Consonance Cyber845 and T1
This is really a multi-component review, as the title says; I'm posting it here and only here (no cross-posting).
About me: I've always been into music and considered myself an audiophile. I went through a period of about eight years where I was not really interested in trying new components or upgrading my system, for various reasons. Then, about a year ago, I discovered the resurgence in tube amplification (yes, I'd been out of it) and began a journey of learning, listening, experimentation, and buying and selling a lot of equipment. A *lot*. Speakers went from Paradigm to Joseph Audio to Gallo Ref 3s and finally to the Hyperions under review here. I owned, in this period, almost too many amps to mention - Prima Luna, AES, Cary, Art Audio, Marantz, Gallo (the bass amp), NuForce, Cayin, Bel Canto, Dared, and others, up to the Consonance Cyber 845s also under review. I tried several active preamps as well - AES, Prima Luna, ModWright (excellent!), and simple resistor-based and transformer passives. Sources through all this have been the Shanling T200 and very 'overachieving' Eastern Electric MiniMax CDP.
Shortly before the purchase of all this gear I was running the Gallo Ref 3s and had just 'discovered; SET. Up until that time, my favorite amps had been the wonderful AES Six Pacs zero-feedback triode EL-34 push-pull monoblocks. Then I got a 2nd-hand Dared 845 and that SET thang hit me in the face. I went through one of those "I need to listen to every disc I own to hear what it sounds like through this new, wonderful amp" stages. However, with the Dared (rated at 35 W/ch which I believe is a bit optimistic) in my large, open listening space, volume was a bit "limited" at 95dB or so. This was *almost* just fine, but this along with the extreme weight and heat output of the Dared, as well as the fact that I still really prefer monoblocks, had me put it up for sale.
I thought an Art Audio Carissa might have the extra drive required since it is known as a current powerhouse but, excellent amp that it is, it was not enough for the Gallos in this open space, at least not in my experience. (Others seem to differ but at least one professional reviewer who owns both the Gallos and the Carissa agrees with me.)
I'd always been of the mindset of "pick the speakers first, then the amps" and really loved the Gallos, but after this experience I began to rethink that strategy. I knew I also really loved the SET sound and the fact is that, outside of the ASL 805s, I was looking at amps out of my price range to get more power for the Gallos. Thinking about speakers within my price range that were very SET-friendly, my mind went to the Hyperion 938s which I had heard once and been very impressed by. At the same time, I knew I really loved the 845 sound and had been very impressed by the review of the 211 version of the Consonance Cyber monoblocks over at EnjoyTheMusic.com, as well as other, informal comments about these amplifiers.
I contacted the N.A. importer for Consonance, Quest For Sound, and talked to Stephen Monte there about pricing. A bit later I discovered that Stephen was also my closest Hyperion dealer. I decided to take the plunge and order both a demo pair of 938s and a pair of Cyber 845s. I was nearly certain, based on all my listening and all I'd learned, that this would really be the ticket for me, and boy was I correct. Stephen was great to deal with and gave me a very nice "package" price on the 938s & 845s.
The Pre-T1 joined the party a bit later. My previous experience with the excellent Sonic Euphoria TVC had pretty much sold me on the TVC+SET combo. I had a ModWright 9SL at the time, which I think it probably about as good as an active pre gets south of $5K, and in fact the differences between the two linestages proved to be almost subtle (more later). I decided I wanted a TVC again and what I really liked about the AZ product was that it used the well-known S&B trannies, had the 6dB gain switches, looked very well-built and had been well-reviewed (6moons).
I listen to mostly acoustic jazz - the classic stuff - with some modern world music, flamenco guitar, a bit of rock, and just a bit of classical.
I'm going to talk about the sound now, first as a system whole and then the pieces in isolation, and the first word I have is "butta", as in the "butta lady" (Mike Myers) from late 90's SNL. This is the word that comes to my mind in listening to the system - smoooooother than anything I've heard, anywhere. Smooth and pure as can be. That's what the Hyperions with good amplification give you.
It is indeed the smoothest, purest, most transparent midrange I've heard. Vocals, strings, and horns all sound as completely "right" as can be. Now, my experience with anything over the $5K mark (speakers or amps) is limited, but I've heard my share of the very expensive stuff - top-end DynAudio, B&W, Joseph Audio, CJ, Chord, BAT, Avant Garde, and more. I've not heard anything to top this setup in the all-important midrange.
The frequency extremes are also very nearly SOTA, if not perhaps the best money can by. However - when supplemented by my Velodyne sub, absolutely nothing is lacking. The sub is by no means a necessity but these speakers are rolling off around 30Hz, and if you want that last octave, you go to a sub. For the remainder of the review I'm discussing the setup *without* the sub in the mix.
Bass: the bass is extremely taut, tuneful, and natural-sounding. For example, Scott LaFarro's bass on the wonderful Evans' recording "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" never sounded better. Honestly, this disc, especially, is such a joy on this system. Another example that comes immediately to mind is the kick-drum on Pat Barber's "Pieces" on "Versus" - perfect. Turning to rock, Geddy's bass on "The Trees" from "Hemispheres" is also, definitely, as good as I've heard. (Anybody who thinks SETs are not appropriate for hard rock needs to get out more.)
