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Positive Feedback ISSUE49
The Sound Master No. 34.2 Stereo Amplifier and the Paramount Tech Zeeba
Amp and Speaker Stands: In and Out Equals Yin Plus Yang
Establishing Ground Rules
I've often noted my serious disdain for speakers; so many are absurdly expensive. So many of those are merely absurd, adoringly "hi-fi" sound carefully nuanced with sonic color to charm or startle or merely lull your sense of acoustic truth to sleep. After all, who cares about reality (musical or otherwise) when we live in an age of nearly infinite technical tricks that overwhelm a boring, old fashioned notion such as "nature's mysterious seductiveness," music heard in a superior hall's beguiling sweet spot? But how many of us have time to explore the complex dynamics of "real acoustic spaces" any way? Only a fortunate reviewer for The Wall Street Bugle or maybe The London Snob-Erasure has an assignment to scour the world's concert venue treasures. Possibly, just maybe, an obsessed recording fanatic on perpetual busman's holiday makes time to find opportunities in pursuit of the intricate illogic of musical truth and beauty. Not being the first (but stupidly, fanatically the second), let me confess my addiction to Real Musical Sound Heard and Captured in Truly Musical Settings.
My vast reserve about speakers, even those that virtually beg you to forgo nearly seven decades of aesthetic understanding by the sheer musical pulchritude of their cartoonish sonic delight—and MBLs, for example, have that obscenely spectacular ability to make me relent, in their presence, as if literally giving up all hope and need for the precise musical values I've spent more than thirty years pursuing as an "on location" recording engineer) makes a grouchy curmudgeon out of what once may, on an outside chance, have been a mild partner to fun and que pasa good times. So, there it is.
Let me assure you, however, that in the singular case of MBL, if I could afford their biggest, most colorful "damn the torpedoes" ball busters, I would do just that. Why? Because life is too short not to enjoy Balvenie 21 year old scotch on occasion. And the rocket ship torque of a Mercedes "Maybeck" edition touring car... you dig? Aesthetic precision is one thing; hilarious fun, another.
In the "real world of acoustically-refined sonic grandeur," with all the irritations, intrusions and difficulties that compound one's certainty that Murphy lurks in musical corners, like Dostoevsky's Svidrigaylov, musicians and recording engineers are humble but deep allies. If you think not, read the recently departed Gene Lees' glorious book, Meet Me at Jim and Andy's.
Several important technical and cultural elements came together in the post-Second World War era to create "the golden age of sound recording" (circa 1956 to 1972). I can assure you that "on location recording" creates, in the one who succumbs to that regime, a focus (maniacal and uproariously engaged with sonic intimacy: one is literally "inside" the music) equal in relaxed intensity to the joyful vibe of musicians like my dear pals Art Farmer, Sweets Edison, Bob Cooper, Tommy Flanagan, Nick Brignola, John Hicks, Clifford Jordan, Kenny Barron, Gary Foster, Mike Garson, Tito Puente, Roy McCurdy, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Rowles.
My point here is that such work and such friendships are vast good luck, a career one cannot aim for (like law or banking) but, in the mysterious order of the cosmos, only fall or stumble into. My affiliated point is that great musicians often do not own superior audio gear and yet, with few exceptions, cherish listening to their own playing at a high level of natural acoustic resolution. In the final analysis, despite audio reproduction tricks and temptations to new (and less than accurate) levels of sonic seduction, the central kingdom of acoustic glory for most musicians who I've recorded over long years is the universe of ambient musical reality.
I bring this forward because I've come upon [read: been fortunate enough to be impressed by and thoroughly enjoy] two truth-enhancing and (amazingly) not at all expensive audio products that, each in its precise way, contribute to the joy and crucial recreation of real sound in real sonic space. I bring these two very special units together here because I have, across the last set of months this spring; put them together in my primary sound system. I've done so in a variety of configurations. And I must note, too, that I've seldom found two units put in tandem within a mixture of experimental iterations (just for the hell of it; and for the sobering consequence of audio discovery) to be simultaneously so mutually reinforcing of the sonic values I most respect. Since I have an assignment that takes me away from the casual and leisurely discussion of each separately—an exploration which will occur in late summer—I feel compelled to share here the happy serendipity of their combined support for music heard accurately, sound made right, and the pleasure of acoustically "being there" where music was made live and forever glorious.
Here We Go
Awhile ago, I reviewed Paramount Technology's Zeeba speaker stands. I found them to be a discerning partner to their remarkable Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers. For the sake of perverse inquiry, I've taken a long while to learn if that pairing of units was merely a lucky partnership. Do the Zeeba stands also bring more life and musical vivacity—accurately, vividly rendered—from other speakers that (begrudgingly or happily) I admire?
