The ‘Rome’ System

System Details

 

Streamer EMM Labs NS1
DAC/Transport Aesthetix Romulus
Preamplifier Aesthetix Janus
Power Amplifier Aesthetix Atlas
Speakers Wilson Benesch Discovery II
Approximate Cost: $95,000

Analogue

Turntable Reed Muse 1C
Tonearm Reed 3P
Cartridge My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent EX
Phono Preamplifier The Aesthetix Janus has a built-in phono stage

Cables

Interconnects Audience Au24 SX interconnects at the required lengths
Speaker Cables Audience Au24 SX speaker cables at the required lengths
Power Cables Audience Au24 SE-I power cables at the required lengths
Wilson Benesch - Discovery II stand mounted loudspeakerWilson Benesch - Discovery II P1

How does it sound?

We all have an ability to remember some perfect moments in our life. It may be spending the summer hanging out at the beach during our teenage years, it may be a moment we were being acknowledged for finally achieving something we had worked so hard for, our first romantic encounter or just a moment where everything was going swimmingly and we felt totally content. Whatever the nature of our perfect memory, it has the ability to put a smile on our face and fill our heart with joy.

One day we were experimenting with audio gear while deeply engaged in the superfluous argument ‘who’s the best rock front-man (or woman) in history?’ As we debated the relative merits of Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger & co, we happened across a combination of components that made us stop in our tracks. We sat in front of it and just grinned, ear to ear while song after song washed over us. To this day, if anyone mentions this system, everyone just smiles. We have all added that memory to our file of perfect moments.

This system sounds like it has an inner glow around the musicians. You play the same music file, on CD or vinyl, that you play on any other system and on this system, it sounds as though the artist was particularly inspired that day, or that they were having a great moment in that song, or that this album was the highlight of their career. This system has an intangible quality that is difficult to explain but it just connects you with the artist in a way that makes you feel invested.

Voices and instruments have a natural, well rounded, slightly smooth sound that is rich with harmonic content. Voices sound like they’re emanating from a real human throat and such is the rendition of timbre that you can immediately tell what kind of guitar is being used and the playing style of the guitarist. But not in a detail overload kind of way, just purely in terms of musical rhythm, timing and flow.

While you’re hearing this wonderful tone & glow, at the same time there’s a subtle precision governing proceedings, like a musical structure that is keeping all the good stuff from becoming too much. There’s a talented conductor who’s keeping every member of the orchestra in check, operating accurately and in harmony with the other players.

There’s an excellent synergy at work with this system, and it’s just so gratifying. It reminds you why you love music so much. There’s great extension in both directions. The sound is agile and precise with no smudging or blurring of the boundaries yet the body of the sound is warm and well rounded. It has a great energetic balance and a sweet, melodious quality. After many hours of listening, we felt that the sound had a mature, experienced, ancient quality to it. It sounded like the system had been put together by someone who had been around a long time and had experienced a lot of life, with all of its ecstasies and tragedies. Our minds imagined the rise and fall of empires and dynasties…

Aesthetix RomulusAesthetix Atlas

Why does it work so well?

If you want to ‘go streaming’, you are in great hands. The EMM Labs NS1 is the Rolls Royce of streamers in this price range in terms of the sound quality that it delivers. We are in awe of how you can simply add this diminutive box to your system and it will open up the unlimited possibilities that streaming services offer you without any sonic compromise. This should be a default no-brainer addition to every system in our opinion. As with any technology developed by Meitner Audio or EMM Labs, the sound has a smooth, uncompressed quality without the aggression or leading edge high-light that gives some digital sources a slightly fatiguing quality.

Normally you expect components from the same brand having a great synergy as they were developed by the same designer and should complement each other. Despite this expectation, we know from experience that this is not normally the case as we often achieve wonderful results with certain combinations of different brands. However, Aesthetix is one of those brands where the brand symmetry is superb and the electronics all coming from the same stable are a huge reason why this system sounds so good.

