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Mac Hagerman Kore-Eda Audio Note Review

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by Sandy Greene on May 06 '07

SonicFlare_Together.jpg

“Together” a SonicFlare System Review by Sandy Greene

I’ve got some gear here that together makes for one of the most musically satisfying and enjoyable systems I have had the honor to audition.

The first pairing in this system review being the tiny, cute, elegant, jewel-like Kore-Eda amp and preamp ($1.650 & $1,850) combined with the boxy yet beautifully simple Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers ($4,300). The second pairing being the square-ish yet somehow cuddly Mac Mini ($599) feeding the utilitarian and glowing Hagerman Chime tube USB DAC ($1,799 fully assembled). The sum of their mechanical parts sequenced together make for glorious, divine and earthly sonics.

The Kore-Eda LLA-1 Stereo Control Amplifier and PLA-1 Stereo Power Amplifier are sold direct through Sakura Systems here in the US. Sakura are also the US importers for 47 Labs. The Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers have been with me for almost a year and have seen many different amplifiers from the battery operated Red Wine Audio Signature 30, to my reference system of Rogue Audio gear, to the Monarchy Audio SE-250 monoblocks and even the Resolution Audio Opus 21 system currently in my living room living very comfortably with the Verity Audio Rienzi speakers.

The best sounding pairing of amp/pre with the Audio Note speakers is with the Kore-Eda gear. The Audio Notes sounded excellent with each amp listed above. With the Kore-Eda’s there is a magical synergy.

The Kore-Eda’s PLA-1 Stereo amplifier is a chip-based amp (like the Red Wine Audio Sig 30) outputting 38 watts stereo into 8 ohms (the RWA Sig 30 outputs 30 wpc). The sonic character of the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 and the Kore-Eda gear are quite similar in their mass. Both makes of gear have this quality I can liken to a physical presence in the sound. With the Kore-Eda gear playing through the Audio Note speakers, the sound is extremely three-dimensional and the air between the speakers to me seems thicker. The sound however is not thick or syrupy at all. It is very delineated, but it is also enveloping and holographic.

Music really comes to life through the Kore-Eda > Audio Note AN-E/Lx combination. With such simple two-way box speakers, the sound is as deep as it is wide. The AN-E/Lx’s do an incredible job of enveloping the room and in my current setup, paint quite a delineated soundstage. I have them set up in my office. The room is about 20 ft wide by 12 ft deep. I have the system set up to one side of the long wall and I listen about 8 feet back from the speakers which are toed in quite a bit to point just outside my shoulders. In this arrangement they have the fun effect of the stereo separation of headphones but with they physical depth and low-end, physical impact that ‘phones can’t provide.

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Listening to the latest Flaming Lips album, “At War With The Mystics” on tracks like “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung” and “Goin On” there’s great grandeur and majesty. As with any great audio system, the emotional impressions and intention the artist is trying to convey through their songwriting, arrangements, instrumentation, performance and recording are highlighted and aurally heightened. This Kore-Eda > Audio Note combo handles and delivers those qualities with ease.

On poppier-more rockin’ tunes from the same album, like “Free Radicals” the physical impact is still there, but in comparison to the Resolution Audio / Verity Rienzi system, the dynamics and snap are recessed. On a song like “Now That I Miss Her” from Elefant’s “Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid” album, there is a bouncing bass line and simple kick-snare-kick-kick-snare drum beat that has the roll but lacks the rock this song has on other systems and and/or with different amps. The Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers are certainly capable of giving the listener the dynamics, snap, “krackle” and rock. With the Kore-Eda amps the sweet spot is more in the atmospheric and mellow arena.

Wanna fall in love though? Listen to Feist’s “Let It Die” album. She’s in the room with you with flirting eyes and a voice that makes your heart melt. The instrumentation is clear, delineated and true to timbre. The songs are fun or sad or whatever Feist intends, and you know exactly where she is going and you can’t help but be pulled along and into her world. This is what the best systems can do with the right material. And for this amp and speaker combo, this is the type of material it thrives on.

