Kog Audio, one of the UK’s most dynamic ‘new wave’ distributors, has been acquiring brands at a steady rate. One of its most recent is the German audio brand T+A, which has been gaining attention for its HV (High Voltage) line of electronics. Couple a media player and integrated amp from this range, with a Melco digital front end, a pair of Estelon floorstanding loudspeakers, cables from Tellurium Q’s flagship range, and a top-class Stillpoints rack and you have a true leading edge high-end audio system that is both distinctive and unlike any other.
Some of this is going over old ground. Melco is a well-known quantity around these parts, the N1Z having picked up an award last year. To recap, Melco builds an audiophile grade network connection and music server that no off-the-shelf computer components can hope to match. That a seemingly small player can produce something as sophisticated as the N1Z is more understandable when you discover that Melco is actually the parent company of computer technology specialist Buffalo. Combining Buffalo’s net-smarts with the audio intent of parent Melco (the company started out building turntables) makes for a product as good as it is clever.
Similarly, regular readers will know just how popular the Stillpoints ESS rack is round these parts. The aircraft-grade low mass aluminium stand that is designed to combine low energy storage with high load capacity is ideal for holding large T+A electronics boxes, but also features Stillpoints own isolating technologies basically everywhere. The rack itself and each component shelf bristles with Stillpoints proprietary mechanically isolating components, so whatever else is going on in the world around your system, none of it gets into or out of the components on each shelf. The result is quieter backgrounds and more musical insight, no matter what the product put in place.
T+A is a very well known, well-respected German audio brand based in Herford, near Hanover. The brand has achieved ‘well-respected’ status thanks to building a range of products that last and last. Recently though, the HV models from T+A have been gaining attention from audiophiles because of their high-voltage status. In essence, the high-voltage system runs the player and amplifier circuits at – perhaps predictably given the ‘HV’ suffix – higher voltage than usual. This improves the linearity of the circuit, but requires both very high-grade components in the circuit itself and a company capable of building products to a very uncompromising level. That reputation for building long-lasting products suddenly becomes all the more important.
The source component in this system, then, becomes the T+A PDP3000HV, fed both from its own central CD/SACD transport mechanism, and from the aforementioned Melco. You could almost think of the PDP3000HV as a seven input DAC with built-in disc handling capabilities. It’s got a large aluminium case for a reason too; ‘aluminium’ for its non-ferrous properties, ‘large’ because the case itself is chambered. In fact it’s five aluminium cases in one, with individual systems – disc player and input stage, decoder and analogue output stage, analogue PSU, digital PSU, logic and control surfaces – all housed in their own aluminium boxes, isolated from one another and the outside world. Just how isolated? It has separate IEC sockets for the digital and analogue power supplies!
Along with Howard Hughesing the digital data, the circuit itself is impressive; the PDP3000HV features a quadruple, double-differential converter layout, which is capable of supporting digital signals to DSD512 and 24bit, 384kHz precision. The circuit also features proprietary jitter-reduction systems, and – perhaps the most crucial aspect of the PDP3000HV’s performance – a fully discrete, T+A designed current/voltage conversion stage and analogue output section.
Like the digital player, the PA3000HV integrated amplifier is built to an outstanding level. At 38kg, it’s thunderously heavy, but then again, you could again, you could almost describe the amplifier chassis as a holding pen for a large toroidal transformer. That said, it is a 300W per channel design. The whole ‘HV’ concept really comes into its own here; the preamp section runs at 80V and the power amplifier stages run at 360V, an order of magnitude higher than the voltages used in most solid-state devices. T+A followers might recall that before the HV line, the company’s top amplifier electronics were often valve designs, and the company only abandoned the world of thermionics when it became clear that the quality control of modern valves were not up to T+A’s uncompromising standards. T+A took its background in valve design and applied it to J-FETs. The result is the devices use less of their operating performance curve, and the part that gets consigned to the low-power dump bin is the non-linearity part.
Like the digital player, the amplifier is divided into individual stages, although they don’t require the same degree of chambering as a digital signal. Nevertheless, the amplifier is essentially a symmetrically laid out (and fundamentally symmetric – or balanced – circuit design) pair of monophonic preamplifiers and power amplifiers sharing a common power supply input and chassis.
The whole system was connected together using Tellurium Q’s new top Silver Diamond cables. These flagship cables are beautifully made, finished in really nice braided jackets with extremely good WBT-esque terminations front and back, the loudspeaker cable looks like it uses a spaced pair of conductors, and… er, that’s about all you can get out of the company. Tellurium Q has a policy of letting the product speak for itself, rather than let the specifications dictate the proceedings. So, ‘Silver’ in the name, for example, doesn’t relate to the metallurgical composition of the conductors in the cables, but differentiates the detail-driven designs from the other neutral Black and softer sounding Blue lines. The ‘Diamond’ part shows the cables are in Tellurium Q’s top range in that particular line, as distinct from ‘Silver’ or ‘Ultra Silver’. TQ’s principle claim – applied to all its cables – is even the best wire acts as a filter in terms of phase and amplitude, and TQ’s concepts help minimise that filtering effect. These claims are easily confirmed by listening test, and experimenting with other cables in this system didn’t come up with a necessarily better solution, just a more expensive one. Sometimes considerably more expensive.
