Friday, 24 August 2018

Amps, Ireland, Sweden and a Dealer Visit

A recent trip over to Ireland and then Northern Ireland gave an opportunity to catch up with a couple of acquaintances - one a local and one a Swedish import.

The local I've known for a while, but its only recently that John has moved from audio enthusiast to audio dealer when he took the opportunity to make a career change over a year ago.  I've probably known the Swede for a little longer, but not in the current guise as audio manufacturer Lejonklou (say Lay-on-cloo) has made a myriad of changes and additions to its amplifier portfolio since I last had a listen back in August 2015.  John's business has evolved quickly and from starting as a great source of used quality hifi (predominantly Linn) to a mix of used and new equipment.  The roster of manufacturers is still developing, but Innuos, Lejonklou, Kudos and Audioquest are the mainstay for now, with more work to do on adding more options in the coming months.  John seems to be working quite hard at identifying good quality equipment that might not be available elsewhere in NI / Ireland.

So let's start by getting settled into the listening seat at John's Kantata Audio base camp.  2 rooms are available and they're very much typical UK domestic settings and sizes.  We started in the larger room and with the larger / more expensive system.  Here's the starting line up:

Cup of tea
Audioquest Niagara 1000 mains conditioner with standard cables and a Masterplug 4 way extension leading out of the single high current socket for the 2 power amps
QNAP TS-453 Pro NAS
Generic Ethernet Cable
Linn Klimax Exakt DSM
Audioquest Diamond 0.75m Ethernet Cable for Exaktlink 
Linn Klimax Exaktbox/1 (Katalyst)
1x Lejonklou Tundra v2.2 Tarandus Stereo Power Amp (treble)
1x Lejonklou Tundra v2.5 Stereo Power Amp (mid-bass) - this is the latest iteration of this amp
Audioquest Castle Rock 6m Speaker Cables
Kudos Titan 707 Speakers

The Titans are aligned along the longest wall of a medium size room which is furnished very much as a typical living room / lounge with a suite, carpets, cabinets etc.  Reassuringly normal, really.  We tried a couple of tunes but I felt that the lower end boom caused by the room was too distracting - deliberately, Linn's SPACE optimisation was not in use tonight.  I did find that shuffling the listening chair forward by a couple of feet improved the situation significantly, moving it another couple of feet forward put it into a bass null in the room and was therefore too much.  Initially it was difficult to understand how the system was delivering bass notes due to the room effects, but once the seat was in a better place it was easier to hear what was happening. So then we settled into some more listening.  Tracks varied from Dire Straits' "Six Bladed Knife" to Malia & Boris Blank's "Magnetic Lies" via Shelby Lynne and Daft Punk.


Here's what struck me about this system - its a sense of effortlessness in terms of the listening experience - its easy to relax into the tune, into the meaning of the musical message and enjoy the experience.  I've heard many iterations of Linn's Klimax Exakt with Katalyst and sometimes the level of detail available almost overwhelms the musical message.  Not so here, the detail was there, but it served the musical message, it wasn't the message in itsself.  Nice.  There's also a natural element to the vocals that I know is a particular forte of the T-707 and one I particularly enjoy, but its better still than I've heard through these speakers before.  
I'm still not fully convinced about articulation in the bass which I think could be tighter and easier to follow, but its something that more time with set up might help to dial out, and I think SPACE could remove it completely.  But not tonight.  I wonder about how this would compare to Linn's own amplification so John's off to find a Linn Akurate 4200/1 power amp - a four channel amp that's in the same pricing ballpark as 2x Tundras.  The amp was cold, but it was very interesting to be able to hear the amps I use at home swapped out directly with the Tundras.  1 thing struck me immediately with this change, the other 2 main differences took 2 or 3 tracks to become clear and understood.  The immediate difference was a taughter "punch" to the sound, particularly noticeable with percussion.  This may seem to be a good thing, but after gradually getting used to the other 2 aspects, its really all about the balance of compromises (as usual in life!).  What took a little longer to notice was the loss of naturalness in the music, in vocals in particular and when coupled with what I would describe as a loss of "sense" in the music - lead guitars, piano in particular - it would be too extreme to say that these aspects became chaotic (they didn't) but they were definitely less organised, the instrumental lines were not playing as well together as they do on the Tundras.  It was harder to keep up with the message in the music.  Hmmm.
But then we changed back to the Tundras and, as is often the case when making these sorts of comparisons, what you've lost is easier to hear when it all comes back again.  So the changes described above, that took a little while, were immediately noticeable on the swap back.  I'm intrigued, and would like to hear this change in my own system.