On to the highs: frankly, they were better than I expected. Many people rave about the Hyperion speakers overall, of course, but the tweeters don't seem to get a lot of attention. They are first-rate. They do everything right.
Detail. There is loads of it. And I love it. Again, that first SET experience showed me what minimal component, short signal path, dirt-simple, single-ended triode amplifiers can do with regard to detail retrieval. These amps pull it out and the 938s put it in front of you. Jazz bass has the finger sliding and plucking sounds presented along with the resonance of the string separated from the body of the instrument if you listen closely. Ditto with acoustic guitar. Vocals - occasionally you will hear the smack of lips or the subtle draw of a deep breath - all of that 'you are there' thereness. But - to repeat what others have pointed out about this SET detail vs. the detail of some of the new-breed digital amps - it's just somehow more *natural*. Those NuForce monoblocks I had - they made me feel like I ought to be dressed in a snow-white body-suit in Star Trek-esque environs somewhere in the 22nd century. There was *lots* of detail - cold, sterile, analytical detail that did *not* make me feel like I was enjoying a live acoustical performance. *At all*. Not this setup - not in the slightest. I harp on this only because I don't read of it a lot in regard to SET amps. People talk about how natural they are in terms of tone and soundstaging but I think many people are really not aware of how good they are at presenting detail in a realistic and natural fashion. It is a large part of recreating the live music experience.
Up to this point, I've largely been talking about the whole system. So, how much is the speakers, how much is the amps, and how are the source and linestage influencing things? I'm not going to talk about the Shanling SACDP here and the linestage is simply a TVC at its best - transparent and dynamic as can be. Truthfully, these speakers sound great with just about any amp. I even ran the Gallo bass amp full-range on them for a brief period - not SET-like magic but still *very* good sound. I also ran a little Dared 8W 2A3 integrated and was stunned by how good *that* setup was. Still - it didn't have the soundstaging, bass, and detail that the Consonance amps brought. These are very, very good amps.
Weaknesses? It takes a stretch to come up with anything, but two things deserve mention. The soundstaging is very, very good in this system, and really showcases what good SET, especially 845s, can do. But, imaging is out-done by the Gallos. I've just not heard any speakers that have the ability to disappear like those things do, due to their virtual complete lack of enclosure and wide-dispersion tweets. And they do this with virtually any decent amplification. However - while very neat, I had to admit that this is honestly not something that really contributes to the music-as-art experience. Not IMHO, anyway.
The 2nd is that, no, the bass is not as full-on tight "as possible". Now, I *don't care* and do not really consider it a weakness at all, as I've not convinced that this bass isn't, in fact, more satisfying and realistic. But, mega solid-state power on the woofers does make them slam a nudge harder. I experimented with bi-amping with the 240W/ch Gallo bass amp I had on hand, but in the end got rid of it, preferring the Consonance amps run full-range. It just sounds better overall despite being a bit weaker in the 'slam' department.
I am so satisfied with this system that sitting in front of it has become a problem. Well, it was before, too, with my previous gear, but now it's worse. It is very difficult to tear myself away from it. The enjoyment it provides is simply more enticing than most other things I'm apt to do with my free time at the moment. This is a real problem of late. I'm listening to Stan Getz's horn as I type this and I'll be damned if I have the slightest desire to be anywhere else but here in the sweep spot. It is a testament to what modern speaker technology has become along with what modern, well-designed SETs with passive (especially transformer) linestages can do: clear, clean, transparent, quick, and extended.
A few words about the excellent Audio Zone TVC. 1st of all, I have to say that George at AZ was perfect to deal with. The day I called to order, he seemed to want to talk about audio forever (unfortunately, I was at the office and had to cut him off!). There was a slight problem with the initial unit - one of the taps seemed to have a bad connection, resulting in shorting at that setting. George sent me a replacement with no questions asked and before I returned the original unit, even though mine was custom-made with dual outputs. The 2nd unit has proved flawless. I'm not going to go on forever about TVCs: much has been written by professional reviewers. The AZ unit is a perfect implementation of the S&B trannies in an aesthetically stunning and compact package and for less money than the the Music First unit (which does boast balance connections). I am very pleased with it, along with the amps and speakers. Yes... SETs, SET-friendly speakers, and transformer-based passive linestages are really where the best sound is to be found again IMHO.
The speakers were demos and so were fully broken-in, but either the amps or the TVC or both took substantial time to open up - at least 100 hours. This was one reason I kept delaying the review - things were sounding better every week.
Main artists enjoyed over this two-month eval period: Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Jesse Cook, Oscar Lopez, VAS, Pink Martini, Rush, Depeche Mode, Willie & Lobo, Patricia Barber, Stan Getz, Ibrahim Ferrer, and others.
P.S. I have no affiliation with any of the manufacturers or dealers mentioned herein.
P.P.S ICs are WireWorld Polaris and all speaker cable - I bi-wire the 938s - is the amazingly good Anti-cables cable. Don't spend more than what this stuff costs for speaker cable.