|DAC||Ypsilon DAC1000 SE|
|Preamplifier||Ypsilon PST-100 MK2 SE|
|Power Amplifier||Ypsilon SET-100 Ultimate|
|Speakers||Cessaro Alpha III|
|Turntable||Döhmann Helix One Mk3|
|Cartridge||Koetsu Blue Lace Onyx Platinum|
|Phono Pre-Amplifier||Ypsilon VPS-100SE|
|Step-Up Transformer||Ypsilon MCL|
|Interconnects||Stage III Concepts Ckahron interconnects at the required lengths|
|Speaker Cables||Stage III Concepts Cerberus speaker cables at the required length|
|Power Cables||Stage III Concepts Poseidon power cables at the required lengths|
How does it sound?
A few years ago we attended the Munich High End show and we received an invitation to visit the home of a gentleman who was considered by the local audiophile community as having one of the most accomplished audio systems in Germany. We organised to visit him after the show and the memory of that experience lives within us as if it were yesterday. When we talk about dynamics and the music having a physical presence, we always talk about this system. It was the first time that we had spent some uninterrupted time experiencing what Cessaro Beta Horn loudspeakers were capable of.
Years later, one of our good friends & Nirvana Sound dealers Jeff Knox from Knox Audio in Tanilba Bay NSW, chose a pair of Cessaro Alpha speakers for his reference demonstration system. We had the pleasure of working with him over a couple of years to select source components, amplification and eventually an upgrade of his speakers to the new Alpha III’s.
So this rare and extraordinary system evolved from previous experiences, research and a friend’s uncompromising desire to create the very best music reproduction system with a significant budget. Jeff is an experienced audiophile who has tried many brands and styles of equipment over many years and has a clear, well-informed approach towards achieving an ‘ultimate musical experience’. He spent a small fortune building a dedicated state-of-the-art listening room and wanted to give himself and his clients an unforgettable experience.
This is a transportation machine of the highest order. Unprecedented levels of detail presented with perfect precision in terms of time domain, resolution, clarity and spatial information. The dynamics and scale will also knock your socks off. In fact, don’t bother looking for your socks, they’ll probably be a few suburbs away.
For example, on recordings where the artist or choir is playing in a hall, you can not only immediately recognise the fact that there’s a hall but such is the quality of the spatial cues & nuances, that you can FEEL the space and you can perceive the corners of the hall in all directions. If you close your eyes, your mind can completely reconstruct the size, shape and FEEL of the room! We’ve never experienced this before!
Another example is when we played the famous track Stimela by Hugh Masekela. There’s a moment where he uses his voice to mimic a train horn blowing and many audiophiles use that track to test the dynamics of their system. On this system, when the ‘horn blows’, it’s completely visceral, almost scary. You actually feel like you’re on train tracks and there’s a train coming. It’s so real, you panic for a few milliseconds before your mind reminds you that you are in fact sitting in front of a hi-fi system and your life is not actually in danger.
It taught us a lot about dynamics in audio. You can play tracks where there is a sudden high impact component, like a kick drum or trumpet that suddenly explodes. It can be impressive but if you check, you’re mostly reacting to the shock of the transient. We sometimes turn up the volume at such moments for extra effect. This is different, another level all together. With this system, you react instinctively because the energy, detail and slam is palpable and realistic. Wow!
Because of the cavernous sound stage thrown by the Cessaro Alpha III speakers, when you press play, it feels like you are picked up and instantly transported to the venue. This is purely subjective and very subtle, but rather than the artist appearing intimately in front of you, you are taken to the artist and placed in that space. This effect is due to the system’s incredible ability to envelop you with musical information, like you’re in a bubble. It is a pure goose bump inducing experience. You get goose bumps on your goose bumps.
It is easy to overuse words like ‘palpable’ or ‘visceral’ to describe this system because it really does energise the listening space like no other system we’ve experienced. The music develops a three-dimensional physicality to it and it’s so convincing that your mind believes it and constructs the mental images of the performance. It reminds me of moments when people say they feel a presence in the room – this system is so physical in its presentation that your physical senses tell your mental faculties that you are at a live concert event. If you surrender to that feeling, you have a moment that is simply mind boggling.