The Aesthetix Romulus is in its own right a massively capable DAC with a tube output stage and a CD transport but when you move up to the Signature level specification, something special happens. The sound is embodied with a certain harmonic quality. It’s not adding this quality, it is simply revealing more of the texture that’s in the music. It’s these subtle details (sometimes not that subtle) that make all the difference.

The Romulus is one of those rare Transport/DAC units that has won the prestigious Absolute Sound Golden Ear Award and has a sound that has been described as ‘enchanting’. Virtually all of the reviewers that have had the pleasure of spending some time with it have tried to find the right words to describe its quality. It has that special ability to bring music to life in a realistic way.

It reminded us of that era a few years ago when we listened to CD players with tube output stages like the Audio Aero Capitole and the AMR CD-77. These players were a stark contrast to the ‘precision’ sound that was emerging at the time. They were so seductive, musical and ‘liquid’ in their sonic presentation that many people started to talk about how they were beginning to close the gap to vinyl. But after you lived with them for a while, you could tell that this ‘liquidity’ was often caused by a euphonic colouration that was coming from the tube output stage. Once you identified it, it was difficult to live with it because you knew it wasn’t giving you what was on the recording and it seemed to taint every playback experience with that euphonic brush.

The Romulus Signature is nothing like that! It delivers a relatively neutral presentation however to our ears, it seems to be the ultimate incarnation of that philosophy, adding just enough of that tube quality into the sound to eliminate the feeling that you were listening to a digital recording. The etch, occasional harshness and brightness is gone and the music feels free and at ease.

The Aesthetix Janus is another one of Jim White’s special creations, essentially being an acclaimed Calypso line-stage with a serious built-in phono stage. It acts as the conductor of a great orchestra, beautifully organising proceedings at the heart of this system. In Signature guise, it elevates into a rarefied level of performance, being totally quiet, clean and expansive while facilitating a breathtaking realism and believable tonal quality.

The Atlas provides the brawn in this combination but limiting it to that role is severely underselling its ability. When we play the Atlas Signature in other systems, it brings a sophistication to the sound. It’s not just a power amp brute but rather it drives speakers with a delicacy and maturity that is difficult to describe. We have often inserted an Atlas Signature in the place of seriously expensive, highly rated famous brand amplifiers in client’s systems and the Atlas was immediately preferred because the system lost some aggression & forwardness, especially in the higher frequencies and at higher volumes. The Atlas teaches you how many other designers voice their amplifiers to sound impressive in the first few auditions but then make your ears bleed in the long term. This combination of electronics gives you paints a very listenable, non-fatiguing yet very dynamic sonic picture.

When we were experimenting with this system, the definitive WOW moment came when we connected the Wilson Benesch Discovery II speakers. Much has been written about the Wilson Benesch Geometry Series range, including various awards, gushing reviews, product of the year awards, a Golden Ear award, etc, etc. When you look at the wide spectrum of dynamic driver/box loudspeakers available in the world today, most of them are a very similar take on a familiar theme. The Wilson Benesch models are quite different, especially in their use of carbon fibre, the fact they manufacture their own drivers (perfectly matched) and a host of other technologies that has come from over 30 years of research & experience.

The Discovery II speakers are mid-sized stand-mounters that have this rare ability to disappear and let the music flow. They are about as neutral as a speaker can be and have an open, uncoloured sound. This means that they don’t add much of their own character to the music and you get to hear exactly what your electronics are sounding like upstream. They are not like most speakers in this price range which have a distinct sonic signature or ‘house sound’.

With their isobaric bass drivers tucked away under the midrange driver, they produce fast, deep, natural sounding bass that will shock you when you experience it because they scale like you expect floor standers to, they image like the best monitors and they have a sonic presentation which reminds us of the very best single driver point source speakers without the congestion. This all comes together in a way that we feel is exceptional. In fact, at Nirvana Sound, we often describe these speakers as having an ‘X-factor’ that you can’t describe with words and some of us use them in our own systems. They are literally a microscope into the music. This level of audiophile technology at this price point was unheard of a few years ago. The NS1, Romulus, Janus & Atlas have such a delicious sound upstream that you just want the speakers to disappear & fill the room with that sound.

