to indicate there is plenty of room to pull it all together with cables. I'm taking the liberty to assume that if you're reading this, you probably already have a computer with some music either ripped or downloaded on it so that will not factor into the cost. I'm also assuming that either you or your dad has an old CD player with a digital output somewhere in a closet or basement. If not, these can be picked up for cheap on eBay or at garage sales if you (or your dad) wish to play CDs directly rather than ripping them to your computer. A lot will depend on how many CDs you have. Personally, I like handling the silver discs more than mouse clicking on a computer. Normally I use a vintage Sony ES CD player as a transport on an expensive Tube Magic Canada AOS vibration absorbing shelf. It's a very good transport with a remote that is very useful for reviewing purposes. I ditched the Sony player and the now discontinued shelf for a similar vintage Denon DCD-860 with an RCA digital out and a captive zip-cord power cable—something you might pick up for $20. I wanted to keep the playing field level...at the entry level. No Stealth products will be unmentioned.
I also used a four outlet junction box on a 20 amp Romex dedicated line. If you have a basement and can drill holes in the floor joists yourself, this is an easy upgrade that will cost in the neighborhood of $100-$200 for parts and labor. Hire an electrician to make the final connection to your panel box if you're not comfortable and competent doing it yourself. (I don't want be responsible for any recently dead poets out there.)
Connecting The Dots
So let's follow the electricity and signal. The Denon CD player is plugged into the junction box with its zip-cord power cable. The S/PDIF signal is taken from the Denon to the Bifrost with an Audio Sensibility Statement Silver digital cable (RCA to RCA, $219). The Bifrost is powered from the junction box with a JPS Labs Digital AC-X cord ($399) that is highly filtered and widely acknowledged as an excellent cable for digital applications. It makes a noticeable improvement in this system and you will not have to upgrade it if you decide to purchase more expensive gear down the road. Buying only once makes it a very high value product. From the Bifrost, the signal is taken to the Coincident Dynamo via Audio Sensibility Impact SE RCA interconnects (C$129/pr). I thought I was under-spending on this cable, but I took Steven's advice and I was not disappointed. Surprisingly, the XLR version of this cable is the same price. We're talking Ohno continuous cast copper (7N purity), even in the center pin of the Furutech FP-126 gold plated RCA plug! Cryogenically treated wire and connectors and Mundorf Silver-Gold Supreme solder also come at this bargain price. He bills the Furutech RCA as "the little plug that could" but the phrase really applies to the entire cable. Very high value here.
The Coincident amp is powered through an Audio Sensibility Testament power cable (C$269/1.5m) which also contains cryogenically treated OCC copper. The Testament series is a step up from the Impact series. I previously bought a Testament Power cord to hard wire into my Sony ES tuner and achieved transformative results with it. So I went to the well a second time. Besides, the Testament power cord is only $130 (Canadian) more expensive than the Impact power cord, but $230 less expensive than the Statement cord. If it did for the Coincident what it did for my tuner, it will never need replacing.
From the back of the amp the signal travels to the speakers through Audio Sensibility Testament single-wire speaker cables ($389/2.5m pr. Canadian) which again, are cryogenically treated OCC copper, making them an exceptional bargain at this price. There is no Impact series speaker cable and the higher Statement series speaker cable is more than twice the price of this one. It would require serious and significant upgrading of the system to justify replacing these. So doing the addition, the system comes up to $4223 with a CD front end.
If you are going to use your computer with the DAC you will need a USB cable. Since I originally thought I was going to get the Geek Out that plugs directly into the USB port on the computer, I didn't ask for a standard USB A to B cable from Audio Sensibility. Fortunately my friend Tom came equipped with both a $6 generic USB cable and a WireWorld Starlight USB 2.0 silver clad OFC copper cable ($105). The WireWorld cable is now in USB 3.0 version at the same price. I also had on hand a Synergistic Research USB Active SE ($595) that had been sent to me, unsolicited, which I thought would surely be overkill. Audio Sensibility makes a Statement Silver USB ($299 Canadian for 1.2 meter) using 7N Ohno Continuous Cast silver for the signal cables and 7N OCC copper power conductors which might have been a very good choice, given the cryogenic treatment and the silver/gold Mundorf solder they typically use. If you're only going to use your computer as a source you could eliminate the CD to DAC digital cable saving $219 and go with whatever USB cable you like. In any case, you're going to be a little south or north of the $4000 mark.
