SOtM SDP-1000 with Vintage Speakers
Just recently a very interesting epiphany happened upon me while breaking in a new piece of audio gear. I was not concentrating on any particular passage nor was I near the point of jotting down critical notes, instead I was half listening and surfing through new reviews of computer audio equipment when my moment presented itself; I found myself scouring my mental vocabulary trying to ascertain an appropriate level of descriptive jargon that could match my excitement with a new DAC. I will reveal the DAC in due time, truth be told it is not a new product, rather new to me, yet a young and lesser known piece among the audiophile community.
My epiphany brought on a rush of mental images, rapidly cycling through the hundreds of audio reviews I have read over the years, almost as if I were having some kind of near death experience. Truly the moment was bizarre. To pay homage where homage due, Srajan Ebaen of 6 Moons fame came to mind. His erudition with nomenclature that appropriately describes the equipment he reviews must operate from a basis in electronic evolution. Stick with me for a moment, I cannot think of an audio reviewer whom truly turns a phrase to describe a response in conjunction to the familiar better than Mr. Ebaen. This moment comes on as if alternating from painting the same portrait with water colors, then switching to oil paint, then next acrylics. All three types of paint are capable of completing the same picture, yet the medium renders their lines differently, textures are not the same, translation becomes disjointed. Moreover, cobalt blue in oil will not comingle with cobalt blue in acrylic. This is the world of audio equipment to an audiophile. We can appreciate a beautiful portrait copied several times over and replicated using several different techniques, each trying to accentuate a particular hue or emotion. Dare I say big box retail shelf systems attempt to paint Salvador Dali with Rustoleum?
I would read Srajan Ebaen’s equipment reviews in complete awe, his total confidence with language in communicating and conceptualizing why one piece of gear sounds dull compared to another equally esoteric unit is inspiring. To me, I understood he had a natural yet very well practiced gift that has aged gracefully. Looking back on much of the gear he has reviewed and thinking about my own utilitarian products, I was struck by the notion that better stereo equipment perpetuates the acquiring of better adjectives. When reading Absolute Sound, Stereophile, The Stereo Times, Confessions of a Part Time Audiophile and dozens of other internet publications, each reviewer is saddled with the difficult task of explaining what they hear and why it is not a superfluous notion. The latest evolution of my own stereo equipment caused a species jumping event I had to share with you.
To be thorough, I must take stock and describe the entire set up so as to ensure continuity from where my last horrible review left off. It is an easier task describing what has not changed versus what has. My listening room is unchanged; I still use the same Acer M5 laptop as my dedicated music server, feeding JRiver Media v.20 to an outboard DAC (backed up with a WD My Book 2 Terabyte external drive). I still use a Richard Grey 1200 line conditioner. Everything else changed and dramatically! For a moment of digression, I have to back this up by stating I had turned my love of audio equipment into a little side business where I would locate great used products, resell them on eBay and keep what I like best. The biggest piece of fruit this has landed me since starting 8 months ago is a pair of 1986 JBL 250 Ti’s. Look, these speakers are almost as old as I am, I had to refoam both woofers and replaced the dented in poly cones, but the price I paid was one of the great bargains of my life. These speakers completely altered my naïve and very biased opinion against vintage gear, versus new “technologically forward thinking” products. Trust me, I could slap myself. Since I have moved on to an understated pair of 1981 Birch Klipsch Cornwall’s, complete with updated drivers and crossovers from Mr. Bob Crites and Eminence. Eventually I must write a complete article explaining this transformation; nevertheless, I can only focus on one epochal moment at a time.
I dumped my faithful and reliable “old” Marantz PM15S2 Ltd. integrated, having gone through a number of vintage solid state numbers and settled on a lovely fluid sounding First Watt J2 amp. I was almost convinced my Bel Canto DAC 2.5 was going to be around much longer, but I wanted to play with a serious DAC/pre combo and thought the Bel Canto preamp function could be improved upon, thus opting for an unconventional DAC. I nabbed up a near new SOtM sDP-1000 at a fantastic price. For all five of my short lived audiophile years, I have played everything via single ended cables. With the SOtM DAC/preamp and First Watt J2, I went big and connected everything via XLR’s. I have a Cardas Clear USB to my Bryston BUC-1 USB converter, Kimber AG XLR digital between the Bryston BUC-1 and SOtM, finally Audioquest Colorado’s from the DAC to the J2. What I went from to what I have today is in essence a complete transformative remake of my sound system.
Now, as one can read on paper, there is cause for throwing out my old palate of pastels and water colors, I am in need of the highest quality oil paints, finally being able to make use of those 2/0 and 3/0 size paint brushes. The adjectives of my old reviews are obsolete; a paradigm shift has transported me away from an old mode of listening. This system demands respect and therefor I have to stretch my imagination and breakout Roget’s Thesaurus to keep the synonyms fresh. A well informed audio consumer will research and scour the opinions from owners of the equipment one wishes to purchase next. Some pieces have copious pages dedicated to their efficacy while others are relegated to some burn pile, unworthy of any ink. I had a hard time finding reviews of the newer SOtM DAC. I knew well enough I wanted to trust my instinct and try it, and the only way would be for me to step out on the limb and find a suitable preowned unit.
As luck would have it, one was available on Ebay from a trusted user and I jumped on it. 5 days later, my double boxed unit arrived unmolested. I unwrapped the unassuming little silver box, remarking at how businesslike it appeared. With few exceptions, audiophiles like a good deal and want to feel a non-rational emotional victory for making a good buy. Not more than a few weeks later and several dozen more hours reading somewhat comprehendible white papers (by my own limited knowledge, not that of the author I assure you) on JFets and amplifier designs, voila, a mint condition, preowned First Watt J2 graces my equipment rack. Now things are seriously metamorphosing before my senses.
