Conventional thinking – who needs it? Not Max Schlundt and his Kultur Technik HiFi store in West Berlin where high end actives from Grimm, Kii, Manger, Avant Garde, Lyravox and Genelec enjoy equal ocular and aural billing alongside passives from ELAC, Burmester, Focal and other more usual suspects.
The most pronounced difference drawn out of the box(es) by Camp Active is a lower box count. The amplification is built into the speaker cabinets. In December, I put my own dollars down on Genelec’s 8341, the centre spot in the Finnish company’s newly established ‘The Ones’ range of point source models. The engineering rationale is that the output of coaxially aligned mid driver and tweeter call for a shorter coalescing distance than when the tweeter is positioned above the mid/bass baller.
Such thinking not only plays into the hands of Genelec’s long established studio-leaning customer base, where the distance from ear to speaker is commonly marked by mixing console depth, but also home-based audiophiles like yours truly looking for a high-end loudspeaker solution that’ll play well in a more compact lounge room where the passive room treatments of studio land just won’t play. Acoustic panels are expensive. Properly effective acoustic panels are really expensive. Properly effective acoustic panels that look nice (or visually vanish) bite a serious hole in any hifi system budget.
The point source 3-way 8341 ‘The Ones’ monitors thumb their nose at the audiophile norm of wood-veneered cabinets powered by an outboard amplifier (where the former drives the latter’s passive crossover network). From inside an curvaceous matte white moulded aluminium shell, designed to minimise diffractions, three amplifiers are wired directly to their corresponding drivers: a 250W Class D amplifier powers two oval ‘race track’ bass drivers whose acoustical output radiate from slits located at the top and bottom of an all-waveguiding front baffle where a pair of Class D 150W amplifiers independently juice a coaxially-aligned 9cm mid driver and a 1.9cm dome tweeter.
Crucially – and most unconventional of all – this active 3-way’s two crossover points – 500Hz and 3kHz – are implemented digitally, prior to the amplification stage. DSP-applied filter slopes tend not to introduce the phase shift that troubles passive crossover designers. And fewer phase errors means sounds are more likely to arrive at the ear at the right time. This is often referred to as time domain accuracy and, not coincidentally, is the lifeblood of MQA’s USP.
On cable hookups, our RCA interconnects remain in storage. Only AES/EBU digital and analogue XLR-terminated wire need apply. I go with the latter. Cutting over from AudioQuest’s Yukon to a longer run of AudioQuest’s Wind saw me (err) catch first wind of this loudspeaker’s ability to resolve upstream changes and in spite of the Genelec’s auto-digitising inputs that aren’t the obfuscators of transparency that many erroneously believe.
With each amplifier output precisely tuned to its matching driver’s impedance swing we need not feel plagued by the FOMO that drives the ‘what-if’ nervosa that infects high-end audiophiles with the constant urge to upgrade. With these Genelecs, confidence that we already have the best amplifier for our loudspeaker is part of the deal.
Genelec don’t make a passive 8341 to compare. If they did it it’d likely not sell. The pro audio sector long since bid adieu to separate passive speaker and amplifier. For studio runners, outboard electronics are seen as an audiophile quirk. For this audiophile investigating both active and passive loudspeakers, the financualy truth isn’t pretty for the audiophile seeking optimal performance from their favourite passive loudspeaker.
My own experiments with the KEF LS50’s passive and digitally active variants tell me without any doubt that one must dig waay deeper into one’s finances – thousands, not hundreds – for separate amplification, D/A conversion and streamer that’d push the passive LS50’s sound quality ahead of the active model whose internal electronics KEF hand over for a relatively paltry US$700.
As a Music-First Audiophile I have no fear of recording/mastering quality; I view it as intrinsic to music’s artistic process. I take what I’m given and adjust the playback hardware accordingly. Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie’s sophomore album proper, Hammer & Tongs, is typical of late 80s indie rock recordings: tonally weak and dynamically tepid. The Genelec 8341 make that clear without making a horror show of it – an important distinction to make.
Recordings remaining true to the live event might be a noble aim for a narrow range of music – chamber orchestras, duelling acoustic guitars – but remains irrelevant to fans of electronic music and/or modern (indie) rock
Spinning Blawan’s Nutrition EP, typical of my daily dose of bass heavy electronica, pulls up too much low-end for my 6m x 5m room. I could reach for Genelec’s room correction kit – the GLM 2 network interface box that hosts a microphone and companion software application via USB – but I don’t. Not yet.
Before removing the tiltable feet and screw-mounting the 8341 to a pair of the (German-made) G-One stands, I flip three DSP-interfacing dip switches found on the rear of each loudspeaker to tilt the bass downwards by -2db, to roll it off by the same amount and nix the front baffle’s power-indicating LED. This most basic form of ‘room correction’ can also be applied to the opposite end of the frequency spectrum. Treble trim/boost DIP switching is also available for rooms that are overly dull or overly lively. Mine is neither so I leave ‘em alone.
