Barry, Al and Kevin arrived late Sunday afternoon. We listened briefly to the system, as set up which consisted of -
Source - E.A.R. Acute III CD player DAC with tubed, transformer output stage, for both single ended and balanced connections. As the EAR has its own remote motorized volume pot, my CAT preamp sat this out.It uses 2 Siemans PCC88 tubes with Herbies BlackBery Hal-o tube dampers and sits on a Sanus rack with 3 Stillpoints Aluminum OEM Feet between.
Amp - AKSA 100wpc Lifeforce power amp, bog standard, save for the addition of Vishay MKP1837 .022uf Polypropolene caps [available from Mouser,Newark,Digikey,RS,Farnell...] bypassing very pedestrian Vishay MKT Polyester input capacitors. It sits on 3 Walker brass points on a mdf shelf, sitting on 3 original Stillpoints with 'top hats' sitting on another shelf on the Sanus stand.
Speakers - Marten Miles II, 2 1/2 way floorstanders. . All Accuton, carborundum cone drivers. IMO, far better than the subsequent, 2 way, less expensive to build, Miles III. Sitting on Aluminum cones sitting in the way cool Herbies cone/spike Decoupling Gliders. The Martens offer a wonderful, accurate, low distortion sound, with excellent sound staging and imaging, unless you muck them up..... which I did. When not 'mucked' up, they can be analytical or warm, depending upon what they are fed.
All cables cords are my GS MkII
Power provided by a single line 20 amp dual duplex outlet line 8' from the breaker box, feeding my Alchemist power conditioner, with the EAR CD player fed from a dedicated low current Alchemist filter, and the power amp fed from the Alchemist's amp filter.
A breif comparison confirmed that the Ncores, unlike the Aksa Lifeforce were better served by plugging them directly into the power outlets, rather than fed via my conditioner's dedicated power amplifier series inductor, shunt capacitance filter.
Based on Sunday's listening session, I would agree with Barry's less than enthusiastic evaluation of either amp. It was a good system, but not great. For lack of a better word, in my son's vernacular - 'meh'
So I spent Monday futzing around with the system, making some observations -
1. The Ncore doesn't need external power conditioning as its got, circuit wise, a dedicated Audience aR1p hardwired in each of the power supplies. But looking at the green ferrite common mode choke, its obvious Hypex has implemented far more inductance, both common mode and leakage/differential, than anyone would rationally implement on a general purpose amplifier filter. But as this filter [no doubt primarily for minimizing conducted emi as well as conditioning] deals with known specific current draw characteristics it, IMO, does one heck of a job. Perhaps a lighter hand external conditioner, with less inductance and capacitance my be beneficial, but my standard amp filter was IMO, too much. I don't know if power conditioning regimes that rely upon the capture, training and ultimate subjugation of Maxwell's Daemons [Bybee geegaws] would or not provide benefits.
2. The Ncores still react positively to quality power cords and outlets. For example, the lack of subjective bass extension and solidity I noted on Sunday was largely addressed by plugging the Ncores into a custom produced JenaLabs cryoed Hubblell HBL5362 rather than the previous standard HBL5362.
3. I've really screwed up my Marten Miles II speakers.....
One of the speakers cabinets was significantly damaged in shipment. But some wood putty sealed the resulting cracks and they sounded glorious, but looked quite disheveled. So at some cost to me, I got brand new cabinets, complete with new crossovers. Not one, but two cabinets as they had none of the original mk II versions like mine, so they provided 2 of the last mkII cabinets. So the new cabinets have a newer version of Jorma internal wire, new crossovers, and upon swapping ....
The sadistically buried crossovers couldn't be swapped with any expectation of positive results. Changing the Herbies Tube damper from the Supersonic-SS to the BlackBery Hal-O didn't help (enough). Optimization is always a dance between maximizing your potential upside, and minimizing ones potential downside. Sadly, I sometimes transpose the priority/weighting of those metrics.
