Getting the music through to you

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with musician and producer Josh Davis’ decades-deep knowledge of music history, his impeccably curated, massive album repertoire, or his preternatural ability as a songwriter to create mixes that emotionally connect with listeners.

I ask this because it is my experience audiophiles tend to stick to their well-worn grooves when it comes to personal CD, LP, or digital-file collections and tend to not stray beyond their perceived music norms, hence Davis might not be an artist familiar to many who frequent this site.

Dj Shadow at home.

Davis, better known as DJ Shadow, is a bit of an industry legend for his numerous electronica/trip-hop infused LPs, his wide-ranging and obscure sampling choices, minimalist percussive techniques, and album production abilities.

I’ve seen him play live in small venues twice and was blown away in both instances by the sets he mixed and his humble demeanour.

The reason I bring him up with context is because the second cut on what many consider his groundbreaking 1996 album Endtroducing called "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" has always struck a chord with me.

But it was with unusual clarity that I heard the track the other day while thinking about how to introduce AudioStream readers to what the high-fidelity reference system I am putting into place is all about — that is, what it is I am essentially assembling here in my home to be able to communicate sonic preferences to readers — that the song's lyrics which Davis sampled from an interview by Terry McGovern with drummer George Marsh for "Building Steam" suddenly snapped into focus in my mind.

  • From listening to records I just knew what to do
  • I mainly taught myself
  • And, you know, I did pretty well
  • Except there were a few mistakes
  • But um, that I made, uh
  • That I've just recently cleared up

  • And I'd like to just continue to be able to express myself
  • As best as I can with this instrument
  • And I feel like I have a lot of work to do
  • Still, I'm a student - of the drums
  • And I'm also a teacher of the drums too

If I was to substitute “hi-fi” for “drums” I feel like these two paragraphs of lyrics describe fairly succinctly what is I’m trying to do here.

You see, I’ve heard hundreds of disparate systems over the last several years thanks to a job that has seen me travelling the world to listen to high-fidelity kits in as many guises as there are variations to license plate numbers.

So many set-ups featuring so many different manufacturers gear, some of these curated combinations spoke to me on a deep, meditative level and elicited emotional responses from me. They accessed my mental landscape and unwittingly had me recalling a moment in time, a social or family situation or a feeling and were able to hold me as a predator holds captive their prey — I had no choice in the matter — I was at the mercy of the music.

Other systems left me cold and disconnected to the musical recreation of the recorded event. Ruler-flat frequency responses eliciting no emotion in me other than discomfort at being subjected to sonic claims of ever-vanishing distortion. Claims that often translated for me into etched upper frequencies, lack of tonal colour, timbral or pitch accuracy and a predilection for one-note bass reproduction.

That’s not to say that my favourite sound is everyone else’s favourite sound, which is why we have so many choices in building our personal systems to flavor them to our own taste.

But my taste might not be your taste, which is why I wanted to try and explain my taste in hi-fi playback.

So, building a system that is only about a computer-generated frequency response is not what I am curating here in the bungalow to utilize as my music-communication device.

While measurements are important for starting points in pairing amps and speakers, cables, etc. they are not the sole determinant with which to formulate a base line for sonic reference in my opinion.

With the help and support of high-fidelity manufacturers and distributors, I am in the process of building a review system which leans more towards emotional and intellectual stimulation, less towards ruler-flat response or just a numbers game.

The goal of the system is to successfully allow me to interface — with you, the reader — through my writings what it is I am not only hearing, but physically experiencing through this network of transducers, capacitors, resistors, thermionic valves, circuit boards, neural pathways, synaptic firings, etc.

This, I hope, will help to build the necessary bridge for us to meet each other on in that void of space and time the Internet creates between us.

So, with all this in mind I will be writing reviews based on what I am able to glean from inserting a component into what I’ve made as my base line, which at the moment is still a work in progress, but one that is moving forward more and more rapidly.

A dCS Network Bridge is being used, as are Aurender N10 and W20 music servers and the incredibly capable Metronome DSc1.

