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Audio Nirvana

In our last article, we assembled a great system for someone who was just starting out in this hobby. We tried to select components that delivered good value and bang for the buck. What we delivered was something you wouldn't need to upgrade again in a hurry.

The thing is: once the bug bites, there will always be a hankering for the next level. But what does the next level look like?

In this article, we will look at the other end of the spectrum. As before, we still want to consider products that are amazing performers and will compete with products that may cost considerably more. Giant killers, if you will.

So which is the first component to consider?

Ironically enough, the first component isn't available from our stores.

Setting The Stage - The Room

The room that you place your stereo and home theatre in will have a direct impact on which speakers will work best. If you do not have a large space for music listening, avoid the temptation to go big. Yes, large speakers look impressive but size isn't everything. We have heard mammoth sized speakers that cost hundreds of thousands sound terrible because the room was just too small and there was barely enough space to breathe. Conversely, a small pair of speakers may be overwhelmed trying to fill a large room with sound. 

In this example, we am going to look at a reasonably sized room, say about 4.5m wide and 6.5m long. 

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This should allow for a good sized pair of speakers - and give them enough space to shine. Very few speakers are designed to be placed right against the wall - both on the sides and behind them. You often get bass reinforcement from walls and from corners and this would distort what you hear from the speakers. Also, having the speakers further out in the room, allows the speakers to produce a deeper soundstage creating the illusion of instruments and vocals behind the speaker - and a wider soundstage, where the sounds appear from beyond the left and right of the speakers. 

What you want is for the speakers to disappear into the room.

First Piece of the Puzzle - Speakers

Now we get to the fun part: the actual gear itself.

Before we get carried away - we would like to stress that because listening to music is such a personal experience, it is, in our opinion, not possible to have one perfect speaker for everyone. What you can hope to find is the speaker that is perfect for you. And your room. 

So the same rule we stressed before is still as applicable here.

Audition. Audition. Audition. 

For the purpose of this article, we are selecting the DALI Epicon 6. The Epicon 6 is not the flagship model in the Epicon series. But we feel that in the room we have chosen, it is ideally sized. 

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You can read about the Epicon 6 and the technology behind the speaker in this Absolute Sound review.

What we will talk about is how remarkable they sound. DALI speakers have always been known for sounding "natural" and "life-like" and this extends all the way from their entry level Zensor speakers - which we highly recommended in the previous article - to the Epicon series as well. But the Epicon just takes that refinement to a different level. There's a speed to how bass is reproduced that maintains rhythm and pace of live music. And DALI's hybrid tweeter which combines a conventional tweeter with a ribbon planar magnetic unit extends that natural and life-like character to the highs as well. 

Cranking it up - Amplification

Once you have chosen the speakers, you can start looking for an amplifier that will complement and match those speakers. The DALI Epicons have a pretty flat impedance curve so there are no crazy variations to worry about. But it does need the amplifier to be capable of handling 5 ohm impedance loads. 

Enter the PS Audio BHK Signature 300 monoblocks. These are PS Audio's flagship amplifiers which can deliver stable power (1000W) down to 2 ohm loads, a challenge for most amplifiers.

The story of how Paul McGowan of PS Audio met Bascom H King, whose initials emblazon the name of the amplifier he designed, is an interesting one but it is the subject of another story.

The Stereophile review states "the BHK Signature 300 is a powerful, nimble-sounding amplifier that immediately drew me in with fast, punchy, tight bass; rich, liquid mids; and delicate, transparent highs—all effectively well integrated into a coherent whole. 

The BHK 300s effectively gripped both the large, efficient Wilsons and the smaller, less efficient Martens, as tightly as you'd expect a solid-state amp to do, but also produced subtle, tube-like midrange generosity of resolution and transparency, and airy clarity on top, with ideal transient-edge definition and delicacy."

Strong praise indeed.

The Source

These days, most of our music reside on networked storage devices or they would be streamed from a lossless music service like TIDAL. And to reproduce them, I'd look at the PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the Network Bridge II option.

