As a reviewer I crave change and am always expecting to hear something that just might tell a different musical story. It’s even more intriguing when it comes with solid recommendations and takes the shape of a technology that, with a couple of exceptions, hasn’t completely convinced me of its musical merits up until now. Add the fact that the whole thing will be supplied and installed by a single UK distributor, it’s time to kick back and enjoy the music. No concerns about system compatibility here, and in the case of this system, no pressing reason to leave the couch either.
This Kog-supplied system is simply perfect for the lazy audiophile who likes to wander through their music library via a remote app. But, given my general reservations concerning the overall musical viability of stored digital music (excluding CD), was I really the right person to ask to review this system? I know both the Vitus SIA-025 and the Estelon XC speakers from separate reviews and think very highly of them both. But this system was going to succeed (or not) on the capabilities of its digital front end where both the Melco N1Z music player and the Exogal Comet DAC were new to me. Fraser, from Kog, had been extremely fulsome in his praise for both components for a while, and now it was time for him to ‘put up’ and let the equipment do the talking.
The Vitus is one of those designs that will most certainly go on to be considered something of a classic. A single-box integrated amplifier of a mere 25 watts, it sprang from the loins of the original SS-010 and, like all Hans Ole’s designs, is constructed around a huge transformer that is UI in shape and sits at the core of the amplifier’s weighty build and performance. The Vitus can be switched from Class A/B to A and it certainly should be left in the latter for all critical listening. It does take an hour or more to really show its qualities from power-up, but fully warmed, there is no question of its benefits. With two unbalanced and three balanced inputs and a menu system that I am growing more familiar with (after an initial rather dumb period) it tells its seamless musical story with control and subtle flair regardless of what music that entails.
Describing its sound leads me to the way the music flows through it unhindered. It is one of those open-window amplifiers that is always in control, but without the iron-fisted note shaping of some solid-state designs. It glides along with an almost casual attitude to both rhythm and tempo and never, ever becomes over analytical or flustered. It will sound as good in 20 years as it has done for the past several and is at home in most real-world listening rooms except perhaps for grossly inefficient speakers, larger spaces or the most dedicated of head bangers. If you have all three of these conditions then Vitus have plenty of models further up their ranges that will be better suited.
The Estelon XC has become one of my favourite speakers. This is the only stand-mounted speaker in their range and its single column support is attached deep within that curvaceous shape, necessitating transportation in a pair of chunky flight cases. The speaker comprises a three-way design utilising ceramic drivers from Accuton fabricated to Estelon’s own specific requirement and mounted in a Mid-Treble-Mid configuration. A substantial rear facing port means that they need a metre or so of room between them and a rear wall of which a little more wouldn’t go amiss if you have the space. Kog installed them on my wood floor, sitting atop Stillpoints directly attached to devices and with a modicum of toe-in; in fact, just about where they sat when I reviewed them a while ago.
Balance wise, they are lean rather than over-ripe, and when driven properly they have a superb bandwidth and are clean and enormously focussed. This, coupled with quite fantastic driver integration, gives them a musical togetherness and articulation that is quite special. Tonally, they are on the cool side but are never too bright, though that superb ceramic tweeter has incredible texture and is explosively dynamic when needed. I love the way that they create so much space and depth as they project the music outside of those slim cabinets. Their scale and presence is also notable. The lack of excess fat and undue warmth in the bass is offset by their precision and resolution. When driven by the Vitus (through Nordost cabling in this system), they speak with eloquence and real authority – together they make a very musical pair.
However, given my previous experience with both amp and speakers it was always going to be the front end of the Melco and the Exogal that would make or break this system. Both have been reviewed in these pages recently by AS. The Melco N1Z in issue No. 24 and the Comet in the issue following that. I would suggest a read of both of those for the (much) bigger picture. My concern was how this collection of Kog goodies hung together as a system, if indeed it did: it was always going to be interesting.
The Melco N1Z is best considered a USB digital music library designed and built solely with regard for its musical capabilities and potential as opposed to borrowing internals from the computer spares shelf. The Exogal Comet, supplied here with the optional separate power supply, has also been making noises, not least for its quality/price equation. But, given its excellent connectivity and the fact that it can be employed to drive a power amplifier directly, it is actually a very capable digital hub. My only criticism would be its silvered display that is supremely difficult to read except from a few feet away and in the right light. Though in truth, the remote allows you to quickly scroll through the inputs and adjust the level without recourse to the display. A conventional illuminated design would be my choice, but it’s certainly not a deal breaker. Hook this pair together with a decent USB cable (Entreq in this case) and you’re ready to go.
Both are immensely versatile when it comes to files and can handle anything from MP3, through higher and higher rates, up to many times DSD. The Melco has a pair of 512GB SSDs on-board with the ability to connect with external storage systems too. The entire music library is very straightforward to access and follows the layout that has become so familiar. The only real choices you need to make are whether to use Twonky or the Minimserver, both selectable via the app.