A number of incredible DACs have already made their way here including the totaldac d1 direct, the Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce S3, the LampizatOr Pacific DAC, the dCS Debussy, the Chord Qutest (and the mighty, but mini Mojo) and of course the onboard DAC of the truly transparent Macintosh C2600 tubed preamplifier being used in conjunction with McIntosh MC611 power amplifiers.

Tying everything together like a writhing mass of octopus arms is a mix of AudioQuest, Clarus and Audio Note cabling feeding (for the moment) a pair of Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE two-way loudspeakers. Clean power comes courtesy of a PS Audio DirectStream Power Plant P20 and on the headphone side of things, a Shindo Mr. T power conditioner keeps a Naim DAC V1, Sonoma M1 headphone amplifier, and Cambridge Audio Duo MM/MC headphone preamplifier purring along.

Some new speakers will be making their way here in the very near future, both floor-standing and stand mount.

The sound being created currently in the context of this gear is one of deep, rich and colourful harmonic textures, true tone and timbre, extended and controlled dynamic swings with deep, multi-note bass. Treble? Treble, while tending to the sweeter side and slightly tonally-burnished on brassy highs, has to maintain wide open space with plenty of air and realistic 3D-imaging for spatial decay on notes. I strive to maintain upper frequencies that don’t sacrifice resolution for warmth — not an easy task to do with consistency song–to–song.

Transparency to source is key, but a guitar has to sound like a guitar and a cello has to have the presence of its wooden body’s resonance, as does the size and weight behind a piano’s lowest registers being banged out. The soft drift of bristles from a brush stroke on a snare drum's skin must have variation and not simply be painted with one color. Reproduction must have that most elusive, yet sought–after trait: a human touch.

The difference between the current DACs in rotation is of a more subtle nature due to the quality of the gear I’ve been fortunate enough to have loaned to me for review. Swapping cables definitely affects various dimensional/tonal/timbral qualities out of the DACs, as does which input/output I’m using — and just figuring the I/O out is no quick or easy task —, but the biggest shared attribute to the system which I’m thrilled about so far is the incredible speed of attack on notes.

One of the best bespoke furniture designers in Canada is also working on a custom credenza to house the system, which measures just over 80 inches long and can accommodate components as large as a PS Audio P20 Regenerator. More on that down the line.

I hope this post has helped you understand a bit of what I’m aiming for and where I’m coming from, as much more will be revealed and shared over time as I finish off the reference components of the system and start writing reviews with comparisons based on empirical listening session data.

Marsh alluded to the learning process of the journey in his sampled interview on "Building Steam" I too am involved in a constant learning process of experimentation in the hope that what I’m creating is something that could have an honest impact on moving forward with further, shared sonic explorations into this, our unique little corner of the audiophile world.

Sue's picture

Wouldn't it just be easier if we all came over to your place? Road trip anyone?

Ali's picture

Keep the beers cold Rafe, we are comming!

mcondo's picture

Is the manufacture name a secret? :-)

Anton's picture

Four letter name.

Started in Sweden.

The credenza arrives in a flat pack.


In all seriousness, I think credenzas are the way to go.


Rafe Arnott's picture
Being made by Jay Miron
bmichels's picture

Your quest for best synergy is a big task that will bring great infos for all of us... but I do not see the dCS Rossini in the list of DACs? I thought this DAC arrived to AudioStream to be compared to the TotalDAC ?
Will Rossini be part of the Battle ? And have you also considered, in the samde price range, the Brinkmann Nyquist . ?

thanks in advance for sharing with us your finding and advices

Rafe Arnott's picture
I have been told that the Rossini will be coming to AudioStream as soon as the latest build is ready to ship.
ceynon's picture

Well I was fortunate enough to just have two hours in Rafe's bungalow. My mind is blown. I have listened to many of Rafe's systems over the years.

The current system was very very impressive, we started with the TotalDac in place. I said to Rafe after a few songs that this is the best I have heard out of all of his set ups. I have heard many combinations at his place.

