DAC + amplifier + loudspeakers
+ set of cables (system)
here is a chance that at least some of you remember my review of Polish loudspeakers, Ardento Alter (see HERE), that was published in September 2012. It wasn't my first encounter with products of that company, also those who visited AudioShow 2011 had a chance to listen to a previous model of their speakers. The top model (at the time), Alter, that I reviewed took me by surprise – I was totally delighted. First of all I've never made a secret of my reluctance towards bass-reflex speakers. I'm not going into details here, as I've written about it many time already – simply put, in most cases (I admit not in all of them) there is this coloration, this boomy sound coming out of bass-reflex exhaust that is unacceptable for me. As a result my interest laid mostly in non-bass-reflex designs. I used to have, and now have another, horn speakers, I liked closed enclosures and transmission line, But still one of the most profound audiophile experiences I'd ever had was a listening session with huge, hand made open baffle speakers equipped with tremendous PHY-PH drivers. It's been at least 10 years since that single listening session and ever since I still dream about having room big enough to accommodate such huge open baffle speakers.
Such a room is still only a dream but more or less two years ago, at my friend's house I had a chance to listen to one of the first versions of Alter – open baffle speakers , quite reasonable in terms of size. It took my a while to convince their designer to lend me a pair for a review, but when I finally got them I spent several weeks with them. That gave me a chance to listen to them driven by quite a few amplifiers. Those of you who read my review know that I fell in love with them. On one hand their sound seemed to be tailored for me, on the other many people, who listened to them in place admitted, that they delivered, objectively, an amazing performance. The only thing that stopped me from acquiring them for my reference system was their price – adequate for their value, but simply way to high for my pocket (it seems to be a common opinion that reviewers get a generous gifts from manufacturers and distributors, but that is simply not true). Not only Alters delivered fantastic performance, but they did it almost with any amplifier I drove them with, whether it was a solid-state or tube amp. Not only listening was pure pleasure but they would do their job in reviewer's system too. OK, sorry, the previous sentence is not 100% true – a single 300B SET wasn't enough to drive these speakers to their full potential, so the choice of amplifier matters. With my SET amp (modified ArtAudio Symphony II) delivered wonderful, colorful midrange, beautiful, sweet treble, but it lacked a bit of power to drive 15 inch woofer. Bass didn't have enough power, weight, even though it seemed that amplifier was able to control drivers pretty well. On the other hand some of you might remember my review of Kondo Souga (double 2A3 PSE, delivering 7-8 W per channel, see HERE) and this Japanese samurai had no problem at all to drive Alters creating one of the best, or maybe even the best, setup I've heard so far.
What all that has to do with this review? Well, I like to think that my complains regarding Alter being to difficult to drive for 300B SET, and information that Kondo Souga was able to drive them push Ardento's owner and chief designer, Mr Tomasz Flanc, to continue his search for perfect speakers. To be honest I remember that he told me once, that Alter 2 were designed to fulfill a particular request from one of Alter owners, who asked for a even bigger version, with bigger woofer. Obviously I did not witness that conversation by I guess that Mr Tomasz treated that request as challenge. That led to designing and building of Alter 2 – bigger brothers of Alters (1) that I review (and loved) more than a year ago. The open baffle is bigger (and oh my lord so heavier!) because it needs to accommodate an 18 inch, paper cone woofer. To keep proper proportions between sub-ranges Ardento uses now also a bigger Sonido widerange driver and only a ribbon tweeter is still the same as before.
As far as I know the above mentioned customer who challenged Mr Tomasz was quite happy about the result, and I guess the designer was happy as well since Alter2 are now a part of company's portfolio. But that was still not enough for Mr Flanc – he got back to the idea he had some time ago. Such speakers are not, and never will be a mass-sold product. They were created for particular group of customers (and the size of bank account is not the only decisive factor here), rather music lovers and not people fascinated with equipment per se. In the review of Alter1 speaker I mentioned a friend who bought them and than spent quite some time looking for the best amplifier for these speakers (finally he bought GM70 monoblocks). So the idea was to offer customers the whole setup speakers, amplifier and digital source (D/A converter to be exact), plus a complete set of cables.
