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REVIEW: Audio Note Level 3 system Other

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Model: Level 3 system
Category: Other
Suggested Retail Price: My wife might read this
Description: A complete AN system - front end to speakers
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note

Review by KevinF ( A ) on September 13, 2004 at 11:17:51
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for the Level 3 system


How much did your audio system cost? No. Not how much did the components currently sitting in your living room cost. How much has it cost you to get to the system you have today?

And just look at those shelves there. Not those. Those. The ones with the records and CDs on. How much did that software collection cost? Did it cost as much as the system you play it on? Or could you buy it all for a fraction of what those speakers, amplifiers, cables, and smoke and mirrors tweakery cost?

And what does that tell you about yourself? Does it make you a music fan or an audio geek? Are you comfortable with the answer?

About six months ago I did a quick mental calculation on the cost of my own system and I didn't like the answer. The bottom line was that after messing around with audio for some 20 years, I've blown enough to buy a small house. And my software?

I was a geek.

How had it come to this? I love music. I am an avid listener to quality radio. I go to as many live music events as time and budget permit. I even sing to myself in the car. And yet, the conclusion was inescapable: I was officially a gold-plated audio geek.

My mother must take the credit for sparking my interest in music. In the early 60s she took my brother and me to the Saturday morning childrens' concerts at Fairfield Halls in south London where Sir Colin Davis (then plain Mr Davis) talked us through and then conducted for us a broad range of easily digested classical sweetmeats.

These live events left me wanting to listen to music in the home, but I gained little satisfaction from the second-hand audiogram that my schoolboy paper-round funded. It simply did not re-create the excitement and joy that I felt listening to the orchestras at Fairfield Halls. In a way, not that much changed over time. I ditched the paper-round, went to work for real, and in good times enjoyed a somewhat larger disposable income that enabled me to spend considerable sums of money on audio gear.

I know I am not alone in audio geekdom. The problem for us all is that there are very few good audio systems. We buy. We listen. We perform mental somersaults to justify the expense. And still we know, deep inside, that it doesn't really sound right. And so we part-exchange. We upgrade. The children go to school in bare feet. And STILL it doesn't sound right. Audio equipment manufacturers and magazines understand this and exploit it. Their manipulation is one of the reasons that there are so many of us in the Land of Geek.

I am pretty slow on the uptake so it wasn't until about four years ago that I began to get flashes of insight into the way this commercial game works. What triggered a process that eventually became a visionary landslide was my dissatisfaction with CD sound. I then owned a mostly Meridian system and wanted to hear for myself the effect of upsampling. An audio magazine raved. Upsampling was the 'magic bullet'. And so I borrowed a Musical Fidelity (Yup. That magazine) A3CD player.

The reviewer heard more air and spatial information. More musicality. It was the 'magic bullet' for CD.

What I heard was contrived and mechanical and I declined, for the first time in a long while, to buy. It set me thinking back to all the other upgrades I'd made on the back of audio magazine reviews and to what I'd heard once the new components had been installed in my home. If I was being honest with myself (and for the first time I was being honest), the Musical Fidelity experience was not unique.

And so here's my take on the Audio Game.

The majority of audio equipment manufacturers have a business model that relies on fuelling consumer discontent by creating built-in obsolescence. One year's new model is replaced by another featuring more bells and whistles or 'improved sound'. It is possible that somewhere out there beyond The Land of Geek there are magazine publishers and audio equipment manufacturers not locked in a back-scratching alliance that perpetuates this cycle. It's also possible that out there too are audio retailers who absolutely refuse to let their customers needlessly spin the upgrade treadmill. But if there are, I don't know of them.

Actually, that's not entirely true. There is one manufacturer that I do now trust to do the honourable, musically right thing, and it's Audio Note.

That's going to come as a shock to some who may regard Audio Note as a left of field maverick in the audio industry, so allow me to explain why Audio Note gets my vote.

Search on this site and you'll find reviews by me of the company's digital front-end technology. I was moved to post them – a first for me – after being stunned by a different commercial approach, a different technological philosophy, and a different sound. I started by trying and buying a DAC 3.1 Signature, then added a CDT II transport. Their introduction into my system marked the first time in many years that I felt I'd genuinely taken a giant stride towards achieving a more musical system.

I used the Audio Note front end with an otherwise entirely fairly conventional system of Bryston pre- and power amplifiers, PMC speakers and Kimber mains cables, interconnects and speaker wires. From time to time I'd hear siren sounds urging me to try an entire Audio Note System, but always rejected the call on the grounds that Audio Note makes low-power single-ended triode amplification, unfashionable speakers and plain-Jane looking cables. I was utterly suckered by the audio industry mantra that I needed solid state horsepower and lots of it, speakers like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey, and interconnects that could tow a ship. The two ideologies were worlds apart.

