First, a quote: "Perhaps the safest thing to do [in contacting alien life] at the outset, if
technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best
we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least
ambiguity." —Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
Here's my system... I put it up primarily so that people can see what my recommendations/opinions are based (biased) upon. I think I'm done with major changes at this point and am just playing with small stuff to bring the most out of my components.
A LITTLE HISTORY: I bought my first stereo equipment from Wal-Mart when I was 13 and have been into music and music reproduction ever since. Got some big MTX speakers for my 16th birthday, and got into hi-fi when I was in graduate school at Ohio State University (thanks Progressive Audio). Lived in shared houses for many years and have been a bad neighbor on many weekend nights... I'm sorry folks, thanks for your tolerance.
PAST SYSTEMS: Built around 2005 when I first joined the site, my first real system was a pair of Thiel 1.6s driven by a Classe CAP-151 and an Exemplar modified Denon 2910. The Classe won out over a Bel Canto eVo2i I also auditioned. Five years later I upgraded to Thiel 2.4s, driven by a Pass Labs INT-30A and PS Audio Perfectwave DAC. The INT-30A won out over a Pass Labs X250.5 and a McIntosh MC402.
After blowing yet another set of Thiel drivers and seeing the company be on the ropes after Jim's death, I did a lot of reading to figure out what to do next. Based on the recommendations of member Charles1dad, I ended up moving to the high efficiency Coincident Super Eclipse IIIs (92db sensitivity, 14ohm impedance). One draw of these speakers was that they would allow me to try different amplifier topologies. After purchase, I put my Pass Labs INT-30A up against a First Watt SIT-2 and a pair of 8W Coincident Frankenstein 300b monoblocks. Loved, loved, the all Coincident combination and the experience piqued my interest in trying the company's top of the line speakers, the Pure Reference Extremes. Although they've been a frustrating challenge and have taken almost two years to coax into a truly successful state, they are the cornerstone of my current system.
SPEAKERS: The 94db, 8 ohm Coincident PREs have only a single capacitor and single inductor in their crossover. The mid-range driver goes straight to the amplifier. The capacitor provides high pass filtering for the accuton ceramic tweeter. It responds very strongly to capacitor changes and (as promised by others) I've found the Duelund tinned copper CAST to be the best. Despite being advertised as having Mundorfs, my PREs came with the run of the mill Solens pictured above. I replaced those with ClarityCaps bypassed by Duelund .01uF sliver foils, replaced those with Jupiter Copper Foils, and then replaced those with the Duelunds. The ClarityCaps were "ruler flat", the stock Solens were a bit noisy, but with some nice color/richness, and the Jupiters combined the best attributes of the two. The Duelunds are better in every way. Natural, rich in color, and somehow also the most accurate/detailed of the bunch. Highly recommended. I found I didn't like the sound of adding bypass capacitors to the speaker crossover, as it seemed to produce some smearing or phasiness that made me uncomfortable.
These speakers are (as someone stated in my system comments) brutally revealing. You can hear every single change in the system, for better or worse... and it took almost two years of consistent effort to get them to sound like the reference speakers they were meant to be. I blame some of this on designer Isreal Blume and his suggestion that they can be run off of 8 watts. They cannot. It took adding 500W/channel dedicated subwoofer amplifiers for the bass to truly come alive.
I use Tempo Electric's solid core .9999 pure silver wire in an oversized teflon jacket to run the Coincident head units, and Duelund tinned copper in oiled cotton cables for the bass units. I found the Duelunds to be way better than the anti-cables I had from my previous system, and the Tempo Electrics were another step up. Better imaging, naturalness, and tonality. They're also a relative bargain. Highly recommended.
AMPLIFICATION: Despite the advertised specs, the Coincident PREs are less efficient than the Super Eclipses IIIs and I was forced to search out new amplifiers to replace my beloved Coincident Frankenstein 300bs (run with Mullard CV378 rectifiers and EML XLS 300bs). The Franks simply couldn't drive the PREs in the low frequencies and would start to distort on loud music.
I tried a Lyngdorf 3400, Atma-Sphere M60s, and a Pass Labs XA25, but in each case settled on the Franks despite their poor bass performance. Eventually I decided to build a DIY First Watt F4. It only provides current gain and my plan was to use it as a booster amp to power the PREs' bass units while being driven directly by the speaker outputs of the Franks. Unfortunately, bi-amping killed the speakers' coherency. That was also true when I tried pairing the Franks & Lyngdorf using the latter's active crossover.
