First, let me emphasize that I find nothing wrong with the Stirling LS3/6 + AudioKinesis Swarm Subwoofer System I've been using. Each of the parts is still a great bargain and together they make a great truly full-range bargain speaker system, in my opinion. My decision to move on is strictly a personal one based on audiophile itch, my personal perceptions of my listening space, and my evolving listening goals. That said, I think the changes have produced a system which provides the best sound reproduction I've yet achieved in any system and that again the speakers are a bargain.
Several factors played into my decision to move from the Stirling LS3/6 + Swarm to the Janszen Valentina Active as speakers for my upstairs small stereo room system:
- I've hinted at my small upstairs room being a bit claustrophobically crowded with equipment and furniture.
- I've also mentioned my new-found interest in headphone listening. I've discovered that, spatial presentation aside, modern high quality headphones can present a combination of tonal rightness and real musical detail which approach much more closely what one hears in a concert than what is possible with most speakers. What you lose by not hearing left and right channels with both ears is compensated for somewhat by the total lack of listening room coloration.
- In my experience, adding subwoofers to any speakers tends to defocus the presentation a bit. This was true even when I attempted time alignment, such as with the TacT RCS 2.2XP. With the four Swarm subs well distributed around the room to minimize low-bass coloration, time alignment really isn't possible since the two woofers assigned to each channel will not be the same distance from the listening position. You may not think this is important if the subs are crossed over at a fairly low frequency (43 Hz in my case) and the mains overlap with the subs since the mains are run full range in my case. But A/B comparisons with the subs on and off always showed that while the Swarm added space, size, and bass extension to the presentation, that presentation was always a bit blurred spatially and dynamically compared to the LS3/6s alone. This was always true with other sub/main combos in my prior room as well. I lived with it because I liked the bass extension and added size/space with the subs. But headphones give the bass and the rest of the spectrum in perfect focus. This led me to conclude that it sure would be nice to have truly full-range main speakers and ditch the subs.
- Ditching the subs would remove a lot of "equipment clutter" from the room: four subwoofer boxes, two amps, and lots of cables.
- My recent positioning (see Rule of Thirds 29% Version at http://noaudiophile.com/speakercalc/) for the main speakers, at least with the Stirling LS3/6, removes the need for electronic equalization. That means that the Z-Systems or other EQ box could be removed from the room.
- This is a single-listener room. Thus, I don't need to worry about how the speakers fill the room with sound for demos/parties/group listening, etc. In contrast, in my downstairs music room, group listening is commonplace. My wife and all our relatives are thrilled by the sound of the big Harbeths in that room.
- I do like the relatively small size of the Stirlings, especially for this small room. Bigger boxes like the Harbeth M40.x would look big in this room and panels are probably out of the question since I can't get both them and me far enough from the walls behind us.
- Several hereabouts have found satisfaction with the Janszen Valentina floorstanders. I, too, had found these excellent sounding two years running at AXPONA. REG's review, as well as other on line comments by reviewers and owners, have been uniformly very positive. The review by the Part-Time Audiophile was what convinced me, however. The reviewer is an admitted headphone listening lover and found the Janszens unique among speakers in giving him the type of musical detail which comes easy for headphones, while still having very accurate tonality and doing exceptionally well all the spatial things which make listening through speakers both a real kick and sounding more like a concert hall presentation.
In December I decided to pull the trigger. Three months later, I had my Janszen Valentina Active powered speakers ensconced in my upstairs room. The Janszens actually look smaller than the LS3/6s on their stands did. The angled back position of the Janszens, together with all the sculpting of their cabinets and plinths makes them look smaller than they actually are. And the further back I angle them (since I listen from fairly close up, I angle them back a bit more than usual), the smaller they look even though the floor space they occupy increases.
Benchmark DAC-3 DX Replaces Lyngdorf TDAI-2170
But the Janszens are not the only change I've instituted. I've decided to move the Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 to the downstairs system. Its digital output will feed the digital input of the Lyngdorf SDA-2400 which currently powers the Harbeth M40.1s there. I will then add either my current Z-Systems rdq-1 or the paid-for-but-still-coming DSPeaker X4 to that system to provide electronic equalization. The Harbeth midbass could use some taming. Other listeners to this system don't seem to mind, but as usual in my experience, unless the room is rather larger than the one where they are, the midbass is a bit or more rich with most reasonable positioning of listener and speakers. The combination of the Lyngdorf's EQ options and the separate electronic EQ will allow me to fix all the problems, including any actual measured midrange projection.
Again let me stress that, other than this unit's implementation of RoomPerfect, I find no flaw with the TDAI-2170. Its sound is truly outstanding and its feature set makes it a unique Swiss Army Knife of digital preamps/integrated amps.