But I woke up one day and thought: "Ah, what the heck. It'll be fun. I'll have a go. Find it doesn't satisfy. Send it back. That'll be the end."

What turned up was a pair of AN-E/LX loudspeakers, some low-end silver interconnect and speaker cable, an M3 pre-amplifier and a pair of P4 PSE monoblocks. All were well used and in various states of cosmetic dishevelment, taken out of the boot of a car and dumped in my living room with the injunction: 'Just play with it. See what you think'.

Here's a thing: doesn't the language of audio reviews, to use the vernacular, suck?

If the writer is a well-meaning amateur, they'll use the same language that professional reviewers and audio manufacturers themselves use to describe reproduced sound. I've done it myself. Words like synergy (sorry about that. I'll go and wash my mouth out right now), slam, room-lock, pace…you get the idea. These words and others are the currency of our mutual audio interest and yet they are now utterly valueless because they have been prostituted for commercial gain. They are the bait with which we are lured into spinning the upgrade treadmill. It's ironic and, I think, very telling, that the word euphony is used pejoratively by audio reviewers (mainly by Americans, but often by people who really should know better). They use it to sneeringly imply colouration, but what the word actually means is pleasantness of sound. And we certainly can't have any of that, can we?

'Does it sound musical?

'No, but it delivers holographic imaging, ruler flat measurements and real bottom-end grip'.

"Hell yeah. Where do I sign."

Which brings me back to my living room and my first exposure to a complete AN system. I listened for the evening and then went to find my wife. This was going to be one of those rather difficult conversations of the sort that only the married reader will understand.

How do you say, in a way that doesn't result in immediate hysterics, that three rather battered boxes with valves in, some shoe-lace interconnects and an unfashionable pair of speakers has completely, soundly and totally bested the £20K high-tech audio system you've lovingly built up over decades?

It was tough.

Audio Note will give you chapter and verse on why a complete AN system behaves the way it does, but the plain fact was that the loan set up made music. All the hoary myths about SET amplification (mid-range to die for, no bass, coloured) proved untrue. The system easily generated realistic pressure levels in our 21X12 ft. room. It gave an insight into the richness of timing, rate of dynamic ebb and flow, volume, and the harmonic information on every recording that was startling. Not startling in a granular, detailed, etched way, but in a wholesome and organic way – I'll use the word holistic, if I may.

I realised then what it is about solid state audio that makes me uneasy and dissatisfied. It's analogous to the feeling I get working under fluorescent strip lights with their 50Hz switching cycle. It's light right enough, but it makes me feel uneasy and eventually fatigued.

I think that in a similar way, probably the majority of mainstream audio gear fails more or less to transfer to the listener the essential subtle information that makes the artifice of reproduced music acceptable to the brain. Perhaps because of the non-linearity of solid-state amplification, the liberal use of negative feedback, and the non-time and phase coherent nature of most speakers, the information is lost or scrambled. Without it, performances may well have those attributes so beloved of audio reviewers and salesmen like slam and transparency, but as musical events they are reduced to the value of background tunes in lifts or supermarket music. It's rather like comparing the richness of a Rembrandt to a join-the-dots picture in a puzzle magazine. They're both pictures. But that's where the similarity ends.

All the demo equipment except the P4 monoblocks eventually went back, and I have subsequently bought and traded to an entirely Audio Note system of my own. It doesn't matter to me what the components and wires are and I shan't tell you. The ensemble just plays music in a way that I find uniquely emotionally satisfying.

There was, of course, significant pain involved in selling off my solid-state gear. Not because in doing so I was admitting that I had been so wrong for so many years, but because in general, used values are so very poor. But that, as they say, is what happens when you opt to pay the stupid tax. In a strange way, 'though, I regard it as money in the bank. You see I am now free of the upgrade treadmill. Free of The Land of Geek. Bye-bye audio dealers. Bye-bye magazine subscriptions. From now on my money is buying music.

Product Weakness: You will lose heavily on selling your existing equipment.
Product Strengths: Real musical enjoyment.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Audio Note
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Audio Note
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Audio Note
Speakers: Audio Note
Cables/Interconnects: Audio Note
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Classical in all forms, jazz, (some) contemporary.
Room Size (LxWxH): 21 x 12 x
Time Period/Length of Audition: 3 months
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Audio Note Level 3 system Other - KevinF 11:17:51 09/13/04 ( 73)