Adventures in Hi-Fi

I consolidated my home office and listening area in a bedroom last year, moving things from the basement and our living room, in an effort to spend more time up with the family.  All in all it has been great, I see a lot more of my girls and my wife while still being able to work from home when I need to and indulge in my audiophile past time without having to slink away to the basement.  The girls are getting to listen to a lot more music with me and they love spending time in “No Girls Allowed” while I’m out on the road.  My wonderful wife encouraged me to make the new space into what I needed it to be, a very functional home office and a place to enjoy music and video, with the focus on music.

I’ve got the room well wired, though I would like to add another 20A circuit for my new amplifier, with the audio and video stuff on the far wall and my computer equipment on the opposite wall.  It’s a decent sized room, 10 x 16, and the set up has allowed it to be quite versatile.  Like most home improvement projects we’ve been wading through the darkness for awhile waiting for the light to come.  We’ve done a lot of rearranging, moving the girls’ play stuff to the basement, the guest bedroom to a different room, redid all of the furniture for our room and we had to find space for all the books I was moving out of my office.  It’s been a chore.

In the meantime I’ve been able to focus on revitalizing my two channel audio set up, that’s been a lot more fun.  I started last May by making a huge upgrade to my speakers, moving from some Definitive Technology book shelf style speakers to the Bowers & Wilkins 804D Diamond floorstanders.  Wow, you owe it to yourself to listen to any entry in the Bowers & Wilkins Diamond series, they all sound incredible.  The next step was to move to a stand alone DAC from the one built into my Bel Canto S300iu integrated amplifier.  I picked up a gently used PS Audio PerfectWave DAC and installed the network bridge.  Again, a huge improvement, and one that really made me question whether or not I still needed a vinyl rig at all.  I know, heresy, right?  I don’t get to spend a ton of time just listening to music, and I want to make sure that I can include the girls in the experience, so playing record frisbee didn’t seem like a good use of time.  So away went the turntable and phono pre-amp.  This lead me to question whether or not I needed everything that the Bel Canto integrated had.  Why not move to something a little more simple and maybe experience another upgrade to the sound?  The PerfectWave DAC can act as a pre-amp, so why not trade the integrated for a straight power amp and eliminate a few hops in the reproduction chain?  I had a plan.

Now the question that comes next is one that I am sure many would be audiophiles face at one point or another, tube or digital?  I had enjoyed the Bel Canto for several years and was contemplating just moving to their mono block power amps, I’d heard them on a number of occasions and they sound wonderful.  But hey, if I’m going to make a change, might as well be dramatic, so I decided to go tube, I could always change my mind, right? I’ve always liked what I’ve heard out of Manley Labs tube gear, plenty of oomph and clarity, but I wasn’t willing to make that kind of financial commitment my first time out to bat.  So instead of the great Manley Labs Snappers I decided to give another American audio company a try and went with Rogue Audio.

I borrowed a demo of the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum integrated amp, they didn’t have the Atlas power amp to lend out, and settled in for a weekend of A/B listening between it and the Bel Canto.  The Cronus came equipped with 4 KT90 tubes and provided my system with plenty of power, which was a concern going into this whole thing.  The sound was quite an improvement, so much so that while listening to The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s take on the interlude from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana my wife said, “Wow, you should buy this amp”.  Whoa, I had to ask her to repeat herself!  With that sort of endorsement I placed an order for the Atlas Magnum with the upgrade to the KT120 tubes based on a great review from Stereophile’s Erick Lichte.  Less than two weeks later this beautiful amp showed up and I managed to muscle it onto my rack and get it burned in relatively quickly.  The KT90s sounded great in the Cronus, but I wasn’t ready for the improvement that the KT120s made, the only way I can put it into words is that the sound has bloomed, the mids and bass have opened up and really made the music that much more engaging.  You have to tap your feet, or sing along, or as my little ladies often do, dance.  The highs have always been superb thanks to the diamond tweeters in the B&W 804s but the sound from top to bottom now really draws  you in.  The listening experience is great, I get all the warmth of tubes without sacrificing any of the accuracy I was accustomed to with the Bel Canto.  Several other amplifier designers have latched on to the KT120s now, including Audio Research Corporation, and I can definitely see why.

There are many ways to experience the joys of tube-based audio reproduction these days, from tubed headphone amplifiers, tubed iDevice docks, and some great tubed integrated and power amps.  If you love music you should give them a listen, there are a lot of great hi-fi dealers out there with loaner programs, give one a try.  Maybe your family will enjoy a great listening experience as much as mine has come to.

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