Let me first start by stating that I have two ears, and that they both work pretty well, overall. Well, at times, I do hear a ringing that is associated with tinnitus. But it stopped bothering me a while back and it doesn’t seem to distract me when I’m listening. Nonetheless, my ears missed something recently that really took me by surprise. Ironically, it was while listening to my friends new E.A.R. 868 preamplifier that my ears were challenged. And I’ve been doing this listening stuff for a while now, so I was even more shocked that I didn’t immediately know what was going on. So let’s start from the beginning.
I’ve mentioned my friends HiFi setup on a number of occasions: Bower & Wilkins 804S, Rotel pre-amplifier/surround processor, Bryston 4B-sst amp & Marantz SACD/DVDA/CD/DVD disc player/toaster oven. It has grown to be a sort of reference for me, though I’ve never really been fully convinced about it as a whole system. In many ways, I was convinced I built a smaller system that performs as admirably and often better (certainly less expensive) with my Plinius/Amphion (if it ever ends up getting fixed) combo. But nonetheless, he has the edge in # of drivers, and in amount of power and in the size of his room, so I know more can and should be making the musical experience better and more engrossing. He thought so too, especially after having my Plinius replace his Rotel for a round of listening. Convinced it should be better, he did some of his own research and came up with a short list that became a purchase upon finding something on Audiogon for a steal. A few thousand dollars later, he had an E.A.R. 868 above the Rotel to act as a dedicated stereo pre-amp. He also purchased a turntable because this E.A.R. had a built in phono stage. But more on that later.
The text messages began flying in on the afternoon he finally got it all hooked up. Literally flying, one after the other, about what he was hearing. The reviews for the unit were quite good, and adding the ‘tube’ element was sure to bring things to a different level; call me Curious D. The day to listen came, and I sat in the captains chair to listen, and was surprised by what my ears were hearing from the EAR. Things sounded drastically different than I’m used to. There was a ton of information coming toward and moving away from us. But the first thing I noticed was that the soundstage was not very wide. Between the speakers the sound was clear and big and well defined, but it didn’t seem to extend much to either side. The depth of the soundstage, however, was very impressive. There was a three dimensional layering of images that was quite incredible; KD Langs new band really showed this quite a bit. But all the while I was just a bit perplexed because while I was able to clearly identify every instrument and every nuance, it didn’t seem to be across a very wide space nor as well displayed as it could be. Sometimes, though, this was how my system would sound. I was certainly curious, but nevertheless loving what was happening. I thought, it must just be warming up.
We put in Beck’s Sea Change and things were really weird. It sounded like a different mix than I’ve ever heard. Something was wrong, but we dismissed it as a fluke caused by settings in the Marantz likely erroneously decoding the 5.1 mix into stereo. Next we moved on to Massive Attack’s Heligoland. Now things were really starting to warm up, though the stage, bigger and bolder and cleaner, was still a bit narrow. We toed in his speakers less and that seemed to help. Track one, track two, track three, wow wow wow. We were simply in awe, jaws to the floor, at how much deeper we were hearing into the recording. It was stunning and wholly engrossing, albeit a bit different still than I’m used to. But then track four came on. I’m very familiar with this album, and I knew within moments that something was really wrong at the start of this track. But how could it be when it was sounding this good?
The stereo image was only giving us half the picture. The opening of this song has a very clean dueling guitar riff that pans hard left and right. But I was only hearing one half of that duel, and I realized that the Marantz had this whole time been only giving us one half of the signal, albeit to both speakers. Yup, we had basically been hearing a MONO signal for the last hour. And still, despite this, loving it. And despite this (and this is what made me most entertained) we were still seeing sound staging, in mono. Granted I knew something was wrong, but it just wasn’t as obvious as night & day wrong. I still had a strong front and center vocal presentation, and other instruments took their distinct place. Having never really listened to anything in mono like this, I was just stunned that my mind decoded the signal and created a picture that was more three dimensional than I would think that it should be. Very interesting. After I looked in the back of his rig, I immediately saw that there are two balanced XLR outputs on his E.A.R. and they both have Left and Right channels. Well, as I bet you’ve guessed already, both XLR cables were coming out of the Left channel. We laughed for a good 20 minutes at this, because while we both knew something was wrong, it wasn’t obvious enough for us to know. And we’ve both been listening to music for years and years and years, so this just really made for an entertaining divergence. It’s a testament to a number of things, all of which I cannot possibly know. But most of all, pertinent here, a testament to the fact that the E.A.R. was giving life and dimensionality to the music inasmuch as it is necessary to trick my brain into thinking that I was experiencing horizontal dispersion from a mono signal. Fantastic.