I threw in the towel. On Tuesday Martin generously came over and we endeavored to swap the delicate, easily destroyed Accuton drivers, yet again. And when we powered up the Ncores, feeding new, old Martens we got excellent sound, with the soundstaging and imaging I'd so dearly missed.
Wednesday I spent the morning tweeking the system. I put the Herbies Supersonic-SS tube dampers back in, replacing the more mellow BlackBery dampers. The subjective resolution and detail was there, without any perceived grit. Chris came over in the afternoon, and he listened to his eclectic smorgasbord of music.
When Martin came over to pick up the amps, we decided to make as even a comparison possible with the only change between the amps is that the Ncores used the supplied with the tour male XLR to female RCA adapters, fed by the same prototype single ended cables. The Ncores were plugged into my conditioner's pass-thru duplex with no series inductance. The Lifeforce amp was plugged into the conditioner's dedicated Power amplifier filter. I'd not heard the Aksa Lifeforce for 3 days.
So Martin, Chris and I compared the 2 systems where the only difference was that the Aksa Lifeforce was plugged into a power filter, and the Ncores were not.
My conclusion was that I couldn't tell the difference except -
1. The Ncore's bass was tighter. Not surprising given the power differences.
2. The Ncore is quieter
Other than that, nuth'n. That being said, I believe the Ncore could well be the best amp I've ever heard, and certainly the best I've ever heard in my system. I've heard some very fine amps in my system, and heretofore, I've never even heard a class-d amp I could live with, let alone consider buying. It is simply the cleanest slate I've heard (or not) in an amplifier. But I'll also admit that I consider the original VAC Rennaisance 30/30 if not one of the greatest, one of the most enjoyable amps ever.
Is the Ncore 400 truly a game changer? Yes, for those of us with the minimal skills necessary to plug the stuff together, put the right holes in a proper chassis, we get a wonderful amp the equal, or better than those we either can't or won't afford to purchase. And thank heaven for the charitable folks like Mike Galusha and Jtwrace, etc...who'll spend their time walking the less experienced and clever though this sometimes not so trivial task, in pm, on the phone and on these boards. If you impute a reasonable hourly rate to these charitable folks, I think its not such a bargain.
But in 2007 Hugh Dean was selling 2 assembled Lifeforce amplifier modules for $1,300. Admittedly, the chassis and power supply was more expensive, but I believe you could have built a Lifeforce 100 monoblocks (in a single chassis) for not all that much more than the present cost of assembling the same for Ncore 400s. And you would have had the enjoyment of using the amps for the last 5 years!
So, I've ordered 2 pair of Ncore400 amps and ps supplies. Why?
1. I have to have both balanced and single ended inputs on my amp to evaluate both kinds of interconnects. The only feasible way to do this on the Lifeforce would be to transformer input couple the amps. While I own a very fine pair of Jensen input transformers, they have their own sonic signature, and I don't want the sonic overlay of an additional set of signal transformers in the evaluation process.
2. To a lesser degree, more power and less noise. Presently, the Martens are not that demanding a load. In the future I may have a speaker needing more power and drive capability. I could even add 2 more Ncore400 amp modules and run balanced bridged.
3. My bit for the ecosystem. Kumbaya!
The Listening Menu -
Chris's own compilation from his many years of NY Rave. I know all the cuts and none of their names.
Martin's own compilation disc, same goes, I know all the music but none of the names except Grace Jones. Sorta like dub meets jazz meets regge meets techno.
My own evaluations must include Balkan Beat Box's 'Nu Med' album, specifically track 4- BBBeat, the glory and terror of a Turkish Jannisairy Military Marching Drum, Cymbal, bell and Oud band bearing down on you shouldn't be missed. IMO, the hardest thing to get right in a recording is the sound of multiple small bells and tambourines.
Track 10 - Delancy A wonderful live recording, I've heard it live. Its got drive, dynamics, da funk....
I hear many live bands a year, mostly Eastern European and Middle Eastern, a plurality in a single weekend in Brooklyn every year. One of the strangest confluence of folk dancers and hipsters, ever.
Throw in Peggy Lee's 'Fever' and Ricky Lee Jones at her most coked up for beauty and pain.