System Review: The Barn (Mine)

I  like system reviews. What better inaugural system to review than my very own? I’ve taken great care, over many years, to end up with this exact mix. This system gives me pleasure every single day and I’m going to tell you why.

System Details

Speakers: DeVore Fidelity gibbon X
Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS600
Digital-to-Analog Convert: totaldac D1-seven
Network Player: dCS Network Bridge
Music Player Software: Roon
Turntable: Well Tempered Labs Amadeus
Cartridge: Denon 103
Step Up Transformer: Auditorium 23
Phono Preamp: Sugden A21SE Stage Two Phono Amplifier
Digital Playback Software: Roon
Roon Server: Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i5
NAS: Synology 412+
Backup: La Cie Blade Runner
Ethernet Filter: DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4
Cables: Tellurium Q Black and Black II, AudioQuest Vodka and Diamond Ethernet cables
Power: AudioQuest Niagra 1000
Equipment Rack: Custom Box Furniture “Fallen A”

Some Speaker History

Like Rome, this system was not built in a day. You could say, I would, I’ve been building it my entire life seeing as some of the money spent was gathered from selling other gear. Don’t get the wrong idea—I am not a rabid gear-flipper and the impetus for a change, a big system change, typically comes about when we move.

The room we choose to listen in, and our budget, dictates the general type of speakers that are appropriate for them. One easy example being you can’t fit 8′ tall speakers in a room with 8′ ceilings nor can you expect a pair of mini-monitors to fill a huge space (we’re talking physical and physics). When we move, I’ve found that the speakers I owned form the old home don’t always do the trick in the new digs.

Our most recent move saw my listening room go from a spare bedroom, roughly 11′ x 13′ x 9′ to the Barn, roughly 35′ x 45′ x 12′. In order to fill the Barn with music, concert-level if the felling moves me, I needed more speaker. I owned the DeVore gibbon The Nines when we moved and while they sounded great in the Barn, John DeVore, the guy that added “Fidelity” to his name when he started his speaker company, some time into living in our new/old home came out with the bigger, badder (in a good way) gibbon X. In brief, the gibbon X are larger than The Nines and the Xs are a true 3-way design compared to The Nines 2 1/2 way, essentially giving you more drivers which can move more air.

John and I are friends and have been for years. The first time we spoke was due to a phone call I made asking about tube amplifiers driving his speakers. Long story short, I ended up owning the gibbon Super 8s and the rest is history. All of the DeVore Fidelity speakers represent an easy load for the amplifier driving them, some more than others. The Orangutan line are the most efficient, where a few flea watts can do the trick. The gibbon line starts at 91dB (Sensitivity) but they also don’t move much below their 8 Ohm load.

I have owned three pair of DeVore speakers; the gibbon SUPER 8, The Nines, and gibbon X. I have also heard nearly every speaker John has made extensively over years. I would describe them all as being above all else very well balanced, fluid in the extreme, and as natural-sounding as any speaker I’ve heard. By natural, I mean that when listening to music through them, you forget they are responsible for what you are hearing. That is a rather rare trick for a loudspeaker in my experience.

New Speakers, New Amplifier

Since different loudspeakers sound different from one another and require more or less power to drive them properly, there’s no single perfect amplifier. It’s also important to note that all amplifiers do not sound the same. You could make the argument to the contrary on paper but you can’t listen to a paper amplifier.

My first post-college I-had-a-decent-job amplifier/preamplifier was the Nelson Pass-designed Threshold SA3/FET10 pre/power combo. Nice. I remained solid-state for some years until my father called nearly too excited to speak in complete sentences about his new speakers, the Odeon Double-Six, and his new Air Tight amplifier. He had never music sound so much like music.

Needless to say, I was off to the hot-bottle races. The one that got away, that I wish I still had, was the Sun Audio SV-300BE. I soothed myself by owning a number of Don Garber of Fi’s beautiful musical machines and still own the Fi 45 Prototype Don built for me.

To fill the Barn, I needed some power to move those gibbon X and have landed on the Leben CS600 Integrated. Beyond being very eye-appealing to mine, the Leben is a brute of an amplifier and is in no way, shape, or form, soft (anyone with real experience with tube amplifiers know they can be whatever their builder wants to make them; soft, hard, medium, etc). The Leben CS600 is above all else very well balanced and timbrally rich (like music) and more than capable of filling the Barn with Barn-shaking music. It is also similar to the DeVore’s in that you forget it’s also responsible for the music-making. The DeVore X/Leben CS600 is to my ears, brain, and happy feet a match made in hifi heaven.

The CS600 utilizes a quad of either 6L6 or EL34 power tubes for 32W or 28W output power respectively. I’m using Genelec Gold Lion KT77s, a drop-in EL34 replacement, because they make the CS600 jump harder and run faster. The CS600 has been in production since 2005 (that’s a good thing).

