It is not my intention to wind you up, but this culmination of all that has gone before with the system’s story needs a tiny bit more explanation. (If patience is not one of your virtues, feel free to skip to the end.) It will, however, apply to most of you . . . unless you happen to live in a home with perfect conditions for setting up a sound system, including rock-solid floors, more AC outlets than mission control in Houston, pre-existing bombproof shelving, etc. In setting up what I now call the $6000 SoundStage! Special, I chose not to use my bespoke listening room, with its poured concrete floor and 18″-thick walls.
Instead, I decided to install it in a spare room with a creaky wooden floor, one spare AC outlet, and no spare shelf space. In other words: the real world. I dug out an old hi-fi rack, previously used for Beard electronics some 30 years ago, which I retrofitted with a couple of shelves because the rack was designed to hold a Beard preamp and power amp without shelving, the units sliding into place with small tabs on the uprights to hold them.
By this point, the Magnepan LRSes were run-in and sitting on the carpet, with plain old house bricks planted on each foot to steady them. If I were indulging in full-on, psycho-audiophile practice, they would be bolted to the floor. The Bob Carver Crimson 275 was sited on the lower shelf, made of plywood, with enough space next to it to contain the EAR Yoshino PhonoBox. On top sat the Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Pro. All wiring was Transparent. (See previous columns for details of each, which I won’t repeat here as a courtesy to readers who are, by now, growing tired of this saga.)
Immediately, a problem emerged: if I so much as adjusted my tush in the chair, the cartridge would skip. The Debut Pro isn’t blessed with a sprung sub-chassis, and I didn’t have any springy aftermarket platform that could counter the issue. A swift email to Pro-Ject’s Heinz Lichtenegger resulted in the arrival of the Pro-Ject Ground it Deluxe 3 ($799), as mentioned in last month’s column. He said I absolutely didn’t want or need a floppy, so-called isolation platform instead of his heavyweight solution. And, yes, I know it messes with the budget, but I found an excuse to justify it, one that all of you will recognise.
No two rooms, let alone listeners, are alike, so each and every one of you will have unique needs which go beyond the budget established for this project. The most common add-on—no, make that a necessity—might be a trailing mains socket, so a lone AC outlet can handle the system’s three mains plugs (record deck, phono stage, power amp), as well as an equipment rack. Thus, I did not guilt-trip over adding the Pro-Ject Ground it Deluxe 3 because it solved my bouncy floor problem.
Again, this will brand me a cheater, but so vivid, so instantaneous are the gains imparted by a record clamp, in this case a Pro-Ject Clamp it ($99), that I added that, too. What follows refers to everything else as standard, straight out of the box(es), including the supplied turntable mat, both the Crimson 275’s and EAR PhonoBox’s original tubes, and the supplied AC cables.
It’s important to note that I had lived with each of the four elements on their own, having reviewed the PhonoBox and the Debut Pro separately for Hi-Fi News, while the Crimson 275 and LRSes are personal acquisitions, neither of which I will be reviewing for my UK employer. The amp isn’t available in the UK, while the speaker suffers too much from import fees to make it the bargain it is in North America, so you can see that, despite my living in the UK, this saga is USA/Canada-centric.
Xenophobes will find little here to celebrate because, although the amp, speakers, and all cables are made in the USA, the phono stage is British, the cartridge is Danish, and the turntable is Austrian/Czech/Slovakian. The miracle is how well they work together, especially as the speakers have a distinctive sound and are surprisingly hungry.
Countering their ravenousness for wattage, the Crimson 275 is disarmingly powerful, and I even used it to drive Wilson Audio Sasha DAWs, which are usually partnered with monsters from D’Agostino, Constellation, or the like. The all-tube combination of the Carver with the EAR is inherently gentle; I was anticipating rolled-off treble. The sizzle, however, came from the punchy combination of the Debut Pro and the Ortofon-made Pick it Pro cartridge. But note—again—that the Debut Pros supplied in the USA are fitted with a Sumiko cartridge. Which means that everything I say from this point onward needs to be tempered by the cartridge in your specific territory.
“Deceptive”—that was the first adjective which entered my mind, because I simply wasn’t expecting three specific elements. The first was the solidity of the bass. The LRSes are small, lightweight panels, not tight-as-a-drum sealed boxes with massive woofers or even reflex-types with inherent lower-octave abundance. I had already known the Carver to deliver tight bass. Easily controlling the bass drivers in the Sasha DAW, it applied the same grip to the Maggies.
Next surprise was the sheer scale and openness of the soundstage, even in a smallish room, with the speakers only 3m apart. I ensured that they were properly distanced from the walls, so the bass described above was not augmented by them, while the freestanding positioning let them breathe. And this is the key to the LRSes, whatever the rest of the system.
Then came the crisp yet sibilance-free treble, reminding this ribbon-speaker lover of his salad days with Apogees. This I attribute as well to the front end, the Debut Pro working beautifully with the PhonoBox. Transient speed and attack were realistic, not cut-glass exaggerated, which is how I prefer it. The midband was warm rather than uncoloured, so voices had an authenticity, which matters more to me than any other sonic trait. Dynamic contrasts—respected and preserved by the Carver’s KT120s—were wide enough and pronounced enough to embrace both low-level information retrieval and bombast with equanimity. And yet . . .
As directly expressed in early columns, the raison d’être of a system put together with a mix of dumb luck and anally retentive concern for audiophile detail fetishism demanded two things. The first was the insistence that every component would survive any of the other elements being upgraded. Having tried each of the components in a system north of $150,000, and all of them surviving without embarrassment, I can promise you that each of these fights above its weight. The second was responsiveness to any and all upgrades.
Within days, the system gained a slightly thicker felt mat. I played with both sets of Transparent cables, ultimately settling on the more expensive pairing. I installed a moving-coil cartridge. The price crept up to a few bucks short of $7000. And that’s while leaving the four main components intact and without changing the tubes: turntable/arm/cartridge front-end, phono stage/preamp, power amp, speakers.
It won’t suit everyone; it will disappoint no one. Above all, it will never impart any feeling of constraint. It is now a joyful, ever-entertaining work in progress. But, oh, mama! You won’t believe what it can do with a Denon DL103 . . .
. . . Ken Kessler