The ‘Monaco’ System

System Details

 

Streamer EMM Labs NS1
DAC EMM Labs DA2 V2
Preamplifier darTZeel NHB-18NS
Power Amplifier darTZeel NHB-108 Model 2
Speakers Steinheim Alumine Five SE
Approximate Cost $355,000

Analog

Turntable Reed Muse 3C
Tonearm Reed 5A
Cartridge Koetsu Tiger-Eye Platinum
Phono Pre-Amplifier Ypsilon VPS-100
Step-Up Transformer Ypsilon MCL

Cables

Interconnects Audience Front Row interconnects at the required lengths
Speaker Cables Audience Front Row speaker cables at the required length
Power Cables Audience Front Row power cables at the required lengths

 

EMM Labs NS1 StreamerEMM Labs DA2 V2 Reference DAC with USB

How does it sound?

One day I was speaking to a friend of mine about the characteristics of different languages. The German language, for example, is great at describing scientific objects & phenomena. In fact, more noble prizes for science and technology have been awarded to works written in German than in any other language. The Greek language on the other hand, was used in so much literature because it is very descriptive and specific.

For example, there are eight words in the Greek language that express the English word ‘love’. This is because the love that you have for your self is a different emotion to the love that you have for your family, or a deep friendship, or a general selfless love for everyone, or a playful love between lovers, sexual passion, eternal love or obsessive love. To the Greeks, all of these experiences deserved their own independent word. They are all ‘love’ but the devil is in the details.

Describing the sound of a music system can be challenging in the same way. There are many types of ‘enjoyable’ depending on which angle you come from. The systems described in this section are all ‘great’ but they all sound different. So which type of great are we talking about here?

This is a luxuriating, rich, beautiful, saturated with pleasure kind of great. This is a dollop of fresh cream from New Zealand, this is fresh Beluga caviar, this is a bottle of 2014 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Grand Cru wine kind of great. This is stepping out of a Rolls-Royce Wraith and into a Boesch 970 St.Tropez boat while checking the time on your Patek Philippe Nautilus 40th Anniversary time piece kind of great.

This is a sound where your body and mind relax into a feeling of ‘Oh yes, this is absolutely perfect. This is special’. The intellect is engaged but it’s not a cognitive experience. It’s more an emotional pleasure that is so in the moment, that you stop thinking about the past & future. You just live in the present, feeling full and content, not wanting for anything.

Initially when you hear this system, you can’t be blamed for thinking that you are listening to a big tube amp like a Graaf GM400. It has that tube warmth, but not in an excessive way, just enough for you to recognise that characteristic. Then you notice that the transients are fast. Play fast-paced techno dance music and you can hear each individual beat in its own space and the silence between the beats. You then notice that when needed, the amplifier delivers proper power. The power demands of a powerful kick drum for example are met with aplomb. You then realise that this is not in fact a big tube amp. Turn the music off, turn up the volume and place your ear next to the tweeter. Dead silence!

What’s going on here? A solid state amplifier with power on tap that sounds like a tube amplifier? I’m not saying that it sounds like a big solid state amplifier with the edge taken off – if you were blindfolded, you would swear that you were in the presence of a well-designed big tube amplifier because of its inner warmth and tonality. Until you experienced the drive, headroom and grip. At that point, you would rip off the blindfold because your curiosity would be compelling you to find out what you are listening to.

This is one system where you can turn up the volume to high levels and never experience listener fatigue. All you experience is high volume. No aggression, forwardness, etch or glassiness. It is the polar opposite of clinical or sterile. There are no elements in the music that can be identified as added by the equipment. None.

The music has structure and plenty of detail, however it is immersed in a liquidity and flow that moves your attention into the heart of the music. It has harmonic richness and timbral definition, it has attack and decay, it has a natural tonality, it has pace, rhythm, timing and dynamics but all of those qualities do not draw any attention to themselves because they are in service to the soul of the music. There’s a tube kind of inner warmth but there’s also lightning speed and precision. There’s deep bass and a gorgeous midrange with an energetic, open top end. But these descriptions are like trying to portray Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ by saying ‘it has some red and some blue colour’. This is a system that plays the music as a creative event.

We played Marlon Williams ‎– Live at Auckland Town Hall and we were enveloped by the electricity of the crowd and his performance. We felt like we really got to know him and shared his celebrations AND suffering.

There’s a magic about this sound that’s missing from a lot of systems, especially in this detail obsessive chapter in audio reproduction history. This is not a system that is a scalpel into the music for analytical purposes. To avoid misunderstanding, note that this system can be used to analyse. It has the ability to do that because it is an information freight-train but this system exists for a different reason – to rejoice in music. We found that we could not stay in ‘intellectual mode’ for very long.

darTZeel NHB 18NS Stereo PreamplifierdarTZeel NHB 18NS Stereo Preamplifier

Why does it work so well?

