The system is as follows:
• Dedicated netbook running LMS (server)
• Hacked Pogoplug running Vortexbox VAMP s/w (in English it is emulating a Logitech Squeezebox and is my player)
• Modified Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 (DAC)
• Modified Crown XLS 1500 (Pomona binding posts installed, entire amp cryo’d)
• Cabling – 6 foot Belkin USB, Bolder Nitro IC’s, Bolder Nitro PC’s
• iPhone 5s running iPeng as the remote for both music selection and volume
• No power conditioning, but it is on a dedicated line with the rest of my 2 channel gear – ie there are 3 pieces on this dedicated line – amp, dac and PC emulating SB3
I have had love affairs in the past with different system combinations. I loved a Sugden A28B integrated with a set of Totem Rokk for 10 years. I loved a Magnavox EL84 single ended amp with a set of DIY open baffle Visaton b200 speakers for around 7 years. It is not uncommon for me to swap gear around after 2-4 months in the pursuit of similar synergistic joy.
I have wanted a set of Totem Model 1’s since the early 90’s when I first heard a set, but could only afford the Rokk at that time. I heard another set running CJ gear locally in the late 90’s and nearly sold a motorcycle to get into that combo, since the Model 1’s retailed for around 3K at the time in Canada. I have poked around at every set that has come up on AC over the past couple of years, but the shipping from the US usually kills the value proposition for me.
It is largely unfair to park these speakers in my room, since they are likely better suited to a room smaller than 24x25x7.5. Too bad, that is the room I have, and I wanted them!
Last Fall, a set of the biwires (reputed to be 90% of the Signatures) came up locally and I snapped them up. I tried them with a NAD C325BEE, I tried them with my Pioneer VSX-1018. I bought a used Yamaha RX-797 2 channel receiver and used them for 6 months that way. It was decent sound, and I was satisfied to stay with that combo.
The Yamaha in question is the predecessor of the AS/RS1000 series. It shares Topart topology and some of the other basics of that series, and the 125 wpc at 8 ohm (I calc’d about 165 wpc into 4 ohms for my Totems) delivered some good sound.
All the reviews about the Model 1’s I had read, and my own experiences demo’ing them led me to wonder about either tubes, or high powered SS amps. Folks usually recommended 200wpc as a good starting point. When the excitement about the Crown XLS all came up, I sat back and watched with interest.
When the folks running Martin Logan or Maggies chimed in that they were happy with the Crown XLS at 4 ohms and how it delivered lots of current, I started to really take notice. As folks compared them to other digital amps I reflected on my own experiences with digital amps.
In the past I have run:
JVC EX-A1 (still own it in another system)
Teac AL700P – several stock units and a Bolder modded unit or 2
Sonic Impact T amp
I guess I am a fan! I do like what digital amplification brought to my table over the years.
So, I started digging around for a Crown XLS unit of my very own. Living in Canada, there are fewer online affordable options, and shipping across the 49th parallel can often be a bear (read egregious border fees and taxes!) so although I saw plenty of interesting deals in the US, the shipping costs again prevented me from being able to capitalize. All the while, the prices here at home were hovering around $599 or so. My passion for audio is closely governed by my desire to deliver excellent sound on a realistic budget. Kids are still young, mortgages are fun, cars need brakes, and home ownership in general ain’t cheap. So, I was willing to wait for the right deal to secure a chance to hear this Crown..
Eventually I managed to connect with OzarkTom, and he was willing to work out a deal and presto. Out goes the Paypal, a week later in comes the amp!
Having read the long threads on many different forums I should have been more prepared for how light the unit was, but I wasn’t. It feels like a cd player in your hand. It is wide, but not that deep so it fits fine on most racks I would bet. There are no feet on the amp, so I sourced a set of Moongel drum pads to sit the amp on, from a local pro audio store. They work great for the $7 I spent, and I have no interest in trying anything else at this point for sure.
Part of what I had read about mixing pro amps and home audio gear led me to do a LOT of research around how best to implement the XLS in my setup. I could have used the Yamaha as a preamp, but it is rated to deliver only 1v via RCA preouts. I knew that the input sensitivity of the XLS was 1.4v, and lots of folks were saying that a hotter input (4-6v) was better. The mods I had done to my Grant Fidelity DAC had taken the volume pot out of the circuit so I could not use that – a stock unit would be excellent with the Crown, as it can output up to 6v from the RCA preouts.
