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Thread: Spectral DMA 400s arrive in New Jersey

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    Addicted to Best! marty's Avatar
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    Spectral DMA 400s arrive in New Jersey

    I always enjoy reading the descriptions of membersí systems. The world of high end audio offers ample offerings to choose from and are in no small way limited or restricted. Even better, the quality of sound that was available only a few short years ago for obscene amounts of money is now far more approachable. The simple truth is that great gear is now more affordable than ever. Since the justification for anyoneís choices is probably best understood in the context of a thorough psychiatric exam, everyoneís choices have one thing in common. We choose our gear because it sounds good to us and if someone has a problem with that, too bad. Itís our nickel after all. Yet what sounds good to us one year may not be what floats our boat the following year. Tastes change. Preferences change. Equipment changes. Times change. I am no exception.

    I am a long time tube-o-phile. I worked my way through college at Paul Heath Audio in Rochester NY where I was able to purchase and ARC SP-3 and D-76 amps at accommodation to drive my Magneplanar Tympani 1Uís. My system has evolved throughout the years, but by and large, tube amplification has been a fairly constant presence. I lost my way once with a big ass famous solid state behemoth, but soon atoned for my sins by purchasing a Lamm ML-1 and fell in love again with every sweet tube watt they made. When I bought my Pipedream speakers a number of years ago, I needed more power and moved to VTLís fabulous Siegfrieds. Since my Pipedreams were supplemented with Gotham woofers, I didnít need the Siggies to drive anything below 80 Hz, and thus my preference was to operate them in triode mode. They were outfitted with the rare as henís teeth Telefunken ECC801S driver tubes, and I eventually came around to Gold Lions as my choice of KT88s. And I loved the Siggies. (I never liked 6550ís- too much obvious midrange grain). I was fortunate to be able to keep the amps in a separate room behind my main room, so heat was never an issue. But there were issues. The main liability of my system was always in the area that is common to do-it-yourselfers who try to mate subs with anything above them; namely 80-200 Hz. This valley of death is so tough to navigate with any crossover design, that one needs every bit of help one can get to make seamless music in this area, instead of stone soup. As good as the Siggies were in the midrange , it was clear they had a sonic signature in the midbass and below. To be perfectly honest, I didnít love their handwriting in that area although they were certainly decent. Besides, I figured it would only be a matter of time until I modified mine to the Siegfried IIís, which Luke and Bea Manley (wonderful people) promised would distinguish itself from its predecessor specifically in the mid bass and below. It was therefore with great anticipation that I went to hear the Siegfried IIís with the Wilson Alexias at their debut at CES 2 years ago. Unfortunately, what I heard left me, well, uncomfortable. As a scientist, one learns never to get carried away with any experiment that has an n=1. So I listened to the Alexia/Siegfried II combo again at a bonifide dealer and again, was just as unimpressed. The Siggie IIís just did not perform well in the low end with the Alexias, thus putting before me, a huge fork in the road. Well, as Yogi Berra suggested, I took it. If I were going to contemplate a full range speaker such as the Alexias any time in the near future, it seemed like my beloved Siggies and I would have to part company. But what would I replace them with that had the power, the delicacy, the finesse, and most importantly, the ability to make beautiful music not only with my Pipes, but any full range speak I might consider in the near or distant future? I certainly considered other tube amps such ARCs. But my previous ARC experience , which was wonderful for their pre-amps, was a complete disappointment for their power amps. I blew two new 610 amps within the first week of owning them and got them the hell out of my room as fast as the trucking company could carry them. I accept that blowing tubes is a fact of life with high-powered tube amps. But the Siegfrieds made changing a blown tube one of the great highlights of my audiophile life. Iím not kidding. Change the tube, change a fuse, push a few buttons, and youíre up and running again in about 30 seconds. The transparent protection circuitry is so well designed that it doesnít take a trip back to the factory to replace any other things such as blown resistors that typically accompany an ARC power amp melt down. Enter the Spectral DMA 400s.

    The attraction of the Spectral amps is obvious. They are very highly regarded, favorably reviewed, not priced beyond the beyondo and letís face it, designed by a guy with pretty good fkn ears who also happens to be among the worldís best (if not thee best) recording engineers. Therefore, I presume, he knows what both live and reproduced music is supposed to sound like. So the decision was a simple one to make really. After vetting every possibility out there, it really came down to the Sophia Loren school of decision making. It goes like this. I once read that when she is in Rome, she stays at the Hassler Hotel. I figured, if itís is good enough for Sophia Loren, its good enough for me. So I stayed there too. And it was. So I used the same method with the Spectral 400ís. Simply put, if itís good enough for Keith Johnson, I figured, its got to be good enough for me. Therefore I decided to take the plunge. I mean really, who are you going to believe? Keith Johnson, or Jon Valin, whose preference for unmusical solid state amplifers (i.e Soulution) apparently knows no bounds. But I digress.