At this point many people would probably claim victory and declare they have a terrific sounding rig for about 20% less than the $5000 target. And they would be right. But there is still a lot of hidden potential in this system. Positioning of the speakers and the listening chair in the room is critically important and this costs very little aside from sympathy and permission from others in the household. I'm also a big fan of vibration absorbing footers, having tested many over the years. I have favorites though some types are more suited for a given situation than others. Given the small and lightweight components in this rig, I was destined to use a variety of my favorites. I mentioned the Synergistic MIG footers ($150/set of three) in conjunction with the Coincident amp above. I prefer two domes facing down and one dome facing up for more pinpoint sound. The "two facing up, one facing down" combination gives more air and bloom but the tube amp itself gives the music enough air and bloom to satisfy me so I shoot for the pinpoint imaging. For long term use, I might suggest removing the feet of the Dynamo so the two downward facing MIGs could be used at the rear corners under the heavy transformers and the one upward facing MIG could be placed near the front, under the tubes. Just be careful when changing your cables not to tip over the apple cart.
Under the Denon CD player (used as a transport) I used Boston Audio Design TuneBlocks. These come in different heights and diameters—the more graphite the better and all now come with tungsten carbide ball bearings. Sets of three range from $159 to $299, but buy according to the amount of vertical clearance you have to play with. They come in 1" and 1.5" cylinder heights. Since the buttons on the CD player get pushed a lot, I chose the TuneBlocks because the components do not slide easily on the tungsten balls and the feet tend to stay put on the shelf.
For the small Schiit Bifrost DAC I first used a set of three Sound Damped Steel IsoFeet (around $100 on eBay) because the footprint of the DAC is small (9" x ~7") and I thought the stability would be a concern with other types of footers during all the cable swapping. I didn't install the small stick-on feet on the DAC so I could place it directly on two of the IsoFeet which each measure about 3" square. The soft neoprene on the bottom of each square keeps the IsoFeet from scratching the top of the Denon CD player on which the DAC is positioned. The third IsoFoot is placed on top of the DAC, metal to metal, with a circular one pound weight from an antique balance beam on top to add mass and improve the absorption of micro-vibrations in the visco-elastic polymer layer of the footer. Two pounds might be better to keep this five pound DAC from jumping around. For my final two rounds of listening I substituted the Synergistic Research MIGs under the DAC because there was no cable changing at this point and another level of improvement was achieved. If you're not one to swap components and cables frequently, this would be my preferred footer for the DAC where benefits of focus and low level ambient room cues emerge along with added transparency.
I also use the IsoFeet under the spikes of my speakers where they do a terrific job of improving the focus with my heavy Kharma. The Tekton towers presented a bit of a problem on my carpeted floor, however. Weighing only 44 pounds apiece they were too light. The carpet compressed unevenly beneath the Isofeet at first and the towers began to mimic the one in Pisa. To solve the problem temporarily I came up with some pieces of 0.25" plywood that allowed the IsoFeet to work effectively. With a footprint of 10.25" wide by 11.75" deep, I should be able to visit a garden or tile store and come home with something more decorative. Later on, I used a heavy piece of architectural slate on top of the speaker with just the IsoFeet under the spikes. While this did nothing for the sound, it did compress the carpet after a short while and negated the need for plywood or tiles. If you have bare wood floors this will not be a problem and if you have concrete floors you may not benefit from the IsoFeet at all.
