Don Sachs of tube amp fame has been burning in his new X5s and now has around 200hrs of play time on them. He provides comments below. Note that this is a reprint of his email to me, so he questions should be directed to me rather than Don.
First, the caveats. I am Don Sachs, and I make my living building custom tube amps, preamps, and phono stages. I think I build very good ones and I have a pretty good ear since lots of people seem to like what I build, and I haven’t starved yet. I don’t visit audio shows, and I detest reviews in hifi publications, where every piece of gear is astoundingly wonderful, especially if there is a full page ad by the manufacturer in said magazine. I stop reading any review when I see speaker cables on little blocks of wood or other inane bits of audiophilia nervosa. I have talked to Clayton Shaw a few times over the years on the phone, but we have never met. I have a number of customers who use my gear to drive his speakers. A few years ago, I heard earlier versions of my preamp and Kootenay 120 KT88 amp driving a pair of the smaller M4 series, non turbo version. The entry level model with the 12 inch drivers. The speakers were in a room that was too small, but still they sounded very nice, so I followed Clayton’s offerings over the last few years. When the X series came out, I decided to try some. Also, I paid for the speakers up front. I am not in business with Spatial Audio. I got a bit of an OEM discount, but I paid a pretty penny for this pair of X5 speakers. Since this is my website, I paid for the speakers before I ever heard them, and I am not in business with Clayton, I can write whatever I want! I don’t have to like these speakers, and I could easily sell them if I want. Clayton is not paying for advertising in my publication. I am posting it here because I really don’t have time to interact with people on the Audio Circle forum, and the moderator and I don’t see eye to eye. Lastly, I just sent one of my integrated amps to Clayton so I could get his opinion. It will then go on to a waiting customer. We have no agreement that he will like it and post a review or anything like that. If Clayton does post a review it will be his unfiltered opinion. Just trying to be completely transparent here! Caveats aside, on to the review...
All of us who have attained a certain age, and who have been into this insane hobby for far too many years to count, have owned a LOT of speakers. We loved them all. We got our first pair of “real” speakers when we were young. We were thrilled, but after a while, their obvious flaws got to us and we sought other speakers (well, amps and sources too) that would have all the attributes we loved, but fewer flaws. Rinse and repeat over many years, as our children left the nest , and our budgets increased. I have owned all sorts of speakers, almost always buying used or demo pairs for the best value. The best conventional speaker I lived with was a pair of Joseph Audio RM25si Mk2. Lovely with great imaging, and very good bass. The entire JA line is very tube friendly as well. I also played around with a pair of original Klispch Cornwalls, turning them into CornScalas with Dave Harris’ horn and a universal version of the ALK crossover that I built myself using very good parts. They were fun and had that horn jump factor. But when I put them up in the living room against the Josephs it was just no contest. They sounded a bit rough, and lacked the 3D imaging I loved from the JA speakers. Finally, most recently I got a pair of the Audio Nirvana 15 inch Alnico Classic drivers and mounted them in a nice 5.6 cu ft enclosure with a radiused front port of appropriate size. They had very good bass, and the driver is basically pretty flat from about 35-40 Hz up to about 13KHz. I am quite certain that 13KHz is above limit of my hearing these days. No crossovers, full range speakers wired directly to the power amp. They had wonderful, airy highs. Cymbals and triangles would hang in the air and decay perfectly. Massive soundstage and very 3D, with incredible micro detail. Pretty much the speed of horns. The downside was the very beamy high frequencies and the resultant narrow sweet spot. The laws of physics do hold. The sweet spot was two people on the couch, and they better really like each other. Lean your head outside that spot and the centred vocal would shift with you. I enjoyed them for about 3 years though, and was skeptical that any other sort of speaker could better them if you were in the sweet spot.