Interestingly, you simply cannot play background music on this system. If you try to lower the volume very low and have a conversation, even at very low volumes the music has a way of engaging you, distracting you from your conversation. You literally have to either turn off the music or leave the room to focus on your conversation. Crazy!
We have had the rare and very fortunate opportunity to experience a wide variety of music systems in terms of components, philosophy, priorities, budget and execution. We can confidently say that in terms of the ability to transport you, this is one of our best experiences. Do we have a new reference then? Possibly. We don’t believe in one ‘best’ or ultimate reference system but this is certainly one of the ‘must have’ experiences and we send clients to Jeff’s place on a regular basis for them to enjoy the sound and Jeff’s company.
For those looking for the ultimate pandemic therapy, the ultimate musical healing medicine, let me introduce you to the ‘Vienna system’, your personal teleportation device. Where would you like to go today?
Why does it work so well?
There are a number of synergistic reasons why this system delivers such an immersive, clear and seamless sound. We feel that the Cessaro Alpha III speakers are one of those ‘once in a generation’ speakers. It is quite a challenge to explain the achievement of these speakers without sounding like hyperbole. Through the years, horn speakers have developed a cult following because of their unique special qualities. They way they project sound from an extremely low-mass high-stiffness driver allows them to have a VERY fast, immediate sound with amazing transient, dynamic snap. If you value these qualities above all others, they are the ultimate speaker choice for you.
But horn speakers need to be created properly in order for the listener to enjoy these qualities with tonal & timbral accuracy and without any colouration in the sound. Creating them properly from the design stage, through to material choices, construction techniques and system integration is very expensive to do. This is why some audiophiles feel that many of the commonly known horn speaker brands have a ‘coloured’ sound.
This is a vital point. Cessaro make the ultimate horn speakers because Ralph Krebs (Cessaro’s owner and chief designer) is an absolute perfectionist who is not interested in cutting corners to sell more speakers. He makes them properly and accepts that they will be priced at a certain level and that’s just how it is. Everything is designed, built and executed to the highest standards. This creates a sound quality and ownership experience that is rare and the very definition of ‘high-end’. Read more about what makes Cessaro special.
The Alpha III speakers are a 4-way horn speaker with an active bass system. After many years of development and using the traditional high-quality TAD drive units as a reference, Cessaro have now produced in-house drivers that take performance to a new level above and beyond the previous performance levels. They are also perfectly suited to their speaker applications. The new 11” upper bass driver, the Beryllium midrange compression driver and the super-tweeter with its solid milled brass front horn are all new Cessaro drive units made in-house.
When you attend a live venue and the artist first presses a piano key, strums a guitar or hits a snare drum, there is a real presence that you can’t ignore. You have no choice but to pay attention. It is totally commanding. This is due to real-life dynamics and that is the one quality that directly communicates the musical content to you. This is what the Alpha III re-creates in your listening room. Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics… with no hint of aggression, no fatigue, silence between the notes, nuances and micro-details sprinkled in the air around you like a fine mist.
In this case, the key to unleashing the potential of the Cessaro speakers is matching it with Ypsilon reference electronics. The CDT-100 is an incredible one box CD player however in this case, we use it as a transport. In this role, it does a superb job with a clean, open presentation. The streaming function is performed by the Taiko Audio Extreme which is a masterful piece of engineering. Every aspect of the streaming process has been catered for by the very best solutions. Since its inception, Emile Bok has been on a mission to create a streamer of unprecedented performance and the Extreme has become the poster boy for the high-end.
The signal makes its way to the Ypsilon DAC-1000SE which stands alone in this space. There are a handful of manufacturers that are making DACs considered to be at the pinnacle of performance these days and virtually all of them focus on the speed & resolving power of the conversion process, which is important without a doubt. However, Ypsilon go further by ensuring that all of the wiring is pure silver and all of the transformers are pure silver. This recognises that sound quality is not only about fast chip sets or ladder designs. It’s about the signal path holistically. The DAC-1000SE has a refined, highly resolved, smooth yet dynamic, natural sound.
The Ypsilon PST-100MkII SE continues with this philosophy. Pure silver wiring, pure silver transformers, pure silver volume autoformer and an ingenious circuit. Michael Fremer, formerly of Stereophile, mentioned when he first heard this preamplifier that it sounded like no preamplifier at all, which was a great compliment and commentary to its ability to disappear sonically. No sound of electronics, just purity, just music.