Hooking up the little Dell Inspiron 14z presented a challenge without re-arranging half of the Entry Level rig. I settled on using a little tilt-top table placed in front of the main configuration. I had to get down on my knees to read the screen, but it was do-able and all of the USB cables on hand reached the DAC. Even laptops and servers benefit from the use of footers and while the little table was less than optimal, I grabbed another set of MIG footers and gave them a try. Placing another weight next to the touch pad served to balance the laptop on the footers. The MIGs worked their magic and took the music up another notch and made the differences between the USB cables all the more evident. In analog terms, adding the MIGs was like moving up from a $500 cartridge to a $1200 one.
So there you have it, an entry level rig at $5000 plus or minus depending on however many sets of footers you require. The dollar allocation was interesting. The breakdown was about 1/3 for the front end with cables and footers, 1/3 for the amplification and power cord, and 1/3 for the speakers with cables and footers. It came together over the course of several months and the pieces were auditioned in the context of my reference rig. It was not like I just unboxed everything and put it together from the ground up. Rather, the main rig kind of morphed into the Entry Level rig. The speakers arrived first, so they were well broken in by the time it came to write. The DAC, amp and speakers had about a hundred hours on them and the cables somewhat less, because of the cable swapping. There was a point about a month ago when things kind of took a jump from one day to the next. Since there were several relatively new pieces in the rig, I have no way of knowing just what happened, but thereafter it all sounded very good. So good, in fact, that I thought it was sounding better than my reference rig that has a "new cost" about five times higher. I could feel my net worth plummeting. Fortunately, its value was restored when I did my double check at the end of the review period. But it was a scary experience because, well, big name expensive stuff is supposed to sound better than less expensive stuff in the grand scheme of things.
Warning: Game Changing Event Lies Ahead
Here's how the individual components shook out after extensive listening in relatively normal fashion, including the use of footers as mentioned above. Near the end of the review period a change was made that impacted the entire system, lifting the performance of all the components far beyond my expectations. So take the initial evaluations below as typical results you might expect to achieve. While they are still very substantial positive findings, the results will get even better.
Tekton Design Lore Reference Speakers
The Lore Reference speaker a very high value speaker with very good focus from the upper bass upward when used with the Dynamo. The bass tightened up considerably with the much more powerful and expensive Coincident Turbo 845SE integrated. The focus in all-important the midrange on up through the treble was better than my reference rig and I was able to comprehend lyrics that had previously escaped me. There was a bit more energy in the presence region than the lower midrange. James Taylor didn't sound quite as "chesty". Female vocals, on the other hand, benefited from this. The treble was very well resolved with nice decay on the cymbals. Since the speakers were oriented on the long wall with no immediate side wall to contend with, I aimed them straight ahead as I do with most speakers. (If you do have side walls in close proximity, or if you want to boost the treble, you may benefit from toeing them in.) The soundstage was very wide as it normally is in this long room, and the musicians were correctly placed behind the speakers. The music got out of the box pretty well with only the bass cluing me in to the fact that these are mid-weight speakers. The bass went surprisingly low, was tuneful, and did not excite any obvious room nodes. When I teamed the towers up with my vintage Tekton subwoofers crossed over at 40Hz the bass tightened up and the lower midrange filled in making for a very respectable full-range setup. But the subs would have taken the price up another thousand dollars, so they were not included in the rig.
In spite of the slight shift in tonal balance in the midrange the vocals remained in very fine focus, masking any suggestion of crossover issues. Whatever crossover is present is probably minimal since the Lore Reference exhibits excellent transparency. A single pair of gold plated binding posts that accepts spades, bananas and bare wire keeps it simple and more affordable than a complex bi-wiring arrangement. Along with the excellent transparency went excellent dynamics and the 8 watts per channel was a good match with their 96dB/W/m efficiency. The transparency, focus and efficiency combined for very enjoyable listening about 3dB lower than normal to the extent that my wife even noticed I was listening at a lower level. For me, "rocking out" is in the 92 to 96 dB range (which is still loud enough to damage your hearing with long-term listening) so I was largely using only the all-important "first watt" of the amplifier. The speaker will easily play louder if you're into self-flagellation and want to destroy your hearing. I listened to rock music at 100 dB for a brief few moments without any noticeable clipping. At lower than normal volume, like most speakers, it begins to lose its charm, but with the Dynamo you also have the option of using headphones for late night listening or when the kids are napping.
