I've enjoyed several of Alex Peychev's creative digital designs in the past five years, including two excellent APL 3910 upgrades and five cutting-edge versions in the NWO series. Each succeeding iteration was a significant improvement over the previous one. I have now lived with the upgrade from the NWO-3.0SE to the NWO-4.0SE for eight months and I feel that it deserves a more careful comprehensive review. In its time, my 3.0SE was first-rate. But the spectacular 4.0SE surpasses it now in every major sonic characteristic and, in my opinion, represents the new digital milestone.
The set up for this review is my current primary system (2 channel only) consisting of Wilson Audio Maxx2, Boulder 2060 amp, APL Hi-Fi NWO-4.0SE CD player connected directly to the amp, Pure Power 2000 AC re-generator, Nordost QX4, Kubala-Sosna Elation interconnects and speaker cables, three Elrod Statement Gold power cords and one regular Statement, Critical Mass Systems Diamond rack and a Platinum* QXK amp platform, dedicated AC lines, and a dedicated Rives level 2 listening room which was featured (along with two other Rives rooms) in the October 2008 issue of Home Entertainment. The 23.5'x21'x9'H room has thick carpet/pad on a concrete floor, built-in floor-to-ceiling bass traps in each corner, angled side bookcase complexes that deflect first reflections and serve as additional bass traps, panels to control slap echoes, and columns and RPG devices on walls and ceiling for diffusion. The electronic equipment is in a separate adjoining room. Speaker cables run through "mouse holes" in the baseboard, and three small cabinet-style glass doors between the two rooms provide easy access to the equipment.
What is most unique about the 4.0SE is the "aliveness" of its reproductions.....its startling realism. By that I mean something more than its life-like rhythm, pace and its inspiration to get up and dance. I'm referring to the perception of a visceral experience that accompanies every note.....Not just the chest-crushing bass notes. When a note is struck, it is not confined to a flat plane. Instead, you have the sense that the air is being projected outward from the 3-dimensional instrument.....The sense of a sonic burst that propels pulsating ripples that cause the air molecules to sway in sync with the music. Every note is a spray of sonic nectar that is as captivating as a visual explosion of sparkling lights at a Fourth of July celebration.
This quality of "aliveness" of the 4.0SE is made possible by Mr. Peychev's effective implementation of twenty (20) 32-bit AKM DACs per channel, proprietary circuit boards, tube output stage, and power supplies. The enormous resolving power inherent in the 4.0SE is capable of superb resolution of harmonic textures, dynamic shadings and gradations, transient peaks and decays.
Reproducing transients is a challenge. It is all too common in high end components for the peaks to be abnormally sharp points that appear to "enhance" the resolution artificially, and sound piercing. That is not what I hear at live jazz or classical concerts. In real life, a transient peak has a vibratory texture, not a sharp or blunt point. With the 4.0SE, I hear natural sharp peaks without the unpleasant piercing quality.
Equally important in the anatomy of an attack, is the rise before the peak. Lesser components are not able to handle rapid dynamic changes effectively. Consequently, a rapid rise of a crisp transient is compressed.....producing a "slow" smeared rise, an unnaturally sharp or blunt peak, compromised transient agility and clarity, and a characteristic electronic signature. The 4.0SE's linearity of dynamic gradations is impressive. (Obviously, the quality of amp and speaker drivers plays a role here as well.) The rise is reproduced cleanly without perceptible compression. Quick clean rises together with highly resolved peaks contribute significantly to the startling realism. For example, I've listened to track #1 on The All Star Percussion Ensemble (FIM, GS DXD 002) numerous times. Although I know what's coming, nonetheless, I'm pleasantly startled again and again.
What is even more outstanding is the NWO-4.0SE's resolving power when reproducing super-rapid sequences of notes. You experience the rise and peak of each individual note before you hear it blend with the subsequent notes. My favorite test for this resolution is the dazzling performance by pianist George-Emmanuel Lazaridis of Frantz Liszt's Campanella (LINN, CKD 282, SACD, track #4). Even when the pianist is going a hundred miles a minute, with the 4.0SE each note is clean, clear and crisp.....and the decays are absolutely glorious.
For me, how a component reproduces the decay of a note is just as vital as how it renders the attack and its peak. The 3.0SE excelled with decays, but the 4.0SE raises this performance a notch or two. One test that I use for decays of high frequency notes is the first 2 minutes of track #11 on Super Sound II (FIM XR24 067). With the 4.0SE in the system, each and every strike on the triangles and xylophones is crystal clear. The rise is fast and the peaks are clearly defined. The extended highs are open and airy, pure and sweet, sparkling and mesmerizing. The decays are stronger, perceptibly longer, and more transparent. The resolution and clarity of the tonal texture is phenomenal. The notes burst into a rainbow of delicate decays that linger long enough to interweave and form a rich tapestry of colors, and then slowly fade and merge into silence.
For a dramatic display of decays on rapid runs on the piano, listen to track #4 of the above LINN disc. The decays are clean and transparent. You can "see" into their harmonic texture and easily hear the interaction between the decays of different notes as they float and linger, merge and mingle, ebb and flow, to create kaleidoscopic changes of tonal colors.....an exquisite symphony of ethereal tones and their subtle dynamics. Simply sublime.
Over the years, with dozens of changes of tweaks and components, I've experienced changes in the relative emphasis between the attack and decay of notes. Some components/tweaks emphasize the attack more, while others favor the decay. With the 4.0SE in the system, I get a more natural balance between the two. Similarly, there is now a better and more natural relationship between the notes and their ambiant reflections within the recording venue, due largely to the increased resolution of ambiance.
