Audio Note System Review
Audio Note analogue hi-fi system
Valves? In T3? Have we gone completely mad? Rob Mead gets all high-end and hi-tech with Audio Note's new analogue hi-fi system
Digital technology is rubbish. Or so says Peter Qvortrup of British hi-fi company Audio Note. Why? Because he believes that digital tech is ruining our musical heritage, squeezing the atmosphere and emotion out of recordings, leaving us with homogenised tosh. Like Westlife.
So, is he mad? Patently not. His contention is that we've become so obsessed with advances in technology, that music has become something we use to hear the technology with. So it's not surprising then that Peter's rather dismissive of stuff like CD, preferring valves to integrated circuits, analogue to digital. And that's why this silvery Audio Note system is crammed with tubes.
But before we find out whether or not what Peter says is true, let's take a look at the system. Whilst it might look like a set of particularly posh mini-separates, it goes far beyond your average CD/amp combo. For a start the CD player comes in two boxes not one. There's the CDT-Zero for spinning the discs and a DAC One 1x digital to analogue converter (complete with valve output stage) to turn the zeros and ones into music. There's the M-One remote line preamp (again with a valve output stage) complete with inputs for other sources like the CD player, tuner, home cinema gear and an auxiliary input, and then you get two P-Zero monoblock amps (more valves), each one powering the black behemoths that are the AZ-Three Absolute Zero floorstanding speakers.
Hooking this lot up certainly sets you thinking. You have to connect the CD transport to the D/A converter using a digital coaxial cable, then run analogue interconnects from the D/A converter to the preamp. Then you need another set of interconnects to run one each to each monoblock power amp, and then of course there's the speaker cable (biwirable preferred, natch). It's all a bit mind-boggling, especially if you've been brought up on micro hi-fis. Another thing that sets your brain racing is the lack of knobs, buttons and dials. The CD transport has no controls at all, while the preamp has just two - one's for volume control, while the other's for adjusting the balance of sound between speakers. Everything else is on two tiny black remote controls - although at least the CD transport has Play and Stop/Eject buttons around the back if you get really stuck. Even more unusually for pricy hi-fi there's hardly any socketry to speak of either, all something to do with the fact that since this is practically Audio Note's bottom-of-the-range system it eschews unnecessary fripperies for full-on sound quality.
And full-on sound quality is what you get. Despite the size of the speakers, the power amps kick out just eight watts apiece, just one of the huge benefits of using hyper-efficient valves and incredibly sensitive speakers. Crank it any louder than a quarter and your neighbours will think you've installed your very own Glastonbury-style PA in your living room. This bad boy is LOUD.
Hang on, that all seems a bit uncouth. Well so is
settling down to listen to some tunes right away. The system takes at least
45 minutes to sound even remotely near its best and even then you have to
keep pumping out tunes for 200 hours when you first fetch it out of its box
before it really starts to sound the business. The valves, by the way, are
good for around 11 years of 24-hour listening. But what a 100,000 hours they'll
Obviously throwing any old digital rubbish at it just won't do. As the DAC One 1x is completely digital filter-free, what's recorded on to the disc is exactly what you get out of the speakers and the system as a whole. Choose your tunes carefully and you'll be hopping around the lounge like a kangaroo with his tail on fire. You'll be simply delighted by the sheer quality of sounds on offer. This system picks out an incredible amount of detail: you can hear hiss off the master tapes, individual strings being plucked, roadies picking their noses in the background. And it all sounds astonishingly warm, involving and nurturing, like you've just swallowed a big bowl of musical Ready Break prepared lovingly by your mum. Honestly, you wouldn't believe that CD could sound so good.
So is Peter Qvortrup right or what? On this evidence we'll have to say, by crikey, yes. The Audio Note sounds fantastic with everything from rock to pop to disco to classical providing, that is, the engineer's done his job and actually recorded the music properly in the first place. Indie kids and techno nutters will probably hate it. Everyone else will lap it up... now I wonder if it sounds any good with Britney?
All material copyright Audio Note (UK) Ltd., unless otherwise stated