Let us give this another try! The session came and went and it was. . . interesting. . . and I should say well beyond our expectations.
Now let's get started: the test system was fully differentially balanced and
consisted of X-01 Limited, ARC Ref 3, Theta Citadel mono blocks, Vandersteen 5As. ICs were Purist Anniversary XLR from CDp to line stage, AQ Sky XLR from line stage to amps. Speaker wires were AQ Everests. Exact Power EP15A conditioners were applied to all components. Power to the X-01 was further regulated by an Exact Power BP15A fed with an original (non Helix) Anaconda Alpha from the EP15A. PCs were Ridge Street Poema Signature (hope I got this one correctly) on the Ref 3, and Elrod Statements on Citadels monos.
Both Anaconda chords used in the test -- Helix VX and Helix Alpha -- are fully broken in with many hundreds of hrs on the VX and perhaps 150 hrs of operation on the Alpha.
The Anaconda Helix VX had been left plugged into the PB15 balanced power unit and connected to the X-01 for at least 1 week to ensure the noise absorbing pellets were fully stabilized.
During the entire test both chords were left plugged into the BP15 to minimize disturbance to VX noise absorbing compound. Only IECs were connected/disconnected to the X-01 at each swap.
We concentrated on several tracks of chamber music from my own collection and some amazing Jazz tracks from Arnie's. I'll leave it to Arnie to post his album details, in the meantime, here are mine:
A. Ludwig Van Beethoven -- Sonata No. 3 in A Major for Piano & Cello Op. 69: 1. Allegro Ma Non Tanto, 2. Scherzo: Molto Vivace, 3. Adagio Cantabile - Allegro Vivace
, Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Emmanuel Ax (piano), CBS Masterworks M2K 42446
, 1987. The CD was selected to gage low level detail such as vibrato in soft passages and rasping of the rosened bow on strings, as well as overall harmonic richness, top to bottom extension, clarity of piano transients and staging.
B. J. S. Bach Suite No. 5 in C Minor for Solo Cello, BWV 1011: 1. Prelude, 2. Allemande, 3. Courante, 4. Sarabande, 5. Gavotte I & Gavotte II, 6. Gigue
, Edgar Meyer (double bass), Sony Classical SK 89183
, 2000. Similar criteria as in the previous selection, but also a test for good bass definition. C. J. S. Bach -- Sonata For Violin No. 3 in C Major BWV 1005: 1. Adagio - Fuga, 2. Largo, 3. Allegro Assai
, Lara St. John (violin). The only HDCD in the test lot. A CD with an enormous sound stage and impressive imaging. Truly powerful playing, but with the sonic tendency of sounding harsh in some passages in the mid-high treble.
D. J.S. Bach -- Sonata in E-Flat Major for Flute, BWV1031: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Siciliana, 3. Allegro, Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute), Trevor Pinnock (cembalo), CBS 1985. This is a remaster of an analog recording made in the early 60s. Depending on the setup, it can sound hazy and lifeless, thin an reedy, hot and almost trumpety and barking, or absolutely glorious. In some sense, this is the recording I often use to separate the men from the boys.
To start things up, we listened for about 10 minutes to Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax playing Beethoven with the Helix VX connected to the X-01 Limited. The system had been warming up for several hours. The sound was the excellent one we were accustomed to: spatially very well defined, very musical, perfectly controlled, dynamic but not to excess. Harmonic richness was good and satiny, if just slightly polite, almost as if someone were applying an extremely fine Emery paper to the music, to smooth out the little harmonic bristles. Vibrato in the celloa form of low level amplitude modulationwas present in moderately to dynamic passages, but absent in soft and very soft passages, giving the impression of a somewhat non-committal, or matter-of-fact performance. The piano was clean, precise and pleasing, if not exactly emotional.