After thinking about it, and reflecting on my own positive experiences directly driving a power amp with a DAC, I decided to go for it. The Grant outputs 2v from the tube RCA preouts, and I have the gain pots on the Crown set at 12 o’clock. While using the digital volume control of the Logitech offers great remote control, lowering the volume too far can (as I understand it) result in a loss of fidelity. By parking the Crown gains at 12, I am able to achieve satisfying volume with the digital volume set in the recommended range of 70-100 (out of 100). The use of a 24 bit DAC and largely using 16 bit source material has me comfortable. Satisfying volume for me translates into iPhone DB meter readings of 80-90dB 6 feet from the speakers with peaks no louder than 93dB. I don’t tend to listen loud most of the time.
That’s a lot of blabbing about past systems, rationale for purchase, and how it is setup in my system today. How does the darn thing sound Mark?
I would say that the Crown delivers excellent sound on a budget. The best Class D amps I have heard deliver realism, detail, drive, tone and allow for an emotional connection to the music. The Teac AL-700P I referenced earlier did this so well I sold off my Sugden A28B when I heard it. This XLS 1500 reminds me of that experience.
Below are a few specific notes from 10 tunes played during active listening.
1. Marie Nakamoto – Five Songbirds - Georgia on my Mind – If you like simple music driven by beautiful female vocals, this could be a song you will enjoy. The texture of the stand up bass was good. The kind of good that has you wishing you had set the gain pots on the amp at 1 o’clock so you could jam the volume a little more and drink in the sound. I left the subwoofer unplugged, which for me says something. Music flowed out of the speakers nicely and they threw a deep, wide stage on this track. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
2. Bob Marley – Legend - Is this Love – I absolutely enjoy this album, and used to spin it when I was working in a bar at university and responsible for both bartending and DJ’ing during the day. I am familiar with how it sounds and genuinely like the content. The splashes of cymbals sound realistic. I was feeling that the soundstage width was better than I recall from most systems I have had setup. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
3. Orquestra Nova – Salon New York - Modinha – I have always loved playing this song a little loud, as I find it very satisfying. I find it hard to hear this song loud enough during the first 2 minutes, I really just love the strings. When the stand up bass bowing kicks in at 1:22 or so, it has great body and you can hear the strings and body of the instrument distinctly. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
4. Portishead – Dummy – It could be Sweet – I have fond memories of listening to this album in the mid 90’s, it was a fav of a good friend of mine so it was often spun during getting ready to head out for a fun evening. The opening bass is excellent. Seems odd from 5.5 inch woofers in a 24x25 room! But the added smoothness of her voice, and the excellent attack of the rim shots is entrancing. A 24/48 FLAC recording.
5. Yoyo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor – Appalachian Journey – Benjamin – more love for strings with this combo. The soulful song of the cello draws me in. The acoustic guitar and violin combine to make an excellent soundscape, and layer upon layer of excellent music is produced. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
6. Henry Sacksioni – Oorsprong – Denktank – if there was ever a song to demo great attack and decay, the bass and guitar on this song put it front and center. The bongos stay in the background, but surface at times and add a great vibe to this tune. The distinct sound of the fingers on strings, especially the hammer on and pull off techniques are easily identifiable. A glorious song to sort out PRAT. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
7. Taj Mahal – Taj Mahal – The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues – Oh boy, the tone of the electric guitar stands out left on the soundstage, and delivers on what you’d expect from a blues song. The realism of the harmonica is all there along with his gritty voice centered perfectly. I like the starkness of the recording, and love the slow blues drive with the drums panned out right, it is just the kind of slow blues song I gravitate to. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
8. Ben Webster – King of the Tenors – Jive at Six – I do love well recorded tenor sax. I have long enjoyed that instrument, though it is not one I played myself. When playing in high school band (stand up bass, trombone for me) I always liked the tone of that instrument live. This combination of gear in my room delivers that tone well. On this track, at around 2:26 the tone changes. The players amp up the gritty, aggressive tone and the system conveys that shift from mellow to assertive very well. The piano and drums always stay in the background of the soundstage, with the saxes front and center. A 24/96 FLAC recording (vinyl rip).
9. Paul Desmond – Glad to be Unhappy – A Taste of Honey – OK, so more smooth tenor sax music, what a surprise right! The haunting sound of the sax panned left, the drums centered deep in the stage with bass slightly right, and guitar gently strummed off to the right. I have the choice to mentally follow any of the individual instruments, or to just let the stylistic combo’s gel and the whole piece just float in the air. I don’t listen loud, but this is a song that I certainly could enjoy beyond my normal mid 80’s dB’s. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
10. John Williams – The Star Wars Trilogy – The Throne Room, End Title – I could not resist. The french horn opening, brassy flares and cymbal crashes along with the strings swelling and revisiting the themes of the whole soundtrack sound great. A big, bold presentation in spite of relatively tame overall volume (highest peak recorded was 93dB), I know that the Model 1’s give up around 50Hz, but there was no feeling that I was missing anything in this balanced presentation. A 16/44.1 FLAC recording.