Mr Tomasz took his time and each time I asked for Alter2 I got the same answer: „you will get them when the whole system is ready” and it was supposed to be ready for AudioShow 2013. Well, it was! Maybe 3-4 weeks before Mr Tomasz called asking whether I wanted the whole system before or after AudioShow. We agreed I would get it after the Show, and in fact I got it finally two weeks after. Obviously me, and everybody visiting AudioShow, could listen to the presentation and find out how the system sounded like. I had an advantage over other people as I had a private audition after closing time on Saturday. This made quite a difference since it got quiet around and it was so much easier to hear system's true potential. The surprise was an amplifier – a 300B SET that drove much bigger Alter 2 and did it perfectly. It seemed impossible that SET couldn't drive smaller speakers but could bigger ones! But it was a fact – a single 300B SET drove Alter 2 easily. It was not the only amplifier built by Ardento. They also build 2-in-1 amp, with two amplifiers in one enclosure. A 300B SET to drive midrange and treble and EL34 amp to drive bass. They brought this amp to AudioShow too, but since 300B SET (called Solo) sufficed to drive Alter2, the Dual amp just sadly sat in the corner of the room. A design of Solo looks plain and simple – well finished, good looking but not very original (which is not a bad thing). It is also quite... traditional, not to call it „old-school” - no remote control, only two unbalanced inputs, very simple, mechanical input selector, a single volume know in the middle of front baffle and that's it.
Many people during the show spotted also a third tube amplifier... Wait, that wasn't amp, it was an amp-size D/A converter (OK, small amp-size). Have a look at the picture – now you probably know why so many people made that mistake. It surely looks more like a small-size tube amplifier than like a D/A converter. Mr Tomasz is very proud of this DAC, at some point I thought it was actually DAC that he liked best among his products. As you've surely already realized it is a tube, not solid-state device, including tube power supply.
To give you an even better idea of this special system let me remind you, what Ardento put in AudioShow's catalogue:
This year during Audio Show we will present a result of many years of our search, hard work and experiments: a complete audio system build 'around' ARDENTO ALTER 2 loudspeakers – a bigger brothers of Alter 1 model that received BEST PRODUCT 2012 from „High Fidelity” magazine. To drive these high-sensitivity, sophisticated speakers we have designed and build two amplifiers – one SET based on a legendary 300B triode – a subtle ARDENTO SOLO, and another “muscular” design called ARDENTO DUAL. Both are single-ended designs using interstage coupling transformers. The second version of our amplifier was designed for a lovers or more dynamic sound – in fact there are two amplifiers in one casing – a 300B SET and a EL 34 amplifier to drive bass section of Alter2.
So what Ardento offers is a complete, sophisticated system that unlike many others is not advertised as “the best in the world”, but just as a chance for some group of music lovers with refined, sophisticated taste who are offered a chance to acquire a unique, hand made system, created with love of music in heart, offering outstanding performance. The speakers are a 300B SETs owner dream come true – most of us (us, because I've had such amp for a long time) have to accept single driver loudspeakers in horn or bass-reflex enclosures as the only choice for our amplifiers. But here we are offered huge, full range speakers with 18 inch woofer, with ribbon tweeter and widerange driver that don't need anything more but our precious 8 watts. Is there anybody among us who wouldn't trade his/hers speakers for these? No? I thought so.
Many audio designers never declare it clearly, but they (except for those designing mass-product) always offer us a certain idea of a sound, their own vision to be clear and they hope that other people would share that idea. One of those who put it plain and simple was the legendary Hiroyasu Kondo, who all his life tried to recreate with his devices a sound he remembered from a concert he attended at the age of 16, conducted by maestro Toscanini. Mr Tomasz also has his idea of a sound he loves and that's what he offers, realizing very well, that not all the people have to share it. After all our hobby is very, very subjective one. I know, from more than one sources, that there is a group of Alter 1 owners who already share Ardento's idea for a great sound, and I would have joined them if I only could have afforded that. So no wonder that after hearing that new Alter 2 offered even better sound I couldn't resist checking it out by myself. We all know that parents (and Ardento products are Mr Tomasz' kids) often can't be truly objective when talking about their children. Finally my patience was awarded and the whole system landed in my room.
