Suggesting that high-end audio has anything in common with Little Orphan Annie might seem like a stretch, but in one way at least they share a reality: for audio pilgrims who sign up to the quest for musical and sonic perfection, no matter how hard we try – or how much we spend – the constant evolution of equipment and technology means that the audio state-of-the-art is always a day away. No matter how hard we run we never quite catch up – and to make matters worse, these days the gap between dreams and reality has stretched to a yawning chasm. With more companies offering more and more expensive products, with speakers that shatter the six-figure price barrier seemingly run-of-the-mill, and with even a basic, high-end system costing more than a (very nice) car it’s harder to compete and far more confusing to try – not least because so many of the super-expensive products on offer so often fail to deliver on those rare occasions you get to hear them.
So why do we keep the faith? Because occasionally, just occasionally, you experience a system that really delivers – one that ticks all the boxes and keeps all the promises; one that is so sonically adept and musically capable that listening and music take on that addictive quality we all remember from the very first good system we heard – the system that set our feet on this path in the first place. This is one of those systems…
This combination of CH Precision Electronics and Wilson Benesch speakers, all laced together with Nordost’s ‘value option’ Valhalla 2 (well, it seems like value compared to Odin!) is one of those systems where the music just is. It doesn’t obviously explode into the room or cuddle you seductively, it isn’t propelled ever forwards by a metronomically toe-tapping beat, nor does it exist in a permanently cavernous acoustic. Instead, it just happens; a natural extension and impression of the original event, performance that is all about THE performance; that resides with the performers rather than the equipment in the system, that simply sounds like real people and real instruments. This is still recorded music, but it’s recorded music with that instantly identifiable quality, the gestalt character of the real thing – and that makes it rare and wonderful.
On the basic, material level, this system could be described as impressive, complex, extravagant, or just plain expensive. In fact, expensive doesn’t really cover it: in all honesty it demands the addition of a few adjectives – like “ruinously”, “eye-wateringly” or perhaps the simple, expletive quality of Ireland’s favourite descriptor, “fecking”. But there’s no denying that this system cuts no corners in its pursuit of audio and musical excellence. On paper at least, it looks like a classic, high-tech, high-powered solid-state rig, with a stack of front-end boxes feeding a pair of massive mono-blocs – and that’s partly correct. The CH electronics offer levels of software derived control and configuration that go beyond the necessary and well in to the realms of “because we can”. I mean, who needs to control not just the duration and brightness of the displays but the test colour as well – and if the nine colour options on offer don’t match your mood, shirt, or latest motor, there’s always the opportunity to dial in a specific RGB shade! But as easy as it is to poke gentle fun at such electronic excess, there’s a very real purpose behind it, the degree of configuration on offer allowing both topological simplicity and unparalleled versatility, the ability to adapt the amplifiers to the surrounding system to an almost unprecedented degree – and that has a direct, positive, and dramatic impact on performance.
This system is built around the L1 line-stage, supported by the X1 power supply and flanked by the P1 phono-stage and a pair of M1 power amps. Of course, it will accept digital sources, but the raison-d’etre for this system and, in a very real sense, the secret of its success is the declared intent to extract the considerable best from record replay. To that end, the P1 offers no fewer than three independently configurable inputs (two current sensing and one voltage driven) with variable gain and loading as appropriate, as well as the option to include switchable EQ curves – all for the princely sum of £22,400 (EQ Filter £1,300). At the other end of the chain you find not one but two M1 amplifiers, a wallet wringing extravagance in the sense that these are not mono-blocs – at least not all of the time! In fact, the M1 is five amps in one: a straight stereo, a bi-amp (one input, two identical outputs), an active bi-amp (two inputs, two independently configurable outputs), a mono-bloc with the whole power supply dedicated to a single output stage, or a high-powered, bridged mono-bloc. Meanwhile, gain, and the ratio of local to global feedback can be set to further match the amplifier to the speaker’s sensitivity and electrical demands. With a rated output of anything between 2x 200 and 700 watts on tap, perhaps it’s not surprising that a single M1 will set you back a slightly gasp-inducing £37,400, making a pair cost £74,800!
Compared to the P1 and M1, the L1 seems almost prosaically simple: inputs, outputs, and a volume knob. But that is to misunderstand both the remarkable care that has gone into the design and construction of the L1 – and the critical role of the line-stage in any genuinely high-end system. I’m afraid that, if you want realistic dynamics, full bandwidth, convincing staging, and a real sense of scale, then neither passives, auto-transformers, nor a direct output from your DAC will deliver. Real systems use active line-stages, despite the demonstrable difficulties of getting one right – and the L1 is one of the select few that actually gets it just right. It is both the heart and soul of this system and is, in a very real sense, the root of its greatness. Having said that, this is a set-up that takes no chances, so both the L1 and the P1 are backed up by the X1 external power-supply – just to be on the safe-side. It’s a wise decision, and the benefits are all too clear to hear, but it does add another £12,400 to a final price-tag of £110,900 for the electronics alone.