I simply cannot stress how destitute were my preconceived notions of mid-fi gear, high power ratings into average efficiency speakers. I traveled from maxing out the power delivery of a vintage 165 Watt Onkyo M504 ran into JBL 250Ti’s to leaving headroom on a 25 watt per channel Jfet driven amp on 101 db efficient Cornwall’s, damn near same age as I am. Shattered expectations, check, annulment of specific biases, check. Inducement of a permanent stupid smirk on my face, triple check! Each time I switch on my gear, it is a small event worth celebrating, internally performing a little dance of gratitude and finer appreciation of modest luxury. Moreover, an additional and most unexpected byproduct materialized in my psyche, I no longer experienced “audionervosa.”
Gone was my irrational need to immediately plan the next step of component upgrading. How strange this new feeling of arrival to what I had been hoping to achieve. Not a cable, nor tweak, or curiosity toward a higher level DAC piqued my interest. I finally felt a peace and calm with the end results. So much had changed for the better that I now began to worry of any slight alteration retrograding playback sessions. Reflecting upon near 6 years of component swaps, marking and noting slight and large resolution increases, it all seems implausible to me now. Only a few amps and DAC’s had near zero impact, and yet my present combination vastly exceeded my most expensive prior combinations. Throwing a Molotov cocktail in the direction of McIntosh gear, I also now had first-hand experience with name brand-it is and its trappings. For me, my ears, tastes and preferences, less have become more.
In no way would I intentionally practice sophistry, I am neither commissioned nor beholden to any publication or manufacturer. Only one seriously bad experience from purchase to refusal of return, did I attack a specific brand. I constantly devour every stereo equipment reviewing author within the vein of my personal interest; thereby I quickly recognize untenable defensive positions of demonstrably overpriced and or underachieving products. In mixing old technology with newer platforms, I like to think that we are living in the most appreciably reference class attainable time period. With amazing preowned gear just a mouse click away, how glorious are our options and endless the means for which to custom tailor music playback. Taken a level higher, we have the ability to challenge our brain plasticity and alter our conception of what good sound actually is. Hallelujah!
How am I doing so far, wetting your appetite?
My dear reader, where I last left off with you was a couple pairs of stand mounted speakers and the appetite wetting intimation of 1980’s “big block” speakers in my future. Quickly did I move through no less than 6 flat out maximum anti-WAF pairs; Altec Lansing 14’s, Klipsch La Scala’s, Altec Lansing A7 Voice of the Theater’s, ADS L1230’s, JBL 250Ti’s and finally my updated reference 1981 Klipsch Cornwall’s. *As a side note, if any husband really wishes to hear a fully exasperated gasp and look of horror on their lovers face, I have found the industrial grey Altec Lansing A7’s to be unparalleled in inducing such a moment; one would have thought I traded the wife’s beloved SUV in on an 1971 International Harvester Scout (I lived to laugh about it…now). Once again I feel so ever blessed to try all of these and experience what would have been near cutting edge for my father and grandfathers time. Modern playback technology has rendered old speakers new again, perhaps in prior unachievable and unexperienced tones.
DAC technology has bridged the gap and made stand-alone preamps unnecessary. Personally I have tasted four DAC/preamp combo’s that matched and exceeded more expensive tube preamps. Of course my mileage varied due the nature of the high efficiency speakers they were chained to, noise being the most offensive and intolerable aspect. I suppose you are looking for complete demarcation, alas I cannot appease such interest and fairly parley the multitude of changes as tribute to one or a dozen such changes. Where I stand is as first described, laptop, USB converter, DAC, amp and Cornwall’s. For once, vague ambiguity is the wiser decision over describing how I perceived my SOtM trounced the McIntosh D100, or how my First Watt J2 fully unclothed my Balanced Audio Technologies VK250se. This I tell you as the truth and certifiable Vis-a-vis my right hand on the Bible; the amalgamation of my current gear rests upon a higher operating plane, by accident or personal taste, these words I write fail to articulate the musical portrait. Hence the themes of this review centering on the idea aforementioned with mind plasticity and our ability to broaden personal preference.
Now with weeks of stable play time logged, I took visual stock of my battery powered DAC with analogue domain volume control, an exceptionally quick and open class A, 25 watt per channel Jfet amplifier powering 34 year old Klipsch speakers, dissonance did not develop. To follow my D-word theme a tad further, no demoralizing discontinuity reared its ugly head. Instead, my aural space was rewarded with a kind of synergy I have yet to experience between any combination of brands or components in my listening room. Knowing how much capital outlay I invested for this system afforded me a perfunctory nod to self-aggrandizing (with brevity I assure you). I feel confident enough to challenge any sub-$10K system, unless someone came across a free pair of Klipsch K-horns or had a Level 7 Lampizator donated to them, I have tried to find an improvement in this price class, yet wound up devoid of analogous options (I do not doubt they exist, I just haven’t come across them yet).
In closing, I chose not to regale you with shades of texture; I would not dare mention contrasting hues, perceived stage depth, leading edge highlights nor the difference in crystalline highs. Plainly, I am in absolute love with my current set up; it is in so few words “finally just right.” I enjoy each random song played from my server, I have no hurry to go anywhere, skipping ahead to avoid a bad sound simply isn’t an issue anymore. Lastly, my sincere apologies if you were expecting a comprehensive equipment review. In good taste, I could not save face if I attempted to qualify no less than 21 component changes against my last detailed review. Certainly more readers would have been rankled by such a haphazard display of apples to coconuts comparisons. No, this was a mere interlude while my senses catch up to my wits. Thank you for reading.