Recordings used during test (a selection)
One more thing. To make audition even more fun Ardento offered for their D/A converter a whole selection of tubes. Three different rectifier tubes and five pairs of output tubes – 3 pairs of 6922 (NOS tubes: Amperex, Philips HQ, Siemens CCa), and Russian tubes: 6n6p and 6n23p. That's one of the greatest features of most tube devices – you can play around with different tubes changing sound, or maybe rather sound's flavor as the differences are not dramatic. It more like adding a different spice to your food – tastes different but it doesn't make it a totally different dish. Obviously you might like the new flavor or not – it is always up to you, but fortunately, unlike in case of food, here you can always take tubes you don't like out and replace them with others. Some people have few sets of tubes for different music types, moods occasions and so on. And what is it that solid-state guys have? All right, all right – sorry, I didn't mean to start a new tube vs ss war :) Anyway in this particular case it took me a while to chose my favorite set of tubes. Using Russian tubes made PerfectDAC sound more... “tube-ish” in a common meaning of this word, or in other words is sounded warmer, with more midrange exposure, with more rounded range extremes, although at the same time bass was getting even “heavier”.
Siemens tubes offered more precision, more detail, but they made it sound bit dry to my taste. So in my own, very personal, shoot-out there were Amperex and Philips tubes left, and I finally chose the former that to my ears offered the best balance between detail, transparency, richness and openness of the sound. When I discussed that (much later) with Mr Tomasz I found out that he preferred Philips with Amperex as a close second choice. So we have a similar “taste” - no wonder Ardento products hit my weak spot...
Let me add one more thing. I reviewed these devices as a system – that's what we agreed with Ardento, as that's how they prefer to offer. But, since I had enough time, I tried PerfectDAC separately (with Audeze LCD-3 and Sugden Masterclass HA-4) and I used different digital source including excellent Meitner MA-1, wonderful Aesthetix Romulus, or fantastic Lumin (now I think, I should call it Lumin A1, as during CES new models were presented). Also for some time I used my modified ArtAudio Symphony II and some solid-state amplifiers instead of Ardento Solo. My findings should probably be in “Summary” section, but what the heck – Ardento system is a complete, perfectly balanced setup. Each element of this setup is a great device, not necessarily the best of its kind but together they offer something more than just a simple sum of their values. It reminded me a bit of Mr Kiuchi's products (Reymio/Harmonix/Bravo), that offer their best possible performance when you set them together in one system. OK – to be completely honest - having pockets deep enough after deciding to buy Ardento system I would probably check out Kondo Souga again, that worked so wonderfully with Alter1, and maybe, just maybe have it replaced Solo (but remember that Souga costs more than 50 kEUR).
All right, to the point. When listening to tube audio devices you need to remember to give them some time to warm up – half an hour should be enough for optimal performance. Ardento system is no different although already after 10 minutes it sounds very good. The first thing I noticed (or maybe I wanted to notice?) was bass. I bet you don't blame me. Just imagine yourself sitting in front of two 18'' driven by 8W SET. I was dying to hear what such setup could offer. Would really a single 300B be able to drive them with ease? To check that I didn't start, as I usually would have, with some double bass recording but with a classic Miles and his Tutu, that involved fantastic Marcus Miller ob his electric bass guitar. I hope Miles can forgive me for starting with Marcus and not with him. But it was the bass guitar and electronic drums I was looking for at first. And I got my confirmation immediately. I've been telling it for a long time – if you want a proper bass you need a large woofer, and I mean large like 15 or 18''. Such a, usually paper cone, driver delivers powerful, taut slam, it kicks, so to say, it pushes large amounts of air creating a real pressure you can fell – that is something that even 3-4 small-size woofers combined together can't do. I knew I should have expected that but actually hearing how well the Solo amplifier handled two such woofers was kind of a shock. It used them to go really deep, but even those lowest notes had proper weight, power and energy. Not for a second Solo seemed to lose control, so it allowed proper sustain, decay, but it was also able to cut the note if necessary. What you often get if a tube amp drives large speakers is a loose, rounded on edges bass and no proper control which results in over-sustaining notes that should be at some point cut. In this particular recording with electric bass and drums such a typical “tube” sound would have ruined everything. But nothing like that happened which left me with my jaw dropped on the floor, feeling that punchy, taut, rhythmic bass with great sense of timing. And it felt so unforced, so easy, so natural – simply amazing..