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With this set up, we can run an application like Roon or JRiver on a Macintosh or Windows computer - and send the music over a network connection to the DirectStream and let it perform its magic. We don't even need the computer screen to be on - Roon and JRiver have apps on Android and Apple devices that allow you to select the songs and playlist without needing to see a computer interface.

At its heart, the PS Audio DirectStream DAC is a discrete DSD converter - but it doesn't use a conventional chip-based converter such as those from BurrBrown (TI), AKM, Wolfson or Cirrus Logic. Instead the components are carefully selected by Ted Smith, the creator of the DAC - and then controlled with a programmable computer. The result is a surprisingly versatile design that can be re-programmed and optimised merely by software. Since its launch in 2014, the DirectStream has had a number of software updates - PS Audio calls them Operating System updates, and considering the improvements each time a new one is released, it is not hyperbole. In fact, it is a testament of the design that even two years later, the DirectStream DAC is still winning Product of the Year awards. 

We are normally not a big fan of digital volume control - preferring a good analog preamplifier to do the job - but the DirectStream's implementation is so good, we have found it outperforms many conventional analog volume controls. This may change when PS Audio releases their upcoming BHK Signature preamplifier. 

We will revisit this system and add on new components - such as a turntable and a disc spinner, if you are interested in expanding your choices for music. But for now, the system we have assembled here would represent an end-game system for many.

The next part of the system involves auxiliary components. 

Power is nothing without Control

One of the aspects we often fail to consider when building the system is how power is delivered to the system.

In Australia, the official standard for AC power is 230V, with some tolerances built in. The official specification varies from state to state but can run from 208V to 264V. That is a pretty large variation. 

With most sensitive electronic equipment, it is important to keep the input voltage as close to the 230V as possible. If the voltage supplied is 250V, you are running at 20V off-spec. If the equipment uses, say an 800V step up transformer internally, that variation increases to 70V and may increase the stress and wear on other internal components. 

This is why we often recommend the use of power regenerators such as the PS Audio PowerPlants. The PowerPlant takes incoming AC power and converts it to DC - similar to what comes out of a battery, and then uses a custom DC-AC inverter to produce sine-wave perfect, regulated high current AC power.

Audio Nirvana | Brisbane HiFi

The sine-wave perfect regulated output means you get a consistent and stable voltage supplied to your sources, resulting in lower background noise. And the high current? That comes in handy when your power amplifier needs to draw in large amounts of current for a split second when delivering the transients and attack present in music.

This technology is not the same as some surge protectors that merely filter out noise and makes the system sound dull and un-involving - the power amplifier is unable to draw on sudden surges of power needed to drive the speakers for those transients. 

Hooking it all up - Cables

And finally - getting the system all connected up. 

Audio Nirvana | Brisbane HiFiFirst, we use a pair of Chord Signature Tuned Aray XLR cables to connect the DirectStream DAC to the power amp. Both the BHK power amplifiers and the DirectStream DAC run best in balanced mode. The Signature uses a unique arrangement of silver-plated conductors and shields them with a silver plated conductor. 

Audio Nirvana | Brisbane HiFi

Next, for speaker cables, we use Tellurium Q Black Series Speaker cables. The Black series have been designed for detail and resolution but there is also an organic and rich sound signature that reduces harshness. It complements the natural and life-like realism of the Epicon 6.


Audio Nirvana | Brisbane HiFiAnd lastly, we choose PS Audio's PerfectWave AC power cords. These power cords are designed specifically for Australian sockets and are certified for use in Australia. Unlike many locally fitted power cords, these plugs and connectors are factory welded to the conductors - ensuring a factory perfect termination. More importantly, the cables are well shielded. AC power cords carry high voltage and high current in them and at the back of your equipment rack, the cables often run alongside lower voltage and lower current cables such as your interconnects and speaker cables. Shielding the power cords ensures that the lower level signals in those interconnects and cables aren't affected. And in the pursuit of the last mile, every little bit counts. 


Is This The Last Word

We have always likened the process to be a journey - and we don't think we will ever stop exploring new products that pop up on our radar. But the trick sometimes is to stop tinkering and just to sit back and listen. And appreciate just how good the music sounds on your own system.

Happy listening, folks.


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