ONLINE - ISSUE 18
A New Audio Rig Review - the Ultimate Monitor
loudspeakers and the Bruce Moore M225 amplifiers
Although this article focuses on the Ultimate Monitor speakers and Bruce Moore M225 amplifiers, it is more of a "new audio rig" review than an evaluation of those components. Only the Audiomeca Mephisto CD player, Bruce Moore preamp, Michael Wolff power cords, and Real Traps acoustic panels remain in my reference system, and competition looms on the horizon for all of them.
I got interested in the Ultimate Monitors (www.theultimatemonitor.com) when a friend, who had listened to many loudspeakers in a quest to find replacements for his Vienna Acoustics Beethoven, bought the Ultimates after listening to them for only a few days. When I asked what had impressed him about them, he said that their workmanship was spectacular. He is retired from the aerospace industry, and understands what it takes to make a graphite cabinet to the close tolerances apparent in the Ultimate Monitors. He said that the Ultimate Monitors were more user friendly than most speakers, requiring less positioning to get the sound right. They were a big step up from his Beethoven in high-frequency response, and sounded more neutral. He was also impressed by their speed. The deal clincher, though, was the fact that they are not ported. In his listening room, ported speakers give deeper bass response, but introduce boominess. My friend also reported that the Ultimate Monitors were very revealing of electronics, and would change their sonic character with every component change—more so than any other speakers he'd heard. The Ultimate Monitors reproduced what they were being fed, adding nothing of their own. This had me chomping at the bit to hear them, but I had to be patient. My audition did not take place until CES 2005.
At CES, the Ultimate Monitors, with Gryphon electronics, excelled in openness, soundstage width and height, image placement, and air. I heard a few other speakers at CES that came close to matching their performance, but none that tempted me away from making my own UM purchase. Dr. Karl E. Schuemann, designer of the Ultimate Monitors, accompanied me home from Las Vegas to help me set the speakers up.
Prior to CES, I had listened to a VAC PHI 30/30 amplifier. Liking what I heard, especially with vocals and piano, I purchased the amp, and it was now show time. Could the 30wpc VAC PHI drive the UMs with the magic that I'd heard it exhibit with more efficient speakers? Absolutely. I heard the same intoxicating vocals, along with the most nuanced, rich piano sound I'd ever heard generated by an audio system. The UMs and the VAC were a good match. My friend who owned UMs was also there. He felt that the VAC's classic tubey sound was more subdued than he preferred, but agreed that the vocals were spectacular. Karl maintained his own bias, which was that he'd never heard a tube amp that he liked. As they say, you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself.
One thing that pleased all three of us was putting two SnapTex acoustic panels in front of my TV, where I had been using a Real Traps Micro Trap. The Snaptex panels caused a very noticeable reduction in my room's 40-Hz bass hump, and they enhanced soundstage depth and definition. This turned out to be the biggest sonic improvement of the day, though I was a bit worried about my wife's reaction to the introduction of more room treatments into her living room. I expected the worst when the three of us came back from dinner, but instead, she asked if I was going to replace the rest of my room treatments with SnapTex panels. She thought they looked gorgeous, and wanted to see more of them and less of the others! Not a problem, I said, with a happy grin. Though I would not be replacing RealTraps, as they are designed to be used at room boundaries, the SnapTex panels would be used at the speakers' first reflection pointss.
A week later, tragedy occurred—my VAC amp died. I had been planning to send it to Kevin Hayes anyway. He'd mentioned that some upgrades were available for the amp, so it was time to send it off, both to improve its performance and to find out what was ailing the poor thing. With the VAC out of the picture, I figured it was a good time to investigate what other amplifiers could accomplish with the UMs. The Bruce Moore distributor, Bob Bergner (www.rbaudio.com) offered to let me try a few amps. First up was the Ayre V-5X, a solid state amp that I'd heard very good things about. The good things were better bass control, more extended high frequencies, and a surprisingly warm, if not altogether true-to-life midrange, but it had the solid state flavor that I find l less realistic then tube gear. Still, this was the best solid-state amp I'd heard in my rig.
Next up was the Bruce Moore 70/70 tube amp. This was more like it! Solid bass control, superb midrange, and highs that equaled the Ayre's. Soundstage and imaging were spectacular, and the transient speed seemed equal to that of the Ayre. This was definitely a possibility, but at this point I was still leaning towards the VAC. I was still doing comparisons when Bob called to tell he needed the 70/70s for a customer audition. He offered to let me try the Bruce Moore Custom M225 mono amps, which are 225wpc in Ultralinear mode, 125wpc in triode. Mighty powerful. At a mighty powerful price, too, but what the heck. I was simply auditioning—what could it hurt?
Lesson learned. Never listen to something you can't afford to buy. The jump from low- to medium-powered tube amps to these high powered beasts was an ear-opener. The first thing that happened when the Ultimate Monitors and the M225s were matched up was that the UMs disappeared, and cast forth a soundstage that filled the front of the room. The music spread out as it never had before, with a layered depth and dimensionality not previously heard. Instruments that had been lost in the background of the recording now took on bodies that made them integral to the performance. I could hear the resonance of the recording environment. Whispered conversations from the audience in live recordings went from background noise to understandable conversations. I was in a sonic Disneyland, but I was also very sad. I couldn't afford these bad boys, so why torture myself? But I couldn't turn them off. I listened like it was my last meal, which in essence it was. They would have to go back to the distributor at the end of the weekend.