It may be obvious to point out that the amplifiers and speakers are both Swiss companies that frequently exhibit together. OK, that indicates that a lot of people have discovered the powerful synergy that I am describing here but it’s not really the story. We feel that the genesis of this alchemy originates in how the respective designers believe that music should be experienced.

Hervé Delétraz believes that music has a powerful emotional pull on our psyche. It is this aspect that he wishes to express with his phenomenal darTZeel instruments. Here is an extract from his website:

“This is our guiding principle when developing products. Like Goethe, we believe that what can be measured is not paramount and that what is most important – in terms of emotions – cannot be measured. Theories of physics will never explain how the beauty of music can have such a profound effect on us. When it comes to music, only humans should be the judge.”

He then applies his talents to designing electronic circuits that go way beyond amplifying a signal. His ability to create equipment that communicates the essence of the music is one of the reasons he is considered a modern luminary by the industry. It reminds us of some conversations sporting enthusiasts are having about who is the greatest tennis player of all time. The trophies and titles are very important but statistics do not tell the whole story. True greatness is actually about HOW the game was played and the IMPACT a player had on his/her generation. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may end up with more Grand Slams but it was the poetic, graceful way in which Roger Federer played the game that makes him the greatest. Debatable? Of course but well worth the discussion.

In the same way, measurements are important but it is the WAY darTZeel amplifiers sound that makes them special. Upon first listen many years ago, our immediate reaction was …liquid…flow…tonal richness…joy.

If you have the good fortune to own this exquisite equipment, one of the added pleasures of ownership is the way darTZeel instruments look. We remember an interview with the designer of Greubel Forsey watches where he suggested that true luxury is when a product has placed the same attention to detail and quality finishing on the parts that you can’t see as on the parts that you can see. The internals of these dartZeel instruments are totally exquisite, reminiscent of a fine Swiss time piece and so stunning to behold that the NHB-108 Model 2 stereo power amplifier is supplied with a transparent cover so that the owner can appreciate the internals!

Ferrari are of the same mindset – we have crafted this exquisite masterpiece of an engine so why hide it under a solid cover? We have provided you with a Perspex cover for your viewing pleasure, enjoy! How cool is it to have a Perspex lid on your power amplifier so that you can also visually enjoy it? Thank you darTZeel for making high-end audio interesting and joyful. The same can be said for their distinctive colours and by the way, the ‘NHB’ in the part number stands for ‘Never Heard Before’. Instead of having a volume control, the preamplifier has a ‘Pleasure Control’ and instead of having an ‘Input Selector’, it has an ‘Enjoyment Source’. Awesome! We take our hat off to you Hervé for taking the ‘boring’ out of high-end audio and having some personality. These little details are not just novelties, they are indicative of the overall soulful, joyous approach to audio reproduction that is evident in their sound.

darTZeel NHB-108 Model Two Stereo (Twin Mono) Power AmplifierdarTZeel NHB 108 Model Two Stereo (Twin Mono) Power Amplifier

Jean-Pascal Panchard, the owner/CEO of Stenheim is cut from the same cloth. Like Hervé, he is a true gentleman, understated yet once he speaks, you know that here is a mind that understands human emotion, human experience and has a genuine passion & sensitivity to the arts. When he started Stenheim, he looked at many of the technologies that were trending at the time. He realised that if you were to carefully observe audiophile commentary over the long-term, you will find that the landscape is littered with flavour of the month ‘revolutionary’, ‘game changer’ technologies that are hyped for a time and then completely disappear from the scene soon afterwards. Yet there are some enduring approaches that endure because they actually work and have stood the test of time.

He felt that for Stenheim speakers to be successful, the best approach would be to ignore the trends and follow his ears and his heart. Embrace these old-school approaches and then invest time and talent into evolving them to their optimal expression. So this is why Stenheim speakers sound the way they do – they use technologies and methodologies which take traditionally successful results and develop them further. So you take a good thing, work out why it’s a good thing and make it better.

As a result, Stenheim speakers do not have a ‘party-trick’. They’re not showing off a new tweeter made from Neptunium or a woofer made from the membrane of the rare Chirodectes Maculatus jellyfish. They just want you to experience a speaker that plays music so well, you forget about the speaker and pull out your record collection. We believe that beyond the electronics and specifications, the real reason these two brands work so well together is that their design philosophies and acoustic priorities are synergistic.

When we were at the Munich High End Show earlier this year, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet with many people from around the world, including manufacturers, reviewers, recording engineers and a whole community of ‘regulars’ that meet to chew the fat. When we asked if anyone was impressed with any products, many people mentioned the new Stenheim Five SE speakers. They were literally the talk of the town.

Later in the year, they won the Absolute Sound Product of the Year and the 2022 Golden Ear award so the backroom chat was in a way validated officially by the audio press, which doesn’t always happen. These speakers are truly special and another example of that rare circumstance where for reasons known or unknown, all the planets align and a piece of equipment is ‘right’ or as we often say, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. If you are looking for a true destination speaker, if you are going to pour your life savings into one speaker and you want to know that 20 years from now, it will still be great, this is the one. It’s a testament to you Jean-Pascal for all the tireless work that you have done over the years, well done!