Upstairs, in the Lyngdorf TDAI-2170's place, I've added the tiny-by-comparison Benchmark DAC3 DX, which is the latest model with digital-only (AES/EBU, coax, toslink, USB) inputs. I did not want to give up the ability to deal with "intersample overs" which the Lyngdorf had and the Benchmark is one of the few other games in town on that front. See the discussion of this issue in the Benchmark Application Notes: https://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/app...-cd-recordings. I have the Benchmark's pro-audio-level XLR outputs padded down by 20 dB through movement of internal jumpers so that the volume controls on the Benchmark and Valentina amps operate in their sweet zones and so that the Benchmark's XLR balandced outputs do not overload the Valentina amp inputs (such overload was clearly audible with the Benchmark's balanced outputs unpadded). The DAC-3 DX manual with instructions and measurements is at https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/03...42760822039914
Electronic Visionary Systems, the modifier of the Oppo BDP-105 and 105D I use in my two systems, has now given up modifying those machines in favor of Chinese DACs which use the new ESS chips. EVS says they have not been able to modify machines using the older ESS 9018 chips used in the Oppos I have to sound as good as the stock versions of machines using the new ESS chips. Thus I decided to get a DAC which uses one of those new chips. The Benchmark DAC-3 DX uses one of the new family of ESS Sabre DAC chips, the ES9028 Pro. Three such are used for each channel of the balanced main output, while one is used per channel for the unbalanced auxilliary output.
Now I will be able to deal with intersample overs in both my systems, with the Lyngdorf in one and the Benchmark in the other. It's difficult to directly compare the sound of the DACs in the two (actually, I really haven't figured out how to do that) since the Lyngdorf is basically a power DAC which also directly drives speakers. I hear nothing amiss when either is in use. If pushed, I would guess that the Benchmark has a bit better bass definition and wallop, as well as a yet-more-analog-like, yet more "relaxed" sound due to yet smoother, more filligreed, and more extended highs. But this is just a guess, absent direct comparison.
Kanex Pro Audio HDMI De-Embedder
Since the Benchmark, unlike the Lyngdorf, does not accept HDMI output from my EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105D, I've also added the very tiny Kanex Pro Audio De-Embedder. Note that the picture of the Kanex at that link actually shows two of the units stacked on each other so that the same photo can show both the input and output sides of the box. In addition to this tiny box, the Kanex has a wall-wart power supply. This $70 unit works like a charm, accepting up to HDMI-based 24/192 at its input and outputting bit-perfect same format on SPDIF coax or toslink at its output. In my system the de-embedder's HDMI input is fed from the Oppo's HDMI output via Blue Jeans HDMI Belden Series FE cable and the de-embedder's coax SPDIF output feeds one of the Benchmark's digital audio inputs via coax Blue Jeans Belden 1694A digital coax cable.
I like to use the HDMI output from the Oppo because the Oppo's HDMI port outputs full resolution PCM signals from SACD and high-res PCM sources like the Reference Recordings HRx discs and Blu-Ray Audio discs. The Oppo's coax output will not put out any signal for SACD or high-resolution PCM sources. Using the HDMI out eliminates the necessity of another D/A - A/D conversion for SACD and PCM high resolution sources which would otherwise have to come out of the Oppo's analog outputs.
For CDs and other non-high-res digital sources, I can directly A/B the sound of the Oppo's digital coax output directly feeding the digital coax input of the Benchmark against the Oppo's HDMI output into the Kanex de-embedder and thence to another Benchmark digital coax input. All cables are Blue Jeans. The Kanex seems to be quite transparent. Occasionally, I think I hear slight differences between the two signal paths, but if the differences are real, they are very small and not always in favor of bypassing the Kanex.
The unbalanced auxiliary analog output of the Benchmark feeds the unbalanced analog input of my SimAudio Moon Neo 430ha headphone amplifier, now bypassing the DAC in that headphone amp. The Benchmark's headphone amp is fine sounding, but the SimAudio is in the very top class of such devices; the superior sound is instantly audible.
Downsized System, More Open Room
All the electronics for my upstairs system now fit on or under the small Ikea Lack table, further opening up the space of this small room. The Sonex floor pads are not necessary or even helpful with the Janszens. With all these changes, I'm able to move my other large CD rack to the back of the room, out of my vision and out of the first reflection point of the Janszens as viewed from the listening seat. Presto-chango, my small room now looks and feels a lot more spacious.