To my surprise, when I tried the F4 as the sole amplifier of the PREs it beat out the Franks. It retained a great deal of the sweetness of the Franks, improved the bass, improved clarity, and reduced distortion. Soundstaging is also amazing. Perhaps there's been a small reduction in tonal color. After having it in the system for a month, I put the Franks back in and it was clear that there was no going back. The F4 is based on a simple, no feedback Class A circuit and the PREs really sing with them. These speakers really do seem to prefer simplicity.
I think Nelson's quote from the F4 manual nicely summarizes the amplifier's qualities: "The combination of a simple Class A circuit operated without feedback and the good objective performance gives us a superb sounding amplifier. The low distortion, bandwidth extension, and high damping results in midrange clarity, treble detail, and control on the bottom end. While these are available from most good solid state amplifiers, the F4 also brings depth, imaging, midrange warmth and top-end sweetness. Overall, it is one of the best sounding amplifiers, and if you can live with unity voltage gain in your amplifier, it is possibly your best choice."
Out of curiosity, and a desire to extract still more bass impact from the speakers, I also built a "poor man's SIT3", the SissySIT designed by diyaudio's Zen Mod and based on the First Watt SIT3 circuit. Although it did improve bass response and provided amazing imaging, it proved too incisive for the accuton tweeters. I regularly found myself hearing too much bite/brightness and eventually moved back to the F4s, which are just silky smooth with these speakers.
Upon reading the recommendations of Duke from AudioKinesis, one day I impulse purchased a pair of Dayton Audio's SA1000 subwoofer amplifiers to see if I could use them to further improve the bass response of the Coincidents without losing too much coherency. In short, adding these amplifiers was a revelation. Suddenly I had the full bass foundation that had been missing from my music. These amplifiers provide 500 watts of Class AB power. Supposedly they are designed from a Bob Carver circuit.
I run a signal into the LFE input to bypass all their crossover settings and only use gain (and potentially phase) controls to match the output to my F4s. Removing the subwoofer load from the F4s and adding the bass foundation to the music has had a huge impact on imaging. The sound is also cleaner and somehow sweeter. I'm glad Parts Express has a 45-day demo period, probably wouldn't have experienced what the Coincidents could do if not.
The F4s use custom 12ga Furutech FP-S032N based power cords from member Grannyring's Acoustic BBQ line. Right now the Daytons are stock, but I will eventually add better power cords and open them up to replace some components with better parts.
PREAMPLIFIER: Adding the Don Sachs 6SN7-based preamp has greatly improved the sound of my system and I simply can not go back to using my DAC direct. This was true both with my PS Audio Perfectwave DAC that has a less than ideal volume control (i.e., it throws away bits below a certain level) and with the PS Audio Directstream DAC's improved volume control (full resolution at all levels). This pre seems to just make the music better in every way. It is not at all syrupy or tubey, just passes on the sound of the source and makes it better.
Having gotten into modding my gear, I also like that the preamplifier is based on a kit (the VTA SP-14) that I can read about so I can learn the circuit. That fact and the unit's two separate outputs encouraged me to try different capacitors. Don recommends Miflex copper foils, but I found them a bit two-dimensional and veiled in my system. I installed Mundorf Supremes and found that the system was capable of a lot more front to back layering than revealed by the Miflexs. I then put in Mundorf Supreme Silver/Gold/Oils. They added in a nice touch of richness over the plain Supremes while retaining all the wonderful soundstage depth. I also tried TFTF V-Caps from VH Audio, but they resulted in a huge tonal shift that I didn't like at all... it was like putting a fluorescent blue filter on the music. Eventually replaced the Mundorf Supreme SGO with the tinned copper CAST Duelunds. Although I've lost the last touch of depth offered by the Mundorfs, the Duelunds are quieter, more natural, and have a bit better tonality.
I run the preamp with a pair of Sylvania JAN VT231s (copper rods) as the main tubes and RCA grey glass VT231s as the buffer tubes. Compared to the stock CV181zs, these tubes reduce the pre's punch/impact a bit, but greatly increases smoothness, imaging, and front-to-back layering. I use the standard 6X5GT rectifier Don provides.
The preamplifier connects to my F4s via Ocellia Silver Reference RCA interconnects and is powered by a DIY DH Labs Red Wave AC cord with Furutech copper screw on connectors. I tried building my own DIY interconnects using the Duelund 16ga wires and KLEI absolute harmony plugs, but the Ocellia cables were significantly better.