I set up my Radio Shack analog SPL meter on a tripod at ear level in the listening position which equates to about 30 degrees off axis, nine feet from the drivers. The graph is therefore an "in room" reading. Do not confuse this with an anechoic reading on axis at one meter. (An on-axis anechoic measurement would most certainly be a lot smoother and have a narrower deviation.) It shows pretty well what I heard—a little more energy in the upper midrange than the lower midrange. There is no major bass boom and the bass is still quite strong down to the low 30Hz range. It was nice to have the subwoofers, but for most music this speaker doesn't need them. Only when I compared them with my Kharma speakers whose tweeters are above my ear level did I recognize that the Tekton do not have a really high soundstage, nor should you expect it from a speaker of this height. The music has an excellent sense of space and the instruments have good three dimensional qualities with lots of body.
Aesthetically, there is not much to say about its basic form and black satin finish. Countersinking the mid-woofer would improve the looks a bit, but might require a thicker baffle and higher cost. It's important to recognize that this speaker is designed for maximum sound quality at its price point. This basic presentation seems to target young people who move a lot, or have a young family that makes the speaker prone to dings and crayons. (The satin black should be easy to touch up or re-paint.) Satin black also works for those who simply care about the music and don't need to impress anyone and it is by far the most popular color offered. Visually, they disappear when listening in the dark. You can have a fancy veneer if you like or red or white, but only at a higher price. For me, I could sit and enjoy music endlessly with the Tekton Lore Reference and that's why I recommend it so highly. A word of caution, however—being relatively light and having a small footprint, you might want to consider aftermarket outriggers to improve their stability if you have a lot of traffic in the room, particularly wild dancing children.
Coincident Dynamo 34SE Integrated Amplifier
Like its big brother, the Turbo 845SE, the Dynamo is basically a power amp with a volume control, but even more minimal. There is only one RCA input and no remote. It seems targeted for a small room or elegant office setting and in my large listening room it would have been very inconspicuous save for the beautiful polished stainless steel chassis and transformer covers. It is as elegant as the speakers are plain, but with eight very fine watts and a relatively large power supply in the amp, and 96dB/W/m efficiency in the speaker, this is an extraordinarily successful combination. The dynamics belie the fact that there is no pre-amplification involved, just one line input, an attenuator and a power amplifier. This simplicity opens the door for very fine focus and outstanding transparency which in turn yield a very well defined soundscape with lots of air and inner detail. There was a softness in the mid to lower bass—something not uncommon with tube amplifiers, and something that might easily be attributed to the two-way tower speaker. Yet even with this minor shortcoming the entry level rig was sounding better than my reference system in most respects. It was downright scary. That's what happens when you combine SET tubes in Class A with point-to-point wiring and zero negative feedback circuitry.
As a headphone amplifier it also does an excellent job. I listened briefly with both Grado SR-80 and AKG K701 headphones and the experience was in the same league as the better headphone/tube amp combinations I sampled at the Montreal show earlier this year. While headphones are not in the budget for this project, I strongly suspect this amp is good enough for whatever you might already own or wish to add in the future. A 300B headphone amp might give you better spatiality and more tonal color, but then you are moving beyond this price league and presumably into the realm of headphones that cost more than a thousand bucks, probably closer to two...maybe even more. Its 22 pounds will remind you you're still wearing your headphones if forget to take them off. You're not likely to pull it from its mooring, nor push it off its footers when you insert the 0.25" plug. It doesn't do balanced cables, but then, in this price range, you're probably not using headphones that require them. If headphone listening in multiple locations is a priority for you, a smaller, more portable dedicated headphone amp might be a wiser choice. But it would be a mistake to think of the Dynamo solely as a headphone amp as it truly is a dual-purpose amplifier, capable of driving far more expensive speakers than presented here.