Out came the VX, and in came the Alpha. . . and things changed. . . oh yes did they ever! Something subtle happened to the soundscape: the virtual hall came into audible view, with a sense of space that was earlier only hinted at. The virtual soundprint of the instrument became for lack of better words broader and more concrete, with an increased physical presence, frequency extension, and a sense of being anchored there, in front of us. No more sense of instruments having undergone a polishing process. It was as if the cello and the piano had grown bristle, tiny little tendrils of sonic detail that added texture and more reality to the music. The piano acquired a slight shimmer at the top, body in the middle and authority in the lower strings, while its transients became even clearer and more defined. And most of all, the vibrato of dynamic passages was now greatly emotionally charged, while the very subtle vibrato in pianissimos was now clearly evident even on the softest cello notes, giving some passages a wistful quality. We could now hear even the slight hesitations in the attack when the bow was hitting the string at the beginning of musical phrases. The result of all of these changes was an overall more emotionally involving, more gripping, more virtually real musical experience, which however was not at all becoming the least fatiguing.
A comparison of Edgar meyer on bass playing Bach on VX and Alpha confirmed these findings. Controlled and polite on VX with the slightest apparent loss of detail. Grander, broader, deeper, grittier, more extended, more dramatic, more passionate with the Alpha. I could now finally hear Meyer making the instrument growl with passion in the lowest register, whilst maintaining and exceeding the tonal integrity of the VX. It is interesting to note that in none of the selections we played during the afternoon we observed any tonal hot spots or surprising glare appearing through the Helix Alpha.
And in fact it was this very glare that we were seeking, patiently through the Alpha, on Lara st. John passionate and almost dionysiac performance of Bach Sonata no. 3 for solo violin. And yes after hunting and poking about in the recording, we finally found It, right where St. John is stressing the strings almost to breaking point. I was disappointed though, in a sense, I was secretly hoping to find more of this elusive glare. Interesting what happened with this recording on the VX. The performance change from Dyonisiac to Apollinean, predictably St. Johns Stradivari lost some of its concrete image. . . . but the shrill and harsh notes emerged in spades and large numbers, like glaring toad-stool mushrooms after a summer rain. It was almost as if the washing down of Alphas subtle tonal richness performed by the VX, was letting these relatively glaring defects surface in the recording.
I do not think I can even start to render justice to the amazing Jazz tracks we played from Arnies fine collection. Their superlative quality served to amplify the audible differences between VX and Alpha. I recall a radiantly mellow fluegelhorn on the Alpha which became autumnal and almost wintry on the VX. I remember a Steinway grand piano on the Alpha that had all the majestic power, authority, speed and extension typical of its brand, while having acquired a harmonic subtlety more often heard on a boesendorfer. And I remember a tenor SAX awash in a glorious sound stage, talking to us in in power and beauty, while Arnie and I were hopelessly hunting down those evanescent strident notes. I just know Arnie will have lots more to say about these selections.
And in the end we let Jean-Pierre Rampal perform for us on the Alpha. His flute travelled with all its magic to us from over 4 decades ago, from a distant time when I was just a lad of 10. . . and we were in awe with what he was telling us!
And now some cautionary notes. Not only I must invoke the usual YMMV, but I must also declare YMSV -- or in other words Your Mileage SHALL Vary! It is fair to remember that the VX variant was designed by Shunyata to offset digital hash traveling on noisy power lines that may create havoc with sensitive digital equipment. In the test system we were using not one, but two stages of AC power conditioning on the X-01, with the Exact Power EP15A and BP15 connected serially. Furthermore, one of the side effects of the VX is to tame the excessive high frequencies produced by players with less than optimum jitter control. The X-01 Limited and other players in the same class do not appear to be suffering from jitter and therefore do not need the additional high frequency filtration afforded by some PCs. Ultimately, do yourselves a favor: do not give to much credence to my opinions. Try both the Anaconda Helix Alpha and the VX PCs on your own player and decide for yourself what is right for you and your system. And ensure the chords are well broken in before you pass final judgement. . . or your very own findings will be meaningless.