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Monday, May 10, 2010

Duck, duck. . . goose

They should make little greeting cards for people who are into stereo, like the ones you see in Hallmark.  Instead of saying: Congratulations on the New Baby/Job/House/Sex change, they could say: "Heard you got new speakers, guy! Congratulations!"  Or: "Happy Anniversary on the occasion of you managing to keep a piece of gear for an entire year without deciding that there was something in the midbass that you ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT live with and selling it!"  Or: "Condolences from all of us here at the office on the smoky/stinky demise of your vintage 2 channel receiver."  They probably should make cards for the significant others who have to put up with all of the silliness, at least.  If such things existed, I could have sent D. a card to congratulate him on the arrival of a new pair of Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 towers to his home.  Wharfedale is a a well-respected English speaker manufacturer that has been in business for over 70 years:


They compete with some other big names, such as Monitor Audio and Bowers & Wilkins (the speakers they use to master with at Abbey Road). I even owned a pair of Diamond (version II, IIRC) mini monitors from Wharfedale that had been modified by an industrial engineer who worked for McCormack (of amplifier fame) at one time, but I lost them in a break up (I know, I know.  It was a small price to pay for the sanity of all involved, trust me).

D. has been a fan of Wharfedale for some time now, and for good reason, because he typically needs a speaker to perform the multiple chores of solid stereo performance and believable home theater sound all at a non-insane price.  Not many speakers can pull all of those off, but certain models of the the Wharfedale range have been exceedingly good at it, at least in his room.  He had been using a pair of Diamond towers (9.5, I think) that I really liked, probably because they had the same driver complement as my Dynaudio 220s- dome tweeter, 6.5 inch midbass and 6.5 passive.  I generally prefer the tighter bass of smaller woofers, and two or two and a half way designs, as they seem more "coherent."   The older pair were very coherent and had great imaging, with a wide sound stage.  As is his wont, however, when D. saw a great (and I mean GREAT) deal on the big brother Diamond 9.6 towers, he took the plunge.  So, on Saturday, I packed the NAD C350 amp, some cable and the Atoms (see Travellin' Speakers post) and headed over for some listening.  Turned out J. was back from Europe, leaving it ash-covered and financially destitute in his wake, so he would be able to join us.

After a very nice dinner and before any listening, we had to go outside and play some duck, duck goose.  Now, I have no idea why the goose is the one who should have to do all the chasing (although goose, goose duck just doesn't sound right), but we managed to convince D.'s daughter that calling mommy all of the time was the best option (by clapping and yelling: "YAAAAAAY MOMMY!" every time she was tagged) so we may not be invited back.  Why make Uncle J. run?  It's not nice as his Camel Ultrawides fall out of his pocket.  And then there's the problem of my arthritic pancreas.  After watching poor D.'s wife run around the yard a few times, we retired to the listening room.

D. has a great listening space- finished basement, concrete floor, good ceiling height and excellent distance to the listening spot (14.5 feet according to the HT AVR processor).  The Diamonds are BIG, much bigger than my Dynaudios, and they dwarf the Atoms even on stands, as you can see in the picture.  They're over a meter tall, with an eight inch woofer, reaching down to a claimed 28Hz bass extension.  This pair have a very elegant silver finish, that you would think would look out of place on a large tower, but it doesn't.  It's almost as if they look "brushed" even though it is a veneer.  Well done, Wharfedale.  Still, you couldn't hide these things and they are going to take up some real estate in a smaller room

Running the show was a Pioneer Elite 110 wpc VSX-21THX AVR, and as you may have guessed I haven't the slightest idea how it works or how it is set up (maybe D. will post an enlightening comment).  I have heard the amp section of that AVR numerous times, and have always thought it sounded quite good.  D. did run all of our listening either in PCM or analog direct mode.  The former used an HDMI output from a Pioneer BDP-51FD Bluray player, the latter the RCA outs from the same machine.  I own the same player, and it has a maddeningly slow load time, so much so that it detracts from the value it offers as a superb sounding machine with Dual Wolfson DACs (especially for sub $300).  He also played back some tracks with the AVR processor deciding what sounded best for "stereo" but I won't comment on that now for fear of committing heresy.  The speakers had been running for some time to "break them in."  More on that later.

One track we always listen to is Chick Corea's: Great Pumpkin Waltz from the GRP Digital Master album "Happy Anniversary Charlie Brown!"  Writing in retrospect, I guess the easiest way to describe what we initially heard using the line from Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I: "Nice, nice, but not thrilling."  Things sounded more or less clean, laid back, with extended but unrefined bass. D. popped in the Yellowjackets after that for something more frenetic, and the bass was certainly worse- fuzzy even.  J. agreed.  Not that the overall sound was bad- I just felt that D.'s previous Wharfedales were better, and he had not really gotten any improvement with the move to the 9.6 towers.  Norah Jones "Come Away With me" went in after that, and being such an ubiquitous test disc,  you know what you're listening for: the smokiness in her voice, the vocals hanging palpably in the sound stage. . .  and those thing just weren't "there."

So, we decided to switch amps.

The decision wouldn't have been such a big deal if it had been an amp of D.'s that he had lying around- if it sounded better, no harm, no foul, no credit cards injured.  Unfortunately, we switched to the NAD C350, which I had brought with me and was positioned on the floor on top of a dead Harmon Kardon CD changer to give it clearance from the carpet, and hooked up with swanky Ultralink RCA cables to D.'s Marantz DV6001 Universal Player.

Moments after playback started, the "there" was there- and D. noticed it before I was even willing to admit it.  Richer vocals, more coherent bass, a deeper sound stage, the whole shebang really came together.  J. put it best- maybe he'll chime in with an informative comment, but indeed, things sounded better.  And then we went back to Chick Corea to find the same.

As we were listening, I thought to myself: "well, I'd be happy with these now, even though they are well under the 200 hours recommended break-in time" and it hit me that it might be the LISTENER who needs to be broken in- to get used to a "new" flavor of sound added by a particular manufacturer's design.  Furthermore, D. had been under the impression that the Marantz was the inferior player, but through the NAD it just sounded great. 

We realized that NAD is also an English company, and that the C350 ( a few years old, now) was not only a very highly regarded 60 wpc integrated amp with a very uncluttered design, but it was from a marketing point of view an amp quite likely to be paired with Wharfedale products, and perhaps the symbiosis we were hearing was planned.  I have to admit the system worked very well together, even though the amp is less powerful on paper.  Did the Tara lab speaker cables have anything to do with the change?  Good gravy, I hope not.  Life is complicated enough.

We never bothered to listen to the Atoms.  At another time, they will be pitted against a pair of vintage $10 thrift shop B&W 600s, along with their bigger brother Paradigm Monitors, but for this night it was just the C350 and the Diamonds.  According to D., the Elite will continue to perform home theater duty, but he is definitely in the market for a dedicated 2 channel amp for music.  Maybe I can find another $125 used C350 out there somewhere. . .

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