We chat for a good while about the industry, about dealerships, about the buying experience, seasonal fluctuation in the market, what sells well and why (and why not of course) and how John is going about finding new manufacturers to add to the portfolio.  Very geeky :)

Then on to room 2 - a smaller room, more like a home-office-with-a-sofa kind of set up, but could be a small lounge room.  Entirely appropriate to a number of UK home set ups I would think.  Here we have the following:

QNAP TS-453 Pro NAS
Generic Ethernet Cable
Linn Akurate DSM/2 (Katalyst)
Audioquest Water RCA to RCA Interconnect
Lejonklou Boazu Integrated Amp
Audioquest Rocket 33 6m Speaker Cables
Kudos Super 20A Speakers
Power was delivered through a basic Masterplug extension lead with OEM power cables

Again, Linn's SPACE optimisation was deliberately left out of the equation this evening. I'm very familiar with the Kudos Super 20s, having heard them for many hours in a friend's system and had them in my own system when passive and again active with Linn Exakt.  So they're a known quantity.  Given that the Linn streamer in this system uses the same Akurate level Katalyst DACs as my own system, then this too was reasonably familiar (although not in Exakt guise here).  So that left the Lejonklou Boazu as the main unknown for me.  And the room of course.  A touch of boom again here, but not something very distracting and the smaller dimensions of the room meant shuffling of seating was a less practical option, so the furniture all stayed in the same place here.
Well this is quite some system, given its relative simplicity.  If you're after fireworks, slam etc., then look elsewhere.  If you want to enjoy your music then this is a pretty good place to start, although I would say that, despite the relative simplicity of this system, it still not exactly basement money, being around 15k GBP.  We used a number of the same tracks as in room 1 but added some Kiki Dee live into the mix, along with Kris Delmhorst.  Fluid, natural, great timing, a really enjoyable listen.
But John had another trick up his sleeve and the Boazu was quickly swapped out for the Sagatun 1.4 stereo pre-amp and the Tundra 2.5 stereo power amp, the latter imported from the larger room. The interconnects are now Audioquest Water between the DSM and the Sagatun and a pair of Audioquest Yukon RCA to RCA interconnects between the Sagatun and the Tundra.  So given Lejonklou's pursuit of the musical and emotional message in the music, I'm not sure that my initial thoughts on this change will be welcomed, but the separates did bring some good "technical" improvements to the presentation - instrument separation, a sense of the acoustics of the recording environment, greater image stability were all there.  But this paled in comparison to the biggest change here - the emotion in the music.  Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" is a live recording on the "Almost Naked" album and is something of a favourite of mine - I listen to it quite often, and we used it here as the A-B comparison track.  In comparison to the very "pop" and somewhat jovial original recording of the song with Elton John, Dee's live version is downtempo and in a much more serious place.  It actually has some meaning, but through the Sagatun / Tundra pairing, the meaning in Dee's vocals was so clear, so much more sincere, and quite stunning.  The little Boazu is very good indeed, but the separates are that much better again.  Sometimes I find the Super 20As a little too forward - too in-your-face, but not here tonight, even with the hard wooden floor in this room.

So there's definitely more to test here, and I'm hoping to hear more in my own system in the not too distant future.  I have to say thanks very much to John for his warm welcome, excellent demonstration session and his ability to listen to my thoughts and not force his own views on to me, my pet hate with some dealers and manufacturer's reps.  He has the solid beginnings of an interesting business in a very good, domestically realistic, setting and his place definitely deserves a visit.