The limitation of a single input was somewhat addressed by the Schiit Bifrost DAC which has both a USB input for connection to a computer or server and S/PDIF RCA and optical inputs to connect to CD players and whatever with the appropriate digital outputs. A button on the face of the DAC switches among the three inputs offering additional flexibility. I have to admit that with a turntable and FM tuner frequently in use I had to do an inconvenient amount of cable switching. Of course one could argue in favor of switching to internet radio, I suppose.
Shortly after receiving the Dynamo the 5U4GB rectifier tube went bad and I replaced it from a local source with an Amperex 5AR4 (Great Britain). The 5U4GB is a directly heated cathode rectifier while the 5AR4 is an indirectly heated type. Some say that they sound vastly different with the directly heated variety sounding faster, more transparent and more dynamic. The Dynamo worked flawlessly with the 5AR4 and didn't want in any of these categories. Maybe in direct comparison, with a lot of switching back and forth, I might come up with some differences, but probably not while I was enjoying the music.
Schiit Bifrost DAC & USB Cables
The Bifrost was the last piece of the puzzle to come in and it wasn't terribly impressive right out of the box. I set it up to run 24/7 and after a few days I was able to experience why it was so highly regarded. It readily revealed the difference between the Audio Sensibility Statement Silver digital cable and another, less expensive cable I had on hand. The Bifrost sounded better with tube amplification than what I expected from reading reviews which were done with solid state amplification. No surprise there. The real fun came when I hooked it up to my computer and was very impressed with the music that resulted. Differences between Red Book files and 24-bit/192kHz files were readily apparent and I finally got a glimpse of what all the hoopla was about. (I still think it is hoopla—good music is enjoyable no matter what the format, and I'm not about to sell off my LPs. In fact, I'm hoping people will soon start to dump their CDs. My net is cast.) The ripped copy of a James Taylor song recorded live sounded better through USB than playing back the original CD through the RCA input...but you probably already knew that.
More fun waited when I began swapping USB cables. The generic one was garbage in comparison to Tom's $105 WireWorld Starlight 2.0, at least in the context of the rig I've assembled here. I'd say it is a real high value wire that allows you to climb out of swamp. But then I moved on to the Synergistic Research USB Active SE and had one of those OMG moments that reinforce the old adage "You get what you pay for." Well, yes, if the rest of your system can reveal the improvements, but no in Tom's case where he listens through high quality headphones plugged into a very modest DAC with a built-in solid state headphone amp. What I heard in this rig was rich tonal color and ambient cues that were totally missed in playing back CDs. Tom had neglected to bring his expensive Beyerdynamic headphones with him, but richness of the music through the AKG 701 was plenty convincing. My wife has already commandeered Tom's vintage Grado SR80 on the grounds that she deserves some of the spoils of our addictive hobby, so they were unavailable.
I mentioned my experience with the USB cables to Steven Huang and he insisted on next-day delivery of his Audio Sensibility Statement Silver USB cable mentioned earlier. I had only a couple of hours to play with it before getting back to my writing, but it was very evident that even without break-in this $300 (Canadian) cable was very, very good...almost knocking at the door of the Synergistic Research cable. In a follow-up, Steven assured me it will get even better with more use. I have no reason to doubt him. Even right out of the box it was clearly superior to the WireWorld Starlight 2.0. Which to choose? If you do a lot of listening through the USB, spend the $300. (They have a 30 day money-back guarantee.) If not, the Starlight is a very high value. And certainly there are dozens of others out there. It occurred to me that, in effect, the USB cable is to computer audio what the phono cartridge is to LP playback. You can spend a little and get little in return, or spend a lot and get a lot more. The one thing you don't want to do (of which I am guilty myself) is to spend too little at the front end. You must have a system downstream that is capable of revealing the quality and nuances retrieved from the computer or the LP, but you can't expect your amp or your speakers to retrieve detail that is not available at the front end. And this got me thinking....
