|Streamer||Taiko Audio Extreme|
|CD Player/DAC||Aesthetix Romulus Eclipse|
|Preamplifier||EMM Labs PRE|
|Power Amplifier||EMM Labs MTRX|
|Speakers||Wilson Benesch Omnium|
|Speakers||Wilson Benesch Torus x2|
|Turntable||Döhmann Audio Helix One Mk3|
|Tonearm||Schröder Reference SQ|
|Cartridge||Air Tight PC-1 Supreme|
|Phono Preamplifier||Sutherland Big Loco|
|Interconnects||Audience Front Row interconnects at the required lengths|
|Speaker Cables||Audience Front Row speaker cables at the required lengths|
|Power Cables||Audience Front Row power cables at the required lengths|
How does it sound?
Some people believe that when you invest in a great music system, every time you switch it on and sit down to enjoy music it should feel like an event. There should be a little quickening of your heart beat, a little rush of adrenaline… a sense of occasion. Meet our aptly named “LA System”. Audio is full of surprises but this is a system that we just knew had awesome potential before we heard it and it really delivered.
A lot of our recommended systems have a harmonious synergy that is usually a favourable combination of different positive sonic attributes. Like a great meal which is often comprised of a perfectly selected, perfectly balanced combination of flavours. If the cook used a bit too much of one ingredient, it would lose its magic.
First impressions revealed a believable, natural tone. This is not easy to achieve in audio. If you were to be totally honest with yourself, most hi-fi sounds like hi-fi. We’re not saying that it sounds bad, just that it sounds like there is an electronic system playing a recording to you. Moments where you could actually say that a music system sounded real & natural are quite rare. We suspect that the fact that Ed Meitner has been at the forefront of SACD & DSD development may have given him the experience and insights that have enabled him to design amplifiers with such transparency.
So the tone is soft and delicate, which is where it needs to be, you begin to think that despite its physical heft, this system is all about subtlety. Then the music ramps up and wham! Your sensibilities get jolted for a moment as you realise this system has power and dynamics that have come out of no-where. We started with jazz and classical and soon pulled out our rock collection. Electric guitars sliced through the air, drums rocked the walls and you thought you were in the mosh-pit with Eddie Van Halen launching himself into the air above your head!
The term ‘velvet sledge-hammer’ comes to mind.
Then switch back to some Miles Davis and suddenly you find yourself in a smoky jazz club at 2am, svelte drum work and intricate melodies caressing you. This system plays anything. Powerful music is so enjoyable that it is easy to call it a great system for parties and feel good events. But that would be a mistake and a gross underestimation of what this system can do. Yes, it makes dynamic music sound dynamic and feel-good music sound… well, feel-good. But that’s the job of a music system and this one just hunkers down and rocks your socks off.
The special ingredient with this system is that it never feels aggressive, bright or in any way fatiguing. Think power, grip and headroom with a polite leading edge and a natural tone. It makes you want to play loud.
We love moments in our hobby where we momentarily forget that we are listening to a ‘system’. We love it when you are playing a track and you are so into it that you just forget about everything else that was going on in your mind for a few moments. This system delivers that experience. It’s fun, feels effortless with any genre of music and welcomes the challenge of the ‘difficult track’.
Someone once mentioned that the thrill of owning an exotic sports car is that although you may not drive it often, when you do, it gives you this amazing feeling, a dose of adrenaline or simply the enjoyment of operating a bit of high quality precision engineering for a moment. You come back, park it in your garage, press the lock key, hear the ‘beep’ and smile to yourself. The experience has just added something positive to your life. We feel that investing in a great audio system is a similar thing. Music has the power to change our mood, inspire us and even heal us. This is one system that looks amazing, sounds superb and you know that its there waiting for you, when you want to go for a drive.
Why does it work so well?
At the head of the system we have the superlative Taiko Audio Extreme. We never like using the word ‘best’ because being such a subjective hobby, there really is no best. Just lots of opinions depending on what individual people experience. But this is one product where the term best can be suggested and you know that very few people would disagree. As far as music servers go, Taiko Audio’s Extreme is the king and Taiko’s designer Emile Bok will one day be remembered as one of the key people who bought the performance of servers into high-end analog sound territory. If reading this has triggered your ‘hype’ meter, simply go to the What’s Best Forum and read what people are saying. Make yourself a cup of tea, because you’ll be reading for hours. Anyway, with such a high performance server, we’re off to a great start.
EMM Labs electronics at this reference level of quality are a rare sight due to the cost and low production numbers but they are a joy to behold. Unlike many well-known high-power pure solid state designs, these amplifiers have ridiculous grip and headroom coupled with a non-fatiguing, natural sound. It’s the latter that is so difficult to achieve because traditionally, the type of circuitry and components required to produce high-power have an etched, hard, leading edge accentuated sound. Naturalness and realism are not normally the calling card of high-power solid-state amplifiers. The EMM Labs are different and in our opinion, easily the most natural sounding of the American high-powered amplifiers that we have heard. In this case, you have subtlety and inner detail at your fingertips along with POWER. Yes please!
EMM Labs rarely bring out new models. They simply make great sounding gear that has been designed by an industry luminary, equipment that is voiced and refined perfectly and then leave it as their offering to the world. These guys just do it right from the beginning and then find ways to incrementally improve their products over many years. We mention this because you can hear that maturity in the sound.