The result is yes. Witness: the not to be discounted or under-rated SP TECH "Timepiece 2.1" speakers that continue to inform and haunt my professional and private musical worlds are an exact case in point. While the set up to put the SP Tech units on the Paramount stands was not self-evident (the ninety pound girth of SP Tech's lead shot-filled speaker stands are not an obvious match for the Zeeba stands), I'll just note, technically, HOLY CHRIST !
I was not prepared for the considerable enhancement of everything I admire in these speakers. Yet it occurred in spades. These speakers triumph in "you are there" immediacy. I cannot name another set of speakers more successful in rendering musical complexity and dynamic challenges with such complete openness and transparency—textural heft and macro-slam side by side with delicate nuances and sotto voce clarity. Bob Smith, their creator and brilliant craftsman out in the rural wilds of Indiana, may be one of the most unfortunately "stealth" sonic engineers on terra firma. His already take-no-prisoners creations sing more freely, with even greater buoyancy and transparency. I cannot write a more laudatory sentence for each. The SP Tech units are extraordinary by any measure or degree of joy and musical involvement. Paramount's Zeeba speaker stands, once more, made sonic details more detailed, musical nuances more fully textural, exact and acoustically fleshed out.
Ditto my hearing and experience with the Zeebas locked together with the perennially satisfying and legendary Vandersteen 2Ce speakers. Note that these absolutely "no bullshit" music boxes have resided inside each and every version of several of my neither so simple, nor modest monitor set ups. Do I admire Richard Vandersteen's genius? Do sharks still crap on the sea floor?
Of all Richard's creations, I prefer his ‘Four' speakers most... which has eventuated in serious conversations with fellow reviewers and professional colleagues. Regardless, the neutrality, openness and tonal (spatial, timbral) honesty of the 2 series—with its not fully dynamic slam nor its whole sonic and musical definition—still defines an innocence-without-sonic-color that delivers a mild torrent of musical truthfulness. Who'd have thunk that these Paramount Tech speaker stands might enhance Richard Vandersteen's most classic creation ?
Not to loll in unexamined relaxation, I plopped Albert Von Schweikert's LCR-15 monitors onto the Zeeba platforms. Do not do this. You'll be stopped in your tracks. Albert, himself, is not prepared for this: a truly honest (thoroughly affordable) monitor-reference speaker with no pretense that, merely, delivers sound as if it were right there with you in its productive, creative immediacy now at another level of resolution. Monitor speakers sacrifice a complete revelation of the full sonic spectrum for the advantage of going to the heart and soul of a recorded event. What monitors lack in total acoustic complexity they can make up in a soulful, focused sonic footprint. Albert von Musical Nastiness meet Abbas the Guru of Sonic Enhancement Engineering at Paramount Tech.
One point to consider here. Zeeba speaker stands are designed to bear various sizes and weights. They are, to a considerable extent, flexible and cooperative set up partners. But I did, in these differing speaker placement configurations, push the Zeebas nearly to their generous and forgiving limit of use. I'm certain that—with the tailoring to size and shape and weight these stands are capable of in the face of quite radically distinct speakers—even more profound sonic enhancements to the "Timepieces," the 2Ces as well as the LCR-15 monitors are probable.
Taking it to Another (Inexpensive) Level
The guys at Sound Master may not yet have a complete foothold in the audiophile marketplace. Soon, they will… or should. This is the first of at least two reports on their emerging line of audio-related and amplification devices. My initial experience with this rising company has dealt with their remarkable "Sound Master No. 34.2" stereo amp. Soon, I'll write about their ear-opening RCA cables and their absolutely killer power cords. For now, shining light on their triumphant stereo amp is enough. I'll admit my vulnerability to optimism. When you flip a coin, do you believe you're correct (or lucky) each time? Doubtful.
But, between hope and elusive faith, are you genuinely committed to pessimism? Even that avatar of astute skepticism, Blaise Pascal, found himself—against the evidence of his scientific witness—choosing a (deracinated, atavistic) faith.
I do not recommend Pascal's route to nowhere. But I admire his self-imposed cognitive discipline and intense self-consciousness. In the case of encountering a new company such as Sound Master, I find faith and guarded optimism steady companions for the long haul of reviewing since so many imponderables and genuinely unexpected wrinkles await the reviewer's task. On occasion I've confronted amps and preamps that, in a word, stunk sonically. Or quit midway through the review process. Once I confronted a series of power cords, used in conjunction with an enormous set of difficult to drive but nonetheless very special, monolithic speakers that were defective. They were wired such that the reviewer himself could have been fried. Was the reviewer being given a not so subtle message? No, but the experience of watching huge, extremely expensive speakers literally blow up and catch fire was a moment difficult to forget.