So, how do the Janszens sound? Well I wouldn't be writing this if I weren't very pleased with the sonic results. In summary, though, I'm sorry I waited this long to acquire the Janszens! They are all that other owners and reviewers have said they are. For a single-listener system, these are wonderful. They almost instantly unmask all the problems with other speakers I've heard, problems which were not all that obvious before, but which are easily recognized now that they are gone. That was so even with my initial very casual plop-them-down-roughly-where the Stirling-speaker-stand-impressions-in-the-carpet-are set up. Refining that set up just allows the Janszens to sound yet better.
Here's an audiophile rundown of what sets these above the rest, even with the initial casual set up:
1. Overall very neutral tonal balance from deep bass to high highs. This quality is at least as good as the Stirling and Harbeth, and neither of those handle the bottom octave as well as these do. Absolutely no electronic equalization is needed as long as the set up of the speakers and the listening position is adjusted for neutral tonal balance, and that is not hard to do, as evidenced by the fact that even plopping them down casually produced not obvious tonal problems needing correction.
2. For a small speaker, the bass is extraordinarily deep, tuneful, powerful, impactful and does not get stressed even at high levels. This is at preset 2 of the 4 built-in bass EQ settings, the manufacturer's recommended starting point. This setting clearly sounds best in my room--just right, in fact. This is better bass than the Swarm/LS3/6 was giving me in the same room and that measured at full level and quite smooth to below 20 Hz. Getting the bass level correct for any given preset with the Janszens is merely a matter of adjusting the distance from the wall behind the speakers, or, alternatively, choosing a different one of the speakers' bass level presets.
3. The clarity and low distortion, as with fine headphones, is extraordinary. And like great headphones and live unamplified music, the distortion does not subtly (or not so subtly) increase as you turn up the volume. The sound just gets louder. That's a danger, I suppose, since these will play totally cleanly to very high levels, louder than you should listen for any length of time. But, boy, do these sound clean at high levels. The Janszens are better at this than any other speakers I've owned. The Quads have the same feeling of staying low in distortion as you turn them up, but their bass limits intrude on a lot of material before you get to 90 dB. The combination of the Janszen's drivers and internal amps are clean to 108 dB, claims Janszen. I believe it.
4. Once the set up of the speakers is tweaked for toe-in, tilt-back, and other positioning aspects, the feeling that everything is time-aligned is extraordinary, even better than with Quads, Vandersteens, and a few others where on impulse tests, the sound from the drivers arrives at nearly the same instant. This mimics what single-driver, wide-range headphones sound like. The lack of smear on transients is extraordinary, especially since, in contrast to headphones, you are hearing not only the direct sound from the speakers, but at least some (but not much--the clap track on the XLO/Sheffield test disc is remarkably free from slap echo, almost like it sounds on headphones) reflected sound from your listening room surfaces. This quality is quite superior on these since there is no back wave from the stats, as there is with Quads, Sanders, and other dipole radiators. The bouncing back wave of dipoles smears out the transients, spoiling, at least in a smallish room, any built-in time alignment.
5. Differentiation of the spatial aspects of different recordings is again extraordinary--better than any other speakers I've experienced.
6. There is no discernible grit, grunge, spit, etc. in the highs. They are better than either the Harbeths or Stirlings in this respect, and that is saying a whole lot. And this is with the panels aimed right at my ears in terms of toe-in angle. You can get the highs to sound rolled off or up in the top two octaves if you mis-adjust the tilt-back, but this is a relatively mild effect. The highs still sound pretty fine indeed. The critical 2 kHz to 5 kHz range is never exaggerated. With too much tilt-back the top octaves are up a bit and there is a mild depression in the presence range, but this does not sound bad, just adding extra sheen to the sound. With not enough tilt-back, the highs roll off gently in the top two octaves, but are very pleasant and non-offensive, sort of a vintage AR-speaker high-frequency balance.
7. Like the Stirlings, these have a lively and punchy quality which seems to make them enhance dynamic contrasts compared to other speakers without any tonal emphases.
8. I cannot hear the crossover between the woofers and the electrostatic panels.
9. As most other reviews of the Janszens have mentioned, the ability to hear out what each individual voice and instrument is doing when the music gets complex/layered is extraordinary, far better than any other system I've owned. The voices and instruments blend musically, yes, but not into an amorphous glob. No artificial high-frequency etch accompanies this ability. In this way the system sounds more like a real unamplified concert in a good hall.
9. In this system there is a very slight amount of hiss audible from the speakers with their amps on but the sound muted if I am within about a foot of the drivers, but nothing is audible from any further back. Quiet enough, certainly, especially considering how loudly the Janszens will play cleanly.
