Audio Zen it seems is a lesser known state, and surprisingly elusive. However, I firmly believe it is the true goal worth striving for when building a system for the pleasure of music!
Robert Reina’s May 2011 Stereophile review of our Totem Dreamcatcher speaker is a good example of Audio Zen, achieved. I’ve gleaned this from an occasional article at different times over the years, but ironically, the very authors themselves seldom comment on it? For example, in Robert’s review, he states that he enters into a state of utter musical delight every time he connects the Dreamcatchers to his system, then drops out again when swapping back to his old speakers. And though he admits knowing that the Dreamcatchers are not doing everything as accurately or as well, as his old “reference speakers” (four times the price), he admits that he doesn’t care because he can’t believe how much he “really gets into” his music with the Dreamcatchers. Obviously, his system mated with the these Dreamcatchers, (happens to comprise an ideal combination). Allowing him to achieve this rare plateau of complete and utter musical satisfaction, or, Audio Zen!
Now, in the current (July issue) of Stereophile Stephen Mejias writes what he thinks about two, (or actually three when counting his Klipsch Syn-B20), more components we feature here at the Sweet Spot, the Jolida FX10 and NAD C316BEE. The first thing I would like to point out, is how he compares the two integrated’s to each other making good points about the differences in sound. If you read his entire review, it becomes obvious that though he finds the Jolida “huggable and adorable” he feels the sound of the NAD is more detailed, accurate, and therefore better. This is where I have to disagree. Additionally, it should be noted these amplifiers take care of business very differently, as one is “tube”, and the other “transistor”, so the fact of the matter is, that they are absolutely going to sound “very differently”. Just as the sound of vinyl is “very different” from CD, and though CD is known to have more accurate attributes, rarely will you find anyone claiming it is “better” when comparing the two!
Stephen begins with his description of the Jolida, pointing out several things I’ve found to be true of many tube amplifiers. For example, he’s quick to realize that though the Jolida is rated at only 10 watts per channel, it seems like much more power. Then, when mated to a horn loaded speaker (typically very efficient) like his Klipsch, “in his words” it flat out ROCKS! He also marvels at how well the Jolida defines the various musicians in space, within a very large, yet well focused sound stage. He further notices how well brass instruments bloom effortlessly and cymbals sizzle gently into darkness. He notices that the Jolida out performs not only the NAD in these characteristics, but two other similarly priced competitors, a Cambridge Audio 340A & Exposure 2010. He concludes that the overall sonic characteristics make the Jolida’s presentation very life like, which he compares quite favorably to his experience of a live performance the night before.
Unfortunately, he goes on to point out several attributes common to solid state amplifiers, and how the NAD does these better than the Jolida. He even compares this particular NAD C316BEE to the coveted classic NAD 3020, commenting on how this amplifier may be everything it was, albeit, without quite as much power, and of course, without the cult AMP-GOD status the classic 3020 has earned over time.
I do agree however with his overall assessment of both amplifiers. However, what I disagree with is his claim that the NAD is “better”. He does mention that an idea popped into his head when consider what speaker would make the perfect match for the Jolida, and that is the Klipsch. I too had originally mated the Jolida to the PSB ALPHA B1’s as it made for the “King of bang for the buck systems”($729.00). But remembered the old audiophile fact that “horns excel with tubes” so quickly switch to Klipsch speakers. This took it from a system that sounded really good to “life like” by simply swapping out the PSB’s for Klipsch! In fact, I’ve since mated it to their largest “bookshelf” speaker, the RB8i which has “8 inch woofers.” This further takes you from a nice seat at the back of the hall (Stephen Mejias test Klipsch system) to Front Row Center (ours)! For me, this is a perfect example of Audio Zen! I’ll take front row center live any day of the week!
In summery. Be careful with what reviewers conclude, as what is actually better for them, may not be what’s better for you! If you are say, a classical listener, or perhaps musician, you may decide that hearing a greater amount of low level detail allows you a window into what the musicians are doing, and maybe that’s the sound for you. But if it’s a “you are there” live performance type sound that you’re looking for, than I’d have to go with the Jolida tube amplifier! Personally, the sort of “in the control room-studio sound” of many small solid state type amps has never been quite as attractive to me. But that’s the beauty of choices. Today more than ever before, manufacturers like NAD, Jolida, PSB and Klipsch, are making some just amazingly musical components that are really great in their own right, and seriously affordable! What more can you ask for? Cheers!