Note: While evaluating the top octave, I was not hearing as clear of a sparkle as I expected. I first suspected that the 4.0SE might be rolling off the highs. After exhaustive testing, I discovered that the reflections and/or slap echoes off the top of the wall behind the listening position were masking the highs. With some RPG devices installed, I now have my sparkle.
All of the above elements, taken together, contribute to the "aliveness" quality of the 4.0SE. Not far behind, is another remarkable quality: its immense sound stage and convincing imaging.
In a review of a previous version of the NWO, I wrote "the sound stage became explosive; it grabs your attention. On excellent recordings of large orchestras or choral groups (e.g., The Sound of Glory, Telarc, SACD), the side walls disappear creating a perceived stage width greater than 21 feet (the width of the front wall). The front wall disappears revealing a perceived stage depth that can extend at least 30 feet from the listening position; with the instruments at the rear of the stage clearly lit like they have never been before. This is spectacular! The huge sound stage is enhanced by the spot-on focused images of instruments and voices, with clean space between them. The pristine images appear and disappear in choreographed fashion on the stage. These visual images are like the ghosts of Muses dancing in perfect synchrony with the music."
How did the 4.0SE improve on this description? The sound stage is even more expansive in both width and depth. Its sides are uniformly lit.....eliminating the previous truncation. The instruments are clearly delineated and separated left to right. For example, you can hear the individual violins clearly separated in an orchestra (track #1, Super Sound, FIM XR24 066). The back of the stage is now better lit, creating a more transparent see-through clarity for the depth dimension. The front-to-back depth resolution is phenomenal. It is absolutely dramatic on track #1 of The All Star Percussion Ensemble. It appears to me that this front-to-back dimension is aided in no small measure by the sense that each note is projected outward from the instrument including in the front-to-back direction. Instrumental images are now more finely focused, are more solid and stable, have 3-D bodies in 3-dimensional space with ample air around them, and appear to propel their sound 3-dimensionally. The 3-D experience is fantastic. It's not just a wall of sound, but an ocean of sound. It's not like the 3-dimensional illusion of film on a flat screen, but more like a holographic landscape. This was innocently recognized by my 8-year old grand daughter when she visited me recently and heard the 4.0SE for the first time. After playing a short piece, with her seated in the sweet spot, I asked what she thought of it.Without any further input from me, she immediately replied: "I not only hear it, I'm in it."
Another exciting characteristic of the 4.0SE is its stunning bass. Let's start with Master of Chinese Percussion (LIM K2HD 033). When I first heard this CD on my 3.0SE, I wrote in my notes: "When the drum is struck, I feel the powerful impact of the waveform hitting my chest; and I hear the mallet contact the drum membrane, the response of the membrane, the resulting musical waveform, the resonance of the drum's body, and the changes in the tautness of the membrane depending on how close to its boundary the drum was struck. All are distinct events, unfolding sequentially in real time...in a split second!"
What can the 4.0SE add to such magnificent achievement? To begin with: superior pitch and punch. Added weight, drive and power produce a more palpable punch. With better definition, the pitch of the bass notes is more easily discerned; so is room ambiance, and the texture of the drum membrane. Second, the exemplary resolution of rapid runs that I noted above for mid and high frequency notes, is also manifested for bass notes. It's now easier to hear the closely bunched strikes on the drum membrane by multiple drummers as a rapid succession of individual strikes instead of a mash. Third, the quality of bass extends deeper with the 4.0SE. For example, on track #7 on Mickey Hart's Planet Drum (Rykodisc RCD 10206), there is a very low frequency note that is struck several times. It's so low, I feel it more than I hear it. It is now more impactful and I can feel the cycles of its vibration more clearly.
Note: While I was evaluating its bass performance, I had thought for a while that the 4.0SE is a bit soft and slightly bloated in a particular region of the bass. However, when I played test tones at different frequencies, I discovered that the two semi-circular columns that I use for diffusion were vibrating much more intensely than the wall in the 65Hz to 75Hz region. They were like two activated organ pipes that were skewing the frequency spectrum. When I pulled the columns one and a half inches away from the wall, thereby opening up their enclosed cavity, they quieted down. The bass improved and the rest of the spectrum gained some added clarity. The moral of the story: Check the rest of the set-up before faulting an individual component.
In addition to the above qualities and achievements, the 4.0SE displays many others, in large orchestral works as well as small ensemble and solo recordings: Huge dynamic range.....from a wispy decays merging with silence to spectacular orchestral climaxes (Holst, The Planets, Mehta, JVCXR-0228-2); The naturalness, ease and effortlessness in reproducing a complex of textures and intensities; Amazing ambiance that transports you in time and space to the original performance (Cantate Domino, PRSACD 7762); Resolving enough to reproduce the subtle waves that undulate within the cymbal's decaying shimmer (Quality of Silence, DMP, SACD-04); The dance-like agility and fluidity to capture the magical flow of music; Refinement and grace to delight the senses and the heart; A pallet rich enough to convey the artistic aesthetic of the composer and performer; A balance of frequencies, intensities, timings, and all ingredients so that nothing calls undue attention to itself.....All in the service of creating a wonderful seamless organic wholeness, a soundscape that is alive and pulsating as one. Serving music. Soothing the soul.
In the end, it's all about experiencing pure music. The NWO-4.0SE has proven itself to be an effective means to that end. It doesn't seem to have an obvious flaw or a character of its own. Like a chameleon, it reflects the character of the encoded musical impulses. In short, it's a magnificent instrument that enables me to melt into my music, pure sublime music! Congratulations and kudos to Alex Peychev, its creator.