Digital Done Right

I’m old enough to have been around and a consumer when the CD was introduced and at the time, they sounded like crap. In my experience, it has taken a few decades for digital music reproduction to enter the same ballpark as listening to records in terms of music sounding like music. Digital has, and still can, sound like freeze-dried, partially thawed chunks of sound. I’ve described most digital reproduction as sounding as if there’s a pane of glass between me and my music where good digital means that glass is almost clear but the barrier is still apparent.

I have reviewed a handful of digital-to-analog converters (DACs) that completely remove the glass—dCS Rossini and every DAC I’ve heard from France’s totaldac. I own the totaldac D1-seven. The HoloAudio Spring DAC LEVEL 3 “Kitsune Tuned Edition” is parked near the entrance.

All totaldacs are discrete resister ladder DACs, meaning they use a series of resistors to convert digital’s binary data to an analog signal to send to your hifi. Vincent Brient, the man behind totaldac, adds an FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) to correct for the inherent upper frequency rolloff found in most DACs of this type. I have heard and reviewed a number of totaldacs, and a shit-ton of DACs in general, and I recommend any totaldac all without hesitation. The choice as to which totaldac may be right for you is based on budget and preference. The higher up you go in the totaldac lineup, the more resistors you’ll find inside and more closely the DAC will follow every single thing, macro and micro, going on in your music. The sweet-spot in the line is the d1-tube-mk2 DAC.

Of course, there’s more that goes into DAC design than the method of D/A conversion. A DACs ability to handle noise being one of them and Vincent has designed his DACs with an outboard power supply to address one potential source. I use my totadac’s AES/EBU input, sent from the dCS Network Player, because it is the best-sounding input. You can make the argument that due to AES’ balanced design it is better able to keep noise out of the signal path (and the DAC) just like balanced XLR interconnects due to their three conductor construction.

The totaldac D1-seven offers an uncanny ability to convey music’s most intimate details in a total package of stunning realism. In other words, things sound like they sound in real life—all rich, glorious, intimate, and stunning. What’s more, music unfolds into a sound image that is Barn-filling, of course this is recording-dependent, in such a way as to invite us into the performance, outside space and time (that’s a big deal).

Feeding the totaldac

Every DAC in the world requires proper care and feeding and I have found no better supplier than the dCS Network Bridge. dCS makes cost-no-object digital products that deliver the goods. The Network Bridge is Roon-Ready meaning I can use Roon to control digital playback.

Like every product from dCS, the Network Bridge is built like a tank, the company’s support is superb, and the Bridge is the most transparent Network Player I’ve heard. It’s sound is like feeding the totaldac clean, pure water while lessor Players send some silt too.

Feeding the dCS Network Player

Ethernet is a noisy data transport which is why there’s error correction built-in the protocol. Ethernet is also extremely robust so that noise is rarely an issue within the digital domain. Unlike printers and Internet connections, when dealing with hifi, digital does not remain digital. At some point, it has to be converted to analog which means that as a system, the noise inherent in Ethernet transmission can negatively impact our more delicate analog signal. As such, it makes sense to take some measures to lessen this potential for audible harm.

I have tried a number of methods and I found none better than the DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4. Inside my proletarian-looking prototype, Ethernet is converted to fiber, thus removing signal-bound electrical noise, and back to Ethernet after the application of some custom noise cancelling filters. This is DJM’s first consumer product as their main gig is, “…one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of EMI filters, new and used RF shielding products, RF absorber and shielding accessories in North America.”

I also run with Ethernet cables from AudioQuest, a mix of Diamond and Vodka, for the same reasons I employ the GigaFOILv4 (noise).

The Music Server

Roon works best when Roon Core runs on a dedicated device. The Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i5 runs on their own Linux build specifically designed for this one task. While there are a number of software products designed to shut down non-essential services within a regular computer to make it better able to act as a music server, again think noise, my thinking is why not just skip that bit and get something purpose-built.

The sonicTransporter i5 has been up and running for years in-Barn with nary a thought given to its existence. This is exactly what you want from any music server.

The NAS

I do not like Network Attached Storage (NAS) as a music library repository because they are unnecessarily complex for this simple task. Yet here I am with one because they do offer the ability to protect your library from disk failure by employing RAID (not the bug spray). A NAS can also be a robust platform, QNAP tends to be better at this than Synology and when shopping for a NAS I recommend sticking with 1 of these 2 companies, but this was more important back in the old days.

According to Moore’s law, some shit gets old fast in computer-audio and if I had to do it over again, today, I’d opt for SSD storage inside my server, with a HDD hanging off for backup. I currently use a La Cie Blade Runner (designed by Philippe S+arck) as backup.

Roon

I’m a visually-oriented kinda guy, which means I care about how things look. Album cover art helped influence my approach to visual art. When the CD arrived with its shrunken disregard for the art I mourned. When file-based playback came along and nearly did away with the art as well as liner notes, I more than mourned. All of sudden, art turned into data and some file formats sucked at keeping this “metadata” attached to the music (I’m looking at you WAV).