Thus, a reviewer's need for cautious hope and weary optimism. Girded so, invincibility on either side of the review process is still not guaranteed. Thankfully, my time with the No. 34.2 stereo tube amp from Sound Master has been gloriously carefree and just plain, flat out fun. I should report that the four very large KT66 tubes at the heart of this box deliver a warm, rich but thoroughly open and highly detailed soundstage. As my listening process continued, the 34.2 became more invisible by slow degrees. I attribute that to a settling in, or sympathetic impedance matching (or sonic accommodation of some sort) between, the amp first with Kubala-Sosna's Emotion speaker cables and, later, the amp and the K-S Elation speaker cables. Each of those cables underwent the same transformation by degrees that culminated with a greater sense of the amplifier's "disappearance" all the while music that I've recorded (and know very, very well) became more accurately rendered in its dynamic force and harmonic subtlety.
Let me add that Kubala-Sosna's Elation cables are, to this moment in my audio experience, TUTTI DE TUTTI CAPI.
They are astonishingly musical as well as analytically detailed and transparent. There is no "there" there with these speaker cables. I cannot hear any inherent tonal color or sonic footprint. In sum, listening to musical information with K-S wire in my system—especially with Elation cables at each point in the sonic delivery chain—your HEAR EVERYTHING a recording carries with it. You know what the amps, preamps, DACs and speakers are doing to the signal train. I'm confident that the differences and near-differences I've heard throughout this investigation were accurately (at moments, frighteningly) rendered. When was the last time you heard the final movement of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony?
I'll add this: it's clear that the 34.2 amplifier is crafted to accomplish its sonic maximum with speakers whose efficiency is 89dB or higher. Since the Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers are extremely efficient, their pairing with the Sound Master amp is a very happy match. Even happier has been the conjunction of the Von Schweikert LCR-15 monitors with the 34.2. The LCRs have never sounded so true, full and just plain glorious—beyond their normal large stage presentation and musical brilliance. This pairing is a serious over-the-top value at a genuine budget price.
I've learned that the guys back in the Hong Kong factory have access to new old tube stock (NOS), which surely contributes to the truly exotic sonic presentation that again and again has impressed me about this inexpensive, over-performing stereo amp. This is not a unit that fell off a Tijuana turnip truck. It is a Big Brawler with delicate "float like a butterfly" grace. Maybe these occasions when I'm confronted by such musical greatness at relatively modest (and genuinely reasonable) price points contributes to my sometimes un-muffled optimism.
Here's the Kicker
The final part of my exploratory perversity began with the 34.2unit's installation on Paramount Tech's Zeeba amplifier stand.
An excellent amplifier became—voila!—Cassius Clay, the handsome youth with innate bragging rights. I was already a fan of the 34.2 but now I was surprised like a proud papa. Look at what I accomplished by matching the lovely Sound Master chassis on the Paramount Tech amp stand. Another creatural together... Cassius Clay with less swagger, more punch. A truly new kid on the block, this one with good looks and a vibrant soundstage to outflank many amps at ten times its price. If my perverse experimentations have lead to such surprising and essentially counter-intuitive results, imagine what would occur if my perversity entered the world of gynecology or proctologic analytics.
A last word here until further investigation after my next, somewhat daunting assignment in the interim. My standard reference amplifier, the highly modified and rev'd McCormackDNA-125, demonstrates the same ebullient sonic ferocity when it rests on the Zeeba amp stand. This is no fly by night "wanna be" gadget. The Zeeba stands—speaker and now amp sands—have convinced me that, for the money, there is no stand of its kind or ambition that can outflank its sonic enhancements. To be dull and reductive, I'll say the obvious: music is more joyful, moving, intriguing, astounding and (most) pleasure-giving with these un-prepossessing Paramount Tech units in sonic harness. I will not be sending the Zeeba stands back. They make music "more musical" and, also, more "real" in exactly the ways I began this piece discussing.
The Sound Master stereo amp may stay here, as well, since I've discovered it is fond of my recordings, just as I'm fond of its glorious, respectful treatment of them. Who am I to insult such a graceful, plucky over-achiever? When the 34.2 joins high-efficiency speakers, magic is within reach... in this instance a thoroughly seductive magic given added glory by its powerfully subtle Zeeba workhorse partner.