Never say die. Since the amps were a demo pair, and Bob was willing to work with me on payments, I took possession of the amps with a sigh of relief. It would have been heartbreaking to give up the sound that I'd experienced with them. I now had the foundation of my new rig—the amp and speakers. In the weeks that followed, I rediscovered much of my favorite music. I love Spanish New Age guitar by artists like Govi, Armik, Benedetti & Svoboda, Jesse Cook, Strunz & Farah, and Luis Villegas. Their music is powerful, in fact the bass on these albums is sometimes too powerful. Before, the artistry of the guitar could get lost in overblown bass lines, drowning out the subtle interplay of the other instruments. This was partly due to overprocessing, and partly due to ported speakers injecting too much bass into the room. With the Ultimate Monitors, the bass was balanced, though still hard-hitting and deep. I was finally hearing the integrated beauty of the compositions. Subtle sounds like birds chirping in the background, the wind moving over a set of chimes, even silence between notes, became palpable creations within the composition. The musical intentions of these artists now showed through, on a canvas that was not splashed too heavily with one color.
Jazz is my other favorite genre, and here is where the mettle of a speaker is tested. Ray Brown's stand-up bass can either be portrayed as a soft, one-dimensional thud, or it can reverberate with all the earthy textures that come from the plucking of a bass string, as it does with the Ultimate Monitors and Bruce Moore 225s. On complex jazz pieces like Lars Danielsson's "Liberal Me," in which you have orchestra, piano, acoustic bass, cello, percussion, cymbals, and guitar, alls playing at the same time, most electronics are challenged to provide a coherent image. To hear each sound source clearly delineated, so that you can focus on the performance of each separate instrument, then pan your attention out to be enveloped by the entire composition, is magnificent. The ease with which I could do that with the Ultimate Monitors and M225s was most impressive.
It was now time to introduce my new system to a wider audience. Members of my local audiophile club (www.planeteria.net/home/BAAS) agreed to come over for a day of evaluation, to help me with the review process and to compare upstream components for inclusion in my reference system. Up first was a modified universal player, the Denon 3910 with the Underwood Hi-Fi/Parts Connection Level 2 Mod (www.underwoodhifi.com/mod_denon.html#Anchor-Deno-48215). I was looking for a good video/SACD player to complement my Audiomeca Mephisto II.X CD player. On first listen to the modified Denon, I was surprised by the amount of intricate detail it could resolve. The impact and transient speed of the unit was also impressive. The Mephisto sounded soft and slow by comparison, though its tonal character was beneficial on some recordings. On vocals, for instance, it sounded more full bodied than the Denon, but I always felt a loss when I went from the Denon to the Mephisto. The Mephisto never did anything offensive, which couldn't be said for the Denon, but I was much more involved with the music when playing the Denon. It was a tossup as to which player was the better on Redbook CDs.
I had put about 100 hours on the Denon (recommended break-in is 200 hours) when the audiophile club members came over. Les Holt (www.holtmods.com), an ISF-certified video calibration specialist with 25 years of experience in the design and installation of audio and video systems, felt that the Denon 3910 had better imaging, a lower noise floor, faster transients, and was more revealing of the source material. It also had a bit of midrange "grayness" when compared to the Mephisto. The Mephisto was more integrated and musical (at times), but lacked many of the qualities heard on the Denon. He heard too much of its sonic signature, which was overwhelming everything. This got in the way of fidelity to the source. It was too restrained, and had a restricted transient/dynamic flow, and there was a noticeable loss of ambient (room) information.
Another audiophile, Dan Rubin, a former reviewer with Sound Advice magazine of late-70s fame, felt much the same. He thought that the Audiomeca had a nice musicality, but that it achieved this at too high a cost in accuracy. Another club member, David, had a different view. He felt that the Audiomeca had more warmth than the Denon, with a more detailed texture. The Denon had a high level of articulation, which became fatiguing and a little harsh. David preferred the Mephisto.
Since the meeting, I've listened more to the Denon, comparing it to the Audiomeca during various stages of its break-in cycle. The key for me is accuracy, and the telling moment in this comparison process was the night I played a Ray Brown CD. The pluck of the bass strings with the Audiomeca was diffuse, and lacked the textured nuances that came across so distinctively with the Denon. The Denon did not fatigue me, but to be fair, I changed interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords after the meeting, and the Denon has now been fully broken in. It would be interesting to have the group back to see if there impressions of the two CD players would change.
