|Streamer||EMM Labs NS1|
|DAC||EMM Labs DAC2X-V2|
|Integrated Amplifier||German Physiks Emperor Extreme Integrated|
|Speakers||German Physiks Borderland MkIV|
|Turntable||Reed Muse 3C|
|Cartridge||Koetsu Jade Platinum|
|Phono Preamplifier||Sutherland Phono Loco|
|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|
How does it sound?
Like most audiophiles, over the years we have collected certain music tracks that we play to really test a system. One of ours is the track ‘Svefn-g-englar’ from the classic 1999 album ‘Ágætis byrjun’ by Sigur Rós, the Icelandic post-rock band known for their ethereal sound, front man Jónsi’s falsetto vocals, and their use of bowed guitar.
This track has deep bass, multi- layered distortion, atmospheric elements that fuse to create a thick textured sonic landscape and Jónsi’s ethereal voice that somehow dances delicately above all the powerful grunge. If you play this track on YouTube, you will miss 80% of the information. You really need a great system to present this track in a way where all the musical elements can breathe, not compete with each other and for the intended effect of the song to be communicated as it is at a live concert.
One day, we were experimenting with this intriguing new integrated amplifier and we achieved a stunning sound. We then pulled out ‘Svefn-g-englar’, privately wondering how it would fare and…OMG!
We were riveted for the duration of the track. No one can remember if they breathed for those few minutes. In fact, no one can remember much, such was the power of that moment… supreme teleportation of our collective consciousness. It felt as though we were witnessing the Gods forging the earth at the beginning of time, a deep guttural rumble as mountains were pushed up towards the sky and valleys were carved up. Then this feeling of floating above the Icelandic fjords, levitating above the glaciers and flying over the pristine ice-covered landscape effortlessly covering large distances of this beautiful pure world.
This system has this ability to absolutely convince your mind that you are there. It’s like virtual reality goggles… for the ears! It has a clarity and a cohesion that simply must be the world benchmark for hi-fi. There is a seamless and consistent portrayal of detail, perfectly resolved across the spectrum that immediately suggests a lack of crossover influence and it comes across as a type of palpable sonic purity. All the micro-details within the performance are more noticeable than usual but not artificially so. In fact, there is an unnerving ease and naturalness about the sound, despite the high levels of detail being communicated.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why your mind believes this sound, why you suspend disbelief and buy into it. The way this system communicates information, you feel you’re getting the full, unadulterated picture – nothing missing. The sound also seems to be ‘unveiled’, meaning there seems to be no sonic artefacts or thin veils between you and the sound, another aspect that gives a feeling of purity and immediacy.
The bass is powerful, deep, fast and only there when it is needed. No overhang, bloat, distortion…. just clean, crisp tonally correct bass. Due to this characteristic, the bass tends to sound quite melodic and tuneful, which is quite a contrast to the typical big bloaty subwoofer type bass that we hear on many modern speakers. This speed, lack of distortion and cohesiveness gives this system this ability to create a huge sonic landscape in front of you, to the sides and behind you, a real 3D sound stage experience.
Why does it work so well?
There are a number of synergistic reasons why this system delivers such an immersive, clear and seamless sound. The first reason is that it’s an omni-directional sonic presentation, meaning the German Physiks Borderland speakers radiate the sound in 360° instead of projecting it directionally at you like a conventional box dynamic driver speaker. Sound pressure is evenly distributed into the room and the speakers ‘disappear’, meaning that if you closed your eyes, you could not point at where the speakers are located in the room. It’s like the sound doesn’t seem to have a discernible point of origin in the listening space. This is a very important factor and all audiophiles should experience this omni-directional effect because it is viable alternative to the traditional way that most people are used to hearing their sound.
This 360° radiating pattern results in a more expansive sonic picture and a greater feeling of immersion from the listener’s point of view. It also eliminates the need for a sweet-spot, or ‘perfect’ central listening position. You can enjoy the experience equally from a larger area in your room. So rather than having to sit in the perfectly measured listening position where all of the information snaps into focus at that one point, this instead feels like you are immersed in a large sound bubble.
At the very heart of the German Physiks speaker system is the DDD driver which is made from carbon fibre, shaped like a cone, has a very low moving mass and is exceptionally stiff. Consequently, it produces an exceptional transient response. This is easy to hear in the life-like “snap” that percussion has when reproduced on these speakers. There is no sense of the dynamics being compressed.