The pièce de resistance of this system is the power amplification, which consists of the SET-100 Ultimate mono blocks. They look like two substantial sculptures, an industrial representation of the Parthenon, classy yet ominously purposeful, artistic with a ‘this means business’ presence. Ypsilon owner & creative designer Demetris Backlavas considers this amplification system his finest work and we feel it is in the top handful of amplifiers available in the world.
The SET100 Ultimate is a 120W single-ended class A hybrid amplifier. It has the magic midrange of a small S.E.T amplifier with the scale, authority, macro and micro detail that no S.E.T amplifier has ever achieved until now. It uses a specially designed S-E mosfet output stage directly coupled at the output using a double C-core amorphous choke as the DC current path. With only 2 gain stages in the signal path, the level of immediacy and transparency is unequalled by designs using more than 2 gain stages. Having no overall feedback, the distortion is kept comparably low while the output impedance is sufficient enough to drive real-world loudspeakers.
Many have tried to make a single ended amplifier with enough power to drive a speaker of average efficiency but I am confident to say that there are very few that have succeeded. Those that I have heard have had modifications to the single-ended design to assist with the power conundrum and those modifications have corrupted the single-ended sonic qualities. In the case of the Ypsilon SET-100, the circuit design, which has evolved a little bit over the years, is the work of absolute genius. One thing that cannot be avoided is the high cost of these amplifiers which has made them inaccessible to most music enthusiasts. The sheer cost of simply obtaining the raw materials to build this design is astronomical, partly due to the rare pure silver transformers required for the gain stages.
The sound is spectacular. It is like a microscope for inner detail, nuanced information in relation to timbral quality and special cues, tonal accuracy and sheer naturalness. If you ever went through a stage of listening to high-quality SET amplifiers, you will know why many audiophiles claim it was the best sonic experience they can remember. They will also tell you that eventually, they moved on because those beguiling amps did not have enough power to drive many speakers. The SET-100 Ultimates are like living a dream where you can listen to the very best quality SET amplifier with plenty of power and dynamic headroom – the holy grail of amplification design.
The most obvious difference between the SET-100 and virtually all of the uber-power amps at that pricing level is that the SET-100 portrays this inner glow around the music or artist’s voice. It is difficult to articulate but obvious when you hear the amplifier. It’s as if every note, every nuance, every piece of micro & macro information has its own little stage with a spotlight washing it with light. Every element is existing in its own little dimension, supported individually so that it can be expressed fully. At the same time, everything exists as a musical whole. It’s uncanny how this could happen. The net result is a perceived personal intimacy between you and the music.
With this level of purity and quality in the signal chain, you simply have to involve a speaker that can express every microcosm of detail. A speaker that does not need energising or ‘waking up’. A speaker that is honest, sensitive and very communicative. Please consider ‘Exhibit A’ your honour – the mighty Cessaro Alpha III. The system sounds so shockingly real because the signal reaches the speaker after having been through the most careful and elegant of processes. It arrives unadulterated, un-manipulated, pure to the source. The Cessaros then receive it and project it into the listening space with energy and vitality. No losses – no fatigue – immediate – efficient. The design does its magic through sheer quality of execution. Every voice and instrument has its own distinctive individuality and essence. Once you hear this, your expectations of how powerfully a system can engage you will be set at a new altitude.
When you have such a special synergy happening, to do it justice and facilitate the magic, you need cabling that releases the flow and energy of the music. Stage III Concepts based in the USA are another one of those brands that seems to have avoided the trends, hype and fashion of audiophilia. They quietly go about their business making amazing power cords and signal cables based on implementing no compromise solutions and technologies. We recommend their flagship cable for this system just so you can facilitate the phenomenon described above to its very best potential. The Ckahron, Cerberus and Poseidon cables have that rare ability to release the energy of a performance. Such is that sense of vitality, that you realise how much energy lesser cable designs take away from a music system. If these statement cables are beyond your budget, stay within the Stage III family and use whichever level that your budget allows.
For an analog source, this system deserves some of the very finest equipment available today. The Dohmann Helix One Mk3 turntable (proudly made in Australia) provides an ideal foundation that isolates a vinyl record from resonances at a level beyond anything we’ve ever experienced and the linear tracking Reed 5T tonearm is a piece of engineering excellence featuring laser guidance. In case you didn’t catch that, I’ll say it again. A hyper-accurate linear tracking tonearm with laser guidance!