So instead of moving to my favorite double bass I decided for powerful, dark The Dark Knight returns soundtrack that is full of extremely deep, tectonic bass and than I moved to mighty Inception OST. I don't know – maybe in a room twice as big as mine I wouldn't be so impressed, but in my 24 sqm I was simply overwhelmed with the raw power of this presentation. I know I'm repeating myself – this was that kind of bass performance that clearly shows you how much better, more natural, better defined and controlled a bass from a huge woofer in non-bass-reflex cabinet is. There was this raw power of the lowest bass slam but it was also well articulated, sustained but not too long, and with a very nice decay – most impressive. Finally I got to double bass knowing already that I would spend long hours with recordings of Ray Brown, Renaud Garcia-Fons, Isao Suzuki and others. This was one of these days that make our hobby so special, so worth digging into it, always looking for “our” sound. No, it could never replace live music, the emotions live music provides, but it can get you as close as only possible – that's what we are all looking for, right? That's what Ardento system provides. You can see it all from up close – fingers of one hand moving sliding up and down a fingerboard, and other finder plucking strings, or gently caressing them, you can see how strings response, how this huge soundboard resonates. All that in a smooth, coherent, natural and amazingly dynamic presentation.
Let's get back to Miles' trumpet – he wouldn't forgive me if I didn't. The sound was pure, clear, so vibrant, so colorful and amazingly palpable – very, very few speakers I know could present it so vividly! That trumpet led me to New Orlean's brass. All trumpets, although each at least bit different than the others, sounded amazing, real, natural, vibrant and in a way that made me curious how would another recording sound like. The bigger Sonido driver gave midrange, hence most instruments, more weight, more richness and that made them sound more real. Palpability of a presentation was also better than I remembered from Alter1, but at least part of the credit should go to 300B SET and that outstanding tube PerfectDAC. I really liked ribbon tweeter in smaller Alters, but know, when accompanied with even better, more sophisticated company these stood up to challenge and delivered even better performance.
A head-to-head between PerfectDAC, Meitner MA-1, and Aesthetix Romulus proved that in terms of performance Polish converter has nothing to be ashamed of, and a choice between them will be based on the functionality required by particular person, and his/hers personal preferences. I compared these devices not only in Ardento system, but also, as mentioned before, with fantastic LCD3 cans driven by Sugden headphone amp (Masterclass HA-4). To be honest I truly appreciated performance of all three devices in both systems, but personally (also because I already have a Bada Alpha USB converter so I don't need a good quality USB input, nor some huge amount of inputs in general) I would chose Ardento. But to be clear – that's based on my personal requirements and taste, but one wouldn't be wrong making any choice of these three, top performance digital sources.
Just a short notice about another setup I tested, when I replaced Solo with my own, modified (Tom Willis replaced output transformers with these from Diavolo) ArtAudio Symphony II. In my opinion it came very close to Solo, and I surely would be also a good choice for this system. There were some minor differences – Solo seemed to offer bit richer sound with it more weight in the lower end. On the other hand Western Electric 300B in my amplifier added some magic especially in midrange making it even richer, more colorful but yet transparent, resolving and detailed. To be perfectly honest there was one thing I couldn't stop thinking about, when comparing these two amplifiers. What would happen if I tried Kondo Souga in this system (remembering how amazingly well it sounded with Alter1)... Unfortunately all I could do was to wonder what if... Anyway this short experiment proved that those who already have their SET amplifier and don't want to part with it, possibly could replace Solo in Ardento system with it, still fully enjoying full potential of Alter2 and PerfectDAC.