Then he replaced the TotalDac with the LampizatOr. Damn. I was shocked. When he sent me a photo of the gold plated LampizatOr a while back I though to myself "please, what an obnoxious piece of equipment). Well I take it back. There was nothing subtle about how how much better the LampizatOr was. Rafe is better with descriptive words. All I can say is my mind was blown. The system is good that LampizatOr is shockingly good.

Ortofan's picture

... to build a reference system with the Benchmark DAC3 and AHB2?

Both devices exhibit state-of-the-art measured performance and are essentially noiseless and distortion-free. Should you find that their sound quality leaves you "cold and disconnected", then change to other units with less flat frequency response and/or higher levels of noise and distortion until you determine how much and what kind of signal impairment is needed before the music starts to speak to you "on a deep, meditative level".

AD seems to have a preference for added second harmonic distortion along with his music. It will interesting to find out what your preferences end up being in this regard.

mskaye's picture

Hate to judge but the condescending tone of your comment seems a little out of place here. I and many others prefer the "signal impairment" of tube microphones and recordings made in wood lined concert spaces designed in the 1800s and playback on tube based equipment with less than perfect measurements as opposed to "noiseless distortion-free" sounds of an anechoic chamber and absolute state of the art measurements. I for one find the sound of metal drivers and aluminum cabinets fatiguing and harsh sounding. Ditto with many solid state amplifiers. I'll take Class A amplification any day. Or a Marantz 8B with its EL 34s pumping out nice warm colored sound that makes the performers sound tangible and real and human. Especially love an all analog tube based 1960s LP, played on a turntable going through tube preamplification - nothing digital in the chain at all. We all have our paths to Nirvana - if yours is preferred with 0% THD that's fine too but it would be nice to be respectful to the editor of this site by not "shit-ing" on his preferred sonic preferences.

Ortofan's picture

... you rushed to judgment and (mis)interpreted my previous post as being somehow condescending or disrespectful to the site’s editor. Had that been the case, presumably the post would not have passed moderation and appeared here. Try rereading the post and see if you can uncover its actual intent, which was to propose a methodology for selecting a reference system. A logical approach would seem to be starting with those components that are least distorting and most noiseless, in other words most transparent and least colored – components that the editor of Stereophile has deemed to be state-of-the-art.

If the sound quality rendered by those components fails to elicit the desired emotional response, then one needs to determine what sort of degradation in performance is required to achieve the “human touch.” Again, we seem to return to the accurate versus pleasant debate posed by David Hafler thirty years ago.
If you don’t like the sound reproduction afforded by accurate equipment, then you need to determine what quantity and what kind of inaccuracy makes the sound quality sufficiently appealing to you.

Your preference for an all-analog tube amp and LP disc source system suggests that you like your music reproduced with a generous helping of what Stereophile editor JA refers to as “second harmonic sauce.” While you’re welcome to that choice, one could put forth the argument that it’s akin to preferring the view through a window that’s optically imperfect, somewhat tinted and/or slightly dirty.

Regarding digital recordings, among my collection are numerous discs from labels such as Telarc, Chesky, Reference Recordings, Audiofon, Orfeo and Etcetera that sound to me “real and human” - to use your phrase – even when heard via solid-state amplification. This suggests that any perceived unpleasantness one might generally ascribe to digital recordings is not due to some inherent limitations in the format itself.

mskaye's picture

Yes, ultimately the accurate vs. the pleasant debate will never go away. Even in the pages of Stereophile, Fremer and Atkinson seem to be in the accurate camp while Reichert, Dudley enjoy tube "sauce" as you put it. I wasn't saying digital recordings cant be warm and human. I just prefer to hear such recordings on a system that adds a little romance to the presentation. It's just my preference. Not better or worse.

Everclear's picture

You did not mention any names of electronics, source components, loudspeakers, headphones ...........

mskaye's picture

I have a Linn LP12, Lingo 1 power supply, Naim Aro tonearm, Linn Krystal cartridge and EAR 834P phono stage, a Lector CD 0.6T cd player, an Ayre Codex DAC, a Lector ZXT-60 integrated amp and Jean Marie Reynaud Cantabile speakers. Power cords by JPS Labs and Analysis Plus, Hovland G-3 interconnects, Straight Wire Rhapsody speaker cables. Mullard, Philips and Genalex tubes replacing all stock tubes.