Once things got hooked up correctly, and we were back onto track 4 of Heligoland, the grin became deeper. Now things were sounding right-er (since we now had the right channel, of course!). The soundstage opened up quite a bit, extending well beyond the left and right speaker. And it was tall too, much taller than I’ve ever heard his system be. And it was still deep and three-dimensional but even moreso now. It was engaging in a way like never before and revealing of details that we had both missed, but in a musical way rather than analytical. It was as if there was thickness to the sound, meat on the bones so to say. And track after track revealed more and more of these characteristics. I quickly knew that this was the best system that I have had a chance to listen to for an extended period of time. The bass was incredibly improved from his prior system; it now had a kick, body and more definition than ever. It still didn’t go nearly as low as I know the signal goes, but that is a general fact about the limits of his 804s. Despite his subwoofer, I wanted more bass. But it didn’t matter enough to detract me from what was happening in the rest of the spectrum. It was obvious now that he was doing with his speakers all that he can be doing with them, extracting every ounce of their potential, whereas before it was a joke with the Rotel. Now we could see the body of a singer as if she was in the room with us. I have heard a lot of people use that analogy, ‘like they were there’, but I have rarely if ever experienced it. See, I’m quite critical of things so I don’t just pass off a mediocre or even expensive speaker as sounding lifelike if I’m not truly convinced. Even while in Vegas attending CES I rarely felt like a speaker was doing something so special as to sound real. It’s just not easy for a speaker to sound like a person, and actually it’s probably impossible to get to a point where I wouldn’t know better. But his system during this presentation was the most convincing I’ve heard in recent memory. Really really good. Room for improvement? Of course, but then again, it just improved so incredibly much that the game has changed.
For his system to be better we both agreed it would require a change of his listening space. With wooden floors, hard surfaces and vaulted ceilings, it’s not ideal. There is a bass vacuum located right where we sit, and there’s no way to re-arrange the room, really. So for now that’s the problem, but despite those limitations, the music was shining through like it never had, and we blamed the room much less than we did when the Rotel was up front. Also despite the bright room, I would never describe the sound to be overly bright, except for a moment when it was particularly cranked and while listening to a particularly loud passage of Neil Young on vinyl. Speaking of vinyl, the second recent addition and variable in his system, all I can say is that it is the new standard of quality to which SACD is second. I already knew this would be the case, but hearing Dead Can Dance on vinyl after Massive Attack on CD was just incredible. At that point, I was discerning and perceiving differences in color and texture, and generally finding a more emotional connection with the music. This emotional component was something that I have been missing from a lot of what I’ve been hearing in my meanderings with HiFi. Not to say it’s absent, but it had not been predominant like this. I was just simply gripped with emotion on his system and experiencing the albums we played as never before.
To close we finished with some Tchaikovsky, one of his Cello Concertos on SACD. And for the first time, the presentation made sense to me. It wasn’t a blur, it was a distinct orchestra sitting in front of me, instruments and people both, making noise come out of wooden boxes of various sizes, the noise reflecting off the ceiling and the other instruments, and I could hear and see it all. I can’t wait to hear more from this E.A.R. and report later. This first experience was so overwhelmingly good that I lost much of what I can surely gather from another session. Followed by another and another and another.
Two weeks from now, I’ll be heading over to Newport Beach for THE Show, a home theatre and HiFi show featuring some of the best names in the business, as well as some of the littler guys. I hope to bring this most recent experience and my newfound high expectations and knowledge into this gathering, and am excited about seeing and hearing it all.
To conclude, I have to say that my friend now has a reference quality piece in his setup. In fact, his system is actually probably ‘reference’ quality now, whatever that means. I bet it’s going to be hard to get much better easily. This move to me brought his system from Mid-Hi-Fi to HiFi and I believe my EARs are the better for it now too. Nicely done.
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