A common criticism of both the Totem Model 1, and from what I have read the Crown XLS series of amps is that they can be bright. Several reviewers around the web have made comments about how the Crown amp seemed bright to them, and with their metal tweeters, some have reported that the Totem Model 1 is bright. Not sure why I don’t find that. Could be that the cryo process of the amp somehow is responsible? Could be the room I am in (carpet over subfloor in basement), could be that I have cloth ears. Who knows, but I figured it bore referencing.
Another common criticism of the XLS I had read prior to trying one of my own was around soundstage depth. I have to say that cuts I know have depth were reproduced fine, and I did not personally notice a lack of depth across the board.
Folks often wonder about hiss and fan noise with this amp too. I can report that in my own system it is not a problem. With the gain pots at 12 o’clock, and no music playing I can hear some hiss 10-12 inches from the speakers, but nothing any further back than that. Not sure if it is the amp, or the tube stage in the DAC. As for fan noise it is there, but only with my nose literally pressed to the amp. From 1 foot away, nothing. Perhaps the ~85dB Totem’s are not the best to make determinations about noise floor, and a higher efficiency speaker could highlight this more.
People likely hear differently, and I cannot imagine accurately predicting what “high end” sounds like to you. For me it is easy.
Low or mid fi fails to deliver a feeling of real music in the room as well as high end. High end sound delivers low level detail reproduction absent in lower quality systems. High end sound delivers astonishment with your best recordings. It brings emotional connection to the reproduction of music in your environment.
This amp delivers this capability for me in spades. It makes real music in my room. I feel it really shows me more of what my speakers are capable of, and that makes me happy. A true test for me is whether or not I want to sit down and listen while music is on. My main system shares the room with a pool table, another major passion of mine. I often like to play tunes and shoot stick in the evenings. When the music sounds so good I put the cue down and sit down to listen, I know that I have found components that work well together. This combination of the Crown, the Totems and the TubeDAC-11 do indeed draw me in.
Can I comment on what this amp sounds like stock? Nope. Did I try it with other preamps, cabling setups? Nope. I set it up, let it run in for 48+ hours, trimmed the gain to match my desires, and will leave it.
No, it ain’t the be all and end all amplifier that 100% of folks need to drop everything and rush right out and buy. It won’t make your bad recordings sound like angels whispering in your ear, nor will it mesh perfectly with all possible combinations of ancillary gear.
I would say my own criticisms of the amp would come down to the coloration of sound. It won’t rosy up anything for you, if that is what you are looking for. There is no shifting of the color palate to a more honey yellow, but nor for me was it stark white either. I expect the tube buffer in the TubeDAC-11 bent the sound a little to the golden hue, so perhaps in my own system the synergy was there to deliver clear but not antiseptic sound. I know some others have recommended a tube somewhere in the setup with this amp.
I often wonder if reviews of components should not be viewed more as reviews of components IN SPECIFIC SYSTEMS, in specific rooms, with specific tastes, and with specific caveats!
I had read that the Totem Model 1’s love an amp with current and drive, but was unsure what difference I would hear in my own setup with this amp speaker pairing. I found the sound improved over other amp combinations I have tried with the Totems. It was not sounding better in the way I had thought it would mind you. I had misinterpreted that the music would sound better at elevated volumes with a more powerful amp. It might, but at my lower listening levels it manifested in much more emotionally satisfying music. Instruments had better separation, and there was an ease about how songs flow out into the listening space. With the Yahama or the Pioneer the speakers produced music, but the mids were often further recessed, and the sense of scale was reduced. The Crown brought the mids out more, and the drive behind (within?) the music shone through. In my room, this combo brings the hifi experience much closer, and sffordably.
I have often got in on the “flavor of the month” components over the years, since they are usually affordable and deliver good sound. While some may dismiss them as fads, or flames for the fanboys, sometimes they are actually excellent pieces of kit. I’d say this amp fits that description, and I am glad I chased one down.
So, if you have speakers that respond to current, if you can deliver 2V+ of signal, if you have a preamp you love or like me can leverage a DAC with digital volume control – you may have found an excellent option for realistic (in my mind) $.
If you’re in the market for a high powered SS amp, I would take a run at one of these. They are still around new and used, and they seem to sell well in the event you are not happy with how it plays in your system.
Thanks to all who documented their experiences in the long Crown XLS amp tour thread, thanks to Tomy2Tone for running that amp tour and helping to bring this amp to more people, and special thanks to OzarkTom for accommodating my specific shipping needs, and allowing me the chance to buy one of these Crown XLS 1500 amps.