    To aid the reader in providing a context for how the Spectrals fit into my system, I should mention the system is comprised of the following: Analogue front end is a Goldmund Studio/T3F/Benz Ruby II/ ARS Basis Exclusive phono stage. (Iíve often said the ASR is the finest piece of audio gear I own and even with the arrival of the wow-o-wow Spectral amps, Iím not quite ready to change my bias). Digital is the outstanding but over-priced Meitner XDS-1 CD player. Preamp is the venerable VTL 7.5III w (Telefunken NOS ECC803S tubes). Cabling is Nordost Valhalla throughout, except for MIT cables driving the Spectrals and HD90 Rev 1 speaker cables driving the Pipedream Towers. The front end is fully Shunyatized (Triton/Pythons/Cobra). The amps run directly into the wall. Dedicated 30 outlets occur throughout except the amps which are 40 amp circuits. All circuits use Furatech GTX-S(R) receptacles.

    Letís get two things out of the way quickly. If you use a Spectral amp, use MIT interconnects and speaker cables, period. Much has been written on this elsewhere in WBF, but my experience parallels that of many others. All Spectral electronics are designed as a system for use with MIT cables. Forget Brisson the marketing genius. Think of Brisson the engineer. Keith Johnson buys into the system approach for his amp based on MITís engineering . So why would anyone try to put a square peg in a round hole if the round peg works so darn well, which is surely does. Oh, you can try, but I have other things to occupy my time that will drive me nuts. Trying to figure out what else to use on Spectral amps is a foolís errand.

    Next up, I know youíre wondering how anyone who supports the argument for a Spectral/MIT systems approach for interconnects and cables can possibly use anything other than a Spectral preamp? Well, first and most importantly, itís not just any preamp. The Spectral amp ownerís manual does not say that if you donít use a Spectral preamp you will be consigned to hell. (Iím sure they believe it, but at least they donít actually say it in the manual!) What they do say, is to make sure you are using a preamp that can deliver plenty of current and also one that has a low output impedance. Well, it turns out that the Siegfried 7.5III does exactly that. It comprises a hybrid design using a tube driver stage and a MOSFET buffer/FET high gain output stage that can deliver plenty of current to drive the hell out of any cable load at any reasonable distance. It also does it with a low output impedance (25-150 ohm) that is virtually identical to the Spectral DMC-30SS Reference preamp (100 ohm). So why the VTL 7.5III pre-amp? Weíll get to that shortly.

    Time to talk about the amp. Or not talk about it, because frankly, I canít find that much to say about it. And therein lies its greatest asset. Iíve certainly heard a number of amps in my years and this is hardly my first rodeo. But describing the Spectral amp has me at a disadvantage. I certainly hear things in my system that I think are sonic imperfections. Iím just not sure they are attributable to the Spectral amps. Hereís what I can say about this amp that I think is extraordinary. The word I would choose is ďcontinuousnessĒ. As many of you know, itís a word that was first used to describe the sound of some audio gear by the great HP. But when he first used it, Iím not sure I understood what he meant. Well, thanks to the Spectrals, now I do. Take any property of the amplifier that you could name. Distortion. Power bandwidth. Rise time. Settling time. Dynamics. Noise. The list goes on. What the Spectral does better than any other amplifier in my experience, is that it treats each of these properties equally for every part of the frequency spectrum in which it operates. It is seamless in that regard. The amplification of the musical signal and all that implies is, in a word, ecumenical with the Spectral 400s. It treats everything equally from DC to light, and that, I believe, is the key to its ďcontinuousnessĒ. Everything simply sounds ďrightĒ. There is no brightness, no muddiness, no fatness, no thinness, no compression, no bloat, no sluggishness, no sheen, no warmth, no coolness, no prisoners and no retreat. In fact, it IS faster than a jet plane or a speeding bullet but that does not contribute to any sonic characteristic that I can identify. Rather, it allows it to do what it does best- amplify voltage and current. In fact, I think it is far better appreciated for what it does not do than for any sound of its own as near as I can tell. As I said, I hear things in my system that I can be critical about. But at this point, Iím not willing to attribute any of them to the Spectral 400s. It serves the music the way an amplifier should, by not calling attention to itself in any way.

