Monitor Loudspeakers and the 6V6 Ultralinear Integrated Amplifier
as reviewed by Jim Merod
The Great Pretenders
One of the down sides of audio review work is the recurrence of gear that is "just fine" and truly "okay" which a fair-minded writer is not in the least displeased to spend listening time discerning its musical vibe, but which the writer finds (despite its intrinsically yeoman-like sonic efforts) underwhelming in the long run.
The truth of great audio gear can be summed up by two indelible characteristics: (a) if it keeps you in your auditory seat unwilling to get up; and (b) if, over time, your listening becomes less analytical and more emotionally involving. That really is "it"... the Holy Grail of music reproduction. Anyone who purchases a piece of audiophile reproduction equipment ought to be concerned, first and always, with its ability to induce joy, pleasure, seduction and unabashed appreciation for the MUSIC that it delivers.
Buying audio gear is not "about the gear" itself, but the auditory and musical result it creates. Too often I find that friends of mine who really believe they love music are sidetracked from their goal by the visual aesthetics of the gear they purchase. Strange as that recurrent phenomenon is (at first), after awhile one comes to expect that "no frills" straightforward non-visually-arresting audio suffers short shrift in the eternal push of glitter and pulchritude in the commercial audio marketplace. I cannot assert that I've been thoroughly un-hoodwinked myself, though I'd like to think I've suffered the consequences of "believing audio value" through dazzled vision on just enough occasions that I now recognize the syndrome whenever it appears. One could name a long list of audio products, from cables to behemoth speakers that command beaucoup dinero on the superficial basis of fancy cosmetic enhancement. Of course, why shouldn't a wealthy fellow squander his loot on gorgeous aluminum face plates if they gather into a spectacular squadron of decent sounding gear? In the well-decked out penthouse, good looks may outflank great sound in the final iteration of a high roller GQ gent's interior display. For a somewhat older fellow, past his rooster years, such flawed judgment has no obvious compensations.
The sole pertinent question is: what's in the box you want to send audible beauty through? If you care, it may reward you to think plain instead of fancy. Understated exteriors possibly place a bet on sound rather than bedazzlement. Sound, after all, defines the audiophile game's ultimate victory and loss. If the cardboard wrapped speakers you just borrowed from Ike down the street juice your struts and lift your spirit past tree tops, maybe Ike didn't get what he once had and a few lean bills will grace your ears with unimpressive visuals that prance with a boogaloo boogie jounce each time you hit your remote. I'm all in favor of "less is more" when that often cited wisdom is, indeed, true.
Here It Is
Less is way more when you take on the sonic delight and tonal accuracy of David Dicks' Audio Nirvana "no BS" audio gear. Believe me, the moment you unbox this stuff you'll have a quick reality check: "did I know what I was getting myself into here?"
Or something like that... not that the Audio Nirvana units are ugly (they are not) or bizarre (nope), but merely that—after years of having one's gaze flattered at Hi-Fi Shows and the ever-changing razzle-dazzle of THE AUDIO BLAST OFF scene—you carry a subliminal expectation of shiny outsides and shimmering packaging. The audio industry is literally mapped upon the adage never give a sucker an even break.
Thus, upon opening the Audio Nirvana boxes, I checked my cynical first take and dutifully assembled all three units in their places. I believe powerfully in letting gear that's traveled many miles across bumps re-situate its proper karma.
I turned the integrated 6V6 amplifier on after hooking it to the stealthy 8" monitor speakers via Kubala-Sosna Elation! speaker cables and let it crank at medium-high volume (Ellington at Newport, '56) for repeated cycles. Right out of the chute, the damn system sounded muy bueno beyond my imaginings. My Nuforce modified OPPO DVD-transport unit (that delivers DVD-A signals gloriously) drove the recently re-edited and hugely remastered Ellington session with effortless élan. I mean instantly, BAM! Extraordinary music leapt forward with the exceptional energy that defined that lucky day in Newport, Rhode Island, July 4, 1956 in Peabody Park. The pace of the Ellington's band's rising excitement lifted as the great Basie drummer Jo Jones slapped a rolled up newspaper on the edge of the stage next to Ellington's percussionist Sam Woodyard. His goading force increased Woodyard's urgent frenzy as a blonde dancing bombshell got up stage front in the audience, whipping the crowd to an unmuffled frenzy. It was all there. Cold. Right outta chilly cardboard that housed the units' journey two thousand miles and more than a week of Fed Ex ground travel.
Cold, ridiculously unready for the red hot Ellington orchestra at its most uproarious, and yet the Audio Nirvana amp and monitors made more than "good music." This gear instantly found the Ellington gang waiting to show up "live and cooking" right here in River City before my dis-believing ears. My plans to take a stroll around the nearby park with peacocks hooting were junked. I did, in fact, play Duke's hilarious concert several times. It was meant as a "break in" period. It kept my butt in my main listening seat each time. How do you walk out on Duke Ellington at his utmost best as a crazy dancing lady is whipping the crowd to a lathered fury?
I could not. So my long listening extravaganza with Audio Nirvana, at David Dicks' expense of patience, began on a bold, surprising note with Paul Gonzalves rolling though thirty-plus choruses out front while obligato layers of pulsing madness challenged him front and back. This just might be a system to be reckoned with I murmured to myself after the third time through the second disc.
The Bad News
I've decided that a system like the one David Dicks sent me some while ago (just about impossible to pry from my "back up" audio encampment) is surely not for everyone. I mean, a fellow who'll want to live with this set up will have to be relatively (or mostly) free of stray narcissism. He'll need to be ONLY ABOUT THE MUSIC and not devoted to hearing cooing plaudits from bimbo visitors or his dorky next door neighbors. The person who'll want and even need this modest looking system will have to understand audio value! He must be clever enough to truly "get it"—that you do not feed your hunger for musical truth and merriment through your eyes or by bragging about how expensive your equipment is. The Audio Nirvana person is the genuine music lover who, not necessarily rich (only harboring a luxurious taste for sonic and lyrical authority), chooses to follow musical truth over false pride and mind-forked audio confusion.
So there it is. The bad news... which coincides precisely with the GOOD news here.
I suspect the spiritual subtext in the line's moniker derives from the goal achieved here: namely, that profound music reproduced with profound accuracy, pace, class, tact and a joyful bundle of elegance is a transcendent experience. Thus, such moments (repeated or evanescent) concoct a "nirvana event."
I'm with that goal. I adore such moments. Why do they happen? I have no full-scale Guide to the Musical and Sonic Ultimate to share with you, but I'll wager that more than nine times out of ten, when an "ultimate musical experience" occurs, it has much or everything to do with the purity of audio reproduction which, in turn, derives from the purity involved in a policy of "less is always more."
That's the case with Audio Nirvana's design philosophy. Their cabinets are overbuilt to a fault, which means that cabinet resonance does not blur the delicacy and details of their exquisite drivers. I've been reminded by a note on the blackboard not to forget to add here that Audio Nirvana carries standard 8" drivers that are gut bucket dirt cheap at $128/pair and a "super 8"model that goes for $158/pair. For DIY purchasers deep in to maxing self-generated systems, Audio Nirvana has a "super 8" cast frame driver at $188/pair; a "super 8" neodymium model at $497/pair; and a "super 8" alnico model at $499/pair. To my awareness, this is the only company anywhere offering genuine full-range drivers larger than 8" (10" as well as 12" and a hair curling 15" models).
Although at moments, with Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies, I wished I had more power than the over-achieving 6V6 amp delivered, I felt much less concern in that regard with the monitors themselves. These are astonishing speakers that carry their pedigree proudly without wavering or buckling. As a "system," these units have a sympathetic synergy. I will, therefore, conclude for the time (awaiting the possibility of a chance to review a humongous set of Audio Nirvana monitors down the road) with a note on the inevitable and truly appreciated arrival of the system's full adjustment to its temporary "new" home. Few recorded instruments are as appealing to me as well-captured vibraphones. Ruben Estrada (Cal Tjader's last student) owns a majestic sound on vibes. It is rich and deep with a glorious bell-like clarity that decays slowly with unblemished warmth. I played my "on location" recordings of Ruben's intimate playing and found myself charmed to the maximum by his languid textures and by the monitors' exact reproduction of complex overtones.
With luck, I'll have more to report, but for now I encourage any honest to goodness music lover, who also cares deeply for accurate and seductive sonic layering, to investigate this amazingly fair-priced line of drivers and monitors. You really CAN score audio bargains.
I nominate Audio Nirvana—in the centrally isolated Midwest, Chesterfield, Missouri—as one of those few "real" places in which great music reproduction is allowed to go forth into the human universe with the angelic glow of musical magic enhanced by devilishly modest costs to anyone with ears that deserve such good fortune. Jim Merod
Common Sense Audio