Everclear's picture

Thanks for your response .......... I would imagine your audio system sounds nice.

Actually, my question was for Ortofan ........ It appears that there was some mix-up. If Ortofan is reading this, would he likes to tell us what components he is currently using for audio playback? :-) ..........

Ortofan's picture

... a Sony CDP-X707ES CD player, pre-amp and power amp built from the articles by Erno Borbely in TAA and a pair of TDL Reference Standard speakers; plus a Thorens TD-126 turntable with an Ortofon X5-MC cartridge - and a set of Stax SR-Lambda Pro earspeakers.

Everclear's picture

Thanks for your response Ortofan ....... I would imagine your audio playback system sounds nice ........ BTW, does your Stax electrostatic headphones get any "toob sauce"? :-) ..........

Ortofan's picture

... sounds sufficiently "nice" to me that there isn't the constant urge to seek further improvements.
That particular Stax adapter contains no tubes and connects to the output of the power amp.

Everclear's picture

Any computer audio, hi-res audio, external DACs, streaming, Bluetooth headphones/IEMs? :-) ...........

Ortofan's picture

… none of those items.

No streaming. I prefer to have recordings on physical discs – and I have a load of them already. I still buy a few new discs each year, but most of my acquisitions now come from estate sales.

My computer has a built-in DAC, but it’s not used for critical listening.
The DAC in the Sony CD player already has state-of-the-art redbook level performance.

Personally, I’m not convinced of the need for or practical advantage of hi-res recordings.
Although my speakers have a super-tweeter, most speakers don’t have a frequency response that extends far beyond 20kHz.
Likewise, the level of distortion in most amps isn’t low enough to take significant advantage of the increased bit depth.

Not long ago I attended a demonstration of hi-res recordings using Wilson Alexia speakers and an array of Ayre electronics. Unfortunately, the frequency response of the speakers rolls off beyond 20kHz and the level of distortion in the amps when driving a low impedance load is barely equivalent to 16-bit resolution, so it’s not clear what differences were supposed to be audible.

Now, it’s your turn – tell us about your audio system.

Everclear's picture

I was afraid you are gonna ask me about my audio playback system(s) ..........
So, here we go ......... I listen to loudspeakers, headphones and IEMs ...........
My loudspeaker system .......... I have Bryston amp and pre-amp .......... I recently replaced my pre-amp with Rogue RH-5 pre-amp/headphone amp, tube-transistor hybrid (a.k.a "toob sauce"), which was favorably reviewed in a recent Stereophile ......... It sounds good with my headphones and my loudspeakers ........ I have the latest model Bryston CD player, which was also favorably reviewed in a recent Stereophile ....... I have an old Sony CD/SACD player, also ........ I don't have any analog playback gear - not anymore (sad) ......... All digital playback ...... I have a decent collection of physical discs CDs, SACD hybrids and a few HDCDs ......... I can play the CD part of the HDCDs ........... I still have the Bryston pre-amp residing in one of my closets .........
My loudspeakers are about 15 year old, custom made by a pro-audio/car-audio and custom loudspeaker manufacturer/dealer from a nearby town ......... All the drivers of the loudspeakers are made by one of the well respected pro-audio manufacturer, Eminence .......... Each of my floor standing loudspeakers have two 10 inch woofers, one 6.5 inch midrange and a phenolic tweeter .......... Loudspeakers are bass-reflex design with ports tuned to 30Hz ......... I get good quality (and loud) bass down to below 30Hz with a total of four 10 inch woofers ......... My loudspeakers are very efficient, about 90 db or more in my estimate ..... Eminence is well known for high efficiency drivers with powerful magnets. I want to replace my old loudspeakers with newer ones with new drivers and new revised crossovers ....... I plan to use newer drivers from Eminence and ask the same dealer to make them .........

