I have been absent from AE's forum for quite some time now, however, I regularly paid visits to AE's showroom whenever PT asked me to hear his latest products or tweaks and give my N-B-S feedback.
If my memory serves me correctly, PT has been using LPs as the primary source to do demos and the resident phono amp which he used in last 2 years or about is the Wadax, a 'digital' devise which I think was designed to serve as a DAC, phono amp and it has other functionality too as well, so I was told. Numerous users' reports on the Wadax had been posted in the forum, so I have no intention of following others here.
Let me digress a bit with the aim to let others understand my pride and prejudice in hi-fi. People who knew me know (punt intended) I am no Hugh Hefner in the audio world as Marvel continues to rein supreme to retain this title year after year. I remain loyal (is there other better word) to the equipments I have chosen and these usually keep me satisfied for quite some time (3-6 years) and my attention is on how to improve the playback of my proud system. The meaning of proud is used/expressed in the context of extreme satisfaction, this feeling (very abstract indeed) is derived and then confirmed after auditioning other systems/equipments in different places (however, AE showroom has been my primary playing field for serious comparison) as no other place I know of offers a better sound reproduction (please let me know if you disagree with me), perhaps in my own ground for digital replay.
The above introduction sums up the criteria I use to evaluate other systems & equipments. Next, a genuine audiophile's listening bias must be clearly stated so that readers can understand the listener's impression/feedback of a particular accessory, equipment or system. As a lover of live classical music, I have spent countless hours of tweaking my system to reproduce the sound of a live event in a concert hall or a live recording in the studio – those who come to my place would be shocked (trust me, I am not joking - PT, it's time for you to pay homage to my home) how life-like digital playback can reach such level of realism in a domestic environment. My hi-fi mentor Franck Tchang of ASI fame came to audition my system a few days ago and said I should tell folks not to play music in their home for 2 days after hearing my system because of its realism and awesome dynamics. I am a firm believer once you have chosen the right equipment, the next big challenge is to make your gear sing by correct speaker positioning and room acoustics, the latter is the most important factor. I believe my listening room has very good room acoustics as compared to other places – even AE's showroom is far from perfect, there is a lack of low level bass reproduction and bass slam which I know the equipment is perfectly capable of doing so.
Once you have achieved a lively sound, musicality is the next step to die for. Musicality as opposed to hi-fi means you are hearing the correct tonality, natural timbre, right timing, rich harmonics, harmonic decay and dynamics ..... these are so abundantly audible in a live concert or recording studio. Once your system can reproduce sound with this kind of realism, therefore, in the grand scheme of things, then, why would you bother yourself with constant change of equipment(s) ? In my opinion, the word upgrade has been incorrectly used in the hi-fi world, those suckers tell their hi-fi buddies they have just upgraded to a new hi-fi toy. The point I'm trying to make is the so-called upgrade to an inexperienced audiophile may not necessarily mean better sound to learned hi-fi enthusiasts, period.
To summarise, I am very satisfied with the sound of my present system and have not felt the need to change any of my component, however. I wish to share with you my latest encounter on LP playback using digital filtering at AE just the other day. PT WhatsApp me to visit his showroom, as usual, I obliged as over the years, the improvements I had achieved at home were results of the many painstaking tweaks I made after hearing the superb sound there.
When I arrived, PT informed me he is using the latest flagship Wadax DAC/PHONO combo. I have listened to the Wadax umpteenth time in the past and my prejudice kept reminding me whilst one has to come to terms with digital DAC for CD playback as the world keeps on revolving and digital will become better than valve filtering . However, since LPs in their heydays were recorded using valve equipments and in order to hear the RCA, Philips, Decca, EMI, Columbia & DG recordings properly, you'll need a very good valve phono amp in the reproduction chain.
This fixed belief continues. Although I have listened to the Wadax phono/DAC numerous times and admired how a digital phono can sound this good, as it sounded better than all transistor amps I have heard and rivalling many valve components too, I was never 100% won over by this component because of its tonality or simply put, its sonic character of a very slight dark tonal signature – once you notice this, you can not concentrate fully in the recorded music.
This time, PT introduced his flagship digital playback, the model 'Ultimate', a 2-box design with a pretty flat power supply atop the main component, I think the chassis is exactly same as the previous one. PT immediately asked me to take out the LPs I had brought, I handed him the La Folia which I always listened to at AE. When the first sound of the Spanish guitar came on, whow, it sounded very different to the sound I had heard using the previous Wadax, it sounded most realistic to my ears of a Spanish guitar with nylon strings, it had the right pitch, speed of attack and the correct tonality with the highest degree of realism... I could hear more musical information which was hitherto not noticeable. I was shaken and at the same time, excited.
Next, PT demo the Dire Straits' Private Investigation, the guitar sounded better than before and so was the speed, however, I had slight reservation on the dynamics and bass slam which were not as good as before (may be this is a compromise I said to myself). I told PT my initial impression. He then smiled and said he had switched the previous output setting of the phono section from 5 volts to one volt, he quickly reverted to the old setting and played the same track, lo and behold, the previous impressive dynamics were restored. I then took out the RCA's Mozart no. 4 violin concerto performed by Heifetz, the Dolphin sounded very very lifelike, just like a long time ago when I heard the same violin was played in the hands of Akiko Sumanai when she performed Mozart violin concerto no. 5 many moons ago at the H.K. Cultural Centre. I asked PT to play the Weavers' record I lent to him, we listened to Guantanamera, the vocals of Pete Seeger & Ronnie Gilbert were the most palpable I had ever heard. After a short pause, PT played the Nathan Milstein violin sonata accompanied by piano, the sound of the violin was very very lifelike..... in the end, I was totally bowed over by the sound of the Ultimate, perhaps 'capitulation' would be the most appropriate word to use here.
After the demo, I went home to do a fair bit of soul searching to confirm my listening experience, I did the unthinkable of placing an order for the 'Ultimate' as I concluded living in hi-fi ecstasy is much much more preferable to living in hi-fi denial. Moving closer to hi fi nirvana is the goal of all serious audiophile, right.
At this juncture, there are still many incomplete conclusions in my decision. First and foremost, how does the DAC part of the Ultimate fare with the Zanden, I won't know until I have a direct A/B comparison at home in the future, I did have a very brief listening to the CD replay via the Wadax server, however, the LP reproduction alone was more than good enough to my ears, so if the DAC replay is also better, then this will be a great big bonus.
In closing, I am happy with my latest decision, as in order to better yourself in life, one has to think outside the box, move out of your comfort zone and constantly checking and challenging your fixed belief. The Ultimate is a great find for me. It delivers, to my ears, all the important criteria in sound reproduction I have described above. It has a natural tonality, natural timbre, timing, speed, rich harmonics, harmonic decay and dynamics. The Ultimate is a great find for me, as without PT's recommendation I would not have done what I had done today.
Happy listening in 2014 !