The ANK Kit 1 Single-Ended 300B amp: Listening Impressions, Part 2

Hey, folks!

As promised, here’s Part 2 of “Listening Impressions.”

First, let me say that this is a very long post – I’ve provided you with lots of individual musical examples here. My bottom line is that the Kit 1 is a marvelous sounding amp, extremely coherent, clear and pure of tone. However, as you’ll see at the end, proper speaker matching is essential. Please read on… 

Coherence

My music collection, while leaning heavily toward pop music (Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Sade are favorites) is still pretty eclectic and includes some jazz (small combo and big band), orchestral music (classical and movie soundtracks), 70’s and ’80’s rock (the music of my youth!) and some things that are simply hard to categorize. Some of it is well recorded “audiophile approved” stuff (like Supertramp’s Crime of the Century) and some of it is not. And then there’s the music that my teenager has introduced me to (and vice versa) like singer-songwriters Lorde and Ingrid Michaelson. Keep this in mind, it becomes important later…

In my last post, I mentioned the clarity and tonal purity of this amp. It sounds very, very clean and clear – even startlingly so. Piano sounds great. Voices are heavenly. Guitars shimmer appropriately.

It is also very coherent.

“Coherence” is hard to explain in words, but you know it when you hear it. It’s a quality that the Reference 3A De Capo monitors have in spades and that the ANK Kit 1 raises to a much higher level. To me, “coherence” is when the quality of the music flowing from my system sounds like an unfragmented event, a musical performance that communicates the artistic intent of the musicians and recording engineers. When the system is coherent, you can relax completely and be carried away in the musical experience because your brain isn’t working overtime in the background trying to make sense of what you’re hearing.

Let’s talk about imaging for a moment.

Some people dismiss imaging and sound staging as “audiophile sound effects,” but I find these attributes to be essential to the perception of musical coherence. (I know, I know: you don’t necessarily get “imaging” at a live concert, but if the recording engineer worked hard to present the illusion of musicians localized in space or the reverberations of the performance venue, then I want to hear all of that!)

To me, “coherence” is when the quality of the music flowing from my system sounds like an unfragmented event, a musical performance that communicates the artistic intent of the musicians and recording engineers.

For example: Buena Vista Social Club [World Circuit/Nonesuch CD 79478-2] is a musically and sonically lush affair, recorded with gifted Cuban musicians who are just overjoyed and grateful to be playing together again in the same room – and it sounds like it. Listening to Chan Chan, the opening track, and then to the second track, De Camino a La Vereda, songs I’d heard dozens of times over the years, I was blown away by the added realism contributed by the Kit 1. On Chan Chan, the rendering of the acoustics of the performance space was  startling and three dimensional in the extreme. And the phantom image of the late Ibrahim Ferrer and his fellow singers harmonizing the joyful chorus, grouped around a microphone, was just remarkable. I’d never been this close to this performance in all the years I’ve been listening to it.

DS_Brothers_in_Arms

For more superbly recorded pop music, Why Worry from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms [Warner Bros. CD 9 47773-2] begins with a chorus of shimmering, plucked electric and acoustic guitars. The plucking of the guitars, the attack and decay, is very beautiful through the Kit 1. More startling, though, is the amp’s ability to present the various, overdubbed guitars hanging in their own positions in space between the speakers. Very arresting.

Bear with me as I share one other “I never heard that before” example.

While not my favorite Donald Fagen solo outing (that would still, after all these years, be The Nightly) Kamakiriad is still a great listen. It’s not the best engineered Fagen/Steely Dan effort. In fact, it’s rather thin and bright. In any event, a few nights ago I was listening to the opening track, Trans-Island Skyway on an HDTracks.com download (which atypically sounds better to me than the LP). The song opens with nothing but a guitar vamp, a very faint synth that sounds somewhat like a bassoon and some very well recorded finger snapping. But here’s the thing: the finger snaps alternate between the right and left channel! It’s amazing that you could listen to a song like this a hundred times and then, with a new amp, have this little musical “joke” revealed with a new amp! But there you have it.