Wilson Benesch recently released its new Finonacci Series of speakers. This is another company that doesn’t chop and change their model line-up, opting rather to update their range every 8-10 years when significant improvements can be implemented. After their participation in the SSUCHY Project, they developed a new material for their cabinet constructions – a biocarbon composite. Their previous carbon fibre monocoque cabinet designs were way ahead of other speaker companies, but now they have created a new material which has four times the damping factor of carbon fibre and is environmentally friendly both in its manufacture, composition, ‘recycle-ableness’ and biodegradability!
Known as the ‘Formula 1 of high-end speakers’, Wilson Benesch have always been at the forefront of innovation and pushing the bar higher with every generation. Designed by out-of-the-box thinker Craig Milnes (another industry legend) in Sheffield UK, they have a long list of ‘world firsts’. But it’s the sound of their speakers that has given them pole position on the grid of reference speaker execution. It is ironic that a speaker made in the UK fronts such an American themed system but the synergy works beautifully. There’s no bloaty bass and unrefined muscle flexing here – the Wilson Benesch Omnium is pure class. Super transparent and ridiculously fast, the sound is responsive, agile and emotionally expressive. The excellence of the speaker enables the listener to hear the source and amplification excellence upstream. They have a way of disappearing in the room that has to be experienced to be believed. Their isobaric bass system gives them an ability to produce bass that is deep, turns on a dime and tuneful.
Tuneful bass? Yes, great bass is not just ‘thump thump doof doof’. Great bass is an important part of the music. It sets the foundation for the musical story and thus is part of the story telling that music communicates. If you are going to bother making an investment of this size in a music system, then you should also add a Torus or two, which is hands down the fastest low frequency generator for domestic applications on the planet. The result is that this system SCALES! Top to bottom it is rhythmic, agile and like a microscope – it will reveal everything that is going on upstream.
So feed a well-prepared digital file into sophisticated, natural sounding electronics and through a responsive, communicative speaker system and you have the heart of this system. In the same vein, the Audience Front Row cabling is absolutely perfect. It is the fastest, most neutral and most immediate sounding copper conductor cable that we have ever heard. It has that same synergistic natural tone but facilitates the signal without adding any obvious cable-related character.
On the analog, the Döhmann Audio Helix One MK3 is one of the pinnacle turntables available in the world today. It incorporates a great deal of technology and smart thinking around resonance minimisation that results in a visceral, live sound. Because the Schröder Reference SQ tonearm is a thing of supreme beauty, it is easy to gloss over how successful it is in carrying out the challenging duty of a tonearm. It has an air of timelessness, like a modern classic and you can hear its contribution to the proceedings by an absence of character. It is another component that steps out of the way of the music.
The Air Tight PC-1 Supreme is a classic reference cartridge with a cult-following around the world. Many owners are classical music aficionados because it has an ability to express dynamic contrasts in a way very few cartridges can. It also scales remarkably and is great at picking up detail and low-level information from the grooves of a record. After many listening tests, we chose it as a perfect partner for this system because its ultra-dynamic nature combines beautifully with the Sutherland Engineering Big Loco Transimpedance Design Phono stage, another American gem that has to be experienced to be believed. Dynamics within the dynamics!
All in all, a great synergy with the source components providing reference levels of detail, the electronics providing a slightly warm natural flavour with oodles of power and a speaker system that scales with speed and dynamism.
What changes could you make to the system?
If you wanted to save money, but maintain the sonic qualities and synergy of this system, you can try:
- Replacing the Aesthetix Romulus Eclipse with the Signature version.
- Replacing the EMM Labs PRE with the EMM Labs PRE2.
- Replacing the EMM Labs MTRX with the EMM Labs MTRX2.
- Replacing the Döhmann Audio Helix One MK3 with a Döhmann Audio Helix Two MK3.
- Replacing the Schröder Reference SQ tonearm with a Schröder CB11.
- Replacing the Sutherland Big Loco with a Sutherland Phono Loco.
- Replacing the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme with an Air Tight PC-1 Coda.
If your budget extended a bit further and you wanted to upscale this system, you can try:
- Adding another Wilson Benesch Torus (One is better than none, two is better than one).
Why Los Angeles?
There are many reasons Los Angeles came to mind when we were enjoying this system. We found ourselves flipping from one musical genre to another. Mozart, followed by Pink Floyd, followed by Otis Redding, followed by Bjork, followed by Metallica, followed by Leonard Cohent. It encourages you to explore music and not get pigeon-holed in a couple of genres. We felt that we were having a musical ‘night on the town’!
Often billed as the “Creative Capital of the World”, apparently one in every six of its residents works in a creative industry and there are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any other time in history. More music playing… and images of a sunny climate, ethnic diversity and a sprawling high energy metropolis come to mind. Then that fun, powerful element bought images of Hollywood Boulevard, parties and good times.
But for some of us, we could really see this system with its aesthetic grandeur set up in an expansive white room, surrounded by Warhol pieces & eclectic art, opening to an infinity pool with the LA skyline vista. It just conjures up images of quality, fun, freedom of expression and ‘what music do you feel like playing next?’. Yes sir, take me to the City of Angels.