What’s more, a file tree as a representation of my music library makes about as much sense, and is as appealing, as replacing family photos with emojis. Clearly the file tree is not aimed a the visually-oriented. iTunes was nice on a purely visual level, but using it over time felt more and more like I was trapped in Disneyland when I wanted to be in Paris.

Just when I thought all was lost, along came Roon. Roon started life as Sooloos which eventually became part of Meridian and tied to a hardware platform. It has since become untied. The Roon way with music fits my way of music browsing while also providing relevant information about my music, like how it is interconnected, in ways that allow me learn things. I also like learning things. I am also a fan and daily user of the Tidal HiFi streaming service and it has been seamlessly integrated in Roon, making whatever music I choose from Tidal’s library to be a part of mine.

Roon is also embedded in hardware products from different manufacturers so you use the same lovely interface to control playback on multiple devices from different companies. On this level, you can think of it like Sonos without having to use Sonos.

I use Roon every day, all day and have for years and I enjoy using it.

Analog

I grew up listening to records, I have a record collection, and I still enjoy listening to them. The experience is hard to beat when it comes to spending time doing nothing but listening to music.

And every time, this thought hit me: It wasn’t a record she was handling. It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle.—From South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve always loved the Well Tempered Labs approach to the art of the turntable so I love the Amadeus that spins my records. I also love the Denon 103, the regular old 103, especially when coupled with Keith Aschenbrenner’s A23 Step Up transformer as it fleshes things out more fully. The Sugden A21SE Stage Two takes care of the rest and all together, this analog setup makes for some very long, very enjoyable nights.

Cables

I use cables from the Tellurium Q’s Black line. This includes AES, XLR, RCA, USB (when needed), and their Black II speaker cable. I am a fan of sticking with one company when it comes to cables for a few reasons; first off, I do not like spending real time on cables. After that, I’ve found that sticking with one company, when it’s a company whose cables you like, can make for a better result than mixing and matching. It’s that last part that can be tricky and time-consuming (and expensive).

The Black line from Tellurium Q is, in the world of hifi cables, not extremely expensive and they allow my system to breath freely.

The Rack

The hifi sits on a rack built by Anthony Abate at Box Furniture. I designed the rack and Anthony added the beautiful dovetail details. The rack sits on footers from LignoLab which allows the 200lb+ rack to be completely immune from what goes on around it (like mad dancing).

The Most important Thing You Can Do After You Buy Everything

Speaker placement. I cannot emphasize the importance of spending time, real time, placing your speakers in their new home. Not spending real time placing your speakers in your room is like buying a stallion to lick your envelopes.

If you look at the floor of a hifi dealer, a speaker manufacturer at a hifi show, or a reviewer, you’ll usually see painter’s tape. The reason being the tape marks the spot and you want to mark the spot because speaker placement is critical in getting the most from your hifi. An inch one way or another can turn mediocre into amazing. And the best thing about is it’s free!

When setting up your speakers in your room, invite a friend or family member in and have at it. I recommend using your ears and eyes as guide until you feel you’ve arrived at an optimum place. Then, whip out the ruler and measure. If you are in a rectangular room, you’ll want the speakers to be the same distance from at least the back wall with the same amount of toe-in. Once locked-in, your speakers should disappear as the source of music making them nearly impossible to find with your eyes closed.

The Conclusion

I listen to music in the Barn every day, most days all day. For the past 6+ years it was my job as Editor of AudioStream but I listened more than that. I listen to music to feel human, part of something bigger and more important and more meaningful than listening to my own thoughts. The more we learn about music’s influence on our brains, the clearer it becomes that Albert Ayler was onto something when he called his 1969 release for Impulse! “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe”.

You could say I need music. I would. I listen when making art, when I want to forget the madness of the day, when a party with friends and family is in order, and more. The more I listen, especially when listening to music is the only thing I’m doing, the more important the quality of that experience becomes.

This system, my system, allows me to enter the world of music without restraint, dissolving the present into a guided tour to places known and new.


Prices

DeVore gibbon X: $15,890/pair
Leben CS 600: $6,500
totaldac D1-seven: 19000euros incl VAT in Europe, 17450euros excl VAT out of Europe
dCS Network Bridge: $4,250
DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4: $474
Roon: $119/year, $499/lifetime
Well Tempered Labs Amadeus: $3,850
Denon 103: $299
Auditorium 23 Step Up Transformer: $975
Sugden A21SE Special Edition Stage Two MM/MC Phono Amplifier: $1,095
Custom Box Furniture Rack: $custom (contact Box for pricing)
Tellurium Q Black RCA Interconnects: $360/1M
Tellurium Q Black II Speaker cable: $450/3M ($75 per linear meter)
Tellurium Q Black AES: $300/1M
AudioQuest Diamond Ethernet cable: $799.95/.75M
AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet cable: $289.95/.75/M
AudioQuest Niagara 1000: $999.95