Keep in mind; the above description is with the second part of the system under review… the source. The source pairing is the Mac Mini feeding the Hagerman Chime DAC. The Mac Mini uses an external hard drive (a La Cie that matches the Mac Mini’s exterior) to hold all of the music ripped with the Apple Lossless codec. Supposedly no musical data is lost and the song file size is cut in half. Still, the song files can be quite large, (and I’ve gots lots) hence the need for additional hard drive.

My remote control for this computer-based source is the Griffin Air Click USB. The Air Click lets me adjust volume, pause the song and skip one song forward and back. That’s pretty limiting. But as I only sit a few feet from the computer and keyboard, it’s OK. There are some fantastic other options like Keyspan’s Tune View which is a handheld device with color screen that gives you complete physical and visual control over iTunes or an iPod. Sitting a few feet from my computer and using the latest version of iTunes, I can set the full monitor screen to the “cover flow” view from iTunes that lets me see a large cover image and very legible artist, album and song titles.

Via USB, the Mac Mini feeds the heart of the source’s sound… the Hagerman Chime DAC.

The Hagerman Chime DAC is a three digital input DAC with a volume control. As I was feeding the DAC via USB from my Mac Mini, and using the Air Click remote control, I left the volume setting at about 11 o’clock on the Chime. The Chime then feeds the Kore-Eda preamp. One can plug the Chime directly into the Kore-Eda or any other amp for that matter. I have a mix of sources with a turntable/phono pre and sometimes my iPod directly plugged into the Kore-Eda pre.

I’m neither a tweaker nor a tube swapper, but Hagerman encourages trying other tubes in the Chime. It only has three tubes, so swapping would be easy and no doubt have quite an obvious effect on the sound. I stuck with the stock tubes. Sometimes I like listening for the sonic changes tube swaps or cable swaps can introduce. Once I settle on something that I think is an obvious improvement, I really don’t like to play around and introduce that audiophile nervosa in the way of enjoying the music. This entire system was so musical and fulfilling right from the initial set up, that I really have not had the urge to tweak.

As you have read, I am quite a fan of the Mac Mini/Hag Chime combination as a very high quality and extremely flexible and fun digital source. Its total retail price with extra hard drive is about $2400. That’s not inexpensive at all and certainly there is a lot of competition at and below that price range for stand-alone CD players. This combination really holds its own against the Resolution Audio CD player, which retails for $3500. The Resolution player is a little more true and accurate to the recording and presents a slightly more flat and fair presentation of a recording. The Resolution player lets you hear a little more detail in the recorded venue and in the individual instruments and it places the pieces in a slightly more delineated location front to back, left to right and top to bottom. The Mac Mini playing Apple Lossless encoded tracks sent via USB to the Hagerman Chime tube DAC gives a slightly more euphoric presentation but really just slightly. The Hagerman Chime DAC really is very very close to the Resolution player in the areas I have mentioned above. There is that slight tube bloom and air with the Chime which makes for a more dreamy and room-enveloping and room-transforming experience.

Where the comparison is not apples to apples is with the fact that the Mac Mini is way more flexible than any CD player. You could easily stream Internet radio or any sound for that matter from any web site, DVD or musical application (like Garage Band for instance). The other big difference is that the Chime DAC is a digital preamp. Go directly to your amp with three digital inputs and you could use The Chime’s inputs with other digital sources such as a stand-alone music server or DVD/CD player. If you have a few digital sources and no analog ones, the Chime DAC could be ideal.

You could read this review as one overall system review or split it in two and consider the source “system” and the amp/speaker “system”. Personally I prefer to review and amp/speaker combo as one combo that obviously needs to work together. You need to understand their personality before considering auditioning sources. An amp/speaker combo naturally will have its own sonic character. Once you understand that character, finding a source to fit with it is a job of deciding in what direction you want to take your system.