    All of these wonderful ďnon-thingsĒ would be meaningless if the amplifier did not elevate the sound of my system in some meaningful and tangible way. Iím pleased to report that it does indeed do that. To begin, as Iíve mentioned, the dreaded valley of death that surrounds the crossover point from subs to Towers occurs in a frequency area that is not exactly the sweet spot of most tube amplifiers. The Spectral provides such good resolution of bass, mid bass and upper bass, that it has allowed me to set the DSP crossover parameters in a way that now allows for that range (80-200Hz) to finally sound as though music its coming from one sheet of cloth. The rationale for my use of DSP has been discussed in detail elsewhere ( so I wonít dwell on it here. However, with the Spectral 400s, running bass lines no longer sound as though half the notes are waking through mud while the other half is running on Nike Air Jordans. Continuousness. Male vocals are also no longer quite as schizophrenic. The basso and baritones in the Kings Singers do not sound as though they are speaking into muffled boxes for low frequencies and next to your eardrum in the higher upper bass registers. Continuousness again. Another big surprise is the top end. One would think that is the province of tubes, right? Well, not necessarily. The presence of air and space around instruments that is made possible from frequency extension with vanishingly low distortion is far better served by the Spectrals than the Siggies. Continuousness in the treble range? You bet. Microdynamics and macrodynamics? Fuggetaboutit. In spades. Soundstage? On Sonyís brilliant remastering of Bernsteinís legendary 1958 recording of Stravisnkyís Le Sacre du Printemps, I think I heard the NY Philharmonicís violin section coming from my neighborís house a few hundred feet away. Ok, I exaggerate, but only to make a point. If you are listening to an orchestral recording and you canít tell if the fart you just heard came from the 1st violinist in the second row, or the second violinist in the first row, look elsewhere besides the amp for the reason why. (See the Ken Kreisel analogy below). To summarize, like any appreciative listener would say when he believes he has heard a good amplifier, I now think I am getting more accurate reproduction of what is actually in the source material with the Spectrals than from any other amplification device Iíve ever (not) heard. And that is the big reveal in a nutshell.

    By way of an analogy, I am reminded of something said long ago by Ken Kreisel, who many will recognize as the founder and ďKĒ in M&K Sound. It was the early 80s that digital burst upon us as ďperfect sound foreverĒ. It was of course only a matter to time when the pundits soon realized that was hardly the case. But what Ken said back then is memorable to me now because he sounded like a prophet back then when he said: Whatever the problems with digital may be, donít blame ďdigitalĒ!. Blame the sampling frequency, blame the cables, blame the algorithms, blame noise interference, blame the DACs, blame the speakers, blameÖanything, but donít blame digital!! That analogy is a good one because it can easily extend to the Spectral 400s. If thereís something in your system that doesnít sound as it should, Iíd encourage you to blame anything at all EXCEPT the amplifiers. Yes, they are that good. Let me be clear. I am not suggesting the Spectral 400s are perfect or that they do not have a sound. All amplifiers have a sonic signature. Iím just saying that the Spectral seems to have one that is pretty damn hard to find. Whatever that signature is, I sure as hell am not able to characterize it accurately just yet. In that regard, it is superior to any other amp Iíve heard. Nits? Not many. For one, the amplifier is mortal in that it does not provide infinite power. It is a superb and powerful 350W amplifier, but that does not mean it is limitless. In fact, I push the amp to its very limits with my 89dB efficient Pipes. Fortunately, the speakers run out of gas and their distortion product goes up dramatically at the point where the Spectralís also run out of steam. But if I had a more inefficient speaker, Iíd probably want more power. Again, thatís for reproducing real orchestral levels, not background music. The good news, is that even when the amp clips, it does so gracefully. The next nit? I am truly hesitant to say this but the day the amps arrived i hooked them up and after 12 hours, one of the channels started making a spitting noise. I could swear it sounded like a bad tube, but once I did the diagnostics I was stunned to learn that indeed the source was one of the amps. I called Goodwin's; they were very apologetic, paid for FedEx back to their shop where they changed one of the driver boards. They returned it to me promptly by FedEx and its been smooth sailing since then. But really, folks, aren't there times when you wish that high end audio companies had the same quality control performance as Bose or Radio Shack? Very upsetting. But kudos to Paul and the staff at Goodwin's, which enjoys a long standing and hard earned reputation for excellence for many reasons, some of which are more obvious to me now. The final nit? A minor one. Break in takes at least 2 weeks. Live with it, its worth the wait. (Once broken in however, Spectral makes a point of saying that they sound good from a cold start after minimal warm up time. I agree. The 400s sound optimized about 20 minutes after turn-on.)