Stenheim Alumine FiveStenheim Alumine Five

All of this hand-crafted synergy of goodness needs to be supplied with a source signal of commensurate quality. Here’s where we employ the services of one of the best DACs that money can buy and one of our personal favourites. The EMM Labs DA2 V2 is similar to the Swiss characters mentioned earlier. It has endured the test of time while other new ‘best’ DACs have come and gone. We love that it has a totally balanced, refined sound with no tension or artificiality to its sonics. Coupled with the NS1 streamer, you have a dependable, mature, quality digital source. Ed Meitner is another industry legend that has seen it all but just knows how to extract the essence out of a recording. We love it!

For the all important duties of cabling, we prefer the Audience flagship Front Row cabling for this system. It fits the overall ethos of this gathering of components beautifully. Transparency, agility and a sense of flow. When we listen to Audience Front Row in different systems, we often get the feeling that the people that make this cable must be musicians because it portrays the recording with a reverence for the critical musical cues within the performance. We often say ‘this is how a musician would make a cable sound’. Their focus on eddy current mitigation has really paid off.

Audience Front Row PhonoAudience Front Row Cables

We feel that if you are attracted to a system of this nature, the odds are that you will be a vinyl person…and probably a serious vinyl devotee in fact. If you are, you should consider a turntable that not only has a phenomenal sound, but a turntable that fits in with the visual grandeur of the rest of the system. The Reed Muse 3C contains the engineering brilliance of Vidmantas Triukas, a Lithuanian engineer who has three patented inventions in the field of acoustic behaviour of plasma in ballistic missiles. Do you want to take a breath and read that again?

When someone of this calibre happens to also possess a passion for music, imagine what he can create when he turns his attention to analog design. Thankfully for us mere mortals, he created the Muse 3C turntable and the 5A tangential tonearm, another work of genius. This is a high-end analog rig that is rare, distinctive and sonically unmatched in its price range. Are we not blessed that these people have devoted their lives to music reproduction?

Reed Muse 3C WhiteReed 5A

In this company, you are compelled to use a cartridge that exudes class, heritage, lineage and soul. The Koetsu Tiger-Eye Platinum is the embodiment of listen, tune, listen, hone, listen…perfect. The legendary Japanese boutique cartridge makers use their acclaimed Platinum magnet system and house the motor in an exquisite Tiger-Eye stone body. This is the sort of thing that you feel like you need to place in a well-lit cabinet in your living room so you can catch a glimpse of its beauty every once in a while. Placed on the end of the Reed 5A, it is a music maker extraordinaire with frankly unbelievable tonal rendition of voices, instruments…anything.

The magic snapped into focus when we inserted the Ypsilon VPS-100 phono stage and the MCL step up transformer. This brand needs no introduction, suffice to say that Ypsilon seem to be appearing in serious audiophile systems around the world and rarely appear in classifieds. They build most of their equipment around the central theme of simple, intelligently designed circuitry executed to the highest possible levels of quality. Any amplification is facilitated by expertly made in-house transformers. This transformer sound can be summarised as ‘purity’. Sublime sonics!

Ypsilon VPS 100 Phono PreamplifierYpsilon MC10 L/MC16 L/MC20 L Moving Coil Step Up Transformers

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:

  • You can replace the DAC with the EMM Labs DAC2X-V2. This will maintain the overall tonal quality of the sound.
  • You can replace the Phono Stage with the top of the range Sutherland Engineering Big Loco.

If your budget extended a bit further and you wanted to upscale this system, you can try:

  • You can upgrade the power amplifier to the top of the range darTZeel NHB-468 mono blocks. This has the same house sound but in its ultimate expression.
  • You can use one of the Dohmann Audio Helix turntables and a Reed 5T tonearm. Wow!

Why Monaco?

Located on the French Riviera, the sovereign city-state of Monaco has only an area of 2.1km² and happens to be the second-smallest sovereign state in the world after Vatican City. But what an amazing 2.1km² it is!

Due to its low taxes, it has attracted many wealthy people (it has the highest per capita GDP in the world) who enjoy its balmy weather all year round, its political stability and overall lifestyle. Monaco is famous for its resident celebrities, the Monaco Grand Prix, the super yachts in its marina and its luxury experiences. With property prices being off-the charts, it is a lifestyle that very few people can afford.

This system immediately conjures up feelings of luxury both aurally and visually. The sound has a harmonic richness about it that is rare in audio systems. It just makes you sit back, relax and luxuriate in the music. It’s not an artificial richness or a ‘coloured’ sound. No way! It’s a type of soulful saturation of emotion that can only be created by a collective of once-in-a-generation designers combining their talents. It just brings the beauty out of the music and immerses you in it.

“Sir, your masseuse is waiting for you on the top deck.”
“Thank you Jeeves, but I have to finish this Miles Davis record before I go anywhere.”
“That’s what you said a few hours ago Sir…”

Monaco