By the way, the amp heat sinks on the back of the speakers do not run cool, but are warm to the touch. I was surprised by this given David's comments in the manual about how "green" the amps are and how little power they draw at idle. The heat sinks on both speakers seem about the same temperature to the touch, so I doubted that they were both faulty from the get-go. In talking with David Janszen at this year's AXPONA, he confirmed that the heat sinks should in fact be warm to the touch.
Set Up Considerations
As far as set-up goes, I have not found the set up daunting, at least after carefully reading the owner's manual and corresponding with David Janszen a bit. Just follow his directions and you won't go too far wrong. I agree with those who thought REG's review of the passive version of these focused too much on the difficulty of getting these set up just right.
That said, if like me, you are used to being able to position your speakers via direct measurements from the baffle, you will have to get used to other methods. The tilt-back, plus all the angles and scoop outs of the cabinet shaping makes measuring from the top front center of the baffle to the walls, for instance, much more difficult. But, again, just follow David's suggestions and you can get the two speakers positioned as you want them with good precision. And I would not sweat the Air Layer adjustment. The response of the Air Layer tweeters has been modified since REG reviewed these speakers. In it's current incarnation, It doesn't make a hill of beans difference from a tonal standpoint anymore, at least if you are following the manufacturer's suggestions as to the level setting of the side-firing tweeters.
Aiming the speakers right at my ears sounds best to me. Yes, if you want a listening spot where two people can sit side by side you can aim them so that the speakers are toed in a bit less, such as aimed at your shoulders. But for a single seated listener, aiming the speakers at my ears seems to provide the very best focus with no significant downsides. The speakers definitely are not too bright or otherwise toppy that way, as long as you get the tilt-back correct.
As to tilt back, I've been using 3/16"-thick heavy duty felt pads (the kind meant to go under furniture legs to protect hardwood floors) below the front feet to adjust the tilt-back angle. The amount of tilt-back which is ideal is totally dependent on how far you are from the speakers and how far above the floor your ears are. I found that adjusting the amount of shimming necessary to yield the best response was easy once I listened to some a capella choir music. I listen for maximum natural tonality and focus on such material. Leaving the front feet as delivered, for my situation, I found that four of the felt pads under the front feet was not quite enough, while six was too much. Five sounds just right. No reasonable amount of tilt-back sounds "bad," (the Janszens have sounded wonderful from the first note) but when it's right, the tonal balance, space, and the feeling that all the transients are arriving simultaneously snap into sharper focus, the apparent distortion level seems even lower, and clarity further improves with no hint of over-brightness or edge at all.
David Janszen and I independently arrived at the conclusion that the audibly correct tilt back can be viewed by placing a 2" circular mirror centered horizontally on the stat panel cut out and centered six inches up from the bottom of the cut out. With the mirror so placed, the tilt back is correct when, with your head pointing straight ahead, you can see your right ear with your right eye in the mirror on the right speaker. For the left speaker, you look with your left eye. I had figured out the amount of tilt-back I subjectively preferred. I told David about the mirror method and David then used the mirror method and was able to confirm that he had his office pair tilted back to provide the same result from his listening position.
As to bass balance, I totally agree with David Janszen's recommendations. You can either use the bass level presets to adjust to taste, or, for any given preset, move the speakers nearer or further from the wall behind them to adjust to taste or measurement goal. Audio masochist that I am, I prefer moving the speakers. That is certainly a lot more time consuming to get just right. However, keeping the preset at 2 avoids overloading the amps/woofers at high volume levels on material with a lot of bass and provides great low-bass extension. Presets 3 and 4 boost the bass at the expense of bass extension and amp and bass driver headroom.
The instruction manual (clarified per David J) says to place the speakers so that the rear-most top corner of the speakers (after adjusting the tilt-back and toe-in) is between two feet (24 inches) and three feet (36 inches) from the wall behind the speakers. I tried about 35 inches and that was too light-weight a bass balance. Next I tried 30" and that was much better, just a bit on the too light-weight side. I tried 28 inches, but that was too heavy/thumpy, as was 29 inches, but less so. I've now settled on 29.75", which seems to be the sweet spot for bass in this room. With the speakers so positioned, the plinths of the Janszens are just about exactly centered in the footprint of where the stands for the Stirlings were when they were tilted back and adjusted per the Rule of Thirds (29% version) that I used at the end with the Stirlings. Imagine that.
The distance from the wall behind the speakers does not seem to much effect the depth or other spatial aspects of the presentation. The ability to keep the speakers fairly close to the wall behind them for best bass balance is a boon to users with small rooms like me. The speakers don't totally dominate the room when so placed, even in a small space, and you can get the speakers far enough from you to maintain reasonable time alignment of the bass and stat panels while keeping your head far enough from the back wall to prevent audible splash from that surface.