I had been aware of Clayton Shaw’s speakers for years, and when I saw the X series come out, I decided it was time to try a pair. We chatted on the phone and I told him that I wanted him to build me a pair with the best capacitors he could find. He suggested that he could make a new housing for the crossover that would allow for the flat Duelund CAST speaker caps. You need a big 3.9 uF cap and that is physically very large, but the pancake Duelund would fit. So he custom ordered some because 3.9 uF is not a standard stocked value for the Duelunds. Six months later, Duelund still had not been able to deliver them. So we moved on, and Clayton said he could use a 3D printer to make a bracket he could mount on the rear of the speaker to house some large regular Duelund CAST caps. I told him I preferred the Miflex KPCU 3.9 uF caps, which, like the Duelund, are very large physically (think half a beer can). I use the Miflex in a lot of my builds and they are wonderful, and were easy to obtain. Clayton quickly got a pair and we were back on track, and a short while later the speakers were in my living room. I am driving them with an all tube set up of my own construction. My latest OLED display line stage driving my Kootenay 120 KT88 amp (65 watts/ch with regulated supplies). DAC was a Schiit Yggy, now replaced by a Musical Paradise MP-D2 MK3 DELUXE with the best DAC chipset and clock board. I modded the DAC with my favourite output caps and changed all the output tube cathode and grid resistors to the same high quality carbon film ones use in my builds. So my system is all tubes after the DAC chipset. Cables are from Rick Parker at Ice Age Audio. XLR from the DAC to the preamp and RCA from preamp to power amp. Before I even listened to the X5 I replaced the feet with Soundcare Superspikes, which I had on my Joseph Audio speakers and are a very cost effective solution for the hardwood floor spike problem. Let’s just say this is a very good setup, and it would not be embarrassed by most anything at any price.
The sound of the X5 reminds me of what Jerry Seinfeld said about his old show... really. It was a show about nothing. Once this speaker has 100+ hours to run in, it is truly a speaker about nothing. It simply vanishes. You are not listening to the speaker and constantly analyzing. Thinking about the things you like, and also the little things you don’t like and will have to learn to live with, as with every other pair of speakers you have owned. How certain recordings would drive you crazy as they interacted with your speakers and room. That little honk in this vocal or that. The brightness of certain instruments. I really don’t hear any of that with the X5. I have owned a number of speakers, and any of the good ones would do the usual floor to ceiling image with the vocalist always appearing at the point where the wall and ceiling met. Sound stage was always at least a few feet wider than the speakers. Depth varied with the quality of the speakers. Well, like any good speaker driven by a really good tube system, the X5 does all of the above of course. I was worried they would not have the micro detail of the big Audio Nirvana drivers. Wrong. The have all of it and more. The sound stage with the X5 is immense and very 3D, and will almost wrap around you on certain recordings. What they lack is anything I don’t like. They simply are not there. It took a while for the surrounds to loosen up on the drivers, and the big 3.9 uF oil cap had to run in. Given that capacitor sees under 50V and it is 600V rated, the cap takes a number of hours to settle down. I turned the subwoofer levels to the max and then as the surrounds on the subs have loosened up, I have turned them down just a bit. I find that the speakers really have very little interaction with the room. I have the sort of view that is like living in a post card. The house is a 40 year-old timber frame constructed of 12 inch cedar beams on 4 ft. centres.
Between the beams are 4 ft. wide glass windows. I have the speakers about 8 ft. apart and the rear of the drivers fire directly at the 12 inch wooden timbers. The speakers are about 25 inches out into the room. That is as far as I can get them and still live in my house. I have pleated insulated shades on the glass and with any other speaker it made a huge difference to have them down covering the glass, with the system sounding much better with the shades drawn at night. With the X5 there is only a subtle difference whether the shades are drawn, or you are gazing at the view of the lake and mountains.
I build tube equipment, so I am constantly evaluating pieces I have built, testing them before sending them out, or testing new modifications. I have a list of 30-40 very familiar tracks I play when I do this. Most are acoustic or at least have a minimum of electric instruments. Hey, I love Pink Floyd or live Dead concerts, but I don’t know what that electric guitar or keyboard or synth is supposed to sound like. I know what a real piano, or a mandolin, or a cello sounds like. A guitar, standup bass or trap set... So I listen to all sorts of music, but for evaluating the stereo, most of it is acoustic. I also like Bach, so I often listen to Glenn Gould or Tafelmusik. I love jazz of all sorts as well. What I will say about the X5 is that they will rock out just fine, but I have never heard such perfect reproduction of acoustic instruments. It is easily the most convincing portrayal of a piano I have ever heard in any stereo system, ever. The resonance in the body of a cello, or mandolin, or guitar is perfect. Miles’ horn is perfect. Vocals are wonderful. I am sitting at the kitchen table about 25 ft. from the speakers and off axis, about 2 ft. outside the right speaker. The sound is still convincing, easily energizing the room. I can listen at lower levels because of the perfect tonal balance and detail. A Bill Evans live recording sounds like I am at the club, even from here. I could write a list of test tracks, but my list would be different than yours.