    Letís revisit the preamp situation. If the Spectral amps are so damned good, why am I using them with a hybrid preamp that has tubes in its first amplification gain stage? I donít know that I am going to be able to say this in a way that is appropriately articulate but here goes. At one time, there seemed to be some consensus for the fact that the difference in sound between tube and solid state devices might have to do with the inherent distortion products of these devices; tubes apparently reproduce music with more second order harmonic distortion whereas it is said solid state devices may contain more odd-order harmonic distortion. I donít even know if this is as true as it was once assumed to be since recent trends seem to suggest there a rapidly approaching convergence of these sonic differences such that the descriptors for ďsolid stateí and ďtubeĒ sound may no longer be accurate. What I do know, and what I think many of us appreciate, is that there is almost always a distinguishable difference in sound between most tube gear and their SS counterparts. I donít know what the root cause or causes may be, but I think Iím in good company in suggesting that itís there and itís real. Second order harmonics vs third order? Who knows? Tube gear seems to have more easily identifiable colorations than most of their solid state counterparts because of the ease in which one can get their sound to change by rolling or changing the tubes that are used inside them. This is equally true for power amps as well as preamps. (This sort of experiment is of course not possible with solid state gear as one cannot swap out the transistor gain stage devices easily and hear the changes in sonic character that might result). Almost everybody can hear that Russian KT 88s sound very different than Chinese Shuguang tubes or Gold Lions. But different doesnít mean better. Whether one enjoys tubes or solid state amplification is a complex issue. As with all things audio, individual preferences vary and system tuning is often the basis for such preferences. But the reason for my preference in using a tube preamp with the Spectral amps is precisely because tube gear does sound different than SS gear. I simply use this to create a sonic advantage by combining pieces of each class to achieve what I believe is the best overall sound in my room. In the end, since reproduced music NEVER sounds like live music, all we are attempting to do with our home systems is to reproduce music with enough facsimile so that we get the same emotional connection we experience with live music. For that very reason, I have always found that mixing and matching tubes and SS gear is often the most pleasing and rewarding approach in my home system. So why the VTL 7.5II preamp? Simple really. It is a well-designed, flat out sonic masterpiece with unlimited dynamics, zero negative feedback, and is made like a tank. Thus it becomes my choice for how to best add that elusive ďtubeĒ characteristic that I seem to enjoy in a combination tube/SS system.

    Put differently, it comes down to this. I guess I like the coloration of tubes as realized in certain audio products and moreover, I like the resultant system sound when these products are in my system. I donít know exactly what it is about a good tube component that I like and frankly I donít care. But if I hear symphonic music played through a completely solid state set of components, I can almost be certain that it will be missing something that for me that is often regained if there are tubes somewhere in the amplification chain. Call it second order harmonic distortion. Call it anything you want. But whatever it is, real music has some of that ďwhatever the hell it isĒ quality as well and when trying to reproduce it at home, tubes and solid state gear can make great bedfellows when used together to achieve that end.

    All of this is to come to the conclusion that as good as the Spectral 400s are, I just donít think I would enjoy them as much if they were paired with a Spectral preamp. Iíve heard that combination and its certainly good. No, the current Spectral sound is not cold or sterile by any means; they make damn fine sounding gear. But to my ears, the pairing of a VTL Ref 7.5 III tube hybrid preamp with the Spectral 400 results at a higher level of musical truth than an all Spectral system (or any SS combo or all tube combo) does at present, at least for me. I apologize for not knowing why or not being able to articulate this any better, but it is what it is. The VTL 7.5III and the Spectral 400s are a magical combination in my experience and currently well satisfy what Iím looking for in my electronic amplification chain. In fact I hardly think the combination of tube preamp and SS power amp is surprising or unprecedented. I have, for example, thought for quite some time that ARC preamps and Bryston Power amps, depending on the speaker, offers a similar synergy. (In the case of Spectral amps, ARC preamps are not necessarily a good fit due their high output impedance.)

