I recently got a remedial course in how setup can have a critical
impact on the performance of an audio system.
I purchased a Shunyata Denali 6000/S in late summer last year a few months after I purchased my Focal Maestro Utopia III speakers. I found that it made a nice improvement in the system, particularly in noise floor, control of bass and treble smoothness.
I really wasn't spending too much time focusing on the
Denali after that since my Ayre MX-R Twenties were having a hard time with the nasty
impedance curve of my new Maestros. I
researched the issue and realized that the amps simply petered out between 4
and 2 ohms and these were speakers that needed massive amounts of current into
2 ohms. I ultimately replaced the Ayres
with D'Agostino Momentum M400 mono blocs which given their doubling of wattage
from 8 to 4 to 2 ohms, I expected to solve system speed and transient issues. While there was a definite improvement in
performance with the M400s, I was still experiencing to some degree the slow
speed, blunted transients and lack of air and shimmer. After letting the M400s break in for a month,
these issues weren't getting any better, and for a sanity check, I pulled out
the Denali and while the noise floor was higher, all the speed, attack, air and
So I emailed my dealer just to let him know my experience and that the Denali was coming out of my system. He was really surprised and said that the Denali was one of the few products in his many years in audio that had almost universally positive feedback, particularly with high end systems. He said he'd email Shunyata and let me know. Shunyata couldn't understand why the Denali was causing these issues in my system but sent some things to try - one of which is to use the unit as intended (I had been sitting it on its side on two HRS nimbus assemblies due to lack of space - the 6000/T was too wide to fit in the same space due to its spread out feet or I would have ordered that).
Since I was long overdue for my biennial system cleaning anyway, I went ahead with that and stripped the system down completely which allowed me upon rebuilding it, to temporarily configure the system so that the Denali was used as intended - on its own feet on hard tile over concrete. Having checked the connections, I hit play - WOW were there transients, but the top end still didn't have the proper air and shimmer.
I know my speakers and they are tipped down in the brilliance region (which generally helps with real world untreated rooms but this is the region in the audio spectrum that produces air and shimmer) so I figured that the Denali was doing something Focal did not expect - delivering very clean power. Thankfully, this was solvable thanks to Focal's wonderful jumper system - I set the tweeter jumper to high (a +1db boost) and the treble was again airy with the right shimmer.
So all good? Not quite. I started to reassemble the system and as I usually do, placed HRS nimbus assemblies under all components and cable network boxes for my MIT cables. UGH! Sluggish again and blunted transients. Hmm... So I started systemically removing the nimbus assemblies, first from the speaker networks and then from the interconnect networks (they remain under all my components in combination with HRS platforms). Transient attack and speed returned and all was well again.
(1) Use components as intended/the manufacturer generally knows best
(2) Get to know your system (speaker measurements are invaluable although that's more a result of the good fortune of having a Stereophile review or similar review which includes measurements)
(3) Sometimes you can't appreciate what something is doing until you take away other things (even if those things that you take away worked amazingly well earlier)/ it's a whole system and some things don't play well with each other
I've been looking for a proper digital front end since I decided that while I loved my Wadia 861se GNSC Statement CDP, it was hopelessly colored, closed in and limited in its detail retrieval. Given that, over the past few years I’ve been on the hunt for a single box CDP with digital inputs that I could live with long term.
I've historically been a Wadia fan because their players got the most important thing in music right – drive (in fact, I still have a Wadia S7i GNSC Statement CDP - Wadia's last CDP - that I intend to use in a secondary system once I get the space). Wadia's players have always been unparalleled in my experience in driving the music forward. Up until now, subsequent to the death of Wadia (what exists now has no relation to the original company), I have not heard any digital that has gotten that right since. When I replaced my Wadia 861se with the original XDS1, I sacrificed that drive for the significantly lower coloration, better and more open top end and midrange and the vastly greater resolution of the XDS1. But not having that drive always bothered me, and along with the mid-hall presentation of the XDS1 (I prefer being closer to the stage) and the good but I never felt quite right treble, I was never fully satisfied with that CDP, even in V2 guise.
Hearing that EMM Labs would not be releasing a replacement for the XDS1 V2 and that the EMM Labs TX2 Transport is a limited edition (50 units I believe) and would likely be the last CD spinner from EMM Labs, made me seriously consider the latest EMM Labs combo. I re-examined the limited space I currently have for my system and eventually decided that a two-box digital solution could be shoehorned in with some rearranging. Having settled that and having worked out the potential logistics with EMM Labs, the Fred Crowder Dagogo review favorably comparing the TX2/DA2, particularly in the low end and leading edge, to the Esoteric P-02/D-02 (which I’ve heard do its thing), meant that I was all in.
The EMM Labs TX2/DA2 is, simply put, a statement digital music delivery system. At a very basic level, the EMM Labs designers/engineers have taken the positive aspects of the XDS1 V2 and made them significantly better while fixing all of the shortcomings that kept me from ever really falling in love with that CDP. On a more holistic level, EMM Labs has delivered on the promise of digital - one that leaves no question that digital has finally arrived (without the need for any bandaids).
EMM Labs’ new reference digital combo has everything that one could ever want - resolution top to bottom that is generations beyond their single box CDP (which was not a slouch), highs that are smooth and accurate (violin is as smooth as it is in real life while cymbals have just the right amount of bite and definition), unlimited dynamic range and musicality without coloration that I can detect – plus the best aspects of Wadia - drive and solidity in the bass/fully developed foundation to the music. It’s purely a bonus that the clean industrial design of the units, without the shiny buttons of earlier pieces and with a grey strip down the middle, is a beautiful evolution of the EMM Labs aesthetic and befitting the sonics (although the blingy footers were not so well received but nothing that some black electrical tape can’t fix).