Our parents told us we were crazy to get into this hobby and the fact we’re running a laser guided tonearm is living proof that they were right. But it’s a good type of crazy because on the end of the Reed sits audiophile royalty, a Koetsu Blue Lace Onyx Platinum cartridge. When you mention Koetsu, many audiophiles have been conditioned to believe that these rare Japanese works of art are romantic sounding, with a warm colouration that befits your Grandfather’s vintage system. This paradigm could not be further from the truth and one of our greatest pleasures is proving this to audiophiles when they visit us for an audition. This is no Grandfather’s cartridge! This is a highly resolved full bandwidth music making masterpiece.
To compliment the amplification upstream, we used the Ypsilon VPS-100SE phono stage with the Ypsilon MCL step up transformer which has pure silver windings with a nanocrystalline core. The whole signal chain is pure silver!
It’s difficult to explain what an analog system created by three genius designers sounds like, but let’s just call it heavenly. This moves beyond the audiophile lexicon. It’s pure live music, nothing added, nothing taken away.
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 Ypsilon DAC, Phono stage and preamplifier with the standard versions (non-silver). You will lose a level of refinement and some of that ethereal quality however the character of the sound will remain similar.
- You can use an Aesthetix Romulus Signature as a transport.
- You can use Stage III cabling at lower pricing levels.
If your budget extended a bit further and you wanted to upscale this system, you can try:
- You can upgrade the preamplifier to the Cessaro Air One. This is a joint venture between Ypsilon and Cessaro and has essentially the same design as the Ypsilon PST-100 Mk2 SE but taken to further extremes. It is literally one of the quietest and purest preamplifiers money can buy.
- If you have more budget, buy more music!
Set on the Danube river, Vienna’s ancestral roots lie in early Celtic and Roman settlements that transformed into a Medieval and Baroque wonder. As you walk through the streets of this magical city, the surrounding architecture nurtures you with a deep sophistication of a bygone era, a sense of aesthetic perfectionism that is absent in modern city landscapes. Pop into a little pastry shop and have a coffee, perhaps a pastry. Notice the attention to detail within the food and how it’s presented to you. Notice the subtle smells and the waft of classical music playing in the background. This culture has a richness that has taken many centuries to evolve. The attention to the smallest details is astounding and as you begin to notice all the small intricacies and nuances, your mind starts to appreciate that this is a refined, worldly, mature way of living.
Vienna is known as the ‘City of Music’ due to its musical legacy, as many famous classical musicians such as Beethoven and Mozart called Vienna home. Joseph Haydn, Ferdinand Ries, Nina Stollewerk, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Robert Stolz and Arnold Schoenberg all worked in Vienna. It is well-known for having played a pivotal role as the leading European center for music from the age of Viennese Classicism through the early part of the 20th century. If we had to nominate a city on this planet that was synonymous with music, Vienna would be our first-choice.
While visiting Vienna, we felt that we just had to experience a musical performance. Luckily for us, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were playing works of Mozart at the Wiener Musikverein so we snapped up some tickets, had a wonderful dinner of Tafelspitz (veal boiled in broth with vegetables) followed with some Powidltascherl (plum jam turnovers) and made our way to the venue.
That night’s concert remains etched in our psyche as one of the most powerful musical experiences that we’ve ever had. The orchestra was sublime, a collective group of virtuosos that played the music with intense feeling. They placed us under a spell as they weaved an ethereal tapestry of sound. The music was visceral. We felt it in our whole body, our chests and heads moved with the flow of the music. We closed our eyes and were captivated by its beauty and the emotional illustration of the story that the music was revealing to us.
This system takes us back to that moment. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing in our living room in such a convincing way that in that moment, we are ACTUALLY there. This system is a transportation machine that can take you to any place and time as long as you have the recording. Jazz club in New Orleans? Press play. Rock concert in London? Press play. Some Latin guitar on a beach in Mexico? Grab a margarita & sunscreen.
Please note: Knox Audio are demonstrating a version of the Vienna system so please reach out to Jeff and make a time to visit and experience it. It is rare to be able to listen to systems of such calibre in Australia and the trip to Tanilba Bay is very enjoyable.