It also allows a very wide operating frequency range (180Hz – 24kHz) and thereby avoids the need for the crossover point in the mid-range commonly found in conventional multi-way designs. This gives a very significant improvement in the overall clarity of the sound, as our hearing is very sensitive in the mid-range. The resulting purity of the mid-range combined with the DDD driver’s high degree of phase linearity, enables it to very accurately reproduce the timbral characters of the instruments in a recording.
The German Physiks Borderland MkIV speakers combine this remarkable DDD driver with a downward firing 12 inch bass woofer. The bass driver is located at the bottom of the cabinet and works in a “sealed” enclosure. This enclosure is linked via a small opening to a smaller cavity located at the top of the cabinet. This cavity acts as a Helmholtz Resonator and is tuned to the resonant frequency of the main bass enclosure and ensures a smoother bass response. The resulting effect is a super coherent, fast transient response speaker in a relatively small footprint that can scale like a pair of one ton, seven foot high multi-driver statement speakers.
Driving this speaker is not difficult for most amplifiers over 80W however to really understand what they are capable of doing, a powerful well damped amplifier is needed to really grip the DDD driver and control the speaker. Then the challenge becomes finding a suitable amplifier that has loads of power but can sound tonally correct and can do the finer inner detail accurately (very difficult!). Most audiophiles are familiar with this constant tension between having a bit more power for headroom vs going back to less power and retain the natural beauty in the music. Not many amplifiers can do both and the ones that can are usually very expensive.
German Physiks decided to tackle this challenge head on. A few years ago, they purchased a German company that was renowned for making some of the best audio electronics in the world and worked with them to produce some of the most exquisite electronics that have been released in recent times – the Emperor Extreme range. The Emperor ethos is to provide abundant, useful power to drive any speaker with the rare quality of being able to bring out all the subtle, delicate nuances that smaller single ended designs are so good at revealing and to do it with high quality solid state designs.
Even seasoned owners of Borderland speakers around the world have now unanimously expressed that they had not properly heard their speakers until they drove them with the Emperor Extreme amplifiers. We chose the integrated version and get ready for this… are you sitting down?… a one box amplifier weighing 60kg that can deliver 300W into 8 ohms or 600W into 4 ohms and yet can play the most delicate, subtle passage of music and it will put a tear in your eye.
It sounds like a small single-ended 1st Watt type of amplifier in one instance, putting a spotlight on a singer in an intimate, emotional moment in a performance, communicating the quiver in the voice or the uncomfortable breath in between the notes… and in the next instant as the music reaches a crescendo, it grips and controls the most difficult load as if it had a nuclear reactor under the hood. This ‘velvet sledgehammer’ quality is so rare and is being slowly recognised as a true destination amplifier for many audiophiles.
So the German Physiks combination of the Emperor Extreme Integrated Amplifier and the Borderlands MkIV loudspeakers is the synergistic heart of this system and due to the resolving power of these components, you have to be VERY careful which digital source you select because as they say… rubbish in = rubbish out!
If your digital source has any compression, glare, jitter or even a slight aggression or forwardness, this system will reveal it and it will certainly bother you. When we used the EMM Labs NS1 streamer in combination with the EMM Labs DAC2X-V2, everything worked beautifully. The incoming digital signal was resolved, smooth, dynamic and it had that liquidity that is reminiscent of a well sorted analog set up.
Off course, this is no surprise because you know that literally anything designed by Ed Meitner is going to be top-notch sonically. We have found that many high-end digital sources available are artificially voiced in a way to try to impress the listener during the first few auditions when most people make up their minds about how something sounds. They do this by boosting some critical frequencies, kind of like the old-school graphic equalizers of yester-year.
By manipulating the signal and boosting some frequencies & suppressing others, the sound is made to sound a little more exciting, or dynamic, which often results in the person experiencing the audition feeling like it is the superior sound. Then after some time passes, the buyer starts to realise that this component is making all music sound that way, even music that wasn’t supposed to sound that way and listening fatigue sets in. EMM Labs is a shining light of a company that doesn’t do those tricks. What you get is the pure signal, with great resolution & clarity and a dead quiet background.
Speaking of the importance of having the lowest possible noise floor, the choice of cables is a critical factor in a system. We found that Audiences’ flagship Front Row interconnects, speaker cables and power cords were ideal for this system. Again, such is the resolving power on display here that you need a cable system that will simply get out of the way and put the musical signal on a pedestal.