Hello, are you still there? :-) ........

OK ......... My headphones ......... I have several of them ....... Three Audeze(s) ..... LCD-X, LCD-MX4, LCD-4 ....... I also have Focal Utopia, AQ Night-Owl and Westone W-60 universal fit IEMs ......... I am working on custom fit model of the same W-60 ..........
I have AQ-DF Red, Chord Mojo and Hugo2 external DACs ....... I use them with my headphones and IEMs, with my Mac Pro lap-top ....... That set-up is portable and self powered ....... I can use that set-up in any room ....... LCD-4s and Utopias are some what difficult to drive with portable devices ..... So, I use the RH-5 to drive them ....... They sound good with RH-5 ........ I also use my lap-top with loudspeaker system ....... I also get several streaming services ..........

Good ...... You are still there :-) .........

"The future ain't, what it used to be" .......... Yogi Berra :-) .........

So, who knows? ....... I may end up just using lap-top/ phone/ portable DAP with Bluetooth headphones and IEMs .......... Also, can use HomePod or Google Home-Max streaming (and listening) devices .......

Happy listening :-) ...........

Ortofan's picture

... "euphonic" written all over it.

Regarding phono cartridges, if you do prefer a warmer sound quality, you'll get more of that from a cartridge with a conical/spherical stylus than from one with a more advanced stylus design, such as a fine-line or micro-ridge.
Have you ever tried the Denon DL-103R?
The following review mentions that the sound quality exhibited "warm midrange magic".

Erasmus's picture

The piano melody and a couple of other elements of ”Building Steam...” were lifted from a 1970 Jeremy Storch song, but he had nothing to do with the vocals on the track, which have of course also been sampled wholesale, see e.g.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Thanks for that link Erasmus, I've amended the post to reflect the original sample I referenced.

Richard D. George's picture

and a great post.

Richard D. George's picture

The MC611 monoblock is a relatively new model. The reviews have been very positive.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I'll be doing a full review on the MC611, but I can say now that it is one of the finest-sounding power amps I've encountered – and that's putting it up against some pretty $$$$/amazing SQ company.
Ortofan's picture

... the "Hold" position so that you can see how much of the 600W output you are actually using on peaks.

It'd be interesting to know how close you come to using the amp's full output power and how often - and with which recordings.
You might want to use the following as a test piece:

Everclear's picture

Great recommendation, Ortofan .......... Also, great test recording for bass response, both for the loudspeakers and the headphones/IEMs .......... My estimation is that the bass goes down to below 30Hz .......... Great test recording for full range floor-standing loudspeakers with large woofers :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... the following video to demonstrate the Harbeth Monitor 40 speakers driven by a bridged pair of CH Precision amps.

At about 6:48 into the video the meter on the top amp appears to show a peak reading of about 770W.

Which model of Bryston amp are you using?

Everclear's picture

Glad you asked Ortofan ........
My power amp is Bryston model 4B ......... It is rated 300 watts into 8 Ohms and 500 watts into 4 Ohms ..... It is an older model ....... The newer models have similar power ratings ......... They have changed some internal parts for the newer models ........ Most of the stereo Bryston models can be bridged for mono .... I am only using mine as stereo ......... None of the Bryston power amps have meters .......... That is not a big problem ......... See below ......... Of course if you have meters, you can monitor power output in real time .........

Google search shows several websites where you can calculate amp power requirements ......... I find the Crown audio website as one of the best and easy to navigate and calculate amp power requirements .... Crown audio is a part of Harman International group ......... You may already be familiar with the name of the company ........
Search for 'Crown audio amp power' ....... When you get to the first page, it says 'How much amp power do I need' on the top of the page .......... That page has lot of useful information ........ Look for 'power calculator' on that page ..........When you find it click on 'calculator' ............ That will take you to the page where you can make several different calculations ......... Look for 'Amp power required' ....... There you can put in distance in meters, loudspeaker sensivity ....... If you see any 'headroom' like +3 db or +6 db etc., delete that .......... Of course, you need more amp power if you add headroom ......... You can then calculate amp power needed ............
In a recent Stereophile forum, JA editor of Stereophile mentioned that he measured 108 db maximum SPL in the mid hall, when an orchestra was playing classical music in a concert hall ......... So, I made some calculations for 86db and 90db sensitive speakers, for 108 db SPL ...... Below are the calculations .......