Donald_Fagen_-_Kamakiriad

I’ve been dwelling upon that aspect of “coherence” which relates to spatial presentation, because I’m particularly sensitive to it. But there’s also an aspect of coherence that has to do with keeping separate instruments separated from each other and keeping instrumental sounds that do belong together connected to their source. It’s the difference between hearing percussive sounds and hearing a drum kit. If a system has this resolving power, then “difficult music” will be rendered coherent and listenable.

5570240

Take Paul Simon’s 2006 album Surprise [Warner Bros. CD 49982-2], a very unusual outing with electronica guru Brian Eno. This album is a coherence torture test. Wrapped around Simon’s singing and lovely guitar work are Eno’s electronic buzzes, howls and drones, along with some pretty raucous drumming by Simon stalwart Steve Gadd. Some tracks are very “dry.” Others are drenched in studio reverb. I have come to love this record, but even for Simon fans, it’s an acquired taste. That said, if your system isn’t delivering what I’m calling “coherence,” the album will sound like noise and you’ll wonder, “What was Tchad Blake (the mixing engineer) thinking?” But the Kit 1 contributes the essential resolving power to make sense of dense, complex tunes like How Can You Live In The Northeast? and Everything About It Is A Love Song. And suddenly those tracks make artistic sense. Forgive me if this sounds over the top, but you feel an emotional connection with and gratitude to the artists who made this music for you because you “get” what they were trying to say.

[Coherence is] the difference between hearing percussive sounds and hearing a drum kit.

I’d hate to fall prey to the audiophile tendency to dissect what I’m hearing in a way that undoes the very coherence I’m trying to convey, but let me give one further example of the way the Kit 1 makes sense of a recording by extracting information from the grooves or 1’s and 0’s in a coherent way.

Sheryl Crow’s great pop anthem, All I Wanna Do [The Very Best Of Sheryl Crow, A&M CD B0001521-02] begins with the singer talking (“This ain’t no disco, it ain’t no country club either. This is LA!”) accompanied by guitars and hand claps. The Kit 1 made me aware of something I’d never heard before on this familiar track: the engineer wrapped some subtle slap echo around those hand claps, and that reverb is a part of the musical message that you don’t want to miss. So, the more of this kind of information you are given, the closer you get to the intent of the artists.

SET amps are legendary for having a magical midrange, where so much of our music – especially voices – resides. I can vouch for this superb ability to conjure up a singer, whether it’s the late Lou Reed singing Walk On the Wild Side, Joni Mitchell singing Woodstock or Lorde (stage name of New Zealand teen sensation Ella O’Connell) singing Buzzcut Season from her smash Pure Heroine album [Lava/Republic CD B0019254-02]. When voices are this convincingly rendered, the effect is to be connected with the emotion behind the performance, which is an uplifting and uncanny experience.

Oh, and lest I forget: Can the little Kit 1 rock out? Yes, it can. The opening guitar solos and drum whacks of The Eagles’ tune Victim Of Love are appropriately raucous, and yet clear and controlled. Awesome.

System Matching – A Cautionary Tale

If you go back to this post, you’ll recall that there were three factors that motivated me to try a SET amp:

  • I’d heard in an online forum that a SET amp would really make the De Capo’s sing.
  • The qualities for which SET amps are revered were appealing to me.
  • I felt confident that the Reference 3A De Capo’s would make a great match for a 300B SET amp because Divergent Technology, the parent company of Reference 3A speakers, imports the Antique Sound Lab line of Chinese-made amps, and recommends this model, a 300B SET, for use with the De Capo’s.
  • Furthermore, the owner’s manual for the De Capo says, “Although 92 dB rated efficiency is not considered to be very high, the MM De Capo iA with its direct coupled driver topology (no crossover) does not waste amplifier power. It also presents very easy impedance loads to amplifiers. They can work very well with low powered purist design amplifiers of both tube and solid state types. Well designed SET tube amplifiers with only 5 or 8 Watts of output power are often used with excellent results…”

Thus reassured, I sold my Manley Mahi EL34 mono-blocks and Manley Shrimp preamp and bought the ANK Kit 1. Do I have any regrets about doing so? No, not at all. The Kit 1 is a far better sounding, more musical amp. It’s not even a close contest.