The Audience Front Row cables are among a handful of cables that we consider to be the best choice for these high-performance super revealing systems. You simply do not want to have a system like this be shackled because of the undesirable colour & limitations the cables are imposing on the system. Just like you perform better when you have clean oxygenated air going into your lungs, your system breathes and opens up when the quality of the power being delivered is of a high standard which is why we recommend Audience Front Row.
If you fancy adding an analog front end to this system (why wouldn’t you?), you also have to apply the same logic. Be very careful to select a system that extracts a signal from the record grooves that is as detailed as possible and delivers it with well-engineered purity. For that role, we selected the Reed Muse 3C turntable with one of our favourite arms of all time, the Reed 5A. This is a tangential design that eliminates the tracking error distortions of lesser designs and gives you a signal with high integrity.
For the purposes of extracting that signal, this system uses a Koetsu Azule Platinum cartridge, which is not only every audiophile’s ‘objet de désir’ but is also a supremely capable cartridge with decades of heritage and reputation built on its ability to portray music infused with the organic human elements. It just captures that beauty and essence of human frailty and emotion so well. What a wonderful signal to send to the Emperor/Borderland resolution machine upstream!
So welcome to our personal transportation machine – the Reykjavik system. This is our solution to the Covid-19 related travel restrictions. Forget about packing luggage and the rigmarole of airports. Sit down, press play, close your eyes and ……. I’ll see you when you get back, eventually.
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 replace the EMM Labs DAC2X-V2 with the Meitner Audio MA-1V2 DAC. This will result in a reduction of that ‘liquidity’ described above however the character of the sound will remain similar as the MA-1V2 is a great DAC.
- You can replace the German Physiks Borderland MkIV speakers with the German Physiks HRS-130 speaker. The DDD driver is identical however the bass driver is smaller so there will be a reduction in bass depth and weight.
- You can replace the Audience Front Row cables with a suite of Audience Au24 SX cables. There will be a reduction of that immediacy and energy of the performance but the sound will become slightly sweeter & warmer.
If your budget extended a bit further and you wanted to upscale this system:
- You can replace the EMM Labs DAC2X-V2 with the EMM Labs DA2V2 DAC. This will result in an even higher level of detail, resolution and smoothness which on this system will be phenomenal.
- This is a significant extra cost, however if you are able to move up to the PQS-302 level, it will virtually double the scale and effect of this sonic presentation. If you can, sell a kidney and do it!
- If you have more budget, buy more music! 😊
How can a tiny island country like Iceland with a population of only 360,000 people have such an impact on the global music scene? Pop singers such as Björk, Hafdís Huld, Emilíana Torrini, alternative and indie rock acts such as The Sugarcubes, Sóley, Kaleo, Valdimar and Of Monsters and Men, jazz fusion band Mezzoforte, electronica acts such as GusGus, solo ballad singers like Bubbi Morthens and post-rock bands such as Sigur Rós and Amiina.
On the surface, it seems like a disproportionate amount of musical genius from such a small population, especially when you consider that their music is so different from what is often happening in other parts of the world. Or is their cumulative success arising BECAUSE they are so different?
Iceland is not only geographically isolated from the rest of the world, but the extreme weather, long periods of darkness followed by long periods of light, the cold and the raw arctic landscape can also be in itself a form of isolation for residents. Isolation can often force people to think differently, think outside the square. Hence the capitol city of Reykjavik has become a hotbed of creativity and ‘non-divergent thinking’.
This system also takes a design approach which is NOT the path well-travelled. It poses the question ‘how can this be done better, with less distortion and more cohesion?’ then dispenses with convention and delivers something extraordinary. Some listeners have remarked that you can hear the genius inherent in this system from the first few seconds of the music playing. But for us, there’s more to the story.
There is a unique beauty and yet inaccessibility to the primal landscape around Reykjavik. Your mind can go to the erupting Geysir in Haukadalur Valley, the oldest known geyser in the world then move to Gullfoss, the iconic stepped waterfall. You can imagine flying above the Grímsvötn volcano, located under the thick ice of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
There’s a calming, peaceful feeling as you imagine floating above this ancient land where so few people have walked on those grounds. The giant fjords and glaciers surround you with mountain tops touching the sky and the air being pure, the water created from melted crystals and the wind whispering ancient languages in your ear. This system transports you in this way, not just by producing a believable image but by convincing every fibre of your body so you can virtually smell the salt in the air.