In allowing us to tune loudspeaker to room, Genelec, with heavy dose of irony, still give compulsive system tweakers room to wiggle, in-room agreeability being of greater importance to a loudspeaker choice than its accommodation of alternative amplification.
A further point of flexibility is the pre-amplifier where balanced connections are non-negotiable. If that pre-amplifier should also contain a DAC and/or network streamer, we have ourselves the modern audiophile’s dream ticket: a minimalist high-end audio system where the box count numbers three if a network streamer features inside the DAC (and four if it doesn’t).
Not much bigger than a hardback book, Mytek’s Brooklyn/+ (US$2000/US$2200) hits our active speaker hook-up requirements head on – a D/A converter with balanced outputs and internal volume control – and then exceeds them with a choice of analogue or digital volume control, slimline Apple remote hi-jack and MQA compatibility. The inclusion of a powerful headphone output (with option for balanced operations) and a very decent MM/MC phono input (whose settings are fixed), all for a shade over US$2000, make this Mytek piece one of the most feature-packed bargains in all of modern hifi.
To the Plus-d Brooklyn (review to come) I add a network streamer in the form of Sonore’s ultraRendu (US$875, review here). USB wire initially comes from Australia’s Curious before a cut over to a more deluxe offering from the UK’s Tellurium Q reminds me once again just how clearly and cleanly the Genelec resolve upstream changes. In case you were wondering, this Genelec/Mytek combination is streets ahead of the KEF LS50 Wireless whose basic room EQ tweaks come from back panel switches but go deeper with the companion smartphone app.
If your budget won’t stretch to the Genelec 8341 (€5800/pair), be advised that the 8331 (€4600) isn’t all that far behind in terms of musical openness and insight. An entire day spent in-store auditioning, playing with my own cash, had me peg the delta between the two junior models (8331 vs. 8341) as a little larger than that of the two senior (8341 vs. 8351).
Conventional thinking – who needs it? Not Chord Electronics CEO John Franks whose latest flagship DAC, successor to the DAC64 and QBD76, is called DAVE (Digital Audio Veritas in Extremis – US$10,500). Street corner mateship of the Latin variety. And not PS Audio CEO Paul McGowan whose DirectStream DAC (US$5999) is a full-width component (with weight to match) whose internals, like that of the Chord flagship, eschew standard off-the-shelf decoder chips from the likes of ESS, TI, AKM, Wolfson Cirrus Logic etc. in favour of FPGA silicon loaded with in-house developed code.
The DirectStream’s software comes from one Ted Smith (ex-Microsoft). All incoming PCM data is up-converted to PDM/DSD before being passed through a passive output stage (with low-pass filter) that converts the bitstream to analogue. Coverage of this more unusual DAC, both in design and sound, has long been a mainstay of this site. Since its initial release (and review – here and here), regular software updates from PS Audio have stepped up the unit’s sound quality to see it keep pace with incoming rivals. Same hardware, new software.
Launched at Munich High-End 2015, the DAVE isn’t new but it’s new to me. Its outward appearance is like no other high-end DAC: a porthole viewfinder on a multi-colour display; four chromed navigation buttons and volume knob. John Franks metaphorically points to Paris’ Pompidou Centre and name-checks three movies as heavy stylistic influences: HAL9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Chronicles of Riddick and Despicable Me’s one-eyed Minions.
DAVE’s internal code comes from long-time Chord Electronics contractor Rob Watts. His eponymously titled Watts Transient Aligned construction (WTA) filter seeks to prioritise the arrival timing of music’s more microscopic details. A quad of FPGA in DAVE has given Watts the computational space to stretch his mathematical legs to implement a more musically potent WTA than that of the Hugo TT, Hugo/2 and Mojo: three filter stages (as opposed to one) for better upsampling; a 164,000 tap length – ten times that of the original Hugo. According to Watts, the more taps, the better the DAC’s transient response; and the better the noise shaper the better the DAC’s depth perception.
For those feeling shell-shocked by the tech talk, you’re not alone. Looking past the numbers we find Watts, like (digitally) active loudspeaker manufacturers and MQA’s Bob Stuart, talking up the time domain accuracy of sound reproduction – ‘Where is that sound coming from?’ ‘How big is it?’ ‘What shape is it?’ – as much as frequency response truth to a fundamental and its harmonics.
Playing directly into the Genelec’s, both the PS Audio and the Chord show off why they are considered two of the best DAC/pre-amplifiers choices below US$15K. German publication Stereo rates them both at ‘98%’ in their latest Hifi Jahrbuch (Yearbook) but in also acknowledging the price disparity between the two units, they award the DirectStream five stars but DAVE only three. Such absolutism doesn’t help us much when it is the qualitative nature of their sound that separates ’em.