For 86db sensitive speakers, for 108db SPL, with no headroom, amp power needed .......
1 meter ......... 158 watt
2 meters ........634 watts
3 meters ....... 1426 watts
4 meters ....... 2536 watts

For 90db sensitive speakers, for 108db SPL, with no headroom, amp power needed ......
1 meter ........... 63 watts
2 meters ......... 252 watts
3 meters .......... 568 watts
4 meters .......... 1010 watts

As we can see for 4db more sensitive speakers we need lot less power ........ I also made calculations for 98db max SPL, which is 10db less than 108db SPL, which is still pretty loud .........

86db sensitive speakers, for 98db SPL, no headroom ........
3 meters ........ 143 watts
90db sensitive speakers, for 98db SPL, no headroom .......
3 meters ........ 57 watts
So, for 98db SPL, we need lot less power ....... We need 10 times more power for 108db SPL ......... In other words, we need 10 times more power for 10 more db ........ How deep are your pockets? ......... How deep is your love for loudness? :-) ............. Hopefully in the near future we may have cool running class-D amps with lots of power for not a lot of money ......... Some such amps are already in the market, as you may already know ............

So, how much amp power do we need?
Short answer ....... it depends on several factors .......

Since, my floor standers have 4 drivers each, I maintain approx. 9 to 10 feet listening distance for proper integration of all the drivers ...... I keep my SPL meter near by and never try to go above 100 db SPL on the peaks........ I want to preserve my hearing as long as possible ......... As I mentioned before, my speakers are efficient, about 90db sensitive ....... My speakers vary between 8 and 4 Ohms in impedance ......... So, I should have sufficient power in my amp ......
It is important to know the measurements of sensitivity and impedance for loudspeakers and headphones/IEMs .......... (Thank you JA and Tyll) ..........

Some other factors could also be considered, when it comes to amp power needed ......... Most of the power requirements are in the bass region, say below 100Hz, like this Pan Sonic recording ........ If a built-in or separate powered sub-woofer is used, the midrange and tweeters may not need lot of power ....
About the Harbeth video .......... They seem to be listening to the music pretty loud ........... Also, I suspect the woofers may be rolling off below 40Hz, since they are not that large .......... This Pan Sonic recording goes below 30Hz ......... I can say that because, my speakers have a total of four 10 inch woofers, whose total radiating surface is more than an 18 inch woofer .......... Following the Harbeth video, there are other videos with other speakers talking about topics like loudspeaker sensitivity and power amp requirements .......... Interesting stuff .........

BTW ........ Are you ready for this? ........ For a 86db sensitive speaker for 108db SPL with no headroom, for a listening distance of 10 meters (30 feet, kinda mid-hall), we need 15,848 watts of amp power ..... I got scared at that point ...... So, I did not make any calculations for 20 or 30 meter listening distance :-) .......

Happy listening :-) .............

Everclear's picture

To add to the above .......... We can put together Golden Ear Triton reference (Stereophile class-A) floor stander with built-in powered sub-woofers and Pass XA-25 ( another Stereophile class-A) power amp and can have world class sound ........... All the loudness, most of the people will ever need in home listening environment .......

Like they say ......... La vie est belle :-) ..............

Everclear's picture

Search for "The science of subwoofing" on Stereophile references ........... Everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask :-) ..........

Everclear's picture

Another interesting read on Stereophile references .......... "Heavy load: How loudspeakers torture amplifiers" .............

Everclear's picture

Also, great test recording for (separate) sub-woofer(s) :-) ............

Everclear's picture

I was thinking holy **** ...... I better turn down the volume ......... I may break something :-) ............

Everclear's picture

Don't try this at HomePod :-) ..............