At this point the goal was achieved with this $5000 entry level project. Not only had I put together a system I could happily live with, but it was better in most parameters than my reference rig. And then, just as I thought the review was about over...
The Schiit Hits The Fan!
One of the things I enjoy most about this hobby is the occasional Ah-Ha! moment, frequently followed by a What If...? Just when I thought I was finished with my listening I had one such moment. I'm a big fan of ERS paper—those sheets that absorb EMI and RFI. I've got it in my tuner, in my transport and even shielding the cartridge lead wires on my tonearm—all with great effect. What if I were to slip a piece of it into the Bifrost? Like with everything else there is the warning discretely silk-screened on the back panel: No user serviceable parts inside. Well, I wasn't going to service anything. I was just going to tape a piece of ERS to the top of the chassis... so I dove in. It is beautiful inside. The build quality is every bit as good as others have claimed and the brilliant red circuit boards pushed my Christmas button. Not only that, but there is a fuse inside, which presented another opportunity. I dabbed the glass cylinder with AVM (anti-vibration magic), which I fondly call Blue Tube Goop. When new it is about the consistency of nail polish, but my vintage supply now has the viscosity of toothpaste. Nevertheless, I was able to coat the glass on the fuse and fold over a 3" x 8" piece of ERS and tape it to the inside top of the chassis so it didn't cover the transformer which would likely be the hottest part in the circuit. What I hadn't planned on was the need to get the little LED lights back into the tiny holes on the faceplate, but skills learned assembling plastic model war planes back in the 1950's served me well.
The AVM takes time to harden completely, but the immediate result was simply stunning. The improvement in focus was blatant and the consequence of lower background noise was the revelation of even lower level detail and slightly improved dynamics. The bass, in particular, tightened up considerably thereby improving the transition from bass to midrange. It still was not rock solid like you get from solid state amps with huge damping factors, but it was much better—to the point of "no complaint". Midrange and treble tightened up as well with improved shimmer on the cymbals being an obvious example. Words of African dialects became recognizable, if not comprehended, on Planet Drum. The ERS and AVM took the Schiit Bifrost to the next level and brought the rest of the system right along with it. This was of course good news and bad news, as my reference rig was now even further depreciated.
But one good Ah-Ha! often leads to another. Where was my Calyx DAC? I had thought about peeking inside when I reviewed it but I couldn't figure out how to open it up. Now that I've owned it for a couple years I didn't mind risking destruction of the rubber feet to try and find the hidden screws. Sure enough, there they were. To my surprise almost the entire chassis of the 24-bit/192kHz DAC was a solid billet of aluminum. About 1/6th was machined out at the rear for a circuit board that wasn't much larger than a typical remote. I removed the electronics and taped a piece of ERS onto the stepped interior. The power supply is separate and sure enough, inside the IEC connector was a fuse which I painted with the AVM. I couldn't wait for it to dry since it was late at night, but I put it into the rig anyway. Wow! The music was razor sharp and almost unlistenable. I went to bed thinking I might have to cut back on the amount of ERS I had installed, but the next day, the music was crystal clear and very listenable. Even more subtle inner detail emerged with a broader palate of tonal color. I expect it may have been the curing of the AVM or simply getting some sleep that made the difference. Whereas the ERS and AVM bumped the value of the Bifrost close to top shelf territory, the same tweaks took the Calyx even higher into the stratosphere. Using the modded Calyx in the entry level rig floated that rig to a new high water mark and proved to me that the Dynamo 34SE and the Lure Reference were indeed capable of tight deep bass and even greater resolution. The weak link as it turned out was the Bifrost, though the mods greatly improved it, roughly quadrupling its value. To call it an outstanding value is an understatement, providing you are willing to support it with good cables and footers. If Schiit would be willing to implement these tweaks they would have a wicked SE version in their line-up at very little additional cost.