My reference preamp is the Bruce Moore Companion III, but at the meeting we got to hear the new Modwright SWL 9.0 SE line stage (www.modwright.com). Though the Bruce Moore has the classic tube sound, I find it to be significantly less colored than most tube preamps. The Modwright line stage has all the good traits of tubes. It fills the music with lifelike ambience, without the soft and too-warm tone that can be a detriment to accuracy. Club member Jay Valancy remarked, "What a wonderful surprise the Modwright linestage turned out to be. Who knew how great it was until the Bruce Moore took its place and muffled the sound." David said, "The Modwright won hands down. It had better detail, soundstage three-dimensionality, texture rendering, the works!"
Bruce Moore was in attendance at the evaluation, and felt that his preamp was more musical, but he also felt that something was not quite right with it. This particular unit had been tweaked for the system of the person I had purchased it from, whose sonic goals were different than mine. Though Bruce did not agree with what the customer was trying to achieve, he made the modifications. In my previous setup, which included VMPS 626Rs, it sounded fantastic, and I suspect that its shortcomings with the Ultimate Monitors were non-issues with the ribbon monitors. After the evaluation session, I got the chance to hear a stock Companion III. I preferred the sound of the stock model, and Bruce is now returning my Companion III to its natural state, so to speak. I liked what I heard from the Modwright line stage, so much so that I placed an order for one. My unit will have a few upgrades from the one we heard at the meeting, and I will review it when I receive it.
Also present at the evaluation session were interconnects and speaker cables from Xtreme Cables (www.xtremecables.com). These cables feature cotton insulation. The designer, Brian Kyle, feels that having any form of plastic in contact with the conducting material degrades the sound. He uses several blends of conductive metals in his design, including gold, copper, and silver. He also uses some proprietary noise filtering technology. Ori, a member of our audiophile club, has come up with some proprietary cable technology of his own. His X1 cables have been receiving a lot of very positive response. He brought beta samples of his X2 interconnects to the session, and we compared them to the Xtreme Cables model X4.
We first compared the Xtreme X4s and Ori's X2s between source and preamp (the rest of the cables in my system were Xtremes). Les Holt commented that "The X2 sounded more integrated and musical, smoother sounding with better bass and more coherency. The Xtreme X4had better dynamics, more detail (perhaps), but were mechanical, artificial, and bright by comparison. The Xtreme X4was not a good match with the Denon, as it added to its tendency towards harshness and stridency." We then put all X2 cables in the signal path. Les then said, "Wow! Dramatic improvement—smoother, more musical, integrated, removed all traces of harshness and stridency from the system. It opened up the imaging, and produced less of a mechanical, ‘hi-fi' sound. It got my toe tapping, and removed all my objections to the Denon's sound."
Karl, on the other hand, felt that the differences between the Xtreme X2s and X4s were subtle at best. I felt the X2 sounded best on the Denon. I hope to do a review on them when they become available. The X2s on the Audiomeca were a different story for me. They did not have the openness of the X4s, which are a silver/copper hybrid, or the X5s, which are a gold/silver hybrid. The Audiomeca responded more favorably to these. Back to the downstream components:
David remarked, with regard to the Ultimate Monitors and the BOMB (a bass equalization unit designed specifically for the Ultimate Monitors): "Super dynamic reproduction. Articulation and imaging were first class. When the Sheffield Demo Drum CD was played, they reproduced the difficult sonic material meticulously, even at high volume levels. Where I heard some shortcomings were in passages of classical and rock ‘n' roll. On the Joe Bonamassa album Blues Deluxe, it seemed that when the speaker had to produce loud midrange and treble, the bass would roll off, or get lost in the process, as if the overall sonic energy being reproduced was drawn upward in the frequency spectrum. I mentioned this to someone else and they said they had a similar impression."
Dan Rubin said, "They seemed to do a lot of audiophile things right. However they did not sound as open and extended on top as I expected. And though the BOMB seems to get extension to the lower hertz, which I had never heard before in a monitor speaker, there was insufficient weight to that bass. I was always aware it was a small speaker doing deep bass. The deep bass was an intellectual experience more than an emotional one. With only four hours with the speakers I hesitate to reach a firm conclusion, though."
Since the meeting, several aspects of my system have changed. The next day, we hooked up Karl Schuemann's speaker cables, which are made of the same wire that is in the Ultimate Monitor. This produced a very satisfying increase in musical accuracy, so I had to re-evaluate everything. Another change, a few weeks later, was the addition of Verastarr Silver Reference interconnects (www.verastarr.com/srrcainterconnects.html), which again took the system to a new level of accuracy and musicality. I believe if that I were to hold another evaluation session with the group, their responses would be markedly different.
This leads me back to the reason that I think the Ultimate Monitors are revolutionary. Even the smallest change in the system is reflected by these speakers. I don't think you can evaluate the Ultimate Monitors by themselves. What you are really evaluating is your system, which the speakers reveal down to the slightest change. As such, they are a reviewer's dream speakers. I now have much more confidence that my reviews will be more accurate, since I will be able to hear exactly what the component is bringing to the sonic table. I am smitten with these speakers. They provide the magic I seek. They get out of the way of the music, allowing the creations of the artists to interact with my imagination, taking me to those places in the mind and spirit that no other medium can quite emulate.
My reference system now consists of:
Manufacturer/distributor contact information: