Thursday, 28 January 2016

Glossy Black Towers. PMC Twenty.26

PMC? ATL? Not a letter K in sight?  What's going on here?

If you've been paying attention (hopefully!) then you'll be aware of Linn's movement towards their Exakt proprietary technologies.  These are, inevitably, focussed heavily on delivering to their own range of loudspeakers - either built into the speakers or delivered via Exaktbox digital crossovers / DACs which permit the use of any kind of amplification. However, as with the SPACE room optimisation algorithms, Linn is planning to support non-Linn loudspeakers.

So there's a bit of long term planning to be done before future system changes - see the review of the Kudos Super 20 from a few weeks ago which describes how I've gone from active to passively driven speakers to open up the options, which was the first of those longer term steps. So what of Linn's own speakers as options?

Well the Akubarik is a speaker I've been keen on since it was launched about 3 years ago, and something of an aspiration. It used to be available in passive (any amplifiers you like and make it active with Linn amps if you wish) and an active version with the active crossovers and amps built into a module on the back of the cabinet.  It comes with Linn's Exakt technology now - you need an Exakt compatible DS or DSM, so its not a straightforward speaker upgrade, its a complete system change (although many existing DS/DSM products can be upgraded to Exakt by Linn).  And the standard active version is locked to Akurate DACs and Majik+ amps.

My Klimax DS/1 was upgraded to KDS/2 in 2015, part of that upgrade includes the addition of an Exakt output, so that part is future proofed to an extent (I say to an extent, because I would need a music only system to use that function, as it stands, using Exakt on my DS would not integrate into my 5.1 requirements). Now, when thinking about Exakt options, I would really like to stay with Klimax level DACs, having been used to them for some time.  In Linn terms Klimax > Akurate > Majik in sound quality.

Why is this relevant to choosing speakers?  Well, the Akubarik (the obvious and desirable direction to go within the Linn range) has 5 drivers in each speaker cabinet.  For Exakt, that means a 5 channel Exaktbox (which would include 5 DACs) per speaker and 5 channels of amplification per speaker.  The Akurate range includes a 10 channel Exaktbox which would do the job, but, of course, only includes Akurate DACs.  To stay at Klimax level DACs requires a Klimax Exaktbox which only comes in a 6 channel version.  So that means 2x Klimax Exaktboxes.  Plus 10 channels of amplification of course - which, in Linn terms is 5x Twins or 10x Solos. Gulp. Double Gulp.  Not really sure that the room is big enough for 12 boxes of amplification and crossovers.  And that's before considering the costs involved in that lot.

My concern is this:  Exakt Akubariks at Klimax level has ceased to be aspirational, it has become something that could be achieved with a lottery win, but otherwise is highly unlikely to be attainable for me, even after a few years and used examples becoming available.  So whilst Exakt is impressive technology (I've heard it sounding good and not so good - it seems to be very dependent on a good installation / set up process), it doesn't look like an option whilst staying with Linn speakers.

I mentioned earlier that Linn are looking to extend Exakt to non-Linn speakers.  So perhaps there is still an option out there to progress the system that remains attainable and doesn't exclude Exakt as an option for the future - or maybe even makes it more possible than with Linn's speakers?  This is a limited range at the moment - B&W 802, Kudos T-808, Kudos Super 20 are the ones that are available.

A PMC Twenty.26 option is due to be announce in Feb / March 2016.  The B&Ws are out for three main reasons - they're big and I don't particularly like the look of them, they're very expensive and I'm not a big fan of the super smooth sound they make.  The T-808s I've heard a few times and really like them, but they're also too big in 2 dimensions - physically and financially.  So the Super 20s were tried a few weeks ago (results here - thanks again to Richard for their loan) and here, its time to give the PMCs a try.

How do either of the Kudos or PMC options mean that Exakt is still an option, when Linn's own speakers don't? Simple - fewer drivers.  The Kudos have 2 drivers per speaker, the PMCs 3 drivers.  So a pair of either of these can be supported by a single 6 channel Klimax Exaktbox and 2 or 3 Twin amps.  Still a lot of dosh, but significantly less than demanded by a pair of Akubariks.  Plus, they're not locked into Linn and keep other options open.  One more thing to mention here - Kudos don't yet produce a dedicated centre channel speaker, but they do offer to build a single C10 with horizontal branding for use as a centre.  PMC offer a dedicated centre speaker. Linn don't offer a centre speaker at all, above Majik level - very short sighted.

PMC Twenty.26 with drivers exposed.  Masking tape in place to indicate the position of the Majik 140 speakers - helps as a starting point and helps when re-positioning the Linns in the room

Any confidence in the PMCs before getting them into the listening room?  Yes and no.  PMC speakers haven't been on my list of favourites in the past.  The transmission line seems to have delivered a slightly detached bass, leading to confusion of the musical timing.  However the Twenty.26 has been at quite a few of the hifi shows reported on here on Audiophile Musings.  First at the Bristol Sound and Vision show for their launch back in February 2014 when they sounded excellent and to me, more enjoyable and musical than PMC's own FACT 12 demonstrated on the same day on the same system with the same music.  The FACTs were more detailed, probably a little faster, but most definitely not as much musical fun to listen to.  At the other shows I've heard them they've acquited themselves well too.  Which is as good as it gets for hifi shows as (read the reports elsewhere on here) they're often very challenging for the room hosts and most certainly for show visitors.  Getting a good sound at a show seems to be rare compared to the rooms that struggle to get a good result.  So bringing them into the pretty much exclusively Linn system at home wasn't a worry - its also interesting to see that Linn are supporting this speaker for Exakt, seemingly without PMC's support (although that's not an official position from either company), so there must be some respect for what they do, up in Glasgow.

Shiny cabinets installed with industrial looking drivers.  Not so obvious from this picture are the 2x large foam covered transmission line vents at the base of each cabinet 

With the help of Paul at Hifi Lounge (dealer visit report on here soon), even though I was a completely new potential customer for them, a pair of demo Twenty.26s were made available to take home for a week.  They're in "diamond black" (PMC speak for piano black) which wouldn't be my first choice of finish, but the best they do in terms of fitting in at home - the other finishes are Amarone (a reddish wood), walnut and light oak.  They're about 50mm taller than my current Majik 140s, but they look much taller than that - I think its the visual effect of the narrower front baffle emphasising their height.  At least their height means that the top is not visible from the listening position - so at least the dread "dust on gloss black" won't be obvious when listening.

I'd prefer a matt black (black ash perhaps), but the quality of the piano black finish is absolutely superb - faultless in fact.  They lean back about 5 degress (the stand extends out the back to provide apparent stability, but its really an illusion as the spikes are directly under the corners of the speaker cabinet, not the back corners of the stand) to provide a degree of time alignment of the drivers.  It was this lean back that caused most of the "domestic acceptability" discussion, rather than the finish itsself. Once the grilles were fitted that is. With the grilles off, the 3 different drivers and their mounting bolts lend a rather industrial look.  The grilles are full length, feature a PMC badge near the bottom and are held in place by magnets which are both very strong and very accurately placed which ensures the grilles align perfectly with the top and side edges - they're very well done.  With the grilles on, the speakers are quite discrete, despite their size.  PMC themselves are a much larger and older company than Kudos, with a wider range of products and their origins in the professional world, not that is particularly relevant really.

Having picked up the loan speakers from Hifi Lounge (with a week available to play with them), they were unloaded at home, which was no mean feat as, although they're not massively heavy, their boxes are very large and therefore challenging to manoeuvre.

Unboxing

Having watched Paul box up the speakers, it was easy enough to unbox them.  The key thing is not to lay them on their front at any time as that would be disastrous for the dome drivers.  Their box is sturdy, they're wrapped in a fleece cloth bag with the stands separate.  With the speaker upside down on a towel, the stand goes on easily with 4 allen bolts - allen key and spike spanner are included.  The instructions on tightening the stand bolts are very explict - after the bolts stop turning by hand, just turn them one half turn - this is to prevent crushing the large but thin cork washers that sit between stand and speaker - they form some kind of decoupling / damping role.  The stand is a substantial lump of MDF in matt black finish - makes me wonder what a stand like the sold metal M140 stands would do.  Something for later experimenting perhaps. Much later. Four substantial and nicely machined stainless steel spikes are provided.  These were left off during room positioning.

The rear is where the terminals are - there are 3 pairs of substantial gold plated posts that accept 4mm plugs, bare wire or spades - this allows for bi/tri wiring/amping.  As standard these three pairs are connected by gold plated solid rods to allow a normal single wired connection.

Around the front there is a 27mm dome tweeter right at the top of the cabinet (somewhat above normal seated ear height), a large 50mm mid-range dome (at around ear height) and a smallish 155mm bass driver with a large 90mm dust cap.  They all look well made and finished with the cabinet cut outs perfectly machined.  Well presented in terms of quality and finish, but rather industrial.  The pair of rectangular transmission line exit holes at the base of the cabinet are filled with a very rigid foam and not the most attractive of features. We preferred the look with the grilles installed - less distracting that way.

Looking much smarter with the grilles in place.  This is how they stayed

Positioning

These are probably the least position sensitive floorstanders I've had in the room.  Perhaps this is a contrast to the Majiks which have large rear ports, the PMCs are front facing and subject to a lot of damping /  absorption / tuning as the soundwaves travel along the 3.3m internal advanced transmission line (the ATL in the opening paragraph above) - with only very specific frequencies making it to the outlet.  With Linn's SPACE optimisation switched off, Van Damme 4sqmm cables connecting the Klimax Chakra Twin/Dynamik power amp to speakers and starting from where the M140s normally stand, they worked very well in the start position and moving them back and forward by up to 150mm has some effect on the bass response, but not as much as normally experienced.  Settled on them being about 100mm further forward than the M140s, but due to the sloping of the baffle, this ended up being only about 5mm further forward when measured at the top of the cabinet (although the cabinet itself is deeper than the M140).

Best imaging was experienced with a little less toe-in that the Linns.  In my room I don't get the ideal equilateral triangle of speakers and listening seat.  So toe-in (or not) is critical to getting the best imaging.

Once the positioning was complete, spikes were installed and each speaker levelled.  Levelling needs to take place on the stand, which is good for not having to put a spirit level on that piano black lacquer.   A small spanner is provided for tightening the spikes.  Seems that this is deliberately short so as not to over tighten the spikes.


SPACE Time

Linn provides for the Twenty.26 within their ever expanding list of speaker options for room optimisation, so that was easy enough.  the laser "tape" measure came out and the new speaker positions entered into the settings in Konfig.  The algorithms do their stuff and the usual result - 4 room nodes and too much attenuation at each frequency position.  The result was a bit flat and distinctly lightweight.  About 3 hours of messing with the settings (using Linn's guidance instructions) gave me this set of notches.  I think there may be a bit more to do, but this is working well for now. The light grey are the calculated settings, the blue dip at around 25Hz and the green dips are the settings I ended up with.  Perhaps this is a reflection of how these speakers are not massively position dependent in my room:


Listening

Lets get on with some proper listening.  Again, as per the Kudos review, I will make comparative comments to my M140s, the Kudos Super 20 and the Linn Akubarik - only the Akubarik hasn't been in my room, so those comments are based on hearing them many times in many different rooms and configs. Not perfect, but that's often the way it goes with this hifi lark - perfect and back to back comparisons are not always possible.

The speakers are the demo models, are about 15 months old and as such, should be run-in, if such as thing is necessary for them.   What are the initial impressions?  Well, a certain amount of solidity to bass notes, a very even treatment of all frequencies and lots and lots of fine details.  There's a sense of speed to the sound too - something more immediate than the Linns, but not as insistent as the Kudos. Without the grilles there's something edging towards sibilance - but never actually getting there - the grilles tone this down a touch.

I leave them playing to themselves for a bit at moderate volume.  Each time I return to the room, there is something very striking about the continuing even treatment of the full frequency range. Even at only 40 (out of 100) on the volume control (normal, properly focussed listening volume is in the 60-65 range in my room), there is that serious and solid bass going on.  Nice, I like that - good for when the kids have gone off to bed.

So, once they'd been playing a while, a selection of choice choons get loaded up into the playlist and some proper music listening gets underway.  Nils Lofgren, Deadmau5, Yello, Thea Gilmore, The Black Smoke Orchestra, Ian Shaw, Tuung, Jamie Woon, Asa, Daft Punk you get the idea - a fair amount of variety gets thrown at the PMCs.  And there's one clear aspect of them that stands out time after time  - their ability to play a bass line that's solid, stable, tuneful, complex and, when needed, visceral.  Evaluating using Tune Dem (for those Linnies out there) is no challenge at all.  Following the tune is child's play, but I'm quick to realise that the tune can be much more complex than I'm used to.  Towards the end of Daft Punk's Georgio Moroder track (on Random Access Memories), there's a crescendo section that builds and builds in volume, but the bass guitar's part also builds in complexity and speed.  Its a revelation - playing this far more clearly than the Kudos, with resolution the 140s can only dream of, and from what I remember of the Akubarik, the 26 plays it with a greater sense of timing and boogie factor.  At the end of the track as the "click" slides down the scale it ends deep, rich and solid in the room. Goosebumps!

Black Books from Lofgren's Acoustic Live album is a favourite track and again, the guitar playing is demonstrating many more subtleties, attack and complexity. Where has all that information been hiding? Asa's Bibanke (from the [Asha] album) lilts along beautifully - again that tuneful bass is clear - on the M140s the double bass is playing a simple few notes but with the 26 there are a good few extra (but very quiet) in-fills in between the main bass line.  Those extra elements enable the tune to be followed that bit easier.  On this track, the drums are played with wire brushes - now the drums are not only distinct, but the kit seems to have a space to itself in the mix, with the floor tom responding to a hit from the brush with the usual thud, but its preceded by the "bong" of the taut drum skin. Impressive.

What about imaging?  Well, its different to both the Linn and the Kudos.  Its more precise and stable than the Linns, just as deep, but it projects only a little into the room, but further back behind the speakers.  I think the Kudos has the edge on image depth, but the 26 is a little more stable.  Its easy to place instruments in 3 dimensions, on a well recorded track.  Playing some Nitin Sawhney and some Ficci demonstrates the ability to throw sound as if its coming from behind or the side wall - there's some clever processing applied to these tracks.

And vocals?  Stunning.  Perhaps that mid range dome is doing something clever here (both the Kudos and Majik 140 use quite large drivers for the critical mid-range) - with less crossover involvement in the vocal range.  Hugh Masakela on Stimela (Train Song) live is full of subtleties, dynamic contrasts and nuances.  Snappy when needed, smooth and fluid in the quieter passages.  Giovanni Georgio's voice stands out in his Daft Punk opening monologue, but the chatter behind him is still clear, as is the tune of the underlying bass line.  There is still a hint of sibiliance that never turns out to be delivered - but this may be a facet of the Klimax Twin amp as much as anything else - as I noted when comparing this amp the the Lejonklou Tundra, in mid 2015. On The Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face, there is a breathiness to the chorus vocals that just doesn't exist on the Linns.  The voice remains distinct throughout the tracks too, rather than being partially obscured by the instruments. Funkerman's Speed Up (Alix Alvarex Remix) has strong, deep, solid bass lines, but they underpin the driving nature of this track, they don't overwhelm it.  There's quite some authority here.

These speakers also deliver exceptional detail in the treble.  But its subtle - the ability to hear the difference between strokes /  hits on a cymbal, clicks and pops in electronic music such as Yello or Trentemoller snap and crackle but don't grate.  A great example of this is demonstrated on Funkerman's Speed Up (ATFC Remix) there are some castanetish sounds that clatter in space around and in front of the speakers - clear as you like. There's a world of difference between a speaker that does exceptional treble information, and one that throws treble energy out there to make it seem like there's loads of detail.  The difference here is difficult to describe - but lots of treble content isn't the same as lots of treble information.  This aspect is one of the Majik 140's best attributes - detail not quantity, the PMCs doing something similar but with more subtlety, faster transients and extra finesse. And more details.

As with the Kudos Super 20s, Richard kindly loaned his Naim Super Lumina speaker cables, so they were put into the place of the van Damme 4sqmm blue cables and more listening was done.  These cables allow yet another level of detail through - they're not revolutionary, but they do work well. Those bass lines are given an extra level of solidity - on Deadmau5's Avaritia (from While 2>1) the main bass rhythm hits like its in the room.  Is there a downside to these speakers?  Yes. Its an intolerance for severely compressed music.  If you like that ultra compressed pop stuff, then these are not the speakers for you.  They show it up for what it is - a travesty.  Mild to moderate compression (most stuff, lets be honest) is fine, but there's no hiding rubbish production values here.

So there we have it.  I guess I could go on more about the various aspects, but it would be more of the same really, just different tracks.  These speakers have authority, control, articulation, detail, superb image stability, and a sense of effortless delivery, at least when fed by my electronics.  So, it looks like, after 25 years of Linn speakers (only Keilidhs and Majik 140s, but with different passive / active configs and a number of different amps), a choice has been made. How would I characterise them? Well - using the Linn line - imagine the subtlety, detail and finesse of the Akubarik, but with the joy and boogie factor of the Linn Keilidh.  So the Akubariks are no longer an aspiriation. The PMCs won't be going back to the shop.

Grilles on, position finalised, and they're not going back to the shop

For those interested, please visit http://www.lejonklou.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=6 where the Linn speakers, amps and active cards are available for sale  :)



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