The basic concept of this system is to create as neutral as possible a set of electronic components that deliver enough power to the loudspeakers to allow them the freedom to do whatever they want to the music. That is the audiophile equivalent of placing great trust in your wingman.
Of course, that means the speakers need to be damn good, and in the case of the Estelon XB from Estonia, the cap certainly fits. It features the company’s distinctively curvy ‘E-Ion’ shaped floorstanding cabinet cast in the company’s unique marble-infused composite material, the XB – like all Estelon speakers – uses the ceramic Accuton drivers; a low-slung 220mm ceramic sandwich dome bass unit, with a new 25mm ceramic dome tweeter, and an inverted dome 165mm Accuton ceramic sandwich midrange in the top half of the design.
The loudspeaker is internally chambered (there’s a common theme here), with the crossover network being given its own space, and features hybrid Teflon capacitors and air-cored inductors. Internal wiring is with Kubala-Sosna (another cable brand that plays its cards close to its chest in terms of construction). Every part is hand selected prior to assembly by designer Alfred Vassilkov, then fully tested and run-in, although more time played in situ helps a lot, especially with Accuton driver units that seem to require a ‘settle down’ period after installation.
The XB is the big Estelon loudspeaker for a smaller room. And that means the kind of real-world European and Asian listening spaces that might be used with a system of this kind of price and calibre. Put this system in a larger room and the integration between bass and everything else gets a bit hazy and the resulting sound is thin in the upper bass. In that smaller room, XB becomes beautifully integrated and exhibits a complete lack of overhang. There is still a dryness to the overall sound, a characteristic seemingly common to Accuton-based speakers, but the concept of a completely honest set of electronics driving a pair of inherently musical loudspeakers works and works well.
The joy of this system is it is completely musically effortless in its serving up of detail. There is a lot of information coming off the disc or server, and the amplifiers are presenting this with absolute fidelity, but without the characteristic top-end sheen that many solid-state designs serve up in the process. All of which is gratefully received by the Estelon XBs, which are so remarkably transparent to source, such upstream shortcomings are hard to ignore.
This is a system in dynamic balance; the intrinsic neutrality of the T+A equipment (in the wrong system) could sound flat through less dynamically open loudspeakers, and the fidelity to source of the Estelon XBs could end with treble brightness from sources and amps shining through. This isn’t ‘two wrongs make a right’ though: it’s two ‘rights’ (and three more ‘rights’ in partnership) making a ‘superb’. And a superb outcome, too.
It’s hard not to be seduced by the sound as a result. Vocal articulation in particular is extremely good: ‘Lucky’ by Kat Edmonson [Way Down Low, Sony/Okeh] presents her voice with effortless ease, making her more than just another breathy girl singer-songwriter and showing her abilities as a singer of range. This is exceptionally difficult to do because this track is both extremely well known and deceptively light in recording, so familiarity takes over. But this system lets you listen deeper, and pays dividends as a result.
As with many good systems, neutrality without stark neutrality affords the listener a very wide range of musical genres, and that’s really the case here. The unforced dynamics, the open, walk-in soundstage properties, and the incredible amounts of detail on offer means you can play virtually anything though this system and hear its charms. Exceptionally compressed casualties of the loudness war being the exceptions; this is not a system to play Metallica’s Death Magnetic album [Virgin EMI], even though well recorded hard rock/metal such as Tool was presented very well indeed.
The great thing about this system, though, is it’s not a ‘hard listen’. A lot of very detailed and dynamic systems end up being rather uncomfortable to listen to for long periods – the energy they put into the music can be wearing at times. In this case, however, the sound is as satisfying and long-legged as it is detailed and dynamic. You could easily lose entire evenings to this system delving through your music collection and not turn a hair.
Downsides are few. You need to be very careful of room size, here: too big and the loudspeakers don’t gel; too small and the bottom end is very powerful. And the T+A designs in particular aren’t for box-swappers; aside from the weight, they are so well designed, and designed to work together so well, the HV electronics are an ‘all or nothing’ concept. And once you own them, you’ll own them for life – these electronics are built for the long distance. Finally, given the migration to online sources that the PDP3000HV does so well, some iPad control would be useful.
This is not a system ‘thrown together’ by a distributor, based on what’s in the stockroom; this is a consciously constructed, measured, and precise set of audio tools designed to analyse music without laying it bare. That’s a very narrow tight-rope, and the combination of Melco, T+A, Stillpoints, Tellurium Q, Estelon, and Kog Audio walk it perfectly. Highly recommended.
Price and contact details:
Melco N1Z: £6,749
Manufactured by: Melco
T+A PDP3000HV: £11,669
T+A PA3000HV: £10,210
Manufactured by: T+A Elektroakustik
Stillpoints ESS rack: £7,750
Manufactured by: Stillpoints
Tellurium Q Silver Diamond XLR: £2,292/1m pair
Tellurium Q Silver Diamond loudspeaker cable: £4,824/3m pair
Tellurium Q Ultra Silver power cord: £1,680/1.5m
Manufactured by Tellurium Q
Estelon XB loudspeakers: £25,000 per pair
Available in nine finishes
Manufactured by: Estelon
Distributed in the UK by: Kog Audio Ltd
Tel: +44 (0)24 7722 0650
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