    So were they worth the 4 month wait to get them? You bet. I apologize again for suggesting that the most I can say about the Spectral amps is basically nothing at all. Yet that's what makes it a "Reference" amplifier, at least for me. But donít take my word for it. Listen for yourself. And if you can get a dealer to play a Spectral amp with somebody elseís preamp, please donít report them to the Spectral police as they will surely be shot. Better to do such demos behind the confines of your listening room walls. On that note, I should add Iím fortunate to have been able to design my listening room in my new home in NJ to my specifications. You may notice it has a similar (but mirrored) appearance to the room I had in DFW and that is by design. Some images are attached. Serious audiophiles in the NYC area (45 minutes west by car) are welcome to stop by for a listen. Iíve had the opportunity to hear several membersí systems and I have enjoyed them thoroughly. (I almost always learn or hear something that helps me improve my system.) Most importantly, the acquaintances Iíve met and member systems Iíve heard is one of the great privileges and opportunities afforded by being a member on this forum.

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    Last edited by marty; 05-07-2016 at 11:37 AM.

  2. #2
    Member Sponsor [WBF Founding Member]
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    Enjoyed your thoughts!

    You could just quote Dave Wilson who said one needs tubes somewhere in the system!

  3. #3
    Site Founder And Administrator Steve Williams's Avatar
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    Coto De Caza, California on the 13th fairway of the south golf course
    Terrific write up Marty . Thanks
    Steve Williams
    aka oneobgyn
    There's ALWAYS another Steve Williams BUT there's only "oneobgyn"
    USA Dealer of Center Stage Feet and owner of PitchPerfect Sound (
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  4. #4
    VIP/Donor [VIP/Donor] microstrip's Avatar
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    Thanks for a great article and for showing us such a great room. Just one detail - are you driving the Spectral DM400 full range? How do you connect the subs to the 7.5 mk3?

  5. #5
    Addicted to Best! Mobiusman's Avatar
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    Great write up Marty. I have the benefit of having heard Marty's system repeatedly over the years and to have heard it several times since the 400's arrived. I concur totally with what he has said about the total sound. I have many aspects in common with his system, albeit on a lesser scale, using a tubed preamp with a Spectral 260 driving Martin Logans via MIT cables with JL woofers below 50 cycles and essentially the same dac as Marty. I too have the same problem he does when it comes to describing the Spectral. There is little to say about the amp other than it invites you in, helps you forget about the BS of life and reminds you that audio is about the experience, not the equipment. The Spectral sound is merely sublime when fed by tubes. The combination is essentially addicting because it is so real.
    Last edited by Mobiusman; 10-28-2013 at 07:10 AM.
    Russ The Mobiusman

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    Member Sponsor Addicted to Best! jazdoc's Avatar
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    Thanks for sharing your story. Your room is absolutely gorgeous. You sir, have wonderful taste! Enjoy in good health.
    Trying is the first step to failure. -- H. Simpson

  7. #7
    [WBF Founding Member] Gregadd's Avatar
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    Marty proof positive that form and function don't have to be at odds.
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  8. #8
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    wow, great article. You should be writing for one of the magazines. I too find that there is a time and place for ss or tubes.

    Your system and room looks fantastic... how are you with a video camera ;-) ???

  9. #9
    Member Sponsor Addicted to Best! MadFloyd's Avatar
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    Simply fantastic write up; I really enjoyed it.

    I also adore your room.

    Thank you for sharing this.
    Speakers: Magico M-Project w/MPods Amplification: CAT JL7s, <preamp?>, CH Precision P1
    Analog: Kronos Pro Limited Edition / SCPS-1 / Black Beauty tonearm / Lyra Atlas SL, Airtight Opus-1
    Digital: Roon / dCS Upsampler / Schiit Yggdrasil DAC
    Cables/Power: Kubala Sosna SC, ZenWave D4 interconnects

  10. #10
    Member Sponsor Addicted to Best! mauidan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by microstrip View Post

    Thanks for a great article and for showing us such a great room. Just one detail - are you driving the Spectral DM400 full range? How do you connect the subs to the 7.5 mk3?

    "I employee both phono and CD sources. While the TacT 2.2XP can be used as a preamplifier, I choose to bypass its preamplifier function and use it only for its DSP and digital crossover features. The majority of my system gain comes from using an ARC Reference 5 preamplifier which then drives the TacT."

    If he is connecting the 7.5 mk3 like the REF 5 and still uses the TacT, the 7.5 mk3's output goes into an analog input card(A/D) in the TacT, gets processed and via two analog output cards(D/A) the high-pass and low-pass signals are connected to his Spectral DM400s and JL subs.

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