As to the Air-Layer side-firing dome tweeter option, I do recommend getting this option. It doesn't add much to the overall cost of the speakers, considering their basic price without it. In my situation and to my way of hearing the presentation, I deem that turning on the Air-Layer is basically neutral in terms of the resulting sound quality. There are pluses and minuses, in other words. Turning them on and adjusting the level half way between the minus 12 and minus 10 levels opens up the soundfield a bit, making the presentation a bit larger and decreases the change in tonality from sitting down to standing up. Turning off the Air Layer usually sharpens focus, further clarifies, reduces perceived distortion yet further, but makes the presentation just a bit smaller in terms of width and height in my set up. I have 4"-thick Sonex pads covering the first reflection areas of the Air-Layer tweeters as viewed from the listening position.
I don't need Sonex floor pads with these speakers. Putting Sonex on the floor in fact seemed to add a bit of coloration the sound. The pads on the walls are still somewhat helpful, even with the Air Layer tweeters off. I have not experimented with the ceiling pads; I've left them in place. Overall, the Sonex pads have less effect on the sound of these speakers than with any speakers I've owned since I started using Sonex in the 1980s. The Janszens really do pretty much seem to ignore the room surfaces as long as the Air-Layer tweeters are off or turned down to the level I mentioned, even more so than the Gradient Revolution Active did in a larger room.
The one thing I worried about before getting the speakers was whether the low position of the stat panels with respect to my ears in the listening position would make the stage appear to be low, as in listening from the balcony. And, indeed, with only a single Janszen speaker playing, the sound, as with most other speakers, seems centered on the physical position of the high/mid drivers, which in this case is quite low. But in stereo replay, this has not proved to be a problem at all, even from my fairly close listening position. The center of the electrostatic array of the speakers and my ears form a roughly 60" equilateral triangle and my listening height is about 37", far above the center of the stat panels. With both speakers playing, as the manufacturer claims, the stage and images on it usually appear to be straight ahead, not down, thus appearing to come from a bit above the top of the speakers. High frequencies, like cymbal shimmer, appear to be a bit or more up, as they are in unamplified concerts. The stage is not gigantically tall as some taller speakers (especially panels) can make it appear, but it is tall enough to satisfy me, and I'm quite tuned in to this spatial aspect of music reproduction.
Summary score card: Positive 100%, Negative, 0%. Wonderful speakers, indeed, especially for the price which includes bi-amping, a very attractive form factor, and obviously very high-quality construction!
What's Left to Improve?
Could they be better? Well, David Janszen plans to bring a new taller model to demo in a bigger room at next year's 2018 AXPONA in Chicago. This year, he isn't bringing speakers at all, but will only be demonstrating his working prototype electrostatic headphones which can play from the built-in electronics of mobile devices.
I think one reason (among many) for the planned larger model is to avoid tilt-back and make it a true line source at seated ear level. That will enlarge the presentation yet further and maybe sharpen the focus yet further by allowing the stat panels to face straight ahead rather than angling them up or down by three degrees toward the floor and ceiling--there would be yet less floor and ceiling bounce. David really likes the big sound of the old and tall dipole KLH 9 electrostatic panels he has been refurbishing/updating. I hope he sticks with a sealed cabinet on his new ones, though. For dipoles, you really need a room large enough to get the panels seven feet or more from the wall behind them to avoid strong reflections. That said, he claims that the old KLH 9s physically block most of the treble bounce off the wall behind the speakers for a centered listener in front of the speakers since the "point-source" electrostatic tweeter in the KLH 9s is so small compared to the rest of the panel--unlike most panel speakers which have line source treble as well as bass.
If you really like to listen in the extreme near field, the current Valentina is probably not for you unless you can arrange things so that your ears are very low, say 34" from the floor. For my 37" listening height, I estimate that if I wanted to listen from a distance of about four feet or less from the center of the stat panel, the needed tilt-back would result in them tipping over backwards in their stock form. You would need to tilt them back so much that you'd have to put some sort of outrigger on the back end of the plinth or weight the front side of the plinth somehow to prevent the speakers from toppling over backwards.
Listening that near to the speakers degrades the time alignment of the woofers and panels anyway, according to Janszen, and, yes, they do sound more coherent from a bit further back. And unlike most other speakers, moving your listening position back from the speakers a few feet does not seem to degrade the focus due to room effects--the Valentinas have very limited vertical dispersion and quite limited horizontal dispersion, preventing much splash off the room walls (as long as the Air Layer tweeters are off or kept low enough in level).