The DAVE’s sense of hyperrealism doesn’t feel as unnatural as that H word might suggest. On Burial’s Untrue, we note a window-wiper clean view of this landmark album’s darker corners – DAVE goes further than the Redclouded DirectStream in this respect – as well as more cleanly defining player outlines without the comparatively harder etch of the Mytek. DAVE’s tonal colour-burst is superior to both rivals but the DirectStream still gets the nod on tonal mass – it’s chunkier, chewier, meatier.
The Chord unit gives us a more intimate take on The War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, especially noticeable when paired with a loudspeaker, like the Genelec, that favours closer positioning to one’s listening position lest they sound a little stand-off-ish. Another reason why I opted for the 8341 over the bigger 8351 is the stronger possibility for later repurposing as desktop speakers where close range performance is even more crucial.
Where the DAVE really pulls ahead of the DirectStream is in packing the uber-dense layering of more complex recordings like Four Tet’s Everything Ecstatic. Under Chord control, densely packed productions come on with less confusion – music seems to make more sense.
The not insignificant ~US$4000 financial leap from DirectStream to DAVE holds tight to the Coloradan’s big, dynamic sound but goes deeper with aural satisfaction. In the restaurant world, an American-sized portion that pays strict attention to nutritional value.
Not everyone will separate the two high-end DAC/pre-amplifiers on sound quality alone. Remote controls aside, DAVE’s physical volume control rewards with greater tactility than the DirectStream’s touchscreen. For an additional US$900, PS Audio’s optional second generation Network Bridge slides into the DirectStream’s rear to add Roon Ready network streaming, Spotify Connect and MQA compatibility via PS Audio’s native control app. Roon’s MQA partnership is still to be formalised. On the other hand, with no network streaming on its menu, DAVE instead offers a a 6.4mm headphone output whose sound quality is a total blam-blam.
Conventional thinking – who needs it? Not vinyl spinners choosing the DAVE or the DirectStream as Genelec 8341 interface. Here I tap the A/D conversion smarts of another PS Audio box: the NuWave Phono Converter. Its S/PDIF coaxial socket spills with an on-the-fly encode of the upstream turntable / cart (here Technics SL-1200G / Zu DL-103R) pre-amplified output. Our choice of DSD or PCM. That’s useful for salting Destroyer’s Ken to taste, especially with the the DirectStream DAC, for which I prefer a PCM’s extra citrus pep.
Vinyl purists will likely prefer the Mytek’s all-analogue phono staging. The compromise being a marginally more quicksilvery presentation – the hallmark of bypassing a traditional pre-amplifier in favour of a direct digital connection but not as severe as my initial 2013 experiments with outboard power amplifiers. The PS Audio BHK Signature pre-amplifier returns some tonal mass to the Mytek/Genelec scene but at US$5999 flies in the face of system cost and box count minimalism. A more price appropriate pre-amplifier comes in the form of Schiit’s Freya – US$699 – untested by yours truly. To pre-amp or not to pre-amp – and which make/model – gives would-be active loudspeaker system tweakers yet another play point.
Conventional thinking – who needs it? Not I. In the coming months I could surrender the self-imposed minimalist restriction on this active loudspeaker setup to have the PS Audio BHK pre-amplifier play catch on Aqua’s Optologic La Scala, Schiit’s Analog 2 Yggdrasil or Wyred 4 Sound’s PH-1 phono stage. Vinnie Rossi will soon be sending my way a balanced output module for the LIO, along with the v2.0 DAC module, that put pre- and DAC back in the uni-box.
On how the Genelec 8341 perform relative to other high-end actives, I know not yet. Their seriously impressive performance establishes a baseline reading ahead of the all-inclusive Kii Three (due Feb/Mar) and the Manger S1 (due April/May). Before that I’ll be taking a closer look at Genelec’s GLM 2 room correction module and what it can do to further enhance the 8341’s in-room performance.
Conventional thinking – who needs it? Not you, not necessarily. For the Hardware-First Audiophile, component changes are central to a hifi system’s enjoyment — perhaps why we so many of our brethren so quick to dismiss the Devialet Phantom or KEF LS50 Wireless as lifestyle products. To accept their validity as high-end solutions is to effectively call time on the mix n’ match amplifier lottery.
That the audiophile majority persist with the separates approach despite it costing them cash I can understand. That keeping the door open to amplifier choices when it compromises system performance I cannot. In buying a car from BMW, we let the German manufacturer take care of everything. We’d rightly be considered crazy were we to consider a Porsche or Toyota engine transplant.
Similarly, the best amplifier for your favourite loudspeaker is a tailored fit at the driver level, the signal crossed over beforehand in the digital domain where tailoring according to the room becomes possible. The Genelec 8341 tell us this is as true for high end offerings as it is for the entry-level. That doesn’t mean passives, their matching amplifiers and interconnecting loudspeaker cables are ready for the scrap heap. Not at all. An entry-level Audioengine will not likely match a pair of Magico powered by a big ticket McIntosh. It just means that separated loudspeaker and amplifier configurations have to work harder for our affections (and money); that conventional thinking has its limitations.
Further information: Genelec