The overall sonic character of the Kore-Eda amp/pre pieces with the Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers is one of physical presence, full and robust tonal range, delicate textures with a slightly compressed dynamic. I attribute that physical presence and slightly compressed dynamic more to the chip-based Kore-Eda amp than I do to the Audio Note speakers. But the Audio Note speakers are more romantic and rich than a lot of other speakers I have auditioned.

Adding the Mac Mini to Hagerman Chime DAC to the Kore-Eda/Audio Note combo only enhanced that highly emotional, compelling and musically enveloping experience. As I had listened to the Mac/Chime combo with a more accurate and revealing amp/speaker combo (the Resolution Audio/Verity Rienzi system), I am more comfortable in stating that the Mac/Chime combo is competitively fair and accurate… and while it has the (some might say) euphoric advantages of tubes, it still remains exceptionally true to the recording.

Have you heard the song “Together” by The Raconteurs? It’s a very rich and juicy recording. Lyrically it is quite beautiful. Its instrumentation is simple and it contains some real nice vocal phrases that play off each other really nicely. This song sings out perfectly from this system. Together, the Kore-Eda amp/pre system and Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers along with the Mac Mini/Hagerman Chime DAC create beautiful music… harmonically rich and very physical in nature.

MacMiniKoreEdaHagChimeAudioNote

One two, one two... let's break it down now.

Starting with the Kore-Eda amp and pre, we have a fantastic chip-based amplifier and simple, three analog-input preamplifier. The Kore-Eda gear is physically very small but has a huge, physical presence in its sound. There is mass and weight in their very three-dimensional soundstage... a cube of sound if you will. The Kore-Eda pair is nicely full range and while not the best dynamically, they are very musically satisfying. The Kore-Eda amp and pre create a sound that you feel no need to analyze. Immediately upon first listen and every listening session thereafter, the Kore-Eda amp/pre pair does a magical job of bringing a physical and involving performance to your listening room.

As I have mentioned above, I have had the Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers for almost a year. They have seen many amps and even more sources. In every instance they have subtly displayed their own pleasantly musical voice. They are revealing of the amps and sources yet manage to take any amp and source to a higher level musically. They portray rich textures and ambient recording spaces. The Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers are fair and complimentary partners for any front end and while they are as accurate and revealing as you may create your system to be, they are an icing-on-the-cake kind of speaker that takes any system to a higher level of musical enjoyment.

In this system I have tried a unique kind of source, which will make it very hard to go back to a stand-alone CD player. The Mac Mini is affordable and as ultimately flexible as any open source computer could be. Open source in that you could set up your music management and playback in an infinite amount of ways. There are many great options for remote control and display. And it is modular and infinitely expandable. I use Apple Lossless conversion to save some hard drive space and I trust in its lack of negative effect on the sound quality. As a matter of fact, when ripping CD's with Apple Lossless, I have checked a check box which, while ripping, eliminates errors that would potentially effect real time playback on a stand alone CD player. The one downside I find with the Mac Mini and external hard drive is the slight fan noise that sometimes kicks in. I like to listen at low levels sometimes.

[As a side note, the Kore-Eda amp and especially the Audio Note speakers have a great ability to deliver complete musical satisfaction at less than live-level output.]

As fun, flexible and practical as the Mac Mini is as a storage and playback component... it would not come to life musically without the Hagerman Chime DAC. The Chime gets its bits via USB from the Mac Mini and it transforms them from binary data to an organic and lifelike musical performance. The Hagerman Chime DAC is as revealing and accurate as stand-alone CD players costing almost twice its price. The Chime allows a more direct emotional connection to the performance than most CD players I have experienced, period. The Chime is flexible enough to use as a three input digital preamplifier. Most importantly, the Hagerman Chime DAC does what every exalted audio component should do, and that is creating a more believable connection to the musical performance.

Together these pieces make up a system that is very rich and robust at various volume levels. The Chime DAC converted Mac Mini generated Kore-Eda amplified and Audio Note projected system creates a very three dimensional sound space that is so full of mass that you want to just get up and walk into the concert hall or recording studio and join your favorite musicians as they create and perform the songs you love.

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