However…

Lorde_Pure_Heroine

Earlier in this post, I mentioned pop star Lorde’s great album, Pure Heroine. This superbly produced effort features, for the most part, very spare arrangements, often little more than Lorde’s distinct voice – now high and girlish, now breathy and low – floating on backgrounds of percussion and synth keyboards. But the album also features a lot of very deep synth bass in what might be called club or hip-hop mode.

So there I am, listening to the opening cut of Pure Heroine, called Tennis Court. The subterranean synths come in, and suddenly, the synth bass is breaking up on the low end! And Lorde? Suddenly she’s not singing anymore. She’s gargling! Yikes, what happened?

Sade_-_Soldier_of_Love_(album)

Same thing on Sade’s gorgeous album, Soldier Of Love. On both the opening cut, The Moon and the Sky, and the wonderful song Babyfather, things are fine until the super-deep bass cuts in, and then, Helen Adu, lead singer of Sade, is also gargling.

Is the problem that the De Capo’s can’t dig that deep? Nope. They reach surprisingly low for a stand-mount speaker and had no trouble with those tracks with 20 watts of Manley push-pull power.

I freaked out and called the ever patient and enthusiastic Brian Smith at Audio Note Kits. What’s going on?

He was there to help.

Clearly the amp was clipping – running out of power – on these cuts with very low bass. What was causing this?

We ran through a number of possibilities.

  • At first it seemed that the problem was only showing up on my CD’s and not the analogue side. Was my Musical Fidelity M1 DAC overdriving the Kit 1’s input stage? No: its output is only 2.2 Volts, shouldn’t be a problem. Plus, turning the volume down seemed to ameliorate the clipping, even on these CD’s.
  • Did I make some error in building the Driver Board? No, Brian examined a photo of the Driver PCB and all the resistors seemed in the right place.
  • Was is a speaker mismatch? Hmm…

Remember the claim that my beloved De Capo is an easy to drive, 92 db efficient, 8 ohm speaker? Well, Audiogon audio maven “Almarg” pointed me to this page. It’s the Canadian Research Council’s measurements for the latest iteration of the De Capo BE. They say that the De Capo BE’s sensitivity is not 92 db, but 86.7 db, averaged between 300 Hz and 3 kHz. It only hits 92 db in a few spots between 500 Hz and 2 kHz. Furthermore, its impedance rises as high as 30 Ohms at around 75 Hz and dips as low as 6 Ohms in the 100 to 300 Hz range.

Is the De Capo a great, revealing, engaging, coherent sounding speaker? I believe it is (and so does Soundstage Network). Is it really sensitive enough for an 8.5 watt 300B SET amp? Here’s my take: if you don’t listen to modern, electronic music, and your listening room is small to medium-small, and you’re not a total head banger intent on ruining your hearing entirely, the De Capo / Kit 1 combo might make you very happy for a very long time. But, if any of these things doesn’t apply to you, then I think (and my opinion on this may change over time, so “for now”) that the suitability of the De Capo’s with any 8.5 Watt 300B SET amp is “borderline.” I think that the Kit 1 really needs a more sensitive, easier to drive speaker than the De Capo to show all the beautiful things it can do. In fact, I think it’s a tribute to the Kit 1 that is sound as great as it does with a speaker like the De Capo. Still, my guess is that you want a speaker that is 94 db sensitive or higher, with a very benign impedance curve to unleash the ANK Kit 1. I’m no engineer, but that’s my gut feeling.

Where do I go from here? I’ll address some of those possibilities in my next and final (probably!) Kit 1 build post!

Until then…

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