AQ vs Siltech vs Tara vs Van den hul shootout
For the last 24 hours, a friend and I have been comparing the following single-ended IC's: AQ Python ($500); Siltech FTM-4 G3 ($1500); Tara Air 2 ($700); Van den hul The Second ($200). Prices are per pair, as well as I can remember them. The system is comprised of: Sony 9000ES SACD; Bryston BP-25 preamp; Wire World Eclipse III balanced IC's to BAT VK-200 power amp; B&W 802's with outboard Xovers from North Creek. I was testing the IC's between the SACD player and preamp.
The AQ Python is the most musical, giving all instruments at every frequency a natural tone. Overall response is very flat, with no accents. Bass instruments have body and weight, with detail (!) and firmness. Mids are very smooth, with plenty of air between instruments and excellent images. Voices and strings are totally natural sounding. Highs are smooth and extended. Directional information is very good, with realistic soundstage width. I was completely drawn into the music, and forgot about the wire.
The Siltech FTM-4 G3 is slightly more open, with better extension on highs. Bass is not as deep or as well defined as AQ. Strings and voices take on a bit of glare, with leading edges accented. Excellent transients, but maybe too sharply defined. Spatial information is slightly better than AQ, but at the price of sacrificing natural tones. A bit brighter than AQ. Detail freaks will love it, but I couldn't forget that I was listening to electronics.
The Tara and Van den hul were tied. Very different tonally, but equally unacceptable. Tara Air 2 has extended frequency extremes, with excellent, airy treble, and tight bass going as deeply as AQ. Mids lost some of the magic, though, with a hint of brightness. Everything sounded a little edgey, and I tired of listening after 15 minutes. I kept putting them back in and trying again, but I did not enjoy the music; I endured it.
Van den hul The Second is superb tonally, with very flat frequency response. Highs are slightly subdued, but in a pleasant way. Bass is very solid and tuneful. Mids have some of the magic, with realistic strings and voices. Spatial information is a bit lacking, with flattening of the 3D information SACD presents so well. For CD, this IC would be an excellent candidate. For SACD, it was a little too laid back, but thoroughly listenable.
I have 16 SACD's, ranging from jazz to pop to classical. All types of music, new and old recordings, yielded the same results. If anyone is interested, I'll rate them in the digital area.