I wrote that at the beginning but let me repeat myself – this system will not please everybody. Even if we forget the price for a moment there is still a matter of size of speakers that will not fit into every room, secondly not all people are fans of tube devices, or want a DAC without “DSD” mark on the front. Some might not accept a bit “old-school” style of this system – open baffle, 8W tube amp and DAC. It's their right! But these with open minds (or ears), and those who already love low-power tube amplifiers will be delighted. Fantastic full-range speakers with 18'' woofer driven with 8W 300B SET with amazing source – is there anything else to ask for? I can't tell whether a single 2A3 tube would be enough to drive these speakers, but I bet that a PSE 2A3 amp would do just fine (since Souga dealt so well with, surprisingly, more difficult to drive smaller Alter1). This is a review of a complete audio system but obviously every device has it own value. If you asked me I would say that I loved those speakers most – that's simply any 300B SET's owner dream come true. But I loved PerfectDAC almost as much – I would love to have it in my system cause it is that good and in terms of performance it can compete even with more expensive units. Last but not least an amplifier is an outstanding device too, doing fabulous job in this system. But as my trail with Symphony II proved another great SET amp could, if needed, replace it in this system – this is a good news for any owner of a great tube amp. Cables offered by Ardento simply compliment the system, let the owner skip long and painful search for best suiting cables. These might not be the best cables in the world but they were build strictly for this system. You could look for other ones but I see no reason for that. Ardento system delivers everything what we love SET amplifiers for - holography, timbre, palpability, liquidity, smoothness, live emotions, but giving you also fabulous range extremes, which are often a weakness of SET based systems, and explosive dynamics in both micro and macro scale. Yes, that's a very unique system that could be the last in many SET lowers lives. I bet that many tube-skeptics could change their minds too after listening to Ardento system.
Alter 2 speakers were developed basing on older, smaller model that I reviewed over a year ago, called Alter1. It is a 3-way design in an open baffle, that is slightly tilted backwards. This model sports the same Fountek NeoPRO 5i ribbon tweeter, a larger Sonido wide-range driver, SFR 200, and a 18'' woofer with paper cone (this time Mr Tomasz did not share information about make and model). All drivers are mechanically isolated – there are fixes with screws that go freely through baffle and are fixed on the other side but using rubber spacers (in this way vibrations from one driver don't effect others). Inside cabling is done with monocrystal silver that undergoes thermal processing (heating up and than cryo treatment). Exactly the same material was used for silver speakers cables and interconnect (only speaker cable for bass is made of monocrystal copper).
The PerfectDAC is a tube D/A converter equipped with 32-bit processor, two 24-bit coaxial S/PDIF inputs, and 32-bit, asynchronous USB input. A lot of thought were given to the power supply section. A separate part for digital section of this device is based on discrete elements, analogue stage uses a classic tube power supply (a rectifier + LC circuit).
The Ardento SOLO amplifier is a classic 300B SET design, with interstage transformer coupling. The same silver, thermal treated cabling was used here. All transformers were cryo treated too. Amplifier sports a metal casing, with a front and cover finished with “mirror” effect, and side panels are wooden, finished same way as the rest of the system. At the back there are solid speakers posts, IEC socket with integrated fuse and on/off switch, and two unbalanced inputs. Again there is a small toggle switch working as an input selector, placed above RCA inputs. Front panel sport only a single, metal knob for volume control. A tube set consists of a pair of 6s45p-e in input stage, a pair of 300B-98B power tubes, and a pair of Russian 6D22S rectifiers. Internal cabling is made of thermal treated silver. Using Ardento's set of cables for this system means that all cables used inside and outside all elements of this system are made of exactly the same material.
Nominal impedance: 8 Ω
Power handling: 15 W
Frequency range: 33-40 000 Hz
Sensitivity: 94 dB
Tube set: 2x300B, 2x 6s45p-e, 2x6D22S
Output power: 2x8 W
Impedance: 4 or 8 Ω
Design: tube DAC with tube based power supply for analogue section
Tube set: 2xE88CC, 1x5U4M
Digital input: 2x S/PDIF, 1xUSB
Analogue output: RCA
Supported sample rates: up to 192 kHz/24 bit (S/PDIF) and 192kHz/32bit (USB)