For cable selection, we went with one of our perennial favourite default cable choices, the Audience Au24SX which we now believe is the best value for money audiophile cable in the solar system. Apart from the fact that it’s thin, light weight and practical, it has this ability to disappear and leave the system sounding natural and ‘un-manipulated’. In particular, voices and natural instruments are perfectly rendered.

If you wish to add a bit of analog magic to the proceedings, we recommend the Reed Muse 1C turntable with the Reed 3P tonearm. Designed by one of the most gifted analog designers of this generation, in terms of musicality and enjoyment this turntable & arm just stomps on anything anywhere near this price range. It is not even close. If you think that we are exaggerating, do yourself a favour and audition this combination. The level of detail and musical flow that the Reed combination is capable of is immensely satisfying.

At the end of this rig, we recommend that you install a My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent EX Stereo MC Phono Cartridge. As is true of most cartridges that come from the hand of Mr. Matsudaira, this will extract a phenomenal amount of detail from the grooves of your record collection and present it in a seamless, dynamic arrangement within the context of a flowing musical event. You will find yourself exploring your record collection over and over again. It brings a healthy energy and a believable tonal picture.

This system is ingrained in our memory because it just makes you *SMILE*. We love systems that go beyond the simple task of playing back a recording. Beyond having a believable soundstage, frequency extension and pin-point imaging. You expect audio systems to cover those bases as par for the course. We love systems that communicate the essence, the intention, the emotion of the music. This one delivers but adds a few cherries on top of the cake. It seems to portray the artist in their best light & gives you that earthy settled feeling that you get when something is well sorted, made by people who really know what they’re doing, and feels ‘just right’.

EMM Labs NS1 StreamerReed Muse 1C TurntableReed 3P

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 use standard versions of the Romulus, Janus & Atlas. This way, significant funds can be saved while maintaining a similar type of sound and the synergy of the same-brand components working together. What you give away is a level of texture, harmonic richness and tone.
  • The floor-standing Wilson Benesch Vector can be used as it has similar sonic attributes as the Discovery II. There will be a reduction in the scale and bass extension however the sound will retain that wonderful quality.

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

  • Upgrade the Romulus, Janus & Atlas to the to the Eclipse version. These upgrades would result in an improvement in noise floor, instrument separation and focus but they are not as dramatic as the improvement from going from standard to signature specification.
  • Upgrade the cartridge to the My Sonic Lab to the Signature Gold or even one of the ultimate destination cartridges, the Signature Platinum for a huge jump in… everything!
My Sonic Lab - Ultra Eminent ExAesthetix JanusWilson Benesch - Discovery II stand mounted loudspeaker

Why Rome?

When you have a DAC named after the legendary founder and first king of Rome, it’s difficult to think of another city. But truth be told, this was not the inspiration behind the Rome system. Instead, we remember visiting Rome and trying to decide which sites to visit. Standing outside our hotel, we looked across the golden hue of the streetscape, holding a map. We were immediately surrounded by Ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome, Gothic Rome and Modern Rome. From the spot where we were standing, we circled 52 possible points of interest that were within a couple of blocks from our hotel. This feeling of an almost overwhelmingly rich cultural and historical diversity was the inspiration for the name.

This system combines the serious talents of some of the world’s best audio minds into a few boxes and once turned on and playing music, it just makes you settle into your seat and go on a journey.

I’ve heard this song before many times but not quite like that.
What’s different this time?
Well, I seem to be actually ‘getting it’ this time…

It’s this ability to unpack and present to you the essence of the music, the meaning, the intention, the architecture and the human condition embedded within the notes that makes this system a joy. We kept describing it as infusing the music with a bit of ‘ancient wisdom’. Press play and let the journey begin…

Rome