When I began building a new system 10+ years ago, my goal was to build a system that made music as fun my first system (that system began my love affair with music and was a system that I couldn't stop listening to well into the night and typically much longer than planned – components were: Wadia 850, Levinson 38, Ayre V-3, B&W 804 and MIT cabling), but with accurate uncolored reproduction of music including state-of-the-art dynamics and resolution. Notwithstanding my best efforts, I’ve been struggling with that. While I eventually put together a great system (EMM Labs XDS1 V2, Ayre KX-R Twenty, Ayre MX-R Twenty, Focal Scala Utopia and MIT Oracle MA cabling) that I've greatly enjoyed listening to for the last few years, I never got that "just one more song" pull that I had with my first system - that is, until one night this past month with the TX2/DA2 - a planned short 20 minute listening session to see how the system sounded after break in that was supposed to end just before midnight extended past 2AM and I had to forcibly stop so that I could get enough sleep to function at work the next day. Just as pleasant a surprise was that my wife, who couldn't care less about high end audio (she tolerates my audio "hobby"), was right next to me asking for one more song and then just one more and then another. We went through a range of music - Nina Simone (Sinner Man, My Baby Just Cares For Me, I Put a Spell on You), Chicago OST (Overture/ and all that jazz), The Mission OST (On Earth as it is in Heaven, Falls, Gabriel's Oboe), Crosby, Stills & Nash (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), Billie Idol (Rebel Yell), Phil Collins (In the Air Tonight), CCR (Fortunate Son, I Put a Spell on You), Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven) and a few others.
After that night, I paused all major upgrades to the system - I just want to enjoy the music. I'm both overjoyed and relieved to finally have achieved the goal I (naively) set out with in 2006 - a goal that in recent years I was increasingly coming to accept as not likely to happen (I thought I would have to sacrifice uncolored sound to bring back the joy).
Ultimately, I don’t think I can sum up the achievement that is the EMM Labs TX2 LE CD/SACD Transport and DA2 Stereo DAC any better than to say that I’m in full agreement with Fred Crowder’s closing comment in his review - "If it gets any better than this, I don’t need to know".
Note: I replaced the included ST fiber optic cable with an Aural Symphonics Lotus Optimism ST fiber optic cable.
Based upon comments from both professional reviewers and owners about the revised top end on the Ayre KX-R Twenty in comparison to the original release, I decided to take the plunge and have my Ayre KX-R upgraded to Twenty status without having heard the new Twenty. While this was a risk, I had grown disenchanted enough with the harshness of the top end that I was willing, in slight desperation, to take an (expensive) gamble.
Pardon me for spoiling any suspense, but calling the Ayre KX-R Twenty an upgraded KX-R would be irresponsible, the Twenty is a ground up reimagining of a statement preamp. My most common reaction is shaking my head in disbelief and inability to understand how the Ayre KX-R Twenty is able to perform as it does.
The top end is now revelatory, with cymbals in particular possessing a natural sound absent the earlier fatiguing nature exhibited by the original KX-R in many recordings (that does not, however, mean that poor recordings aren't still painful – they are). Cymbals are no longer to be tolerated, they now get top billing along with the rest of the music.
The leading edge of notes is now accurate and decay is no longer truncated. Vocals which were earlier not clear are now revealed and background vocals are now no longer blended into the musical landscape but clearly stand out and are fully intelligible. Notes now have a "roundness" to them, with the right amount of "flesh". Many notes that earlier appeared to be a single note are now properly delineated as multiple distinct notes.
The tone is so lifelike (harps in particular are amazing) without ever being warm. For example, The Killers album Hot Fuss remains raw and nasty - the guitars in particular are just rough and electric - but the Ayre KX-R Twenty also allows me to hear right through all that grit to where the record is amazing at the same time (it's good music). Go even farther afield and put on some Tupac and he's never serenading you – his voice is as rough and gritty as it ever was. But put on something delicate, like the live Mirrorball album, and prepare to melt.
Low level detail is also markedly improved with sound effects seemingly appearing out of nowhere in recordings that I have heard hundreds of times – it’s amazing how much more music there is. The bottom end is almost indescribable, it's delicate, full and at the same time, also forceful (with the Ayre KX-R Twenty, on appropriate recordings, my Focal Scala speakers for the first time have a physical presence moving serious air which I can actually feel, reminding me very much of one of my favorite aspects of the larger Maestros).
Pace and timing are now rock solid - while the original KX-R at times sounded like it was unsure, a half step behind the music (but not enough to distract from the enjoyment of the music), the Twenty oozes confidence, not missing a beat no matter what type of music is thrown at it.
In the many hours I've
spent enjoying my system with the Ayre KX-R Twenty, my ultimate takeaway is
that it is extremely refreshing to hear a unit that has a reference level of
performance but just as important, does this by simply presenting what's there
without artificially “fixing” recordings.
If I had to sum up the Twenty with one word, it would be "right". Everything it does is just on the money, every piece of music sounds as it should in all aspects, from classical to rock to rap to pop to stripped down live female vocals.
If I recall correctly, Charles Hansen of Ayre matter-of-factly claimed that the Ayre KX-R Twenty is "twice" as good as the original KX-R; Charles is selling the Twenty short. The Ayre KX-R Twenty is a statement preamplifier and the best product to come out of Ayre by a country mile – a triumph.