Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears

I feel that it's very important to strive to hear the Beatles remasters on the best audio system you can find. That doesn't mean that you need to have loads of cash, because you can indeed build a decent sounding system for much less than many hi fi enthusiasts would have you believe.

Let me first describe the system I'm using when listening to the remasters. I have spent a number of years assembling my home stereo system, trying to find the sweet spot, or the bang-for-the-buck deal, that would give me the maximum listening pleasure for the minimum possible guilt over money I've spent on such system. Eventually, I've settled on the following components in my audio chain:
  • Logitech Squeezebox Touch player streaming wireless lossless files from my iMac
  • Beresford Caiman DAC connected to the Squeezebox Touch via Digital coaxial cable
  • DSP pre-amplifier
  • DPA 200s power amplifier
  • Magnepan MG-1 Improved planar speakers
I won't mention my analog sources here (the pre-pre-amp and the turntable) since I rarely if ever listen to vinyl any more.

The reason I went with Magnepan MG-1 Improved planar speakers is that, of all the speakers I've listened to, these produce the least colored sound. By eliminating the 'boxiness' in the sound that typically tends to come out of the traditional cone speakers, I've managed to achieve certain 'airiness' in the reproduced sound that pleases me to no end. Even the thickest, deepest, most powerful bass now has this airy quality, and is moving really fast. Thus there is very little muddiness in the sound I'm getting from these speakers. As a consequence, it is not fatiguing, meaning I can sit in front of it and listen to music for many hours without reaching the saturation point.

Thanks to this configuration, I am now able to go through many Beatles CDs in a single sitting, listen to them carefully, evaluate many aspects of the recordings, while remaining fresh and eager to hear more.

One other reason I'm sticking with my Magnepan MG-1 Improved planar speakers is the unbelievably sharp imaging these speakers are giving me. You can literally pinpoint the location of each instrument in the space in front of you, often times with scientific precision. In addition to that, these speakers tend to give a fairly decent three dimensional soundstage, meaning that you can visually locate an instrument in the back, behind the one that's in the foreground. This razor sharp imaging is also contributing to the lifelike impression when listening to these new remasters.

Finally, due to the sheer size of these speakers (each speaker stands 5 feet tall and is 24 inches wide), the perceived image of the instruments and vocalists is very life-like. You hear the thundering drums and then you see them in their real life size sitting in front of you; you 'see' the singers standing in front of you and they are indeed 5'11'' tall, etc.

My choice of the pre-amp/amp separates is also the result of careful trial-and-error. After trying out various mid and high end power amplifiers, I've reached the conclusion that without going for the separate pre-amp and power amp, I will not be able to achieve tight enough sound in my system. After auditioning a number of separates, I've settled on the esoteric Welsh product DPA (which, if you were to trust my ears, absolutely kick ass!) Yes, the separates look clunky, even ugly, and they don't have any bells and whistles (all this product offers is the volume knob and the source selection), but they deliver super sweet sound. And isn't that what this is all about? I mean, quality of sound should be more important than the convenience the amp offers (I'm saying this because the product doesn't even have the ability to control the volume using a remote control).

If I now switch from my DPA separates to any, even high end combo amp, the sound immediately becomes looser, mushier, with less defined soundstage. So, I'm sticking with my DPAs, for now.

One last thing -- I will be reviewing the Beatles remasters in high definition (the 24 bit remasters that sell as FLAC files on the Apple USB stick), not in the traditional CD, or red book version. The differences between the high definition (24 bit) and the regular format (16 bit) are very noticeable. In short, the Beatles sound way more convincing and way more exciting in high definition, and I wholeheartedly recommend that all of you get the Apple USB stick with FLAC files!

Now that we've got the technicalities out of the way, let's jump into the reviews...