I will say that there are certain things I listen for in each track and the X5 reproduces them better than any speaker I have heard, by a large margin. The big Audio Nirvana full rangers were the most detailed speakers I had ever lived with. The X5 have even more detail. When people ask me what my tube gear sounds like I tell them it is big, bold, highly detailed, but never bright. I like to joke that if the recording engineer dropped his pencil, you will know which side of the chair it fell on and whether the eraser hit the floor first, but the gear is not bright to achieve that detail. What I really mean is that my gear is very revealing, but it doesn’t really sound like anything. It just sounds like whatever signal you feed it. There is a Bill Evans recording of “My Man’s Gone Now”, live at the Village Vanguard. I have listened to it many times, and you can find it on Tidal if you search. The X5 puts me at a table up front. So did the Audio Nirvanas, but the first time I played the cut on the X5 it startled me because I could barely hear faint conversations at other tables. Just once or twice, but I had never heard that before, or at least was not ever quite so aware of it. That is but a single example as there are many other tracks I have played that have shown the level of micro detail retrieval with the X5 is astonishing. The subwoofers are perfectly integrated. One of my test tracks is “Blind Hearted”, by Sara K. from the Waterfalls album. It is a true audiophile recording and there is a bowed bass and I have never heard it so realistically produced. Really, I hate subwoofers, because you are always fiddling with them, wanting to turn them up for this track, and down for that. With the X5 I have not been tempted to touch them once the surrounds loosened up. Like the rest of the speaker, you just forget they are there. I guess to sum up, the X5 not only surpasses the best speakers I had ever lived with, it embarrasses them. A completely different level. No contest.
I had an integrated amp project in my head for years and finally built one just before the pair of X5 arrived. It uses the same dual regulated power supply setup as the big Kootenay 120 amp, but scaled down to drive the 6L6 type tubes. It will happily run the KT66 or EL34 as well. The amp produces about 32 watts/channel depending on tube type and I call it a 30 watt/ch amp that surpasses its specs. It easily drives the X5 to the same screamingly loud levels the bigger KT88 amp does. So these speakers are very tube friendly and quite efficient. I am sure 15 watts/ch would drive them nicely, but headroom is a good thing and I can happily report that 30 watts/ch is plenty for the X5 in a large room.
Ultimately, I guess I would say the best compliment I can give the X5 is that it doesn’t sound like anything. It is truly a speaker about nothing. That was pretty much Clayton’s design goal and he nailed it. I know that is what I try to make my tube gear sound like... nothing at all. Just the music. The X5 simply vanishes. It is like removing the speaker from the equation. It is not warm or cold, fast or slow, bright or dark and seems to have very little interaction with the room compared to other speakers I have lived with. It is not from the East Coast or West Coast American School, nor does it tend towards the British or French sound, nor the horn or full range sound, or any other. I have heard all of those types of speakers and lived with a few. They can all be endearing, but they all have a “sound” and compromises. The X5 really doesn’t. It just isn’t there. You don’t even notice them because you are simply listening to the recording. I can objectively analyze why that is so, with the open baffle design, perfect integration of the drivers, minimal crossover, an almost full range driver from 1 KHz to beyond 20 KHz that is mounted in a wave guide, much like a horn, a wonderful 12 inch mid bass driver that gently rolls off at about 90 Hz, and a built in powered sub that has the perfect fill in below 90 Hz. An acoustically dead baffle, very good internal wiring, a very high quality cap in the crossover, the total isolation from the floor with the Soundcare Superspikes, and many other things I am not aware of.
None of that really matters. Really, I don’t care. What matters is that in my room, to my ear, driven by a sublime tube setup, this speaker completely vanishes, and I don’t feel like I am listening to a speaker at all, but rather just to the music. So I guess this means I have written a review about nothing. Happy listening.....