As someone used to listening through an extremely good CD-based digital front end, it didn’t take long to realise that this system has resolution to burn. The Melco had been pre-loaded with all manner of hi-res files and we also ripped some of my own CDs onto it via a MacBook. It seems impossible for me to try and explain how good it is without expressing my general (not total) disappointment with so much hi-res streaming I have heard up until now. What is it that separates a truly musical performance from the somewhat brittle, compartmentalised, detail-etched attempts that have caused me to look the other way? Why do I use my own home streaming set-up as a distinctly second choice musical source? I guess the answer lies in the way the music is joined up, and this is such a broad subject – too involved for this review anyway. So, let me distil it and say that resolution without a truly musical context is rather uninteresting to my ear. It’s like a footballer that can keep the ball up for hours on end, while doing handstands, but has no aptitude for the game, the team, or the tactical flow of play. The Melco/Exogal are definitely team players.
When you hear a system that is truly musical it should draw you in and move you. It really must be as expressive as the musicians and if it’s worthwhile it should be able to take you on an emotional ride. Sitting and listening to a collection of sounds, however explicit, doesn’t get anywhere near it for me. But, as always, the front end just has to be right.
This one is a success from the off. My rips of John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti: Saturday Night In Bombay [Decca] with all its full-on intensity pace and explosive beauty is a stern test. The atmosphere and rolling textures of the drone from the tambura that opens each track floats across the room and warns of the fire to come; but it is more than just a sound. It’s a colour, a calming constant, and a backwashed, coloured landscape against which the musicians are going to write their message. ‘Bell’Alla’ illustrates this perfectly, and the Melco/Comet is super quiet and allows the drone to softly wallow before heralding McLaughlin’s guitar. McLaughlin can be so lyrical and melodic, but you sense that the percussion train is entering the tunnel somewhere in the distance – when it emerges, it is already doing over 100 mph. The resolution here counts for nothing without some sense of order, and you get a lot more than the leading edges too. This track alone shows that the Melco/Exogal set‑up has the space and the rhythmic integrity to allow these enormous dynamic shifts full impact. As the percussion blasts through patterns of great intricacy and colour, the system is in its element. Never brittle or rushed, the lack of obvious compression is completely invaluable. The Vitus and the Estelons gobble this stuff up as the driving percussion fires across the room at you and never trip over themselves, drop a stitch, or sound disjointed; the whole system is an exercise in energy control and management.
That sense of ease and natural, unbleached tonality is a hallmark of this system and is always present. It lifts the musicality up to the resolution level, instead of towards pure information retrieval. The intimacy this effect can have is evident on the simple but rounded recording sound of Richard Hawley’s Truelove’s Gutter [Mute]. The track ‘Remorse Code’ is a gentle, close ballad with rather more subdued dynamics and pace, but is infinitely denser and tonally nuanced than it may at first appear. The system spreads such musical qualities wide and deep across the room, almost inviting you to step into its casual acoustic. Clever use of mixed reverbs and the instrumental shimmer break against the room’s boundaries as the gentle rhythms and textural contrasts play right into the enormous qualities of the Vitus and the sparse clarity of the Estelon XCs. It is a relaxed but far from straightforward production and highlights the superb ‘out of the box’ presence and accessibility of the system.
Once thoroughly warmed through and dialled into the room, I found this to be a very musical system indeed. I reckon you will love the way that you can hear the musicianship of individual performances and the fact that there is so little unpleasant tension in the sound. The creative aspect of music making that all musicians crave is beautifully realised by this Kog system and its performance arc is broad.
At this moment, I see streaming from a music library like the Melco as being at its most successful when run alongside a quality CD player and not as a replacement. Access to hi-res files through the N1Z is great, if you like hi-res. Personally I am intrigued with certain recordings but until I can get the music I want to listen to in high-res formats, it is no more than that.
The Exogal is remarkable value for money and could quite happily sit at the hub of many a high-end digital system. The Vitus and the Estelons are truly superb too but when together they make a system that perfectly fits the Kog ethos of ultimate musicality and where the musicians and their music are the stars, then that’s what system building is really all about.
Melco N1Z Network Music Player
File types supported: DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, LPCM
Ports: 2× RJ45 LAN, 3× USB 3.0 terminals, 5v USB charging port
Internal HD: 512GB SSD × 2
Dimensions (H×W×D): 6 × 37 × 35 cm
- Weight: 7kg
- Price: £6,200
- Exogal Comet DAC
- Digital Inputs: XLR, BNC, Toslink, USB-B
- Analog Inputs: isolated RCA
- Analog Outputs: XLR, RCA
- Sample Rates Supported: 16bit/32kHz–32bit/384kHz, DSD64, DSD 128
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 4.76 × 19 × 29.2 cm
- Weight: 4.2 kg
- Price: £2,100 (PSU: £550)
- Vitus Sia-025 Amplifier
- Inputs: 2× RCA, 3× XLR
- Rated power: 2× 25 watt Class A / 2× 100 watt Class A / B
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 13 × 43.5 × 43cm
- Total Weight: 42Kg
- Price: £18,500
- Estelon XC Standmount Loudspeakers
- Drivers: 2× 173mm Ceramic mid/bass drivers, 1× 30mm ceramic inverted dome tweeter in MTM configuration
- Frequency Response: 45Hz–28kHz
- Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms
- Sensitivity: 91 dB
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 126×26.2×36.7cm
- Net Weight: 49kg with stand
- Finishes available: High gloss black as standard. Consult dealer for custom finishes.
- Price: £15,500 per pair
System Supplied and installed by: Kog Audio
Tel: +44(0)24 7722 0650