DAC: After using PS Audio Perfectwave DAC MKII for many years (and preferring it to the Directstream DAC, to which I "upgraded" twice), I have finally moved on an Audio Mirror's Tubadour III SE. This DAC is based on Analog Device's AD1865N-K R2R chip, has an output stage that can utilize 5977, 6N1P, 6DJ8, ECC88, 6922 and 6H23P tubes, and has an I2S input to maximize signal fidelity. The SE model has isoacoustics anti-vibration feet, Deulund tinned-copper CAST capacitors, silver RCA outputs, Z-Foil "naked" Vishay resistors, and a Furutech IEC connector.
The AM produces just beautiful, grain free music that flows with an amazing, natural tone. The imaging/soundstaging capacities of this DAC are just spectacular and it outperforms my prior PS Audio Perfectwave and Directstream DACs in every regard. I have listened extensively to the Lampizator Amber 3, Matrix X-Sabre Pro, iFi iDSD Pro, and Shiit Bifrost 2 in my system and feel that the AM is the best of the bunch.
Its AC is provided by a DIY DH Labs Power Plus AC cord with Chinese copy Furutech Rhodium screw on connectors. It connects to my preamplifier using VH Audio's DIY "Fine Silver" RCA Interconnect (see component details for a full description). A great upgrade over my previous MIT XLR cables (a lost model number from many years ago).
SOURCE: I feed my DAC with the Magna Mano ULTRA network streamer. This streamer is based on a highly modified raspberry pi that runs the Logitech Media Server software. It has an overbuilt linear power supply, low noise parts, and is a very low jitter solution.
According to Mano: "Two CRYSTEK femto clocks are applied for extremely detailed signal handling exact timing and low jitter thanks to these extreme accurate clocks powered by low noise (nV) discrete regulators. The device is powered by a discrete Class A power supply with more than 20.000uF power capacity, a high quality R-Core transformer and digital audio circuits are powered by ultra-low dsicrete noise regulator."
I bought it over the more standard streamer alternatives because it has an I2S output that allows me to feed the DAC through the best signal path possible. All my music is played through this source. I serve it lossless Tidal files via UPNP using the BubbleUPNP software on an Android tablet.
ROOM: Some compromises have been made in order to blend the stereo with a video system and drop it into the primary living space. I'd love a dedicated room, but would also suffer greatly removing the system from living room where it is the daily driver for music, a show or two, and some PS4 play. The room is 19' across, 16' deep, with 23' peaked ceilings. It opens up to the rest of the house in two places. Half of the "back wall" is open to the dining room, which drops back another 9'. The 23' vaulted ceiling also opens up to a second story master bedroom/loft space. This all makes it so that the stereo is basically in charge of pressurizing the entire house except for a spare bedroom and small basement. Fortunately I am able to set it up in such a way that the speakers are not parallel or perpendicular to any walls. It's on the room diagonal, a placement forced by the location of the front door and attached dining room.
This has a couple benefits, one being that the equipment cabinet and TV can be pushed further back away from the speakers. The second is that the traditional side wall first reflection points aren't a problem. Aside from a rug over the hardwood floor, there are no room treatments... don't really know where to put them.
POWER, CABLES, ETC: As much as I'm loath to admit it, I have found that all of these tiny variables matter. This wasn't really true (or the impact was too small to care) with my other systems, but the Coincident PREs reveal the impact of every small change. This has made it clear that cables, power cords, and fuses can have a very substantial impact. I find it incredibly frustrating that I don't understand how or why the fuses or power cords could possibly matter, but in this system they do. Again, curious to try more than my current DIY solutions, but also scared to go down the path...
Based on recommendations from Ralph Karsten @ Atma-Sphere, I purchased an Elgar 6006B to condition the power to my system. I run everything except my amplifiers off of its perfect sine wave. Given its age, it is recommended to replace all capacitors in the unit, which is on my to do list. Unfortunately I can't get myself to listen to the stereo without it in the chain, so I haven't gotten around to "fixing" my unit yet. The PREs' accuton tweeters can get aggressive and removing distortion from the incoming power is essential to keeping them warm and inviting. Note that this unit must be installed in a separate room, as its (industrial) fan and transformer are both too loud for a listening room. Also, it's heavy AF. I purchased the Elgar because despite the dedicated lines, I still got some electrical feedback from electronics in other lines (e.g., a slight pop noise when an LED bulb was turned on). The Elgar has completely eliminated that issue.
The stereo is on its own dedicated circuit with two 10ga romex lines both run off the same leg of the incoming power. The Elgar runs one line, and my amps reside on the other.
Happy to field comments. Hopefully some folks find the information useful. Thanks to all the people who have written about their experiences and thereby helped me build the system... almost all of it was purchased blind without prior exposure, so finding some trustworthy voices out there in the digital forest has been incredibly useful. Thanks folks.