Re-Checking The Reference Rig
Sliding my heavy Kharma speakers back into position and re-configuring the reference system with the tweaked Calyx DAC and the Coincident Turbo 845SE, peace and harmony was re-established. The big rig never sounded better, surpassing the excellence I had achieved with the entry level project, but in no way embarrassing it. I can't recall any system in the $5K range at any show that sounded this good. Surely there must be other components that could come together at this price with this much success. The gear presented here is merely my own suggestion for a highly rewarding listening experience. There isn't a component or wire in this rig that I would not be proud to own. A little ingenuity with footers, ERS paper and AVM has achieved a level that astounds me at this price. I invite you to find a price point with which you're comfortable and give it your own best shot. Hopefully I can hang onto this gear long enough to pull together an analog front end that can rival the excellence of the digital gear used here.
Had I purchased such a fine system in totality when I first encountered high-end audio it might have been an end game, freeing up time and money for pursuits in other directions. But that is not how most of us do it. We buy one component at a time and become conditioned to constant up-grading in an industry that is forever chasing "that mighty evasive stone" that will make a recording sound just like live music. Bruce Springsteen sings in "With Every Wish", a song on my compilation CD:
The angel of the lake whispered in my ear
"Before you choose your wish son
You better think first
With every wish there comes a curse"
Early on I thought the last word was "thirst", rhyming with "first". If we wish for the most expensive gear our industry offers our thirst may indeed become a curse. This project has reminded me that if you choose wisely, you don't need the most expensive gear available to fully enjoy the music. That's the bottom line.
Specs And Manufacturer Information
3 Mylesview Place
Canada M2N 2M7
Voice: (416) 953-8898
AVM Anti-Vibration Magic
Boston Audio Design
Coincident Speaker Technology
391 Woodland Acres Crescent
Voice: (905) 326-9345
Dynamo 34SE integrated amplifier
Single Ended EL 34 output-
8 watts per channel
6SL7 input/driver tube,
5U4 GB rectifier tube
All hard wired
Stainless steel mirror finish chassis
Output Impedance: 4, 8 ohms
Voltage Selectable: 115V/230V
Frequency response: 20 Hz- 20khz- flat
Sensitivity: 300 mV full output
Input impedance: 100 kOhms
S/N Ratio: 88 dB.
Weight: 22 lbs.
24900 Anza Drive
Valencia, CA 91355
Inputs: Coaxial S/PDIF, Optical S/PDIF, USB (optional)
Input Capability: up to 24/192 for all inputs, including 24/176.4
Input Receiver, S/PDIF: Crystal Semiconductor CS8416?Input Receiver, USB: C-Media CM6631A
D/A Conversion IC: AKM4399
Analog Summing, Filtering: Fully Discrete, JFET-input differential topology
Output: RCA (single-ended)
Output Impedance: 75 Ohms
Bifrost DAC w/Uber
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz, +/-0.1dB, 2Hz-100KHz, -1dB
Maximum Output: 2.0V RMS
THD: <0.002%, 20Hz-20KHz, at max output
IMD: <0.002%, CCIR
S/N: >110dB, referenced to 2V RMS
Power supply: 5 stages of regulation, including separate supplies for critical digital and analog sections.
Upgradability: Separate, modular USB Input Card and DAC/Analog Card are snap-in replaceable.
Power Consumption: 12W
Size: 9" x 6.75" x 2.25"
Weight: 5 lbs.
Sound Damped Steel
Tekton Design, LLC
Voice: (801) 836-0764
Tekton Design Lore Reference speaker
Frequency Response: 40Hz to 20 kHz
Impedance: 8 Ohms
Dimensions: 36" x 10.25" x 11.75" (HxWxD)
Weight: 44 lbs. each.